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.
*Image: Fábio Magalhães
The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
*Image: © Álvaro Domínguez
It was the first Michael had heard of the girl. His housekeeper was telling him about her: she claimed— Mandy did—that there was no father. She lived in the neighboring village of W. The housekeeper laughed, Michael sighed. As if it wasn’t enough that church attendance was way down, that the old people sent him away when he tried to visit them in their home, and the children cheeked him in Sunday school. It was all Communism, he said, or the aftereffects of it. Ach, nonsense, said the housekeeper, it was never any different. Did he know the large sugar-beet field on the road to W.? There was a sort of island in the middle of it. A clump of trees had been left standing by the farmer. Since forever, she said. And that’s where he has assignations with a woman. What woman? asked Michael. What farmer? The one who’s there, and his father before him, and his grandfather before that. All of them. Since forever. We’re only human, after all, them and me. Each of us has his needs.
Michael sighed. He had been the minister here since spring, but he hadn’t got any closer to his flock. He came from the mountains, where everything was different: the people, the landscape, and the sky, which here was so infinitely wide and remote.
She claims she’s never been with a man, said the housekeeper, the baby must be a gift from God. That Mandy girl, she said, was the daughter of Gregor who works for the bus company. The little fat driver. He gave her a good spanking, she was black and blue all over. And now the whole village is scratching its head over who the father might be. There aren’t a lot of men living there who are candidates. Maybe it was Marco the landlord. Ora passing tramp. She’s no oil painting, you know. But you take what you can get. That Mandy, she’s not the brightest either, said the housekeeper: maybe she didn’t realize. Up on the ladder picking cherries. All right, all right, said Michael.
Mandy came to the vicarage while Michael was eating lunch. The housekeeper brought her in, and he asked her to sit down and talk to him. She just sat there with downcast eyes and didn’t speak. She smelled of soap. Michael ate, and kept sneaking looks at the young woman. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t ugly either. Perhaps she would turn to fat later. Now she was plump. She’s blooming, thought Michael. And he sneaked a look at her belly and her big breasts, very prominent under the rather garish sweater. He didn’t know if it was pregnancy or food. Then the young woman looked at him and immediately lowered her eyes, and he pushed away his half-eaten lunch and stood up. Let’s go out in the garden.
The year was far along. The leaves were turning on the trees. The morning had been misty, now the sun was trying to break through. Michael and Mandy walked together in the garden. Your Reverence, she said, and he, No, please just call me Michael, and I’ll call you Mandy. So she didn’t know who the father was? There was no father, said Mandy, I never . . . She stopped. Michael sighed. Sixteen, eighteen, he thought, no older than that. My dear child, he said, it’s a sin, but God will forgive you. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Every bottle shall be filled with wine!
Mandy tore a leaf off the old linden tree where they had come to a stop, and Michael said, Do you know how it is when a man lies with a woman? You mean, with the peter, said Mandy, and she blushed and looked down. Perhaps it was in her sleep, thought Michael, apparently such things happen. They had studied it in school, Mandy added, and quickly: Erection, coitus, and rhythm method. All right, all right, said Michael, school. That was the upshot of having so many Communists still sitting on school boards.
Holy mother of God, said Mandy, I’ve never… All right, all right, said Michael, and then, with sudden vehemence, Well, where do you think the baby’s come from then? Do you think it’s a gift from God? Yes, said Mandy. He sent her home.
On Sunday, Michael saw Mandy among the few who were at the service. If he remembered correctly, she had never been before. She was wearing a simple dress in dark green, and now he could see her condition plainly. She should be ashamed of herself, said the housekeeper.
Mandy was all at sea. Michael could see her craning around. When the others sang, she didn’t. And when she came forward at the end to receive Communion, he had to tell her, Open your mouth.
Michael spoke about steadiness in adversity. Frau Schmidt, who was always there, read the lesson with a quiet but firm voice. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth: be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Michael had kept his eyes closed during the reading, and he felt he could almost see the angel who came to visit men, an angel that had Mandy’s face, and whose belly in its white robes bulged like Mandy’s in her dress. Suddenly it got very quiet in the church. Michael opened his eyes and saw that everyone was looking at him expectantly. Then he said: We can speak with confidence. The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.
After the service was over, Michael hurried over to the door to see out his old biddies. He had shut the door behind the last of them when he saw that Mandy was kneeling at the altar. He went up to her and laid his hand on her head. She looked at him, and he saw she had tears running down her cheeks. Come, he said, and he led her out of the church and across the road to the cemetery. Look at all these people, he said, they were all sinners: but God took them to Himself, and He will forgive you your sins as well. I am full of sin, said Mandy, but I have never been with a man. All right, all right, said Michael, and he touched Mandy’s shoulder with his hand.
But when he touched Mandy, it was as though his heart and his whole body were filling with a joy he had never felt in his life, and he shrank back, as though he had burned himself. And if it’s true? he thought.
And if it’s true? he thought that afternoon, as he walked down the road to the next village. The sun was shining and the sky was wide and cloudless. Michael felt tired after lunch, but his heart was still filled with the joy that had flowed from Mandy’s body into his own: and if it’s true?
He often walked to one of the other villages on a Sunday afternoon, striding quickly down the tree-lined roads in rain or shine. But on that day he had an objective. He had called the doctor who lived there, a man by the name of Klaus, and asked if he might talk to him: no, he couldn’t tell him what about.
Dr. Klaus was a local man, the son and grandson of farmers. He knew everyone and everything, and the word was that in an emergency, he would treat sick animals as well. He lived alone in a big house in W., following the death of his wife. He said if Michael promised to keep God out of it, he was welcome and might come. He was an atheist, said the doctor, no, not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God. He was a man of science, not faith. A Communist, thought Michael, and he said, All right, all right, and suppressed a yawn.
The doctor served schnapps, and because Michael had a question, he drank the schnapps, drank it in one swallow, and then another glass that Dr. Klaus poured him. Mandy, said Michael, whether… and… He was sweating. She claimed her baby wasn’t the outcome of union with a man, that she had never, no, that no man had known… My God: you know what I’m trying to say. The doctor emptied his glass and asked whether Michael meant the Lord had a hand in the business, or maybe a peter. Michael stared at him with an empty, despairing expression. He drank the schnapps the doctor had poured him, and stood up. The hymen, he said quietly, almost inaudibly, the hymen. That would be a miracle, said the doctor, and here in our midst. He laughed. Michael excused himself. I am a man of science, said the doctor, you are a man of faith. Let’s not mix things up. I know what I know; you believe whatever you like.
On his way back, Michael was sweating still more pro- fusely. He grew dizzy. Blood pressure, he thought. He sat down on the grassy edge of a large beet field. The beets had already been harvested and were lying in long heaps along the road. In the distance he could see a strip of woodland, and in the middle of the enormous field was the little island that his housekeeper had spoken of, a few trees sprouting from the dark earth.
Michael stood up and took a step into the field, and then another one. He walked toward the island. The damp soil clung to his boots in great clumps, and he stumbled, reeled, walking was difficult. Be of good heart, he thought, howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island. He walked on.
Once he heard a car drive past on the road. He didn’t look around. He crossed the field, step by step, and finally the trees came nearer and he was there, and it really was like an island: the furrows of plowed land had divided and opened, as if an island had erupted from the land, and torn the soil aside like a curtain. This island was maybe half a yard in elevation. At its edge grew some grass, beyond was shrubbery. Michael broke a twig off one of the bushes and scraped some of the earth off his soles. Then he walked around the island on the narrow strip of grass. In one place there was a gap in the vegetation, and he climbed through it and got to a small clearing under the trees. The tall grass was trampled down, and there were a couple of empty bottles.
Michael looked up: between the tops of the trees he could see the sky, it seemed not so high as over the field. It was very quiet. The air was warm, even though the sun was far gone to the west. Michael took off his jacket and dropped it on the grass. Then, without really knowing what he was doing, he unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, and then his undershirt, his shoes, his pants, his shorts, and last of all his socks. He took off his wrist-watch and dropped it on the pile of clothes, and then his glasses and the ring his mother had given him for protection. And stood there the way God had made him: as naked as a sign.
Michael looked up at the sky. He had never felt more connected to it. He lifted his arms aloft, then he felt the dizziness of a moment before, and he toppled forward onto his knees, and knelt there, naked with upraised arms. He began singing, softly and with a cracked voice, but it wasn’t enough. And so he screamed, screamed as loudly as he could, because he knew that out here only God could hear him, and that God heard him and was looking down at him.
As he walked back home across the field, he thought about Mandy, and she was very near to him, as though she was in him. So he thought, without knowing it, I have given shelter to an angel.
Back in the vicarage, Michael went straight to the old sideboard, and got out a bottle of schnapps that a farmer had given him after the burial of his wife, and poured himself a little glassful and then a second. Then he lay down, and only woke when the housekeeper called him down to supper. He had a headache.
And what if it’s true? he said as the housekeeper brought in supper. What if what’s true? Mandy. If she’s conceived. By whom? Is not this land also a desert? said Michael. How do we know that He doesn’t direct His gaze here, and that this child has found favor in His eyes, this Mandy? The housekeeper shook her head angrily: Her father’s a bus driver. Well wasn’t Joseph a carpenter? But that was a long time ago. Didn’t she believe that God was still alive and in our midst? And that Jesus will return? Sure. But not here. What’s special about Mandy? She’s nothing. She works in the restaurant in W., she helps out.
With God nothing shall be impossible, said Michael, and verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. The housekeeper made a face and disappeared into the kitchen. Michael had never managed to persuade her to eat with him: she had always said she didn’t want there to be talk in the village. Talk about what? We’re only human, she
said then, we all have our needs.
After supper Michael went out again. He walked down the street, and the dogs in the yards barked like crazy, and Michael thought, You would do better to trust in God than in your dogs. That was the Communists’ doing: he should have talked them around, but he hadn’t done it. There were no more people in the church now than in the spring, and you could hear of immorality and drunkenness every day.
Michael went into the retirement home and asked for Frau Schmidt, who read the lesson every week. If she’s still awake, said Ulla, the nurse, unwillingly, and disappeared. A Communist, thought Michael, bound to be. He could tell, he knew what they thought when they saw him. And then, when someone passed away, they called him anyway. So that he gets a decent funeral, Ulla had said once, when he was required to bury a man who hadn’t been inside a church in his life.
Frau Schmidt was still awake. She was sitting in her comfy chair watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Michael shook her hand, Good evening, Frau Schmidt. He pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. She had read nicely, he said, and he wanted to thank her for it again. Frau Schmidt nodded from the waist. Michael took a small leather-bound Bible from his pocket. Today I’d like to read you something, he said. And while the TV quiz host asked which city was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D., Troy, Sodom, Pompeii, or Babylon, Michael read aloud, and steadily more loudly. There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of the creation. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
And he read, the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
All the while Michael read, the old woman nodded: she rocked back and forth, as if her whole body were one great yes. Then finally she spoke, and said, It’s not Sodom, and it’s not Babylon. Is it Troy?
The day is perhaps closer than we imagine, said Michael. But no one will know. I don’t know, said Frau Schmidt. He will come like a thief in the night, said Michael, standing up. Troy, said Frau Schmidt. He shook her hand. She didn’t say anything, and didn’t look when he left the room. Pompeii, said the quiz host. Pompeii, said Frau Schmidt.
No one will know it, thought Michael as he went home. The dogs of the Communists were barking, and once he bent down to pick up a stone and hurled it against a wooden gate. That made the dog behind bark still more loudly, and Michael hurried on, so that no one would spot him. He didn’t go back to the rectory, though, he walked out of the village.
It was half an hour to W. A single car passed him. He saw the beam of the headlights a long way ahead, and hid behind one of the trees lining the road until it was safely past. The island was nothing but a dark stain in the gray field, and it seemed to be closer than during the day. The stars were glittering: it had turned cold.
There was no one on the streets in W. The lights were on in the houses, and there was a single streetlamp at a crossroads. Michael knew where Mandy lived. He stopped at the garden gate and looked at the small single-story house. He saw shadows moving in the kitchen. It looked like someone was doing the dishes. Michael felt his heart grow warmer. He leaned against the gate. Then he heard breathing very close by, and suddenly a loud, yelping bark. He jumped back and ran off. He wasn’t a hundred yards away when the door of the house opened, and the beam of a flashlight showed in the darkness, and a man’s voice shouted, Shut yer noise!
On one of the following days, Michael went to the restaurant in W., where his housekeeper had said Mandy was helping out. And so it proved.
The dining room was high-ceilinged. The walls were yellowed with cigarette smoke, the windows were blind, the furniture aged, and nothing went with anything else. There was no one there but Mandy, standing behind the bar as if she belonged there, with her hands on the counter. She smiled and lowered her gaze, and Michael had the sense of her face glowing in the gloomy room. He sat down at a table near the entrance. Mandy went over to him, he ordered tea, she disappeared. Please no one come, he thought to himself. Then Mandy came back with his tea. Michael added sugar and stirred. Mandy was still standing beside the table. An angel at my side, thought Michael. He took a hurried sip and burned his mouth. And then, not looking at Mandy, nor she looking at him, he spoke.
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
Only now did Michael look at Mandy, and he saw that she was crying. Fear not, he said. Then he stood up and laid his hand on Mandy’s head, and then he hesitated, and placed his other hand on her belly. Will it be called Jesus? Mandy asked softly. Michael was taken aback. He hadn’t considered that. The wind bloweth where it listeth, he said, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.
Then he gave Mandy the little manual for young women and expectant mothers that the church provides, and from which he drew all his understanding, and he said Mandy should come to instruction, and to service, that was the most important thing, she had plenty to catch up on.
Months passed. Autumn gave way to winter, the first snows fell and covered everything, the villages, the forest, and the fields. Winter stretched out over the land, and the acrid smell of woodsmoke hung heavy over the streets.
Michael went on long walks over the countryside, he went from village to village, and he went again across the large sugar-beet field, that was now frozen, to the island. Once again he stood there and raised his arms aloft. But the trees had lost their leaves, and the sky was distant. Michael waited for a sign. None came: there was no new star in the sky, no angel on the field to talk to him, no king and no shepherd and no sheep. Then he felt ashamed and thought, I am not chosen. She, Mandy, will receive the signal, it is to her the angel will appear.
Mandy was now coming in from W. on her moped every Wednesday to class, and every Sunday to church. Her belly was growing, but her face was growing thinner and pale. After service she stayed behind in church until everyone was gone, and then she sat with Michael in one of the pews, speaking quietly. Her baby was due in February, she said. If only it had been Christmas, thought Michael, if only it had been Easter. But Christ- mas was soon, while Easter was the end of March: they would see.
Then the housekeeper put her head through the door, and asked if the minister proposed to eat his lunch today. All the trouble she went to, she said, and not a word of praise, nothing, and then he left half of it. Michael said Mandy should stay for lunch, there was enough for two. For three, he added, and both smiled shyly. Why don’t we just open a restaurant, said the housekeeper, laying a second setting. She banged the plates down on the table and stalked off without a word, and certainly without wishing them Bon appétit.
Mandy said her father was tormenting her, he in- sisted on knowing who the father was, and he went into a rage when she said it was Almighty God. No, he didn’t beat her. Only slaps, she said, her mother as well. She wanted to leave home. They both ate in silence. Michael very little, Mandy twice helping herself to more. Do you like it? he asked. She nodded and blushed. Then he said, why didn’t she live here in the rectory, there was room enough. Mandy looked at him timidly.
You can’t do that, said the housekeeper. Michael said nothing. If you do that, I’m out of here, said the housekeeper. Still Michael said nothing. He crossed his arms. He thought of Bethlehem. Not this time, he thought. And the thought gave him strength. I’m moving out, said the housekeeper, and Michael nodded slowly. So much the better, he thought: he had already concluded that this housekeeper had been a Communist, and who knows what besides. Because she always said she was only human, and because her name was Carola, which was a heathen name. He had heard the stories about her and his predecessor, a married man. In the sacristy, they said, among other things. That woman had nothing to say to him. She least of all. And she wasn’t even a good cook.
The housekeeper disappeared into the kitchen, and then she left the house, because it wasn’t right and it wasn’t proper. And Mandy moved in: she was the new housekeeper, that was the agreement worked out with her parents. She was even paid. But Mandy was already in her fifth month, and her belly was so big that she snorted like a cow when she went up the stairs, and Michael was afraid something might happen to the baby one day when she lugged the heavy carpets out to beat them.
Michael was just returning from one of his walks when he saw Mandy beating the carpets in front of the vicarage. He said she ought to take it easy, and carried the carpets back into the house himself, even if it was almost more than he could do: his body wasn’t very strong. Everything has to be clean by Christmas, said Mandy. That pleased Michael, and seemed to him to be a good sign. Other than that he hadn’t found much evidence of faith, even if she liked to swear Holy Mother of God, and was firmly convinced that her baby was a baby Jesus, as she put it. She did say she was Protestant. But not so very much. Michael was in doubt. He felt ashamed of his doubts, but there they were, poisoning his love and his belief.
From now on, Michael did all the housework himself. Mandy cooked for him, and they ate together in the dark dining room, without speaking much. Michael worked far into the evenings. He read his Bible, and when he heard Mandy come out of the bathroom, he waited for five minutes, he was no longer able to work, that’s how excited he was. Then he knocked on the door of Mandy’s room, and she called, Come in, come in. There she was, already in bed, with her hand on her brow, or else on the blanket, over her belly.
On one occasion he asked her about her dreams: after all, he was waiting for a sign. But Mandy didn’t dream. She slept deeply and solidly, she said. So he asked her if she really hadn’t ever had a boyfriend or anything, and if she’d ever found blood on her sheets. Not during your period, he said, and he felt very peculiar, talking to her like that. If she is the new mother of God, then what sort of figure will I cut, he thought. Mandy didn’t reply. She cried, and said, didn’t he believe her? He laid his hand on the blanket and his eyes got moist. We should be called the children of God, he said, therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not. What Him? asked Mandy.
Once she pushed the blankets back and lay before him in her thin nightie. Michael had had his hand on the blanket, and then he raised it up, and now it was hovering in the air over Mandy’s belly. It’s moving, said Mandy, and she took his hand with both of hers and pulled it down so that it pressed against herbelly, and Michaelcouldn’t raise his hand, it lay there for a long time, heavy and sinful.
Christmas came and went. On Christmas Eve, Mandy went to her parents, but the next day she was back again. There were not many people in church. In the village there was talk about Michael and Mandy, letters had been written to the bishop, and letters were written back from the bishop. A call had gone out, and a representative of the bishop had traveled to the village on a Sunday, and had sat with Michael and spoken with him. On that day, Mandy had eaten in the kitchen. She was very excited, but when the visitor left, Michael said everything was fine: the bishop knew there was a lot of bad blood in the district, and that some old Communists were still fighting against the church, and sowing division.
With the passing of time, the baby grew, and Mandy’s belly got ever bigger, long after Michael thought it couldn’t possibly. As if it wasn’t part of her body. And so Michael laid his hand on the growing baby, and felt happiness.
The terrible thing happened when Michael went off on one of his afternoon walks. He realized he had left his book at home. He turned back, and half an hour later had returned. He quietly let himself into the house and tiptoed up the stairs. Mandy often slept in the daytime now, and if that was the case now, he didn’t want to wake her. But when he stepped into his room, Mandy was standing there naked: she was standing in front of the large mirror in the door of the wardrobe. And she was looking at herself from the side, and so confronted Michael, who could see everything. Mandy had heard him coming and had turned to face him, and they looked at each other, just exactly as they were.
What are you doing in my room? asked Michael. And he hoped Mandy would cover her nakedness with her hands, but she did not. Her hands hung at her sides like the leaves of a tree, barely stirring. She said she had no mirror in her room, and she had wanted to see this belly she had grown. Michael approached Mandy, so as not to have to look at her anymore. Then his hands touched her hands, and then he thought about nothing at all, because he was with Mandy, and she was with him. And so it was that Michael’s hand lay there, as if it had been newly brought forth: an animal from out of that wound.
Then Michael did sleep, and when he awakened, he thought, my God, what have I done. He lay there curled in bed, and with his hand covered his sin, which was great. Mandy’s blood was her witness and his proof, and he was surprised that the elements did not melt with fervent heat, or the heavens pass away with a great noise: to slay him and punish him with lightning or some other event. But this did not transpire.
Nor did the heavens open when Michael hurried along the street on the way to W. He was on his way to the island in the field, and he walked rapidly and with stumbling steps across the frozen furrows. Mandy had been asleep when he left the house, Mandy, whom he had taken in and to whom he had offered the hospitality of his house.
He reached the island and sat down in the snow. He could not stand any longer, so tired was he and so sad and lost. He would stay there and never leave. Let them find him, the farmer and the woman when they came here in spring to commit adultery.
It was cold and getting dark. Then it was night. Michael was still sitting on his island in the snow. The damp soaked through his coat, and he shivered and felt chilled to the bone. Let us not love one another with words, he thought, nor with speech. But with deeds. So God had led him to Mandy, and Mandy to him: that they might love one another. For she was not a child, she was eighteen or nineteen. And was it not written that no one should know? Was it not written that the day would come like a thief? So Michael thought: I cannot know. And if it was God’s will that she conceive His child, then it was also His will that she had received him: for was he not God’s work and creature?
Through the trees Michael could see only a few scattered stars. But when he left their cover and stepped out onto the field, he saw all the stars that can be seen on a cold night, and for the first time since he had come here, he was not afraid of this sky. And he was glad that the sky was so distant, and that he himself was so small on this endless field. So distant that even God had to take a second look to see him.
Soon he was back in the village. The dogs barked, and Michael threw stones at the gates and barked himself, and aped the dogs, their stupid yapping and howling, and he laughed when the dogs were beside themselves with rage and fury: and he was beside himself just as much.
In the vicarage the lights were on, and as soon as Michael stepped inside, he could smell the dinner that Mandy had cooked. And as he took off his sodden boots and his heavy coat, she stepped out into the kitchen doorway and looked anxiously at him. It had gotten cold, he said, and she said dinner was ready. Then Michael stepped up to Mandy, and he kissed her on the mouth, as she smiled up at him. Over supper they discussed one possible name for the baby, and then another one. And when it was bedtime they squeezed each other’s hands, and each went to their own room.
As it got colder and colder in January, and it was almost impossible to heat the old vicarage, Mandy moved one evening from the guest bedroom into the warmer room of the master of the house. She carried her blanket in front of her, and lay down beside Michael as he moved aside, without a word. And that night, and in all the nights to come, they lay in one bed, and so learned to know and to love one another better. And Michael saw everything, and Mandy was not ashamed.
But was it a sin? Who could know. And hadn’t Mandy’s own blood affirmed that it was a child of God that was growing, a child of purity? Could there be anything impure about purity?
Even if Michael hadn’t thought it possible, his word reached the people and the Communists of the village. They were touched by the wonder that had occurred, and one couldn’t say how: for such people came to the door and knocked. They came without many words, and brought what they had. A neighbor brought a cake. She had been baking, she said, and it was no more trouble to bake two than one. And was Mandy doing all right?
On another day, Marco the publican came around and asked how far along they were. Michael invited him in, and called Mandy, and made tea in the kitchen. Then the three of them sat at the table and were silent, because they didn’t know what to say. Marco had brought along a bottle of cognac, and set it down in front of them. He knew full well, he said, that it wasn’t the right thing for a small baby, but maybe if it had a colic. Then he asked to have it explained to him, and when Michael did so, Marco looked at Mandy and her belly with disbelief. Was that certain? he asked, and Michael said no one knew, and no one could know. Because it was pretty unlikely, Marco said. He had picked up the cognac again, and was looking at the bottle. He seemed to hesitate, but then he put it back on the table, and said, three stars, that’s the best you can get hereabouts. Not the one I serve my customers. And he was a little confused, and he stood up and scratched his head. Back in the summer you rode pillion on my bike, he said, and he laughed, think of it. They’d gone bathing, the whole lot of them, in the lake outside F. Who’d have thought it.
When Marco left, Frau Schmidt was standing in the garden, with something she had knitted for the baby. With her was Nurse Ulla from the retirement home, whom Michael had suspected of being a Communist. But she was bringing something herself, a soft toy, and she wanted Mandy to touch her as well.
It was one after another. The table in the front room was covered with presents, and the cupboard housed a dozen or more bottles of schnapps. The children brought drawings of Mandy and the baby, and sometimes Michael was in the pictures too, and perhaps an ass or an ox as well.
Before long the people were coming from W. and the other villages, wanting to see the expectant mother, to ask her advice on this or that matter. And Mandy gave them advice and comfort, and sometimes she would lay her hand on the arm or the head of the people, without saying anything. She had become so earnest and still that even Michael seemed to see her anew. And did all that needed to be done. In the village, various quarrels were settled during these days, and even the dogs seemed to be less ferocious when Michael walked down the street, and on some houses the straw stars and Christmas wreaths were back up on the doors again, and in the windows, because the whole village was rejoicing, as though Christmas was yet to come. Everyone knew it, but no one said it.
One time, Dr. Klaus came to see that all was well. But when he knocked on the door, Michael did not welcome him in. He sat upstairs with Mandy, and they were quiet as two children, and peeked out of the window until they saw the doctor leaving.
The next day, Michael went to W. to see the doctor. He poured schnapps, and asked how things stood with Mandy. Michael didn’t touch the schnapps. He merely said everything was fine, and they didn’t need a doctor. And these stories that were making the rounds? He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth, said Michael. Be that as it may, said the doctor, the baby will be born on earth, and not in heaven. And if you need help, then call me, and I’ll come. Then they shook hands, and nothing more was said. Michael, though, went back to the retirement home in the village and spoke to Nurse Ulla. She had four children herself, and knew the ropes. And she promised him she would assist when the time came.
Then in February, the time came: the baby was born. Mandy was assisted by Michael, and by Nurse Ulla, whom he had called in. As word spread of the impending event, people gathered on the village streets to wait in silence. It was already dark when the baby was born, and Ulla stepped up to the window and held it aloft, that all might see it. And it was a girl.
Michael sat at Mandy’s bedside, holding her hand and looking at the baby. She’s no beauty, said Mandy, but that was more of a question. And Nurse Ulla asked the new mother where she meant to go with her baby, as she would no longer be able to run the minister’s household anymore. Then Michael said: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. And he kissed Mandy in full view of the nurse. And she later told everyone of it: that he had given his word.
Because the child could not be called Jesus, they called it Sandra. And as the people in the village believed it had been born for them, they didn’t mind that it was a girl. And all were contented and rejoiced.
The following Sunday attendance at church was greater than it had been for a long time. Mandy and the babe sat in the front pew. The organ was playing, and after it had played, Michael climbed up to the pulpit and spoke as follows: Whether this is a child that has long been awaited in the world, we do not know, and may not know. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, said Michael, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. But we, be- loved, should be called the children of God.
*This story is taken from: Wir fliegen by Peter Stamm. © S. Fischer Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2008.
*Translation copyright©2012 by Michael Hofmann. Reprinted by permission by Other Press. All rights reserved.
In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the shop at the corner, a confectioner’s, glowed like the butt of a cigar. One should rather say, perhaps, like the butt of a firework, for the light was of many colours and some complexity, broken up by many mirrors and dancing on many gilt and gaily-coloured cakes and sweetmeats. Against this one fiery glass were glued the noses of many gutter-snipes, for the chocolates were all wrapped in those red and gold and green metallic colours which are almost better than chocolate itself; and the huge white wedding-cake in the window was somehow at once remote and satisfying, just as if the whole North Pole were good to eat. Such rainbow provocations could naturally collect the youth of the neighbourhood up to the ages of ten or twelve. But this corner was also attractive to youth at a later stage; and a young man, not less than twenty-four, was staring into the same shop window. To him, also, the shop was of fiery charm, but this attraction was not wholly to be explained by chocolates; which, however, he was far from despising.
He was a tall, burly, red-haired young man, with a resolute face but a listless manner. He carried under his arm a flat, grey portfolio of black-and-white sketches, which he had sold with more or less success to publishers ever since his uncle (who was an admiral) had disinherited him for Socialism, because of a lecture which he had delivered against that economic theory. His name was John Turnbull Angus.
Entering at last, he walked through the confectioner’s shop to the back room, which was a sort of pastry-cook restaurant, merely raising his hat to the young lady who was serving there. She was a dark, elegant, alert girl in black, with a high colour and very quick, dark eyes; and after the ordinary interval she followed him into the inner room to take his order.
His order was evidently a usual one. “I want, please,” he said with precision, “one halfpenny bun and a small cup of black coffee.” An instant before the girl could turn away he added, “Also, I want you to marry me.”
The young lady of the shop stiffened suddenly and said, “Those are jokes I don’t allow.”
The red-haired young man lifted grey eyes of an unexpected gravity.
“Really and truly,” he said, “it’s as serious—as serious as the halfpenny bun. It is expensive, like the bun; one pays for it. It is indigestible, like the bun. It hurts.”
The dark young lady had never taken her dark eyes off him, but seemed to be studying him with almost tragic exactitude. At the end of her scrutiny she had something like the shadow of a smile, and she sat down in a chair.
“Don’t you think,” observed Angus, absently, “that it’s rather cruel to eat these halfpenny buns? They might grow up into penny buns. I shall give up these brutal sports when we are married.”
The dark young lady rose from her chair and walked to the window, evidently in a state of strong but not unsympathetic cogitation. When at last she swung round again with an air of resolution she was bewildered to observe that the young man was carefully laying out on the table various objects from the shop-window. They included a pyramid of highly coloured sweets, several plates of sandwiches, and the two decanters containing that mysterious port and sherry which are peculiar to pastry-cooks. In the middle of this neat arrangement he had carefully let down the enormous load of white sugared cake which had been the huge ornament of the window.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked.
“Duty, my dear Laura,” he began.
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake, stop a minute,” she cried, “and don’t talk to me in that way. I mean, what is all that?”
“A ceremonial meal, Miss Hope.”
“And what is that?” she asked impatiently, pointing to the mountain of sugar.
“The wedding-cake, Mrs. Angus,” he said.
The girl marched to that article, removed it with some clatter, and put it back in the shop window; she then returned, and, putting her elegant elbows on the table, regarded the young man not unfavourably but with considerable exasperation.
“You don’t give me any time to think,” she said.
“I’m not such a fool,” he answered; “that’s my Christian humility.”
She was still looking at him; but she had grown considerably graver behind the smile.
“Mr. Angus,” she said steadily, “before there is a minute more of this nonsense I must tell you something about myself as shortly as I can.’”
“Delighted,” replied Angus gravely. “You might tell me something about myself, too, while you are about it.”
“Oh, do hold your tongue and listen,” she said. “It’s nothing that I’m ashamed of, and it isn’t even anything that I’m specially sorry about. But what would you say if there were something that is no business of mine and yet is my nightmare?”
“In that case,” said the man seriously, “I should suggest that you bring back the cake.”
“Well, you must listen to the story first,” said Laura, persistently. “To begin with, I must tell you that my father owned the inn called the ‘Red Fish’ at Ludbury, and I used to serve people in the bar.”
“I have often wondered,” he said, “why there was a kind of a Christian air about this one confectioner’s shop.”
“Ludbury is a sleepy, grassy little hole in the Eastern Counties, and the only kind of people who ever came to the ‘Red Fish’ were occasional commercial travellers, and for the rest, the most awful people you can see, only you’ve never seen them. I mean little, loungy men, who had just enough to live on and had nothing to do but lean about in bar-rooms and bet on horses, in bad clothes that were just too good for them. Even these wretched young rotters were not very common at our house; but there were two of them that were a lot too common—common in every sort of way. They both lived on money of their own, and were wearisomely idle and over-dressed. But yet I was a bit sorry for them, because I half believe they slunk into our little empty bar because each of them had a slight deformity; the sort of thing that some yokels laugh at. It wasn’t exactly a deformity either; it was more an oddity. One of them was a surprisingly small man, something like a dwarf, or at least like a jockey. He was not at all jockeyish to look at, though; he had a round black head and a well-trimmed black beard, bright eyes like a bird’s; he jingled money in his pockets; he jangled a great gold watch chain; and he never turned up except dressed just too much like a gentleman to be one. He was no fool though, though a futile idler; he was curiously clever at all kinds of things that couldn’t be the slightest use; a sort of impromptu conjuring; making fifteen matches set fire to each other like a regular firework; or cutting a banana or some such thing into a dancing doll. His name was Isidore Smythe; and I can see him still, with his little dark face, just coming up to the counter, making a jumping kangaroo out of five cigars.
“The other fellow was more silent and more ordinary; but somehow he alarmed me much more than poor little Smythe. He was very tall and slight, and light-haired; his nose had a high bridge, and he might almost have been handsome in a spectral sort of way; but he had one of the most appalling squints I have ever seen or heard of. When he looked straight at you, you didn’t know where you were yourself, let alone what he was looking at. I fancy this sort of disfigurement embittered the poor chap a little; for while Smythe was ready to show off his monkey tricks anywhere, James Welkin (that was the squinting man’s name) never did anything except soak in our bar parlour, and go for great walks by himself in the flat, grey country all round. All the same, I think Smythe, too, was a little sensitive about being so small, though he carried it off more smartly. And so it was that I was really puzzled, as well as startled, and very sorry, when they both offered to marry me in the same week.
“Well, I did what I’ve since thought was perhaps a silly thing. But, after all, these freaks were my friends in a way; and I had a horror of their thinking I refused them for the real reason, which was that they were so impossibly ugly. So I made up some gas of another sort, about never meaning to marry anyone who hadn’t carved his way in the world. I said it was a point of principle with me not to live on money that was just inherited like theirs. Two days after I had talked in this well-meaning sort of way, the whole trouble began. The first thing I heard was that both of them had gone off to seek their fortunes, as if they were in some silly fairy tale.
“Well, I’ve never seen either of them from that day to this. But I’ve had two letters from the little man called Smythe, and really they were rather exciting.”
“Ever heard of the other man?” asked Angus.
“No, he never wrote,” said the girl, after an instant’s hesitation. “Smythe’s first letter was simply to say that he had started out walking with Welkin to London; but Welkin was such a good walker that the little man dropped out of it, and took a rest by the roadside. He happened to be picked up by some travelling show, and, partly because he was nearly a dwarf, and partly because he was really a clever little wretch, he got on quite well in the show business, and was soon sent up to the Aquarium, to do some tricks that I forget. That was his first letter. His second was much more of a startler, and I only got it last week.”
The man called Angus emptied his coffee-cup and regarded her with mild and patient eyes. Her own mouth took a slight twist of laughter as she resumed, “I suppose you’ve seen on the hoardings all about this ‘Smythe’s Silent Service’? Or you must be the only person that hasn’t. Oh, I don’t know much about it, it’s some clockwork invention for doing all the housework by machinery. You know the sort of thing: ‘Press a Button—A Butler who Never Drinks.’ ‘Turn a Handle—Ten Housemaids who Never Flirt.’ You must have seen the advertisements. Well, whatever these machines are, they are making pots of money; and they are making it all for that little imp whom I knew down in Ludbury. I can’t help feeling pleased the poor little chap has fallen on his feet; but the plain fact is, I’m in terror of his turning up any minute and telling me he’s carved his way in the world—as he certainly has.”
“And the other man?” repeated Angus with a sort of obstinate quietude.
Laura Hope got to her feet suddenly. “My friend,” she said, “I think you are a witch. Yes, you are quite right. I have not seen a line of the other man’s writing; and I have no more notion than the dead of what or where he is. But it is of him that I am frightened. It is he who is all about my path. It is he who has half driven me mad. Indeed, I think he has driven me mad; for I have felt him where he could not have been, and I have heard his voice when he could not have spoken.”
“Well, my dear,” said the young man, cheerfully, “if he were Satan himself, he is done for now you have told somebody. One goes mad all alone, old girl. But when was it you fancied you felt and heard our squinting friend?”
“I heard James Welkin laugh as plainly as I hear you speak,” said the girl, steadily. “There was nobody there, for I stood just outside the shop at the corner, and could see down both streets at once. I had forgotten how he laughed, though his laugh was as odd as his squint. I had not thought of him for nearly a year. But it’s a solemn truth that a few seconds later the first letter came from his rival.”
“Did you ever make the spectre speak or squeak, or anything?” asked Angus, with some interest.
Laura suddenly shuddered, and then said, with an unshaken voice, “Yes. Just when I had finished reading the second letter from Isidore Smythe announcing his success. Just then, I heard Welkin say, ‘He shan’t have you, though.’ It was quite plain, as if he were in the room. It is awful, I think I must be mad.”
“If you really were mad,” said the young man, “you would think you must be sane. But certainly there seems to me to be something a little rum about this unseen gentleman. Two heads are better than one—I spare you allusions to any other organs and really, if you would allow me, as a sturdy, practical man, to bring back the wedding-cake out of the window—”
Even as he spoke, there was a sort of steely shriek in the street outside, and a small motor, driven at devilish speed, shot up to the door of the shop and stuck there. In the same flash of time a small man in a shiny top hat stood stamping in the outer room.
Angus, who had hitherto maintained hilarious ease from motives of mental hygiene, revealed the strain of his soul by striding abruptly out of the inner room and confronting the new-comer. A glance at him was quite sufficient to confirm the savage guesswork of a man in love. This very dapper but dwarfish figure, with the spike of black beard carried insolently forward, the clever unrestful eyes, the neat but very nervous fingers, could be none other than the man just described to him: Isidore Smythe, who made dolls out of banana skins and match-boxes; Isidore Smythe, who made millions out of undrinking butlers and unflirting housemaids of metal. For a moment the two men, instinctively understanding each other’s air of possession, looked at each other with that curious cold generosity which is the soul of rivalry.
Mr. Smythe, however, made no allusion to the ultimate ground of their antagonism, but said simply and explosively, “Has Miss Hope seen that thing on the window?”
“On the window?” repeated the staring Angus.
“There’s no time to explain other things,” said the small millionaire shortly. “There’s some tomfoolery going on here that has to be investigated.”
He pointed his polished walking-stick at the window, recently depleted by the bridal preparations of Mr. Angus; and that gentleman was astonished to see along the front of the glass a long strip of paper pasted, which had certainly not been on the window when he looked through it some time before. Following the energetic Smythe outside into the street, he found that some yard and a half of stamp paper had been carefully gummed along the glass outside, and on this was written in straggly characters, “If you marry Smythe, he will die.”
“Laura,” said Angus, putting his big red head into the shop, “you’re not mad.”
“It’s the writing of that fellow Welkin,” said Smythe gruffly. “I haven’t seen him for years, but he’s always bothering me. Five times in the last fortnight he’s had threatening letters left at my flat, and I can’t even find out who leaves them, let alone if it is Welkin himself. The porter of the flats swears that no suspicious characters have been seen, and here he has pasted up a sort of dado on a public shop window, while the people in the shop—”
“Quite so,” said Angus modestly, “while the people in the shop were having tea. Well, sir, I can assure you I appreciate your common sense in dealing so directly with the matter. We can talk about other things afterwards. The fellow cannot be very far off yet, for I swear there was no paper there when I went last to the window, ten or fifteen minutes ago. On the other hand, he’s too far off to be chased, as we don’t even know the direction. If you’ll take my advice, Mr. Smythe, you’ll put this at once in the hands of some energetic inquiry man, private rather than public. I know an extremely clever fellow, who has set up in business five minutes from here in your car. His name’s Flambeau, and though his youth was a bit stormy, he’s a strictly honest man now, and his brains are worth money. He lives in Lucknow Mansions, Hampstead.”
“That is odd,” said the little man, arching his black eyebrows. “I live, myself, in Himylaya Mansions, round the corner. Perhaps you might care to come with me; I can go to my rooms and sort out these queer Welkin documents, while you run round and get your friend the detective.”
“You are very good,” said Angus politely. “Well, the sooner we act the better.”
Both men, with a queer kind of impromptu fairness, took the same sort of formal farewell of the lady, and both jumped into the brisk little car. As Smythe took the handles and they turned the great corner of the street, Angus was amused to see a gigantesque poster of “Smythe’s Silent Service,” with a picture of a huge headless iron doll, carrying a saucepan with the legend, “A Cook Who is Never Cross.”
“I use them in my own flat,” said the little black-bearded man, laughing, “partly for advertisements, and partly for real convenience. Honestly, and all above board, those big clockwork dolls of mine do bring your coals or claret or a timetable quicker than any live servants I’ve ever known, if you know which knob to press. But I’ll never deny, between ourselves, that such servants have their disadvantages, too.”
“Indeed?” said Angus; “is there something they can’t do?”
“Yes,” replied Smythe coolly; “they can’t tell me who left those threatening letters at my flat.”
The man’s motor was small and swift like himself; in fact, like his domestic service, it was of his own invention. If he was an advertising quack, he was one who believed in his own wares. The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate. Opposite to the mansions, on the other side of the gravel crescent, was a bushy enclosure more like a steep hedge or dyke than a garden, and some way below that ran a strip of artificial water, a sort of canal, like the moat of that embowered fortress. As the car swept round the crescent it passed, at one corner, the stray stall of a man selling chestnuts; and right away at the other end of the curve, Angus could see a dim blue policeman walking slowly. These were the only human shapes in that high suburban solitude; but he had an irrational sense that they expressed the speechless poetry of London. He felt as if they were figures in a story.
The little car shot up to the right house like a bullet, and shot out its owner like a bomb shell. He was immediately inquiring of a tall commissionaire in shining braid, and a short porter in shirt sleeves, whether anybody or anything had been seeking his apartments. He was assured that nobody and nothing had passed these officials since his last inquiries; whereupon he and the slightly bewildered Angus were shot up in the lift like a rocket, till they reached the top floor.
“Just come in for a minute,” said the breathless Smythe. “I want to show you those Welkin letters. Then you might run round the corner and fetch your friend.” He pressed a button concealed in the wall, and the door opened of itself.
It opened on a long, commodious ante-room, of which the only arresting features, ordinarily speaking, were the rows of tall half-human mechanical figures that stood up on both sides like tailors’ dummies. Like tailors’ dummies they were headless; and like tailors’ dummies they had a handsome unnecessary humpiness in the shoulders, and a pigeon-breasted protuberance of chest; but barring this, they were not much more like a human figure than any automatic machine at a station that is about the human height. They had two great hooks like arms, for carrying trays; and they were painted pea-green, or vermilion, or black for convenience of distinction; in every other way they were only automatic machines and nobody would have looked twice at them. On this occasion, at least, nobody did. For between the two rows of these domestic dummies lay something more interesting than most of the mechanics of the world. It was a white, tattered scrap of paper scrawled with red ink; and the agile inventor had snatched it up almost as soon as the door flew open. He handed it to Angus without a word. The red ink on it actually was not dry, and the message ran, “If you have been to see her today, I shall kill you.”
There was a short silence, and then Isidore Smythe said quietly, “Would you like a little whiskey? I rather feel as if I should.”
“Thank you; I should like a little Flambeau,” said Angus, gloomily. “This business seems to me to be getting rather grave. I’m going round at once to fetch him.”
“Right you are,” said the other, with admirable cheerfulness. “Bring him round here as quick as you can.”
But as Angus closed the front door behind him he saw Smythe push back a button, and one of the clockwork images glided from its place and slid along a groove in the floor carrying a tray with syphon and decanter. There did seem something a trifle weird about leaving the little man alone among those dead servants, who were coming to life as the door closed.
Six steps down from Smythe’s landing the man in shirt sleeves was doing something with a pail. Angus stopped to extract a promise, fortified with a prospective bribe, that he would remain in that place until the return with the detective, and would keep count of any kind of stranger coming up those stairs. Dashing down to the front hall he then laid similar charges of vigilance on the commissionaire at the front door, from whom he learned the simplifying circumstances that there was no back door. Not content with this, he captured the floating policeman and induced him to stand opposite the entrance and watch it; and finally paused an instant for a pennyworth of chestnuts, and an inquiry as to the probable length of the merchant’s stay in the neighbourhood.
The chestnut seller, turning up the collar of his coat, told him he should probably be moving shortly, as he thought it was going to snow. Indeed, the evening was growing grey and bitter, but Angus, with all his eloquence, proceeded to nail the chestnut man to his post.
“Keep yourself warm on your own chestnuts,” he said earnestly. “Eat up your whole stock; I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll give you a sovereign if you’ll wait here till I come back, and then tell me whether any man, woman, or child has gone into that house where the commissionaire is standing.”
He then walked away smartly, with a last look at the besieged tower.
“I’ve made a ring round that room, anyhow,” he said. “They can’t all four of them be Mr. Welkin’s accomplices.”
Lucknow Mansions were, so to speak, on a lower platform of that hill of houses, of which Himylaya Mansions might be called the peak. Mr. Flambeau’s semi-official flat was on the ground floor, and presented in every way a marked contrast to the American machinery and cold hotel-like luxury of the flat of the Silent Service. Flambeau, who was a friend of Angus, received him in a rococo artistic den behind his office, of which the ornaments were sabres, harquebuses, Eastern curiosities, flasks of Italian wine, savage cooking-pots, a plumy Persian cat, and a small dusty-looking Roman Catholic priest, who looked particularly out of place.
“This is my friend Father Brown,” said Flambeau. “I’ve often wanted you to meet him. Splendid weather, this; a little cold for Southerners like me.”
“Yes, I think it will keep clear,” said Angus, sitting down on a violet-striped Eastern ottoman.
“No,” said the priest quietly, “it has begun to snow.”
And, indeed, as he spoke, the first few flakes, foreseen by the man of chestnuts, began to drift across the darkening windowpane.
“Well,” said Angus heavily. “I’m afraid I’ve come on business, and rather jumpy business at that. The fact is, Flambeau, within a stone’s throw of your house is a fellow who badly wants your help; he’s perpetually being haunted and threatened by an invisible enemy—a scoundrel whom nobody has even seen.” As Angus proceeded to tell the whole tale of Smythe and Welkin, beginning with Laura’s story, and going on with his own, the supernatural laugh at the corner of two empty streets, the strange distinct words spoken in an empty room, Flambeau grew more and more vividly concerned, and the little priest seemed to be left out of it, like a piece of furniture. When it came to the scribbled stamp-paper pasted on the window, Flambeau rose, seeming to fill the room with his huge shoulders.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I think you had better tell me the rest on the nearest road to this man’s house. It strikes me, somehow, that there is no time to be lost.”
“Delighted,” said Angus, rising also, “though he’s safe enough for the present, for I’ve set four men to watch the only hole to his burrow.”
They turned out into the street, the small priest trundling after them with the docility of a small dog. He merely said, in a cheerful way, like one making conversation, “How quick the snow gets thick on the ground.”
As they threaded the steep side streets already powdered with silver, Angus finished his story; and by the time they reached the crescent with the towering flats, he had leisure to turn his attention to the four sentinels. The chestnut seller, both before and after receiving a sovereign, swore stubbornly that he had watched the door and seen no visitor enter. The policeman was even more emphatic. He said he had had experience of crooks of all kinds, in top hats and in rags; he wasn’t so green as to expect suspicious characters to look suspicious; he looked out for anybody, and, so help him, there had been nobody. And when all three men gathered round the gilded commissionaire, who still stood smiling astride of the porch, the verdict was more final still.
“I’ve got a right to ask any man, duke or dustman, what he wants in these flats,” said the genial and gold-laced giant, “and I’ll swear there’s been nobody to ask since this gentleman went away.”
The unimportant Father Brown, who stood back, looking modestly at the pavement, here ventured to say meekly, “Has nobody been up and down stairs, then, since the snow began to fall? It began while we were all round at Flambeau’s.”
“Nobody’s been in here, sir, you can take it from me,” said the official, with beaming authority.
“Then I wonder what that is?” said the priest, and stared at the ground blankly like a fish.
The others all looked down also; and Flambeau used a fierce exclamation and a French gesture. For it was unquestionably true that down the middle of the entrance guarded by the man in gold lace, actually between the arrogant, stretched legs of that colossus, ran a stringy pattern of grey footprints stamped upon the white snow.
“God!” cried Angus involuntarily, “the Invisible Man!”
Without another word he turned and dashed up the stairs, with Flambeau following; but Father Brown still stood looking about him in the snow-clad street as if he had lost interest in his query.
Flambeau was plainly in a mood to break down the door with his big shoulders; but the Scotchman, with more reason, if less intuition, fumbled about on the frame of the door till he found the invisible button; and the door swung slowly open.
It showed substantially the same serried interior; the hall had grown darker, though it was still struck here and there with the last crimson shafts of sunset, and one or two of the headless machines had been moved from their places for this or that purpose, and stood here and there about the twilit place. The green and red of their coats were all darkened in the dusk; and their likeness to human shapes slightly increased by their very shapelessness. But in the middle of them all, exactly where the paper with the red ink had lain, there lay something that looked like red ink spilt out of its bottle. But it was not red ink.
With a French combination of reason and violence Flambeau simply said “Murder!” and, plunging into the flat, had explored, every corner and cupboard of it in five minutes. But if he expected to find a corpse he found none. Isidore Smythe was not in the place, either dead or alive. After the most tearing search the two men met each other in the outer hall, with streaming faces and staring eyes. “My friend,” said Flambeau, talking French in his excitement, “not only is your murderer invisible, but he makes invisible also the murdered man.”
Angus looked round at the dim room full of dummies, and in some Celtic corner of his Scotch soul a shudder started. One of the life-size dolls stood immediately overshadowing the blood stain, summoned, perhaps, by the slain man an instant before he fell. One of the high-shouldered hooks that served the thing for arms, was a little lifted, and Angus had suddenly the horrid fancy that poor Smythe’s own iron child had struck him down. Matter had rebelled, and these machines had killed their master. But even so, what had they done with him?
“Eaten him?” said the nightmare at his ear; and he sickened for an instant at the idea of rent, human remains absorbed and crushed into all that acephalous clockwork.
He recovered his mental health by an emphatic effort, and said to Flambeau, “Well, there it is. The poor fellow has evaporated like a cloud and left a red streak on the floor. The tale does not belong to this world.”
“There is only one thing to be done,” said Flambeau, “whether it belongs to this world or the other. I must go down and talk to my friend.”
They descended, passing the man with the pail, who again asseverated that he had let no intruder pass, down to the commissionaire and the hovering chestnut man, who rigidly reasserted their own watchfulness. But when Angus looked round for his fourth confirmation he could not see it, and called out with some nervousness, “Where is the policeman?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Father Brown; “that is my fault. I just sent him down the road to investigate something—that I just thought worth investigating.”
“Well, we want him back pretty soon,” said Angus abruptly, “for the wretched man upstairs has not only been murdered, but wiped out.”
“How?” asked the priest.
“Father,” said Flambeau, after a pause, “upon my soul I believe it is more in your department than mine. No friend or foe has entered the house, but Smythe is gone, as if stolen by the fairies. If that is not supernatural, I—”
As he spoke they were all checked by an unusual sight; the big blue policeman came round the corner of the crescent, running. He came straight up to Brown.
“You’re right, sir,” he panted, “they’ve just found poor Mr. Smythe’s body in the canal down below.”
Angus put his hand wildly to his head. “Did he run down and drown himself?” he asked.
“He never came down, I’ll swear,” said the constable, “and he wasn’t drowned either, for he died of a great stab over the heart.”
“And yet you saw no one enter?” said Flambeau in a grave voice.
“Let us walk down the road a little,” said the priest.
As they reached the other end of the crescent he observed abruptly, “Stupid of me! I forgot to ask the policeman something. I wonder if they found a light brown sack.”
“Why a light brown sack?” asked Angus, astonished.
“Because if it was any other coloured sack, the case must begin over again,” said Father Brown; “but if it was a light brown sack, why, the case is finished.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” said Angus with hearty irony. “It hasn’t begun, so far as I am concerned.”
“You must tell us all about it,” said Flambeau with a strange heavy simplicity, like a child.
Unconsciously they were walking with quickening steps down the long sweep of road on the other side of the high crescent, Father Brown leading briskly, though in silence. At last he said with an almost touching vagueness, “Well, I’m afraid you’ll think it so prosy. We always begin at the abstract end of things, and you can’t begin this story anywhere else.
“Have you ever noticed this—that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean—or what they think you mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, ‘Is anybody staying with you?’ the lady doesn’t answer ‘Yes; the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,’ though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says ‘There is nobody staying with us,’ meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, ‘Who is staying in the house?’ then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest. All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly. When those four quite honest men said that no man had gone into the Mansions, they did not really mean that no man had gone into them. They meant no man whom they could suspect of being your man. A man did go into the house, and did come out of it, but they never noticed him.”
“An invisible man?” inquired Angus, raising his red eyebrows. “A mentally invisible man,” said Father Brown.
A minute or two after he resumed in the same unassuming voice, like a man thinking his way. “Of course you can’t think of such a man, until you do think of him. That’s where his cleverness comes in. But I came to think of him through two or three little things in the tale Mr. Angus told us. First, there was the fact that this Welkin went for long walks. And then there was the vast lot of stamp paper on the window. And then, most of all, there were the two things the young lady said—things that couldn’t be true. Don’t get annoyed,” he added hastily, noting a sudden movement of the Scotchman’s head; “she thought they were true. A person can’t be quite alone in a street a second before she receives a letter. She can’t be quite alone in a street when she starts reading a letter just received. There must be somebody pretty near her; he must be mentally invisible.”
“Why must there be somebody near her?” asked Angus.
“Because,” said Father Brown, “barring carrier-pigeons, somebody must have brought her the letter.”
“Do you really mean to say,” asked Flambeau, with energy, “that Welkin carried his rival’s letters to his lady?”
“Yes,” said the priest. “Welkin carried his rival’s letters to his lady. You see, he had to.”
“Oh, I can’t stand much more of this,” exploded Flambeau. “Who is this fellow? What does he look like? What is the usual get-up of a mentally invisible man?”
“He is dressed rather handsomely in red, blue and gold,” replied the priest promptly with precision, “and in this striking, and even showy, costume he entered Himylaya Mansions under eight human eyes; he killed Smythe in cold blood, and came down into the street again carrying the dead body in his arms—”
“Reverend sir,” cried Angus, standing still, “are you raving mad, or am I?”
“You are not mad,” said Brown, “only a little unobservant. You have not noticed such a man as this, for example.”
He took three quick strides forward, and put his hand on the shoulder of an ordinary passing postman who had bustled by them unnoticed under the shade of the trees.
“Nobody ever notices postmen somehow,” he said thoughtfully; “yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily.”
The postman, instead of turning naturally, had ducked and tumbled against the garden fence. He was a lean fair-bearded man of very ordinary appearance, but as he turned an alarmed face over his shoulder, all three men were fixed with an almost fiendish squint.
Flambeau went back to his sabres, purple rugs and Persian cat, having many things to attend to. John Turnbull Angus went back to the lady at the shop, with whom that imprudent young man contrives to be extremely comfortable. But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.
‘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.
*Image: Joana Keler
According to Ashin’s “Essentials of Salvation,” the Ten Pleasures are but a drop in the ocean when compared to the joys of the Pure Land. In that Land the earth is made of emerald and the roads that lead across it are lined by cordons of gold rope. The surface is endlessly level and there are no boundaries. Within each of the sacred Precincts are fifty thousand million halls and towers wrought of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, agate, and pearls; and wondrous garments are spread out on all the jeweled daises. Within the halls and above the towers a multitude of angels are forever playing sacred music and singing paeans of praise to the Tathagata Buddha. In the gardens that surround the halls and the towers and the cloisters are great gold and emerald ponds where the faithful may perform their ablutions; and the gold ponds are lined with silver sand, and the emerald ponds are lined with crystal sand. The ponds are covered with lotus plants which sparkle in variegated colors and, as the breeze wafts over the surface of the water, magnificent lights crisscross in all directions. Both day and night the air is filled with the songs of cranes, geese, mandarin ducks, peacocks, parrots, and sweet-voiced Kalavinkas, who have the faces of beautiful women. All these and the myriad other hundred-jeweled birds are raising their melodious voices in praise of the Buddha. (However sweet their voices may sound, so immense a collection of birds must be extremely noisy.)
The borders of the ponds and the banks of the rivers are lined with groves of sacred treasure trees. These trees have golden stems and silver branches and coral blossoms, and their beauty is mirrored in the waters. The air is full of jeweled cords, and from these cords hang the myriad treasure bells which forever ring out the Supreme Law of Buddha; and strange musical instruments, which play by themselves without ever being touched, also stretch far into the pellucid sky.
If one feels like having something to eat, there automatically appears before one’s eyes a seven-jeweled table on whose shining surface rest seven-jeweled bowls heaped high with the choicest delicacies. But there is no need to pick up these viands and put them in one’s mouth. All that is necessary is to look at their inviting colors and to enjoy their aroma: thereby the stomach is filled and the body nourished, while one remains oneself spiritually and physically pure. When one has thus finished one’s meal without any eating, the bowls and the table are instantly wafted off.
Likewise, one’s body is automatically arrayed in clothes, without any need for sewing, laundering, dyeing, or repairing.
Lamps, too, are unnecessary, for the sky is illumined by an omnipresent light. Furthermore, the Pure Land enjoys a moderate temperature all year round, so that neither heating nor cooling is required. A hundred thousand subtle scents perfume the air and lotus petals rain down constantly.
In the chapter of the Inspection Gate we are told that, since uninitiated sightseers cannot hope to penetrate deep into the Pure Land, they must concentrate, first, on awakening their powers of “external imagination” and, thereafter, on steadily expanding these powers. Imaginative power can provide a short cut for escaping from the trammels of our mundane life and for seeing the Buddha. If we are endowed with a rich, turbulent imagination, we can focus our attention on a single lotus flower and from there can spread out to infinite horizons.
By means of microscopic observation and astronomical projection the lotus flower can become the foundation for an entire theory of the universe and an agent whereby we may perceive the Truth. And first we must know that each of the petals has eighty-four thousand veins and that each vein gives off eighty-four thousand lights. Furthermore, the smallest of these flowers has a diameter of two hundred and fifty yojana. Thus, assuming that the yojana of which we read in the Holy Writings correspond to seventy-five miles each, we may conclude that a lotus flower with a diameter of nineteen thousand miles is on the small side.
Now such a flower has eighty-four thousand petals and between each of the petals there are one million jewels, each emitting one thousand lights. Above the beautifully adorned calyx of the flower rise four bejeweled pillars and each of these pillars is one hundred billion times as great as Mount Sumeru, which towers in the center of the Buddhist universe. From the pillars hang great draperies and each drapery is adorned with fifty thousand million jewels, and each jewel emits eighty-four thousand lights, and each light is composed of eighty-four thousand different golden colors, and each of these golden colors in its turn is variously transmogrified.
To concentrate on such images is known as “thinking of the Lotus Seat on which Lord Buddha sits”; and the conceptual world that hovers in the background of our story is a world imagined on such a scale.
The Great Priest of Shiga Temple was a man of the most eminent virtue. His eyebrows were white, and it was as much as he could do to move his old bones along as he hobbled on his stick from one part of the temple to another.
In the eyes of this learned ascetic the world was a mere pile of rubbish. He had lived away from it for many a long year and the little pine sapling that he had planted with his own hands on moving into his present cell had grown into a great tree whose branches swelled in the wind. A monk who had succeeded in abandoning the Floating World for so long a time must feel secure about his future.
When the Great Priest saw the rich and the noble, he smiled with compassion and wondered how it was that these people did not recognize their pleasures for the empty dreams that they were. When he noticed beautiful women, his only reaction was to be moved with pity for men who still inhabited the world of delusion and who were tossed about on the waves of carnal pleasure.
From the moment that a man no longer responds in the slightest to the motives that regulate the material world, that world appears to be at complete repose. In the eyes of the Great Priest the world showed only repose; it had become a mere picture on a piece of paper, a map of some foreign land. When one has attained a state of mind from which the evil passions of the present world have been so utterly winnowed, fear too is forgotten. Thus it was that the priest no longer could understand why Hell should exist. He knew beyond all peradventure that the present world no longer had any power left over him; but, as he was completely devoid of conceit, it did not occur to him that this was the effect of his own eminent virtue.
So far as his body was concerned, one might say that the priest had well-nigh been deserted by his own flesh. On such occasions as he observed it—when taking a bath, for instance—he would rejoice to see how his protruding bones were precariously covered by his withered skin. Now that his body had reached this stage, he felt that he could come to terms with it, as if it belonged to someone else. Such a body, it seemed, was already more suited for the nourishment of the Pure Land than for terrestrial food and drink.
In his dreams he lived nightly in the Pure Land, and when he awoke he knew that to subsist in the present world was to be tied to a sad and evanescent dream.
In the flower-viewing season large numbers of people came from the Capital to visit the village of Shiga. This did not trouble the priest in the slightest, for he had long since transcended that state in which the clamors of the world can irritate the mind. One spring evening he left his cell, leaning on his stick, and walked down to the lake. It was the hour when dusky shadows slowly begin to thrust their way into the bright light of the afternoon. There was not the slightest ripple to disturb the surface of the water. The priest stood by himself at the edge of the lake and began to perform the holy rite of Water Contemplation.
At that moment an ox-drawn carriage, clearly belonging to a person of high rank, came around the lake and stopped close to where the priest was standing. The owner was a Court lady from the Kyogoku district of the Capital who held the exalted title of Great Imperial Concubine. This lady had come to view the springtime scenery in Shiga and now on her return she had stopped the carriage and raised the blind in order to have a final look at the lake.
Unwittingly the Great Priest glanced in her direction and at once he was overwhelmed by her beauty. His eyes met hers and, as he did nothing to avert his gaze, she did not take it upon herself to turn away. It was not that her liberality of spirit was such as to allow men to gaze on her with brazen looks; but the motives of this austere old ascetic could hardly, she felt, be those of ordinary men.
After a few moments the lady pulled down the blind. Her carriage started to move and, having gone through the Shiga Pass, rolled slowly down the road that led to the Capital. Night fell and the carriage made its way toward the city along the Road of the Silver Temple. Until the carriage had become a pinprick that disappeared between the distant trees, the Great Priest stood rooted to the spot.
In the twinkling of an eye the present world had wreaked its revenge on the priest with terrible force. What he had imagined to be completely safe had collapsed in ruins.
He returned to the temple, faced the Main Image of Buddha, and invoked the Sacred Name. But impure thoughts now cast their opaque shadows about him. A woman’s beauty, he told himself, was but a fleeting apparition, a temporary phenomenon composed of flesh—of flesh that was soon to be destroyed. Yet, try as he might to ward it off, the ineffable beauty which had overpowered him at that instant by the lake now pressed on his heart with the force of something that has come from an infinite distance. The Great Priest was not young enough, either spiritually or physically, to believe that this new feeling was simply a trick that his flesh had played on him. A man’s flesh, he knew full well, could not alter so rapidly. Rather, he seemed to have been immersed in some swift, subtle poison which had abruptly transmuted his spirit.
The Great Priest had never broken his vow of chastity. The inner fight that he had waged in his youth against the demands of the flesh had made him think of women as mere carnal beings. The only real flesh was the flesh that existed in his imagination. Since, therefore, he regarded the flesh as an ideal abstraction, rather than as a physical fact, he had relied on his spiritual strength to subjugate it. In this effort the priest had achieved success—success, indeed, that no one who knew him could possibly doubt.
Yet the face of the woman who had raised the carriage blind and gazed across the lake was too harmonious, too refulgent, to be designated as a mere object of flesh, and the priest did not know what name to give it. He could only think that, in order to bring about that wondrous moment, something which had for a long time lurked deceptively within him had finally revealed itself. That thing was nothing other than the present world, which until then had been at repose, but which had now suddenly lifted itself out of the darkness and begun to stir.
It was as if he had been standing by the highway that led to the Capital, with his hands firmly covering both ears, and had watched two great oxcarts rumble past each other. All of a sudden he had removed his hands and the noise from outside had surged all about him.
To perceive the ebb and flow of passing phenomena, to have their noise roaring in one’s ears, was to enter into the circle of the present world. For a man like the Great Priest, who had severed his relations with all outside things, it was to place himself once again into a state of relationship.
Even as he read the Sutras he would time after time hear himself heaving great sighs of anguish. Perhaps nature, he thought, might serve to distract his spirits, and he gazed out of the window of his cell at the mountains that towered in the distance under the evening sky. Yet his thoughts, instead of concentrating on the beauty, broke up like tufts of cloud and drifted away. He fixed his gaze on the moon, but his thoughts continued to wander as before; and when once again he went and stood before the Main Image in a desperate effort to regain his purity of mind, the countenance of the Buddha was transformed and looked like the face of the lady in the carriage. His universe had been imprisoned within the confines of a small circle: at one point was the Great Priest and opposite was the Great Imperial Concubine.
The Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku had soon forgotten about the old priest whom she had noticed gazing so intently at her by the lake at Shiga. After some time, however, a rumor came to her ears and she was reminded of the incident. One of the villagers happened to have caught sight of the Great Priest as he had stood watching the lady’s carriage disappear into the distance. He had mentioned the matter to a Court gentleman who had come to Shiga for flower-viewing and had added that since that day the priest had behaved like one crazed.
The Imperial Concubine pretended to disbelieve the rumor. The virtue of this particular priest, however, was noted throughout the Capital, and the incident was bound to feed the lady’s vanity.
For she was utterly weary of the love that she received from the men of this world. The Imperial Concubine was fully aware of her own beauty, and she tended to be attracted by any force, such as religion, that treated her beauty and her high rank as things of no value. Being exceedingly bored with the present world, she believed in the Pure Land. It was inevitable that Jodo Buddhism, which rejected all the beauty and brilliance of the visual world as being mere filth and defilement, should have a particular appeal for someone like the Imperial Concubine who was thoroughly disillusioned with the superficial elegance of Court life—an elegance that seemed unmistakably to bespeak the Latter Days of the Law and their degeneracy.
Among those whose special interest was love, the Great Imperial Concubine was held in honor as the very personification of Courtly refinement. The fact that she was known never to have given her love to any man added to this reputation. Though she performed her duties toward the Emperor with the most perfect decorum, no one for a moment believed that she loved him from her heart. The Great Imperial Concubine dreamt of a passion that lay on the boundary of the impossible.
The Great Priest of Shiga Temple was famous for his virtue, and everyone in the Capital knew how this aged prelate had totally abandoned the present world. All the more startling, then, was the rumor that he had been dazzled by the charms of the Imperial Concubine and that for her sake he had sacrificed the future world. To give up the joys of the Pure Land which were so close at hand—there could be no greater sacrifice than this, no greater gift.
The Great Imperial Concubine was utterly indifferent to the charms of the young rakes who flocked about the Court and of the handsome noblemen who came her way. The physical attributes of men no longer meant anything to her. Her only concern was to find a man who could give her the strongest and deepest possible love. A woman with such aspirations is a truly terrifying creature. If she is a mere courtesan, she will no doubt be satisfied with worldly wealth. The Great Imperial Concubine, however, already enjoyed all those things that the wealth of the world can provide. The man whom she awaited must offer her the wealth of the future world. The rumors of the Great Priest’s infatuation spread throughout the Court. In the end the story was even told half jokingly to the Emperor himself. The Great Concubine took no pleasure in this bantering gossip and preserved a cool, indifferent mien. As she was well aware, there were two reasons why the people of the Court could joke freely about a matter which would normally have been forbidden: first, by referring to the Great Priest’s love they were paying a compliment to the beauty of the woman who could inspire even an ecclesiastic of such great virtue to forsake his meditations; secondly, everyone fully realized that the old man’s love for the noblewoman could never possibly be requited.
The Great Imperial Concubine called to mind the face of the old priest whom she had seen through her carriage window. It did not bear the remotest resemblance to the face of any of the men who had loved her until then. Strange it was that love should spring up in the heart of a man who did not have the slightest qualification for being loved. The lady recalled such phrases as “my love forlorn and without hope” that were widely used by poetasters in the Palace when they wished to awaken some sympathy in the hearts of their indifferent paramours. Compared to the hopeless situation in which the Great Priest now found himself, the state of the least fortunate of these elegant lovers was almost enviable, and their poetic tags struck her now as mere trappings of worldly alliance, inspired by vanity and utterly devoid of pathos.
At this point it will be clear to the reader that the Great Imperial Concubine was not, as was so widely believed, the personification of Courtly elegance, but, rather, a person who found the real relish of life in the knowledge of being loved. Despite her high rank, she was first of all a woman; and all the power and authority in the world seemed to her empty things if they were bereft of this knowledge. The men about her might devote themselves to struggles for political power; but she dreamt of subduing the world by different means, by purely feminine means. Many of the women whom she had known had taken the tonsure and retired from the world. Such women struck her as laughable. For, whatever a woman may say about abandoning the world, it is almost impossible for her to give up the things that she possesses. Only men are really capable of giving up what they possess.
That old priest by the lake had at a certain stage in his life given up the Floating World and all its pleasures. In the eyes of the Imperial Concubine he was far more of a man than all the nobles whom she knew at Court. And, just as he had once abandoned this present Floating World, so now on her behalf he was about to give up the future world as well.
The Imperial Concubine recalled the notion of the sacred lotus flower, which her own deep faith had vividly imprinted upon her mind. She thought of the huge lotus with its width of two hundred and fifty yojana. That preposterous plant was far more fitted to her tastes than those puny lotus flowers which floated on the ponds in the Capital. At night when she listened to the wind soughing through the trees in her garden, the sound seemed to her extremely insipid when compared to the delicate music in the Pure Land when the wind blew through the sacred treasure trees. When she thought of the strange instruments that hung in the sky and that played by themselves without ever being touched, the sound of the harp that echoed through the Palace halls seemed to her a paltry imitation.
The Great Priest of Shiga Temple was fighting. In the fight that he had waged against the flesh in his youth he had always been buoyed up by the hope of inheriting the future world. But this desperate fight of his old age was linked with a sense of irreparable loss.
The impossibility of consummating his love for the Great Imperial Concubine was as clear to him as the sun in the sky. At the same time he was fully aware of the impossibility of advancing toward the Pure Land so long as he remained in the thralls of this love. The Great Priest, who had lived in an incomparably free state of mind, had in a twinkling been enclosed in darkness and the future was totally obscure. It may have been that the courage which had seen him through his youthful struggles had grown out of self-confidence and pride in the fact that he was voluntarily depriving himself of pleasure that could have been his for the asking.
The Great Priest was again possessed by fear. Until that noble carriage had approached the side of Lake Shiga, he had believed that what lay in wait for him, close at hand, was nothing less than the final release of Nirvana. But now he had awaked into the darkness of the present world, where it is impossible to see what lurks a single step ahead.
The various forms of religious meditation were all in vain. He tried the Contemplation of the Chrysanthemum, the Contemplation of the Total Aspect, and the Contemplation of the Parts; but each time that he started to concentrate, the beautiful visage of the Concubine appeared before his eyes. Water Contemplation, too, was useless, for invariably her lovely face would float up shimmering from beneath the ripples of the lake.
This, no doubt, was a natural consequence of his infatuation. Concentration, the priest soon realized, did more harm than good, and next he tried to dull his spirit by dispersal. It astonished him that spiritual concentration should have the paradoxical effect of leading him still deeper into his delusions; but he soon realized that to try the contrary method by dispersing his thoughts meant that he was, in effect, admitting these very delusions. As his spirit began to yield under the weight, the priest decided that, rather than pursue a futile struggle, it were better to escape from the effort of escaping by deliberately concentrating his thoughts on the figure of the Great Imperial Concubine.
The Great Priest found a new pleasure in adorning his vision of the lady in various ways, just as though he were adorning a Buddhist statue with diadems and baldachins. In so doing, he turned the object of his love into an increasingly resplendent, distant, impossible being; and this afforded him particular joy. But why? Surely it would be more natural for him to envisage the Great Imperial Concubine as an ordinary female, close at hand and possessing normal human frailties. Thus he could better turn her to advantage, at least in his imagination.
As he pondered this question, the truth dawned on him. What he was depicting in the Great Imperial Concubine was not a creature of flesh, nor was it a mere vision; rather, it was a symbol of reality, a symbol of the essence of things. It was strange, indeed, to pursue that essence in the figure of a woman. Yet the reason was not far to seek. Even when falling in love, the Great Priest of Shiga had not discarded the habit, to which he had trained himself during his long years of contemplation, of striving to approach the essence of things by means of constant abstraction. The Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku had now become uniform with his vision of the immense lotus of two hundred and fifty yojana. As she reclined on the water supported by all the lotus flowers, she had become vaster than Mount Sumeru, vaster than an entire realm.
The more the Great Priest turned his love into something impossible, the more deeply was he betraying the Buddha. For the impossibility of this love had become bound up with the impossibility of attaining enlightenment. The more he thought of his love as hopeless, the firmer grew the fantasy that supported it and the deeper-rooted became his impure thoughts. So long as he regarded his love as being even remotely feasible, it was paradoxically possible for him to resign himself; but now that the Great Concubine had grown into a fabulous and utterly unattainable creature the priest’s love became motionless like a great stagnant lake which firmly, obdurately, covers the earth’s surface.
He hoped that somehow he might see the lady’s face once more, yet he feared that when he met her, that figure, which had now become like a giant lotus, would crumble away without a trace. If that were to happen, he would without doubt be saved. Yes, this time he was bound to attain enlightenment. And the very prospect filled the Great Priest with fear and awe.
The priest’s lonely love had begun to devise strange, self-deceiving guiles, and when at length he reached the decision to go and see the lady, he was under the delusion that he had almost recovered from the illness that was searing his body. The bemused priest even mistook the joy that accompanied his decision for relief at having finally escaped from the trammels of his love.
None of the great Concubine’s people found anything especially strange in the sight of an old priest standing silently in the corner of the garden, leaning on a stick and gazing somberly at the residence. Ascetics and beggars frequently stood outside the great houses of the Capital and waited for alms. One of the ladies in attendance mentioned the matter to her mistress. The Great Imperial Concubine casually glanced through the blind that separated her from the garden. There in the shadow of the fresh green foliage stood a withered old priest with faded black robes and bowed head. For some time the lady looked at him. When she realized that this was without any question the priest whom she had seen by the lake at Shiga, her pale face turned paler still.
After a few moments of indecision, she gave orders that the priest’s presence in her garden should be ignored. Her attendants bowed and withdrew.
Now for the first time the lady fell prey to uneasiness. In her lifetime she had seen many people who had abandoned the world, but never before had she laid eyes on someone who had abandoned the future world. The sight was ominous and inexpressibly fearful. All the pleasure that her imagination had conjured up from the idea of the priest’s love disappeared in a flash. Much as he might have surrendered the future world on her behalf, that world, she now realized, would never pass into her own hands.
The Great Imperial Concubine looked down at her elegant clothes and at her beautiful hands, and then she looked across the garden at the uncomely features of the old priest and at his shabby robes. There was a horrible fascination in the fact that a connection should exist between them.
How different it all was from the splendid vision! The Great Priest seemed now like a person who had hobbled out of Hell itself. Nothing remained of that man of virtuous presence who had trailed the brightness of the Pure Land behind him. The brilliance which had resided within him and which had called to mind the glory of the Pure Land had vanished utterly. Though this was certainly the man who had stood by the Shiga Lake, it was at the same time a totally different person.
Like most people of the Court, the Great Imperial Concubine tended to be on her guard against her own emotions, especially when she was confronted with something that could be expected to affect her deeply. Now on seeing this evidence of the Great Priest’s love, she felt disheartened at the thought that the consummate passion of which she had dreamt during all these years should assume so colorless a form.
When the priest had finally limped into the Capital leaning on his stick, he had almost forgotten his exhaustion. Secretly he made his way into the grounds of the Great Imperial Concubine’s residence at Kyogoku and looked across the garden. Behind those blinds, he thought, was sitting none other than the lady whom he loved.
Now that his adoration had assumed an immaculate form, the future world once again began to exert its charm on the Great Priest. Never before had he envisaged the Pure Land in so immaculate, so poignant, an aspect. His yearning for it became almost sensual. Nothing remained for him but the formality of meeting the Great Concubine, of declaring his love, and of thus ridding himself once and for all of the impure thoughts that tied him to this world and that still prevented him from attaining the Pure Land. That was all that remained to be done.
It was painful for him to stand there supporting his old body on his stick. The bright rays of the May sun poured through the leaves and beat down on his shaven head. Time after time he felt himself losing consciousness and without his stick he would certainly have collapsed. If only the lady would realize the situation and invite him into her presence, so that the formality might be done with! The Great Priest waited. He waited and supported his ever-growing weariness on his stick. At length the sun was covered with the evening clouds. Dusk gathered. Yet still no word came from the Great Imperial Concubine.
She, of course, had no way of knowing that the priest was looking through her, beyond her, into the Pure Land. Time after time she glanced out through the blinds. He was standing there immobile. The evening light thrust its way into the garden. Still he continued standing there.
The Great Imperial Concubine became frightened. She felt that what she saw in the garden was an incarnation of that “deep-rooted delusion” of which she had read in the Sutras. She was overcome by the fear of tumbling into Hell. Now that she had led astray a priest of such high virtue, it was not the Pure Land to which she could look forward, but Hell itself, whose terrors she and those about her knew in such detail. The supreme love of which she had dreamt had already been shattered. To be loved as she was—that in itself represented damnation. Whereas the Great Priest looked beyond her into the Pure Land, she now looked beyond the priest into the horrid realms of Hell.
Yet this haughty noblewoman of Kyogoku was too proud to succumb to her fears without a fight, and she now summoned forth all the resources of her inbred ruthlessness. The Great Priest, she told herself, was bound to collapse sooner or later. She looked through the blind, thinking that by now he must be lying on the ground. To her annoyance, the silent figure stood there motionless.
Night fell and in the moonlight the figure of the priest looked like a pile of chalk-white bones.
The lady could not sleep for fear. She no longer looked through the blind and she turned her back to the garden. Yet all the time she seemed to feel the piercing gaze of the Great Priest on her back.
This, she knew, was no commonplace love. From fear of being loved, from fear of falling into Hell, the Great Imperial Concubine prayed more earnestly than ever for the Pure Land. It was for her own private Pure Land that she prayed—a Pure Land which she tried to preserve invulnerable within her heart. This was a different Pure Land from the priest’s and it had no connection with his love. She felt sure that if she were ever to mention it to him it would instantly disintegrate.
The priest’s love, she told herself, had nothing to do with her. It was a one-sided affair, in which her own feelings had no part, and there was no reason that it should disqualify her from being received into her Pure Land. Even if the Great Priest were to collapse and die, she would remain unscathed. Yet, as the night advanced and the air became colder, this confidence began to desert her.
The priest remained standing in the garden. When the moon was hidden by the clouds, he looked like a strange, gnarled old tree.
That form out there has nothing to do with me, thought the lady, almost beside herself with anguish, and the words seemed to boom within her heart. Why in Heaven’s name should this have happened?
At that moment, strangely, the Great Imperial Concubine completely forgot about her own beauty. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that she had made herself forget it.
Finally, faint traces of white began to break through the dark sky and the priest’s figure emerged in the dawn twilight. He was still standing. The Great Imperial Concubine had been defeated. She summoned a maid and told her to invite the priest to come in from the garden and to kneel outside her blind.
The Great Priest was at the very boundary of oblivion when the flesh is on the verge of crumbling away. He no longer knew whether it was for the Great Imperial Concubine that he was waiting or for the future world. Though he saw the figure of the maid approaching from the residence into the dusky garden, it did not occur to him that what he had been awaiting was finally at hand.
The maid delivered her mistress’s message. When she had finished, the priest uttered a dreadful, almost inhuman cry. The maid tried to lead him by the hand, but he pulled away and walked by himself toward the house with fantastically swift, firm steps.
It was dark on the other side of the blind and from outside it was impossible to see the lady’s form. The priest knelt down and, covering his face with his hands, he wept. For a long time he stayed there without a word and his body shook convulsively.
Then in the dawn darkness a white hand gently emerged from behind the lowered blind. The priest of the Shiga Temple took it in his own hands and pressed it to his forehead and cheek.
The Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku felt a strange cold hand touching her hand. At the same time she was aware of a warm moisture. Her hand was being bedewed by someone else’s tears. Yet when the pallid shafts of morning light began to reach her through the blind, the lady’s fervent faith imbued her with a wonderful inspiration: she became convinced that the unknown hand which touched hers belonged to none other than the Buddha.
Then the great vision sprang up anew in the lady’s heart: the emerald earth of the Pure Land, the millions of seven-jeweled towers, the angels playing music, the golden ponds strewn with silver sand, the resplendent lotus, and the sweet voices of the Kalavinkas—all this was born afresh. If this was the Pure Land that she was to inherit—and so she now believed—why should she not accept the Great Priest’s love?
She waited for the man with the hands of Buddha to ask her to raise the blind that separated her from him. Presently he would ask her; and then she would remove the barrier and her incomparably beautiful body would appear before him as it had on that day by the edge of the lake at Shiga; and she would invite him to come in.
The Great Imperial Concubine waited.
But the priest of Shiga Temple did not utter a word. He asked her for nothing. After a while his old hands relaxed their grip and the lady’s snow-white hand was left alone in the dawn light. The priest departed. The heart of the Great Imperial Concubine turned cold.
A few days later a rumor reached the Court that the Great Priest’s spirit had achieved its final liberation in his cell at Shiga. At this news the lady of Kyogoku set to copying the Sutras in roll after roll of beautiful writing.
*This story is taken from: Death in Midsummer and other stories by Yukio Mishima, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1966.
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.
Date: Mon, August 19 20:41:42-0700 (PDT)
To: Customer service
Re: Your microwave
To whom it may concern,
I’m writing to you regarding a matter that may seem trivial, even irrelevant at first glance, and far be it from me to draw attention to myself because of a plain frozen donut with dairy-free coconut-vanilla filling, namely that UniversalFood donut, which I thawed in just fifty seconds to my complete satisfaction in your microwave (model: MagicWant Single) on June 6th at approximately 6:34 p.m., as is my custom. By which I mean to say, firstly: I’m aware that you are faced with tasks that not only appear more urgent to the outside observer, but which, all factors taken into consideration, actually are so. Please allow me to dispel any misunderstanding in advance: I am not writing to notify you of any malfunction of said microwave or any of its numerous accessories or functions in my housing unit, all of which perform their tasks irreproachably, or at least I suppose they do (?). Were there to be a technical defect, the matter would be clear and could be easily identified (and you would have long since learned of the defect, I believe; I’ve been told that the devices notify you of malfunctions themselves, and that you can even sometimes remedy the problem remotely without deploying your specialist locally?). Thus I feel myself compelled to explicate, expressing myself as succinctly as possible, that I am aware (or at least I assume, without wishing to question the degree of automation attained by your devices) that the time that you can devote to individual users is limited (and who, after all, am I talking to; you yourselves say the same right at the beginning of your mission statement, you transform your many years of experience into data, with which you guarantee your customers countless amenities including time-saving conveniences, which individually may be minor but which taken together are considerable—and in this context do you not also use the word “revolution” and, presumably wishing to emphasize the peaceful character of the matter (?), also the compound “HomeRevolution”) (If you were to ask me directly about my associations—though I suppose as far as that goes, you already have sufficient insights into the habits and preferences of your users, or at least I infer so much from one of your company’s recent advertisements—first and foremost, I would think of your biometric locking system, the intelligent refrigerator Freeze! with its exclusive ordering application for UniversalFood products, the robotic vacuum cleaner DustDeath including its companion, the window vacuum cleaner AlwaysOnTheBrightSide, and particularly the intelligent recliner Belacqua, I could go on, your toaster e-Sunbeam, which can either burn the the opening price of your favorite stock or your personal systolic and diastolic blood pressure figures onto your toast (or one on top of the other), which is doubtless just a lark that borders on the childish, and yet one that counts among my morning’s simple pleasures).
And so please allow me to turn to the incident at hand; or, better put, to depict the circumstances incident is too heavy a term in this context, one which might arouse false expectations, as would episode, or even occurrence. Perhaps it’s possible to speak of a series or sequence of events (in which multiple factors play a role and whose precise function and mechanics remain obscure to me, although I myself as an individual and actor inevitably embody one of these factors), without being able to differentiate with sufficient clarity between causes and effects, in reference to the evening in question, June 6, when as usual I returned to my living unit between six and six-thirty after work. I moved into the living unit exactly one year ago, on August 1st with great expectations and up to this point to my complete satisfaction—you can probably gather as much from the profile you’ve compiled on me (and if it isn’t too much trouble, I would like to have a glance at it some time; I say this free of any ulterior motives and purely out of curiosity as to the format of said profile (whether it takes the form of a protocol, a file, or a dossier; organized chronologically, typologically, or synoptically as a user history or biography; in fact, I recently read an article in which the author even claimed that the great mountains of data turn users into downright novelesque characters à la Oliver Twist, except that for the readers or evaluators of this data it is no longer so easy to distinguish between fictional and real protagonists?), and I would in no way deny that perhaps vanity plays a role in this request for my profile, but perhaps revelatory insights are also contained for me therein (I mention this, and it just occurs to me at this moment, only because I happen to be writing to you now)). As you are probably aware, I enter my apartment with a certain impatience (slightly elevated pulse, shallow breathing, etc.) at least two days per week (and it really is an enormous relief that I no longer have to fish a set of keys out of my pocket—I was one of those people who always had to search through all of his countless possible pockets for his keys each time; not infrequently would I be seized by sudden panic at the thought of their loss, and the panic led to increased sweat production, although in my fifty-three years I’ve never yet lost the key, and at the last moment to my great relief, but without betraying this relief, I’ve always found it). When I enter my unit these days, still in a state of inner disquiet, matters are different than in the days of metal keys. Now there is nothing behind my impatience besides the desire, as simple as it is instinctive, to bolt myself behind the door of my unit as quickly as possible (which of course happens automatically; only during the unlocking process does my haste sometimes lead to the termination of the verification process, so that I must step back again and take another step forward; I count to five while stepping back, since stepping forward too quickly leads to even greater delays), turning my back on the world in order to shut it out, allowing me to finally retreat at the end of a long day into what is by now a keenly desired peace. Even in this emotional state, my new unit has always inspired a profound sense of happiness in me, perhaps owing to the gesture of laying my hand on the biometric doorknob while entering the unit, my head tilted slightly back in order to stare into the eye of the small camera (which is mounted a hair too high for my taste, but wasn’t it precisely the case in the futuristic films I watched passionately in my youth that the protagonists had to look up with a slight left or right twist of the head?—but sometimes the image of an old woman also presses itself upon me, her hands folded and head raised like a film actress, gazing up at the figure of a saint in a Catholic church, as I observed her as a child together with my parents on a family vacation; all of which I internalized from that church visit initiated by my mother which was not the depiction of heaven but rather the image of this diminutive woman, although it’s certain that we saw ceiling frescos of great significance (Michelangelo, etc.). But ultimately it’s the sum and constellation of the numerous small gestures and sensory impressions that trigger a simple release of dopamine, giving me the ridiculous but happy notion of having just entered a spaceship that will glide into the silent expanses of the universe, gently lifting me out of all of the day’s petty concerns?) (If my information is correct, your business has an investment interest in a business that is attempting with visionary zeal to offer private moon and Mars voyages soon?) (Documentary films, but also novels—I’m unsure if you’re already informed of my preferences; if so, I needn’t tell you myself—covering all aspects of journeying to Mars and other planets are still among my great passions). To make a long story short, I enter my unit happily and with high expectations. I also clearly sense its potential and satisfaction, which consists in focusing on what’s important (as your products’ tagline goes), and which life offered up to me (and mustn’t other people be faring just the same?) with my new living unit. When I enter my unit these days still in a state of inner disquiet, it’s not because of your automatic devices; on the contrary, I carry the affliction and agitation of the outside world into my unit. In brief: I’m referring to my cravings (which are limited to sweets, or perhaps appetites would be more accurate; to call them binges as they’re known in the DSM and ICD 10 (F50.81), would be markedly too extreme (it is above all imperative to make clear here that it is not a clinical case under discussion)), which might be subconsciously connected to the aforementioned desire for isolation, though I profess no expert knowledge on either sensation, appetite on the one hand, seclusion on the other (regarding the two, as of yet I know of no pertinent study dedicated to these phenomena, and the few details that occur to me and which might contribute to a deeper understanding date to my boyhood— even then I was among the first children to exit the school building at the end of the day to hurry down the most direct path toward home; actually I stormed down the street, withdrawing to my own four walls once again after my inescapable incorporation into a social structure, rather than lingering on the steps with my classmates awhile longer, for example, purchasing stickers or sticky candies out of big convenience store buckets, or even bumming around the city).
The fact is that on those two (on average), sometimes three, and only very seldom (yes, those are consistently the weeks during which social situations strain me in some indistinct way, more than usual and beyond my means, wreaking havoc on my mood) four days per week, I dash directly to the cooking unit immediately upon entering my living unit, although it is at odds with my habits and even more so my sensitivity to hygiene to step into my apartment and especially the cooking niche wearing street shoes and still in my jacket. Without delay I open the freezer (often the motion is reminiscent of tearing, but that is only due to the door’s rubber lips, which release from the aluminum refrigerator casing only with reluctance, requiring a corresponding application of force), removing a freezer bag from the freezer containing two donuts, one of which I immediately place in your microwave for thawing. During the fifty seconds in which your microwave thaws my donut (and warms it slightly, just a touch, but it’s perfect), I pour myself a glass of almond milk (fortified with calcium and vitamins E and D, 7 oz), and then remove the donut from the microwave. I always consume the donut and milk standing in the cooking niche (I first take a bite from the donut, then drink a sip of milk to wash down the remaining bits of donut). I mention this in order to emphasize the high priority as well as the threshold position occupied by this first donut following my entry into the unit, from my inner, psychological, and ultimately and in all honesty psychosomatic agitation, to the relaxation that spreads from bite to bite throughout my body (perhaps comparable to the watery fog emitted by your competition’s intelligent shower head (model e3250 X), slowly encompassing my body, first gradually forming droplets and then tiny rivulets of water, now automatically suffused with a carefully measured spritz of soap, rolling down my upper body (tickling lightly around the hips) and then my legs, slithering down to my ankles and feet like little foam morays). After that, I breathe deeply, running both hands through my hair. I stretch. Then I ease into my sensitive slippers, which perfectly regulate their interior temperature using feedback on my pulse and blood pressure. Only then do I place the second donut in the microwave. This one I’ll enjoy in my armchair in the ComfortZone, with the full-wall screen in front of me. All in all, I approach the climate-controlled ComfortZone with a modest, highly fragile and also temporary feeling of happiness, the aftertaste of the first donut and milk still fresh on my palate (an aftertaste that incites my anticipation for the second donut). Sometimes I carry it wrapped in a napkin, sometimes on a saucer. My favorite music automatically starts playing in the background as soon as the apartment door closes automatically behind me after I enter the unit. Simultaneously, the indirect LED illumination and the accent light in the living area turn on, the rolling shutters are half closed, as I prefer it, perhaps the robot window vacuum cleaner is darting over the glass. Often I imagine that it discovers a shadow on the pane that only becomes visible in steeply slanting rays of sunlight, like a backwards glance that happens to fall from an unexpected angle on the chrome-plated kitchen shelving, which was just meticulously wiped down moments before, and suddenly another, previously unseen streak leaps into view (although of course I’m aware that the AlwaysOnTheBrightSide doesn’t see shadows and streaks as I do; that it doesn’t see anything at all, but rather follows an inscrutably pre-calculated course that is never precisely the same, a true mystery in my estimation). Everything is maximally peaceful, maximally quiet. As mentioned, I’m aware that the equilibrium I experience at this moment in my unit may be fragile; after all, as we read and hear almost daily, we live in uncertain times. When I’m standing in the ComfortZone (just as I’m lowering myself into the intelligent recliner Belacqua—my buttocks haven’t yet touched the surface of the seat, the music fades from the speakers, the light dims to low, and on the wall across from the recliner, which acts as a screen, a video image appears—I’ll return to this—a recording taken from space by a probe, maybe even a spaceship, which is transmitted in realtime, that is, at the speed of light), it makes me dizzy to think that it would take very little, if just one link in this finely tuned chain deviated from its track, it could throw a whole system into chaos or foil a whole mission. (Did you take note of the report of late about the growing masses of trash in space? The article was prompted by a crew who had to evacuate their spaceship due to flying scraps of debris. I don’t know if you’ve staked a clear position on the subject of space debris? Or if you’ve perhaps even considered taking measures yourself, or influencing a third party to take such measures?)
But I want to finally turn to the stated series of events or processes (insofar as they are that and ultimately not nothing?). After moving into the unit and bringing aforementioned microwave into operation, I gradually became aware of—communicative and, I believe, causal—coherences, or at least the impression has accreted that there exists a discrete relationship, which ultimately must be sustained via my person or my behavior, between aforementioned microwave, aforementioned UniversalFood donut, and aforementioned images of outer space. Initially I didn’t think twice about the text-based messages I received on various devices informing me of beneficial or less beneficial nutritional strategies and containing charts linked to further pieces of encouragement or offers. I often also received coupons for those very donuts with my preferred hazelnut vanilla-cream filling, which promised, for example, to include the little balls of dough extracted from the donut centers for free with your next purchase of an XL freezer bag. I would even be hard put to say exactly when the Space Channel began to show commercials, which became the norm, instead of images of space. If I remember correctly, initially it was the Apple-A-Day campaign: a formation of green apples flew through a lush garden then swept into a blue sky and escaped visual range, only to pivot directly into a planetary orbit. The images, so it seemed, were taken from perspective of the camera on my Space Channel, and the transition to the Space Channel stream was artful, hardly perceptible to the untrained eye, particularly since the associated encouragement to join the Apple-A-Day movement, as well as the elucidation of the associated discounts, reached me not via the screen but rather were text based, without interrupting the flow of images. A few days later came images of donuts arranged as entire galaxies floating through the universe; this impression was actually first provoked when upon closer inspection a single planet revealed itself to be a DonutClassic shrouded in white icing in an accompanying formation of pastries, which, when the camera panned out, once again transformed into a small but nonetheless independent solar system. At any rate, the fact that the messages and images stood in relation to your microwave crystalized one evening when I was greeted on the Space Channel by a doctor identical to my general practitioner (or was it actually him?). He emphasized the imperative to take a certain number of steps, which everyone used to automatically absolve by running numerous errands each day to the supermarket or to the post office. Today, however, this quota had to be filled actively (10,000 steps daily; 400 stair steps completed within the framework of a 15-minute jogging routine) (I received multiple messages about your associated device, which saves one the trouble of leaving the apartment for physical strengthening.) (Though at this point perhaps I can inquire regarding an application; so far I could only find applications which lead to weight loss, but none which targeted long-term weight gain?). As my physician’s address reached its end, the camera zoomed away from his face and the HomeTrainer came into view, on which he had been seated the whole time. At a farther remove, it became clear that the HomeTrainer was in a spaceship; the doctor smiled one last time (more than once I thought I detected the gleam of recognition in his eye), hoisting one thumb in approval before the camera swung sidewards to a round cabin window and out into space, merging with the Space Channel images so familiar to me. Now and again a physician’s assistant or a consultant from my insurance company took his place, or the manager of UniversalFood’s supermarket chain competitor, sometimes in a space capsule, sometimes from the billowing dust and reddish iridescence of the surface of the planet Mars.
Did these images rob me of my long-awaited peace or cast me into despondency?
No, not at all.
On those days when I did not activate the microwave, the messages and images were usually absent, as suited my mood, since on those evenings, free from inner tension, I was sufficient unto myself. Sometimes on those days I even consumed an apple, the idea of which occasionally provided me with nearly the same amount of pleasure because I was alone with this choice, although the members of the Apple-A-Day movement or my physician would have eagerly advocated it (it may be an egotistical pleasure, which contradicts your entrepreneurial communal spirit, but I am merely describing what I felt). The very next day I noticed that even as the donut was circling in the microwave, the second resting frozen on the shelf, I was already thinking of who would greet me on the Space Channel today, from what location, and with what message. I was utterly certain, or rather I believed I knew that the messages and images necessarily reached me as soon as I placed a donut in the microwave, because both were embedded in this aforementioned relational structure, and I’ll say it plainly: this knowledge, not of controlling the images and messages with my behavior, no, but perhaps steering them in a certain direction or simply influencing them, giving them a nudge so to speak, gave me a modest sense of satisfaction. In retrospect, it even seems to me that these images and messages from space, whose origin of course lies with the respective interests of their broadcasters, nonetheless reflected an interest which fortuitously converged with my own and intersected with it, where an invigorating but also soothing effect took root. Where could my needs be granted ample space if not in outer space, and wasn’t it so unfathomably large that those images and messages that slid across the screen of my MindScape each evening must serve as anchor and solace, assuring me that I was not completely alone out there with my needs?
On the 6th of June—if I’m not mistaken in my reconstruction of the events, this day marked the turning point or sea change in the processes depicted above—I returned to my unit from work as usual. And also as usual, I consumed my first donut standing in the kitchen. During the second, I was beset by a slight tension, which had already begun to dissipate in the ComfortZone. As I sat down, the screen sprang to life, but it only played the Space Channel’s soundless images. Suddenly it seemed that I could reach out and grasp the deep black of space in my hands; the vast expanse was illuminated only by tiny, scattered light sources, which emitted their waves by consuming themselves and doing nothing but glowing toward their own demise—a demise that was already irrevocably underway. That evening, I didn’t give a second thought to the lacking images or messages from an advertiser or agent. My consternation grew when this process repeated itself the next day, and in the days and weeks that followed, it became the norm. I have no recollection of having done anything different or differently on Tuesday the sixth. The messages and images did not reappear, no matter whether I returned to my unit in a state of agitation or calm, whether I used the microwave or not, whether I placed a donut or nutritious vegetables on the rotary platter. Neither my doctor nor his assistant nor anyone else has greeted me on the Space Channel since then. The question that has troubled me since is simply whether this discrete communication between aforementioned microwave, aforementioned donut, and aforementioned messages ever existed? And should it actually have existed, I wonder why it has since been cut off, or whether it simply was transposed in fashion that is not yet recognizable to me? Far be it from me to express suspicion that your microwave may not be capable of identifying the products with which it is supplied. But does that mean, conversely, that your microwave suddenly no longer sees the necessity of communicating this information to third parties? Or is the information possibly now addressed to other third parties? Of course I’m convinced that things will all come together for the good, and perhaps the matter will clarify on its own—don’t they say that time heals all wounds? Now and again I still sense this befuddlement, and yes, despondency, without being able to precisely detect its locus within my body—and yet I associate these moods with the processes on the aforementioned Tuesday. In brief: the images of outer space which once freed me from by daily sorrows and elevated me into that still, sublime expanse now suddenly threw me into a keen agitation, as if the same images now wanted to drag me into a void as immense as it was dark, and alone at that, left completely to my own devices. Isn’t it appalling to think that outer space, with its indefatigable compulsion to diverge from itself and to diverge from itself ever further, annexes nothing but new spaces of utter emptiness?
No, I don’t know if I can make myself understood, nor whether my discomfiture actually stands in relation to your microwave, insofar as the latter ever stood in the discrete relationship to the objects and events in my unit as I suspected? In so saying, I won’t deny that a telephone call would have been a better way to articulate my malaise. In fact, I invested a non-insubstantial amount of time and effort (eleven calls over the course of three days, conscientiously calling at different hours of the day to avoid possible high-volume periods and to catch possible slumps; surely you’re in possession of reliable figures on them, but unfortunately I was unable to locate the relevant data) reaching your customer service agents (is it true that after 10 p.m., you’ll be transferred to a call center in India or Bangladesh, if you are put through, which would be absurd, however, if the statements that I’ve read or heard are true, to the effect that most of the calls are now administered by voice software machines?). I was calling for the eleventh time (at that point I no longer really believed that anyone would answer—I was lost in thought, though in retrospect it’s impossible to say concretely which thoughts it was that occupied me; I don’t know if this potentially may have been of interest to your research in service of improved service?) when a bright female voice jolted me into a momentary state of confusion. Even after the third Hello? followed by the inquiry of the service agent (who perhaps is only employed by you via a sub-agency) as to whether anyone was on the other end of the line, it suddenly seemed impossible to me, or rather I no longer had the will to depict my concern orally. I mean no reproach to your operators, who carry out their work under high pressure (I believe I’ve read that operators in call centers are generally compensated based on performance, that is: based on the number of conversations concluded?), but it may have had something to do with a certain impatience, which in my estimation grew noticeably from one Hello? to the next, the no doubt hardly perceptible tone of a burgeoning agitation, to which I am perhaps disproportionately sensitive, and with each Hello?, an increasing and ultimately insurmountable distance separated me from my intention to articulate my concern by phone rather than by mail. It seemed futile to want to explain to a potentially impatient person things that can only be directly detailed with difficulty, as seen above, and which therefore are reliant on the patience and a certain goodwill on the part of my counterpart, particularly since I don’t like to burden other people. I swiftly and wordlessly hung up the phone.
To conclude, I’d only like to emphasize that my letter does not fit within the rubric of typical customer complaints. (Of late I reread another article that described the tone in which customers express their complaints; their lack of tact, their blunt rage and venom. I’m likely no different than they: extremely alarmed, disappointed as well as aggrieved, though despite everything I see no reason to resort to cultural pessimism. I pay all the more respect and congratulations to you, your team, or staff engaged by you via a sub-agency, in the case that you have actually extensively automated the hotline service.) But of course in this context I would be in no way surprised, or rather I more or less assume (and I say this without any approbation or disappointment) that this letter will first be machine-read and evaluated (tagged with keywords? provided with a synopsis or an urgency assessment?—unfortunately, my knowledge of such matters is limited) (the databanks and storage that you draw on probably aren’t even entirely in your possession, but rather are outsourced to other countries, preferably cold regions (permafrost)?), which means that some time may pass before one of your employees finds the time to take up the matter. But maybe none of your company’s employees will ever actually read this letter (or maybe only by chance, as part of random sampling that may be regularly conducted, I believe I’ve heard similar in another context regarding a comparable service provider, although that case regarded the deletion of offensive images, a task which apparently cannot yet be completed by software?). Be that as it may, I am no judge of whether a computer-generated response would be better or worse than one drafted by your service experts (isn’t it conceivable that your machines had come across a very similar letter, perhaps even to the point of tone and syntax, from a former user, of which your customer service agent couldn’t possibly be aware, and to which due consideration had already been paid?). Moreover, it would be presumptuous to view my matter as a unique case deserving of special attention, and even if that were so, it would be presumptuous to demand increased attention on your part for this unique case, precisely because it has no general relevance, I’m well aware of that. And so the only question remaining is whether in writing to you I am addressing the correct party? If need be, I request that you ignore my letter, or inform me that you are not responsible for this matter and therefore have left my letter unanswered. UniversalFood, whose product portfolio includes aforementioned plain donut with dairy-free hazelnut vanilla-cream filling, addressed their responsibility in the matter with an unambiguous disavowal (which was only to be expected, it was just that the easily accessible customer hotline on the freezer bag, which immediately connected me with a friendly employee on the first try, induced me against my better judgement, and don’t they say that it’s sometimes best to approach one’s goal via a process of elimination); the same goes for the general contractor from whom I purchased my unit on credit, and yet so far no one has been able to assist me regarding the correct contact person.
*This story is taken from: “Vor Anbruch der Morgenröte” by Philipp Schönthaler © 2017 Verlag Matthes & Seitz, Berlin/Germany.
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.
I owe my acquaintance with the works of the Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue to a young colleague with whom I once spent a long and arduous evening. At the time I had been living apart from my wife and son for some months, and taken a room in a hotel high up in the hills of the Taunus. The blame for the separation lay solely with my wife, who had been grumbling about me without let-up for as long as I could remember. Also, my mistress had larger breasts. I should add, though, that she lived a few hundred kilometres away, in Bremen. This gave me ample time and reason to reflect on all manner of things – women, for example.
On the morning of the day in question, the young colleague who was to introduce me to Inoue appeared in my office in the editorial department, and we talked about a piece she had written for the newspaper. She had toiled particularly hard over the first sentence; it sounded brilliant, but proved on closer inspection to be hollow. In other respects, too, the manuscript was unsuccessful, for reasons not confined, but particularly common to the newly graduated. The author didn’t really know what she wanted to say, but she had a very precise idea of how she wanted to appear in the text, and this had influenced the wording, syntax, and substance of her manuscript throughout. Perhaps she was only trying to avoid exposing herself, but the result was the same, and my job was to deal with effects, not causes.
When I had shown my young colleague that her text would lose nothing if that laboriously contrived opening sentence were simply cut, and pointed out a few further shortcomings to her, finally advising her to regard the whole thing as a failed experiment and start afresh, she burst into tears. Something similar had happened to me once before, some years back. A colleague of mine had found it hard to accept that, despite being younger, I was suddenly the one giving instructions, and – out of resentment, I suppose – had met all my requests with stalling tactics. Her sobs had rendered me speechless. It had only been the formatting of certain memos that was at issue, but the sight of the narrow, quaking shoulders of this woman, who had turned her back on me as if to hide her tears, made me feel hard-hearted and callous, and I made a timid attempt to comfort her. Later I would realise that it had all been a ploy on her part to get her own way.
This time, then, I remained unfazed by my young colleague’s tears. I assumed she was crying in an attempt to get me to print the manuscript, and indeed, as soon as I agreed to send her text to the typesetter, her tears dried up and a relieved, if rather coy smile appeared on her face. I was, of course, annoyed at the insidious attack on my peace of mind, but I consoled myself with the thought that suitable punishment would not be long in coming now that the banal text was to be published in a major newspaper.
Thus satisfaction was restored on both sides, and some innocuous small talk was made, in the course of which I came up with the idea that we might continue it that evening. The thought of returning to my room on the other side of the hill did not appeal; equally unalluring was the prospect of yet another evening sitting in my office until all hours, allowing myself to be oppressed by maudlin thoughts of my near and yet hopelessly distant home, where I knew my distraught wife and bereft child to be.
So I asked my young colleague out to dinner. It had been some time since I last spent an evening with a woman of twenty-five. I reckoned I still had a pretty good idea of what I’d felt and thought at that age and how I’d perceived myself, but not quite good enough to be able to imagine exactly what I would find in my thirteen-years-younger self if I were to meet him now that I was pushing forty. Though that was certainly impossible, perhaps I would at least manage to get an insight into the young woman and, by this somewhat circuitous route, catch a glimpse of my own past into the bargain.
This aim was not achieved and, as the evening dragged on, I more than once reproached myself for getting involved when I had known all along how it would turn out. For one thing, it was as clear as day to me that even at twenty-five I would not have been so obdurate as to insist on getting a manuscript I was unsure of published against the advice of a more experienced colleague – if not out of discernment, then at least out of caution. And I knew, of course, that a person who is self-righteous and domineering in the morning is hardly likely to prove modest and considerate in the evening.
On the other hand, she was a woman. Although I had happened to solve the mystery of women the previous weekend, I thought that if my plan to explore the past came to nothing, it couldn’t hurt to gather further evidence to support my new insights.
Incidentally, dear reader, this text is to be an essay and its subject a topic that has occupied me for some time and you for about five minutes: the author’s representation of himself in his text. If you think I was pursuing a further, hidden agenda in asking the young lady out to dinner, I should like to make it quite clear that you are mistaken! First of all, I had a full-time mistress (she of the huge breasts) and secondly, when I wasn’t with her in Bremen, I slept with my wife pretty much every day. I didn’t agree with the set-up myself, but it’s the way things were and, God knows, it was enough for me. Just to be on the safe side I got room service to make up both sides of my bed – I had taken a double room. But no, what am I saying? I certainly didn’t get room service to make up both sides of the bed; I only wondered whether I should – just to be on the safe side – and then dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Yes, that’s the way it was.
It cannot be said, then, that I had high expectations of the evening. We had arranged to meet in a small sushi bar with four tables, a kind of annexe to a rather more spacious Japanese restaurant where chefs theatrically prepared meals at the customers’ tables. This whole Japanese establishment in turn made up the smaller part of a complex whose larger part was given over to a Chinese restaurant – despite the history of otherwise rather chilly relations between the Japanese and the Chinese. Immediately next to the restaurants was a two-storey hotel lobby, and arching over the whole thing – restaurants and hotel – was a glass shopping mall, all in the centre of Frankfurt. This complicated arrangement always made the small sushi bar seem almost out of the way. When we arrived, it was beginning to snow, and the slush from people’s boots clouded the reflection of the electric lights on the tiled floor of the shopping arcade.
It was a protracted evening. More than once I privately wondered why the hell I didn’t put an end to it, and the various reasons I came up with were by no means flattering to either me or my colleague. But I was no more capable of recognising a failure when I saw one than the young woman that morning. Instead, once dinner was over, we continued our insipid conversation with diminishing strength over white wine and salted almonds in a corner of the hotel lobby, while a bored singer in pink polyester trousers stood on a podium disgorging golden oldies to a keyboard accompaniment. The evening petered out like those rivers that dry up in the middle of the desert without ever reaching the sea.
Out on the streets, meanwhile, there was thick snow. As I saw it, this snow was going to make it impossible, or if not utterly impossible, then at the very least exceedingly difficult for me to cross Feldberg Hill to my hotel on summer tyres. I had, in fact, already set off in that direction, but after giving the matter some thought I turned the car and, accompanied by mysterious twinges of conscience, drove east along deserted, muffled streets to my former home where I parked in my former garage. From there I went into my former flat, opened the door to my former bedroom and got into my former bed with my former wife. Looking back on the tentative end of that exhausting evening today, I admit that somehow, in spite of everything, I had arrived at my destination (unlike those rivers that dry up in the middle of the desert without ever reaching the sea) although I knew as little (or as much) about that destination as a river knows about the sea. The only thing that seemed clear to me was that if at half past one in the morning I were to slip unannounced under my ex-wife’s duvet with cold feet, she wouldn’t grumble.
That aside, the evening marked not only the beginning of my acquaintance with the works of the writer Inoue, but also the late onset of a long hard winter in Germany. When I crossed the sea to Föhr with my son the following Saturday, we could count ourselves lucky that the ferry was still running. The grey sea was dotted with ice floes, snowflakes were dashing against the saloon windows, and when the ship came up against a sheet of ice, it was as if a giant fist punched it in the bows. My landlord hadn’t promised too much when he’d told me in the summer that February was the best time on the island.
By day, my son and I wrapped up warm and went on long walks. In the evenings I sat by the fire, quarrelling with my ex-wife or distant mistress on the phone, or listening to the moon, while the boy lay in the next room, grinding his teeth. On one of our treks along the beach through heaps of waist-high ice floes (waist-high for me, head-high for him), we came upon a cove where we found a heavily decayed duck carcass, sparkling with frost. One of the bird’s legs was still entangled in the remains of a green net, and in the delicate wickerwork of its ribcage its black shrivelled heart lay like a solitary pebble.
My boy couldn’t take his eyes off the dead creature and when he did manage to tear himself away at last, he only took a few steps before turning back. We stood together by the corpse for a long time, around us the shattered floes, stained brown by the mud – above us a swath of open sky. My son asked me about life and death, as if I was as well up on such matters as on everything else. He had two small tears on his cheeks, but I was pierced to my soul at the sight of my troubled child, brooding at the bird’s icy grave.
When we weren’t out walking, I read to the boy from the books about whales he had chosen in the bookshop in Wyk. I had also packed a whole pile of literature for myself, including a slim volume by Inoue, The Hunting Gun. This book, an unexpected gift from my young colleague, had turned up in my office the day after that long evening. She had written a dedication on the first page, describing the evening as ‘thrilling’, rather to my surprise. I decided to take that as confirming my opinion, not challenging it.
At the time I had just finished reading Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi. This book too contained a dedication – in the hand of my ex-wife, who had given it to me for Christmas eleven years before. You could say that traversing the novel for the second time after so long, afforded me the desired glimpse into my past. For although many details of the plot had stayed with me from my first reading, I now read the book with different eyes. Over the course of the years, I had evidently acquired knowledge not unlike the author’s. This allowed me to discover all kinds of things in the novel that had previously been hidden or obscure to me; at the same time, though, I could still recall my earlier way of reading. But one thing hadn’t changed: just like a decade and more ago, I felt moved by Yoshikawa’s closing sentences, where he compares people’s desires and opinions to the sound of the waves: ‘…but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?’
I had decided to tackle Shogun by James Clavell while I was on Föhr because it is set in the same Japanese period as Musashi, and it was, like the work of Yoshikawa (and with a similar degree of success), written for a wide readership, albeit one with western taste. One inspiration for this comparison came from the remarks of a connoisseur of Japan on the – very different – love stories in the two novels. At the same time though, I was thirsty for more Japanese literature, so it was fortunate that I had also packed the slim volume by Inoue. It is a novella, not even a hundred pages long, and consists essentially of three letters, all addressed to the same man – one from his wife, one from his mistress, and one from his daughter by his mistress. After The Hunting Gun, I read all the books by Inoue I could lay my hands on; unfortunately, only a handful have been translated into German.
I am tempted to say that Inoue’s writings provided me with answers to many of the questions preoccupying me at the time. But I think what actually happened was that his texts helped me to deal with those questions by exercising a quiet influence on my way of looking at things, including the topic that is, as you, my courted reader, are well aware, the subject of this essay: the author’s representation of himself in his text. You will object that what I have written so far cannot be regarded as an essay. And I don’t deny it. Because to be honest I am quite incapable of writing essays. Only once, under duress, did I write such a thing; it was published in 1989 in the intaglio supplement of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and earned me, though I say it myself, a certain degree of recognition – perhaps you read it. At the time no one disputed its status as an essay. As its author, though, I know better. I only pretended to be an essayist by making my text as much like an essay as I could. But it wasn’t one.
Of course, it took me more than those twelve days on the snowbound Friesian island with my son to read all Inoue’s books. Spring came and by then I had stopped thinking of that long evening with my young colleague. I had lost sight of her; our paths hadn’t crossed again since that winter’s day. I would probably have forgotten that it was to her I owed my acquaintance with the writer who meant more to me than any writer had for years. But one day, when I picked up The Hunting Gun again, my eye fell on the dedication.
My memory of that evening in the sushi bar was exactly as I have described it, but now the whole thing struck me as peculiar. How could someone who not only didn’t think like me, but didn’t even seem to understand the way I thought, have led me to a writer who so comprehensively satisfied my desires? I recalled for example some ridiculous advice my colleague had tried to give me about my father. On other matters, too, I had found her way of thinking thoroughly arrogant. Now that I knew Inoue, it was a conundrum to me what the woman could have got out of such an author. Why had she even recommended the book to me? We must have talked about Japan over dinner – it was almost inevitable – and I suppose it was in that context that she mentioned The Hunting Gun. Then I remembered – she had cited the book as evidence.
We had been talking about the mystery of women. That I had lifted the lid on this mystery was something I was careful to keep to myself. My unspoken thesis was this: Women are different. I admit that, set down like that, it doesn’t sound overly original. To outsiders it may even look as if I were only reiterating the mystery, rather than offering a solution. But to me there was something revolutionary about my discovery. After thinking it through to the end, I found myself in that state of mind where you do not feed your insights to others, but seek to nourish them instead. I found such nourishment everywhere – for instance in a three-thousand-year-old Chinese poem which contains the lines: ‘A wise man builds up a wall / But a wise woman overthrows it.’
It would have been absurd to present the wisdom expressed in these lines from the Shijing to a woman – especially to my young colleague, who was convinced that the only difference between the sexes was that women were ‘sensitive’ and men weren’t. This theory of hers had been one of the main subjects of our turgid conversation. A few times, my colleague had directed my gaze at the next table where a group of Japanese people were eating. One of them, a small man in his mid-sixties, seemed to be a figure of some importance, for all the younger people were plying him with attention, while he seemed interested only in the food, which was being served one dish at a time. He largely ignored the conversations going on around him, only snatching the odd phrase here and there. Then – and only then – he would turn his head slightly in the direction the phrase had come from. But his attention was never held for long, and his gaze would soon return to his plate.
I don’t recall the exact situation – whether my companion and I could suddenly understand Japanese, or (even more unlikely) whether the Japanese at the next table were speaking German, or lastly (and this seems to me the most plausible) whether the situation was of a hypercultural nature so that it was impossible not to understand what was going on. But during dinner, the little man was bombarded with advice from his wife. ‘Don’t eat more than half of that!’ she would say, or: ‘That’s sour – don’t you think you’d better give it a miss?’ ‘You’re right, I’ll only eat half; I’d better not touch it,’ he would murmur obediently in a low voice, as if calling himself back to reason, but intermittently he would announce in a kind of monologue: ‘Delicious! I will eat it after all!’ I believe he ended up cleaning every single plate.
My companion interpreted the behaviour of Mr Tanizaki – for such, I was later to discover, was his name – as outrageous callousness, a typical male lack of ‘sensitivity’ so different from the loving efforts of Mrs Tanizaki, whose life was devoted to her husband’s health. Need I explain that I saw the situation in an entirely different light? No, because all that concerns me here is my young colleague’s mention of Inoue’s novella in the course of our discussion. As she saw it, the book dealt with our precise topic and demonstrated irrefutably – and very impressively – how women are broken by male aloofness.
In fact, if anything, what the novella describes is the whimsical desire of three particular women to be more or less broken by the aloofness of one particular male. About the man himself we learn next to nothing, and what little we do learn is almost exclusively from the point of view of the women. Since the three women also give their opinions on one another in their letters, and all of these are drastically wide of the mark, I felt it unlikely that they should have happened to plumb the man’s soul with any accuracy. When I remembered that the book was supposed to serve as proof of a hypothesis, this seemed to me reason enough to refuse to accept it as such – quite apart from my young colleague’s total disregard of the fact that the author of the book (and thus also of the women’s letters) was a man. In the end, then, I owed my acquaintance with the novella and its author to an amusing misunderstanding. And yet on one point I agreed wholeheartedly with my young colleague: The novella was the work of an extremely sensitive and, I might add, extremely benevolent master.
In the months that followed, I made several attempts to track down Inoue’s elusive personality. In the end, as you will have noticed, even this mystery was solved. As the ice floes melted, my life, like the ice, began to restructure itself in a curious fashion. In some inexplicable way, my wife’s grumbling fell away from her and transferred itself to my distant mistress. And at some point in the course of the following summer – I had been back home for a while by then – my son even stopped grinding his teeth in his sleep. Was it all only a dream? Ah, dear reader, I’m sure you can’t tell me.
*Copyright © Volker Zastrow, 1998.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute
*Image: Yohey Horishita
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