Well now, esteemed readers, I am now in Ōsaka and shall therefore relate a local story.
Long ago there was a man who came to the city to seek a position as a menial. Ranking as he did among the kitchen help, he is known only by the generic name of Gonsuke.
Gonsuke passed through the entrance curtain of a servants’ registry agency and spoke to the head clerk, sitting atop the reception dais with a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth.
“Sir, I should very much like to become a wizard and so beseech you to place me with an employer suitable to that end.”
When the astonished clerk did not immediately reply, Gonsuke continued:
“Sir, have you not heard me? I wish to be sent out to become a wizard.”
“I am sorry to say, my good man,” replied the clerk at last, still puffing on his pipe, “that as we have no prior experience in mediating the apprenticeships of would-be wizards, I must humbly suggest that you look elsewhere.”
“Ah, but sir,” protested Gonsuke, looking most displeased, as he edged forward on the knees of his grey-blue trousers. “Is what you have said not contrary to what your esteemed establishment proclaims on its entrance curtain? ‘Introducing all manner of employment’…Is your claim valid? Or is it misleading and false?”
Gonsuke did indeed have reason to be angry.
“Oh no, what we say is quite true. If what you are seeking is a position whereby you may become wizard, I shall duly look into the matter this very day. Please return tomorrow to receive our reply.”
In this way the head clerk acceded to Gonsuke’s request, even as he sought to evade it. Yet how was he to know where he would send a man for such an apprenticeship or how anyone could be properly trained in such sorcery? Thus, as soon as Gonsuke was out of his sight, he set off to consult with a neighborhood physician.
“What then, Doctor?” he asked in a worried tone, having told him the story. “Where might we most easily send him for training as a wizard?”
The physician too must have been perplexed. For some time he sat with his arms crossed, merely staring at the pine tree in his garden. Listening in on it all was his cunning wife, whose byname was appropriately the Old Vixen. And now she unhesitatingly intruded:
“Send him to us. Within two or three years in our care, he’ll surely be a wizard for all the world to see.”
“Ah, I am most happy to hear this and shall most gratefully entrust him to you. Intuition has somehow informed me of the karmic bond between physicians and aspiring wizards.
With ardent and repeated bows, the clerk in his ignorant bliss took his leave. The physician watched him go, then, still scowling, turned to his wife in exasperation:
“What utter nonsense!” he chided her. “And what, pray tell, do you intend to do when in a few scant years this bumpkin complains that we have kept none of the promise you have now made to him?”
Far from accepting this rebuke, the woman scornfully replied:
“Hold your tongue! What chance would the likes of you, honest simpleton, have of keeping yourself fed in this merciless world of ours?”
And with that she silenced him.
The next day, as promised, the head clerk returned, this time with the rustic Gonsuke, who was now attired in a crested half-coat, well aware, it would seem, that he was making his debut, though, in fact, none would have mistaken him for anything but a peasant. He was a strange sight indeed: The physician stared at him quite as though the man were a musky beast from the Indies.
“So you wish to become a wizard,” said the physician with a skeptical air. “Whatever was it that induced this ambition of yours?”
“Well now, I am not sure that know myself. But as I beheld Ōsaka Castle, it occurred to me that even the Great Lord who first built and occupied it was doomed to die. And so I was reminded that the pomp and glory of all human striving must pass away.”
“So you will do anything in order to become a wizard?”
The doctor’s sly spouse had promptly intervened.
“Yes indeed, I am prepared to do whatever is required.”
“Then from this very moment and for the next twenty years you will serve us. And then we shall reveal to you the wizard’s art.”
“Ah, then I am most truly and humbly grateful.”
“And in that entire score of years you shall receive not a single farthing in recompense.”
“Yes, yes. You have my compliance.”
And so for the following twenty years, Gonsuke served in the physician’s house. He drew water; he chopped wood. He cooked and he cleaned. Moreover, when the doctor made his rounds, it was Gonsuke who bore the medicine chest. Not once did he ask for wages, not even a single coin, and thus made himself a laborer more precious than one could find in all of Japan.
And now the decades passed. Once again clad in a crested half-coat, Gonsuke presented himself to his master and mistress and courteously expressed his thanks.
“And now I would beseech you to fulfill your oft-repeated promise and reveal to me how I might learn the wizard’s art and thereby gain immortality.”
The physician listened to Gonsuke in glum silence. Having worked the man for so long without payment, he dared not confess that he was presently no more possessed of knowledge concerning wizardry than he had been all those years before.
His reply was brusque and dismissive: “It is my wife who can teach you.”
For her part, she now spoke to him with ruthless self-assurance:
“I shall teach you the art of wizardry, but in exchange you must do whatever I command, however difficult the task I shall give you may be. Otherwise, you will not only be denied what you seek. You will also be obliged to perform twenty more years of labor for no wages, with death as your punishment should you fail to comply.”
“Please put me to my duty, however daunting!” replied the overjoyed Gonsuke, as he awaited her orders.
“Then climb the pine tree in the garden!”
Having herself no knowledge of wizardry, the wife no doubt thought that in forcing Gonsuke to do the impossible she could extract another twenty years of service from him. And yet hearing of his assignment, he immediately went forth to carry it out.
“Go on!” she called out to him, looking up at the pine from where she stood at the edge of the veranda. “Higher, higher!” Gonsuke’s half-coat was now fluttering at the very top of the large garden’s towering tree.
“Now release your right hand!”
Gonsuke slowly and cautiously did as he was told, even as he kept his left hand tightly gripped to a thick bough.
“And now the other!”
But now the doctor had joined her on the veranda, exclaiming with a distraught look: “Stop, woman! If he releases both hands, the bumpkin will fall onto the rocks, and that will surely be the end of him.”
“This is not your turn on stage, my dear. Leave it to me…”
“Let your left hand go!”
Gonsuke did not wait for her to finish calling out to him. Resolutely, he pulled his hand away. From there amidst the topmost boughs there was no reason for him not to plunge to the ground. Instantly, Gonsuke and his half-coat were separated from the tree.
And yet, wondrously enough, he did not fall but, as though a marionette being held by invisible strings, remained suspended there in the bright air of day.
“Thank you! Thank you!” Gonsuke called out. “At last, and all because of you, I have now indeed become a wizard!”
Bowing ever so deferentially, he gently trod the azure sky and rose into the clouds above.
The subsequent fate of the physician and his wife is quite unknown, though the pine tree in the garden endured for years thereafter. It is said that though the trunk alone was four armspans in circumference, Yodoya Tatsugorō went to the trouble of having it moved to his own garden, so that in winter he might gaze upon its snow-covered branches.
At a late age, Thomas Francini, the engineer responsible for many of the grand fountains at Versailles and infamous for his will to control, married the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Compte de Frontenac, a pristine child whom he dressed in taffy-colored velvets and ribbons and paraded through the Villa di Pratolino near Florence. Francini bought his young wife what she pleased from torch-lit shops, and what she could not find, he invented for her, producing a variety of curious wind-ups. She possessed a clock in the shape of an oversized parakeet with pearl eyes and jade plumage, set to trill at the lunch and dinner hour. There was also a small silver man that cried like a newborn until held, at which point he would grow intensely warm to the touch. Finally, the pinnacle of her collection, a miniature Madonna that swung open to reveal a trinity—the fierce and stoic God and fiery dove of the Holy Ghost ready to be birthed alongside the infant Christ.
When asked about her husband, the child bride, called Florette, said it was as if the Lord had sent his kindest angel to care for her and keep her heart in a treasury box, safe from all those who would harm it. She could never be bruised or pierced with the great inventor at her side. But soon she learned that even Francini could not stop time and the persistence of disease. Plague blossoms spread on the skin of her throat, and he was reduced to sitting at her bedside, wiping sores with swabs until the organic machinery of Florette’s heart and lungs had stilled. He declared he would not marry again and wore a musical locket around his neck that held the child’s portrait and played strains of “Come, Heavy Sleep” at intervals timed to match those that sounded inside Florette’s own mechanical coffin. Soon after the girl’s funeral, Francini purchased a portion of land and announced he would construct his final great invention there, a monument to sorrow for everyone to see—the automatic garden at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.
The writings of Clodio Sévat, Vicar Emeritus and servant to the Dauphin, give us a brief glimpse of Francini’s garden and echo the general anxiety of seventeenth century French and Italian aristocracy concerning that place: “Though it has been nearly a month since my pilgrimage to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, I still cannot wipe the yellow-stained eyes of Thomas Francini’s metal men and beasts from my memory, nor can I forget the sight of Francini himself stalking through his field of glass flowers like some devil, dragging what appeared to be a common garden hoe behind. Does Francini believe that God’s good works should be made again, and that he, however noble an engineer, can improve upon them? And what soul motivates these new creatures? He assures us it is mere water and steam, but, dear reader, I tell you it is more than that.”
Gladly, not all travelers were as brief as the Vicar Emeritus, lest the automatic garden, which burned to the ground nearly a year after its opening, might have been lost entirely to time. “Maestro Francini’s water- and steam-powered automata,” wrote the Duchess of Langres in her private journal after a trip to the garden, “are of a new and unexpected breed. I was warned by my companion that these false creatures might disturb me with their preternatural resemblances to life, but I instead found myself intrigued. Their ability to exude what appeared as emotion was startling, yes, but not frightening. Never in my life did I think I would see a tiger ravaged by sadness crouching in the underbrush and looking at me with amber glass eyes, or Poseidon himself, crying tears into the very ocean that he rules—tears that were then swallowed by a thick and toothy monster who lives in the ocean’s depths. I was moved to call for an interview with Maestro Francini, wishing to enquire about the labyrinthine secrets of his inventions. And yet despite my status and the fact that I had attended the funeral of his bride, Florette, I was rebuked by what appeared to be a page in a red tunic who told me that the Master was frail and no longer tolerated audiences. It was only after the page’s retreat into a forest of metallic pines that my companion, characteristically droll, asked whether or not I’d caught the sun glinting oddly off the young man’s skin or whether I’d seen the glassiness in his eyes.
“I drew my wrap closer and begged my friend to assure me he was not implying that the page had been some advanced version of Francini’s moving statuary. He replied with a laugh, saying he’d only been trying to give me chills, but by the time I’d reached the garden’s third terrace, I did not need such humor to provide tremors. It was there that I saw what I can only describe as a ‘dragon’ rising from a stone basin, only to be slain by a lifelike knight in white armor who descended from the columned ceiling on a golden rope. The dragon’s blood was as red and real as my own, yet it spread across the flagstones in delicate calligraphy as if sketched by an artist’s hand. I was forced to ask my friend to find a bench on which I could gather my wits. ‘We shouldn’t have come here, Duchess,’ he said, but I replied that I was glad we’d come, despite the effect. Francini’s automatic garden showed me that a certain sickness—a questioning of one’s world—could serve as a kind of enlightenment.”
Like the automatic garden, the answer to whether the death of Francini’s wife, Florette, had truly given rise to his monument of sorrow is largely lost to history. Francini’s motivation for his final invention was a topic of debate in fashionable circles, and many argued that there was more to the inventor’s grief than the death of poor, simple Florette. Gossip about such details was often named as the cause of the inventor’s self-imposed exile to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye and his distancing himself from the aristocracy. It was not Florette who’d shamed him, after all, but the prior object of his passions who had made for a near public embarrassment and perhaps even venial sin.
Antonio Cornazzano had been a danseur and general actor of the Florentine stage who’d met the great engineer during the period when Francini was commissioned to build a revolving set for La Ballet de La Deliverance de Renaud. Francini, who could then still be called a young man, adored the danseur, and that affection was apparently reciprocated. The two were often seen huddled in dimly-lit taverns of Florence over a candle and a serving of black ale, discussing topics in such hushed voices that no one else could hear. Despite the apparent gravity of these discussions, Francini and Cornazzano sometimes burst into hearty laughter, and tavern patrons reported an unnatural magnetism between the two men. There were even rumors of sorcery, though André Félibien, court historian to Louis XIV, dismisses such conjecture as peasant talk. “Simply stated,” he writes, “Thomas Francini and Antonio Cornazzano behaved as artists will, and though such behavior seems, at times, against nature, we must learn to accept and make do if the theater is to persist.”
Francini’s revolving stage set for the ballet was said to be a marvel—a replica of the city of Florence itself. And the ninety-two dancers and singers employed to move through the mock streets, bedrooms and common houses did so in an exhaustive display of “city-life” which also encompassed a spiritual dimension, as the upper parts of the central stage contained sets for the unmovable Empyrean of the Heaven. Masked angels and demons pulled silken ropes connected to doorways that affected the lives of the human dancers. Cornazzano acted as choreographer for the production and worked closely with Francini to create what many called a “threatening sense of fantasy.”
The emotion between dark-featured Francini and agile Cornazzano developed a volatile irrepressibility. They could not contain themselves even when they worked with the dancers, and were often seen erupting into laughter and pulling each other out into the alley behind the theater to calm themselves with sobering talk. It was only when they lurched back to Francini’s rented villa one night after drinking and were set upon by a band of Florentine locals and dashed to the flagstones that the two men became more cautious.
When precisely they decided to begin living inside of Francini’s revolving set for the ballet, we do not know, but a number of sources document that Francini, who’d already made his fortune at Versailles, started stocking the taverns and shops of the set with actual goods and even hired out-of-work ballerinas to act as barmaids and shop keeps. He and Cornazzano lived privately on the stage, setting up house each night after the performance ended, enjoying that false city as they had previously enjoyed the actual streets of Florence. There were taverns in which the two could drink black ale by candlelight without the interruption of noisy patrons, and there was a library filled with fake books. Actual texts proved unnecessary because Francini could recite portions of Le Morte Darthur as well as Gargantua and Pantegruel by heart. At times, the two men climbed into the Heavenly domain, lit the wicks of the stars, and floated through the Empyrean on Francini’s cleverly concealed wooden pallets.
A ballerina managed to steal a letter that Francini had left for Cornazzano on a pillow in one of the small apartments. The letter ended with a line that became popular in Florence as fashionable blasphemy: “I do not love God, my darling, ’Tonio. For what is God when there is you?” Cornazzano’s response to those words remains in ellipsis. The content of the young man’s heart is largely unknown. It is only years later that we hear from him in his own words. By then, he had married and seen the birth of three children with his wife, Marie, and together they owned a small theater in Charleville. Cornazzano wrote his thoughts in a sturdy leather diary which he then concealed in one of the walls of his home. In recent times, the diary has surfaced, and while it provides an uncomfortable end to the story of the two men, it gives evocative details of the automatic garden itself, which Cornazzano was invited to visit by the great inventor a month before fire consumed it.
Cornazzano begins the journal with intimations of the falling out between Francini and him years before.
They’d apparently abandoned their home in the revolving set long before the Ballet de Renaud had closed. “It has been years,” he writes in his careful yet unschooled hand, “and I wonder if I am being overly cautious or cruel by suggesting that we meet at the garden itself rather than at Francini’s home. I do not want to recall our privacies or the invented world we shared. It wasn’t merely the stage—our fake city. We invented places in our minds, as well, that we could slip off to even in a crowd. I remember what Thomas said to me—that two men living together is in itself a kind of invention, a household of dream furniture and shadow servants. Is it wrong that I do not want to even come close to this dream again? How would I explain such a thing to my dear Marie or to my children, the eldest of whom is almost the age of Thomas’s own bizarre deceased bride. By coming to the automatic garden, I hope to appease him, so that his letters will stop. I admit I am nervous to see what he calls his ‘great defiance,’ his palace against the day.”
Cornazzano writes that he was greeted at the garden’s columned gate by a page draped in a cloak dyed the color of saffron and told that Master Francini was unwell and sent his apologies for not being able to join Cornazzano on the tour. This came as quite a surprise to Cornazzano who’d believed the entire reason for this trip was so that Francini could see him again and perhaps persuade him that this place was like the other fantasy in which they’d lived—a new set for a fresh and dangerous ballet.
He attempted to beg off, saying that he was a busy man with a theater to run and did not have time to walk the garden if Francini could not be bothered to escort him, but the page became insistent, grabbing Cornazzano’s arm and pulling him into the garden toward the forest of the gods. “Please, Monsieur. Master will be miserable if you don’t at least give me some word of praise for his inventions.” Finally Cornazzano conceded to take a short walk through the place, writing, “The page’s hand was cold—not like a dead man, but like one who has never lived. I feared disagreement, so I allowed myself to be led.” The walk turned into a game of mad circling through the garden’s multiple levels and in the dim light of a forest path, the page disappeared, and Cornazzano was left alone with Francini’s glowering mechanicals.
He became intrigued by a bed of glass chrysanthemums—a flower of the orient, rarely seen in France. The stem of the mechanical chrysanthemum was made of green copper with sharp-edged leaves protruding, and the petals of the flower itself were crafted from thin pieces of stained glass. Inside the stem was what appeared to be a small flame of the sort one finds in lanterns which was given oxygen at regular intervals, causing the chrysanthemum to pulse with a light that suggested the process of blooming. The brightening of the flower was subtle, nearly imperceptible, and Cornazzano writes that even after studying the chrysanthemum for a few minutes, he was hard-pressed to say whether it was growing brighter or dimmer. The light seemed to exist somewhere inside of his own body, in fact, a warmth in his core. “The mechanical chrysanthemum causes a momentary dizziness with its warmth,” he adds, “a sensation that is not altogether unpleasant.”
So entranced, Cornazzano did not recognize the approach of the figure in black, and when he caught his first glimpse of it standing at the stony edge of the garden path, he did not fully comprehend what he saw. He attests instead to being startled as one can be startled by an unexpected mirror hanging at the end of a gallery. The figure that stood in the grass and watched him was not an obvious automaton. Unlike the moving statue of Poseidon who wept into his miniature ocean, or the huntress, Diana, who drew her bowstring in the dark forest, this figure, had a versatile range of movement. It was able to crouch, then stand, and then to caper there at the edge of the path, as if begging for Cornazzano’s approach.
Our chronicler likens the figure to one of the dancing fauns in the garden’s Doric gallery, but man-sized and wearing a garment that looked like a merchant’s robe with a wide lace ruff around its neck. The collar was crenulated and gave the appearance that the automaton’s head, bearing its pale and almost luminous face, was displayed on a black plate. Its mouth was open in what could not be called a smile, and so surprising was the creature that Cornazzano did not at first recognize it as a replica of himself. “Would any man know himself clothed in such odd garments,” he writes, “and set to caper and leer like a demon?”
The automaton turned from the path, and its fluidity of movement made Cornazzano momentarily believe the thing must be an actor in heavy makeup or mask, merely pretending to be a machine. But there were subtle inhumanities to its gestures that soon convinced him otherwise. Just as one could never mistake the mechanical chrysanthemum for a real flower, neither could one think this object was a man.
The creature fled across the garden, black boots flickering over the grass, and was it any wonder that Cornazzano left the safety of the path to chase his double, hungry for a better look? The automaton darted playfully beneath an evening sky as dark as iron. It ran through a swamp of reeds that hummed sad flute-song, and then across a plain of grass which rippled, though there was no breeze in the air.
Cornazzano watched as his replica slipped into one of the many grottoes that were too smooth for nature. No longer the agile danseur he’d once been, he found himself winded at the entrance to the cave and stopped, considering whether he should continue following the creature. His blond hair lay wet against his forehead. His gut heaved. He knew he should walk away—leave Francini to his madness. But still some part of him wanted to doubt what his eyes had recorded. It was not possible that Francini had built his own Cornazzano to live in his garden of gods.
Cornazzano writes, I crept into the cave and found the creature no longer dancing but crouched near one wall, huddled in its tunic as if for warmth. Seeing the details of my own face—or rather the details of how I had once been, a young and foolish boy—gave rise to an intense and surprising anger. I wondered if Francini was making a mockery of me, or worse, if perhaps he used this metal man for some type of pleasure. And I found myself gripping the thing’s pallid face, feeling the contours of its chin and cheeks. I pulled at its nose which was made of some soft metal, pushed at its eyes until the bulbs of glass cracked beneath my thumbs. The automaton did not struggle. It allowed its destruction. Perhaps that is even why it led me to the cave. And when I reached into the creature’s mouth, trying to find some tongue to pull out, I heard behind me the scuff of a leather boot on the sandy cave floor.
I turned to see Francini himself—hair shot with silver, eyes set deep in his skull, standing and watching in the fading light. This was not my laughing friend from Florence with bright eyes and wine-stained lips. This was a poor copy—an old man—ruined and sad.
“What have you done?” he asked in a soft voice.
By then I had managed to rip the automaton’s lower jaw from its head, and I tossed it at Francini’s feet. “That question,” I said, “would be better put to you, maestro.”
“I thought you would like him, ’Tonio,” Francini whispered. He bent to pick up the jaw from the cave floor, and as I formulated some rebuke, feeling the old dangers and passions rushing back into the causeways of my heart, I realized something was wrong. Francini’s fingers were around the jaw bone, but he did not grasp it, nor did he attempt to straighten himself. He had grown intensely still in his awkward, bent position, and it was only then that I realized—this was not Francini. It was not even alive.
Such horror I felt. I could not move my arms or legs, could not look at this false Francini with limp gray hair hanging against its brow. I wondered if my old friend even still existed. I wanted to cry out for him. I wanted Francini to reveal himself in flesh and blood, but I held my tongue. How I escaped the automatic garden, I do not know. It seems to me that the gods called to me as I ran—begged me not to leave at first and then mocked me for my foolishness. And even as I sit composing these lines at my own wooden table in my home where I can hear the sound of my good wife speaking to my children in the upper rooms, I wonder if am I still in that garden, lying on the cave floor, broken into my separate parts.
Adam McOmber, “The Automatic Garden” from This New & Poisonous Air. Copyright © 2011 by Adam McOmber. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Lately, on the night before Whit Sunday, I dreamed that I was standing before a mirror, occupying myself with my new summer suit, which my parents had had made against the approaching festival. The dress consisted, as you well know, of shoes of nice leather, with great silver buckles, fine cotton stockings, breeches of black serge, and a coat of green barracan, with gold buttons. The waistcoat, of gold-stuff, had been cut out of the one worn by my father on his wedding-day. My hair was dressed and powdered, my curls stood upon my head like little wings,—but I could not finish dressing myself; for I continually changed the articles of wearing apparel, and the first always dropped off when I was about to put on the second. While I was thus embarrassed, a handsome young man came up to me, and greeted me in the kindest manner. “Welcome,” said I, “it gives me great pleasure to see you here.”—”Do you know me then?” asked he, smiling. “Why not?” I replied, smiling in my turn. “You are Mercury, and I have often enough seen pictures of you.”—”I am, indeed,” said he, “and I have been sent to you by the gods on an important mission. Do you see these three apples?” stretching out his hand, he showed me three apples, which from their size he could scarcely hold, and which were as wonderfully beautiful as they were large. One was green, another yellow, and the third red, and they looked like precious stones, to which the shape of fruit had been given. I wished to take them, but he drew me back, saying, “You must first know, that they are not for you. You are to give them to the three handsomest young persons in the town, who will, every one according to his lot, find wives to their heart’s content. There, take them and manage the matter well,” he added, as he quitted me, and placed the apples in my open hand. They seemed to me to have become even larger than they were before. I held them against the light, and found they were quite transparent, but soon they grew taller, and at last became three pretty—very pretty little ladies, of the height of a moderate-sized doll, with dresses of the colours of the apples. In this form they glided softly up my fingers, and when I was about to make a catch at them, that I might secure one at least, they soared up far away, so that I could do nothing but look after them. There I stood quite astounded and petrified, with my hands high in the air, and still staring at my fingers, as if their was something to be seen upon them. All of a sudden I perceived upon the very tips a charming little girl, very pretty and lively, though smaller than the others. As she did not fly away, like them, but remained with me, and danced about, now on this finger, now on that, I looked at her for some time, in a state of astonishment. She pleased me so much, that I fancied I might catch her, and was just on the point of making a grasp—as I thought very cleverly—when I felt a blow on the head, that caused me to fall completely stunned, and did not awaken from the stupor it occasioned till it was time to dress and go to church.
I often recalled the images to my mind during divine service, and at my grandfather’s table where I dined. In the afternoon I went to visit some friends, both because such visits were due, and because I wished to show myself in my new clothes, with my hat under my arm and my sword by my side. Finding no one at home, and hearing that they were all gone to the gardens, I resolved to follow them, intending to pass a pleasant evening. My way led me along the town wall, and I soon came to the spot which is called the “evil wall,” and rightly enough, for there is reason to believe it is always haunted. Walking slowly along, I thought of my three goddesses, and still more of the little nymph, and often held my fingers up in the air in the hope that she would be kind enough to balance herself upon them once more. As I proceeded, occupied with these thoughts, I discerned in the wall, on my left hand, a little wicket which I did not remember to have perceived before. It appeared low, but the pointed arch was such as to afford room for the tallest man to enter. The arch and the wall on either side had been most richly carved by the mason and the sculptor, but my attention was most attracted by the door itself. The old brown wood of which it was made had been but little ornamented, but broad bands of brass were attached to it, worked both in relief and in intaglio. The foliage which was represented on this brass, and on which the most natural birds were sitting, I could not sufficiently admire. I was, however, most surprised at seeing no keyhole, no latch, no knocker, and from the absence of these I surmised that the door only opened from within. I was not mistaken, for when I went close to it, to feel the carved work, it opened inwards, and a man, whose dress was somewhat long, wide, and altogether singular, appeared before me. A venerable beard flowed about his chin, and I was, therefore, inclined to take him for a Jew. As if he had divined my thoughts he made the sign of the holy cross, thereby giving me to understand that he was a good Catholic Christian. “Young gentleman, how did you come here, and what are you doing?” said he, with friendly voice and gesture. “I am admiring the work of this door,” I replied, “for I have never seen any thing like it, except, perhaps, in small pieces, in the collection of amateurs.” “I am delighted,” said he, “that you take pleasure in such work. The door is still more beautiful on the inner side, pray walk in if you choose.” This affair made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I felt embarrassed by the strange dress of the porter, by the retired situation of the place, and a certain indescribable something in the air. I paused, therefore, under the pretext of looking longer at the outside, and at the same time cast furtive glances at the garden—for a garden it was which had just been opened to me. Immediately behind the gate I saw a space completely shaded by the closely entwined branches of some old linden trees, which had been planted at regular intervals, so that the most numerous assembly might have rested there during the most intense heat of the day. I had already set my foot on the threshold, and the old man was well able to lure me on a step further. Indeed I made no resistance, for I had always heard that a prince or sultan, in such cases, must never ask whether there is any danger. Had I not my sword by my side, and could I not soon get the better of the old man if he took a hostile position? I therefore walked in with confidence, and the porter shut the gate so softly that I could hardly hear the sound. He then showed the work on the inside, which was certainly much superior to that without, and explained it, giving indications of the greatest kindness towards me. My mind being completely set at rest I allowed myself to be led further along the shady space by the wall which circled the garden, and found much to admire. Niches, artificially adorned with shells, coral, and pieces of ore, poured from Tritons’ mouths copious streams of water into marble basins. Between them were aviaries and other pieces of lattice-work, in which there were squirrels hopping about, guinea-pigs running backwards and forwards, and, in short, all the pretty little creatures that one could desire. The birds cried and sung to us as we went along; the starlings, in particular, prated after us the most absurd stuff, one always calling out “Paris, Paris,” and the other “Narcissus, Narcissus,” as plain as any schoolboy. The old man seemed to look at me more seriously whenever the birds uttered this, but I pretended not to mind it, and indeed had no time to attend to him, for I could clearly perceive that we were walking round and that this shady place was in fact a large circle, which inclosed another of far more importance. We had again come to the little door, and it seemed to me as if the old man wished to dismiss me; but my eyes remained fixed on a golden railing which seemed to inclose the middle of this wonderful garden, and which in my walk I had found an opportunity of observing sufficiently, although the old man always contrived to keep me close to the wall, and, therefore, pretty far from the centre. As he was going up to the gate I said to him, with a bow: “You have been so exceedingly civil to me that I can venture to make another request before I leave you. May I not look closer at that golden railing, which seems to encircle the inner part of the garden?” “Certainly,” said he, “but then you must submit to certain conditions.” “In what do they consist?” I asked, quickly. “You must leave your hat and sword here, and must not quit my hand as I accompany you.” “To that I consent readily enough,” said I, and I laid my hat and sword on the first stone bench that came in my way. Upon this he at once seized my left hand in his right, held it fast, and, with some degree of force, led me straight on. When we came to the railing, my surprise was increased to overwhelming astonishment; any thing like it I had never seen. On a high socle of marble countless spears and partisans stood in a row, and were joined together by their upper ends, which were singularly ornamented. Peeping through the interstices I saw behind this railing a piece of water which flowed gently along, with marble on each side of it, and in the clear depths of which a great number of gold and silver fish might be discovered, which now slowly, now swiftly, now singly, now in shoals, were swimming to and fro. I wished much to see the other side of the canal that I might learn how the interior part of the garden was fashioned; but, to my great annoyance, on the other side of the water stood a similar railing, which was so skilfully arranged that, opposite to every space on the side where I stood was placed a spear or a partisan on the other, and thus, with the additional impediment of the other ornaments, it was impossible for one to look through, whatever position one took. Besides, the old man, who kept a fast hold of me, hindered me from moving freely. My curiosity—after all that I had seen—increased more and more, and I plucked up courage to ask the old man whether it was not possible to cross over. “Why not?” said he, “only you must conform to new conditions.” When I asked him what these were, he told me that I must change my dress. I readily consented; he led me back towards the outer wall and into a neat little room, against the walls of which hung dresses of several kinds which seemed to approach the oriental style of costume. I changed my dress quickly, and he put my powdered locks into a many-coloured net, after finally dusting out the powder, to my great horror. Standing before a large mirror I thought I looked prettily enough in my disguise, and liked myself better than in my stiff Sunday clothes. I made gestures and leaps, in imitation of the dancers I had seen on the stage erected at the fair, and while I was doing this I perceived, by chance, the reflection in the glass of a niche that stood behind me. Against its white ground hung three green cords, each twined in a manner which was not very clear to me in the distance. I therefore turned round somewhat hastily and asked the old man about the niche and these cords also. Civilly enough he took one down and showed it to me. It was a cord of green silk of moderate thickness, the ends of which, fastened together by a piece of green leather, cut through in two places, gave it the appearance of being an instrument for no very agreeable purpose. The affair seemed to me somewhat equivocal, and I asked the old man for an explanation. He answered, very quietly and mildly, that the cord was intended for those who abused the confidence which was here readily placed in them. He hung the cord in its place again, and asked me to follow him at once. This time he did not take hold of me, but I walked freely by his side.
My greatest curiosity now was to know where the door could be to pass through the railing, and where the bridge could be to cross the canal, for I had been able to discern nothing of the sort hitherto. I therefore looked at the golden rails very closely, as we hastened close up to them,—when all of a sudden my sight failed me; for the spears, pikes, halberds, and partisans, began quite unexpectedly to rattle and to shake, and this curious movement ended with the points of all being inclined towards each other, just as if two ancient armies, armed with pikes, were preparing for the attack. The confusion before my eyes, the clatter in my ears, was almost insupportable; but the sight became infinitely astonishing, when the spears, laying themselves quite down, covered the whole circle of the canal, and formed the noblest bridge that one can imagine, while the most variegated garden was revealed to my view. It was divided into beds, which wound about one another, and, seen at once, formed a labyrinth of an ornament. All of these were encompassed by a green border, formed of a short woolly-looking plant, which I had never seen; all were adorned with flowers, every division being of a different colour, and as these likewise grew short, the ground plan was easily traced. This beautiful sight, which I enjoyed in the full sunshine, completely riveted my eyes; but I scarcely knew where I could set my foot, for the winding paths were neatly covered with a blue sand, which seemed to form upon earth a darker sky, or a sky in the water. Therefore, with my eyes fixed upon the ground, I went on for some time by the side of my conductor, until I at length perceived, that in the midst of the circle of beds and flowers, stood another large circle of cypresses, or trees of the poplar kind, through which it was impossible to see, as the lowest boughs seemed to be shooting up from the earth. My conductor, without forcing me straight into the nearest way, nevertheless led me immediately towards that centre; and how was I surprised, when entering the circle of the tall trees, I saw before me the portico of a magnificent summer-house, which seemed to have similar openings and entrances on every side! A heavenly music, which issued from the building, charmed me even more than this perfect specimen of architecture. Now I thought I heard a lute, now a harp, now a guitar, and now a tinkling sound, which was not like that of any of the three instruments. The door which we approached opened at a light touch from the old man, and my amazement was great, when the female porter, who came out, appeared exactly like the little maiden who had danced upon my fingers in my dream. She greeted me as if we were old acquaintances, and asked me to walk in. The old man remained behind, and I went with her along a short passage, which was arched over and beautifully ornamented, till I came to the central hall; the majestic and cathedral-seeming height of which arrested my sight and surprised me, immediately on my entrance. However, my eye could not long remain fixed upwards, as it was soon lured down by a most charming spectacle. On the carpet, immediately beneath the centre of the cupola, sat three ladies, each one forming the corner of a triangle, and each dressed in a different colour. One was in red, another in yellow, the third in green. Their seats were gilded, and the carpet was a perfect bed of flowers. In their arms lay the three instruments, the sounds of which I had distinguished from without, for they had left off playing, being disturbed by my entrance. “Welcome!” said the middle one, who sat with her face towards the door, was dressed in red, and had the harp. “Sit down by Alerte, and listen, if you are fond of music.” I now saw, for the first time, that a tolerably long bench, placed across, with a mandoline upon it, lay before me. The pretty little girl took up the mandoline, seated herself, and drew me to her side. Now I looked at the second lady, who was on my right. She wore the yellow dress, and had a guitar in her hand; and if the harp-player was imposing in her form, grand in her features, and majestic in her deportment, the guitar-player was distinguished by every grace and cheerfulness. She was a slender blonde, while the other was adorned with hair of a dark brown. The variety and accordance of their music did not prevent me from observing the third beauty in the green dress, the tones of whose lute were to me somewhat touching, and at the same time remarkably striking. She it was who seemed to take the greatest notice of me, and to direct her playing towards me. At the same time, I could not tell what to make of her, for she was now tender, now odd, now frank, now capricious, as she altered her gestures and the style of her playing. Sometimes she seemed anxious to move me, and sometimes anxious to tease me. No matter, however, what she did, she gained no advantage over me, for I was quite taken up by my little neighbour, to whom I sat close; and when I perceived plainly enough that the three ladies were the sylphides of my dream, and recognised the colours of the apples, I well understood that I had no reason to secure them. The pretty little creature I would much sooner have seized, had not the box on the ear which she gave me in my dream remained still fresh in my memory. Hitherto she had kept quiet with her mandoline; but when her mistresses had ceased, they ordered her to treat us with a few lively airs. Scarcely had she struck off some dancing melodies in a very exciting style, than she jumped up, and I did the same. She played and danced; I was forced to follow her steps, and we went through a kind of little ballet, at which the ladies seemed to be well pleased, for no sooner had we finished it, than they ordered the little girl to refresh me with something nice before supper. In truth, I had forgotten that there was any thing else in the world beyond this Paradise. Alerte led me back into the passage by which I had entered. On one side, she had two well-furnished apartments, in one of which—the one in which she lived—she served before me oranges, figs, peaches, and grapes, and I tasted the fruits both of foreign lands and of early months, with great appetite. Confectionary was in abundance, and she filled a goblet of polished crystal with sparkling wine; but I had no need of drinking, as I sufficiently refreshed myself with the fruits. “Now we will play,” said she, and took me into the other room. This had the appearance of a Christmas fair, except that such fine, precious things are never to be seen in a booth. There were all sorts of dolls, and dolls’ clothes, and utensils; little kitchens, parlours, and shops; besides single toys in abundance. She led me all round to the glass cases, in which these precious articles were preserved. The first case she soon closed again, saying: “There is nothing for you, I am sure, there,” added she, “we can find building materials, walls, and towers, houses, palaces, and churches to put together a large town. That, however, would be no amusement for me, so we will take something else, that may be equally amusing for both of us.” She then brought out some boxes, in which I saw some little soldiers placed in layers one over the other, and with respect to which I was forced to confess that I had never seen any thing so pretty in my life. She did not leave me time to look closer into particulars, but took one of the boxes under her arm, while I caught up the other. “We will go to the golden bridge,” said she, “for that’s the best place to play at soldiers. The spears point out the direction in which the armies should be placed.” We had now reached the shaking, golden bridge, and I could hear the water ripple, and the fish splash beneath me, as I knelt down to set up my rows of soldiers, which, as I now saw, were all on horseback. She gloried in being the queen of the Amazons, as the leader of her host; while I, on the other hand, found Achilles, and a very fine set of Greek cavalry. The armies stood face to face, and nothing prettier can be conceived. They were not flat leaden horsemen like ours, but man and horse were round and full-bodied, and very finely worked. It was difficult to see how they were able to balance themselves, for they kept up without having a stand.
We had both surveyed our armies with great complacency, when she announced the attack. Besides the soldiers, we had found artillery in our chests—namely, boxes filled with little balls of polished agate. With these we were to shoot at each other’s forces from a certain distance, on the express condition, however, that we were not to throw with greater force than was required to upset the figures, as they were on no account to be injured. The cannonading began from each side, and, at first, to the great delight of both of us. But when my adversary remarked that I took a better aim than she, and that I might end by winning the game, which depended on having the greatest number of men upright, she stepped closer, and her girlish manner of throwing proved successful. A number of my best troops were laid low, and the more I protested, with the greater zeal did she go on throwing. At last I became vexed, and told her that I would do the same. Accordingly, I not only came closer, but in my passion, I threw much harder, so that, in a short time, a couple of her little female centaurs were broken to pieces. Her zeal prevented her from noticing this at once, but I stood petrified with astonishment when the broken figures joined themselves together again, and the Amazon and her horse again became entire; nay, became perfectly alive at the same time, for they galloped from the bridge up to the linden-trees, and after running backwards and forwards, were lost—how I cannot tell—in the direction of the wall. My fair adversary had scarcely perceived this, than she sobbed aloud, and exclaimed that I had caused her an irreparable loss, which was far greater than words could express. I, who had grown enraged, was pleased at doing her an injury, and with blind fury, threw the few agate-balls I still had, among her forces. Unfortunately, I struck the queen, who had been excepted, as long as our game had proceeded in the regular way. She flew to pieces, and her nearest adjutants were shattered at the same time. Soon, however, they joined themselves together again, took their flight like the first, galloped merrily under the lindens, and were lost near the wall.
My adversary reproached and scolded me, but I, having once begun the work of destruction, stooped down to pick up some of the agate balls, which were rolling about the golden spears. My savage wish was to destroy her whole army; while she did not remain inactive, but darting at me gave me a box on the ear, that set my very head ringing. I, who had always heard that a hearty kiss is the proper return for a blow given by a girl, caught her by her ears and kissed her several times. At this she uttered such a piercing cry that I was absolutely terrified. I let her go, and it was fortunate that I did so, for at that moment I did not know what befel me. The ground beneath me began to shake and rattle, the rails, as I now observed, put themselves in motion, but I had no time for consideration, nor was I sufficient master of my feet to fly. Every moment I was afraid of being impaled, for the lances and partisans which began to stand upright, tore my clothes. Suffice it to say,—I do not know how it was,—that my sight and hearing failed me, and that I recovered from my terror and the stupor into which I had been thrown, at the foot of a linden tree, against which the railing, while raising itself, had thrown me. My malice returned with my senses, and increased still more, when from the other side I heard the jeers and laughter of my adversary, who had probably come to the ground somewhat more softly than myself. I therefore got up, and as saw scattered around me, my own little army with its leaden Achilles, which the rising rails had thrown off together with myself, I began by catching hold of the hero, and dashing him against a tree. His resuscitation and flight gave me double pleasure, for the prettiest sight in the world was associated with all the delight of gratified malice, and I was on the point of sending the rest of the Greeks after him, when all of a sudden water came hissing from every side, from the stones and walls, from the ground and branches; and wherever I turned it pelted me furiously. My light dress was soon completely wet through, and as it had been already torn, I lost no time in flinging it off altogether. My slippers I threw aside, and then one covering after the other, finding it very pleasant in the sultry day to take such a shower-bath. Stark naked, I walked gravely along between the welcome waters, and I thought I might thus go on pleasantly for some time. My rage had cooled, and I now desired nothing more than a reconciliation with my little adversary. All of a sudden the water stopped, and I now stood completely wet on ground that was soaked through. The presence of the old man, who unexpectedly came before me, was any thing but welcome. I should have wished, if not to hide myself, at any rate to put on some covering. Shame, cold, and an endeavour to cover myself in some measure, made me cut a very miserable figure, and the old man lost no time in loading me with the bitterest reproaches. “What hinders me,” he cried, “from taking one of the green cords, and fitting it to your back at any rate, if not to your neck!” This threat I took very ill. “Hark ye,” said I, “you had better take care of such words, or even such thoughts, or you and your mistresses will be lost!” “Who are you?” said he, in a tone of defiance, “that dare to talk in this way?” “A favourite of the gods,” I replied, “on whom it depends whether those ladies will find good husbands and live happily, or pine and grow old in their magic cloister.” The old man retreated some steps. “Who revealed that to you?” he asked with doubt and astonishment. “Three apples,” said I, “three jewels.” “And what reward do you desire?” he exclaimed. “Above all things,” I replied, “the little creature who brought me into this cursed condition.” The old man threw himself at my feet, without heeding the dampness and muddiness of the ground. He then arose, not in the least wetted, took me kindly by the hand, led me into the room, where I had been before, dressed me again quickly, and I soon found myself with my hair curled and my Sunday clothes on, as at first. The porter did not utter another word, but before he allowed me to cross the threshold, he detained me, and showed to me certain objects that were near the wall, and on the other side of the way, while at the same time he pointed to the door backwards. I understood him well. He wished me to impress the objects on my mind, that I might more readily find the door again, which unexpectedly closed behind me. I observed already what was opposite to me. The boughs of seven old nut-trees projected over a high wall, and partly covered the moulding with which it terminated. The branches reached to a stone tablet, the decorated border of which I could easily recognise, but the inscription on which I could not read. It rested on the jutting stone of a niche, in which a fountain artificially constructed, was throwing water from cup to cup into a large basin, which formed a kind of little pond, and was lost in the ground. Fountain, inscription, nut-trees, all stood, one directly over the other, and I could have painted it as I saw it.
It may be easily conceived how I passed the evening, and many a day afterwards, and how often I repeated these adventures, which I could hardly believe myself. As soon as I could, I went again to the “evil wall,” that I might at least refresh my memory by the sight of the objects, and look at the beautiful door. To my great astonishment all was changed. Nut-trees were, indeed, hanging over the wall, but they were not close together. A tablet was inserted, but it stood at some distance to the right of the trees, was without carving, and had a legible inscription. A niche with a fountain stood far to the left, and was not to be compared to the one I had before seen. Of the door not a trace was to be found, and I was, therefore, almost compelled to believe that my second adventure was a dream, as well as my first. My only consolation is, that the three objects always seem to change their situation, for, after repeated visits to the spot, I think I have observed, that the nut-trees are running towards each other, and that the tablet and fountain are approaching. Probably, when all has come together again, the door will once more be visible, and I will do all I can to fit on a sequel to the adventure. Whether I shall be able to tell what befalls me in future, or whether it will be expressly forbidden me, I cannot say.
This version of the story is in English. In Milan. Standing tiptoe on the edge of a king-sized bed. She is shutting a window cut into the slant of the ceiling. She is naked. It is the largest bed she has ever seen. Since she arrived, the nights have been good. Good summer nights, dark and bold as a shape. This night, a friendly night she can shut a window on. Later, open the window to the same good night. For seven weeks, she has been teaching the verb to be, the verb to lie, the verb to want, the verb to go. Some verbs more active than others. All verbs conjugate. All verbs useful. Some more useful than others. Not the confusion she studied in college, people asking, “But what does the verb to be really mean? What is Being?” Maybe there was “Having” too. She dropped the course and took Italian, where she asked the professor, “You mean to say that the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be has a masculine end even if the subject of the sentence is hundreds of women and only one man?”
“Ending,” the professor corrected. “Yes. That is true of any Romance language. As long as a man is part of the group, the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be will have a masculine ending.”
“An old-fashioned idea of romance,” she joked. No one laughed.
Someone else said, “The notion of romance is more old-fashioned in English. In English there is never any discussion of sex between verb and subject.”
This story includes him. He is here, too. His English is basic, so words should be chosen with care. He is lying on the king-sized bed. To create the Italian version of this story, possibly all the words of the English version must be tossed into the air, allowed to fragment and fall back down onto new pages. Or perhaps the English version is created from Italian words thrown this way. But why talk about possibilities? There is little enough room for fact. In the Italian, all the verbs of this story are in the present perfect and therefore require past participles. This is not true in the English version. For him, the English version tries very hard to stay in the present and the present progressive. There are a few past tenses, one or two conditionals.
He is lying in bed. He is thinking about the sleek front of the new refrigerator door his company is marketing. His girlfriend is in Rome. She is marketing the new refrigerator door in Rome. She would call him a cheater. A liar. An ass. Obvious, stupid names. Names for millions of men, not meant only for him. He has been taking English classes for seven weeks. He never imagined lying naked in bed waiting for his teacher to shut the window in the slant of his ceiling. She is naked. On tiptoe. That is it. Enough. Sleek is a hard word. Slant is a hard word. The story slows down. Explains more. Now. He lies in bed. The window. A large rectangle. She, naked. Summer. Milan. Night. Words American and other English-speaking people use. Useful words. Useful is use in its adjectival form.
She is standing tiptoe on the edge of the board at the end of the bed. Edge is a hard word. Here. This. Edge. The edge of the footboard or baseboard? She is not sure. Not important, really. The word. Not all beds have them. Naked. She. Footboard/baseboard. Window. Night. Milan. Oh – Summer. Bed. King-sized bed. The footboard/baseboard runs from the edge of the bed under the window to the edge of the bed near the closet. Complicated use of run. The footboard/baseboard goes from the right edge to the left edge of the bed. It lies flat. Complicated again for both goes and lies. (Runs. Goes. Lies.) Boards have an active life we know nothing about. He does not laugh. No. Sorry. Sorry. No. nothing. A joke. Complicated. Nonsense. She stands on the footboard/baseboard. No longer tiptoe. The flat board. The moon is round. Flat is the opposite of round.
Remember shapes? The window is a rectangle. The moon is a circle in the center of the rectangle. The circle is at the center of the window. The moon is central to the rectangle. The light lies in a square on her naked back. Prepositions are not easy. Lies has different meanings depending on context. He can lie. He is lying. He is lying. He waits for her to lie. She steps on the footboard/baseboard. Foot over foot, like a tightrope walker. As in the circus. The circus with clowns and horses.
Naked in the circle moon and square light. She understands now. Now she sees. A complicated see. Not with the eyes. A seeing of the flat in the round of the moon. She does not want to lie on the king-sized bed. Not now. Not naked. Not with him. Her walk has to end at the closet edge. A complicated form of have. Different from the ownership have. Must has the same meaning as has to, in this case. The first has in this last sentence showing ownership. The meaning belongs to the must. Now. Like a tightrope walker. Must owning meaning and has to meaning must. Ownership central to the rectangular window. She sees. Her back flat in the round moon. Naked. Walking. Milan. Night. Summer. Teacher. Footboard/baseboard. Tightrope. Flat. Foot over foot. Lie. Her walk must end at the edge near the closet.
Maybe there is a better way to explain the verbs? Let us see. The same complicated see as before. Not with the eyes. (Flat. Naked. Round.) Does see make sense now? (Summer. Milan. Night.) Does slant make sense now? (Light. Naked. Moon.) Does lie make sense now? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) Does run make sense now? Adjectives are harder to explain.
The story ends with her at the edge of the footboard/baseboard. The story’s end in English is different from the story’s end in Italian. In English, this story ends with her running. Remember, run? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) In Italian, the story ends in the king-sized bed with a verb in the past participle conjugated with the verb to be. It is that gender agreement between verb and subject that makes the ending of this story in Italian different from the prudish English ending. Let us point out that he sees and she sees (Flat. Naked. Round.) that the meaning of the different ends is the same.
She does not love him, and he does not love her.
One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned it was a true story.
He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focussed shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a bright little world quite cut off from every-day realities, I saw it all as frankly incredible. “He was mystifying!” I said, and then: “How well he did it!. . . . . It isn’t quite the thing I should have expected him, of all people, to do well.”
Afterwards, as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest, present, convey—I hardly know which word to use—experiences it was otherwise impossible to tell.
Well, I don’t resort to that explanation now. I have got over my intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling, that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death, which ended my doubts forever, throw no light on that. That much the reader must judge for himself.
I forget now what chance comment or criticism of mine moved so reticent a man to confide in me. He was, I think, defending himself against an imputation of slackness and unreliability I had made in relation to a great public movement in which he had disappointed me. But he plunged suddenly. “I have” he said, “a preoccupation—”
“I know,” he went on, after a pause that he devoted to the study of his cigar ash, “I have been negligent. The fact is—it isn’t a case of ghosts or apparitions—but—it’s an odd thing to tell of, Redmond—I am haunted. I am haunted by something—that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings…”
He paused, checked by that English shyness that so often overcomes us when we would speak of moving or grave or beautiful things. “You were at Saint Athelstan’s all through,” he said, and for a moment that seemed to me quite irrelevant. “Well”—and he paused. Then very haltingly at first, but afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings that made all the interests and spectacle of worldly life seem dull and tedious and vain to him.
Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him—a woman who had loved him greatly. “Suddenly,” she said, “the interest goes out of him. He forgets you. He doesn’t care a rap for you—under his very nose…”
Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful man. His career, indeed, is set with successes. He left me behind him long ago; he soared up over my head, and cut a figure in the world that I couldn’t cut—anyhow. He was still a year short of forty, and they say now that he would have been in office and very probably in the new Cabinet if he had lived. At school he always beat me without effort—as it were by nature. We were at school together at Saint Athelstan’s College in West Kensington for almost all our school time. He came into the school as my co-equal, but he left far above me, in a blaze of scholarships and brilliant performance. Yet I think I made a fair average running. And it was at school I heard first of the Door in the Wall—that I was to hear of a second time only a month before his death.
To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door leading through a real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.
And it came into his life early, when he was a little fellow between five and six. I remember how, as he sat making his confession to me with a slow gravity, he reasoned and reckoned the date of it. “There was,” he said, “a crimson Virginia creeper in it—all one bright uniform crimson in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the impression somehow, though I don’t clearly remember how, and there were horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that they must have been new fallen. I take it that means October. I look out for horse-chestnut leaves every year, and I ought to know.
“If I’m right in that, I was about five years and four months old.”
He was, he said, rather a precocious little boy—he learned to talk at an abnormally early age, and he was so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say, that he was permitted an amount of initiative that most children scarcely attain by seven or eight. His mother died when he was born, and he was under the less vigilant and authoritative care of a nursery governess. His father was a stern, preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention, and expected great things of him. For all his brightness he found life a little grey and dull I think. And one day he wandered.
He could not recall the particular neglect that enabled him to get away, nor the course he took among the West Kensington roads. All that had faded among the incurable blurs of memory. But the white wall and the green door stood out quite distinctly.
As his memory of that remote childish experience ran, he did at the very first sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him—he could not tell which—to yield to this attraction. He insisted upon it as a curious thing that he knew from the very beginning—unless memory has played him the queerest trick—that the door was unfastened, and that he could go in as he chose.
I seem to see the figure of that little boy, drawn and repelled. And it was very clear in his mind, too, though why it should be so was never explained, that his father would be very angry if he went through that door.
Wallace described all these moments of hesitation to me with the utmost particularity. He went right past the door, and then, with his hands in his pockets, and making an infantile attempt to whistle, strolled right along beyond the end of the wall. There he recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel. He stood pretending to examine these things, and coveting, passionately desiring the green door.
Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion. He made a run for it, lest hesitation should grip him again, he went plump with outstretched hand through the green door and let it slam behind him. And so, in a trice, he came into the garden that has haunted all his life.
It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden into which he came.
There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad—as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there…
Wallace mused before he went on telling me. “You see,” he said, with the doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, “there were two great panthers there… Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid. There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either side, and these two huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball. One looked up and came towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came right up to me, rubbed its soft round ear very gently against the small hand I held out and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home.
“You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen’s carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy—in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said ‘Well?’ to me, and lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked. There were broad steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and friendly white doves…
“And along this avenue my girl-friend led me, looking down—I recall the pleasant lines, the finely-modelled chin of her sweet kind face—asking me questions in a soft, agreeable voice, and telling me things, pleasant things I know, though what they were I was never able to recall… And presently a little Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of ruddy brown and kindly hazel eyes, came down a tree to us and ran beside me, looking up at me and grinning, and presently leapt to my shoulder. So we went on our way in great happiness…”
“Go on,” I said.
“I remember little things. We passed an old man musing among laurels, I remember, and a place gay with paroquets, and came through a broad shaded colonnade to a spacious cool palace, full of pleasant fountains, full of beautiful things, full of the quality and promise of heart’s desire. And there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out clearly and some that are a little vague, but all these people were beautiful and kind. In some way—I don’t know how—it was conveyed to me that they all were kind to me, glad to have me there, and filling me with gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome and love in their eyes. Yes—”
He mused for awhile. “Playmates I found there. That was very much to me, because I was a lonely little boy. They played delightful games in a grass-covered court where there was a sun-dial set about with flowers. And as one played one loved…
“But—it’s odd—there’s a gap in my memory. I don’t remember the games we played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness. I wanted to play it all over again—in my nursery—by myself. No! All I remember is the happiness and two dear playfellows who were most with me… Then presently came a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy eyes, a sombre woman wearing a soft long robe of pale purple, who carried a book and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a hall—though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game and stood watching as I was carried away. ‘Come back to us!’ they cried. ‘Come back to us soon!’ I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked, marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born…
“It was wonderful to me, because the pages of that book were not pictures, you understand, but realities.”
Wallace paused gravely—looked at me doubtfully.
“Go on,” I said. “I understand.”
“They were realities—yes, they must have been; people moved and things came and went in them; my dear mother, whom I had near forgotten; then my father, stern and upright, the servants, the nursery, all the familiar things of home. Then the front door and the busy streets, with traffic to and fro: I looked and marvelled, and looked half doubtfully again into the woman’s face and turned the pages over, skipping this and that, to see more of this book, and more, and so at last I came to myself hovering and hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall, and felt again the conflict and the fear.
“‘And next?’ I cried, and would have turned on, but the cool hand of the grave woman delayed me.
“‘Next?’ I insisted, and struggled gently with her hand, pulling up her fingers with all my childish strength, and as she yielded and the page came over she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow.
“But the page did not show the enchanted garden, nor the panthers, nor the girl who had led me by the hand, nor the playfellows who had been so loth to let me go. It showed a long grey street in West Kensington, on that chill hour of afternoon before the lamps are lit, and I was there, a wretched little figure, weeping aloud, for all that I could do to restrain myself, and I was weeping because I could not return to my dear play-fellows who had called after me, ‘Come back to us! Come back to us soon!’ I was there. This was no page in a book, but harsh reality; that enchanted place and the restraining hand of the grave mother at whose knee I stood had gone—whither have they gone?”
He halted again, and remained for a time, staring into the fire.
“Oh! the wretchedness of that return!” he murmured.
“Well?” I said after a minute or so.
“Poor little wretch I was—brought back to this grey world again! As I realised the fulness of what had happened to me, I gave way to quite ungovernable grief. And the shame and humiliation of that public weeping and my disgraceful homecoming remain with me still. I see again the benevolent-looking old gentleman in gold spectacles who stopped and spoke to me—prodding me first with his umbrella. ‘Poor little chap,’ said he; ‘and are you lost then?’—and me a London boy of five and more! And he must needs bring in a kindly young policeman and make a crowd of me, and so march me home. Sobbing, conspicuous and frightened, I came from the enchanted garden to the steps of my father’s house.
“That is as well as I can remember my vision of that garden—the garden that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey nothing of that indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that difference from the common things of experience that hung about it all; but that—that is what happened. If it was a dream, I am sure it was a day-time and altogether extraordinary dream… H’m!—naturally there followed a terrible questioning, by my aunt, my father, the nurse, the governess—everyone…
“I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me again for my wicked persistence. Then, as I said, everyone was forbidden to listen to me, to hear a word about it. Even my fairy tale books were taken away from me for a time—because I was ‘too imaginative.’ Eh? Yes, they did that! My father belonged to the old school… And my story was driven back upon myself. I whispered it to my pillow—my pillow that was often damp and salt to my whispering lips with childish tears. And I added always to my official and less fervent prayers this one heartfelt request: ‘Please God I may dream of the garden. Oh! take me back to my garden! Take me back to my garden!’
“I dreamt often of the garden. I may have added to it, I may have changed it; I do not know… All this you understand is an attempt to reconstruct from fragmentary memories a very early experience. Between that and the other consecutive memories of my boyhood there is a gulf. A time came when it seemed impossible I should ever speak of that wonder glimpse again.”
I asked an obvious question.
“No,” he said. “I don’t remember that I ever attempted to find my way back to the garden in those early years. This seems odd to me now, but I think that very probably a closer watch was kept on my movements after this misadventure to prevent my going astray. No, it wasn’t until you knew me that I tried for the garden again. And I believe there was a period—incredible as it seems now—when I forgot the garden altogether—when I was about eight or nine it may have been. Do you remember me as a kid at Saint Athelstan’s?”
“I didn’t show any signs did I in those days of having a secret dream?”
He looked up with a sudden smile.
“Did you ever play North-West Passage with me? . . . . . No, of course you didn’t come my way!”
“It was the sort of game,” he went on, “that every imaginative child plays all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The way to school was plain enough; the game consisted in finding some way that wasn’t plain, starting off ten minutes early in some almost hopeless direction, and working one’s way round through unaccustomed streets to my goal. And one day I got entangled among some rather low-class streets on the other side of Campden Hill, and I began to think that for once the game would be against me and that I should get to school late. I tried rather desperately a street that seemed a cul de sac, and found a passage at the end. I hurried through that with renewed hope. ‘I shall do it yet,’ I said, and passed a row of frowsy little shops that were inexplicably familiar to me, and behold! there was my long white wall and the green door that led to the enchanted garden!
“The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that wonderful garden, wasn’t a dream!”…
“I suppose my second experience with the green door marks the world of difference there is between the busy life of a schoolboy and the infinite leisure of a child. Anyhow, this second time I didn’t for a moment think of going in straight away. You see… For one thing my mind was full of the idea of getting to school in time—set on not breaking my record for punctuality. I must surely have felt some little desire at least to try the door—yes, I must have felt that… But I seem to remember the attraction of the door mainly as another obstacle to my overmastering determination to get to school. I was immediately interested by this discovery I had made, of course—I went on with my mind full of it—but I went on. It didn’t check me. I ran past tugging out my watch, found I had ten minutes still to spare, and then I was going downhill into familiar surroundings. I got to school, breathless, it is true, and wet with perspiration, but in time. I can remember hanging up my coat and hat… Went right by it and left it behind me. Odd, eh?”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Of course, I didn’t know then that it wouldn’t always be there. School boys have limited imaginations. I suppose I thought it was an awfully jolly thing to have it there, to know my way back to it, but there was the school tugging at me. I expect I was a good deal distraught and inattentive that morning, recalling what I could of the beautiful strange people I should presently see again. Oddly enough I had no doubt in my mind that they would be glad to see me… Yes, I must have thought of the garden that morning just as a jolly sort of place to which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.
“I didn’t go that day at all. The next day was a half holiday, and that may have weighed with me. Perhaps, too, my state of inattention brought down impositions upon me and docked the margin of time necessary for the detour. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the meantime the enchanted garden was so much upon my mind that I could not keep it to myself.
“I told—What was his name?—a ferrety-looking youngster we used to call Squiff.”
“Young Hopkins,” said I.
“Hopkins it was. I did not like telling him, I had a feeling that in some way it was against the rules to tell him, but I did. He was walking part of the way home with me; he was talkative, and if we had not talked about the enchanted garden we should have talked of something else, and it was intolerable to me to think about any other subject. So I blabbed.
“Well, he told my secret. The next day in the play interval I found myself surrounded by half a dozen bigger boys, half teasing and wholly curious to hear more of the enchanted garden. There was that big Fawcett—you remember him?—and Carnaby and Morley Reynolds. You weren’t there by any chance? No, I think I should have remembered if you were…
“A boy is a creature of odd feelings. I was, I really believe, in spite of my secret self-disgust, a little flattered to have the attention of these big fellows. I remember particularly a moment of pleasure caused by the praise of Crawshaw—you remember Crawshaw major, the son of Crawshaw the composer?—who said it was the best lie he had ever heard. But at the same time there was a really painful undertow of shame at telling what I felt was indeed a sacred secret. That beast Fawcett made a joke about the girl in green—”
Wallace’s voice sank with the keen memory of that shame. “I pretended not to hear,” he said. “Well, then Carnaby suddenly called me a young liar and disputed with me when I said the thing was true. I said I knew where to find the green door, could lead them all there in ten minutes. Carnaby became outrageously virtuous, and said I’d have to—and bear out my words or suffer. Did you ever have Carnaby twist your arm? Then perhaps you’ll understand how it went with me. I swore my story was true. There was nobody in the school then to save a chap from Carnaby though Crawshaw put in a word or so. Carnaby had got his game. I grew excited and red-eared, and a little frightened, I behaved altogether like a silly little chap, and the outcome of it all was that instead of starting alone for my enchanted garden, I led the way presently—cheeks flushed, ears hot, eyes smarting, and my soul one burning misery and shame—for a party of six mocking, curious and threatening school-fellows.
“We never found the white wall and the green door …”
“I mean I couldn’t find it. I would have found it if I could.
“And afterwards when I could go alone I couldn’t find it. I never found it. I seem now to have been always looking for it through my school-boy days, but I’ve never come upon it again.”
“Did the fellows—make it disagreeable?”
“Beastly… Carnaby held a council over me for wanton lying. I remember how I sneaked home and upstairs to hide the marks of my blubbering. But when I cried myself to sleep at last it wasn’t for Carnaby, but for the garden, for the beautiful afternoon I had hoped for, for the sweet friendly women and the waiting playfellows and the game I had hoped to learn again, that beautiful forgotten game…
“I believed firmly that if I had not told—… I had bad times after that—crying at night and wool-gathering by day. For two terms I slackened and had bad reports. Do you remember? Of course you would! It was you—your beating me in mathematics that brought me back to the grind again.”
For a time my friend stared silently into the red heart of the fire. Then he said: “I never saw it again until I was seventeen.
“It leapt upon me for the third time—as I was driving to Paddington on my way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable things.
“We clattered by—I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. ‘Yes, sir!’ said the cabman, smartly. ‘Er—well—it’s nothing,’ I cried. ‘My mistake! We haven’t much time! Go on!’ and he went on…
“I got my scholarship. And the night after I was told of that I sat over my fire in my little upper room, my study, in my father’s house, with his praise—his rare praise—and his sound counsels ringing in my ears, and I smoked my favourite pipe—the formidable bulldog of adolescence—and thought of that door in the long white wall. ‘If I had stopped,’ I thought, ‘I should have missed my scholarship, I should have missed Oxford—muddled all the fine career before me! I begin to see things better!’ I fell musing deeply, but I did not doubt then this career of mine was a thing that merited sacrifice.
“Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me, very fine, but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another door opening—the door of my career.”
He stared again into the fire. Its red lights picked out a stubborn strength in his face for just one flickering moment, and then it vanished again.
“Well”, he said and sighed, “I have served that career. I have done—much work, much hard work. But I have dreamt of the enchanted garden a thousand dreams, and seen its door, or at least glimpsed its door, four times since then. Yes—four times. For a while this world was so bright and interesting, seemed so full of meaning and opportunity that the half-effaced charm of the garden was by comparison gentle and remote. Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men? I came down to London from Oxford, a man of bold promise that I have done something to redeem. Something—and yet there have been disappointments…
“Twice I have been in love—I will not dwell on that—but once, as I went to someone who, I know, doubted whether I dared to come, I took a short cut at a venture through an unfrequented road near Earl’s Court, and so happened on a white wall and a familiar green door. ‘Odd!’ said I to myself, ‘but I thought this place was on Campden Hill. It’s the place I never could find somehow—like counting Stonehenge—the place of that queer day dream of mine.’ And I went by it intent upon my purpose. It had no appeal to me that afternoon.
“I had just a moment’s impulse to try the door, three steps aside were needed at the most—though I was sure enough in my heart that it would open to me—and then I thought that doing so might delay me on the way to that appointment in which I thought my honour was involved. Afterwards I was sorry for my punctuality—I might at least have peeped in I thought, and waved a hand to those panthers, but I knew enough by this time not to seek again belatedly that which is not found by seeking. Yes, that time made me very sorry…
“Years of hard work after that and never a sight of the door. It’s only recently it has come back to me. With it there has come a sense as though some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again. Perhaps I was suffering a little from overwork—perhaps it was what I’ve heard spoken of as the feeling of forty. I don’t know. But certainly the keen brightness that makes effort easy has gone out of things recently, and that just at a time with all these new political developments—when I ought to be working. Odd, isn’t it? But I do begin to find life toilsome, its rewards, as I come near them, cheap. I began a little while ago to want the garden quite badly. Yes—and I’ve seen it three times.”
“No—the door! And I haven’t gone in!”
He leaned over the table to me, with an enormous sorrow in his voice as he spoke. “Thrice I have had my chance—thrice! If ever that door offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in out of this dust and heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities. I will go and never return. This time I will stay… I swore it and when the time came—I didn’t go.
“Three times in one year have I passed that door and failed to enter. Three times in the last year.
“The first time was on the night of the snatch division on the Tenants’ Redemption Bill, on which the Government was saved by a majority of three. You remember? No one on our side—perhaps very few on the opposite side—expected the end that night. Then the debate collapsed like eggshells. I and Hotchkiss were dining with his cousin at Brentford, we were both unpaired, and we were called up by telephone, and set off at once in his cousin’s motor. We got in barely in time, and on the way we passed my wall and door—livid in the moonlight, blotched with hot yellow as the glare of our lamps lit it, but unmistakable. ‘My God!’ cried I. ‘What?’ said Hotchkiss. ‘Nothing!’ I answered, and the moment passed.
“‘I’ve made a great sacrifice,’ I told the whip as I got in.
‘They all have,’ he said, and hurried by.
“I do not see how I could have done otherwise then. And the next occasion was as I rushed to my father’s bedside to bid that stern old man farewell. Then, too, the claims of life were imperative. But the third time was different; it happened a week ago. It fills me with hot remorse to recall it. I was with Gurker and Ralphs—it’s no secret now you know that I’ve had my talk with Gurker. We had been dining at Frobisher’s, and the talk had become intimate between us. The question of my place in the reconstructed ministry lay always just over the boundary of the discussion. Yes—yes. That’s all settled. It needn’t be talked about yet, but there’s no reason to keep a secret from you… Yes—thanks! thanks! But let me tell you my story.
“Then, on that night things were very much in the air. My position was a very delicate one. I was keenly anxious to get some definite word from Gurker, but was hampered by Ralphs’ presence. I was using the best power of my brain to keep that light and careless talk not too obviously directed to the point that concerns me. I had to. Ralphs’ behaviour since has more than justified my caution… Ralphs, I knew, would leave us beyond the Kensington High Street, and then I could surprise Gurker by a sudden frankness. One has sometimes to resort to these little devices… And then it was that in the margin of my field of vision I became aware once more of the white wall, the green door before us down the road.
“We passed it talking. I passed it. I can still see the shadow of Gurker’s marked profile, his opera hat tilted forward over his prominent nose, the many folds of his neck wrap going before my shadow and Ralphs’ as we sauntered past.
“I passed within twenty inches of the door. ‘If I say good-night to them, and go in,’ I asked myself, ‘what will happen?’ And I was all a-tingle for that word with Gurker.
“I could not answer that question in the tangle of my other problems. ‘They will think me mad,’ I thought. ‘And suppose I vanish now!—Amazing disappearance of a prominent politician!’ That weighed with me. A thousand inconceivably petty worldlinesses weighed with me in that crisis.”
Then he turned on me with a sorrowful smile, and, speaking slowly; “Here I am!” he said.
“Here I am!” he repeated, “and my chance has gone from me. Three times in one year the door has been offered me—the door that goes into peace, into delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can know. And I have rejected it, Redmond, and it has gone—”
“How do you know?”
“I know. I know. I am left now to work it out, to stick to the tasks that held me so strongly when my moments came. You say, I have success—this vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it.” He had a walnut in his big hand. “If that was my success,” he said, and crushed it, and held it out for me to see.
“Let me tell you something, Redmond. This loss is destroying me. For two months, for ten weeks nearly now, I have done no work at all, except the most necessary and urgent duties. My soul is full of inappeasable regrets. At nights—when it is less likely I shall be recognised—I go out. I wander. Yes. I wonder what people would think of that if they knew. A Cabinet Minister, the responsible head of that most vital of all departments, wandering alone—grieving—sometimes near audibly lamenting—for a door, for a garden!”
I can see now his rather pallid face, and the unfamiliar sombre fire that had come into his eyes. I see him very vividly to-night. I sit recalling his words, his tones, and last evening’s Westminster Gazette still lies on my sofa, containing the notice of his death. At lunch to-day the club was busy with him and the strange riddle of his fate.
They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way…
My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.
It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night—he has frequently walked home during the past Session—and so it is I figure his dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken some memory?
Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?
I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something—I know not what—that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death. But did he see like that?
That very singular man old Dr. Heidegger once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were three white-bearded gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—and a withered gentlewoman whose name was the widow Wycherly. They were all melancholy old creatures who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves. Mr. Medbourne, in the vigor of his age, had been a prosperous merchant, but had lost his all by a frantic speculation, and was now little better than a mendicant. Colonel Killigrew had wasted his best years and his health and substance in the pursuit of sinful pleasures which had given birth to a brood of pains, such as the gout and divers other torments of soul and body. Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician, a man of evil fame—or, at least, had been so till time had buried him from the knowledge of the present generation and made him obscure instead of infamous. As for the widow Wycherly, tradition tells us that she was a great beauty in her day, but for a long while past she had lived in deep seclusion on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her. It is a circumstance worth mentioning that each of these three old gentlemen—Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew and Mr. Gascoigne—were early lovers of the widow Wycherly, and had once been on the point of cutting each other’s throats for her sake. And before proceeding farther I will merely hint that Dr. Heidegger and all his four guests were sometimes thought to be a little beside themselves, as is not infrequently the case with old people when worried either by present troubles or woeful recollections.
“My dear old friends,” said Dr. Heidegger, motioning them to be seated, “I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself here in my study.”
If all stories were true, Dr. Heidegger’s study must have been a very curious place. It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases, the lower shelves of which were filled with rows of gigantic folios and black-letter quartos, and the upper with little parchment-covered duodecimos. Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton. Between two of the bookcases hung a looking-glass, presenting its high and dusty plate within a tarnished gilt frame. Among many wonderful stories related of this mirror, it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. The opposite side of the chamber was ornamented with the full-length portrait of a young lady arrayed in the faded magnificence of silk, satin and brocade, and with a visage as faded as her dress. Above half a century ago Dr. Heidegger had been on the point of marriage with this young lady, but, being affected with some slight disorder, she had swallowed one of her lover’s prescriptions and died on the bridal-evening. The greatest curiosity of the study remains to be mentioned: it was a ponderous folio volume bound in black leather, with massive silver clasps. There were no letters on the back, and nobody could tell the title of the book. But it was well known to be a book of magic, and once, when a chambermaid had lifted it merely to brush away the dust, the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror, while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned and said, “Forbear!”
Such was Dr. Heidegger’s study. On the summer afternoon of our tale a small round table as black as ebony stood in the centre of the room, sustaining a cut-glass vase of beautiful form and elaborate workmanship. The sunshine came through the window between the heavy festoons of two faded damask curtains and fell directly across this vase, so that a mild splendor was reflected from it on the ashen visages of the five old people who sat around. Four champagne-glasses were also on the table.
“My dear old friends,” repeated Dr. Heidegger, “may I reckon on your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?”
Now, Dr. Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables—to my shame be it spoken—might possibly be traced back to mine own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader’s faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction-monger.
When the doctor’s four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air-pump or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense with which he was constantly in the habit of pestering his intimates. But without waiting for a reply Dr. Heidegger hobbled across the chamber and returned with the same ponderous folio bound in black leather which common report affirmed to be a book of magic. Undoing the silver clasps, he opened the volume and took from among its black-letter pages a rose, or what was once a rose, though now the green leaves and crimson petals had assumed one brownish hue and the ancient flower seemed ready to crumble to dust in the doctor’s hands.
“This rose,” said Dr. Heidegger, with a sigh—”this same withered and crumbling flower—blossomed five and fifty years ago. It was given me by Sylvia Ward, whose portrait hangs yonder, and I meant to wear it in my bosom at our wedding. Five and fifty years it has been treasured between the leaves of this old volume. Now, would you deem it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?”
“Nonsense!” said the widow Wycherly, with a peevish toss of her head. “You might as well ask whether an old woman’s wrinkled face could ever bloom again.”
“See!” answered Dr. Heidegger. He uncovered the vase and threw the faded rose into the water which it contained. At first it lay lightly on the surface of the fluid, appearing to imbibe none of its moisture. Soon, however, a singular change began to be visible. The crushed and dried petals stirred and assumed a deepening tinge of crimson, as if the flower were reviving from a deathlike slumber, the slender stalk and twigs of foliage became green, and there was the rose of half a century, looking as fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover. It was scarcely full-blown, for some of its delicate red leaves curled modestly around its moist bosom, within which two or three dewdrops were sparkling.
“That is certainly a very pretty deception,” said the doctor’s friends—carelessly, however, for they had witnessed greater miracles at a conjurer’s show. “Pray, how was it effected?”
“Did you never hear of the Fountain of Youth?” asked Dr. Heidegger, “which Ponce de Leon, the Spanish adventurer, went in search of two or three centuries ago?”
“But did Ponce de Leon ever find it?” said the widow Wycherly.
“No,” answered Dr. Heidegger, “for he never sought it in the right place. The famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly informed, is situated in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula, not far from Lake Macaco. Its source is overshadowed by several gigantic magnolias which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water. An acquaintance of mine, knowing my curiosity in such matters, has sent me what you see in the vase.”
“Ahem!” said Colonel Killigrew, who believed not a word of the doctor’s story; “and what may be the effect of this fluid on the human frame?”
“You shall judge for yourself, my dear colonel,” replied Dr. Heidegger.—”And all of you, my respected friends, are welcome to so much of this admirable fluid as may restore to you the bloom of youth. For my own part, having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again. With your permission, therefore, I will merely watch the progress of the experiment.”
While he spoke Dr. Heidegger had been filling the four champagne-glasses with the water of the Fountain of Youth. It was apparently impregnated with an effervescent gas, for little bubbles were continually ascending from the depths of the glasses and bursting in silvery spray at the surface. As the liquor diffused a pleasant perfume, the old people doubted not that it possessed cordial and comfortable properties, and, though utter sceptics as to its rejuvenescent power, they were inclined to swallow it at once. But Dr. Heidegger besought them to stay a moment.
“Before you drink, my respectable old friends,” said he, “it would be well that, with the experience of a lifetime to direct you, you should draw up a few general rules for your guidance in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”
The doctor’s four venerable friends made him no answer except by a feeble and tremulous laugh, so very ridiculous was the idea that, knowing how closely Repentance treads behind the steps of Error, they should ever go astray again.
“Drink, then,” said the doctor, bowing; “I rejoice that I have so well selected the subjects of my experiment.”
With palsied hands they raised the glasses to their lips. The liquor, if it really possessed such virtues as Dr. Heidegger imputed to it, could not have been bestowed on four human beings who needed it more woefully. They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been the offspring of Nature’s dotage, and always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures who now sat stooping round the doctor’s table without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again. They drank off the water and replaced their glasses on the table.
Assuredly, there was an almost immediate improvement in the aspect of the party—not unlike what might have been produced by a glass of generous wine—together with a sudden glow of cheerful sunshine, brightening over all their visages at once. There was a healthful suffusion on their cheeks instead of the ashen hue that had made them look so corpse-like. They gazed at one another, and fancied that some magic power had really begun to smooth away the deep and sad inscriptions which Father Time had been so long engraving on their brows. The widow Wycherly adjusted her cap, for she felt almost like a woman again.
“Give us more of this wondrous water,” cried they, eagerly. “We are younger, but we are still too old. Quick! give us more!”
“Patience, patience!” quoth Dr. Heidegger, who sat, watching the experiment with philosophic coolness. “You have been a long time growing old; surely you might be content to grow young in half an hour. But the water is at your service.” Again he filled their glasses with the liquor of youth, enough of which still remained in the vase to turn half the old people in the city to the age of their own grandchildren.
While the bubbles were yet sparkling on the brim the doctor’s four guests snatched their glasses from the table and swallowed the contents at a single gulp. Was it delusion? Even while the draught was passing down their throats it seemed to have wrought a change on their whole systems. Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks: they sat around the table three gentlemen of middle age and a woman hardly beyond her buxom prime.
“My dear widow, you are charming!” cried Colonel Killigrew, whose eyes had been fixed upon her face while the shadows of age were flitting from it like darkness from the crimson daybreak.
The fair widow knew of old that Colonel Killigrew’s compliments were not always measured by sober truth; so she started up and ran to the mirror, still dreading that the ugly visage of an old woman would meet her gaze.
Meanwhile, the three gentlemen behaved in such a manner as proved that the water of the Fountain of Youth possessed some intoxicating qualities—unless, indeed, their exhilaration of spirits were merely a lightsome dizziness caused by the sudden removal of the weight of years. Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present or future could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years. Now he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national glory and the people’s right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents and a deeply-deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his well-turned periods. Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle-song and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the widow Wycherly. On the other side of the table, Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs. As for the widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world besides. She thrust her face close to the glass to see whether some long-remembered wrinkle or crow’s-foot had indeed vanished; she examined whether the snow had so entirely melted from her hair that the venerable cap could be safely thrown aside. At last, turning briskly away, she came with a sort of dancing step to the table.
“My dear old doctor,” cried she, “pray favor me with another glass.”
“Certainly, my dear madam—certainly,” replied the complaisant doctor. “See! I have already filled the glasses.”
There, in fact, stood the four glasses brimful of this wonderful water, the delicate spray of which, as it effervesced from the surface, resembled the tremulous glitter of diamonds.
It was now so nearly sunset that the chamber had grown duskier than ever, but a mild and moonlike splendor gleamed from within the vase and rested alike on the four guests and on the doctor’s venerable figure. He sat in a high-backed, elaborately-carved oaken arm-chair with a gray dignity of aspect that might have well befitted that very Father Time whose power had never been disputed save by this fortunate company. Even while quaffing the third draught of the Fountain of Youth, they were almost awed by the expression of his mysterious visage. But the next moment the exhilarating gush of young life shot through their veins. They were now in the happy prime of youth. Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases, was remembered only as the trouble of a dream from which they had joyously awoke. The fresh gloss of the soul, so early lost and without which the world’s successive scenes had been but a gallery of faded pictures, again threw its enchantment over all their prospects. They felt like new-created beings in a new-created universe.
“We are young! We are young!” they cried, exultingly.
Youth, like the extremity of age, had effaced the strongly-marked characteristics of middle life and mutually assimilated them all. They were a group of merry youngsters almost maddened with the exuberant frolicsomeness of their years. The most singular effect of their gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims. They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned attire—the wide-skirted coats and flapped waistcoats of the young men and the ancient cap and gown of the blooming girl. One limped across the floor like a gouty grandfather; one set a pair of spectacles astride of his nose and pretended to pore over the black-letter pages of the book of magic; a third seated himself in an arm-chair and strove to imitate the venerable dignity of Dr. Heidegger. Then all shouted mirthfully and leaped about the room.
The widow Wycherly—if so fresh a damsel could be called a widow—tripped up to the doctor’s chair with a mischievous merriment in her rosy face.
“Doctor, you dear old soul,” cried she, “get up and dance with me;” and then the four young people laughed louder than ever to think what a queer figure the poor old doctor would cut.
“Pray excuse me,” answered the doctor, quietly. “I am old and rheumatic, and my dancing-days were over long ago. But either of these gay young gentlemen will be glad of so pretty a partner.”
“Dance with me, Clara,” cried Colonel Killigrew.
“No, no! I will be her partner,” shouted Mr. Gascoigne.
“She promised me her hand fifty years ago,” exclaimed Mr. Medbourne.
They all gathered round her. One caught both her hands in his passionate grasp, another threw his arm about her waist, the third buried his hand among the glossy curls that clustered beneath the widow’s cap. Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam. But they were young: their burning passions proved them so.
Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow, who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances. Still keeping hold of the fair prize, they grappled fiercely at one another’s throats. As they struggled to and fro the table was overturned and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments. The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor, moistening the wings of a butterfly which, grown old in the decline of summer, had alighted there to die. The insect fluttered lightly through the chamber and settled on the snowy head of Dr. Heidegger.
“Come, come, gentlemen! Come, Madam Wycherly!” exclaimed the doctor. “I really must protest against this riot.”
They stood still and shivered, for it seemed as if gray Time were calling them back from their sunny youth far down into the chill and darksome vale of years. They looked at old Dr. Heidegger, who sat in his carved armchair holding the rose of half a century, which he had rescued from among the fragments of the shattered vase. At the motion of his hand the four rioters resumed their seats—the more readily because their violent exertions had wearied them, youthful though they were.
“My poor Sylvia’s rose!” ejaculated Dr. Heidegger, holding it in the light of the sunset clouds. “It appears to be fading again.”
And so it was. Even while the party were looking at it the flower continued to shrivel up, till it became as dry and fragile as when the doctor had first thrown it into the vase. He shook off the few drops of moisture which clung to its petals.
“I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” observed he, pressing the withered rose to his withered lips.
While he spoke the butterfly fluttered down from the doctor’s snowy head and fell upon the floor. His guests shivered again. A strange dullness—whether of the body or spirit they could not tell—was creeping gradually over them all. They gazed at one another, and fancied that each fleeting moment snatched away a charm and left a deepening furrow where none had been before. Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people sitting with their old friend Dr. Heidegger?
“Are we grown old again so soon?” cried they, dolefully.
In truth, they had. The Water of Youth possessed merely a virtue more transient than that of wine; the delirium which it created had effervesced away. Yes, they were old again. With a shuddering impulse that showed her a woman still, the widow clasped her skinny hands before her face and wished that the coffin-lid were over it, since it could be no longer beautiful.
“Yes, friends, ye are old again,” said Dr. Heidegger, “and, lo! the Water of Youth is all lavished on the ground. Well, I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it—no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me.”
But the doctor’s four friends had taught no such lesson to themselves. They resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida and quaff at morning, noon and night from the Fountain of Youth.
Søren Kierkegaard was a young university student who lived in the city of Copenhagen, Denmark in the nineteenth century. He enjoyed his university studies, but he felt that they were missing something. His professors taught the views of thinkers from hundreds of years earlier and classified them according to their various beliefs pertaining to the meaning of the world. However, none of them helped young Kierkegaard find the meaning of his own world.
In his diary, he wrote: “What I seek is to find my own philosophy – the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard – first name, last name – not the philosophy of all people.” Despite his confused thoughts, he was by no means a lonesome person. Indeed, he was extremely popular among his friend and was invited to many parties, although, there too, he felt like something was missing.
One night, while returning home from a party where he had been witty and entertaining and the center of attention, he felt that he was not having a good time at all. The immense boredom of a life without meaning was simply preventing him from enjoying himself.
So Kierkegaard decided to try to be a good, moral person – the kind of person that does what everyone should actually be doing. Perhaps by doing so, he hoped, he would find the solution to his problem. Now, he crossed the street only at crosswalks, he returned all his books to the library on time, and, even though he was not at all ready for the life of a family man, he asked his girlfriend Regine Olsen to marry him. Soon after, the two announced that they planned to be wed.
That’s how it should be, thought Kierkegaard: study at university, get married, bring children into the world, work, and… and what? Is that all that life has to offer me?
Kierkegaard was terribly depressed. The way of life that appeared to suit everyone else did not suit him at all. And now he had also made a commitment to marry Regine, who was a wonderful young woman. Did she truly deserve to be with someone who found no interest in the way of life that was so well suited to everyone else?
Suddenly, an idea struck him. All the elderly professors had tried to speak to him using intellect, to explain how the world worked and how he, as a person in the world, should act. But Kierkegaard did not want to live in the world like an ordinary person: his intellect was satisfied by the professors’ arguments, but his soul wanted more.
He then tried to follow the path of the heart. After all, everyone says that people need to follow their hearts, and he truly did love Regine. However, deep down in his soul, he knew that despite his feelings for Regine, he was destined for a different path in life: a path that, were he not to take it – even if it ran counter to his intellect and his heart – he could never truly be happy.
Therefore, to the great surprise of the citizens of Copenhagen, Kierkegaard called off his engagement to Regine, closed himself up in his house, and sent a notice to the press: “Dear citizens of Copenhagen – A number of books will soon be published under various names. Please do not relate to these books as if they were written by Søren Kierkegaard.” It was a strange notice by all accounts. Books were always being published under the names of different authors: why would people think they were written by Søren Kierkegaard?
Not long passed before a book titled Either/Or, Part I was published by a man named Victor Eremita. The book was very thick and consisted of different chapters emphasizing that what was important in life was simply to enjoy life without thinking too much about it: to go to parties, to love, to eat, and to be happy.
The book was well written, humorous, and persuasive, and all of Copenhagen quickly entered a craze of parties and recreation. But as every lover of recreation knows, too many parties ultimately results in boredom. And if a good party was no longer something that could be enjoyed, then what could be enjoyed?
Fortunately, around the time when Copenhagen began to understand that a life of continuous partying can be extremely boring, another book, written by a man who introduced himself as a judge and a family man, was published under the title Either/Or, Part II. This book praised moral life, family life, and the law.
Like Part I, Either/Or Part II was written so persuasively that all of Copenhagen now decided to live moral lives. They stopped speaking profanities in public, crossed the street only at crosswalks, and checked their children’s homework everyday. But when everyone lives like everyone else, it is hard to feel that my life holds something special. And who wants to feel that there is nothing special in their life?
By this point, people already knew that the author of these books was none other than Søren Kierkegaard. The citizens of the city were quick to approach the philosopher living among them and to ask him: “So… How should life be lived: as a life of parties or a life of morals?”
Because the books he wrote were titled Either/Or, they expected a simple answer – either this or that. Kierkegaard, however, responded with another book titled Fear and Trembling, this time under another pseudonym: Johannes de Silentio.
In this book, he spoke not about the life of all people but rather about the life of one man: Abraham the Patriarch. In the Bible, God asks Abraham to kill his only son Isaac. Although the act was demanded by God, it by no means pleasant or enjoyable in nature, and it was also not the good and moral act of a family man. Nonetheless, Abraham, the “knight of faith,” set out to fulfill God’s commandment – without asking what about it was enjoyable or moral, but rather simply by virtue of the faith in his heart.
The citizens of Copenhagen thought that this time they understood Kierkegaard: they were not supposed to live a life of debauchery or a life of morals, but rather a religious life – a life of faith. Therefore, the confused people of the city decided to abandon the life of debauchery and family life for a life in the bosom of religion. They began saying prayers each night before going to sleep, consulting with the scriptures regarding every decision, and visiting houses of worship every weekend.
Quite disappointed with the response of the citizens of his city, Kierkegaard published another book, this time not under a pseudonym but rather using his own name. In this book, titled The Point of View of My Work as an Author, Kierkegaard explained that people live their lives in society and try to judge themselves according to the standards of others or to find their path in the books of others. Society, from its part, moves like a herd, following every new fashion that arrives in the city. As a result, people are carried from here to there, from fashion to fashion, and from one kind of life to another, without ever pausing momentarily to ask: “What kind of life is best suited for me?”
Suddenly, the citizens of Copenhagen understood just how mistaken they had been in their understanding of the previously published books: they had quickly changed their lives in accordance with every new book they found sufficiently convincing, without stopping to ask themselves whether the life in question was one that suited them.
And what about you, my dear readers – Have you ever stopped to ask yourselves: “What kind of life is best suited me?”
*This story is taken from: “True Tales Project”, That will be published in 2018 by Fennec Publishing.
There are those who invent lies, and there are those who believe them.
In an ideal world Jerry would spread his wings and fly away from there. For as long as he can remember himself, he has felt them. Felt that they were sewed to his spinal column beneath his skin, and that one day they would be released. Sure they would. For sure. For as long as he can remember himself, he has also felt the notebook of lined paper pressed inside his left pocket, rolled up and tied tightly with twine. He sometimes dreams about the characters that amble between the lines, imprisoned in the darkness of his pocket. He fears they will get lost. And then there are the characters who still want to get inside, who will lose their way…
But now, as he stands in the older man’s bedroom, he feels as if skin is not the only thing confining his wings, but that they are also fastened by a cord that is contorting his entire body, as if he were one of the characters rolled up between the lines of his notebook.
Jerry’s gaze lingers on his reflection in the long mirror hanging on the inside of the wardrobe door. “I’ve looked at myself in the mirror for a long time today. It’s been a few days since I’ve looked at myself in the mirror, maybe two weeks…” he says, wondering if the older man discerns the contortedness of his body.
The older man snuffles. He stands leaning on the doorpost of the bedroom door, following Jerry’s movements. “You can come over whenever you want to…I don’t keep the apartment locked.”
“I don’t know,” Jerry shrugs his shoulders. “It’ll stress me out.” He looks into the eyes of the skinny adolescent like a grayish line staring back at him from the mirror, thinking: I need to slip inside, and the closet door will close on both of us.
“Yes. Everyone runs into everyone else here…I’ll try to move into the far apartment,” the man thinks aloud. “I brought you a gift,” he moves closer to Jerry, producing from his pocket a small box wrapped in lined notebook paper and tied with twine.
“Yes.” Jerry takes the gift.
“Yes, what? Don’t you want to open it?”
“It stresses me out…”
“What stresses you out?”
“That everyone runs into everyone else. That they’ll run into me when I come over to your place.” Jerry passes the gift from one hand to the other, his fingers working the paper as if searching for his own character between the lines.
“No one really cares…It only seems that way to you. Besides…you’re allowed to come see me, aren’t you? It’s about work. That’s what you’ll tell whoever asks.”
“Yes.” Jerry looks out the window. A man and a woman pass by. Brief laughter rolls into the room. “…I told you so.”
Five seconds pass like the heavy beats of a bass drum. Neither one of them move. “Wings, wings, open!” Jerry whispers.
The man moves really close to him, really reaches over to him, his hand really, almost absentmindedly, unbuttoning Jerry’s pants.
As if he were busy, Jerry tries to untie the knot in the twine.
“Tear off the paper already…” the man says, in a slightly annoyed tone.
His palm is warm. Boiling. Burning.
Jerry closes his eyes. How much time is passing? What disaster is underway in the world? What’s gone awry in the order of nature to start the fire?
“It’s not getting hard,” the man says.
Jerry shrugs his shoulders.
“Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of you.”
The door of the wardrobe moves and the entire picture of the room shakes as if in an earthquake. Only the man’s hand remains steady. It grasps Jerry’s dick so hard it hurts. Be careful, Jerry almost whispers, I have wings. They’re about to open up, and then I’ll fly away, Jerry almost says. But the man is not careful. Or maybe that’s just the way it is at the beginning – brutality, no concessions.
“You look wonderful.” The older man searches for Jerry’s eyes. For a moment he traps them, as if insisting on exposing the fraud. Jerry looks down, his eyes stopping on the bulge in the man’s pants. He has a big one.
What am I doing? What does he want me to do? What do I need to do?
“What exactly do you want?”
Sixty centimeters stand between the edge of the bed and the wardrobe door. They are four. Jerry watches them, imagining them struggling with one another, for life and death: their arms are wrapped forcefully around their bodies, there are no concessions. They fall. They rise. They push. They are drawn.
An earthquake begins, the mirror cracks, and one Jerry falls into the mirror. Now they are only three.
You three…you are the only ones who love me, a thought fleets through Jerry’s mind.
The large freckled ass glares in the mirror. It flashes at him. Dash dot, dash dash, dot…Jerry is excellent at Morse code. He follows the flashes, trying to decipher the message, as if it is already within him. The imprisoned message is somewhat frightening, confusing. The man’s ass is the opposite of that of a king, with small sores and all that.
Jerry is following a different message: “Come here, quick. Here, close. Hold it. Like that. Your mouth. Just like that. Do it right. Don’t rush it…” The man’s body blocks the flashes in the mirror, and to Jerry it seems to have gone dark. Suddenly. Darkness. His eyes are wide open but the world is in darkness and he is choking a little. I am trapped in the ruins of an earthquake. He tries to take a breath and feels his eyes popping out of their sockets.
“Take it slow. I love that. Love it. You do it great. No, no, no! Don’t look, not now, not now. What are you doing?”
Jerry inhales, fixes his gaze on the mirror, trying to receive more flashes. The older man reaches behind his back and slams the door of the wardrobe. “Later. Later. Don’t stop. All the way. Like that. Yeah, like that. Afterward I’ll do you, and you’ll watch yourself. And us, the four of us.”
With every breath of air, with every passing minute, Jerry tries to clarify the truth within him. But the truth contracts, or is hidden within the mirror, and Jerry asks the door to open. He counts: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight…Hot. It’s too hot in his mouth. On his forehead. Sweat drips from his face.
“You drive me crazy. Your tongue. I’m alive. Keep it slow.”
With an abrupt motion, Jerry reaches up and manages to open the wardrobe door.
“No, no, no! Don’t look, not now. What are you doing?”
“Looking at the three of you,” Jerry says, and takes a breath.
He has been buried beneath the ruins of an earthquake before, and then he felt a kind of keep on moving, keep on moving, keep on moving. He has the same feeling now, flowing like some sort of program for his hands and his feet, and perhaps sometime: he grabs hold of the man, pushes him back, and knocks him onto the bed. He takes out a box of matches, lights one, and moves it toward its greenish cover. And once the flame catches, he extends his index finger and places it over his lips, as if to say: Hush!
“Say the magic word!” Jerry whispers. He raises his head and looks up at the man from below. His stomach is glistening. All the hairs on his forearms are glistening. What a commotion, that earthquake. The man is writhing, pressing Jerry’s head against his stomach, as if to say: ask my stomach, ask whatever you want!
Jerry feels that it takes mountains of strength to emerge from the ruins and begin walking. The earthquake occurred many years ago, he thinks. He walks along the path that runs behind the older man’s apartment. There’s a light on in the window. There never was an earthquake, he thinks. Life is just like that, broken. The man calls to him from the window: “Hey, you forgot your gift!”
Jerry stands erect out of physical recognition, like an animal that is sleeping or wounded. Out of the same instinct he opens the notebook. A mad wind blows, and the intensity of the madness causes characters to move in and out from between the lines. He feels as if he is being carried on their backs, like Nils Holgersen on the back of the wild goose. From this height, the fields look like hopscotch squares and the houses are tiny. He thinks about Nils who heard the language of the wild geese, which has only two words: one that is more or less the equivalent of what is known as sky, and another for all other things.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
My grandmother lived in Podlasie. The house wasn’t in the village itself. The neighborhood was known as “the colony”—scattered farms separated by stands of aspen and avenues of age-old, slender poplars. The cottage stood amid an orchard. In the summer, even at high noon it was cool out there. The apple trees were ancient and had grown rank. Their crowns joined overhead; it was a realm of eternal shade.
This forest of fruit trees on one side bordered a meadow. But I never heard the usual word for meadow, łąka. People said smug, the cows would grazing “on the smug.” Somewhere in the middle of it was a green strip with a well for watering the cattle. The well was old, and in place of a regular wall there was just a framework of planks. The bucket was pulled up using a long pole with a hook on the end. The pole was known as a kluczka.
The “u” has the softest, most gentle sound of all the vowels.
Whenever I think of my grandmother I remember those two words: kluczka, smug. And also a third one: duch—ghost.
Grandmother believed in ghosts.
In the sixties they had no electricity there. Grandfather would climb up on a small wooden stool and light a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. In the fall it would be lit quite early, at six, maybe even five. In the fall my father and I would come for apples, we’d load whole cratefuls of them onto the Lublin truck of my uncle, a bona fide truck driver of early and middle communism.
So anyway, grandmother believed in ghosts. And it wasn’t the sort of fearful or reasoned belief that’s acquired from contacts with the beyond on special occasions, or from dreams or visions—nothing of the kind.
She would sit in the corner, on the woolen bedspread; behind her was a green and blue landscape with two stags at a watering hole, the delicate yellow light of the lamp bringing out only the silvery white of the water; and she would tell stories. They were long ones. They concerned banal happenings, work, visits, trips to the next village, family get-togethers. A measured narrative replete with facts, names of things and of people. The topography of their village and others nearby, a chronology that ran from Christmas to the Assumption to All Souls’.
In this humdrum subject matter, from time to time cracks would appear, the threads of warp and weft would pull apart, and the gap would reveal the other world—supernatural, in any case Other.
For example one summer evening, coming back from a visit to one of her many female cousins, grandmother saw a white figure among the hayricks. Half-human, half-animal, it was running along a field boundary, now on two legs, now on four, clearly visible in the moonlight, yet entirely immaterial.
Another time, after the death of a close relative she saw the deceased come into the kitchen. The door creaked, the visitor opened all the drawers and cupboards in the dresser then left without taking anything with him. It was at dawn. Grandmother had just been getting up. She saw the visit from where she sat on the bed, the same place from which she told her stories.
I don’t remember them all, of course, I can only recall snippets. But the atmosphere of those tales has stayed with me—it was utterly ordinary, devoid of surprise or exclamation.
This tearing of the fabric of existence mostly took place in my own imagination, I was the one who saw the holes. Grandmother ignored them. In general, for her there seemed to be only one indivisible order of events, all equally real and equally valid. It may have been that she was aware of certain distinctions, that she tacked and patched those doubtful, worn places, but in her stories there were no traces of the repair.
When a miniature whirlwind would appear over the fields on a still, windless afternoon, snatching up a line of hay cones, grandmother would simply cross herself, watch the phenomenon move away, and return to whatever she had been doing. After all, it had only been Evil manifesting its presence in one of its many forms. There was no excitation of the kind associated with table-turning or the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If anything she was more like Svidrigailov and his banal excursions to the other side of existence. I’ve come to realize that her relative rummaging in the dresser was just as real and powerful as the phantom of Filka the servant entering Arkady Ivanovich’s room with a very ordinary hole in the elbow of his coat.
Why did she never tell stories about the saints? About the supernatural beings whose existence is confirmed by the teachings of the Church? Why did she never see Peter and Paul, or Saint Lucy? Them, she used only to measure time. Exactly as if they’d been lifeless objects, along the lines of ideal weights or measures. Their stillness was the stillness of the figures she saw at Sunday Mass. The little wooden church stood among trees in a shade as profound as that surrounding her own house. Once a week the squeaking brown-and-gilt interior offered her an image of eternity, of light, of a distant pledge and an even more distant reward.
Whereas ghosts, accursed sin-burdened souls, death—these accompanied her day to day. The truth that humans beings are closer to death, damnation, and chance than to salvation, found its embodiment in her life.
Nor was she an isolated case. The many aunts and great aunts that I’d meet in her home would take part in these stories, supplying all kinds of additional details, till my grandfather would lose patience and burst out: “Give it a rest, all of you”—though whether he was prompted by rationalism or dread I’ll never know. At such moments they’d fall silent for a while, then start up again like perverse Fates spinning the thread of that other, hidden human life which never for a moment forgets it is made up in equal parts of loss and dying.
The story about the mother who in broad daylight saw an unknown old woman in a gray dress out in the fields, and the same day the mother’s child fell ill, and subsequently died.
The story about how grandmother went into the cattle shed one evening and something almost knocked her over as it ran out the door, and no cow had milk to give that day.
Stories. . . stories. . . stories. . .
Grandmother died in the fall. I was too small to be able to remember the exact date. The wind was blowing at the time, and my father and I were there because the doctors had calculated not just the day but even the exact hour, it seemed. She lay on a board that was covered with black cloth, all dressed in black herself, thin and serene. Before they put her in the casket—such was the custom—all her relatives kissed her on the forehead. Maybe I was too young to comprehend the notion of death. Led by habit and affection I kissed her on the mouth, the way I would always greet her when I arrived at the start of the summer vacation. I was surprised that she was so hard and still, and that there were none of the usual warm, familiar aromas about her.
The fear came later. At the moment when I saw the black church banner with the silver cross hanging outside the house. Someone had fastened it to the wall in such a way that it was flapping noisily against the pale blue sky and the leafless branches.
That was my first ever lesson in the ascendancy of symbol over reality.
What am I driving at in this memoir-cum-story?
Before long the last grandmothers who looked upon the world of ghosts with their own eyes will be dead. They looked with faith and equanimity, though of course also with trepidation. A vivid, existing supernatural reality will disappear along with them. Aside from the rare mystical experiences of the chosen few, we’ll be reduced to a hard, exhausting trust in the existence of the unknown. The polished surface of the everyday will obligingly show us our own shallow reflection as if those were the depths.
My grandmother sat on the edge of her bed and told stories. She did it disinterestedly, without any particular goal. The ordinariness of these extraordinary happenings lent them credence.
When you left the house to go outside you passed through a large dark space known as the granary. Old horse tack hung there, clean winnowed grain lay behind wooden partitions. The pungent odor of leather impregnated with horse sweat mingled with the grain’s dry smell. Light entered through a small square opening in the wall. On sunny afternoons the darkness of the granary was pierced from end to end by a narrow beam of light filled with spinning motes. I’d run through the blackness, break the rays of light for a moment and rush outside. Each time I did, I was accompanied by the same fear. It was only once I was in the sunlight of the yard that my breathing returned to normal.
Through the window I could see the indistinct figure of my grandmother bustling about between stove and table, preparing dinner. She was all alone in the empty house; the brown-painted floorboards would creak at every step, while in the most ordinary way in the world she would be at the haunted dresser, taking out the condiments, plates, spoons and forks that the dead man had scorned.
Later, after she passed away, I often imagined death. The instinctive picture I saw was always the same: an old woman with a kind, mildly quizzical face, the face of my grandmother.