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Daniil Kharms | from:Russian

How the Old Woman Tried to Buy Ink

Translated by : Anne Marie Jackson

Introduction by Pedro – the Story Nibbling Rabbit

You must be asking yourself, who is Daniil Kharms? Well, Daniil Kharms was a well-known Russian author who wrote many stories and songs for children. This was so long ago, that Kharms wrote his stories and songs by hand, on any piece of paper he could find: dry cleaner receipts, catalogues of galvanized screws, music sheets, pages out of health magazines, etc. In a nutshell, Kharms liked writing stories so much that he used every piece of paper he happened to come across. But what about ink? Ink doesn’t just lie around there up for grabs, like paper. A person who wants ink must set out to find it, and it is this necessity, most likely, that made Daniil Kharms leave his house every now and then. And a person who steps outside his house is in for an adventure.     

Now you too can embark on an adventure with Daniil Kharms, an adventure called “How the Old Woman Tried to Buy Ink.”

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At 17 Crooked Street there lived an old woman. She had once lived there with her husband and son, but the son grew up and left home, and the husband died, leaving the old woman all alone.

She led a quiet, peaceful life, drinking tea and writing letters to her son, and nothing more.

People said of the old woman that she had fallen down from the moon.

In summer, the old woman would go outside, look around and say: ‘Goodness me, where’s the snow gone?’

And the neighbours would begin to laugh and shout: ‘So you think there’s snow on the ground in summer? Have you fallen down from the moon or something?’

Or the old woman would go to the kerosene shop and ask: ‘How much are your French buns?’

The sales clerks would laugh. ‘What do you mean, Citizen? Where are we going to get French buns? Have you perhaps fallen down from the moon?’

That’s what the old woman was like!

One day the weather was fine and sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and on Crooked Street the dust was up. Out came the sweepers to water the street from brass-tipped hoses. They sprayed the water straight at the dust, straight through it, and the dust fell to the ground along with the water. Now the horses were trotting through puddles, and the wind was blowing free of dust.

Out the gate of number 17 came the old woman. She was holding an umbrella with a large shiny handle, and wearing a hat with black sequins and on her head.

‘Excuse me,’ she shouted to one of the street sweepers. ‘Where can I buy ink?’

‘What?’ shouted the street sweeper.

The old woman came closer.

‘Ink!’ she shouted.

‘Stand to the side!’ shouted the street sweeper, releasing a stream of water.

The old woman went to the left, and the stream of water went to the left.

The old woman hurried to the right, and the stream of water did the same.

‘What are you doing?’ shouted the street sweeper. ‘Have you fallen down from the moon? Can’t you see I’m watering the street?’

The old woman merely waved her umbrella and moved on.

The old woman came to the market where she saw a lad selling a big, juicy perch as long as an arm and as thick as a leg. He tossed the fish into the air and grabbed it by the nose with one hand. He rocked it back and forth and let it go but didn’t let it drop, adroitly catching it by the tail with the other hand. Then he held it out to the old woman.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘You can have it for a rouble.’

‘No,’ said the old woman, ‘it’s ink that I…’

But the lad didn’t let her finish.

‘Take it,’ he said, ‘I’m not asking much.’

‘No,’ said the old woman, ‘it’s ink that I…’

But again he said: ‘Take it. It’s a five-and-a-half pound fish.’ And as though his arm were weary he took the fish into the other arm.

‘No,’ said the old woman, ‘it’s ink I need.’

At last the lad heard what the old woman was saying.

‘Ink?’ he repeated.

‘Yes, ink.’

‘Ink?’

‘Ink.’

‘Not fish?’

No.’

‘You mean ink?’

‘Yes.’

‘What! Have you fallen down from the moon or something?’ said the lad.

‘That means you don’t have ink,’ said the old woman, and moved on.

‘Have some fresh meat,’ a hefty butcher shouted at the old woman as he shredded livers with a knife.

‘Have you got ink?’ asked the old woman.

‘Ink?’ roared the butcher, pulling a pig’s carcass by the leg. The old woman hurried away from the butcher because he was exceedingly fat and fierce, and a lady vendor at another stall was already shouting at her: ‘This way if you please! This way!’

The old woman went up to the vendor’s stall and put on her spectacles, expecting finally to see ink. But the vendor smiled and held out a jar of plums.

‘Here,’ she said. ‘You won’t find the likes of these anywhere.’

The old woman took the jar of plums, turned it this way and that, then gave it back. 

‘It’s ink I need, not fruit,’ she said.

‘What kind of ink? Red or black?’ asked the vendor.

‘Black,’ said the old woman.

‘There isn’t any black,’ replied the vendor.

‘Well, I’ll take red then,’ said the old woman.

‘There isn’t any red, either,’ replied the vendor, pursing her lips.

‘Goodbye,’ said the old woman and moved on.

The market was already drawing to a close, and there was no ink to be seen.

The old woman left the market and started down the street.

Suddenly she saw fifteen donkeys, one following slowly after the other. Sitting on the first donkey was a man holding an enormous banner. People were sitting on the other donkeys, too, also holding signs.

‘Whatever is this?’ the old woman wondered. ‘Nowadays people must be riding donkeys like they’re trams.’

‘Hey,’ she shouted at the man on the lead donkey. ‘Wait a bit. Can you tell me where I can buy ink?’

But the man on the donkey evidently didn’t hear what the old woman said, and he lifted up a tube that was narrow at one end and wide at the other. He put the narrow end to his mouth, and began shouting right into the old woman’s face, so loud you could hear him seven versts away:

Come one, come all, see Durov on tour!

At the state circus! At the state circus!

See the sea lions – the audience favourite!

It’s the last week!

Tickets at the door!

Out of fright the old woman even dropped her umbrella. She picked the umbrella up, but the fright made her hands tremble so that the umbrella fell again. The old woman picked the umbrella up, firmly took hold of it, and hurried, hurried down the road, down the pavement, turning off one road onto another and coming out onto a third, broad and very noisy, road.

All around people were rushing somewhere, and on the road itself automobiles were bowling along and trams were rumbling.

As soon as the old woman made to cross the road, an automobile roared: ‘Tarar-ararar-arar-rrrr!’

The old woman let it go by, but then as soon as she stepped out onto the road, a cabby shouted at her: ‘Hey, watch where you’re going!’

The old woman let him go by, then quickly began running towards the other side. She made it as far as the middle of the road, but then: ‘Djen-djen! Din-din-din!’ – a tram was bearing down on her.

The old woman was going to take a step back, but from behind came the ‘pyr-pyr-pyr-pyr!’ of a motorcycle.

The old woman was truly frightened out of her wits, but luckily a good man appeared and grabbed her by the arm, saying: ‘What are you doing? It’s like you’ve fallen down from the moon! They could run you down.’

And he dragged the old woman to the other side of the road.

The old woman caught her breath and was just about to ask the good man about ink, but when she turned round he was nowhere to be seen.

The old woman moved on, supporting herself with her umbrella and looking this way and that, wondering where she might find out about ink.

Coming towards her was an old chap with a walking stick. He was very elderly and very grey.

She went up to him and said: ‘I reckon you’re a man who knows his way around. Can you tell me where they sell ink?’

The old man stopped, raised his head, rearranged the creases on his face and began to think. After standing like that a little while, he reached into his pocket and took out a small tobacco pouch, a rolling paper and a cigarette holder. Then, after he had slowly rolled a cigarette and put it into the holder, he put away the pouch and paper and took out some matches. Then he began to smoke the cigarette, and once he’d put away the matches, he mumbled toothlessly:

‘Insh shessin shuh shtor.’

The old woman couldn’t understand a word, and the old man moved on.

The old woman started thinking.

Why couldn’t anyone say something useful about ink?

Had they never heard of ink before?

And the old woman decided to go ask about ink in a shop. There they would be sure to know.

It just so happened there was a shop right next to her. With big windows the size of a wall. And the windows full of books.

‘This is the place,’ thought the old woman. ‘I’ll go in here. They’re sure to have ink if they’ve got books lying around. After all, it takes ink to write books.’

She went up to a door. The doors were of glass and strange somehow.

The old woman pushed at the door, and something pushed at her from behind.

She looked back and saw another glass door coming towards her. The old woman was going forwards, and so was the glass door behind her. There was glass all around her and all of it was going round. The old woman’s head also started going round, she was going somewhere but she didn’t know where. And all around there were doors and more doors, and they were all going round and pushing the old woman forwards. The old woman kept going round and round something, and only just managed to break free. It was a good thing she was still alive.

The old woman looked and saw a great big clock standing there and a staircase leading up.

Next to the clock stood a man. The old woman went up to him and said: ‘Where can I find out about ink?’

But he didn’t even look at her, just pointed to a little latticed door. The old woman opened the door, went in and saw it was a little room, absolutely tiny, no more than a cupboard. And in the room stood a man. But just as the old woman was about to ask about ink…

Suddenly: ‘Dzin! Ddzhhiin!’ and the floor began to go up.

The old woman stood still, not daring to move, and it felt like a stone had begun to form in her breast. She stood there and couldn’t breathe. People’s arms and legs and heads flashed past the little door, and all around it was droning like a sewing machine. Then the droning stopped and it got easier to breathe. Someone opened the little door and said: ‘This is it, the sixth floor. You can’t go any higher.’

As if in a dream, the old woman stepped up where she was told. And the little door banged shut behind her and the little cupboard started to go back down.

The old woman stood there holding her umbrella, but couldn’t catch her breath.

She was standing on the stairs. All around people were walking and banging doors, but the old woman stood there holding her umbrella.

The old woman stood there for a while, watching what was going on around her, then went through a door.

The old woman found herself in a large, light-filled room. She saw small tables in the room, and people sitting at the tables. Some of them had their noses buried in paper, writing something, while others tapped away at typewriters. It sounded like a smithy – only a pretend smithy.

On the right, next to the wall, was a sofa, and sitting on the sofa were a fat man and a thin man.

The fat man was saying something to the thin man and rubbing his hands together, and the thin man was all hunched up, looking at the fat man through light-coloured spectacles as he laced up his boots.

‘Yes,’ said the fat man, ‘I wrote a story about a boy who swallowed a frog. A very interesting story.’

‘Well I can’t think of anything to write about,’ said the thin man, running a lace through an eyelet.

‘Well, my story is very interesting,’ said the fat man. ‘The boy comes home and his father asks him where he’s been, and the frog in his stomach answers: “Ribbit!” Or at school, the teacher asks the boy how to say “good morning” in German and the frog answers: “Ribbit!” The teacher tells him off, and the frog goes: “Ribbit! Ribbit!” It’s that kind of a funny story!’ said the fat man and rubbed his hands together.

‘Have you written something too?’ he asked the old woman.

‘No,’ said the old woman. ‘My ink is all gone. I had a bottle, my son left it behind, but now it’s finished.’

‘What, is your son a writer too?’ asked the fat man.

‘No,’ said the old woman. ‘He’s a forester. Only he doesn’t live here. I used to get ink from my husband, but now he’s dead and I’m all alone. Is it possible for me to buy ink here?’ the old woman suddenly said.

The thin man laced his boot and looked through his spectacles at the old woman.

‘What do you mean by “ink”?’ he asked in surprise.

‘Ink that you write with,’ explained the old woman.

‘But there’s no ink for sale here,’ said the fat man and stopped rubbing his hands. 

‘How did you get here?’ asked the fat man, rising from the sofa.

‘I came in the cupboard.’

‘What cupboard?’ asked the fat man and the thin man at the same time.

‘The one by the staircase that goes up and down,’ said the old woman.

‘Ah, the lift!’ laughed the thin man, sitting back down on the sofa because now his other boot had come unlaced.

‘But what did you come here for?’ the fat man asked the old woman.

‘I can’t find any ink anywhere,’ said the old woman. ‘I asked everyone, and no one knew. Then I saw the books here so I came inside. After all, it takes ink to write books!’

‘Ha ha ha!’ laughed the fat man. ‘You’ve fallen from the moon straight down to earth!’

‘Hey, listen!’ The thin man leapt up from the sofa without lacing his boots, and the laces flopped around on the floor. ‘Listen!’ he said to the fat man. ‘That’s it! I’ll write about the old woman who was trying to buy ink!’

‘All right,’ said the fat man and rubbed his hands together.

The thin man removed his spectacles, blew on them, wiped them with a handkerchief, then put them back on and said to the old woman: ‘Tell us about how you tried to buy some ink, and we’ll write a little book about you and give you the ink.’

The old woman thought about it and agreed.

And so the thin man wrote a little book:

‘How the old woman tried to buy ink’


*Illustration: Talia Baer

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