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.
In the year 3000AD, after many years of wars – world wars, civil wars, religious wars – after the heavens grew angry and smote the waters with meteorites from a vengeful hell, then there came thunderbolts, volcanoes, and hurricanes, along with centuries of disease and famine. Mankind almost became extinct on Earth. All the continents with their inhabitants were wiped out. The oceans dried up, leaving deep and terrifying canyons. The only survivors lived in a large underground cave dug out by a meteorite centuries before.
Only one hundred were left. They wore animal skins and armed themselves with stones. They rested their heads on their arms as pillows when they slept and ate grass from a small green pasture that grew by a stagnant pool. They had no names and no language but communicated with signs, and referred to each other by numbers. Eighty men, fifteen women, and five children were all that remained of humankind.
They had no need for language to perceive that they were the last remnants on Earth, the last hope for the regeneration of humanity. They huddled together like a herd, clinging to life with what claws they had left, and vowed to stay together to save the planet. They went out to pasture every morning and chewed the grass like sheep, rolled on the ground by the pool like dogs, then went back at sunset to settle down in the cave-like bats. One day, after everyone was back in the cave and they had started counting, as usual, to make sure everyone was safe, they were startled to find that Number 9 wasn’t there.
“Where has Number 9 vanished?” they asked.
The survivors were wide-eyed in alarm, their hearts trembled in fear and their faces showed real anxiety at this strange disappearance since no one had disappeared for more than ten years. After hours of disheartened and sullen silence, Number 9 came into the cave with a broad smile and his brow covered in sweat. Like a statue, he stood smiling in front of them, and before anyone could reproach him for his absence, he opened his arms as if to pray, like the people who believed in the Lord of Heaven before all of them were wiped from the face of the Earth.
He smiled again, rather stupidly this time, and his hands revealed a silver-coloured pendant with rusty edges and a large heart in the middle attached to a leather strap. Everyone looked at the pendant with great interest and amazement. Then a giant of a man with enormous limbs and grey hair stepped forward. It was clear from his beard and his wrinkles that he was the oldest man there. The man, who was called Number 100, looked at Number 9 angrily, as if to say, “Where have you been?” Number 9 just raised his arms to show him the pendant.
Things changed after that. Number 9 became the centre of attention and acquired a new and singular importance. He was the only man that wherever he sat or went eyes followed. Everyone wanted to be friends with him and hoped to get close to him and take pride in his acquaintance. He was the man with the silver pendant; lucky the one who laughed with him, luckier still the one who went out to pasture with him at dawn. Luckiest of all humankind were those he let touch the pendant – something that seldom happened.
Women fought to win his affection, his heart, and his pendant. One woman made eyes at him, another tried to lure him with her enormous breasts and a third stripped naked in front of him. The most daring was a woman who pounced on him while he was asleep.
Jealousy poisoned relationships between the men and their eyes showed signs of hatred and resentment, envy and malice. Deep inside, they harboured evil designs and thoughts of violence to come. Then they split into camps. The old man Number 100 and some of his number supporters thought that the pendant was a wicked innovation and should be thrown into the pool. Others, led by Number 10, disagreed. They believed in freedom and his right to private property. The rest were neutral. In this way, the cave was divided for the first time.
One morning two men had an argument. One of them liked the man with the pendant, while the other hated him. The argument escalated, grew heated, until finally, the first man killed the second by crushing his skull with a large rock. A court was convened, the people naked but for animal skins. Number 100 ruled that the pendant should be disposed of immediately. Number 9 refused to hand over his pendant so they sentenced him to death for breaking the law. They dragged him to the pool and four strong men sat on top of him to drown him. After that, the pendant was taken and handed over to Number 100, the leader, who was meant to get rid of it and put an end to its baneful influence. It was a shock as devastating as a funeral when Number 100 appeared the next day wearing the pendant on his chest like a bride. Two nights later Number 100 was murdered and the pendant disappeared. Suspicions spread like wildfire and people traded accusations. Many groups were formed – those for and those against, the greedy, the hateful, the envious. They divided up, entrenched, regrouped and fell out, disagreed and clashed. Then they fought and slaughtered and exterminated each other.
A few months later the only survivor was a young boy. He sat in a cave holding a small silver pendant with rusty edges that had wiped out the last remnant of humankind.
My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS. The virtual pet was rendered on the little LCD screen with no more than 30 pixels, but the sickness was obvious. It had that AIDS look, you know? It was thinner than it had been. Some of its pixels were faded, and the pupils of its huge eyes were smaller, giving it an empty stare.
I had bought the Tamagotchi, named Meemoo, for Luke just a couple of weeks ago. He had really wanted a kitten, but Gabby did not want a cat in the house. ‘A cat will bring in dead birds and toxoplasmosis,’ she said, her fingers spread protectively over her bulging stomach.
A Tamagotchi had seemed like the perfect compromise– something for Luke to empathise with and to look after, to teach him the rudiments of petcare for a time after the baby had been born. Empathy is one of the things that the book said Luke would struggle with. He would have difficulty reading facial expressions. The Tamagotchi had only three different faces, so it would be good practice for him.
Together, Luke and I watched Meemoo curled in the corner of its screen. Sometimes, Meemoo would get up, limp to the opposite corner, and produce a pile of something. I don’t know what this something was, or which orifice it came from – the resolution was not good enough to tell.
‘You’re feeding it too much,’ I told Luke. He said that he wasn’t, but he’d been sitting on the sofa thumbing the buttons for hours at a time, so I’m sure he must have been.
There’s not much else to do with a Tamagotchi.
I read the instruction manual that came with Meemoo. Its needs were simple: food, water, sleep, play. Meemoo was supposed to give signals when it required one of these things. Luke’s job as Meemoo’s carer was to press the appropriate button at the appropriate time. The manual said that overfeeding, underfeeding, lack of exercise and unhappiness could all make a Tamagotchi sick. A little black skull and crossbones should appear on the screen when this happens, and by pressing button A twice, then B, one could administer medicine. The instructions said that sometimes it might take two or three shots of medicine, depending on how sick your Tamagotchi is.
I checked Meemoo’s screen again and there was no skull and crossbones.
The instructions said that if the Tamagotchi dies, you have to stick a pencil into the hole in its back to reset it. A new creature would then be born.
When Luke had finally gone to sleep and could not see me molesting his virtual pet, I found the hole in Meemoo’s back and jabbed a sharpened pencil into it. But when I turned it back over, Meemoo was still there, as sick as ever. I jabbed a few more times and tried it with a pin too, in case I wasn’t getting in deep enough. But it wouldn’t reset.
I wondered what happened if Meemoo died, now that its reset button didn’t work. Was there a malfunction that had robbed Luke’s Tamagotchi of its immortality? Did it have just one shot at life? I guess that made it a lot more special, and in a small way, it made me more determined to find a cure for Meemoo.
I plugged Meemoo into my PC – a new feature in this generation of Tamagotchis. I hoped that some kind of diagnostics wizard would pop up and sort it out.
A Tamagotchi screen blinked into life on my PC. There were many big-eyed mutant creatures jiggling for attention, including another Meemoo, looking like its picture on the box, before it got sick. One of the options on the screen was ‘sync your Tamagotchi’.
When I did this, Meemoo’s limited world of square grey pixels was transformed into a full colour three-dimensional animation on my screen. The blank room in which it lived was revealed as a conservatory filled with impossible plants growing under the pale-pink Tamagotchi sun. And in the middle of this world, lying on the carpet, was Meemoo.
It looked awful. In this fully realised version of the Tamagotchi’s room, Meemoo was a shrivelled thing. The skin on its feet was dry and peeling. Its eyes, once bright white with crisp highlights, were yellow and unreflective. There were scabs around the base of its nose. I wondered what kind of demented mind would create a child’s toy that was capable of reaching such abject deterioration.
I clicked through every button available until I found the medical kit. From this you could drag and drop pills onto the Tamagotchi. I guess Meemoo was supposed to eat or absorb these, but they just hovered in front of it, as if Meemoo was refusing to take its medicine.
I tried the same trick with Meemoo that I do with Luke to get him to take his medicine. I mixed it with food. I dragged a chicken drumstick from the food store and put it on top of the medicine, hoping that Meemoo would get up and eat them both. But it just lay there, looking at me, its mouth slightly open. Its look of sickness was so convincing that I could practically smell its foul breath coming from the screen.
I sent Meemoo’s makers a sarcastic email describing its condition and asking what needed to be done to restore its health.
A week later, I had received no reply and Meemoo was getting even worse. There were pale grey dots appearing on it. When I synced Meemoo to my computer, these dots were revealed as deep red sores. And the way the light from the Tamagotchi sun reflected off them, you could tell they were wet.
I went to a toyshop and showed them the Tamagotchi. ‘I’ve not seen one do that before,’ the girl behind the counter said. ‘Must be something the new ones do.’
I came home from work one day to find Luke had a friend over for a play-date. The friend was called Becky, and she had a Tamagotchi too. Gabby was trying to organise at least one play-date a week to help Luke socialise.
Becky’s Tamagotchi gave me an idea.
This generation of Tamagotchis had the ability to connect to other Tamagotchis. By getting your Tamagotchi within a metre of a friend’s, your virtual pets could play games or dance together. Maybe if I connected the two Tamagotchis, the medicine button in Becky’s would cure Meemoo.
At first, Luke violently resisted giving Meemoo to me, despite me saying I only wanted to help it. But when I bribed Luke and Becky with chocolate biscuits and a packet of crisps, they agreed to hand them over.
When Gabby came in from hanging up the washing, she was furious.
‘Why’d you give the kids crisps and chocolate?’ she said, slamming the empty basket on the ground. ‘I’m just about to give them dinner.’
‘Leave me alone for a sec,’ I said. I didn’t have time to explain. I had only a few minutes before the kids would demand their toys back, and I was having trouble getting the Tamagotchis to find each other – maybe Meemoo’s Bluetooth connection had been compromised by the virus.
Eventually though, when I put their connectors right next to each other, they made a synchronous pinging sound, and both characters appeared on both screens. It’s amazing how satisfying that was.
Meemoo looked sick on Becky’s screen too. I pressed A twice and then B to administer medicine. Nothing happened.
I tried again. But the Tamagotchis just stood there. One healthy, one sick. Doing nothing.
Luke and Becky came back, their fingers oily and their faces brown with chocolate. I told them to wipe their hands on their trousers before they played with their Tamagotchis. I was about to disconnect them from each other, but when they saw that they had each other’s characters on their screens, they got excited and sat at the kitchen table to play together.
I poured myself a beer, and for Gabby a half glass of wine (her daily limit), then, seeing the crisps out on the side, I helped myself to a bag.
Later, when my beer was finished and it was time for Becky’s mum to pick her up, Becky handed me her Tamagotchi.
‘Can you fix Weebee?’ she asked.
Becky’s pink Tamagotchi was already presenting the first symptoms of Meemoo’s disease: the thinning and greying of features, the stoop, the lethargy.
I heard Becky’s mum pull up in the car as I began to press the medicine buttons, knowing already that they would not work. ‘It just needs some rest,’ I said. ‘Leave it alone until tomorrow, and it should be okay.’
Luke had been invited to a birthday party. Usually Gabby would take Luke to parties, but she was feeling rough – she was having a particularly unpleasant first trimester this time. So she persuaded me to go, even though I hate kids’ parties.
I noticed that lots of other kids at the party had Tamagotchis fastened to the belt loops of their skirts and trousers. The kids would stop every few minutes during their games to lift up their Tamagotchis and check they were okay, occasionally pressing a button to satisfy one of their needs.
‘These Tamagotchis are insane, aren’t they?’ I remarked to another dad who was standing at the edge of the garden with his arms folded across his chest.
‘Yeah,’ he smiled.
‘My kid’s one got sick,’ I said. ‘One of its arms fell off this morning. Can you believe that?’
The dad turned to me, his face suddenly serious. ‘You’re not Luke’s dad, are you?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ I said.
‘I had to buy a new Tamagotchi thanks to you.’
I frowned and smirked, thinking that he couldn’t be serious, but my expression seemed to piss him off.
‘You had Becky Willis over at your house, didn’t you?’ he continued. ‘Her pet got Matty’s pet sick ‘cause she sits next to him in class. My boy’s pet died. I’ve half a mind to charge you for the new one.’
I stared right into his eyes, looking for an indication that he was joking, but there was none. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I said. And truly, I didn’t. I thought he was crazy, especially the way he referred to the Tamagotchis as ‘pets’, like they were real pets, not just 30 pixels on an LCD screen with only a little more functionality than my alarm clock. ‘Maybe there was something else wrong with yours. Luke’s didn’t die.’
The other dad shook his head and blew out, and then turned sideways to look at me, making a crease in his fat neck. ‘You didn’t bring it here, did you?’ he said.
‘Well, Luke takes it everywhere with him,’ I said. ‘Jesus,’ he said, and then he literally ran across a game of Twister that some of the kids were playing to grab his son’s Tamagotchi and check that it was okay. He had an argument with his son as he detached it from the boy’s belt loop, saying he was going to put it in the car for safety. They were making so much noise that the mother of the kid having the birthday came over to calm them. The dad leaned in close to her to whisper, and she looked at the ground while he spoke ,then up at me, then at Luke.
She headed across the garden towards me.
‘Hi there. We’ve not met before,’ she said, offering her hand with a pretty smile. ‘I’m Lillian, Jake’s mum.’ We shook hands and I said that it was nice to meet her. ‘We’re just about to play pass the parcel,’ she said.
‘Yes, and I’m concerned about the other children catching…’ She opened her mouth, showing that her teeth were clenched together, and she nodded, hoping that I understood, that she wouldn’t need to suffer the embarrassment of spelling it out.
‘It’s just a toy,’ I said. ‘Still, I’d prefer…’
‘You make it sound like…’ ‘If you wouldn’t mind…’
I shook my head at the lunacy of the situation, but agreed to take care of it.
When I told Luke I had to take Meemoo away for a minute he went apeshit. He stamped and he made his hand into the shape of a claw and yelled, ‘Sky badger!’
When Luke does sky badger, anyone in a two-metre radius gets hurt. Sky badger is vicious. His sharp fingernails rake forearms. He goes for the eyes.
‘Okay okay,’ I said, backing away and putting my hands up defensively. ‘You can keep hold of Meemoo, but I’ll have to take you home then.’
Luke screwed up his nose and frowned so deeply that I could barely see his dark eyes.
‘You’ll miss out on the birthday cake,’ I added.
Luke relaxed his talons and handed Meemoo to me, making a growl as he did so. Meemoo was hot, and I wondered whether it was from Luke’s sweaty hands or if the Tamagotchi had a fever.
I held Luke’s hand and took him over to where the pass-the-parcel ring was being straightened out by some of the mums, stashing Meemoo out of sight in my pocket. I sat Luke down and explained to him what would happen and what he was expected to do. A skinny kid with two front teeth missing looked at me and Luke, wondering what our deal was.
I had to wait until Monday to check my e-mails at work. There was still nothing from the makers of Tamagotchi. At lunch, while I splashed Bolognese sauce over my keyboard, I Googled ‘Tamagotchi’ along with every synonym for ‘virus’. I could find nothing other than the standard instructions to give it medicine when the skull and crossbones appeared.
Half way through the afternoon, while I was in my penultimate meeting of the day, a tannoy announcement asked me to call reception. When a tannoy goes out, everyone knows it’s an emergency, and when it’s for me, everyone knows it’s something to do with Luke. I stepped out of the meeting room and ran back to my desk, trying hard not to look at all the heads turning towards me.
Gabby was on hold. When reception put her through, she was crying. Luke had had one of his fits. A short one this time, for him, just eight minutes, but since he’d come round, the right side of his body was paralysed. This was something new. It terrified me that his fits were changing, that they might be developing in some way. I told Gabby to stay calm and that I would leave right away.
When I got home, the ambulance was still parked outside, but the crew were packing away their kit. ‘He’s okay,’ one of the ambulance men said as I ran up the drive.
Luke’s paralysis had lasted 15 minutes after the seizure had finished, but now he was moving normally again, except for a limpness at the edge of his mouth that made him slur his words. The ambulance man said this happens sometimes, so we needn’t worry.
I hugged Luke, burying my lips into his thick hair and kissing the side of his head, wishing that we lived in a world where kisses could fix brains. I stroked his back, hoping that maybe I would find a little reset button there, sunk into a hole, something I could prod that would let us start over, that would wipe all the scribbles from the slate and leave it blank again.
Gabby was sitting on the edge of the armchair holding her stomach.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
She nodded, taking a tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan and wiping her nose. Gabby’s biggest fear was that Luke’s problems weren’t just a part of him, but part of the factory that had made him – what if every kid we produced together had the same design fault?
The doctors had all said that the chances of it happening twice were tiny, but I don’t think we’d ever be able to fully relax. I knew that long after our second kid was born, we’d both be looking out for the diagnostic signs that had seemed so innocuous at first with Luke.
A letter came home from school banning Tamagotchis. Another three kids’ Tamagotchis had died and could not be resurrected.
‘People are blanking me when I drop Luke off in the morning,’ Gabby said. She was rubbing her fingers into her temples.
The situation had gone too far. Meemoo would have to go.
When I went to tell Luke that he’d have to say goodbye to Meemoo, he was sitting on the edge of the sand pit injecting the sand with a yellow straw.
‘No!’ he barked at me, and made that frown-face of his. He gripped Meemoo in his fist and folded his arms across his chest.
Gabby came outside with her book. ‘Help me out will you?’ I asked.
‘You can handle this for a change,’ she said.
I tried bribing Luke with a biscuit, but he just got angrier. I tried lying to him, saying that I needed to take Meemoo to hospital to make him better, but I had lost his trust. Eventually, I had only one option left. I told Luke that he had to tidy up his toys in the garden or I’d have to confiscate Meemoo for two whole days. I knew that Luke would never clean up his toys. The bit of his brain in charge of tidying up must have been within the damaged area. But I went through the drama of asking him a few times, and, as he got more irate, stamping and kicking things, I began to count.
‘Don’t count!’ he said, knowing the finality of a countdown.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You’ve got four seconds left. Just pick up your toys and you can keep Meemoo.’
If he’d actually picked up his toys then, it would have been such a miracle that I would have let him keep Meemoo, AIDS and all.
‘Stop counting!’ Luke screamed, and then the dreaded, ‘Sky badger!’
Luke’s fingers curled into that familiar and frightening shape and he came after me. I skipped away from him, tripping over a bucket.
‘One and a half….one…come on, you’ve only got half a second left.’ A part of me must have been enjoying this, because I was giggling.
‘Stop it,’ Gabby said. ‘You’re being cruel.’
‘He’s got to learn,’ I said. ‘Come on Luke, you’ve only got a fraction of a second left. Start picking up your toys now and you can keep Meemoo.’
Luke roared and swung sky badger at me, at my arms, at my face. I grabbed him round the waist and turned him so that his back was towards me. Sky badger sunk his claws into my knuckles while I wrestled Meemoo out of his other hand.
By the time I’d got Meemoo away, there were three crescent-shaped gouges out of my knuckles, and they were stinging like crazy.
‘I HATE YOU!’ Luke screamed, crying. He stormed inside and slammed the door behind him.
‘You deserved that,’ Gabby said, looking over the top of her sunglasses.
I couldn’t just throw Meemoo away. Luke would never forgive me for that. It might become one of those formative moments, something that would forever warp him and give him all kinds of trust issues in later life. Instead, I planned to euthanize Meemoo.
If I locked Meemoo in the medicine cabinet, taking away the things that were helping it survive: food, play, petting and the toilet, the AIDS would get stronger as it got weaker and surrounded by more of its effluence. The AIDS would win. And when Meemoo was dead, it would either reset itself as a healthy Tamagotchi, or it would die. If it was healthy, Luke could have it back; if it died, then Luke would learn a valuable lesson about mortality and I would buy him a new one to cheer him up.
It was tempting while Meemoo was in the cabinet to sneak a peek, to watch for its final moments, but the Tamagotchi had sensors that picked up movement. It might interpret my attention as caring, and gain some extra power to resist the virus destroying it. No, I had to leave it alone, despite the temptation.
Meemoo’s presence inside the medicine cabinet seemed to transform the cabinet’s outward appearance. It went from being an ordinary medicine cabinet to being something else, something… other.
After two whole days, I could resist no longer. I was certain that Meemoo must have perished by now. Luke was insistent about being there when I opened up the cabinet, and I did not have the strength for an argument.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But have you learned your lesson about tidying up?’
‘Give it back,’ he said, pouting.
I opened the cupboard and took out the Tamagotchi. Meemo was alive.
It had now lost three of its limbs, having just one arm left, which was stretched out under its head. One of its eyes had closed up to a small unseeing dot. Its pixellated circumference was broken in places, wide open pores through which invisible things must surely be entering and escaping.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Luke, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to throw him away.’
Luke snatched the Tamagotchi from me and ran to Gabby, screaming. He was shaking, his face red and sweaty.
‘What have you done now?’ Gabby scowled at me.
I held my forehead with both hands. ‘I give up,’ I said, and stomped upstairs to the bedroom.
I put on the TV and watched a cookery show. There was something soothing in the way the chef was searing the tuna in the pan that let my heartbeats soften by degrees.
Gabby called me from downstairs. ‘Can you come and get Luke in? Dinner’s almost ready.’
I let my feet slip over the edge of each step, enjoying the pressure against the soles of my feet. I went outside in my socks. Luke was burying a football in the sandpit.
‘Time to come in little man,’ I said. ‘Dinner’s ready.’ He ignored me.
‘Come in Luke,’ Gabby called through the open window, and at the sound of his mum’s voice, Luke got up, brushed the sand from his jeans, and went inside, giving me a wide berth as he ran past.
A drop of rain hit the tip of my nose. The clouds above were low and heavy. The ragged kind that can take days to drain. As I turned to go inside, I noticed that Luke had left Meemoo on the edge of the sandpit. I started to reach down for it, but then stopped, stood up, and went inside, closing the door behind me.
After dinner, it was Gabby’s turn to take Luke to bed. I made tea and leaned over the back of the sofa, resting my cup and my elbows on the windowsill and inhaling the hot steam. Outside, the rain was pounding the grass, making craters in the sandpit, and bouncing off of the Tamagotchi. I thought how ridiculous it was that I was feeling guilty, but out of some strange duty I continued to watch it, until the rain had washed all the light out of the sky.
One Sunday afternoon a family was digesting its midday meal and having a desultory debate about which of the many dishes they’d just put away was chiefly responsible for their present lethargy. From one corner of the living room, sitting in an armchair in front of the screenatron, grumpy old Uncle Misio had turned his back to them. A redheaded girl named Segal’Ena was sitting at the surly man’s unwashed feet, covering her nose. Uncle and niece were watching a show in which people told supposedly true tales about their calamitous lives. The competition lasted for months, and each week the public voted not for the best or most distressing episode but for the tale that seemed the most truthful. On this particular Sunday, a former minister of education was describing in great and morbid detail how the protagonist of his story – him – had decided to poison his secretary, who was going senile, before the masseuse who’d seduced her screwed her out of every last penny she had. Resting a bunion on the girl’s shoulder, Uncle Misio wondered how the politician was able to conceal so perfectly whether he was telling the truth or not. On the other side of the room, the family was a still life of bodily satisfaction and emotional disgruntlement. In the silence, Segal’Ena whispered to her uncle that she was sure that the former minister was lying. In spite of the uncle’s dismissive snort, a couple of months later detectives for the show presented an autopsy report stating that the secretary hadn’t been poisoned but had simply electrocuted herself with a toaster. Soon everyone had forgotten about the compelling but deceitful narrator and Segal’Ena’s hunch, but the girl was beginning to discover that her intuition hadn’t been a fluke. Although she wasn’t exactly psychic, she had an innate talent for reading facial expressions, as though she were translating from an original text. She could divine feelings, intentions, opinions and whatever other secrets might lurk in people’s souls. Segal’Ena soon learned to make use of her gift. At the educational dispensary, she knew when the birthday girl really wanted her to come to her party or not, or when a boy was coming on to her out of genuine desire or just to spite another classmate. As she got older her uncanny intuition would help her friends and relatives to vote for the politician with the best intentions, or the best-hidden ulterior motives, depending on each voter’s approach to politics.
Some years later Segal’Ena, now a young woman, had become an expert diviner of the soul. But it wasn’t as though she’d compiled a glossary of facial expressions, it was more about the process. She ignored repeated or spontaneous tics, blinking, frowns, squints, glances, skin smoothing, ear waggles, flashing or clouding of the pupils, wavering pronunciation and stutters to concentrate instead on the general feel of what the subject was projecting plus, occasionally, their tone of voice, and she was never wrong. It wasn’t about drama or semiotics; she saw through the fronts people put on without falling back on prejudice, prior assumptions or analysis of their body language, confident that a face cannot hide anything from the clear-sighted examination. Given that she specialized in sincerity it should not come as a surprise that she was open to her moment of enlightenment. She ended up training to be a civil servant on the island of Dórdica, choosing the ministerial route rather than taking the entrance exam for the police or security services. She applied to the Centre for the Maintenance of Public Life on the premise that the community would find it useful to know whether the people who applied for the subsidies granted by the said body were being honest or not. Although it pained her to report frauds, and especially to refuse funds to private individuals, she was steadfast: Not that one; he’s a cheat. Occasionally she was also called upon to decide criminal cases. The fact that she never failed could be attested to by a string of convicts who, minutes, days or weeks after hearing her pronouncement finally cracked under the pressure of her precise, measured, well-meaning judgment and either out of sheer exhaustion or with resigned joy had accepted themselves for who they really were. Of course, sometimes Segal’Ena declared that people were innocent, too. However, the ability to discriminate between guilt and innocence came at a heavy cost: it made her painfully aware of her responsibility. Every soul suffers from tectonic shifts and tremors, not to mention the odd hidden mangrove swamp. Segal’Ena was tormented by the idea of weakness. Sometimes, when she looked in the mirror, her face revealed the most flagrant deceit she’d ever seen in all her years of mentalist therapy. Segal’Ena was a solid building vulnerable to erosion: a corrective institute for herself. There was always some flaw that needed to be remedied. And she never ruled out the possibility that she might be wrong. Once, in fact, she really did mess up. One night in autumn a second-rate screen actor called Arlio Duruache was enjoying the fire frenzy at the Anis Festival when one of the reveling drunks firing into the air shot him in the head. The small-caliber bullet lost momentum after bursting through the temporal bone but still managed to pierce the right eye before settling in the nasal cavity. At the hospital awaiting treatment, still gushing blood, Arlio had sneezed, and the bullet had dropped to the floor. An insufferable police inspector demanded to know who had hurt him. Arlio said that he didn’t know the guy. The police called upon Segal’Ena to help them decide whether he was telling the truth. Meanwhile, Arlio had undergone surgery on his retina and elsewhere. The right half of his face looked like a splodge of blackberry jam with a cloudy blue eye stuck in the middle. The sunken cheek and small, dark pupil had borne the brunt of the pain and seemed to have slipped downwards as a consequence. Segal’Ena examined the face: it was the picture of both luck and misfortune. She knew that Arlio was telling the truth. But she was wrong. In a way. Arlio, who had a keen conscience, went back to Segal’Ena a week later to tell her that it hadn’t been a random accident; he’d been attacked by the distraught father of a boy to whom he’d supplied fraghe during a time when he was out of work and made a few bits on the side selling intoxicating substances. Segal’Ena observed that you’d have to be an idiot to waste your life smoking fraghe cigarillos. Sure, said Arlio, but I came to tell you that you can make mistakes after all.
I must have been confused by the state your face was in, she said.
Yes, but you aren’t infallible. You need to be careful with your judgments. I say this because I hold you in such high esteem.
Who’s to say that my intuition didn’t sense that you wanted to forgive your attacker?
Well, it wasn’t that so much. Perhaps it sensed my remorse. But much more to the point, Segal’Ena, can I buy you dinner?
In keeping with her predilection for frank behaviour, not to mention the fact that they were both redheads, Segal’Ena immediately fell in love with the love Arlio already felt for her.
Segal’Ena and Arlio were together for a year and a half. With the exception of a couple of cases of facial paralysis, she continued to read strangers’ faces correctly, but she began to be alarmed by the very occasional instances when Arlio questioned her reading of his, sometimes with a little giggle, sometimes rather indignantly. Maybe romantic feelings weren’t as clear cut as those relating to death, greed or power. At least when it wasn’t the kind of love that was cut with a little death, greed or power. How many men have been prevented from feeling emotions both profound and superficial because they’ve grabbed onto the first boulder they came across, refusing to be swept along by the current? It was for such reasons that Segal’Ena and Arlio broke up.
For Segal’Ena time passed in its inexorable way and, although they might initially have aspired to permanence, other loves came and went along with it. Eventually, undercut by uncertainty, attempts to prolong them simply grew embarrassing and they were unceremoniously curtailed. Segal’Ena began to notice not only that what she saw in men’s faces often differed from what they claimed they were feeling inside (and, because they tended to act more or less honourably, she was inclined to believe them) but also that men were misreading her as well. The imbalance was a critical romantic impediment. Segal’Ena found that rather than reading her as she did them, men tried to interpret her. Eventually, she and they became radioactive elements that, while not exactly toxic, were certainly out of phase. One of them put it like this: Segui, our faces are on different wavelengths. And it was precisely when she broke up with that man that Segal’Ena experienced the second moment of clarity in her life, one that was as well timed as it was devastating.
What she had gleaned from her murky explorations of desire was that it wasn’t her reading that was out of kilter, it was her feelings. And this applied to more than just her romantic life, family and friends. She constantly had the sensation that she was coming at things backwards: when feelings came into play she became completely disoriented. She knew that her feelings had always come to her in precisely the opposite way as they did to other people, but now she was really noticing the difference. Given the rough, lukewarm sensation in her torso, one might also say that the difference was feeling her back as well. When the city was troubled and gloomy, she always felt rather joyful. People had learned from the writer Scarvel that life was a long process of decline, but if she ever worried about death it was because it would get in the way of her endless constructivism. When others enjoyed a fesbulot cocktail on ice, she was upset that the cold was hurting her teeth and ruining the flavour of the fesbulot. Segal’Ena might have put this down to her rebellious spirit or, even better, a yearning for freedom, but she had spent so much of her life striving to be objective that she wasn’t going to let herself off with vague reassurances now. Her eyebrows were almost always damp, not because she sweated with anxiety but from the endless drip, drip, drip of questions. People at the theatron were moved more by mysteries or crime stories when they were set on the island, especially if the playwright was local. But she was more upset by a violent drama when it took place far away. And why did she find films at which other people laughed from beginning to end depressing? The disconnect had grown irreversible. It tore her up inside because she liked to bawl her eyes out at sad movies, and it was hard to cry when everyone around you was howling with laughter. For instance, people laughed at someone tripping up in the street, even though that person must be mortified by their pratfall. Sometimes the spectators laughed at the suffering of animals, like ornamental birds kept in huge cages. For them, animals were different, a sub-species, while Segal’Ena saw no great difference between herself and a painted dirdul. It made her feel like breaking all their necks. Maybe she was doomed to regress back to the weird little girl she’d once been. The little girl she’d once been had owned a pet dirdul, and she’d loved it so much that she’d called it Sérkugo, after the smelly, grumpy Man in the Delta de la Torcedura horror stories, just to demonstrate how much she disliked it when people laughed at monsters. And yet it was hard for her to suppress her own laughter when she saw someone vomit, even if they were very sick, or when siblings were deceitful, in real life or in films, or even at a heart-breaking, unnecessary farewell between lovers. She found it so hard, in fact, that in the end she always burst out laughing, and then the other members of the audience would give her disapproving looks. It made her feel guilty.
This was who Segal’Ena was, she’d laugh for no reason and cry in the midst of great joy. They were difficult years of inverted value judgments, of faith in her coruscating gaze based on a foundation of enduring immaturity. Today, after several fleeting romances and accurately divining so much human emotion, the last thing that Segal’Ena wants is to be contrary. Lately, she’s been asking herself whether she’ll always be a little girl. Attempts to reassure her do nothing of the kind – in fact, they drive her crazy.
Every morning Segal’Ena’s virtual maid prepares a maxim for her along with her cup of cofeto. One morning it’s this: Life is as fragile as a cobweb, and the wind never stops blowing. Segal’Ena drinks some of her cofeto and comes to a realization: her love for men will never last, and neither will men’s love for her, regardless of the man, unless she works out how to control her reactions. But she doesn’t think she can. What if she can discipline them or disguise them? On another day she is asked to assess the sincerity of the statements made during a debate between the candidates for city rector. Segal’Ena refuses the invitation because an electoral promise to reduce grodotexamin might well be a lie that nonetheless allows the candidate, when they are elected rector, to eradicate the unscrupulous quasiquarn industry. Behind or underneath a hidden truth of any temperature, other truths both glacial and incandescent may lie. Beneath the sincerity of the girl that Segal’Ena once was there may be an attempt to sabotage the adult Segal’Ena’s love life. Is Segal’Ena burning? Will she be scorched? She feels an urge to turn her contrariness inside out like a jacket, to expose her lining and shake free the bits that get stuck in the seams. But she can’t find anything on which to get a purchase: she has no edges, sleeves or cuffs. She is an untouchable, possibly impermeable skin. It’s not that she’s frustrated by her failure – she’s discovering that everyone is a little like that, just one continuous surface – but she is saddened. In her resignation, rather than turning herself inside out, Segal’Ena becomes contemplative.
Now the contemplative Segal’Ena looks at people’s faces without examining them or trying to understand them. She sees their bodies without listening to their hidden murmurs. She regards the Lagrinach peaks without longing to climb them and stares at objects without feeling the urge to take them apart. She can gaze at the round face of the clock in the kitchenette for five or seven minutes at a time, or at a page among hundreds of others, with no idea of what on earth she’s looking at and, once a period of innocence has passed, whatever it is leaves her indifferent. In many of the things she contemplates she begins to see shapes that don’t belong there. Rather than hindering her enthusiastic use of the senses, she now finds her bureaucratic job assessing sincerity stimulating. Segal’Ena sees a demon with a pipe in the smoke of a burning textile factory, the head of a canary in the hair of the city rector’s wife, her Uncle Misio’s bunion-riddled foot in a puddle of oil on the pavement, Arlio’s wonderfully asymmetric features in the crust of a cheesami tart, a woman raising her arm to the sky in a beehive. She sees the phrase It is forbidden to stop working in the scales of a catfish, an accountant asleep at his desk in the wake of a boat on the Synnah lagoon. She sees a girl reading on her belly in a rolled-up carpet, the skinny, somewhat rigid form of her friend Paghy in a table lamp. She sees herself in the dirty white screen of the cinema when the movie is over. Days later old Uncle Misio is going to tell her that she’s somatic. Thinking you see shapes in objects isn’t an illness exactly, but it is a symptom, the name of which is Simidolia. When her uncle shares his diagnosis, Segal’Ena’s head reads it the wrong way round, which is to say she reads it correctly: she reads the beginning of a verse from the poem Ay Lodia… and remembers the response that she learned in school: life is fragile as a cobweb… Soon afterwards she detects a subtle message hidden in the lyrics of a recent hit. It’s in a dialect she doesn’t know but fastens itself to her head like a tick made of sound. The verbal invasion doesn’t bother her, it doesn’t happen again. Mostly because, as time passes and Segal’Ena wins more mental space for herself by refraining from judgment, she occasionally sees the shape of a face in the face itself, a duplication of features that is not a copy or even a perfect reproduction but which isn’t fake either, rather the natural result of spontaneous physical activity, an organic sculpture of a soul eager to give of itself.
She finds the fidelity of these faces to the information they wish to convey moving.
One afternoon in autumn, to give her mind permission for the clear-out it has been hankering after, she sits down to watch the dance of the waves and the twinkling lights of the bay. Sitting next to her on the bench is a man with a bottello. He drinks in measured sips and eventually, between one sip and the next, says hello to Segal’Ena. He tells her that he’s going to bother her a little because he finds it impossible to stay quiet. He asks her what she can see in the river; she seems to be examining it very closely. She tells him that right now she can’t actually see anything, only the gentle waves. The man says that if she’s staring so hard but can’t see anything, maybe it’s because she’s waiting for something. But what? Well, it’s not that I’m waiting, says Segal’Ena. I have the feeling that one of these days I’m going to fall in love for a long time. The man asks her if she’d like to toast the intuition. She asks what he’s drinking. Beer and human bones, says the man. It’s made from hops and barley like ordinary beer but with the addition of the powdered bones of a relative one hopes to remember before they’re buried. Or cremated, Segal’Ena suggests. The man, nodding, says that the ingredient gives the beer a unique spice, because nothing can be truer than bone, can it? Or a marrow. Segal’Ena takes a sip and allows the bitterness, or spice, to make her shiver. She sips a little more and returns the bottello. Human-bone beer, the man says. I invented it.
Segal’Ena knows immediately that one of these statements isn’t true. But she doesn’t care.
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 nickname 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 peaant. 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 physican 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 possesed 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 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, like 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.
Jalal wasn’t happy unless he was wreaking havoc. He was the village’s fearsome little devil. At any time he might raid the neighbours’ chicken coops and rabbit hutches. Then we’d see him grilling the meat outdoors, near the woods or by the riverbed. There was nobody to keep an eye on him, as his father worked in the capital and only came back every two months. As a result, he did everything we were scared to do, so we resented him. The mere mention of his name was a danger notice.
Once Jalal had discovered the bedroom window of the mayor’s wife, he became her nightmare. He crept along the top of the wall around the house and flung a bag full of frogs at her – he’d spent days collecting them by the riverbed. The whole village heard her screams, so that the mayor accused her of being crazy and divorced her.
As for me, I’m invisible, and I was busy catching birds at the time. I got used to being invisible to increase my catch: the more invisible I was, the more I caught. The first time I came back from hunting, the bird was thrashing about inside my jacket pocket. My father got suspicious. I was moving a little strangely and he stopped me. “Come here,” he said. “What are you hiding, _____?” He was pulling off his belt as he said it, so I owned up. I took the bird out of my pocket and said, “It’s a bird. Just a little bird, Father. I found it by the stream.”
“What’s its name?”
“I don’t know. ‘Bird.’”
“‘Bird’ isn’t a name.”
That day my father told me the story of names, how God had given names to everything that exists. “That night, _____, God was annoyed at all the racket, and because living creatures did not have names, He could not pinpoint the source of all the noise. He gathered the living creatures together, and out of His big pouch he took fistfuls of names, which he handed out, just like I hand out hot roast broad beans to you and your siblings. Each creature put its warm name in its pocket and cautiously ran off with it.”
That night my father said, “Son, those names were fragile when they left God’s pouch for the pockets of living creatures. The creatures had to keep them out of the sun so they didn’t spoil. Every creature had to look after its name in a warm place until it grew strong. Then the creature would call its name, and if it felt a tremor, that meant the name had matured and it could try it out on its fellows.”
Before finishing his story, my father warned me not to expose my name to the sun before it matured. When I touched my name in my pocket, it felt still, like a dead bird.
I decided to steal Jalal’s name, and I waited for an opportunity until one came along. One day we were playing football near the graveyard. Jalal quit the game, leaving his clothes behind, and went into the graveyard from the east side to take a piss. I ran over to his pile of stuff, which was next to the changing room. I saw his name moving around in his trousers – it was stuffed in the right hand pocket. My heart was pounding; I had to get it done fast, before Jalal came back. I stuck in my hand, pulled out the name, which was in a small bag, and put it in my pocket. I ran over to the graveyard from the west side. On the way, I noticed how big Jalal’s name was; it filled my pocket. I also realised that I hadn’t left my name in Jalal’s pocket in place of his own as I had intended. Jalal now had no name, and I had two.
I went home and into my room, closing the door behind me. I sat watching the two names as they moved under the fabric. Then my father came in. “I’ve caught a new name,” I said. “Look, it’s thrashing around in my left hand pocket.” My father had died some months before, after telling me the story of the names, and I was actually talking to his name – he had left it in the pocket of his coat, which was hanging off the window handle. The name kept jumping around like a cat on the left side of my trousers. I put in my hand and pulled it out. The name had slipped out of the bag. It was really soft and floppy. When I looked at it, it was a horrid frog. It blinked, then let out a terrible croak, and I dropped it. I felt for my name in the right hand pocket. It was a lifeless corpse. I dropped it too and ran off nameless.
Now I have no name. Whenever someone calls me by my old name, the wind swallows it up and all that reaches me is the “Hey …,” but I know it’s me who’s intended. Even my mother refers to me as the one with no name.
My father forgot to tell me that from the time living creatures acquired names, malicious gossip started and gossips multiplied. God learned the source of all the racket. He became omniscient.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin was employed in one of Moscow’s museums as the head of its library department for forty years now, at least.
In summer, and during winters, autumns and springs his old, bent frame would unfailingly appear in the museum lobby. During summer — in a white, breezy jacket, wearing galoshes, carrying an overlarge umbrella; winters — in a coon-skin fur reddened with age; in a frayed overcoat in the damp autumn; and during spring — in a trench coat.
Smacking his lips and smoothing out his tufted beard, he groans his way slowly up the stairs, eventually overcoming all the twenty four steps leading up to the reading hall, already packed full. He nods to the visitors racing past — he does not know them, but they have already known him a long time.
After walking into the library, he looks through memos and puts them aside — marking each off with a pencil.
Sometimes he looks a colleague over, and abruptly tears him away from his work with some worthy phrase, recalling a dictum of Lomonosov’s:
Sciences sustain the young
He then rubs his palms together and leans his head back while a broad, pleased smile spreads over his face; in an instant a face severe and dry, recalling portraits of the poet and censor Maikov becomes transparent, illuminated, simply — a child’s face:
“Iconography, young man, is science!” rings out amidst the dead quiet of the rooms adjacent to the reading hall, but when that young man, torn away from his work looks up, he sees: a face severe and dry, recalling portraits of the poet and censor Maikov.
They say that once, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, strolling through the museum’s tree-lined court proclaimed:
“Paradise, gentlemen, is, in essence, a garden…”
“We’re in a garden.”
“That is to say, we’re in paradise…”
They say that the features of his faded visage transformed themselves suddenly; such indisputability shone through them; the museum director’s assistant, walking alongside, for an instant
seemed to see: Ivan Ivanovich transported enraptured to heaven’s highest firmament suffers an
inexpressible sweetness — as he related to Agrafina Kondrativna that evening.
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, God knows, who he is — or even — what he might be… isn’t he a Mason, now; and, see, the late Ma-yevski gave him the job; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, back in the day, that he was a Mason… And he’d wear some special type of ring on his index finger.”
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin had no acquaintances; he never became close with anyone; visitors would try to come by for a visit, and — stop coming by; he was once met walking out of his home in Galosh Lane 1 with a large bronze tub, carefully covered over — and what, do you suppose, was in that tub? You’ll never guess: cockroaches.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin filled the tub with sugar and caught himself cockroaches; Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin had gotten cockroaches; he couldn’t exterminate them (he was soft-hearted), so he caught them in the tub, and then let them out of the tub, after taking it out into the street.
Not once one or another co-worker noticed the upon himself the old man’s trying gaze, originating from behind an enormous pair of blue spectacles; and noticed a desire: to relate a deeply interesting yet enigmatic event; but such elderly eccentricities were ignored. It so happened many times: Ivan Ivanovich directs his attention to someone, singling them out for no reason; and suddenly — withdraws: again — for no reason.
It was also noticed that these moments of attention to whomever it may be coincided, usually, with one or another everyday misfortune of that whoever it may be — a misfortune that Ivan Ivanovich could not possibly have known about just then; quite the opposite: the circumstances of whoever it may be luckily flowed across Ivan Ivanovich’s path; so, once, while N. N. Pustovalov and N. T. Kosich were having an argument, he mixed himself up right in the middle of their argument, and impolitely cutting off Pustovalov, took out his waistcoat watch, and looking at the second hand remarked:
“I’d give you, Nikolai Nikolaiovich, six minutes to explain your position… Well then, I’m listening: one minute…”
After such an intrusion into the argument, everything was turned upside down; and — the argument dissipated; with a face recalling the poet and censor Maikov, the respected Ivan Ivanovich laid out a weighty quote:
“Science lies in the sphere of fact: hypotheticals damage science… an argument, you see, is a game of hypotheticals, an inflation of hyperbole.”
“Read The Heuristics, now that is a study on the art of matching wits.”
Amazingly, one of the parties to the argument received an inheritance in forty-six days and resigned.
Bureaucrats avoided Ivan Ivanovich; essentially, they were unfamiliar with the events of his long life; he was already past seventy; he had served in the museum some forty years; he had begun work at a mature age, appearing in our parts from Tavrid2; he was given the position by the late Ma–yevski, a powerful influence from that long-gone epoch of czar Nicholas.
It was known only that Ivan Ivanovich himself was an epoch; and also: he resides in Galosh Lane, above the courtyard of a many-storied gray building, from which he unfailingly appears, going to work: autumns — in a coat, in summer — in a breezy canvas jacket, with an overlarge umbrella, winters — in a faded coon-skin fur.
In that old coon-skin fur he was seen running through a winter blizzard along Zhamenka Street, through a thick of snowflakes brocading the foot of the fence at the enormous Alexander institute.
Korobkin appears at 25 minutes to 5 on Galosh Lane, and at 5 exactly he sits in a worn, comfortable leather chair, wearing comfortable fur-lined slippers; after changing his frock-coat – for an exact (flimsier) same one – he sits at a table strewn with books and manuscripts; books of a particular kind – enormous parchment-bound folios: Principia Rerum Naturainm, Sive Novorum Tentanium Phenomena Mundi Elementaris. Or – rows of the Zion Herald‘s volumes.
Charming tomes were thrown about everywhere, like: The Letters of S.G., which nohow indicated authorship, but Ivan Ivanovich’s hand appended amalei to the G, so Gamalei came out.
On the wall, above the writing-desk, Ivan Ivanovich regularly hung out lists bearing the cursive motto of the day; everyday had its own motto for Ivan Ivanovich; mornings, before setting off to work, Ivan Ivanovich selects the motto of the day; and lives by it that whole day; all else was waved aside with: “Sufficient onto the day are its own troubles.”
The day’s trouble was often provided by: Foma Kempeiski’s dicta: “Read those books that would break your heart sooner than amuse it” …Or Latin mottoes. And so on, and so on.
Upon waking, before choosing a motto, Ivan Ivanovich spends some 10 minutes exercising concentration of thought; for this he takes a very plain, very simple thought, for example — of a pin; fixing that pin before his mental gaze, he considers everything concerning a pin, wholly avoiding any desultory associations and ideas; in Ivan Ivanovich’s language this exercise was called The first rule: that of mental control; and everything tied with the selected motto in Ivan Ivanovich’s language was called The second rule: that of initiation to action; Ivan Ivanovich had still a third, fourth, fifth rule, but that is not worth dwelling on. They say: Ivan Ivanovich had a journal, received by inheritance, and it accompanied him throughout his life as he observed all his rules over the span of thirty and then some years, and observed them so subtly that his colleagues never suspected the root cause of his actions, actions that his irreproachable service in the museum but masked, concealing the wisest of rituals, practiced in the realm of pure morality: Ivan Ivanovich was, in essence, a yogi, not an employee.
Even today such eccentrics live among us. Upright citizens, simply — you see them daily, find yourself exchanging hellos with them, and unable to discern the nature of their actions you see — mere peculiarities.
Ivan Ivanovich’s peculiarity of three and them some years’ time: he did not pronounce the first person pronoun “I”, maneuvering so delicately that none could suspect him, even were they, during those three and some years, to have asked Ivan Ivanovich:
“Say, did you read today’s paper?” — then Ivan Ivanovich would answer: “why, certainly,” instead of answering: “I certainly read it.” This rule of avoiding the personal pronoun “I” he called: the rule of fortifying self-consciousness. After three and some years Ivan Ivanovich built up enormous power over the personal pronoun “I.” And then, when the museum director’s assistant once doubted the soundness of setting out the exhibits according to Ivan Ivanovich’s plans, Ivan Ivanovich remarked to him:
“I know my work.”
And he said it just so, so that the director’s assistant saw the very walls stepping aside, and he and his plans flew right past, straight into Hades.
In the evening he proclaimed:
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, everything happens in this world… They say, there
are Masons; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, that he was a Mason; he’d wear some special type of ring
there. Maybe, right among our acquaintances — aha! — they stroll about, so calmly; but just that we don’t know who they are.”
The rules of his exercises brought Ivan Ivanovich into particular states of consciousness, which he divided into three areas: 1) the concentration of thought, 2) meditation, and 3) contemplation, adopting the terms from an order of monks in St. Victor’s monastery in the middle ages.
Contemplation brought him to a state of clarity of thought bordering on clairvoyance; meditation pulled his entire soul into the circle of thought before him. And concentration?
Well, better we describe it.
Pressing his hands to his knees while stretched out in the leather chair Ivan Ivanovich grabs hold of a string of thought understandable to him alone that pierces his entire being; this string of thought evokes a sharpened state of awareness accompanied by the sensations, the recent protests of a dry, seventy-year-old body.
Fires spread around his hands, furious vibrations, furious vibrations felt by his thoughts; his thoughts poured into his hands, so that his hands thought; and – his head blossoms, the way a bud would into a luxurious, many-petaled rose, and his mind’s shutters open out into sensation, like hands around his head, plucking up the thoughts of those around Ivan Ivanovich: and so it might seem that Ivan Ivanovich can swallow thoughts whole.
Ivan Ivanovich spreads out over himself hands made of hands; hands of hands that start to circle, to carry him away.
And the familiar contours of the books, shelves, wardrobe, table, room become somehow transparent, and become shot through with the approach of new, roiling life, of the ever-seething world; within and without his own self everything boils over, spins, trails smoke in weightless strands; all manner of spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films wheel and spread without limit; Ivan Ivanovich sees himself as a roiling knot of thought-strings.
Many-winged and transforming, he is pulled off himself so that he dive into the ever-seething sea of beings, presented as: spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films, which all collapse through into the spark-clusters, brocades, the diaphanous and glowing films that were Ivan Ivanovich himself.
And so he could, pouring out of himself, pour into the roiling life of nearby beings; pouring out of one being into another he could clearly flow through the soul of this or that tenant in the building on Galosh Lane; and he could even flow through the soul of — well, for example: Milyukov, Vinaver, Karl Liebkhent, and maybe even: Bismark, Wikensfeld, Napoleon and Hannibal; and among these roiling, wheeling and warmly glowing forms there glimmer, of course, personages from long-gone epochs.
He could observe much in that world; but he could not bring out his illuminations, contain them in any clear words, and if he try to contain them in a clear word, that word would shatter and open into a fan of words, and pass through a metamorphosis of lexical meanings and through the thousand thoughts and sounds secreted away within him, and emerge a clumsy muddle.
He had lived in this clumsy muddle for many years.
So, what then? A habit of keeping silent, or a habit of communicating with the help of epigrams — such were but the ordinary traces of an extraordinary life.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, boiling over out of one form and into another is flung out beyond forms, and the wheeling creation of his rhythms (the wheelings of his soul) dissolve into the boundless in outwardly flowing orbits (like ripples on a pond’s surface) and melt in the formless; here the stuff of his states of consciousness resembles universal emptiness, and he – emptiness, mute, speechless, motionless – addresses his own exploded center of emptiness with an intimate ”you”, and this you stands acenter his soul; this you bears the stamp of the Unknown, and yet seems to be Known since time immemorial; and this you, the one who we have forgotten declares:
“The days pass by!
“Behold! I come!”
And upon returning to himself, finding himself seated (and wearing comfortable slippers), he feels a warm gladness spill out in the middle of his chest.
This is concentration!
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin knew this deeply: the times — they have piled up, crowded up; possibilities take shape; new days come; a new era arises; with a majestic crash majestic culture bends and groans; under the skies of the old, the new ascends.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin loved the youth with all his heart; he knew — there will be children among children; clumsy rumors were spread that Ivan Ivanovich was something like a, but not quite a, confirmed mystic, but, so to say… a Gnostic — an Apocalyptic; not really a Socialist, nor really a Heliist.
Among his museum co-workers he behaved like an old-fashioned gentleman, avoiding politics; he was even apprehensive of political life; more than anyone he avoided the cadets3, members of the National Freedom Party who, after the rare conversation with Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, decidedly labeled him a backward reactionary. So, once, in the museum building, a philosopher-cadet was espousing his view of the ideal government, one whose humane principles were so wide-reaching that even imprisoned convicts would be offered new and improved methods of entertaining themselves and one another.
Here Ivan Ivanovich interrupted his interlocutor:
“There will, after all, be prisons?”
To which the other responded:
“And how else?”
“I presumed that humanity would become enlightened by a lucid understanding of the principles of fairness and humane treatment.”
“No — there’ll be prisons… but those sitting locked-up in them will listen to symphonies. Right from behind the wall they’ll be played Bach’s fugues and Beethoven’s sonatas.”
But, Ivan Ivanovich, blowing his nose, and with a sour, dry face recalling the poet and censor Maikov, cut off the philosophizing:
“I prefer my prisons with bugs, and — without the sound of Beethoven.”
And so he became listed with the reactionaries.
Besides that, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin denied the need for war in the year of the war; patriotic fervor did not buoy his spirits, and he supposed, contrary to the obvious, that it wasn’t worth making so much noise over a small, half-savage race; this gave everyone cause to think that he was secretly germanophiling. He kept silent about the current regime and made no remarks concerning Rasputin; the February Revolution didn’t please him.
But, as Russia boiled and melted, as fragments broke off of her — Poland, Finland, Latvia, Belorussia, the Caucuses, and the Ukraine, and as the museum screamed itself hoarse, as the residents of Galosh Lane lost their appetites and sleep from anxiety, as the the yellowish-brown pillars of dust swept through Moscow, eating out everyone’s eyes, as a tornado of papers whirled along the avenues, boulevards and squares encrusted with invalids who appeared from God knows where, and as the trams twisted more and more out of shape, and fringes stuck out from between the bodies squeezing and shoving one another within — Ivan Ivanovich, to everyone’s surprise, began to experience an unexplainable yet pleasant emotion, his eyes grew gentler, more radiant, and his elderly mouth bent more often into a smile.
What was it that was forming in Ivan Ivanovich’s mind? It was difficult to say; Russia’s annihilation pleased him, certainly.
Evenings, he would gaze out at the sunset from his window, and one summer (in June of 1917), he even once during a day off appeared at Agrafina Kondrativna’s summer estate, the very same Agrafina Kondrativna who, or, rather: whose… but that is not the point, the point is that – strolling through the field with the museum director’s assistant, Ivan Ivanovich surveyed the surroundings and then crisply remarked:
Yes, yes, yes
How clear and bright the air!”
From then on his colleagues noticed: among the epigrams uttered by Ivan Ivanovich, new epigrams appeared.
After walking into the library, he looks through memos; and he then suddenly flashes an uncanny smile and rub his palms together; looking at him, you would think that his spirit drank in a strange, aromatic drink, one that no one had yet drunk to the bottom — or so it seemed. After a long march of years, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin made use of one of his days off to go spend time out in the open air.
Sometimes, sorting through his memos, he would grab his chest like one suffering from a heart disorder; but this was no disorder; it was his mind intently diving into his fluttering heart; he rolled down, like a pearl, into the cup of his heart, sending ripples along the surface of his blood; you would simply say:
“My heart jumped!”
And so, with a heart that just took an untimely jump (right in the museum!), Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin addressed his colleagues not with the usual sentence, not with something like:
“Iconography, gentlemen, is a science!”
No, rather he addressed them with the strange-sounding phrase:
“Yes, yes, yes — how clear and bright the air.”
Undoubtedly he spoke not of the museum air, thick with dust; nor did he mean the air over the fields; the subject of his awkward declaration was the air found in that realm of thought-feelings where he traveled evenings; that realm – of thought-feelings — was light and air; the composition of that air disturbed Ivan Ivanovich; he distinctly saw how before the revolution Russia was fogged up, dulled; how clouds of choking smoke escaped into the dancing light; only since the revolution did he notice a clarity of atmosphere (all the plumes of choking smoke sank, settling on the outside layer of our life, effecting an inner collapse — in the same manner that dust, packed down by rain, collects on the surfaces of objects in clumps, but the air, cleansed, shines more radiantly).
His words “How clear and bright the air” referred to that particular state of the atmosphere.
When the date reached the 20’s of July 1917, Ivan Ivanovich once appeared in the museum lobby with an overlarge umbrella, in a canvas jacket, but wearing galoshes, and while handing the umbrella to the doorman remarked:
The days pass by, Feramont Semyonivich, they pass by…
They pass by us…
The times are piling up…”
* * *
Those were the hard days of July4; Russia shook.
* * *
Before the October Revolution, when Ivan Ivanovich appeared in the museum already wearing the frayed autumnal overcoat (not the trench-coat), he fixed his gaze on a young man who recently took a post in the museum, a member of one of the newly-formed parties; lifting up his glasses, Ivan Ivanovich stood before him from time to time; Ivan Ivanovich shook his gray head with a feeling of deepest sympathy; and just as if he were caught in the middle of a sigh that began long ago and that seemed to go on without end, Ivan Ivanovich thought aloud:
“And so, young man, the never-setting and limitless makes its way forward; and – oh, yes!” he interrupted himself.
And, wiping off his glasses and returning to his papers, his face changed; his face recalled in rare instants the prophet Jeremiah’s face, as depicted by Michelangelo.
A few days later, that young man was killed on a sidewalk in a crossfire of machine-guns.
We have forgotten to mention one very important detail in Ivan Ivanovich’s life: 15 minutes to 10 every night, he brings the day’s affairs to a close, and views all of the day’s events in reverse: from the last moment to the moment of waking; after this, his thoughts and attention gather a particular solidity and strength; 5 minutes to 11 he lays down to sleep.
He stretches out on his back, his head covered, and lies motionless. The mental screw inside his head unravels spiralwise, and its point wedges against the inside of a seventy-year old skull, and that skull cracks, and the contents of Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin’s head stretch out immeasurably into sensation; at first, it seems to him that a tiara lay atop his head; the tiara then grows into his head and stretches out into an impossibly tall tower — just then, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin’s heels feel pulled by the currents of his elongating and melting legs. First, Ivan Ivanovich felt his heels at the level of, say, his knees (his legs extended beyond his heels), then in his stomach, and finally Ivan Ivanovich feels his body circumscribed into some enormous body, newly pulsing from heart to throat — in a word, he feels himself within himself a pygmy in a giant’s body; so might a tired and drowsy traveler who wandered into a cavernous, empty and abandoned tower feel; Ivan Ivanovich distinctly sees that the tower’s walls are stitched of the sky’s daylight fabric; perceives that fabric to be none other than the skin blanketing us, or, better yet, the covering of some enormous body, from whose inside bones and skin crystallize outward; better yet — he feels himself a crystal in a glass in relation to the solution from which it precipitated.
In those minutes of transition to sleep, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin knows that our body is a body circumscribed, folded inside of another, enormous body; and that larger body is a sky, and each of us travels under his own sky (if a chick could run inside its egg, it would roll the egg forward, stepping along the inside of the eggshell); such is the sky we walk under — an eggshell around our head. But Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin finds himself both inside and outside his own skin (inside the enormous body’s skin, and outside of his regular skin).
Here with an effort of will he squeezes into himself and feels himself as a concentrated, bright, forever straining point; a shudder passes through him; the body laying between the sheets breaks into a flowing stream, and Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin is free to move within the enormous tower (from the heart to the throat, toward the shadowed portal ahead); he feels himself running inside the tower, along the staircase, step by step (organ by organ), and he runs out onto the terrace of a magnificent tower (outside his physical body and outside the elemental body).
He stands out there before a heavenly expanse glittering with stars, but these particular stars glide and fly just like birds; Ivan Ivanovich, freed from his body, reaches the terrace where he contemplates them, and they become many-feathered beings; and they pour forth fountainous flames like feathers, out of their centers; and one being – one star-bird (Ivan Ivanovich’s star) descends to him and embraces him in a crackling fire of rays, or wings, and carries him away; it feels as if boiling water scald Ivan Ivanovich’s very essence; the sensation of hands becomes the sensation of the star’s wings, embracing him in conflagration; Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin flew through all into spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films – by way of spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films — into nothing, where at the core rises up our Old, Forgotten Teacher, greeting us since time immemorial — and he says:
“Behold, I come!”5
And so Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin came to clearly recognize within himself that ancient Celestial who secretly moved and filled him, exalted him with that light and air, with the stuff of his life.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin ordinarily drifted into unconsciousness during these sacred and hidden conversations with the Secret Teacher of life, and the most important parts of the conversation fogged over.
But, the dream conversations with the Teacher became lately edged with unusual clarity; with unusual clarity Ivan Ivanovich understood that his cloud drifts among earthly, murky ones, so that the hour, the fated moment, the foretold day may come when his cloud may rise up like a prophet above the gathered crowd; and hurl words into the crowd, not his own, but the Teacher’s, spoken through him like through a horn:
“Behold, I come!
We’ll build a grand temple…
The times are piling up…
Our homes — destroyed…
The hard soil melts,
And the floodwaters will surround you all.
Behold, I come!”
* * *
During one July day in 1918, when meetings gathered on the outskirts of the city, and when Mirbach’s murder was being planned, everyone noticed that Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, entering the museum, did not even touch the day’s work, his face and posture recalling the prophet Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo.
On finishing work at 20 to 5, Ivan Ivanovich found himself in a tram bound for the city’s outskirts; the time, he felt, was ripe.
A meeting was taking place under the open sky.
There was talk of freedom; of the chance to create life anew; there was talk of love and equality; of the brotherhood of man.
And then, after keeping silent all those years and awaiting in his solitary cell that shining day when the secrets of life would be distilled, and when maybe Spirit enter the heart – he stood up above the crowd.
From beneath gray and heavy brows his gaze penetrated the crowd with an inexpressible love; above the laughter, yells and gibes his inspired head turned, recalling the prophet Jeremiah’s, as depicted by Michelangelo; words sounded: a swansong in crystalline time; for an instant it seemed that something drew irrevocably closer, and life itself was melted upon those words, running like rivulets down into souls, the life that flew – a gold fabric of images (a shimmer of the Spirit) – back to primeval source.
For a moment, everyone felt a relieving sigh rise from the depths of his being; an unending sigh; and he, he who had ripened for so many long years towered above the crowd.
If just then anyone’s eyes could have opened up to gaze suddenly through the veil of illusions that shrouds us all, he would have seen the timeless Celestial, the Teacher taking wing like a bird from the distant spirit-world and hurling himself down into the lifeless abyss, rending a tear in the spirit- world, hurling himself into the divide of Nothing; and whoever could just then have seen, would have seen the soul of Ivan Ivanovich’s words bursting into that divide of Nothing up from the fogged-over, earthly realm (bursting out from the crown of his head); and — the unity of man and spirit, all while an earthly seventy year old body stood above the crowd and uttered words, not its own, but the Teacher’s, who spoke through him, like through a horn:
We’ll build a grand temple…
The times are piling up…
The whirlwinds gather…
Our homes destroyed…
The hard soil melts,
And the floodwaters will surround you all.
Behold, He comes!”
From the rostrum Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin clearly saw bloody passions rearing their heads like grunting leopards in the throng below; he saw: sallow faces, flushed brows, hateful eyes, lips twisting into snarls.
And he clearly understood that it isn’t time for a transformation, not yet; the future rose up from the depths of a discharged atmosphere, and then stepped aside and took no guests along.
He understood his error: an untimely revelation of the Spirit’s writ.
There was an old, worn-out man with blank, dim eyes fixed straight ahead, his eyes ringed with the feathery cinders of lightning burning itself away; so does a still smoldering coal grow gray with cold ash on its surface; eyes like scattered ash swept about the droning crowd, and the enfeebled body, crawling off the rostrum, fell, as if into deep night, seen off by gibes.
* * *
An enfeebled body trudged home, mashing its mouth; it walked along the sleeping city’s alleys and streets with a rumpled brimmed hat pulled down on its forehead, and from under the gray, rumpled hat, eye-whites helplessly stared into a puddle and turned in their orbits; they were set in a thing cast of flesh — a face recalling the censor and poet A. Maikov’s — in his grave.
* * *
But then: the true Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin climbs up to the enormous tower’s terrace and stands, leaning against the railing, contemplating the world of those stars, changing places in that sky; his star speeds toward him, to. . . to take him away to the Teacher awaiting him.
* * *
In the beginning of July 1918, a funeral procession moved toward the Novodevichy Monastery6. Ivan Ivanovich was being buried. His co-workers carried the coffin, and the museum director’s assistant thoughtfully remarked to the charming lady he accompanied:
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, everything happens in this world. . . They say, there are Masons; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, that he was a Mason. . . and I know for sure that our dear departed here was a mason.”
Abdul Aal was a tall, dark-skinned plain-clothes policeman. On the back of his right hand he had an open-mouthed fish with a cleft tail and a spot on its eye.
Abdul Aal was a detective. Even so, he had children and a wife who harped at him some of the time, and who was content with him the rest. Sometimes he swore he was going to divorce her, but only rarely did he carry out his threat.
Abdul Al had a salary of ten Egyptian pounds a month, including all the bonuses he’d received, or not received.
Abdul Aal was really happy to be a detective. When he got on the bus and the conductor passed by, he would say, “Police.” He felt important when he said, “Police,” and when people stared over at him and saluted him with their eyes.
Like everybody else, Abdul Aal dreamed of the future. But he didn’t dream of ordinary things, like becoming an officer or an assistant chief of police. In fact, he dreamed of being Minister of the Interior. Really?! you say. Imagine somebody waking up one morning and finding himself a government minister with a car and a doorman, and with at least one military official with two stripes on his shoulder guarding his front entrance. But it could happen with the greatest of ease! Something like that wouldn’t be hard for God! After all, the One who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing, wouldn’t He be able to create a minister out of a policeman? Besides, why wouldn’t God make a minister out of him when he was the only one among his friends who knew how to read and write properly? Sometimes he would use English words that were gibberish to them. He devoured the newspapers. He even knew about Korea, and could pronounce the name Hammarskjöld correctly.
Some time ago Abdul Aal underwent an interrogation. After taking part in a raid of sorts, he’d received the items that had been confiscated and had signed for them. A few days later, the exhibits were inventoried, and one of them turned up missing. They brought Abdul Aal in and questioned him, but he denied knowing anything about it. They pressed him with questions and got rough with him until he started stammering. Suspicious of him, the officer threatened to conduct a search. Abdul Aal could see from the look in the officer’s eyes that he really did intend to search him. So, reaching into his pocket, he brought out the missing exhibit. The material evidence for the case, it was a masterfully forged check in the amount of one hundred thousand Egyptian pounds.
Surprised, the officer opened a report and started asking more questions. When he got to the question, “Why did you keep the forged check with you?” Abdul Aal couldn’t come up with a clear reason. He muttered and mumbled and said a lot of nonsensical things that didn’t convince the officer, and that he himself wasn’t convinced of. At the end of the day, Abdul Aal left the department exhausted and done in. Half his pay had been docked, he’d been transferred out of the investigations section, and he’d been warned of possible dismissal. He came home sad and resentful. But at the same time, deep down he felt a flush of happiness and satisfaction. Nobody had figured out that he’d kept the forged check in order to make a photocopy of it, which had cost him a lot. He’d paid fifteen piasters for it.
With the passing of that day and the days thereafter, Abdul Aal’s sadness and resentment faded, but the photocopy of the forged check remained.
To this day, Abdul Aal’s happiest moments are the ones when he escapes the throng and goes off by himself. Once he’s sure he’s out of sight, he ever so carefully gets out his wallet. Then, out of a special pocket, he pulls the copy of the check. When he sees the bank’s logo and the printed letters, his ears thunder and his limbs tingle. Then he runs his fingers lovingly over the timeless statement: “Pay to the bearer of this document one hundred thousand Egyptian pounds only.”
He goes on staring at the check until the storms in his belly subside. Then he folds it up delicately and, sighing as though he’d just finished a confession or a prayer, he slips it back into its designated pocket in the wallet. Making his way slowly back to the crowds, he returns to being a tall, dark-skinned policeman, on the back of his right hand an open-mouthed fish with a cleft tail and a spot on its eye.
High up, stretching into the sky, loomed the tower of the fair princess. It was made of pure crystal and its pinnacle was bedecked with gold and precious stones. All around it, a multi-hued, large rose garden spread out. From amongst the thin net of narrow golden paths, perfumed flowerbeds, with countless roses, looked out; red as the setting sun, white as the wings of the Cabbage Whites, pink as the heavens at the brink of dawn, and yellow as the golden curls adorning the fair head of their mistress, the princess. Both beautiful and humble. Each one ten times more glorious and pleasing to the eye than the diamonds, sapphires and aquamarines bejewelling the tower’s crystal. Every single one, a little sun.
And glorious fragrances rose into the sky from the flowerbeds, like wondrous sounds of music, and blended together to become one choir, an ode to beauty. And for all those who saw this glory with their own eyes and listened to the song of fragrances – be they gloomy and their sorrow was forgotten; be they anguished and their torment was unheeded; be they dead and they would come back to life. The garden was surrounded by a tall, thick marble wall that distinguished it from the world around. Roses coiled against the wall, but not one of them dared ascend to the edge and raise her head beyond the kingdom of flowers. And the gate to the garden was locked shut, and hard metal bolts were always suspended across it.
Every morning, bright and early, as the sun rose, the first beams cast their light on the top of the tower, making the crystal glimmer and glisten and glow in a multitude of colours, and as the soft breeze moved the silver bells hanging in the window of the princess’ bedroom, she would walk down to her garden. Her little feet would stroke the ground as she walked, and the rim of her white, light, fragrant dress caressed her pink heels. She would reach the well, draw water from it, and, with her own two narrow hands, as delicate as the wings of white doves, she would water her flowers, one row after the other, flying from one flowerbed to the next, pouring fresh water over the buds, and they would bow to her in gratitude. When she was done, she would walk amongst the flowers to see that nothing had happened to them during the night. And if a rose was bent, she would straighten it; if it had been uprooted, she would plant it once more; if it had wilted, she would snip it off the bush and cast it far from her. And after combing the flowerbeds for thistles, brambles and weeds, she would scatter golden sand along the paths. This was how her day passed.
And when the sun started setting and pink mist began drifting through the air, the wondrous one would again walk the length and width of her garden and kneel next to each rose; and with her lips, which were as sweet as the taste of cherry nectar, she would kiss every flower. And after her kiss, the flowers were ten times as splendid and as beautiful, and their fragrance twenty times as powerful and intoxicating. The princess, dazed by the scent of her own flowers, would go up to her room in the tower and surrender herself to a blue night, full of dreams.
And beyond the wall was a large city, crowded and squalid. Long, narrow and grimy streets twisted through it like snakes. Tall grey houses with small dirty windows and rusted roofs stood crammed together, making it seem as if each one wanted to push the other and take its place. And thousands of factory chimneys raised their heads upwards, piping the black smoke into the sky. Outside of town, there were green pools of water that reeked, desolate fields whose crops grew low and meagre, and old, pitiful ramshackle houses. And only the wonderful scent of the roses, which emanated from the princess’ garden and lingered in the air, would shed a bit of comfort on this rancid city.
Every morning, when the clouded sky turned a little brighter, and all the factories’ chimneys roared their awful roar in one wild chorus, the inhabitants of the city would leave their houses. Their hair was unkempt, their eyes reddened with tears and sleeplessness. Their lips were pale and withered, their clothes made of a rough fabric, torn and grey like the dust of the roads. Even the heads of the children bowed down, and no one dared raise their voice in laughter. Group after group they would walk to the workshops and factories to toil away. And then each one would stiffen in his task. One hunched his back over a needle throughout the long grey day, another incessantly turned the wheel of a machine, the next dug a hole in a ground as hard as stone, another kept throwing wood into the mouth of a burning furnace, large drops of sweat rolling down his sooty body. And in the evening, when the yellow street lamps were lit and their murky light washed over the whole city, the people, dead tired, left their work and went outside, hurrying to their homes to quickly satiate themselves on a dry slice of bread, fall asleep and forget everything, everything.
And on their way home, they were accompanied by the factories’ second roar.
And three times a year only, on the days of the great holidays, the city would transform itself. The narrow streets were cleaner then, a strange smile appeared on the houses and in the little windows white curtains gleamed. On such days, the factories’ chimneys would remain silent and people would stay home until late. And then they would come out, fresh and with a smile on their lips, washed and wearing festive speckled clothes. They all hurried to the field outside the princess’ garden, and there they would stand and wait in anticipation.
At twelve noon, the princess, in all the glory of her beauty, would appear on the wall, her white attire coming down in folds on the wall’s marble, and within her soft face, between her eyelids, two blue eyes glistened, like pools of water among the reeds. On her arm hung a large basket and in it wonderful roses from her garden. For a while she would look down at the speckled field, where thousands of bright, eye-fetching colours burnt in the light of the sun, and then, with her long fingers, she would take the flowers out of her basket and throw them one-by-one to the expectant crowd below. And they would grab each flower and tear it into tiny pieces; and whoever came across even one petal would be elated.
And after the princess had shared her gifts, she would step down off the wall and into the garden, and there she would listen to the songs of joy sung by the dispersing crowed. The notes were powerful and full of hope. They rang through the clear air like the laughter of thunder in a spring sky and grew silent only as evening descended.
The next day the princess would resume her work in the rose garden. And, on the other side of the wall, the hard day-to-day life would also recommence.
Once there was a drought. The barren soil outside the city yielded only very little, and the low, meagre crops were singed as they budded. The wells and pools dried up, the tiles that paved the city streets burnt like coals, and the dust rose high up, enshrouding everything. The people despaired from hunger and thirst. They hunched their backs even lower. Their faces were pale and bleak, their eyes were on fire and their fists became clenched. And when the holiday arrived, none of the city’s inhabitants wore their speckled clothing. Sooty and dirty, wearing torn clothes, they gathered on the field outside the princess’ house and waited impatiently for her arrival. She was a little late that morning: “How beautiful the flowers are this year! And the basket so full. How happy they will be when I bring the roses to them,” she thought. But the strange voices that she heard from beyond the wall startled her. “What is it?” she wondered, “For I have never heard sounds such as these before, and why haven’t I?” She finally made her mind up and started climbing, and as she climbed strange wailing reached her ears – the sound of children crying, and women groaning, and roars which came from the parched throats of the men, and when she lowered her gaze to look down at the field, she was so startled she could barely hold herself, for it was so black and ugly. But still she placed her hand in the flower basket, meaning to throw the flowers to the crowd, but a wild laughter that rose from everyone’s throats stopped her.
“Enough!” they shouted from below. “We have no need for your gifts! We shall not let you go on dwelling safely beyond the wall, enjoying the scent of your flowers. See our poverty! How thin our arms, how white our hair. Look how ugly we are, how filthy our city. We no longer want a dog’s life. We need wonderful flowers in our gardens, not behind your wall! Come out to us! Walk among us. Be the gardener of our gardens. Open the gates! And if not… Well, we will tear down the wall, shatter your towers, and trample over those roses of yours with the soles of our boots. Open the gates!”
And the princess lowered her hand helplessly, twisted her dresses with anguish, and large shimmering tears rolled down from her eyes. Then she climbed down the wall and opened the gate.
The inflamed mass barged into the garden trampling and collecting the roses, destroying the crystal tower, and they took the princess away with them.
And from that day on she began planting the roses in their gardens, in their barren soil, but the buds that grew were pale and lifeless, their scent was so faint that no one sensed it, and the magical qualities of the roses in the garden beyond the wall were gone. The princess persisted in her efforts to retrieve their former glory, but to no avail. Even the kisses from her warm lips could not revive the roses.
Then the city’s inhabitants said: “Why did you deceive us? We have plenty of roses like these, we never asked you for trickery. We begged you for remedy and comfort. Grow the roses you once grew in your garden on our lands!”
And she replied: “I cannot. For the roses I once grew bloom only beyond the wall.”
And they would not believe her.
A runner asked me one morning on my way to work, “Hey, you. Can you tell me what time it is?”
I replied, “Ten to.”
“To what?” he asked.
I stared at him briefly. “To eight,” and added an “of course ” under my breath.
Had it been any other time of day, I might not have found it so self-evident. But at eight? When everyone was rushing to get to work on time?
“OK. Thank you. I know neither day nor hour.”
He shook his head and carried on running.
I went on my way, more than a little confused. Questions tumbled around my brain like bumblebees.
“It’s also Wednesday, 18 October. Anything else you’d like to know?”
I toiled away my eight hours and, truth be told, had forgotten all about the incident when I passed the pitch again and spotted the guy still running.
“Hey, you. Can you tell me what time it is?”
“Ten past five,” I replied.
“Morning or evening?”
I found myself staring at him again. “Evening,” I said curtly.
“Thank you. Must run.”
He ran on. I noticed a track on the pitch where he had been circling all day.
I headed home, but thought a lot about the man. Actually, to be honest, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
For how long had he been running, seeing as he didn’t know what day, let alone time, it was? Had he been running for so long that he had completely lost his wits? Or was he a foreigner? Was he perhaps one of these roaming aliens who had taken human form? Perhaps he was lost. Who knows? Wound up in Gundadalur when he was supposed to take part in some intergalactic marathon. Programmed wrong.
I had always wanted to travel in time like that. But I would want to decide for myself where to go and who to visit.
Later that evening I went for a walk. I hadn’t planned on walking that way, but without realizing I had taken the same route as in the morning. The closer I got to the pitch, the more I regretted my choice of route. I didn’t feel like walking past it, so I just peeked around the corner of the spectators’ shelter to find out whether he might actually still be running.
Sure enough, after a while I saw a shadow passing by down on the track.
What should I do?
Call the police or something? The man was wearing himself down. If he couldn’t stop himself, I had to help him. But I was reluctant to get involved in this strange affair. The shadow passed me again on its endless orbit. I slipped home.
I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were running in circles. Chasing after that guy. Following him around the track. I tried to guess where he might be now: on the north or east side. Then it occurred to me, and all thoughts stopped in their tracks, he was running the wrong way. Everyone who usually worked out there ran with the sun. Was that why he couldn’t find his way out again? Perhaps there was some way for me to break his orbit.
I sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. I could put down a plank or two across the track to ease him out, without him fully realizing it. Maybe I should do something now, immediately. This was urgent. I thought I remembered seeing two suitable planks in the garage.
I jumped out of bed, quickly put on a pair of jeans and tucked in the large singlet I slept in. Then I rushed down the stairs and pulled the brown leather jacket off the coat hanger. I had a disturbing feeling that this was extremely urgent. As if it had something to do with me. As if it was a matter of life or death.
It was pitch black outside. The lamp post in front of my house was dark.
I fumbled my way towards the garage door, only to remember that we now used a remote. No pulling. I fumbled back in again for the remote. That did the trick. The door rolled up under the ceiling. It was so noisy in the silent night that it made me nervous. At night, when it is quiet, you have to listen. Hear everything that is going on. It is the only salvation.
The light came on automatically and there they were. I pushed aside a few old pots of paint with brushes sticking straight up without support, and grabbed an old newspaper to brush the cobwebs off the planks. The planks were so long that they sagged in the middle when I lifted them. I hesitated very briefly, and then headed for the football pitch.
Of course, I had no way of knowing whether the man was still running, but, if he was, I had to try.
I have always been both night-blind and afraid of the dark, so this was no easy task. I hoped I wouldn’t come across anyone on my way. They might think the planks were a ladder.
I hurried until I neared the pitch. Then I walked more cautiously. But suddenly I ran into a fence—actually, I ran the planks into a fence and dropped them. I felt the burn of splinters piercing my palms. Cursing, I felt my way to the opening. Then down the stairs, along the barrier and over to where I knew there was a hole. I pushed the planks through and listened, stock-still. The quiet seethed in the darkness. Suddenly I heard something. I did. It was so dark there. I heard the breathing before I heard the footsteps of someone running past, panting. I felt the hairs rising on my nape.
The runner stumbled over the planks, groaned, got back on his feet and carried on running. I flinched in sympathy, but thought I had to give it another shot. Some time passed. Then I heard panting approaching again and once again he stumbled over the boards and fell on his face. He whimpered so pitifully that I immediately pulled back the planks and took them home. I threw them into the garage and closed the door with the remote. Getting any sleep tonight was out of the question, so I made coffee and sat down to mull things over. I was in two minds about the whole thing. In the end I was so exhausted that I fell asleep draped over the table. A crick in my neck woke me up, but my first thought wasn’t the pain or that I was late for work now.
I prayed that he had stopped that nonsense.
I rushed to work, passed the pitch; the man was running all the same. My stomach tied in knots.
“Stop it. Stop it!” I yelled silently. He looked up and I felt a jolt when our eyes met. This time he didn’t ask what time it was, he just gave me a pleading look. My eyes welled up. I had never felt more helpless.
I went to work, but couldn’t focus. My thoughts were spinning. I usually had every situation under control, but now it was all a mess. I couldn’t focus enough to sit still. I paced the floor.
Finally, work was over. I couldn’t remember a longer day. Usually, they were over before I knew it. There was only one thing on my mind: getting down to the pitch as quickly as possible.
I had a fierce battle with myself, but finally pulled myself together, turned around and walked up towards the bank. There was an art exhibition I had been meaning to see for a while.
Most of the images portrayed the same thing: the dim outline of a man and a door opening to darkness. One differed. It was just a door, which was closed.
The images unsettled me.
I couldn’t resist any longer, I ran down to the pitch. The weather had been nice in the morning, but now it was windy with sleet. I was soon drenched, but there was nothing for it. My legs were shaking when I finally came to a halt, panting.
My heart sank to the bottom. His gait had changed. He was dragging himself along like an old man.
I built up my courage and approached the barrier.
“Please stop that!” I implored him, when he passed by.
“I can’t. Don’t know how to,” he gasped and his blue eyes were brimming with tears.
I gripped the barrier so hard that my knuckles went white.
The next time he passed, I heard him say: “Some men run in shorts, although they own trousers.”
It sounded apologetic, as though he knew that he was inconveniencing me.
I went home, dragging my feet along with me.
I fixed myself something to eat, but felt like I was chewing paper.
“Stop it, woman. Stop it!” I shouted and startled myself.
I lay down in bed and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was pitch black.
I checked my watch. Two thirty. I had slept enough. I got up, wrapped a blanket around myself, took a CD and put it on. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the music, but was interrupted by beats, which weren’t supposed to be there. My heart was pounding in my chest and blood was boiling in my ears. Thump. Thump. I listened: that wasn’t just my heart. There was also a knocking at the door.
Who the hell could that be, disturbing people in the middle of the night? I ignored the knocking, but whoever it was, it was not someone easily discouraged. It sounded as though someone was pounding on the door with both fists. I flicked on the light and stood up. I could make out a shape through the pane in the front door. I didn’t like this one bit. I wanted one of those peepholes. I wrapped the blanket tighter around me.
When I unlocked the door, there he was.
I felt immensely relieved, and took a deep breath. He finally stopped. I gave him a tender look and sighed.
He looked exhausted. His face ashen, dark circles under his eyes and drenched in sweat. He was trembling. He had worn out his shoes and his toes were sticking out. I suddenly realized that he was running on the spot. He could barely lift his feet, but he was running. Behind him snow had started to fall.
He tried to say something, but couldn’t speak. Then he cleared his throat a few times.
“Can you lend me your thoughts, so I can escape this?” he asked hoarsely with pleading eyes.
“Yes. If that’s all it takes, then, by all means, do take my thoughts.”
He stopped dead, thanked me and left, and I have to admit that since then I haven’t had a single thought.
But I have taken up running.