Every evening the young Fisherman went out upon the sea, and threw his nets into the water.
When the wind blew from the land he caught nothing, or but little at best, for it was a bitter and black-winged wind, and rough waves rose up to meet it. But when the wind blew to the shore, the fish came in from the deep, and swam into the meshes of his nets, and he took them to the market-place and sold them.
Every evening he went out upon the sea, and one evening the net was so heavy that hardly could he draw it into the boat. And he laughed, and said to himself ‘Surely I have caught all the fish that swim, or snared some dull monster that will be a marvel to men, or some thing of horror that the great Queen will desire,’ and putting forth all his strength, he tugged at the coarse ropes till, like lines of blue enamel round a vase of bronze, the long veins rose up on his arms. He tugged at the thin ropes, and nearer and nearer came the circle of flat corks, and the net rose at last to the top of the water.
But no fish at all was in it, nor any monster or thing of horror, but only a little Mermaid lying fast asleep.
Her hair was as a wet fleece of gold, and each separate hair as a thread of line gold in a cup of glass. Her body was as white ivory, and her tail was of silver and pearl. Silver and pearl was her tail, and the green weeds of the sea coiled round it; and like sea-shells were her ears, and her lips were like sea-coral. The cold waves dashed over her cold breasts, and the salt glistened upon her eyelids.
So beautiful was she that when the young Fisherman saw her he was filled with wonder, and he put out his hand and drew the net close to him, and leaning over the side he clasped her in his arms. And when he touched her, she gave a cry like a startled sea-gull and woke, and looked at him in terror with her mauve-amethyst eyes, and struggled that she might escape. But he held her tightly to him, and would not suffer her to depart.
And when she saw that she could in no way escape from him, she began to weep, and said, ‘I pray thee let me go, for I am the only daughter of a King, and my father is aged and alone.’
But the young Fisherman answered, ‘I will not let thee go save thou makest me a promise that whenever I call thee, thou wilt come and sing to me, for the fish delight to listen to the song of the Sea-folk, and so shall my nets be full.’
‘Wilt thou in very truth let me go, if I promise thee this?’ cried the Mermaid.
‘In very truth I will let thee go,’ said the young Fisherman. So she made him the promise he desired, and sware it by the oath of the Sea-folk. And he loosened his arms from about her, and she sank down into the water, trembling with a strange fear.
Every evening the young Fisherman went out upon the sea, and called to the Mermaid, and she rose out of the water and sang to him. Round and round her swam the dolphins, and the wild gulls wheeled above her head.
And she sang a marvellous song. For she sang of the Sea-folk who drive their flocks from cave to cave, and carry the little calves on their shoulders; of the Tritons who have long green beards, and hairy breasts, and blow through twisted conchs when the King passes by; of the palace of the King which is all of amber, with a roof of clear emerald, and a pavement of bright pearl; and of the gardens of the sea where the great filigrane fans of coral wave all day long, and the fish dart about like silver birds, and the anemones cling to the rocks, and the pinks bourgeon in the ribbed yellow sand. She sang of the big whales that come down from the north seas and have sharp icicles hanging to their fins; of the Sirens who tell of such wonderful things that the merchants have to stop their ears with wax lest they should hear them, and leap into the water and be drowned; of the sunken galleys with their tall masts, and the frozen sailors clinging to the rigging, and the mackerel swimming in and out of the open portholes; of the little barnacles who are great travellers, and cling to the keels of the ships and go round and round the world; and of the cuttlefish who live in the sides of the cliffs and stretch out their long black arms, and can make night come when they will it. She sang of the nautilus who has a boat of her own that is carved out of an opal and steered with a silken sail; of the happy Mermen who play upon harps and can charm the great Kraken to sleep; of the little children who catch hold of the slippery porpoises and ride laughing upon their backs; of the Mermaids who lie in the white foam and hold out their arms to the mariners; and of the sea-lions with their curved tusks, and the sea-horses with their floating manes.
And as she sang, all the funny-fish came in from the deep to listen to her, and the young Fisherman threw his nets round them and caught them, and others he took with a spear. And when his boat was well-laden, the Mermaid would sink down into the sea, smiling at him.
Yet would she never come near him that he might touch her. Often times he called to her and prayed of her, but she would not; and when he sought to seize her she dived into the water as a seal might dive, nor did he see her again that day. And each day the sound of her voice became sweeter to his ears. So sweet was her voice that he forgot his nets and his cunning, and had no care of his craft. Vermilion-finned and with eyes of bossy gold, the tunnies went by in shoals, but he heeded them not. His spear lay by his side unused, and his baskets of plaited osier were empty. With lips parted, and eyes dim with wonder, he sat idle in his boat and listened, listening till the sea-mists crept round him, and the wandering moon stained his brown limbs with silver.
And one evening he called to her, and said: ‘Little Mermaid, little Mermaid, I love thee. Take me for thy bridegroom, for I love thee.’
But the Mermaid shook her head. ‘Thou hast a human soul,’ she answered. ‘If only thou would’st send away thy soul, then could I love thee.’
And the young Fisherman said to himself ‘Of what use is my soul to me? I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it. Surely I will send it away from me, and much gladness shall be mine.’ And a cry of joy broke from his lips, and standing up in the painted boat, he held out his arms to the Mermaid. ‘I will send my soul away,’ he cried, ‘and you shall be my bride, and I will be the bridegroom, and in the depth of the sea we will dwell together, and all that thou hast sung of thou shalt show me, and all that thou desirest I will do, nor shall our lives be divided.’
And the little Mermaid laughed for pleasure, and hid her face in her hands.
‘But how shall I send my soul from me?’ cried the young Fisherman. ‘Tell me how I may do it, and lo! it shall be done.’
‘Alas! I know not,’ said the little Mermaid: ‘the Sea-folk have no souls.’ And she sank down into the deep, looking wistfully at him.
Now early on the next morning, before the sun was the span of a man’s hand above the hill, the young Fisherman went to the house of the Priest and knocked three times at the door.
The novice looked out through the wicket, and where he saw who it was, he drew back the latch and said to him, ‘Enter.’
And the young Fisherman passed in, and knelt down on the sweet-smelling rushes of the floor, and cried to the Priest who was reading out of the Holy Book and said to him, ‘Father, I am in love with one of the Sea-folk, and my soul hindereth me from having my desire. Tell me how I can send my soul away from me, for in truth I have no need of it. Of what value is my soul to me? I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it.’
And the Priest beat his breast, and answered, ‘Alack, Alack, thou art mad, or hast eaten of poisonous herb, for the soul is the noblest part of man, and was given to us by God that we should nobly use it. There is no thing more precious than a human soul, nor any earthly thing that can be weighed with it. It is worth all the gold that is in the world, and is more precious than the rubies of the kings. Therefore, my son, think not any more of this matter, for it is a sin that may not be forgiven. And as for the Sea-folk, they are lost, and they who would traffic with them are lost also. They are as the beasts of the field that know not good from evil, and for them the Lord has not died.’
The young Fisherman’s eyes filled with tears when he heard the bitter words of the Priest, and he rose up from his knees and said to him, ‘Father, the Fauns live in the forest and are glad, and on the rocks sit the Mermen with their harps of red gold. Let me be as they are, I beseech thee, for their days are as the days of flowers. And as for my soul, what doth my soul profit me, if it stand between me and the thing that I love?’
‘The love of the body is vile,’ cried the Priest, knitting his brows, ‘and vile and evil are the pagan things God suffers to wander through His world. Accursed be the Fauns of the woodland, and accursed be the singers of the sea! I have heard them at night-time, and they have sought to lure me from my beads. They tap at the window, and laugh. They whisper into my ears the tale of their perilous joys. They tempt me with temptations, and when I would pray they make mouths at me. They are lost, I tell thee, they are lost. For them there is no heaven nor hell, and in neither shall they praise God’s name.’
‘Father,’ cried the young Fisherman, ‘thou knowest not what thou sayest. Once in my net I snared the daughter of a King. She is fairer than the morning star, and whiter than the moon. For her body I would give my soul, and for her love I would surrender heaven. Tell me what I ask of thee, and let me go in peace.’
‘Away! Away!’ cried the Priest: ‘thy leman is lost, and thou shalt be lost with her.’ And he gave him no blessing, but drove him from his door.
And the young Fisherman went down into the market-place, and he walked slowly, and with bowed head, as one who is in sorrow.
And when the merchants saw him coming, they began to whisper to each other, and one of them came forth to meet him, and called him by name, and said to him, ‘What hast thou to sell?’
‘I will sell thee my soul,’ he answered: ‘I pray thee buy it off me, for I am weary of it. Of what use is my soul to me? I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it.’
But the merchants mocked at him, and said, ‘Of what use is a man’s soul to us? It is not worth a clipped piece of silver. Sell us thy body for a slave, and we will clothe thee in sea-purple, and put a ring upon thy finger, and make thee the minion of the great Queen. But talk not of the soul, for to us it is nought, nor has it any value for our service.’
And the young Fisherman said to himself: ‘How strange a thing this is! The Priest telleth me that the soul is worth all the gold in the world, and the merchants say that it is not worth a clipped piece of silver.’ And he passed out of the market-place, and went down to the shore of the sea, and began to ponder on what he should do.
And at noon he remembered how one of his companions, who was a gatherer of samphire, had told him of a certain young Witch who dwelt in a cave at the head of the bay and was very cunning in her witcheries. And he set to and ran, so eager was he to get rid of his soul, and a cloud of dust followed him as he sped round the sand of the shore. By the itching of her palm the young Witch knew his coming, and she laughed and let down her red hair. With her red hair falling around her, she stood at the opening of the cave, and in her hand she had a spray of wild hemlock that was blossoming.
‘What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack?’ she cried, as he came panting up the steep, and bent down before her. ‘Fish for thy net, when the wind is foul? I have a little reed-pipe, and when I blow on it the mullet come sailing into the bay. But it has a price, pretty boy, it has a price. What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? A storm to wreck the ships, and wash the chests of rich treasure ashore? I have more storms than the wind has, for I serve one who is stronger than the wind, and with a sieve and a pail of water I can send the great galleys to the bottom of the sea. But I have a price, pretty boy, I have a price. What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? I know a flower that grows in the valley, none knows it but I. It has purple leaves, and a star in its heart, and its juice is as white as milk. Should’st thou touch with this flower the hard lips of the Queen, she would follow thee all over the world. Out of the bed of the King she would rise, and over the whole world she would follow thee. And it has a price, pretty boy, it has a price. What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? I can pound a toad in a mortar, and make broth of it, and stir the broth with a dead man’s hand. Sprinkle it on thine enemy while he sleeps, and he will turn into a black viper, and hid own mother will slay him. With a wheel I can draw the Moon from heaven, and in a crystal I can show thee Death. What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? Tell me thy desire, and I will give it thee, and thou shalt pay me a price, pretty boy, thou shalt pay me a price.’
‘My desire is but for a little thing,’ said the young Fisherman, ‘yet hath the Priest been wroth with me, and driven me forth. It is but for a little thing, and the merchants have mocked at me, and denied me. Therefore am I come to thee, though men call thee evil, and whatever be thy price I shall pay it.’
‘What would’st thou?’ asked the Witch, coming near to him.
‘I would send my soul away from me,’ answered the young Fisherman.
The Witch grew pale, and shuddered, and hid her face in her blue mantle. ‘Pretty boy, pretty boy,’ she muttered, ‘that is a terrible thing to do.’
He tossed his brown curls and laughed. ‘My soul is nought to me,’ he answered. ‘I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it.’
‘What wilt thou give me if I tell thee?’ asked the Witch looking down at him with her beautiful eyes.
‘Five pieces of gold,’ he said, ‘and my nets, and the wattled house where I live, and the painted boat in which I sail. Only tell me how to get rid of my soul, and I will give thee all that I possess.’
She laughed mockingly at him, and struck him with the spray of hemlock. ‘I can turn the autumn leaves into gold,’ she answered, ‘and I can weave the pale moonbeams into silver if I will it. He whom I serve is richer than all the kings of this world and has their dominions.’
‘What then shall I give thee,’ he cried, ‘if thy price be neither gold nor silver?’
The Witch stroked his hair with her thin white hand. ‘Thou must dance with me, pretty boy,’ she murmured, and she smiled at him as she spoke.
‘Nought but that?’ cried the young Fisherman in wonder, and he rose to his feet.
‘Nought but that,’ she answered, and she smiled at him again.
‘Then at sunset in some secret place we shall dance together,’ he said, ‘and after that we have danced thou shalt tell me the thing which I desire to know.’
She shook her head. ‘When the moon is full, when the moon is full,’ she muttered. Then she peered all round, and listened. A blue bird rose screaming from its nest and circled over the dunes, and three spotted birds rustled through the coarse grey grass and whistled to each other. There was no other sound save the sound of a wave fretting the smooth pebbles below. So she reached out her hand, and drew him near to her and put her dry lips close to his ear.
‘To-night thou must come to the top of the mountain,’ she whispered. ‘It is a Sabbath, and He will be there.’
The young Fisherman started and looked at her, and she showed her white teeth and laughed. ‘Who is He of whom thou speakest?’ he asked.
‘It matters not,’ she answered. ‘Go thou to-night, and stand under the branches of the hornbeam, and wait for my coming. If a black dog run towards thee, strike it with a rod of willow, and it will go away. If an owl speak to thee, make it no answer. When the moon is full I shall be with thee, and we will dance together on the grass.’
‘But wilt thou swear to me to tell me how I may send my soul from me?’ he made question.
She moved out into the sunlight, and through her red hair rippled the wind. ‘By the hoofs of the goat I swear it,’ she made answer.
‘Thou art the best of the witches,’ cried the young Fisherman, ‘and I will surely dance with thee to-night on the top of the mountain. I would indeed that thou hadst asked of me either gold or silver. But such as thy price is thou shalt have it, for it is but a little thing.’ And he doffed his cap to her, and bent his head low, and ran back to the town filled with a great joy.
And the Witch watched him as he went, and when he had passed from her sight she entered her cave, and having taken a mirror from a box of carved cedarwood, she set it up on a frame, and burned vervain on lighted charcoal before it, and peered through the coils of the smoke. And after a time she clenched her hands in anger. ‘He should have been mine,’ she muttered, ‘I am as fair as she is.’
And that evening, when the moon had risen, the young Fisherman climbed up to the top of the mountain, and stood under the branches of the hornbeam. Like a targe of polished metal the round sea lay at his feet, and the shadows of the fishing boats moved in the little bay. A great owl, with yellow sulphurous eyes, called to him by his name, but he made it no answer. A black dog ran towards him and snarled. He struck it with a rod of willow, and it went away whining.
At midnight the witches came flying through the air like bats. ‘Phew!’ they cried, as they lit upon the ground, ‘there is someone here we know not!’ and they sniffed about, and chattered to each other, and made signs. Last of all came the young Witch, with her red hair streaming in the wind. She wore a dress of gold tissue embroidered with peacocks’ eyes, and a little cap of green velvet was on her head.
‘Where is he, where is he?’ shrieked the witches when they saw her, but she only laughed, and ran to the hornbeam, and taking the Fisherman by the hand she led him out into the moonlight and began to dance.
Round and round they whirled, and the young Witch jumped so high that he could see the scarlet heels of her shoes. Then right across the dancers came the sound of the galloping of a horse, but no horse was to be seen, and he felt afraid.
‘Faster,’ cried the Witch, and she threw her arms about his neck, and her breath was hot upon his face. ‘Faster, faster!’ she cried, and the earth seemed to spin beneath his feet, and his brain grew troubled, and a great terror fell on him, as of some evil thing that was watching him, and at last he became aware that under the shadow of a rock there was a figure that had not been there before.
It was a man dressed in a suit of black velvet, cut in the Spanish fashion. His face was strangely pale, but his lips were like a proud red flower. He seemed weary, and was leaning back toying in a listless manner with the pommel of his dagger. On the grass beside him’ lay a plumed hat, and a pair of riding gloves gauntleted with gilt lace, and sewn with seed-pearls wrought into a curious device. A short cloak lined with sables hung from his shoulder, and his delicate white hands were gemmed with rings. Heavy eyelids drooped over his eyes. The young Fisherman watched him, as one snared in a spell. At last their eyes met, and wherever he danced it seemed to him that the eyes of the man were upon him. He heard the Witch laugh, and caught her by the waist, and whirled her madly round and round.
Suddenly a dog bayed in the wood, and the dancers stopped, and going up two by two, knelt down, and kissed the man’s hands. As they did so, a little smile touched his proud lips, as a bird’s wing touches the water and makes it laugh. But there was disdain in it. He kept looking at the young Fisherman.
‘Come! let us worship,’ whispered the Witch, and she led him up, and a great desire to do as she besought him seized on him, and he followed her. But when he came close, and without knowing why he did it, he made on his breast the sign of the Cross, and called upon the holy name.
No sooner had he done so than the witches screamed like hawks and flew away, and the pallid face that had been watching him twitched with a spasm of pain. The man went over to a little wood, and whistled. A jennet with silver trappings came running to meet him. As he leapt upon the saddle he turned round, and looked at the young Fisherman sadly.
And the Witch with the red hair tried to fly away also, but the Fisherman caught her by her wrists, and held her fast. ‘Loose me,’ she cried, ‘and let me go. For thou hast named what should not be named, and shown the sign that may not be looked at.’
‘Nay,’ he answered, ‘but I will not let thee go till thou hast told me the secret.’
‘What secret?’ said the Witch, wrestling with him like a wild cat, and biting her foam-flecked lips.
‘Thou knowest,’ he made answer.
Her grass-green eyes grew dim with tears, and she said to the Fisherman, ‘Ask me anything but that!’
He laughed, and held her all the more tightly.
And when she saw that she could not free herself she whispered to him, ‘Surely I am as fair as the daughters of the sea, and as comely as those that dwell in the blue waters,’ and she fawned on him and put her face close to his.
But he thrust her back frowning, and said to her, ‘If thou keepest not the promise that thou madest to me I will slay thee for a false witch.’
She grew grey as a blossom of the Judas tree, and shuddered. ‘Be it so,’ she muttered. ‘It is thy soul and not mine. Do with it as thou wilt.’ And she took from her girdle a little knife that had a handle of green viper’s skin, and gave it to him.
‘What shall this serve me?’ he asked of her wondering.
She was silent for a few moments, and a look of terror came over her face. Then she brushed her hair back from her forehead, and smiling strangely she said to him, ‘What men call the shadow of the body is not the shadow of the body, but is the body of the soul. Stand on the sea-shore with thy back to the moon, and cut away from around thy feet thy shadow, which is thy soul’s body, and bid thy soul leave thee, and it will do so.’
The young Fisherman trembled. ‘Is this true?’ he murmured.
‘It is true, and I would that I had not told thee of it,’ she cried, and she clung to his knees weeping.
He put her from him and left her in the rank grass, and going to the edge of the mountain he placed the knife in his belt, and began to climb down.
And his Soul that was within him called out to him and said, ‘Lo! I have dwelt with thee for all these years, and have been thy servant. Send me not away from thee now, for what evil have I done thee?’
And the young Fisherman laughed. ‘Thou has done me no evil, but I have no need of thee,’ he answered. ‘The world is wide, and there is Heaven also, and Hell, and that dim twilight house that lies between. Go wherever thou wilt, but trouble me not, for my love is calling to me.’
And his Soul besought him piteously, but he heeded it not, but leapt from crag to crag, being sure-footed as a wild goat, and at last he reached the level ground and the yellow shore of the sea.
Bronze-limbed and well-knit, like a statue wrought by a Grecian, he stood on the sand with his back to the moon, and out of the foam came white arms that beckoned to him, and out of the waves rose dim forms that did him homage. Before him lay his shadow, which was the body of his soul, and behind him hung the moon in the honey-coloured air.
And his Soul said to him, ‘If indeed thou must drive me from thee, send me not forth without a heart. The world is cruel, give me thy heart to take with me.’
He tossed his head and smiled. ‘With what should I love my love if I gave thee my heart?’ he cried.
‘Nay, but be merciful,’ said his Soul: ‘give me thy heart, for the world is very cruel, and I am afraid.’
‘My heart is my love’s,’ he answered, ‘therefore tarry not, but get thee gone.’
‘Should I not love also?’ asked his Soul.
‘Get thee gone, for I have no need of thee,’ cried the young Fisherman, and he took the little knife with its handle of green viper’s skin, and cut away his shadow from around his feet, and it rose up and stood before him, and looked at him, and it was even as himself.
He crept back, and thrust the knife into his belt, and a feeling of awe came over him. ‘Get thee gone,’ he murmured, ‘and let me see thy face no more.’
‘Nay, but we must meet again,’ said the Soul. Its voice was low and flute-like, and its lips hardly moved while it spake.
‘How shall we meet?’ cried the young Fisherman. ‘Thou wilt not follow me into the depths of the sea?’
‘Once every year I will come to this place, and call to thee,’ said the Soul. ‘It may be that thou wilt have need of me.’
‘What need should I have of thee?’ cried the young Fisherman, ‘but be it as thou wilt,’ and he plunged into the water, and the Tritons blew their horns, and the little Mermaid rose up to meet him, and put her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth.
And the Soul stood on the lonely beach and watched them. And when they had sunk down into the sea, it went weeping away over the marshes.
And after a year was over the Soul came down to the shore of the sea and called to the young Fisherman, and he rose out of the deep, and said, ‘Why dost thou call to me?’
And the Soul answered, ‘Come nearer, that I may speak with thee, for I have seen marvellous things.’
So he came nearer, and couched in the shallow water, and leaned his head upon his hand and listened.
And the Soul said to him, ‘When I left thee I turned my face to the East and journeyed. From the East cometh everything that is wise. Six days I journeyed, and on the morning of the seventh day I came to a hill that is in the country of the Tartars. I sat down under the shade of a tamarisk tree to shelter myself from the sun. The land was dry, and burnt up with the heat. The people went to and fro over the plain like flies crawling upon a disk of polished copper.
‘When it was noon a cloud of red dust rose up from the flat rim of the land. When the Tartars saw it, they strung their painted bows, and having leapt upon their little horses they galloped to meet it. The women fled screaming to the waggons, and hid themselves behind the felt curtains.
‘At twilight the Tartars returned, but five of them were missing, and of those that came back not a few had been wounded. They harnessed their horses to the waggons and drove hastily away. Three jackals came out of a cave and peered after them. Then they sniffed up the air with their nostrils, and trotted off in the opposite direction.
‘When the moon rose I saw a camp-fire burning on the plain, and went towards it. A company of merchants were seated round it on carpets. Their camels were picketed behind them, and the negroes who were their servants were pitching tents of tanned skin upon the sand, and making a high wall of the prickly pear.
‘As I came near them, the chief of the merchants rose up and drew his sword, and asked me my business.
‘I answered that I was a Prince in my own land, and that I had escaped from the Tartars, who had sought to make me their slave. The chief smiled, and showed me five heads fixed upon long reeds of bamboo.
‘Then he asked me who was the prophet of God, and I answered him Mohammed.
‘When he heard the name of the false prophet, he bowed and took me by the hand, and placed me by his side. A negro brought me some mare’s milk in a wooden-dish, and a piece of lamb’s flesh roasted.
‘At daybreak we started on our journey. I rode on a red-haired camel by the side of the chief, and a runner ran before us carrying a spear. The men of war were on either hand, and the mules followed with the merchandise. There were forty camels in the caravan, and the mules were twice forty in number.
‘We went from the country of the Tartars into the country of those who curse the Moon. We saw the Gryphons guarding their gold on the white rocks, and the scaled Dragons sleeping in their caves. As we passed over the mountains we held our breath lest the snows might fall on us, and each man tied a veil of gauze before his eyes. As we passed through the valleys the Pygmies shot arrows at us from the hollows of the trees, and at night time we heard the wild men beating on their drums. When we came to the Tower of Apes we set fruits before them, and they did not harm us. When we came to the Tower of Serpents we gave them warm milk in bowls of brass, and they let us go by. Three times in our journey we came to the banks of the Oxus. We crossed it on rafts of wood with great bladders of blown hide. The river-horses raged against us and sought to slay us. When the camels saw them they trembled.
‘The kings of each city levied tolls on us, but would not suffer us to enter their gates. They threw us bread over the walls, little maize-cakes baked in honey and cakes of fine flour filled with dates. For every hundred baskets we gave them a bead of amber.
‘When the dwellers in the villages saw us coming, they poisoned the wells and fled to the hill-summits. We fought with the Magadae who are born old, and grow younger and younger every year, and die when they are little children; and with the Laktroi who say that they are the sons of tigers, and paint themselves yellow and black; and with the Aurantes who bury their dead on the tops of trees, and themselves live in dark caverns lest the Sun, who is their god, should slay them; and with the Krimnians who worship a crocodile, and give it earrings of green glass, and feed it with butter and fresh fowls; and with the Agazonbae, who are dog-faced; and with the Sibans, who have horses’ feet, and run more swiftly than horses. A third of our company died in battle, and a third died of want. The rest murmured against me, and said that I had brought them an evil fortune. I took a horned adder from beneath a stone and let it sting me. When they saw that I did not sicken they grew afraid.
‘In the fourth month we reached the city of Illel. It was night time when we came to the grove that is outside the walls, and the air was sultry, for the Moon was travelling in Scorpion. We took the ripe pomegranates from the trees, and brake them and drank their sweet juices. Then we lay down on our carpets and waited for the dawn.
‘And at dawn we rose and knocked at the gate of the city. It was wrought out of red bronze, and carved with sea-dragons and dragons that have wings. The guards looked down from the battlements and asked us our business. The interpreter of the caravan answered that we had come from the island of Syria with much merchandise. They took hostages, and told us that they would open the gate to us at noon, and bade us tarry till then.
‘When it was noon they opened the gate, and as we entered in the people came crowding out of the houses to look at us, and a crier went round the city crying through a shell. We stood in the market-place, and the negroes uncorded the bales of figured cloths and opened the carved chests of sycamore. And when they had ended their task, the merchants set forth their strange wares, the waxed linen from Egypt and the painted linen from the country of the Ethiops, the purple sponges from Tyre and the blue hangings from Sidon, the cups of cold amber and the fine vessels of glass and the curious vessels of burnt clay. From the roof of a house a company of women watched us. One of them wore a mask of gilded leather.
‘And on the first day the priests came and bartered with us, and on the second day came the nobles, and on the third day came the craftsmen and the slaves. And this is their custom with all merchants as long as they tarry in the city.
‘And we tarried for a moon, and when the moon was waning, I wearied and wandered away through the streets of the city and came to the garden of its god. The priests in their yellow robes moved silently through the green trees, and on a pavement of black marble stood the rose-red house in which the god had his dwelling. Its doors were of powdered lacquer, and bulls and peacocks were wrought on them in raised and polished gold. The tiled roof was of sea-green porcelain, and the jutting eaves were festooned with little bells. When the white doves flew past, they struck the bells with their wings and made them tinkle.
‘In front of the temple was a pool of clear water paved with veined onyx. I lay down beside it, and with my pale fingers I touched the broad leaves. One of the priests came towards me and stood behind me. He had sandals on his feet, one of soft serpent-skin and the other of birds’ plumage. On his head was a mitre of black felt decorated with silver crescents. Seven yellows were woven into his robe, and his frizzed hair was stained with antimony.
‘After a little while he spake to me, and asked me my desire. ‘I told him that my desire was to see the god.
‘”The god is hunting,” said the priest, looking strangely at me with his small slanting eyes.
‘”Tell me in what forest, and I will ride with him,” I answered.
‘He combed out the soft fringes of his tunic with his long pointed nails. “The god is asleep,” he murmured.
‘”Tell me on what couch, and I will watch by him,” I answered.
‘”The god is at the feast,” he cried.
‘”If the wine be sweet I will drink it with him, and if it be bitter I will drink it with him also,” was my answer.
‘He bowed his head in wonder, and, taking me by the hand, he raised me up, and led me into the temple.
‘And in the first chamber I saw an idol seated on a throne of jasper bordered with great orient pearls. It was carved out of ebony, and in stature was of the stature of a man. On its forehead was a ruby, and thick oil dripped from its hair on to its thighs. Its feet were red with the blood of a newly-slain kid, and its loins girt with a copper belt that was studded with seven beryls.
‘And I said to the priest, “Is this the god?” And he answered me, “This is the god.”
‘”Show me the god,” I cried, “or I will surely slay thee.” And I touched his hand, and it became withered.
‘And the priest besought me, saying, “Let my lord heal his servant, and I will show him the god.”
‘So I breathed with my breath upon his hand, and it became whole again, and he trembled and led me into the second chamber, and I saw an idol standing on a lotus of jade hung with great emeralds. It was carved out of ivory, and in stature was twice the stature of a man. On its forehead was a chrysolite, and its breasts were smeared with myrrh and cinnamon. In one hand it held a crooked sceptre of jade, and in the other a round crystal. It ware buskins of brass, and its thick neck was circled with a circle of selenites.
‘And I said to the priest, “Is this the god?” And he answered me. “This is the god.”
‘”Show me the god,” I cried, “or I will surely slay thee.” And I touched his eyes, and they became blind.
‘And the priest besought me, saying, “Let my lord heal his servant, and I will show him the god.”
‘So I breathed with my breath upon his eyes, and the sight came back to them, and he trembled again, and led me into the third chamber, and lo! there was no idol in it, nor image of any kind, but only a mirror of round metal set on an altar of stone.
‘And I said to the priest, “Where is the god?”
‘And he answered me: “There is no god but this mirror that thou seest, for this is the Mirror of Wisdom. And it reflecteth all things that are in heaven and on earth, save only the face of him who looketh into it. This it reflecteth not, so that he who looketh into it may be wise. Many other mirrors are there, but they are mirrors of Opinion. This only is the Mirror of Wisdom. And they who possess this mirror know everything, nor is there anything hidden from them. And they who possess it not have not Wisdom. Therefore is it the god, and we worship it.” And I looked into the mirror, and it was even as I he had said to me.
‘And I did a strange thing, but what I did matters not, for in a valley that is but a day’s journey from this place have I hidden the Mirror of Wisdom. Do but suffer me to enter into thee again and be thy servant, and thou shalt be wiser than all the wise men, and Wisdom shall be thine. Suffer me to enter into thee, and none will be as wise as thou.’ But the young Fisherman laughed. ‘Love is better than Wisdom,’ he cried, ‘and the little Mermaid loves me.’
‘Nay, but there is nothing better than Wisdom,’ said the Soul.
‘Love is better,’ answered the young Fisherman, and he plunged into the deep, and the Soul went weeping away over the marshes.
And after the second year was over the Soul came down to the shore of the sea, and called to the young Fisherman, and he rose out of the deep and said, ‘Why dost thou call to me?’
And the Soul answered, ‘Come nearer that I may speak with thee, for I have seen marvellous things.’
So he came nearer, and couched in the shallow water, and leaned his head upon his hand and listened.
And the Soul said to him, ‘When I left thee, I turned my face to the South and journeyed. From the South cometh every thing that is precious. Six days I journeyed along the highways that lead to the city of Ashter, along the dusty red-dyed highways by which the pilgrims are wont to go did I journey, and on the morning of the seventh day I lifted up my eyes, and lo! the city lay at my feet, for it is in a valley.
‘There are nine gates to this city, and in front of each gate stands a bronze horse that neighs when the Bedouins come down from the mountains. The walls are cased with copper, and the watch-towers on the walls are roofed with brass. In every tower stands an archer with a bow in his hand. At sunrise he strikes with an arrow on a gong, and at sunset he blows through a horn of horn.
‘When I sought to enter, the guards stopped me and asked of me who I was. I made answer that I was a Dervish and on my way to the city of Mecca, where there was a green veil on which the Koran was embroidered in silver letters by the hands of the angels. They were filled with wonder, and entreated me to pass in.
‘Inside it is even as a bazaar. Surely thou should’st have been with me. Across the narrow streets the gay lanterns of paper flutter like large butterflies. When the wind blows over the roofs they rise and fall as painted bubbles do. In front of their booths sit the merchants on silken carpets. They have straight black beards, and their turbans are covered with golden sequins, and long strings of amber and carved peach-stones glide through their cool fingers. Some of them sell galbanum and nard, and curious perfumes from the islands of the Indian Sea, and the thick oil of red roses and myrrh and little nail-shaped cloves. When one stops to speak to them, they throw pinches of frankincense upon a charcoal brazier and make the air sweet. I saw a Syrian who held in his hands a thin rod like a reed. Grey threads of smoke came from it, and its odour as it burned was as the odour of the pink almond in spring. Others sell silver bracelets embossed all over with creamy blue turquoise stones, and anklets of brass wire fringed with little pearls, and tigers’ claws set in gold, and the claws of that gilt cat, the leopard, set in gold also, and earrings of pierced emerald, and finger-rings of hollowed jade. From the tea-houses comes the sound of the guitar, and the opium-smokers with their white smiling faces look out at the passers-by.
‘Of a truth thou should’st have been with me. The wine-sellers elbow their way through the crowd with great black skins on their shoulders. Most of them sell the wine of Schiraz, which is as sweet as honey. They serve it in little metal cups and strew rose leaves upon it. In the market-place stand the fruitsellers, who sell all kinds of fruit: ripe figs, with their bruised purple flesh, melons, smelling of musk and yellow as topazes, citrons and rose-apples and clusters of white grapes, round red-gold oranges, and oval lemons of green gold. Once I saw an elephant go by. Its trunk was painted with vermilion and turmeric, and over its ears it had a net of crimson silk cord. It stopped opposite one of the booths and began eating the oranges, and the man only laughed. Thou canst not think how strange a people they are. When they are glad they go to the bird-sellers and buy of them a caged bird, and set it free that their joy may be greater, and when they are sad they scourge themselves with thorns that their sorrow may not grow less.
‘One evening I met some negroes carrying a heavy palanquin through the bazaar. It was made of gilded bamboo, and the poles were of vermilion lacquer studded with brass peacocks. Across the windows hung thin curtains of muslim embroidered with beetles’ wings and with tiny seed-pearls, and as it passed by a pale-faced Circassian looked out and smiled at me. I followed behind, and the negroes hurried their steps and scowled. But I did not care. I felt a great curiosity come over me.
‘At last they stopped at a square white house. There were no windows to it, only a little door like the door of a tomb. They set down the palanquin and knocked three times with a copper hammer. An Armenian in a caftan of green leather peered through the wicket, and when he saw them he opened, and spread a carpet on the ground, and the woman stepped out. As she went in, she turned round and smiled at me again. I had never seen anyone so pale.
‘When the moon rose I returned to the same place and sought for the house, but it was no longer there. When I saw that, I knew who the woman was, and wherefore she had smiled at me.
‘Certainly thou should’st have been with me. On the feast of the New Moon the young Emperor came forth from his palace and went into the mosque to pray. His hair and beard were dyed with rose-leaves, and his cheeks were powdered with a fine gold dust. The palms of his feet and hands were yellow with saffron.
‘At sunrise he went forth from his palace in a robe of silver, and at sunset he returned to it again in a robe of gold. The people flung themselves on the ground and hid their faces, but I would not do so. I stood by the stall of a seller of dates and waited. When the Emperor saw me, he raised his painted eyebrows and stopped. I stood quite still, and made him no obeisance. The people marvelled at my boldness, and counsel-led me to flee from the city. I paid no heed to them, but went and sat with the sellers of strange gods, who by reason of their craft are abominated. When I told them what I had done, each of them gave me a god and prayed me to leave them.
‘That night, as I lay on a cushion in the tea-house that is in the Street of Pomegranates, the guards of the Emperor entered and led me to the palace. As I went in they closed each door behind me, and put a chain across it. Inside was a great court with an arcade running all round. The walls were of white alabaster, set here and there with blue and green tiles. The pillars were of green marble, and the pavement of a kind of peach-blossom marble. I had never seen anything like it before.
‘As I passed across the court two veiled women looked down from a balcony and cursed me. The guards hastened on, and the butts of the lances rang upon the polished floor. They opened a gate of wrought ivory, and I found myself in a watered garden of seven terraces. It was planted with tulip-cups and moonflowers, and silver-studded aloes. Like a slim reed of crystal a fountain hung in the dusky air. The cypress-trees were like burnt-out torches. From one of them a nightingale was singing.
‘At the end of the garden stood a little pavilion. As we approached it two eunuchs came out to meet us. Their fat bodies swayed as they walked, and they glanced curiously at me with their yellow-lidded eyes. One of them drew aside the captain of the guard, and in a low voice whispered to him. The other kept munching scented pastilles, which he took with an affected gesture out of an oval box of lilac enamel.
‘After a few moments the captain of the guard dismissed the soldiers. They went back to the palace, the eunuchs following slowly behind and plucking the sweet mulberries from the trees as they passed. Once the elder of the two turned round, and smiled at me with an evil smile.
‘Then the captain of the guard motioned me towards the entrance of the pavilion. I walked on without trembling, and drawing the heavy curtain aside I entered in.
‘The young Emperor was stretched on a couch of dyed lion skins, and a ger-falcon perched upon his wrist. Behind him stood a brass-turbaned Nubian, naked down to the waist, and with heavy earrings in his split ears. On a table by the side of the couch lay a mighty scimitar of steel.
‘When the Emperor saw me he frowned, and said to me, “What is thy name? Knowest thou not that I am Emperor of this city?” But I made him no answer.
‘He pointed with his finger at the scimitar, and the Nubian seized it, and rushing forward struck at me with great violence. The blade whizzed through me, and did me no hurt. The man fell sprawling on the floor, and, when he rose up, his teeth chattered with terror and he hid himself behind the couch.
‘The Emperor leapt to his feet, and taking a lance from a stand of arms, he threw it at me. I caught it in its flight, and brake the shaft into two pieces. He shot at me with an arrow, but I held up my hands and it stopped in mid-air. Then he drew a dagger from a belt of white leather, and stabbed the Nubian in the throat lest the slave should tell of his dishonour. The man writhed like a trampled snake, and a red foam bubbled from his lips.
‘As soon as he was dead the Emperor turned to me, and when he had wiped away the bright sweat from his brow with a little napkin of purfled and purple silk, he said to me, “Art thou a prophet, that I may not harm thee, or the son of a prophet that I can do thee no hurt? I pray thee leave my city to night, for while thou art in it I am no longer its lord.”
‘And I answered him, “I will go for half of thy treasure. Give me half of thy treasure, and I will go away.”
‘He took me by the hand, and led me out into the garden. When the captain of the guard saw me, he wondered. When the eunuchs saw me, their knees shook and they fell upon the ground in fear.
‘There is a chamber in the palace that has eight walls of red porphyry, and a brass-scaled ceiling hung with lamps. The Emperor touched one of the walls and it opened, and we passed down a corridor that was lit with many torches. In niches upon each side stood great wine-jars filled to the brim with silver pieces. When we reached the centre of the corridor the Emperor spake the word that may not be spoken, and a granite door swung back on a secret spring, and he put his hands before his face lest his eyes should be dazzled.
‘Thou could’st not believe how marvellous a place it was. There were huge tortoise-shells full of pearls, and hollowed moonstones of great size piled up with red rubies. The gold was stored in coffers of elephant-hide, and the gold-dust in leather bottles. There were opals and sapphires, the former in cups of crystal, and the latter in cups of jade. Round green emeralds were ranged in order upon thin plates of ivory, and in one corner were silk bags filled, some with turquoise-stones and others with beryls. The ivory horns were heaped with purple amethysts, and the horns of brass with chalcedonies and sards. The pillars, which were of cedar, were hung with strings of yellow lynx-stones. In the flat oval shields there were carbuncles, both wine-coloured and coloured like grass. And yet I have told thee but a tithe of what was there.
‘And when the Emperor had taken away his hands from before his face he said to me: “This is my house of treasure, and half that is in it is thine, even as I promised to thee. And I will give thee camels and camel drivers, and they shall do thy bidding and take thy share of the treasure to whatever part of the world thou desirest to go. And the thing shall be done to night, for I would not that the Sun, who is my father, should see that there is in my city a man whom I cannot slay.”
‘But I answered him, “The gold that is here is thine, and the silver also is thine, and thine are the precious jewels and the things of price. As for me, I have no need of these. Nor shall I take aught from thee but that little ring that thou wearest on the finger of thy hand.”
‘And the Emperor frowned. “It is but a ring of lead,” he cried, “nor has it any value. Therefore take thy half of the treasure and go from my city.”
‘”Nay,” I answered, “but I will take nought but that leaden ring, for I know what is written within it, and for what purpose.”
‘And the Emperor trembled, and besought me and said, “Take all the treasure and go from my city. The half that is mine shall be thine also.”
‘And I did a strange thing, but what I did matters not, for in a cave that is but a day’s journey from this place have I hidden the Ring of Riches. It is but a day’s journey from this place, and it waits for thy coming. He who has this Ring is richer than all the kings of the world. Come therefore and take it, and the world’s riches shall be thine.’
But the young Fisherman laughed. ‘Love is better than Riches,’ he cried, ‘and the little Mermaid loves me.
‘Nay, but there is nothing better than Riches,’ said the Soul.
‘Love is better,’ answered the young Fisherman, and he plunged into the deep, and the Soul went weeping away over the marshes.
And after the third year was over, the Soul came down to the shore of the sea, and called to the young Fisherman, and he rose out of the deep and said, ‘Why dost thou call to me?’
And the Soul answered, ‘Come nearer, that I may speak with thee, for I have seen marvellous things.’
So he came nearer, and couched in the shallow water, and leaned his head upon his hand and listened.
And the Soul said to him, ‘In a city that I know of there is an inn that standeth by a river. I sat there with sailors who drank of two different coloured wines, and ate bread made of barley, and little salt fish served in bay leaves with vinegar. And as we sat and made merry, there entered to us an old man bearing a leathern carpet and a lute that had two horns of amber. And when he had laid out the carpet on the floor, he struck with a quill on the wire strings of his lute, and a girl whose face was veiled ran in and began to dance before us. Her face was veiled with a veil of gauze, but her feet were naked. Naked were her feet, and they moved over the carpet like little white pigeons. Never have I seen anything so marvellous, and the city in which she dances is but a day’s journey from this place.’
Now when the young Fisherman heard the words of his soul, he remembered that the little Mermaid had no feet and could not dance. And a great desire came over him, and he said to himself, ‘It is but a day’s journey, and I can return to my love,’ and he laughed, and stood up in the shallow water, and strode towards the shore.
And when he had reached the dry shore he laughed again, and held out his arms to his Soul. And his Soul gave a great cry of joy and ran to meet him, and entered into him, and the young Fisherman saw stretched before him upon the sand that shadow of the body that is the body of the Soul.
And his Soul said to him, ‘Let us not tarry, but get hence at once, for the Sea-gods are jealous, and have monsters that do their bidding.’
So they made haste, and all that night they journeyed beneath the moon, and all the next day they journeyed beneath the sun, and on the evening of the day they came to a city.
And the young Fisherman said to his Soul, ‘Is this the city in which she dances of whom thou did’st speak to me?’
And his Soul answered him, ‘It is not this city, but another. Nevertheless let us enter in.’
So they entered in and passed through the streets, and as they passed through the Street of the Jewellers the young fisherman saw a fair silver cup set forth in a booth. And his Soul said to him, ‘Take that silver cup and hide it.’
So he took the cup and hid it in the fold of his tunic, and they went hurriedly out of the city.
And after that they had gone a league from the city, the young Fisherman frowned, and flung the cup away, and said to his Soul, ‘Why did’st thou tell me to take this cup and hide it, for it was an evil thing to do?’
But his Soul answered him, ‘Be at peace, be at peace.’
And on the evening of the second day they came to a city, and the young Fisherman said to his Soul, ‘Is this the city in which she dances of whom thou did’st speak to me?’
And his Soul answered him, ‘It is not this city, but another. Nevertheless let us enter in.’
So they entered in and passed through the streets, and as they passed through the Street of the Sellers of Sandals, the young Fisherman saw a child standing by a jar of water. And his Soul said to him, ‘Smite that child.’ So he smote the child till it wept, and when he had done this they went hurriedly out of the city.
And after that they had gone a league from the city the young Fisherman grew wroth, and said to his Soul, ‘Why did’st thou tell me to smite the child, for it was an evil thing to do?’
But his Soul answered him, ‘Be at peace, be at peace.’
And on the evening of the third day they came to a city, and the young Fisherman said to his Soul, ‘Is this the city in which she dances of whom thou did’st speak to me?’
And his Soul answered him, ‘It may be that it is this city, therefore let us enter in.’
So they entered in and passed through the streets, but nowhere could the young Fisherman find the river or the inn that stood by its side. And the people of the city looked curiously at him, and he grew afraid and said to his Soul, ‘Let us go hence, for she who dances with white feet is not here.’
But his Soul answered, ‘Nay, but let us tarry, for the night is dark and there will be robbers on the way.’
So he sat him down in the market-place and rested, and after a time there went by a hooded merchant who had a cloak of cloth of Tartary, and bare a lantern of pierced horn at the end of a jointed reed. And the merchant said to him, ‘Why dost thou sit in the market-place, seeing that the booths are closed and the bales corded?’
And the young Fisherman answered him, ‘I can find no inn in this city, nor have I any kinsman who might give me shelter.’
‘Are we not all kinsmen?’ said the merchant. ‘And did not one God make us? Therefore come with me, for I have a guest-chamber.’
So the young Fisherman rose up and followed the merchant to his house. And when he had passed through a garden of pomegranates and entered into the house, the merchant brought him rose-water in a copper dish that he might wash his hands, and ripe melons that he might quench his thirst, and set a bowl of rice and a piece of roasted kid before him.
And after that he had finished, the merchant led him to the guest-chamber, bade him sleep and be at rest. And the young Fisherman gave him thanks, and kissed the ring that was on his hand, and flung himself down on the carpets of dyed goat’s-hair. And when he had covered himself with a covering of black lambs-wool he fell asleep.
And three hours before dawn, and while it was still night, his Soul waked him, and said to him, ‘Rise up and go to the room of the merchant, even to the room in which he sleepeth, and slay him, and take from him his gold, for we have need of it.’
And the young Fisherman rose up and crept towards the room of the merchant, and over the feet of the merchant there was lying a curved sword, and the tray by the side of the merchant held nine purses of gold. And he reached out his hand and touched the sword, and when he touched it the merchant started and awoke, and leaping up seized himself the sword and cried to the young Fisherman, ‘Dost thou return evil for good, and pay with the shedding of blood for the kindness that I have shown thee?’
And his Soul said to the young Fisherman, ‘Strike him,’ and he struck him so that he swooned, and he seized then the nine purses of gold, and fled hastily through the garden of pomegranates, and set his face to the star that is the star of morning.
And when they had gone a league from the city, the young Fisherman beat his breast, and said to his Soul, ‘Why didst thou bid me slay the merchant and take his gold? Surely thou art evil.’
But his Soul answered him, ‘Be at peace, be at peace.’
‘Nay,’ cried the young Fisherman, ‘I may not be at peace, for all that thou hast made me to do I hate. Thee also I hate, and I bid thee tell me wherefore thou hast wrought with me in this wise.’
And his Soul answered him, ‘When thou didst send me forth into the world thou gavest me no heart, so I learned to do all these things and love them.’
‘What sayest thou?’ murmured the young Fisherman.
‘Thou knowest,’ answered his Soul, ‘thou knowest it well. Hast thou forgotten that thou gavest me no heart? I trow not. And so trouble not thyself nor me, but be at peace, for there is no pain that thou shalt not give away, nor any pleasure that thou shalt not receive.’
And when the young Fisherman heard these words he trembled and said to his Soul, ‘Nay, but thou art evil, and hast made me forget my love, and hast tempted me with temptations, and hast set my feet in the ways of sin.’ And his Soul answered him, ‘Thou hast not forgotten that when thou didst send me forth into the world thou gavest me no heart. Come, let us go to another city, and make merry, for we have nine purses of gold.’
But the young Fisherman took the nine purses of gold, and flung them down, and trampled on them.
‘Nay,’ he cried, ‘but I will have nought to do with thee, nor will I journey with thee anywhere, but even as I sent thee away before, so will I send thee away now, for thou hast wrought me no good.’ And he turned his back to the moon, and with the little knife that had the handle of green viper’s skin he strove to cut from his feet that shadow of the body which is the body of the Soul.
Yet his Soul stirred not from him, nor paid heed to his command, but said to him, ‘The spell that the Witch told thee avails thee no more, for I may not leave thee, nor mayest thou drive me forth. Once in his life may a man send his Soul away, but he who receiveth back his Soul must keep it with him for ever, and this is his punishment and his reward.’
And the young Fisherman grew pale and clenched his hands and cried, ‘She was a false Witch in that she told me not that.’
‘Nay,’ answered his Soul, ‘but she was true to Him she worships, and whose servant she will be ever.’
And when the young Fisherman knew that he could no longer get rid of his Soul, and that it was an evil Soul and would abide with him always, he fell upon the ground weeping bitterly.
And when it was day the young Fisherman rose up and said to his Soul, ‘I will bind my hands that I may not do thy bidding, and close my lips that I may not speak thy words, and I will return to the place where she whom I love has her dwelling. Even to the sea will I return, and to the little bay where she is wont to sing, and I will call to her and tell her the evil I have done and the evil thou hast wrought on me.’
And his Soul tempted him and said, ‘Who is thy love that thou should’st return to her? The world has many fairer than she is. There are the dancing-girls of Samaris who dance in the manner of all kinds of birds and beasts. Their feet are painted with henna, and in their hands they have little copper bells. They laugh while they dance, and their laughter is as clear as the laughter of water. Come with me and I will show them to thee. For what is this trouble of thine about the things of sin? Is that which is pleasant to eat not made for the eater? Is there poison in that which is sweet to drink? Trouble not thyself, but come with me to another city. There is a little city hard by in which there is a garden of tulip-trees. And there dwell in this comely garden white peacocks and peacocks that have blue breasts. Their tails when they spread them to the sun are like disks of ivory and like gilt disks. And she who feeds them dances for their pleasure, and sometimes she dances on her hands and at other times she dances with her feet. Her eyes are coloured with stibium, and her nostrils are shaped like the wings of a swallow. From a hook in one of her nostrils hangs a flower that is carved out of a pearl. She laughs while she dances, and the silver rings that are about her ankles tinkle like bells of silver. And so trouble not thyself any more, but come with me to this city.’
But the young Fisherman answered not his Soul, but closed his lips with the seal of silence and with a tight cord bound his hands, and journeyed back to the place from which he had come, even to the little bay where his love had been wont to sing. And ever did his Soul tempt him by the way, but he made it no answer, nor would he do any of the wickedness that it sought to make him to do, so great was the power of the love that was within him.
And when he had reached the shore of the sea, he loosed the cord from his hands, and took the seal of silence from his lips, and called to the little Mermaid. But she came not to his call, though he called to her all day long and besought her.
And his Soul mocked him and said, ‘Surely thou hast but little joy out of thy love. Thou art as one who in time of dearth pours water into a broken vessel. Thou givest away what thou hast, and nought is given to thee in return. It were better for thee to come with me, for I know where the Valley of Pleasure lies, and what things are wrought there.’
But the young Fisherman answered not his Soul, but in a cleft of the rock he built himself a house of wattles, and abode there for the space of a year. And every morning he called to the Mermaid, and every noon he called to her again and at night-time he spake her name. Yet never did she rise out of the sea to meet him, nor in any place of the sea could he find her, though he sought for her in the caves and in the green water, in the pools of the tide and in the wells that are at the bottom of the deep.
And ever did his Soul tempt him with evil, and whisper of terrible things. Yet did it not prevail against him, so great was the power of his love.
And after the year was over, the Soul thought within himself, ‘I have tempted my master with evil, and his love is stronger than I am. I will tempt him now with good, and it may be that he will come with me.’
So he spake to the young Fisherman and said, ‘I have told thee of the joy of the world, and thou hast turned a deaf ear to me. Suffer me now to tell thee of the world’s pain, and it may be that thou wilt hearken. For of a truth, pain is the Lord of this world, nor is there anyone who escapes from its net. There be some who lack raiment, and others who lack bread. There be widows who sit in purple, and widows who sit in rags. To and fro over the fens go the lepers, and they are cruel to each other. The beggars go up and down on the highways, and their wallets are empty. Through the streets of the cities walks Famine, and the Plague sits at their gates. Come, let us go forth and mend these things, and make them not to be. Wherefore should’st thou tarry here calling to thy love, seeing she comes not to thy call? And what is love, that thou should’st set this high store upon it?’
But the young Fisherman answered it nought, so great was the power of his love. And every morning he called to the Mermaid, and every noon he called to her again, and at night-time he spake her name. Yet never did she rise out of the sea to meet him, nor in any place of the sea could he find her, though he sought for her in the rivers of the sea, and in the valleys that are under the waves, in the sea that the night makes purple, and in the sea that the dawn leaves grey.
And after the second year was over, the Soul said to the young Fisherman at night-time, and as he sat in the wattled house alone, ‘Lo! now I have tempted thee with evil, and I have tempted thee with good, and thy love is stronger than I am. Wherefore will I tempt thee no longer, but I pray thee to suffer me to enter thy heart, that I may be one with thee even as before.’
‘Surely thou mayest enter,’ said the young Fisherman, ‘for in the days when with no heart thou didst go through the world thou must have much suffered.’
‘Alas!’ cried his Soul, ‘I can find no place of entrance, so compassed about with love is this heart of thine.’
‘Yet I would that I could help thee,’ said the young Fisherman.
And as he spake there came a great cry of mourning from the sea, even the cry that men hear when one of the Sea-folk is dead. And the young Fisherman leapt up, and left his wattled house, and ran down to the shore. And the black waves came hurrying to the shore, bearing with them a burden that was whiter than silver. White as the surf it was, and like a flower it tossed on the waves. And the surf took it from the waves, and the foam took it from the surf, and the shore received it, and lying at his feet the young Fisherman saw the body of the little Mermaid. Dead at his feet it was lying.
Weeping as one smitten with pain he flung himself down beside it, and he kissed the cold red of the mouth, and toyed with the wet amber of the hair. He flung himself down beside it on the sand, weeping as one trembling with joy, and in his brown arms he held it to his breast. Cold were the lips, yet he kissed them. Salt was the honey of the hair, yet he tasted it with a bitter joy. He kissed the closed eyelids, and the wild spray that lay upon their cups was less salt than his tears.
And to the dead thing he made confession. Into the shells of its ears he poured the harsh wine of his tale. He put the little hands round his neck, and with his fingers he touched the thin reed of the throat. Bitter, bitter was his joy, and full of strange gladness was his pain.
The black sea came nearer, and the white foam moaned like a leper. With white claws of foam the sea grabbled at the shore. From the palace of the Sea-King came the cry of mourning again, and far out upon the sea the great Tritons blew hoarsely upon their horns.
‘Flee away, said his Soul, ‘for ever doth the sea come nigher, and if thou tarriest it will slay thee. Flee away, for I am afraid, seeing that thy heart is closed against me by reason of the greatness of thy love. Flee away to a place of safety. Surely thou wilt not send me without a heart into another world?’
But the young Fisherman listened not to his Soul, but called on the little Mermaid and said, ‘Love is better than wisdom, and more precious than riches, and fairer than the feet of the daughters of men. The fires cannot destroy it, nor can the waters quench it. I called on thee at dawn, and thou didst not come to my call. The moon heard thy name, yet hadst thou no heed of me. For evilly had I left thee, and to my own hurt had I wandered away. Yet ever did thy love abide with me, and ever was it strong, nor did aught prevail against it, though I have looked upon evil and looked upon good. And now that thou art dead, surely I will die with thee also.’
And his Soul besought him to depart, but he would not, so great was his love. And the sea came nearer, and sought to cover him with its waves, and when he knew that the end was at hand he kissed with mad lips the cold lips of the Mermaid and the heart that was within him brake. And as through the fulness of his love his heart did break, the Soul found an entrance and entered in, and was one with him even as before. And the sea covered the young Fisherman with its waves.
And in the morning the Priest went forth to bless the sea, for it had been troubled. And with him went the monks and the musicians, and the candle-bearers, and the swingers of censers, and a great company.
And when the Priest reached the shore he saw the young Fisherman lying drowned in the surf, and clasped in his arms was the body of the little Mermaid. And he drew back frowning, and having made the sign of the cross, he cried aloud and said, ‘I will not bless the sea nor anything that is in it. Accursed be the Sea-folk, and accursed be all they who traffic with them. And as for him who for love’s sake forsook God, and so lieth here with his leman slain by God’s judgment, take up his body and the body of his leman, and bury them in the corner of the Field of the Fullers, and set no mark above them, nor sign of any kind, that none may know the place of their resting. For accursed were they in their lives, and accursed shall they be in their deaths also.’
And the people did as he commanded them, and in the corner of the Field of the Fullers, where no sweet herbs grew, they dug a deep pit, and laid the dead things within it.
And when the third year was over, and on a day that was a holy day, the Priest went up to the chapel, that he might show to the people the wounds of the Lord, and speak to them about the wrath of God.
And when he had robed himself with his robes, and entered in and bowed himself before the altar, he saw that the altar was covered with strange flowers that never had he seen before. Strange were they to look at, and of curious beauty, and their beauty troubled him, and their odour was sweet in his nostrils. And he felt glad, and understood not why he was glad.
And after that he had opened the tabernacle, and incensed the monstrance that was in it, and shown the fair wafer to the people, and hid it again behind the veil of veils, he began to speak to the people, desiring to speak to them of the wrath of God. But the beauty of the white flowers troubled him, and their odour was sweet in his nostrils, and there came another word into his lips, and he spake not of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love. And why he so spake, he knew not.
And when he had finished his word the people wept, and the Priest went back to the sacristy, and his eyes were full of tears. And the deacons came in and began to unrobe him, and took from him the alb and the girdle, the maniple and the stole. And he stood as one in a dream.
And after that they had unrobed him, he looked at them and said, ‘What are the flowers that stand on the altar, and whence do they come?’
And they answered him, ‘What flowers they are we cannot tell, but they come from the corner of the Fullers’ Field.’ And the Priest trembled, and returned to his own house and prayed.
And in the morning, while it was still dawn, he went forth with the monks and the musicians, and the candle-bearers and the swingers of censers, and a great company, and came to the shore of the sea, and blessed the sea, and all the wild things that are in it. The Fauns also he blessed, and the little things that dance in the woodland, and the bright-eyed things that peer through the leaves. All the things in God’s world he blessed, and the people were filled with joy and wonder. Yet never again in the corner of the Fullers’ Field grew flowers of any kind, but the field remained barren even as before. Nor came the Sea-folk into the bay as they had been wont to do, for they went to another part of the sea.
It was the longest night of winter. At the bottom of the sea, an old fish gathered together 12,000 of her children and grandchildren and began to tell them this story:
Once upon a time a little black fish lived with her mother in a small pond on the side of a mountain. Their home was behind a black, moss-covered rock, under which they both slept at night. The little fish longed to see the moonlight in their home just once. From morning till evening, the mother and child swam after each other. Sometimes they joined other fish and rapidly darted in and out of small crevices. The little fish was an only child, for of the 10,000 eggs which the mother had laid, only she had survived.
For several days the little fish had been deep in thought and had talked very little. She swam slowly behind her mother around the pond and did not play with the other fish. Her mother thought her child was sick and would soon be well. In fact, the black fish’s sickness was really something else!
Early one morning before the sun had risen, the little fish woke her mother and said
“Mother, I want to talk to you.”
Half-asleep, the mother responded
“Child, this isn’t the time to talk. Save your words for later. Go swimming?”
“No, Mother! I can’t go swimming anymore. I must leave here.”
“Do you really have to leave?”
“Yes, Mother, I must go.”
“Just a minute! Where do you want to go at this hour of the morning?”
“I want to go see where the stream ends. You know, Mother, I’ve been wondering where the end of the stream is … I haven’t been able to think about anything else. I didn’t sleep a wink all night. At last, I decided to go and find where the stream ends. I want to know what’s happening in other places.”
The mother laughed – “When I was a child, I used to think a lot like that. But, my dear, a stream has no beginning and no end. That’s the way it is. The stream just flows and never goes anywhere.”
“But mother dear, isn’t it true that everything comes to an end? Nights end, days end, weeks, months, years …”
“Forget this pretentious talk,” interrupted the mother – “Let’s go swimming. Now is the time to swim, not talk.”
“No, Mother, I’m tired of this swimming, I want to set out and see what’s happening elsewhere. Maybe you think someone taught me these ideas but believe me, I’ve had these thoughts for a long time. Of course, I’ve learned many things here and there. For instance, I know that when most fish get old, they complain about everything. I want to know if life is simply for circling around in a small place until you become old and nothing else, or is there another way to live in the world ?”
When the little fish finished the mother exclaimed – “My dear child, are you crazy? World! … World! What is this other world! The world is right here where we are. Life is just as we have it…”
Just then, a large fish approached their home and said: “Neighbor, what are you arguing about with your child? Aren’t you planning to go swimming today?”
Hearing her neighbor’s voice, the mother came out of the house and said, “What’s the world coming to! Now children even want to teach their mothers something!”
How so? “asked the neighbor.”
Listen to the places this half-pint wants to go!” replied the mother. “Saying over and over again I want to go see what’s happening in the world. What pretentious talk!”
“Little one,” said the neighbor, “let’s see. Since when have you become a scholar and philosopher and not told us?”
“Madam,” answered the little fish, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘scholar’ and ‘philosopher,’ I’ve just gotten tired of these swims. I don’t want to continue this boring stuff and be happy as a fool until one day I wake up and see that like all of you, I’ve become old, but still am as dumb as I am now.”
“Oh, what talk!” exclaimed the neighbor.
“I never thought my only child would turn out this way,” said the mother. “I don’t know what evil person put my sweet baby up to this.”
“No one put me up to anything,” said the little fish. “I have a reason, and intelligence and understanding. I have eyes and I can see.”
“Sister,” said the neighbor to the little fish’s mother, “do you remember that twisted-up snail?”
“Yes, you’re right,” said the mother. “He used to push himself on my baby. God knows what I would do to him!”
“That’s enough, Mother,” said the little fish. “He was my friend.”
“Friendship between a fish and a snail,” said the mother, “I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
“And I’ve never heard of a fish and a snail being enemies,” replied the little fish. “But you all drowned the poor fellow.”
“Let’s not bring up the past,” said the neighbor.
“You brought up the subject yourself,” said the little fish.
“It served him right to be killed,” said the mother. “Have you forgotten the things he used to say everywhere he went?”
“Then,” said the little fish, “kill me too since I’m saying the very same things.”
To make a long story short, the arguing voices attracted the other fish. The little fish’s words angered everyone.
One of the old fish asked, “Did you think we’d pity you?”
“That one just needs a little box on the ears,” said another.
“Go away,” said the black fish’s mother. “Don’t you touch my child.”
Another of them said, “Madam, if you don’t raise your child correctly, you must expect it to be punished.”
The neighbor said, “I’m ashamed to live next to you.”
Another said, “Let’s do to the little fish what we did to the old snail before it gets into trouble.”
When they tried to grab the little black fish, her friends gathered around and took the fish away from the brawl.
The black fish’s mother beat her head and chest and cried, “Oh, my baby is leaving me. What am I going to do? What a curse has fallen upon me!”
“Mother, don’t cry for me. Cry for the old fish who stay behind.”
“Don’t get smart, half-pint!” shouted one of the fish from afar.
“If you go away and afterwards regret it, we won’t let you come back,” said a second.
“These are useful fancies. Don’t go,” said a third.
“What’s wrong with this place?” said a fourth.
“There is no other world. The world is right here. Come back! Said a fifth.
“If you turn reasonable and come back, then we’ll believe you really are an intelligent fish,” said a sixth.
“Wait, we’ve gotten used to having you around …” said a seventh.
The mother cried, “Have mercy on me. Don’t go! Don’t go!”
The little fish didn’t have anything more to say to them. Several friends of the same age accompanied the fish as far as the waterfall. As they parted, the fish said,
“My friends, I hope to see you again. Don’t forget me!”
“How would it be possible to forget you?” asked the friends. “You’ve awakened us from a deep sleep. You’ve taught us many things that we had not even thought about before. We hope to see you again, learned and fearless friend.”
The little fish swam down the waterfall and fell into a pond full of water. At first, the fish lost its balance but after a while began to swim and circled around the pond. The fish had never seen so much water collected in one place.
Thousands of tadpoles were wriggling in the water. They laughed when they saw the little black fish,
“What a funny shape! What kind of creature are you?”
The fish looked them over thoroughly and said, “Please don’t insult me. My name is Little Black Fish. Tell me your names so that we’ll get acquainted.
“We call one another tadpole,” replied one of the tadpoles.
“We come from nobility,” said another.
“You can’t find anyone prettier than us in the whole world,” said another.
“We aren’t shapeless and ugly-faced like you,” said another one.
The fish said, “I never imagined you would be so conceited. That’s all right. I’ll forgive you since you’re speaking out of ignorance.”
In one voice the tadpoles demanded, “Are you saying we’re stupid?”
“If you weren’t ignorant,” replied the fish, “you’d know that there are many others in the world who are pleased with their appearances. You don’t even have names of your own.”
The tadpoles became very angry. But since they knew the little fish spoke truthfully, they changed their tone and said, “really, you’re wasting words! We swim around the world every day from morning till evening, but except for ourselves and our father and mother, we see no one. Of course, there are tiny worms, but they don’t count.”
“You can’t even leave the pond,” said the fish. “How can you talk about traveling around the world?”
“What! Do you think there’s a world other than the pond?” exclaimed the tadpoles.
“At least,” responded the fish, “you must wonder where this water comes from and what things are outside of it.”
“Outside the water!” exclaimed the tadpoles, “Where is that? We’re never seen outside of the water! Haha …haha …You’re crazy!”
Little Black Fish also started to laugh. The fish thought it would be better to leave the tadpoles to themselves and go away, but then changed its mind and decided to speak to their mother.
“Where is your mother?” asked the fish. Suddenly, the deep voice of a frog made the fish jump. The frog was sitting on a rock at the edge of the pond. She jumped into the water, came up to the fish and said:
“I’m right here. What do you want?”
“Hello, Great Lady,” said the fish.
The frog responded “Worthless creature, now is not the time to show off. You’ve found some children to listen to you and are talking pretentiously. I’ve lived long enough to know that the world is this pond. Mind your own business and don’t lead my children astray.”
“If you lived a hundred years,” said the little fish, “you’d still be nothing more than an ignorant and helpless frog.”
The frog got angry and jumped at Little Black Fish. The fish flipped quickly and fled like lightening, stirring up sediment and worms at the bottom of the pond.
The valley twisted and curved. The stream became deeper and wider. But if you looked down at the valley from the top of the mountains, the stream would seem like a white thread. In one place, a piece of large rock had broken off from the mountain, fallen to the bottom of the valley, and split the water into two branches. A large lizard the size of a hand, lay on her stomach on the rock. She was enjoying the sun’s warmth and watching a large, round crab resting on the sand at the bottom or the water in a shallow place and eating a frog he had snared.
The little fish suddenly saw the crab, became frightened, and greeted him from afar. The crab glanced sideways at the fish and said,
“What a polite fish! Come closer, little one. Come on!”
“I’m off to see the world,” said the little fish, “and I never want to be caught by you, sir!”
“Little fish, why are you so pessimistic and scared?” asked the crab.
“I’m neither pessimistic nor afraid,” answered the fish. “I speak about everything I see and understand.”
“Well, then,” said the crab, “please tell me what you’ve seen and understood that makes you think I want to capture you?”
“Don’t try to trick me!” responded the fish.
“Are you referring to the frog?” queried the crab. “How childish you are! I have a grudge against frogs; that’s the reason I hunt them. Do you know, they think they’re the only creatures in the world and that they’re very lucky. I want to make them understand who is really a master in the world! So you don’t have to be afraid, my dear. Come here. Come on.”
As the crab talked, he was walking backwards towards the little fish. His gait was so funny that the fish couldn’t help laughing and said,
“Poor thing! You don’t even know how to walk. How did you ever learn who runs the world?”
The black fish drew back from the crab. A shadow fell upon the water and suddenly a heavy blow pushed the crab into the sand. The lizard laughed so hard at the crab’s expression that she slipped and almost fell into the water. The crab couldn’t get up.
The little fish saw that a young shepherd was standing at the edge of the water watching the fish and the crab. A flock of sheep and goats came up to the water and thrust their mouths in. The valley filled with the sounds of “meh meh” and “bah bah.”
The little black fish waited until the sheep and goats had drunk their water and left, then called the lizard,
“Dear lizard, I’m a little black fish who’s going to search for the end of the stream. I think you’re wise, so, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Ask anything you want.”
“All along the way, they’ve been frightening me a great deal about the pelican, the swordfish and the heron. Do you know anything about them?”
“The swordfish and the heron,” said the lizard, “aren’t found in this area, especially the swordfish who lives in the sea. But it’s possible that the pelican is farther down. Be careful he doesn’t trick you and catch you in his pouch.”
“Under his throat,” explained the lizard, “the pelican has a pouch which holds a lot of water. When the pelican’s swimming, fish, without realizing it, sometimes enter his pouch and then go straight into his stomach. But if the pelican isn’t hungry, he stores the fish in his pouch to eat later.”
“If a fish enters the pouch, is there any way of getting out?” asked the fish.
“There’s no way unless the fish rips open the pouch,” answered the lizard.
“I’m going to give you a dagger so that if you get caught by the pelican, you can do just that.”
Then the lizard crawled into a crack in the rock and returned wit a very sharp dagger. The little fish took the dagger and said:
“Dear lizard, you are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s not necessary to thank me, my dear. I have many of these daggers. When I have nothing to do, I sit down and make daggers from blades of grass and give them to smart fish like you.”
“What?” asked the fish, “Have other fish passed here before me?”
“Many have passed by,” the lizard replied. “They’ve formed themselves into a school and they give the fisherman a hard time.”
“Excuse me for talking so much,” said the black fish, “but if you don’t think me meddlesome, tell me how they give the fisherman a hard time.
“Well,” answered the lizard, “they stick together. Whenever the fisherman throws his net, they get inside, pull the net with them, and drag it to the bottom of the sea.”
The lizard placed her ear on the crack, listened and said, “I must excuse myself now. My children have awakened.” The lizard went into the crack in the rock. The black fish had no choice but to set out again. But all the while there were many questions on the fish’s mind. “Is it true that the stream flows to the sea? If only the pelican doesn’t catch me! Is it true the swordfish enjoys killing and eating its own kind? Why is the heron our enemy?”
The little fish continued swimming and thinking, In every stretch of the way the fish saw and learned new things. How the fish liked turning somersaults, tumbling down waterfalls, and swimming again. The fish felt the warmth of the sun and grew strong. At one place a deer was hastily drinking some water. The little fish greeted her.
“Pretty deer, why are you in such a hurry?”
“A hunter is following me,” replied the deer. “I’ve been hit by a bullet … right here!”
The little fish didn’t see the bullet hole, but from the deer’s limping gait knew she was telling the truth.
At one place turtles were napping in the sun’s warmth. At another place the boisterous noise of partridges twisted through the valley. The fragrance of mountain grass floated through the air and mixed with the water. In the afternoon the fish reached a spot where the valley widened and the water passed through the center of a grove of trees. There was so much water that the little black fish had a really good time.
Later on, the fish came upon a school of fish. The little fish had not seen any other fish since leaving home. Several tiny fish surrounded Little Black Fish and said:
“You must be a stranger here!”
“Yes,” responded the black fish, “I’m a stranger. I’ve come from far away.”
“Where do you want to go?” asked the tiny fish.
“I’m going to find the end of the stream,” replied the black fish.
“This very stream we’re swimming in,” answered the black fish.
“We call this a river,” stated the tiny fish.
The black fish didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you know that the pelican lives along the way?” inquired one of the tiny fish.
“Yes, I know,” answered the black fish.
“Do you know what a big wide pouch the pelican has?” asked another.
“I know that too,” replied the black fish.
“In spite of all this, you still want to go?” exclaimed the tiny fish.
“Yes,” said the black fish, “whatever happens, I must go.”
Soon a rumor spread among all the fish that a little black fish had come from far away and wanted to find the end of the river. And the fish wasn’t even afraid of the pelican! Several tiny fish were tempted to go with the black fish but didn’t because they were afraid of the grown-ups. Others said, “If there weren’t a pelican, we would come with you. We’re afraid of the pelican’s pouch.”
A village was on the edge of the river. Village women and girls were washing dishes and clothes in the river. The little fish listened to their chatter for a while and watched the children bathing, then set off. The fish went on and on and on, still farther on, until night fell, then lay down under a rock to sleep. The fish woke in the middle of the night and saw the moon shining into the water and lighting up everything. The little black fish liked the moon very much. On nights when the moon shone into the water, the fish longed to creep out from under the moss and speak with her. But Mother would always wake up, pull the fish under the moss, and make it go to sleep again.
The little fish looked up at the moon and said
“Hello, my lovely moon!”
“Hello, Little Black Fish. What brings you here?”
“I’m traveling around the world.”
“The world is very big,” said the moon. “You can’t travel everywhere.”
“That’s okay,” said the fish. “I’ll go everywhere I can.”
“I’d like to stay with you till morning,” said the moon, “but a big black cloud is coming toward me to block out my light.”
“Beautiful moon! I like your light so much. I wish you’d always shine on me.”
“My dear fish, the truth is, I don’t have any light of my own. The sun gives me light and I reflect it to the earth. Tell me, have you heard that humans want to fly up and land on me in a few years?”
“That’s impossible,” exclaimed the fish.
“It’s a difficult task,” said the moon, “but whatever they want, humans can …”
The moon couldn’t finish her sentence. The dark cloud approached and covered her face.
The night became dark again, and the black fish was alone. The fish looked at the darkness in surprise and amazement for several seconds, then crept under a rock and fell asleep.
The fish woke up early in the morning and saw overhead several tiny fish chattering. When they saw that the black fish was awake, they said in one voice:
The black fish recognized them right away and said, “Good morning! You followed me after all!”
“Yes,” answered one of the tiny fish, “but we’re still afraid.”
“The thought of the pelican just won’t go away,” said another.
“You worry too much,” said the black fish. “One shouldn’t worry all the time. Let’s start out and our fears will vanish completely.”
But as they were about to set out, they felt the water all around them rise up and a lid was placed over them. It was dark everywhere and there was no way to escape. The black fish immediately realized that they had been caught in the pelican’s pouch.
“My friends,” said the little black fish, “we’ve been caught in the pelican’s pouch, but there’s a chance to escape.”
All the tiny fish began to cry. One of them said, “There’s no way to escape! It’s your fault since you influenced us and led us astray.”
“Now he’s going to swallow us all, and then we’ll die,” said another.
Suddenly the sound of frightening laughter twisted through the water. It was the pelican. He kept on laughing and said, “What tiny fish I’ve caught! Ha. Ha. Truly, my heart bleeds for you. I don’t want to swallow you! Ha, Ha …”
The tiny fish began pleading, “Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican! We’ve been hearing about you for a long time. If you’d be so kind as to open your distinguished beak a little so that we might go out, we’ll always be grateful to you.”
“I don’t want to swallow you right now,” said the pelican. “I’ve some fish stored. Look below.”
Several large and tiny fish were scattered on the bottom of the pouch.
“Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican!” cried the tiny fish, “we haven’t done anything. We’re innocent. This little black fish led us astray …”
“Cowards!” exclaimed the little black fish, “are you crying like this because you think this dishonest bird is merciful?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” said the tiny fish. “Just wait and see … His Excellency, Mr. Pelican, will pardon us and swallow you!”
“Of course I’ll pardon you,” said the pelican. “But on one condition.”
“Your condition, please, sir!” begged the tiny fish.
“Strangle that meddlesome fish, and then you’ll get your freedom.”
The little black fish moved aside and said to the tiny fish,
“Don’t agree! This deceitful bird wants to turn us against each other. I have a plan …”
But the tiny fish were so intent on saving themselves that they couldn’t think of anything else. They advanced towards the little black fish who was sitting near the back of the pouch and talking slowly.
“Cowards! Whatever happens, you’ve been caught and don’t have a way to escape. And you’re not strong enough to hurt me.”
“We must strangle you,” said the tiny fish.
“We want freedom!”
“You’ve lost your senses,” said the black fish. “Even if you strangle me, you won’t escape. Don’t fall for his tricks…”
“You’re talking like this just to save yourself,” said the tiny fish. “Otherwise you wouldn’t think of us at all.”
“Just listen,” said the black fish, “and I’ll explain. I’ll pretend I’m dead. Then, we’ll see whether or not the pelican will free you. If you don’t agree to this, I’ll kill all of you with this dagger or rip open the pouch and escape while you …” “Enough!” interrupted one of the fish. “I can’t stand this talk. Oh, wee …oh, wee …oh wee …”>
“Why did you ever bring along this crybaby?” demanded the black fish upon seeing him cry. Then the fish took out the dagger and held it in front of the tiny fish. Helpless, they agreed to the little fish’s suggestion. They pretended to be fighting together. The black fish pretended to be dead. The others went forward and said, “Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican, we strangled the meddlesome black fish …” “Good work!” laughed the pelican. “Now, as a reward, I’m going to swallow all of you alive so that you can have a nice stroll in my stomach!”
The tiny fish never had a chance. Quick as lightening they passed through the pelican’s throat and were gone. But, at that very instant, the black fish drew the dagger, split open the wall of the pouch with one blow and fled. The pelican cried out in pain and smashed his head on the water but he couldn’t follow after the little fish.
The black fish went on and on and still farther on until it was noon. The river had passed through the mountains and valleys and now was flowing across a level plain. Several other smaller rivers had joined it from the right and the left, increasing its water greatly. The black fish was enjoying the immensity of the water.
Soon the fish realized the water had no bottom. The fish swam this way and that way and didn’t touch anywhere. There was so much water that the little fish got lost in it! No matter how far the fish swam, still the water was endless. Suddenly, the fish noticed a large, long creature charging forward like lightening. There was a two-edged sword in front of its mouth. The little fish thought, “The swordfish! He’s going to cut me to pieces this very instant!”
Quickly the fish jumped out of the way and swam to the surface. After a while the fish went under the water again to look for the bottom. On the way the fish met a school of fish-thousands and thousands of fish.
“Friend,” said the fish to one of them, “I’m a stranger. I’ve come from far away. Where is this place?”
The fish called his friends and said, “Look! Another …” Then replied to the black fish, “Friend, welcome to the sea.”
Another said, “All rivers and streams flow here, except some which flow into swamps.”
“You can join our group anytime you wish,” said one of the fish.
The little black fish was happy to have reached the sea and said, “I’d like to travel around first, then I’ll come join your group. I’d like to be with you the next time you pull down the fisherman’s net.”
“You’ll get your wish soon,” answered one of the fish. “Now go explore. But if you swim to the surface, watch out for the heron who isn’t afraid of anyone these days. She doesn’t stop bothering us till she’s caught four or five fish a day.”
The black fish then left the group of sea fish and began swimming. A little later the fish came to the surface of the sea. A warm sun was shining. The little black fish enjoyed feeling the sun’s bright rays on its back. Calm and happy, the fish was swimming on the surface of the sea and thinking, “Death could come upon me very easily now. But as long as I’m able to live, I shouldn’t go out to meet death. Of course, if someday I should be forced to face death-as I shall-it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the influence that my life or death will have on the lives of others . . .”
The little black fish wasn’t able to pursue these thoughts. A heron dived down, swooped up the fish, and carried it off. Caught in the heron’s long beak, the little fish kicked and waved but couldn’t get free. The heron had grabbed the fish’s waist so tightly that its life was ebbing away. After all, how long can a little fish stay alive out of water?
“If only the heron would swallow me this very instant,” thought the fish, “then the water and moisture inside her stomach would prevent my death at least for a few minutes.”
The fish addressed the heron with this thought in mind. “Why don’t you swallow me alive? I’m one of those fish whose body becomes full of poison after death.”
The heron didn’t reply. She thought, “Oh, a tricky one! What are you up to? You want to get me talking so you can escape!”
Dry land was visible in the distance. It got closer and closer.
“If we reach dry land,” thought the fish, “all is finished.”
“I know you want to take me to your children,” said the fish, “but by the time we reach land, I’ll be dead, and my body will become a sack full of poison. Why don’t you have pity for your children?”
“Precaution is also a virtue!” thought the heron. “I can eat you myself and catch another fish for my children… but let’s see… could this be a trick? No, you can’t do anything.”
As the heron thought she noticed that the black fish’s body was limp and motionless. “Does this mean you’re dead,” thought the heron. “Now I can’t even eat you! I’ve ruined such a soft and delicate fish for no reason at all!”
“Hey little one!” she called to the black fish. “Are you still half alive so that I can eat you?”
But she didn’t finish speaking because the moment she opened her beak, the black fish jumped and fell down.
The heron realized how badly she’d been tricked and dived after the little black fish. The fish streaked through the air like lightening. The fish had lost its senses from thirst for sea water and thrust its dry mouth into the moist wind of the sea. But as soon as the fish splashed into the water and took a new breath, the heron caught up and this time swallowed the fish so fast that the fish didn’t understand what had happened.
The fish only sensed that everywhere was wet and dark. There was no way out. The sound of crying could be heard. When the fish’s eyes had become accustomed to the dark, it saw a tiny fish crouched in a corner, crying. He wanted his mother. The black fish approached and said:
“Little one!… Get up! Think about what we should do. What are you crying for? Why do you want your mother?”
“You there…Who are you?” responded the tiny fish. “Can’t you see? …I’m …dy…ing. O, me …oh, my …oh, oh …mama …I …I can’t come with you to pull the fisherman’s net to the bottom of the sea any more …oh, oh …oh, oh!”
“Enough, there!” said the little fish. “You’ll disgrace all fish.”
After the tiny fish had controlled his crying, the little fish continued, “I want to kill the heron and find peace of mind to all fish. But first, I must send you outside so that you don’t ruin everything.”
“You’re dying yourself,” replied the tiny fish. “How can you kill the heron?”
The little fish showed the dagger. “From right inside here, I’m going to rip open her stomach. Now listen to what I say. I’m going to start tossing back and forth in order to tickle the heron. As soon as she opens her mouth and begins to laugh, you jump out.”
“Then what about you?” asked the tiny fish.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not coming out until I’ve killed this good-for-nothing.”
The black fish stopped talking and began tossing back and forth and tickling the heron’s stomach. The tiny fish was standing ready at the entrance of the heron’s stomach. As soon as the heron opened her mouth and began to laugh, the tiny fish jumped out and fell into the water. But no matter how long he waited, there wasn’t any sign of the black fish. Suddenly, he saw the heron twist and turn and cry out. Then she began to beat her wings and fell down. She splashed into the water. She beat her wings again, then all movement stopped. But there was no sign of Little Black Fish, and since that time, nothing has been heard.
The old fish finished her tale and said to her 12,000 children and grandchildren, “Now it’s time to sleep, children. Go to bed.”
“Grandmother!” exclaimed the children and grand-children, “You didn’t say what happened to that tiny fish.”
“We’ll leave that for tomorrow night,” said the old fish. “Now, it’s time for bed. Goodnight.”
Eleven thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine little fish said goodnight and went to sleep. The grandmother fell asleep too. But try as she might, a little red fish couldn’t get to sleep. All night long she thought about the sea…..
*Published with the permission of Iran Chamber Society
The musician Bowzinsky was walking from town to the country house of Prince Bibulov, where an evening of music and dance was to “take place,” as they say, for an engagement party. On his back was an enormous double bass in a leather case. Bowzinsky walked along a river where cool water flowed — not majestically, it must be said, but at least quite poetically.
Suddenly he had an idea: “Why don’t I take a swim?”
Without a second thought, he stripped down and submerged his body into the cool stream. It was a magnificent evening. Bowzinsky’s poetic soul began to attune itself in harmony with his surroundings, but as he swam a hundred feet or so to the side, a sweet feeling engulfed his soul when saw a beautiful young woman sitting on the steep river bank and fishing. He went still and held his breath as a flood of disparate emotions came over him: childhood memories, a painful yearning for the past, awakening love… Good Lord! Here he’d thought that he was no longer capable of love! After he’d lost faith in humanity — his dearly beloved wife ran off with his friend, Cursky the bassoon player — his heart had been filled with a feeling of emptiness. He had become a misanthrope.
“What is life?” he had asked himself many times. “What do we live for? Life is a myth… a dream… a type of ventriloquism…”
But standing before this sleeping beauty (for it was easy to see that she was asleep), he suddenly felt, against his will, something in his heart like love. He stood before her for a long while, devouring her with his eyes…
“But enough of that…” he thought, sighing deeply. “Farewell, marvelous vision! I must be off to His Grace for a ball…”
After one last look at this beauty, he was about to swim off when an idea came to him.
“I should leave her with something to remember me by!” he thought. “I’ll tie something to her line — a surprise from an ‘unknown admirer’.”
Bowzinsky soundlessly swam to the bank, picked a large bouquet of field and water flowers, tied them together with goosefoot and then fastened it to the line.
The bouquet sank down to the river bottom, taking the pretty fishing float along with it.
Reason, the laws of nature and the social standing of my hero demand that this romance end right here, but — alas! — a writer’s fate is uncompromising: due to circumstances beyond the writer’s control, the romance did not end with the bouquet. Contrary to common sense and the nature of things, the poor and undistinguished double bass player was to play an important role in the life of this high-born and wealthy beauty.
When he swam to shore, Bowzinsky got a nasty surprise: his clothes were gone. Stolen! While he was admiring the beautiful young woman, some miscreants had taken everything save his double bass and top hat.
“Curses!” Bowzinsky shouted. “Oh, humanity — a brood of vipers! I am not as distressed by the loss of my clothes (for all is vanity, including clothing), but by the thought that I must walk on naked and, as such, offend public morality!”
He sat on his instrument case and tried to think of a way out of his terrible situation.
“I certainly can’t go naked to Prince Bibulov!” he thought. “There will be ladies present! Besides, along with my trousers, the thieves stole the bow rosin that was in the pocket!”
He agonized for so long that his head ached.
“I’ve got it!” he finally thought. “There’s a little bridge in a thicket close to the riverbank… I can sit under the bridge until it’s nightfall, and then in the evening, when it’s dark, I can make my way to the nearest cottage…”
Having decided on a path of action, Bowzinsky put on his top hat, hoisted the double bass onto his back and trundled off into the thicket. Naked, with that musical instrument on his back, he looked like an ancient, mythical demigod.
And now, gentle reader, as my hero sits under the bridge and gives in to sorrow, we shall leave him for a while and see about the girl who was fishing. What happened to her? When the beauty woke up and didn’t see her fishing float on the water, she gave a tug on the line. The line pulled tight, but the hook and float didn’t rise to the surface. Bowzinsky’s bouquet must have become water-logged and weighted down.
“Either I’ve caught a big fish,” the young woman thought, “or my line has gotten caught on something.”
After tugging on the line some more, she decided that the hook was snagged.
“What a shame!” she thought. “Fish start biting towards dusk. What can I do?”
After thinking a minute, the eccentric girl threw off her diaphanous clothing and submerged her lovely body in the stream of water up to her marble shoulders. It wasn’t easy to unsnag the hook from the bouquet that the line was tangled in, but her patience and effort paid off. After a quarter of an hour the beauty, glowing and happy, came out of the water holding the hook in her hand.
But a cruel fate awaited her. The miscreants who stole Bowzinsky’s clothing took her clothes, too, leaving only her can of worms.
“What am I to do now?” she wept. “How can I go home like this? No! Never! I’d rather die! I’ll wait until it’s dark and then, under cover of darkness, I’ll get to Aunt Agafia’s and send her to my house for some clothing… And in the meantime, I’ll go and hide under the bridge.”
Crouching down, my heroine dashed along a path through tall grass to the little bridge. But when she crawled under the bridge, she saw a naked man with a theatrical mane of hair and a hairy chest. She screamed and fell into a faint.
Bowzinsky took a fright, too. At first he took the girl for a naiad.
“Are you a siren, come to seduce me?” he thought. Given his customary a high opinion of his appearance, he found the notion flattering. “If she is not a siren but a human being, then how can her strange transfiguration be explained? Why is she here, under the bridge? And what is wrong with her?”
While he was pondering these questions, the beauty came to her senses.
“Don’t kill me!” she whispered. “I’m Princess Bibulova. I beg of you! You’ll get a lot of money! I was untangling my fishing line when some thieves took my clothing, boots and all!”
“My good lady!” Bowzinsky said pleadingly. “My clothes were stolen, too. And along with my trousers, they took the bow rosin in my pocket!”
Musicians who play the double bass or the trombone are not usually very resourceful, but Bowzinsky was the pleasant exception to the rule.
“My good lady!” he said after a moment. “I see you are embarrassed by my appearance. But you must agree that I cannot leave here for the same reason that you cannot. So, here’s my thought: would you like to lie down inside my double bass case and close the lid? That would hide my appearance from your sight…”
With that, Bowzinsky took his double bass out of its case. For just a moment as he emptied the case, he wondered if this was a profanation of his sacred art, but his qualms did not linger. The beauty lay down in the case and curled up into a ball, he tightened the strap and was delighted that nature had bestowed him with such a great mind.
“Now, my good lady, you can’t see me,” he said. “You can lie there peacefully. When it is dark, I’ll carry you to your parents’ home. I can return for my double bass later.”
When twilight fell, Bowzinsky hoisted the case containing the beauty up over his shoulder and trundled toward Bibulov’s country house. His plan was this: first he’d walk to the nearest cottage and get some clothes, and then he’d walk on…
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he thought, bent under the weight of his load and kicking up dust with his bare feet. “For the noble role I’ve played in the life of the princess, Bibulov will surely reward me generously.”
“My good lady, are you comfortable?” he asked in the tone of a cavalier galant inviting a lady to dance the cadrille. “Don’t stand on ceremony. Do make yourself at home in there!”
Suddenly the gallant Bowzinsky thought that he saw two figures ahead, obscured by the darkness. He peered at them. It wasn’t an optical illusion, he was certain; there were, in fact, two figures walking along the road, and they were even carrying some bundles…
“Are those the thieves?” he thought. “They’re carrying something! It must be our clothes!”
Bowzinsky put the case on the road and ran after the figures.
“Stop!” he cried. “Stop! Seize them!”
The figures glanced behind them, and when they saw they were being chased, they took off… For a long time the princess could hear the sound of people running and shouts of “Stop!” Finally, the sounds fell silent.
With Bowzinsky caught up in the chase, the beauty would have lain there in a field by the side of the road for a long time, if not for another happy turn of fate. It so happened that at just that time and along just that road Bowzinsky’s comrades were also walking to Bibulov’s country house — Skutlovsky on flute and Grandzhestov on clarinet. When they tripped over the case they looked around in consternation and then shrugged their shoulders.
“A double bass!” Skutlovsky said. “It must be our Bowzinsky’s double bass! But why on earth is it here?”
“Something must have happened to Bowzinsky,” Grandzhestov said. “Either he got drunk or got robbed… in any case, we can’t leave it here. We’ll take it with us.”
Skutlovsky hoisted the case onto his back, and the musicians continued along their way.
“What a bloody weight this is,” the flautist complained the whole way. “I wouldn’t play this hellish monstrosity for anything…Whew!”
When the musicians got to Prince Bibulov’s house, they put the case in the area set up for the orchestra and headed to the buffet.
By then the chandeliers and sconces were already being lit. The fiancé, the handsome and personable Court Counselor Lakeyvich, who worked in the Transportation Ministry, stood in the center of the hall with his hands in his pockets and chatted with Count Flassky. They were discussing music.
“Once when I was in Naples,” Lakeyvich was saying, “I personally knew a violinist who could literally perform miracles. You wouldn’t believe it! On the double bass… damned if he didn’t pull trills out of an ordinary double bass — it gave you the chills. He played Strauss waltzes!”
The Count couldn’t believe it. “Nonsense! That’s impossible!” he said.
“It’s the truth! He even played one of Liszt’s rhapsodies. I shared a hotel room with him, and once, when I had nothing better to do, he taught me how to play Liszt’s rhapsody on the double bass.”
“Liszt’s rhapsody! Humph! Surely you are joking…”
“You don’t believe me?” Lakeyvich said, laughing. “I’ll prove it to you! Let’s go to the orchestra pit!”
The fiancé and the Count went to the orchestra pit. They went up to the double bass case, quickly untied the strap, and… Oh, the horror!
As the reader gives his imagination free rein to picture how that musical discussion ended, we’ll go back to Bowzinsky… The poor musician couldn’t catch the thieves, so he returned to the spot where he left his case. But he didn’t see his precious burden. Completely at a loss, he walked up and down the road, and when he didn’t find it, he decided that he was on the wrong road.
“Oh, how horrible!” he though, clutching his head and shivering. “She suffocated in the case! I’m a murderer!”
Until midnight Bowzinsky walked along the roads, looking for his case, but finally, when he had no more strength, he went back under the bridge.
“I’ll start looking again at dawn,” he decided.
The search at daybreak produced the same result, and Bowzinsky decided the wait for nightfall under the bridge…
“I’ll find her,” he muttered, taking off his top hat and tugging at his hair. “Even if it takes me a year, I’ll find her!”
Even today, peasants who live in these parts still tell how you might see a naked man with long hair and a top hat at night by the bridge. And sometimes you might even hear the wheeze of a double bass from under the bridge.
“I haven’t written a word for a year (…) I’ve tried to write. Every day I sit at the typewriter, but I can’t get started.” – J.D Salinger
“What’s a director if he can’t engage in direction? He’s like a projectionist without a movie, or a mill without grain. He’s a nobody.” – Anonymous
“Even on my best days I haven’t been able to write more than a page or two. I seem to be afflicted or cursed with some failure of mind that keeps me from concentrating on what I’m doing.” – Paul Auster
Salinger, Anonymous. Auster. Don’t let names frighten you. I’ve read these confessions more than once. They’re nothing but a thorn prick. But I ask you: What’s a thorn prick compared to a piece of hot metal searing your foreheads and sides?
For two and a half years—let’s call it three, I found no words. All of a sudden, they evaporated. Writing a sentence consisting of a subject, a verb and an object had become a superhuman effort, the outcomes of which were nothing to be proud of.
Unlike Arturo Bandini, unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to find a great editor named Hackmuth that I could write to in complaint, “My God, Mr Hackmuth, something’s wrong with me. The old zip is gone and I can’t write anymore. Do you think, Mr Hackmuth, that the climate here has something to do with it? Please advise me. Advise me please!” Then he would say reassuringly, “Take it easy. Get out and about. Words can’t abandon you forever. And one last piece of advice: Don’t strain your eyesight. Remember what happened to Tarkington and James Joyce!”
It was the longest siege of determination ever, the longest siege in history. Longer than the Siege of Leningrad. I love the look of this sentence in Russian: Блокада Ленинграда. And the result? Nothing. I won’t delve into the causes of this disability, whose scars I’ll carry inside me forever. As for my body, there was no way to hide its fingerprint anymore: sunken eyes and a distant gaze, like that of a devil in torment amid a crowd of guffawing angels.
Throughout that period, I watched a lot of movies and read still more books. I slept like a polar bear, without a hope of anything. And the poetry that had once placed a golden crown on my head, I flung in the dirt. As I read, I became more alert, more sensitive to words, and my undisputed insightfulness expanded. Still, though, words receded into the distance. As soon as I put my hands on the keyboard, they would tuck their long ears like rabbits and go scurrying terrified for cover into the writing field. Then, nothing would happen but the swaying of dry grass.
I got up from the table and went to stand by the window that looked out over the mountain, but I went on hearing the grass swaying. I slipped into bed, and the swaying slipped in with me. Bleak tall grasses like violin bows at a funeral moved with a black subtlety and grace, as though they were congratulating themselves on the abundance of water and nourishment in my nightmare-rich soil.
My eyes went on sinking, and my gaze grew more and more distant. As the days go by, it became more and more similar to the look of Van Gogh—the Vincent Van Gogh that you all know. And I mean it literally, not figuratively. My gaze terrified me. The fear raging in my heart terrified me too. But I wasn’t afraid. Believe me—never once in that entire period did I feel afraid. You know what the movement of the grasses did to Van Gogh. It drove him out of his mind. And you know what it did to Hemingway. He endured it for a while, but ended up blowing his head off with a shotgun. Believe me. Even after seeing a picture of his brains congealed on the kitchen wall like quince jam, I didn’t feel a grain of fear.
I don’t mean to brag. However, it’s the truth, and not in comparison with these two men only, but with everybody. My stamina is incomparable. I’ve put it to the test on more than one occasion. In the military barracks, when I was in the army, I outdid everybody, soldiers and trainers alike. When everybody else was out of breath and blue in the face from fatigue, there was one lung that went on working, one that kept on breathing comfortably. And when everybody stopped, one person kept on running to the end of the barracks racetrack. As I said, I don’t mean to brag, but I think you know who I’m talking about.
I’d never known where this muscular strength came from. However, I did know that it had to be the source of every other kind of strength, be it spiritual or emotional. As for how to translate this muscular prowess into a spiritual and psychological immunity, and into a poetic and aesthetic salvation, this was the mystery I had to solve.
Three years in a strange city, in a house consisting of two cramped rooms, a bathroom with an area of two square meters, and what looked like a hallway that was supposed to be a kitchen furnished with a single chair and a table for both eating and writing. There was an Olivetti typewriter, two brown sofas, a vertical window opening onto a balcony overlooking the mountain, a horizontal window overlooking the forest, a couple of flowerpots, a couple of oil paintings, a couple of deluxe bronze frames housing photographs of my father and mother, and two vertical bookcases affixed to the living room wall, with books placed under them on a wooden stand, and others on the floor. There was also a bookcase in the bedroom. And there was nothing else. N-o-t-h-i-ng but that sound that roamed from room to room, a sound that resembled the movement of dry grasses in a field whose inhabitants had all died.
In all this, there was something that made me feel proud even when I was ridng the metro, a stranger among strangers. Even when I was drinking coffee at the rail workers’ canteen, or in restaurants that catered to petty officers, sporting the crown of thorns that had taken the place of the crown of gold, there was something that made me proud.
It’s inexplicable. But I might say I have a self-esteem that saved me throughout that period. Even when the water was up to my thighs, I was confident that I could bring the boat out of the storm. My self-esteem kept me from leaving the helm even when the water had reached my manly 40-centimeter waist or was nearly in my mouth. When all I could do was stare up at the skylight, I kept hold of it, drawing the ocean air into my nostrils.
Meanwhile, on dry land, in noisy pubs, everyone was reporting the news of the boat’s sinking and its captain’s demise. Glasses clinked and sparkling toasts were drunk to the accompaniment of embraces and pats on the back.
The captain, of whom we heard no more until everyone forgot him, was now simply a “he”, free in the waters of the sea, and independent. As “he” was battling the waves alone, “I” was repeating the same monotonous cycle: drinking, reading, sleeping, waking, peeing, bathing, riding the metro, working, and leaving work.
Everything was quiet until I heard the sound of the engine roaring again, and the beloved words of Christ reverberating in the silence of the house, “He was unknown when He was alive.”
And I shed hot tears.
I went to sleep with wet eyes. As my eyelids began to drop, “he” and “I” plunged into each other with the grace of a rose stem as it plunges into the soil. Then the time that had separated us slowly disappeared, leaving a foamy streak like that left by the passing of a ship.
The sun rose.
I awoke beneath the weight of a feeling that a magnetic field was drawing me steadily toward dry land. Suddenly I was no longer certain whether I was in my room, or out on the ocean, whether I was “me” or “him.”
The boat wearied me as it was being drawn to shore.
As I tossed and turned under light blankets, it occurred to me that my long hours of sleep hadn’t been devoid of determination. I thought about the blank page that had humiliated me over the course of those three years, and how I could make public the agony those years had brought, even if the effort would be like emptying a waterlogged boat with a bucket.
Translating this effort into words, and from words into a mental image, is what prompted me to resort to silence. And it is this very thing that now prompts me to recognize that any style not dictated by your true situation is bound sooner or later to end.
This city — this city is so fucking expensive that I can’t bear it. And it’s so fabulous that sometimes I can’t bear it. Expensive and horrible — that would be better. To enjoy it, you need money; to have money, you need to work a lot; but when you work a lot, you don’t have the energy or time or desire to enjoy it.
The endless list of unpaid bills was like a noose around my neck. Debts to my friends and acquaintances. About ten thousand.
All of this — the debts, the fears, the fatigue — all of it has been building up for the last six months, and finally I began to think about getting free of it all — about suicide. The contemplation stage changed to the planning stage.
In the past I was always stopped by three things: my own cowardice, hope that things would get better, and my mother. But now I’m at the point where I’m alone with a storm cloud of shit hanging over me. I know that if I stay here, all that shit will rain down on me and I’ll never dig my way out. Why wait? Better to get free. The only thing left was to decide how to do it.
I read up on it. Drowning, hanging, shooting — too painful. I’m in enough pain as is it, and I don’t want to end it the same way. All that’s left are pills. Take enough, fall asleep and don’t wake up.
If you’re alive, at least once you’ve thought about having the power to end it. Don’t tell me you haven’t. I won’t believe you.
But I didn’t have the money to buy the pills, so I went to my best friend. I already owed him 6,750 shekels.
“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.” I wasn’t lying. This really would be the last time.
He made me a meal of rice and salad with tahina, put me in a cab, paid the driver, and sent me off.
It turned out awkward — this was the last time I’d see my best friend and I didn’t even really hug him. My taxi was holding up traffic, the cars were honking like crazy, so in the rush I didn’t even have time to say anything of substance to him.
One box of pills wasn’t enough to kill me — they must be popular with suicides so that’s why there weren’t many of them. In one box, I mean. That’s what I figured. To kill myself, I’d need four boxes. I decided it wouldn’t be right to buy all four of them in one Super-Pharm — I was afraid I’d get suspicious looks — so I decided to go to four different drug stores and buy a box in each one.
I bent down to tie my shoelaces — that happens to me a lot, my shoe laces coming untied — and when I stood up and reached for the little pouch bag that held my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I realized that it was gone. I spun around like a Hanukkah dreidel and saw an Eritrean boy, about 13 years old, running away with my bag. I ran after him. He saw me and took off like a panther. Today was not my lucky day.
I wasn’t going to catch him, and I wasn’t going to die.
The screech of brakes — still playing in my head on a loop. A crowd of onlookers, the driver in a panic, the boy screaming, and next to him — my bag, and in it my liberation, while I stood rooted to the spot.
Then: ambulance, stretcher, doctors… They drove off, and I remembered that the 200 shekels my friend gave me weren’t in my bag but in my pants pocket. I raised my arm and a cab appeared instantly.
“After that ambulance!”
They took the boy to Ichilov Hospital. Like a scared rat hiding behind the column of people, I followed them — the doctors, the stretcher and the boy.
He was playing with his phone when I went into the ward and sat on the chair next to his bed. He was already feeling better. The nurse told me he’d dislocated his arm. The boy looked up. We locked eyes and he cringed. I held out some chips, an apple and a Kinder chocolate.
“I didn’t know which you’d like.”
“I like chips,” he said, and took the packet.
We didn’t speak as he munched. His mother, a thin black woman, flew into the ward, hugged him and then something caught her eye and she shouted, “You’re doing it again!” She grabbed my bag, which had been lying on the bedside table. “You’re stealing again! I told you that I’d manage. I’ll save your sister! You hear me? She’ll live!”
And then she finally saw me and stopped talking.
I walked out of the ward without saying a word. I’d forgotten what it was like, what it was like when you wanted to live. I called my mother, told her that I loved her, and then I called my best friend and asked him out for a beer. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was ashamed, you know?
But all that disappeared really fast. Only a few days went by before that storm cloud of shit was hanging over my head again. Only this time it was even worse.
“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.
This time I hugged him and told he was the best.
My friend suddenly said, “Tonight there’s going to be a great concert at Kuli Alma. Nina Simone’s songs. We ought to go.”
I almost burst into tears, so I quickly jumped on my bike and rode off. When I chained my bike by the Super-Pharm on Allenby Street, I saw that my shoe laces were untied — you know how that happens with me, my shoe laces come untied — and when I stood up and reached for the bag that had my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I saw that it was gone. He took off like a panther.
But it’s always noisy on Allenby and the kid probably didn’t hear me. Just in case I checked my pockets. There was only my phone, which rang.
“You won’t forget? Tonight. Kuli Alma. Nina Simone. At ten.”
Looks like I won’t die today either.
About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clocktower 1 The clocktower in November 7 Square is a symbol of the coup mounted by General Zine al-Abidine ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba on November 7, 1987. The clocktower stands where a statue of Bourguiba stood before. 2 where Mohamed V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquillity of the deserted capital city is disturbed by its well-known nutter: a paranoiac who circles the tower for the last time then starts pushing people away, warning them of the poisonous hands of the clock high above. He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else. He imagines that he is picking them up from the marble base of the wrought-iron clocktower that flaunts itself like a whore in the last years of the struggle. People have forgotten the days of forced disappearances and fear. Not a single person has disappeared for a year or more. People are enjoying the sacred siesta of August. The temperature is over fifty degrees, and the devil of midday picks the crab lice caught in transient lust from its crotch.
Ambulance and police sirens suddenly massacre the slumbering siesta, and everyone rushes, with the traces of drowsiness and dried semen stains still on them, to the street of streets. Something is happening at the lofty clocktower. Cordons of police officers surround the place. Rapid intervention forces hide behind cold helmets, and press back with batons the onlookers at whom car horns honk from every direction. Human beings without number look up to the top of the stern clock. A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach. Everybody is amazed. He is about to announce the end of the world.
Necks strain to look at the bold climber who has reached the top of the clock and is holding on to one of its hands. He takes a water-bottle out of his back pocket, has a drink and then empties what is left over his head. He removes his leather belt and secures himself with it to some iron rings, and turns to the crowds that have gathered below like ants. Nervous policemen surround the crowds and run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down: up there is out of bounds. Meanwhile he mutters something, the content of which is lost in the air. Only fragments of what he says fall like droppings from a ram. There is a movement of his left hand and he waves right and left, indicating his refusal to come down. The police carry on pushing back the people who are circling the tower like dung beetles. They try to ban any photography, to silence voices and to prevent mobile phone cameras being focussed on the hands of the clock. Traffic comes to a standstill and the car engines throb like the veins of a hundred metre sprinter on the starting line.
Something serious is going on. No one has been bold enough to get near the clock for the two years since a soccer fan fell off it in a delirium of happiness after his team won the President of the Republic Cup. On that day, the water bubbling up from the fancy fountain beneath the clock turned into a pool of red. From that evening the clock was subject to strict surveillance: it occupied a strategic site in the heart of the capital, regardless of what the nutter sometimes said about it.
The crowds grow and the front rows are reinvigorated by tourists who pour in from the beaches and from hotels nearby. The policemen’s batons are a little muted, but the men grow more agitated. They run about everywhere, barricading the pavements and extending the restricted area. Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand at the top of the clock like a gecko.
For years on the site of this clock stood a verdigrised statue of Bourguiba on a horse, with one of its forelegs raised to the faces of those who looked up. It was said that it raised its hoof in the face of Ibn Khaldun, whose statue had been planted like a bad dream opposite Bourguiba – and at his request. After he was swept away by order of the present rider, the statue was removed and there sprouted in its place a giant clock-tower with a cold cement pedestal. It was not long before it gave seed to smaller versions that were planted in each town and village, while statues of the Leader were banished from every part of the land.
The clock was changed for another that came from Switzerland or England or America – there were conflicting reports about the nationality of the new clock – and a bronze plinth was decorated in arabesque style. Groundless talk without proof about the clock of unknown origin was installed in the heart of the city that was heedless of its sons. No trace was left of the Leader whose statue was moved to La Goulette to gaze at the bitter sea.
Spiderman remains above the restricted zone, supporting himself with the leather belt from which he hangs as he swings about, like a professional mountaineer. Below, the world, bewildered. The crowds grow after workers leave their offices. One whole hour passes by and the police are chewing their sticks, unable to persuade the man of the hour to come down. Among the crowd strange things are going on. Thieves and pickpockets are busy stealing mobile phones and necklaces from the women onlookers; hands grope startled breasts or oblivious bums.
Climbing to the top of the clock is a serious crime, an unpardonable sin. What is happening today undermines security. The police are facing a dilemma: how can they get on top of the situation when the scandal is unfolding in front of everybody – citizens and foreigners, and the whole country at the height of the tourist season too?
An officer almost bites the head off one helpless policeman, asking him for the thousandth time, “How did that dirty son a of a bitch get up there? Where were you, stupid idiots? How did you let him get near the clock and let him climb up as well?”
Elsewhere a policeman pounces on a tourist and snatches the camera that he was pointing at the clock. The policeman rips out the battery and nervously hands back the camera, cautioning him against using it again. The barricaded area is a restricted security zone.
The crowds start to mutter about the behaviour of the police as they clear a large space between the people and the location of the incident. Their grievance becomes louder when they see the man on the clock waving his hand and addressing the chief of the rapid intervention forces. As he is waving the empty water-bottle about, they understand he is asking for water. Another bottle is brought. A policeman scales the clocktower’s inner stairway. He throws the man the end of the rope tied round the bottle. The man grabs it and, after the policeman tries to open negotiations, orders him to go back down.
Nothing of his conversation with the policeman is heard. People are busy listening to the ravings of one young man who is shouting, “They’re showing what’s happening on television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news and the frequency of the channel.”
People take out their phones. The message reached everybody at the same time. The policemen get more het up and frenziedly start to look for something or other. Another group of policemen come and busy themselves searching buildings all around for the source of transmission and for the camera that is filming the incident.
Some people rush home but crowds remain and others arrive until the pavements and streets are packed to overflowing.
The translation appeared in “Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa I”, Edited by Peter Clark, Dar al-Saqi in collaboration with IPAF, 2010.
The distance between one floor and another was months and years. Sometimes the lift was crowded. Sometimes it was empty. Another lift might pass with people going down, but everyone was trying to go up, or convince themselves that they really had ascended. I would have fits of laughter when from my place on high I saw the fraudulent indulgences in the hands of the obsessed down below. It was tragic that they did not perceive the existence of the lift in the first place. So many faces, all looking only for what pleased them. Things and people always change, but the indulgences remain the same. I watched each fight the others to make them pleased with what was pleasing him! Everybody seemed content with their own chance delusion, and fought for it. How could such people have invented Him and striven for Him? I cracked up with laughter when I noticed disciples of the bearers of fraudulent indulgences. They imagined that through their intercession they would ascend. Absurd! Utter madness!
“Part of you is still there,” said my companion who had just appeared as he pointed down below. It appeared I had crossed the forbidden zone.
“Perhaps it is you who is not here.”
He leaned against the metal wall behind him. A gaze as deep as the years was etched in his eyes.
“I have been here since before time and space.”
“They created Him and He was created, my friend. What’s with the black?”
As if only then noticing that he was dressed in black, he looked at me, his eyes thinking. He did not answer, but his eyes, to say that is hubris, malevolence.
“Didn’t I say created? It was a joke.”
The lift picked up speed. In fact, it vanished when it exceeded the speed of light. My cells were obliterated. Madness and nothingness encompassed me. Everything was calm. There was no quality of silence to silence that I might describe it.
The number 6 lit up before me. I contemplated it for a moment and burst out laughing. He was almost marked with anger, and I deliberately laughed more. “One more left.”
He came slowly towards me, fixing the essence of his being in a stare: “That will not come to pass if I am with you.”
Casual and sarcastic, I asked, “Perhaps if you kept going, you would get through?”
“How did it escape Him to leave you and those like you?”
“Many things have escaped him, my friend. Now get out of my senses.” And he went.
The lift did not move, but the number 7 suddenly appeared and the door opened. I stepped forward.
I had reached my furthest point in Heaven.
In nowhere the expanse stretches to the non-horizon. All is white, no end to the white marble and pillars, although they support nothing. White here is a process: He is so it became to be. It bears me to what I am certain is the encounter with Him.
An oval office of mythic proportions. A gigantic desk as expansive as what is behind it, vast in size and appearance, but only four books on top of it! I saw the one seated behind the desk, ensconced on His throne, and He was smiling.
Everything about Him was white too. His countenance created emotions made tangible. His actions gave rise to the attributes, but no attribute surrounded him. I drew closer, a stone’s throw or less.
“So, here at last.”
“As if you didn’t know!” I said.
“My knowledge of an action does not predetermine anyone to do it.”
I wasn’t listening, but resumed contemplating the place. I couldn’t avert my gaze from Him. Meekly, I took in his countenance. I composed myself and said, “Are those the only books here? Do you have a book about Lincoln?”
Anger marked His countenance. I continued defiantly, “He did something that You have not done. He ended human slavery.”
“Don’t test My wrath.”
“Of course,” I said sarcastically, “I’ll ask no questions so as to do no wrong.” I looked at the hands of my watch. It was working fine and I pretended to be busy with it. “This watch has been working perfectly for ten years. A skilled watchmaker made it, but he’s no longer concerned about how it runs. It just works by itself. I thought it wouldn’t work here. But in fact, time passes unconcerned.”
“You come as a supplicant. Ask and I will answer.”
“In the past you did… many things. What I want is a tiny proportion of what has been achieved. It will not change whether I ask you or not. Incredibly, the result would be the same if I entreated my pillow. I have discovered that I must act, not ask.”
His countenance froze into a look of terrifying anger and He was fixed motionless before me.
A glass barrier seemed to enwrap the place. The clouds and the vast expanse were visible behind it. People floating and joyously becoming one with the clouds appeared behind it. I stared into His eyes. Inside I longed that He would know my wish to float away from Him with the others floating outside.
He played his role well. He showed no sign that he knew what was going on behind his back. He could be truly satisfied with himself. And when Bennet and Yossi Cohen told him why they had called him in, he feigned surprise. He had cooperated with the Mossad in the past, but for him, until today, Yossi had been only a voice. He recognized his captivating face from pictures that had appeared in the media. Yossi turned his blue eyes to meet his, an enticement that made him tense. Don Yossi – yes. Without a doubt – Don Yossi.
“Guarantees. What guarantees can you give me that when this is all over I won’t be the scapegoat of the story.” His nasal voice echoes slightly through the space of the empty room.
Bennet smiles. He stands facing him across the narrow metal table, the only piece of furniture in the bare room in the basement of the Mossad. “Breathe Gregorius, breathe. This is not an interrogation room. It’s a meeting room. This is going to be smooth and simple. No complications, right Yossi?”
“This is Gregory, from Gregorovius, one of Cortázar’s protagonists. My mother loves him.” He smiles a lunar smile.
“Gregory, you’ve got an opportunity to soar here.” Yossi steps away from the wall he was leaning against. “Spread your arms as wide as you can, Gregory, and embrace everything possible.” As if trying to illustrate his intention, Yossi faces him and spreads his arms wide. “These are wings. Sometimes I flap them and fly high, and when I return my thoughts are clear and I know the world is mine.”
Bennet closes his eyes and spreads his arms, flapping them gently. “Believe him,” he says, trying a meditative tone. “As Director of the Mossad, he knows something about your future. About the future of all of us.”
“And how to direct it where we need it,” Yossi adds in his raspy bass voice, rolling the sleeves of his white shirt up above his elbows. “We’ve been following your ideas and you’re your work, and those of N.S.O. But you disappear on us quite a bit, if you know what I mean.” He closes one eye, lifts his arm, and forms his hand into the shape of a pistol. He takes aim at Gregory. “Bingo!” he lets slip.
Gregory looks down. “Yes, some of my time…but it’s not what you think,” he says in a grating, apologetic tone.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Bennet reassures him in a fatherly tone. “We know, we know.”
“I control it, although I don’t know completely how it works…” says Gregory in the voice of an embarrassed child, biting his lip and shrugging his shoulders, giving the appearance that his head is growing directly out of his rounded shoulders.
“It’s a simple matter of exchanging information. There’s nothing to apologize for. The country needs you, Gregory. It’s an honor!”
“Gregory,” says Yossi in a soft voice. “This is not an interrogation. Not at all. It’s a friendly negotiation for cooperation, okay? He drags over a chair and sits down across from Gregory, leaning toward him a bit. “You’re among friends here. We can do this nicely.”
Gregory’s thoughts are galloping in a different direction altogether, and he taps out a fast-paced rhythm on the table with his fingernail. “I wrote the algorithm, and even though algorithms are logical structures, something went wrong. It just disappeared. It’s hard to explain…” He hangs his head. “It’s all based on the premise that each of us is built from a repeating loop with infinite feedback, and we are therefore constantly becoming more sophisticated. Actually, we are all systems of identification and representation. Our ability to represent the reality around us for ourselves is what enables us to get along in the world. Now, imagine if were to introduce an algorithm to this loop that’s able to read this representation.”
He rubs his forehead and presses on it, making long, increasingly frequent movements from his forehead back to his neck. The room is narrow, and the walls appear to him to be moving, slowly reducing the space between them. Inside his skull, calculations of volume and air capacity are running. He thinks he feels an attack of claustrophobia coming on. For as long as he can remember, he has felt as if the world is closing in on him, imprisoning him. There has always been an invisible screen between him and those around him. He has attributed this limitation to some fault within him – a deep flaw that could not be seen; a partition that, at the same time, cultivated within him an inner sense of superiority and distance and gave him an active fantasy life and internal stories that occurred with the same intensity as the experience of reality itself.
“So what do you say?” Bennet stands behind him, massaging his shoulders. “Yossi, do you have some relaxing music? Perhaps something Buddhist?”
Yossi produces a small remote control, and a moment later the sounds of burbling water and chirping birds can be heard. Bennet whispers in Gregory’s ear: “Loosen up. Let yourself be a marionette whose strings have been detached from its head.”
The three begin a long moment in a meditative state. When the music suddenly goes silent, and as if coordinated in advance, Bennet grabs Gregory’s skull and shoves his tongue deep into his ear. Gregory’s eyes open wide. He tries to shake his head free, but Bennet holds onto it forcefully.
“There’s been a fundamental error!” Gregory screams.
“Now you’re talking business!” Bennet let’s go of his skull. “You know how complicated it was to push through the decision to cooperate with N.S.O. without a tender? There’s a one-time offer on the table. Be a partner. We’ll share the information and we won’t disrupt your business. Fair enough?”
Saliva drips out of Gregory’s ear.
Bennet’s repulsive breath hangs in the air, and Gregory ponders the condition of his gastric juices.
“I think that’s a generous offer,” Yossi says, shaking his head.
“We know what you’re capable of, Gregory. We supported N.S.O. for years. We turned a blind eye to the Trojan horses you created and that you all rode on. You made tons of money. But this is a time of national emergency – a time for joining forces!” Bennet clenches his hand into a fist, raises it in a Maciste-esque movement, and flexes his bicep.
For a long moment it is silent.
Gregory gathers his strength and stands up straight. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I need to put things into perspective for you,” he pants. “The coronavirus is a serious virus. And it’s not a matter of epidemiology. Vaccines are not our business. For us, a virus is a horse. We discovered the coronavirus back at the end of 2015. We identified its high level of communicability, but we weren’t able to mount on it the algorithms we had developed at the time. They were too unwieldy for such a noble steed. I was mesmerized by it. At first it was a game, a fantasy,” he looks dreamily at Yossi. “You must understand – the world of fantasy is a place of release, a place for maneuvering and for practicing tactics. If we free ourselves from the prison of time we can move freely throughout the space of fantasy, where one can design complex structures for observing the reality that lies beyond consciousness, for getting to know it. It’s a matter of practice, of the intensity of the fantasy that’s developed.” Gregory takes a breath of air and Bennet interrupts. “Yossi, it’s like we’re in a lesson about delusions by Bradbury or Huxley. Listen Gregory, Gregorius, Gregorovius – your active fantasy life doesn’t interest us. Get to the point!”
“The point, uh…” Gregory removes a black leather-bound notepad from his pocket, opens it, and lays it on the table. “It’s all here.”
Yossi picks up the notepad and leafs through it quickly. Each page contains diagrams and dense handwritten lists of numbers. He tears out the first page and lays it down in front of Gregory. Gregory gets up from his chair, stands in the corner of the room, and casts a worried gaze at Yossi.
“In your world,” Gregory says, formulating his words in a quiet tone, “actions of sophisticated listening and control are performed by physical means and devices. You accumulate information emitted in speech, movement, and facial expression, and you analyze it using complex processes. But you have no idea about the intentions of the mind, about what occurs there before intentions and thoughts are processed into words.”
Gregory takes off his sweatshirt and sits back down in his chair.
“The most effective way to penetrate anyone is with a virus. Viruses are the best and deepest penetrating carriers. That’s what we’re doing: we’re mounting a sophisticated algorithm on the virus, which carries it in. The beauty of it is that when the virus is killed by the antibodies, the algorithm, which is actually a keen sensor, remains in the body and continues to transmit. We achieve an immensely high level of mapping by analyzing the sounds within the body. We are able to translate contractions of the intestine, beats of the bladder, movements of fluids in the kidneys, and even sounds of joints that are indicative of ligaments, tendons, and muscle tension. We listen to, sense, and analyze everything that occurs in the sack of skin in which we are all packaged.” A broad smile appears on his face. “In certain situations, when required to do so, we have the ability to take control of internal organs…I’m sure you can appreciate the significance of this trajectory.”
Yossi’s facial features tighten somewhat. “That sounds fantastic,” he says.
Gregory wrings his fingers. “But then we discovered that this coronavirus kills our algorithm. Drowns it. It’s horrible.” He reaches over and grabs the black notepad, tears out some more pages, sets them down in a jumble, and puts them together again and again, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
“Have you seen this shit?” He turns to Yossi. “It’s all messed up. I need to make another journey to the future in order to retrieve the necessary information.” He sits up straight, looking pensive.
“You can fly to the moon as far as I’m concerned,” Bennet exclaims in a partial shout. “The important thing is that you return immediately, and that before you go you sign the contract!”
“Shhhh…Shhhh…” says Yossi. “Let me try to understand this in peace and quiet.” He looks at the pages and screws up his brow.
“Look, Yossi. It’s a virus like any other virus, a product of the bang. It’s easy to map its movement, like we map astronomical objects. But with this coronavirus…it’s as if something went wrong and all the nano astronomy projections are invalid. We discovered that every unit of the virus follows its own separate path, like a life-loathing creature seeking independent survival.” Gregory breathes heavily, like an asthmatic. “We’ve never seen such behavior. Just try to map it. It’s impossible.”
Bennet pulls a small nail file from his pocket, leans his elbows on the table, and concentrates on filing his nails.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Yossi says to Gregory. “He’s depressed. It’s an awkward situation, isn’t it Benito?”
Bennet stops filing for a moment. “Gentlemen, I need to get back to the Big Boss within an hour. Is there a deal or not? We simply can’t afford to find ourselves on ‘the day after’. Do you understand what I mean? The state of emergency won’t last forever, you know. If you think there’s a court of law in the country that will allow us to map people in this manner, you’re mistaken, gentlemen. We’ll be majorly screwed.” Bennet turns to Yossi. “Will you please explain to him what this means? He can travel wherever he likes – to the future, to the past, to Serum Norvera X. But in an hour at the latest, he signs and we get to work. Okay, Yossi?”
“Calm down, Benito. Calm down.” Yossi takes a handkerchief out of his pants pocket and offers it to Bennet. “Wipe the sweat off your forehead.”
Gregory pulls a pencil out of his shirt pocket and starts making quick calculations on one of the pages in the notepad. He leans back in his chair and sighs. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. I don’t understand it! I could have sworn we copied the maps exactly from the eternal source.”
“The guys in my labs say that you erred in converting the measurements,” says Yossi, pointing at the small earpiece inserted in his right ear. “They suggest you rethink the cybernetic route to the bronchus. They think you made a mistake in checking the Polymerase Chain and converting the base units from the cosmic macro to nano-units.”
Gregory chews on the end of the pencil, leans over the pages of the notepad, and begins to quickly cover them with numbers.
“Wow!” Bennet utters in amazement. “Did you see that? With such mathematical ability, it’s no wonder he can fly to the future.”
Gregory tosses the pencil onto the table, and with a sigh of despair he pushes his chair back, stands up, and begins pacing back and forth.
“These routes were fed into the algorithms to enable them to disconnect in time, before the virus attaches to the cell and we lose it. We’ve already lost tens of thousands. Tens of thousands!”
“Gentlemen.” Bennet folds the nail file and puts it back in his pocket. He looks at the clock and then looks Gregory in the face. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the algorithms you’ve lost. The same goes for the psychic-cybernetic structure of the virus. If Yossi wants to take part in this disgrace, he can be my guest. I’m leaving now, and when I get back…”
“There’s something you don’t understand,” Gregory interrupts. “Yossi, explain to him what a sleeper agent is! Explain to him what can happen when a sleeper agent awakens and operates uncontrolled.”
“Benito, Benito! Control yourself.”
“Our algorithm is like one of Yossi’s sleeper agents.” Gregory’s eyes sparkle. He looks into Bennet’s eyes. “Imagine a world in which an algorithm is implanted in everyone – sleeper agents transmitting everything going on inside them when we need it. And they can also be activated!” He shakes his head. “A perfect world! Perfect! We could even divert people’s fantasies, create internal feelings. Now can you understand how dangerous an out of control sleeper agent is? It’s an algorithm that does as it pleases and that can cause fatal damage.”
“I think we all need to calm down,” Yossi says, turning his head to the left to face the wall. “Bring us three espressos and a bottle of cold water.”
“Tea,” says Gregory in a reconciled tone. “Natural green tea, please. I’m strict about such things.”
“Did you hear that, guys?” Yossi calls to the other side of the wall.
“Can I get a sandwich, too? I’m hungry.” Gregory turns to the wall and continues apologetically: “Just make sure its vegan, alright?”
“Ha, ha, ha.” Bennet leans back. “Did you hear that? The guy embarks upon deadly adventures with the bodies and minds of others and is a ‘strict’ vegan.”
“To me, it actually seems quite romantic,” Yossi says. “It’s nice. I appreciate romanticism. People need a non-destructive way of letting out their frustrations and their conflicts with reality. It’s a question of wise usage,” he smiles toward the wall. “Romance stimulates creativity.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bennet grumbles. “What’s happening to you, Yossi? The next thing you know you’ll want to fly to the future too,” he chuckles. “Don’t get carried away. I’m reminding you what the Big Boss wants, what he’s expecting.” He bends over to Yossi and whispers something in his ear. “Leave that to me, Benito, okay?” Yossi says with resolve. “That’s our responsibility.”
“Is something wrong?” Gregory puts the question out there.
“Everything’s fine,” Yossi says. Benito here has to go, don’t you Benito?”
“Okay. I understand,” says Bennet and turns to face the wall. “Open up, guys. I’m done here.” He pushes back the chair, and then he walks toward the wall and is swallowed up by it.
“I’ll give it to you straight, Gregory – I like you. It looks to me like we’re embarking on a joint path. We’ll share the victories and the disappointments. Sound fair to you?”
Gregory blows on his tea and takes a noisy sip.
“I think as you do on this matter. Fantasies sometimes come true.” Yossi laughs. “You know what I mean?” He touches his finger to his earpiece, pressing on it lightly. The psychologist from oversight whispers: “That’s a great direction, Yossi. Tactics from the good old days. Two or three more rounds and he’ll be with us completely.”
“You know,” Gregory says, fixing his gaze on Yossi, “before I started the company I dug deep into the vast system of what we call fantasy. I was sure I’d be able to crack it, but the deeper I dug, the more the roots branched out to infinity.”
“Go with it, Yossi,” the psychologist says enthusiastically in his earpiece. “The fantasy, it’s there!”
“Ever since I learned to read I’ve been a fan of science fiction,” says Yossi with quiet and contemplative candor. “A friend of mine introduced me to the magazine Amazing Stories, and I developed a boundless passion for the stuff. That is, to my parents’ consternation…” he laughs. The psychologist in the earpiece: “Perfect, perfect. Let him respond.”
“Yes, yes. I understand perfectly.” Gregory takes a bite of his sandwich and chews slowly. “My parents would also look at me in despair whenever they entered my lair and saw the piles of books I was engrossed in. Wells, Stapleton.”
Yossi stretches out his legs and relaxes serenely in his chair. “In my youth, I investigated the semantics of cybernetics. I thought I would become a scientist or a mathematician, but I was recruited to here.” He laughs aloud. “Now they’re only hobbies – philosophy, advanced mathematics, astrophysics.” The psychologist in his ear: “Be careful there. We’re analyzing facial movements and expressions. It looks like you’re taking him back too far. His past is complicated, nightmarish, and problematic. Make sure not to slip into it.”
Yossi straightens up. “Listen Gregory, we’re making an offer here. I’m putting it on the table as frankly as possible. Work with us. We’ll give you complete freedom of operation. Our labs will be at your disposal, along with our people and anything else in the world that can be acquired.”
“I’m sure I didn’t make an error in the calculations,” Gregory mumbles. “I’m sure of it. This virus is developing such complex, almost quantum movements… It attaches to a cell, sucks out the RNA, and reproduces like crazy. And then before my algorithm understands what’s happening, it suffocates.”
“You better wise up, Gregory. If you continue with such fervor, your imagination will take you on a journey that will be difficult to return from. Believe me. I have a few here who are on that track. The game becomes a contest between dark forces of the mind. I’ve been there. When they recruited me, they activated an instinct of self-preservation within me so that the part of my brain that was still lucid could serve as a life preserver if I had to fight the temptation of fantasy.” The psychologist: “That’s great. The indicators show that it’s working. Let’s take a break. We’re sending in another cup of tea. And an espresso for you…”
A young man with a waiter’s apron around his waist emerges from the wall and places a tray on the table. “Right on time, Termite,” Yossi says. “And also bring in some of those savory cookies for me. Would you like some too?” He addresses the question to Gregory, but Gregory is absorbed in chewing the remainder of his sandwich. His gaze is fixed on the tower of notepad pages that have piled up before him.
“What stage have you reached in the decoding?” Yossi asks.
“Decoding? What do you mean?”
“Of the internal sounds. The ones the algorithm is listening to.”
Gregory shifts in his chair. “Oh, yes. I believe we’re at stage five, according to your criteria. Seventy percent statistical significance, based on the adjusted calculation of intestinal contractions, kidney compressions, liver vibrations, joint sounds, and saliva indicators. When we integrate all of this with the definite indicators for blood oxygen and pulse rate, we reach 95 to 98 percent. It’s hard to hide things from us.”
Yossi rolls the espresso cup backwards and forwards between his hands and then takes a sip. “Listen Gregory, I’m sure you know that the Big Boss considers me his successor. It’s already appeared in the media and he’s never denied it. But you can never know with him. You know what I mean? For the time being, I’m working with analytical restraint and sticking to the myth of immunity. I can afford to. And all the more so if you join me – that is, join us …” Yossi rotates his forearm in circles, his finger pointing at the ceiling. “From here, we look realistically at everything that’s happening. Our prediction ability may seem outdated to you, but it gets the job done. You know what I mean. Together we can create something wonderful.”
Gregory rubs his face with his hands. “This is the moment of resistance,” the psychologist whispers. “You’re leading with almost 70 percent toward a positive outcome.”
Yossi folds his arms across his chest. “Gregory, don’t misunderstand me. This all has the Big Boss’s approval.”
“And what if he changes his mind? What if something snaps and his obsession intensifies? What happens to me?”
“You mean, what if I’m removed?” The psychologist in his ear is troubled: “Smile, Yossi. Smile.” Yossi smiles. “I can’t imagine we would allow that to happen, can you?” Yossi locks onto Gregory’s eyes and, without a word, the two men begin a game of ‘who blinks first’.
“Let him win,” the psychologist in the earpiece instructs him. Yossi blinks.
An embarrassed smile spreads across Gregory’s face.
Yossi gets up. “I’ll inform Bennet that it didn’t work. I’ll tell him that you’re not there yet, that is, not in a technological sense. I’ll tell him that it’s not all ready yet. I’ll tell him that in principle you are willing to sign, but that first you need to be sure that the problems with controlling the algorithm have been solved.”
Gregory rises heavily from his chair.
Yossi reaches out his hand. “You are the ambassador of the land of magic, Gregory.”
They shake hands. Gregory gathers up the pile of notepad pages from the table and buries them in his pants’ pocket.
“I’m dying to piss,” Gregory says, sounding somewhat ashamed. “Of course you are.” Yossi smiles. “After all, we’re only human.”
That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates – in fact, on the principal cattle estate of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.
B.O.S bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art” illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness – perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B.O.S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen – even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.
Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.
In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to swallow B.O.S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the users of B.O.S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder? But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it is not the popular form. I am not gullible.
I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on the Ile Royale,
It concerns the engineer of the steam-launch belonging to the Marañon cattle estate of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd. This estate is also an island – an island as big as a small province, lying in the estuary of a great South American river. It is wild and not beautiful, but the grass growing on its low plains seems to possess exceptionally nourishing and flavouring qualities. It resounds with the lowing of innumerable herds – a deep and distressing sound under the open sky, rising like a monstrous protest of prisoners condemned to death. On the mainland, across twenty miles of discoloured muddy water, there stands a city whose name, let us say, is Horta.
But the most interesting characteristic of this island (which seems like a sort of penal settlement for condemned cattle) consists in its being the only known habitat of an extremely rare and gorgeous butterfly. The species is even more rare than it is beautiful, which is not saying little. I have already alluded to my travels. I travelled at that time, but strictly for myself and with a moderation unknown in our days of round-the-world tickets. I even travelled with a purpose. As a matter of fact, I am – “Ha, ha, ha! – a desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!”
This was the tone in which Mr. Harry Gee, the manager of the cattle station, alluded to my pursuits. He seemed to consider me the greatest absurdity in the world. On the other hand, the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., represented to him the acme of the nineteenth century’s achievement. I believe that he slept in his leggings and spurs. His days he spent in the saddle flying over the plains, followed by a train of half-wild horsemen, who called him Don Enrique, and who had no definite idea of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., which paid their wages. He was an excellent manager, but I don’t see why, when we met at meals, he should have thumped me on the back, with loud, derisive inquiries: “How’s the deadly sport to-day? Butterflies going strong? Ha, ha, ha!” – especially as he charged me two dollars per diem for the hospitality of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., (capital L 1,500,000, fully paid up), in whose balance-sheet for that year those monies are no doubt included. “I don’t think I can make it anything less in justice to my company,” he had remarked, with extreme gravity, when I was arranging with him the terms of my stay on the island.
His chaff would have been harmless enough if intimacy of intercourse in the absence of all friendly feeling were not a thing detestable in itself. Moreover, his facetiousness was not very amusing. It consisted in the wearisome repetition of descriptive phrases applied to people with a burst of laughter. “Desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!” was one sample of his peculiar wit which he himself enjoyed so much. And in the same vein of exquisite humour he called my attention to the engineer of the steam-launch, one day, as we strolled on the path by the side of the creek.
The man’s head and shoulders emerged above the deck, over which were scattered various tools of his trade and a few pieces of machinery. He was doing some repairs to the engines. At the sound of our footsteps he raised anxiously a grimy face with a pointed chin and a tiny fair moustache. What could be seen of his delicate features under the black smudges appeared to me wasted and livid in the greenish shade of the enormous tree spreading its foliage over the launch moored close to the bank.
To my great surprise, Harry Gee addressed him as “Crocodile,” in that half-jeering, half-bullying tone which is characteristic of self-satisfaction in his delectable kind:
“How does the work get on, Crocodile?”
I should have said before that the amiable Harry had picked up French of a sort somewhere in some colony or other – and that he pronounced it with a disagreeable forced precision as though he meant to guy the language. The man in the launch answered him quickly in a pleasant voice. His eyes had a liquid softness and his teeth flashed dazzlingly white between his thin, drooping lips. The manager turned to me, very cheerful and loud, explaining:
“I call him Crocodile because he lives half in, half out of the creek. Amphibious – see? There’s nothing else amphibious living on the island except crocodiles; so he must belong to the species – eh? But in reality he’s nothing less than un citoyen anarchiste de Barcelone.”
“A citizen anarchist from Barcelona?” I repeated, stupidly, looking down at the man. He had turned to his work in the engine-well of the launch and presented his bowed back to us. In that attitude I heard him protest, very audibly:
“I do not even know Spanish.”
“Hey? What? You dare to deny you come from over there?” the accomplished manager was down on him truculently.
At this the man straightened himself up, dropping a spanner he had been using, and faced us; but he trembled in all his limbs.
“I deny nothing, nothing, nothing!” he said, excitedly.
He picked up the spanner and went to work again without paying any further attention to us. After looking at him for a minute or so, we went away.
“Is he really an anarchist?” I asked, when out of ear-shot.
“I don’t care a hang what he is,” answered the humorous official of the B.O.S. Co. “I gave him the name because it suited me to label him in that way. It’s good for the company.”
“For the company!” I exclaimed, stopping short.
“Aha!” he triumphed, tilting up his hairless pug face and straddling his thin, long legs. “That surprises you. I am bound to do my best for my company. They have enormous expenses. Why – our agent in Horta tells me they spend fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising all over the world! One can’t be too economical in working the show. Well, just you listen. When I took charge here the estate had no steam-launch. I asked for one, and kept on asking by every mail till I got it; but the man they sent out with it chucked his job at the end of two months, leaving the launch moored at the pontoon in Horta. Got a better screw at a sawmill up the river – blast him! And ever since it has been the same thing. Any Scotch or Yankee vagabond that likes to call himself a mechanic out here gets eighteen pounds a month, and the next you know he’s cleared out, after smashing something as likely as not. I give you my word that some of the objects I’ve had for engine-drivers couldn’t tell the boiler from the funnel. But this fellow understands his trade, and I don’t mean him to clear out. See?”
And he struck me lightly on the chest for emphasis. Disregarding his peculiarities of manner, I wanted to know what all this had to do with the man being an anarchist.
“Come!” jeered the manager. “If you saw suddenly a barefooted, unkempt chap slinking amongst the bushes on the sea face of the island, and at the same time observed less than a mile from the beach, a small schooner full of niggers hauling off in a hurry, you wouldn’t think the man fell there from the sky, would you? And it could be nothing else but either that or Cayenne. I’ve got my wits about me. Directly I sighted this queer game I said to myself – ‘Escaped Convict.’ I was as certain of it as I am of seeing you standing here this minute. So I spurred on straight at him. He stood his ground for a bit on a sand hillock crying out: ‘Monsieur! Monsieur! Arrêtez!’ then at the last moment broke and ran for life. Says I to myself, ‘I’ll tame you before I’m done with you.’ So without a single word I kept on, heading him off here and there. I rounded him up towards the shore, and at last I had him corralled on a spit, his heels in the water and nothing but sea and sky at his back, with my horse pawing the sand and shaking his head within a yard of him.
“He folded his arms on his breast then and stuck his chin up in a sort of desperate way; but I wasn’t to be impressed by the beggar’s posturing.
“Says I, ‘You’re a runaway convict.’
“When he heard French, his chin went down and his face changed.
“‘I deny nothing,’ says he, panting yet, for I had kept him skipping about in front of my horse pretty smartly. I asked him what he was doing there. He had got his breath by then, and explained that he had meant to make his way to a farm which he understood (from the schooner’s people, I suppose) was to be found in the neighbourhood. At that I laughed aloud and he got uneasy. Had he been deceived? Was there no farm within walking distance?
“I laughed more and more. He was on foot, and of course the first bunch of cattle he came across would have stamped him to rags under their hoofs. A dismounted man caught on the feeding-grounds hasn’t got the ghost of a chance.
“‘My coming upon you like this has certainly saved your life,’ I said. He remarked that perhaps it was so; but that for his part he had imagined I had wanted to kill him under the hoofs of my horse. I assured him that nothing would have been easier had I meant it. And then we came to a sort of dead stop. For the life of me I didn’t know what to do with this convict, unless I chucked him into the sea. It occurred to me to ask him what he had been transported for. He hung his head.
“‘What is it?’ says I. ‘Theft, murder, rape, or what?’ I wanted to hear what he would have to say for himself, though of course I expected it would be some sort of lie. But all he said was – ‘Make it what you like. I deny nothing. It is no good denying anything.’
“I looked him over carefully and a thought struck me.
“‘They’ve got anarchists, there, too,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’re one of them.’
“‘I deny nothing whatever, monsieur,’ he repeats.
“This answer made me think that perhaps he was not an anarchist. I believe those damned lunatics are rather proud of themselves. If he had been one, he would have probably confessed straight out.
“‘What were you before you became a convict?’
“‘Ouvrier,’ he says. ‘And a good workman, too.’
“At that I began to think he must be an anarchist, after all. That’s the class they come mostly from, isn’t it? I hate the cowardly bomb-throwing brutes. I almost made up my mind to turn my horse short round and leave him to starve or drown where he was, whichever he liked best. As to crossing the island to bother me again, the cattle would see to that. I don’t know what induced me to ask–
“‘What sort of workman?’
“I didn’t care a hang whether he answered me or not. But when he said at once, ‘Mécanicien, monsieur,’ I nearly jumped out of the saddle with excitement. The launch had been lying disabled and idle in the creek for three weeks. My duty to the company was clear. He noticed my start, too, and there we were for a minute or so staring at each other as if bewitched.
“‘Get up on my horse behind me,’ I told him. ‘You shall put my steam-launch to rights.'”
These are the words in which the worthy manager of the Marañon estate related to me the coming of the supposed anarchist. He meant to keep him – out of a sense of duty to the company – and the name he had given him would prevent the fellow from obtaining employment anywhere in Horta. The vaqueros of the estate, when they went on leave, spread it all over the town. They did not know what an anarchist was, nor yet what Barcelona meant. They called him Anarchisto de Barcelona, as if it were his Christian name and surname. But the people in town had been reading in their papers about the anarchists in Europe and were very much impressed. Over the jocular addition of “de Barcelona” Mr. Harry Gee chuckled with immense satisfaction. “That breed is particularly murderous, isn’t it? It makes the sawmills crowd still more afraid of having anything to do with him – see?” he exulted, candidly. “I hold him by that name better than if I had him chained up by the leg to the deck of the steam-launch.
“And mark,” he added, after a pause, “he does not deny it. I am not wronging him in any way. He is a convict of some sort, anyhow.”
“But I suppose you pay him some wages, don’t you?” I asked.
“Wages! What does he want with money here? He gets his food from my kitchen and his clothing from the store. Of course I’ll give him something at the end of the year, but you don’t think I’d employ a convict and give him the same money I would give an honest man? I am looking after the interests of my company first and last.”
I admitted that, for a company spending fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising, the strictest economy was obviously necessary. The manager of the Marañon Estancia grunted approvingly.
“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued: “if I were certain he’s an anarchist and he had the cheek to ask me for money, I would give him the toe of my boot. However, let him have the benefit of the doubt. I am perfectly willing to take it that he has done nothing worse than to stick a knife into somebody – with extenuating crrcumstances – French fashion, don’t you know. But that subversive sanguinary rot of doing away with all law and order in the world makes my blood boil. It’s simply cutting the ground from under the feet of every decent, respectable, hard-working person. I tell you that the consciences of people who have them, like you or I, must be protected in some way; or else the first low scoundrel that came along would in every respect be just as good as myself. Wouldn’t he, now? And that’s absurd!”
He glared at me. I nodded slightly and murmured that doubtless there was much subtle truth in his view.
The principal truth discoverable in the views of Paul the engineer was that a little thing may bring about the undoing of a man.
“Il ne faut pas beaucoup pour perdre un homme,” he said to me, thoughtfully, one evening.
I report this reflection in French, since the man was of Paris, not of Barcelona at all. At the Marañon he lived apart from the station, in a small shed with a metal roof and straw walls, which he called mon atelier. He had a work-bench there. They had given him several horse-blankets and a saddle, not that he ever had occasion to ride, but because no other bedding was used by the working-hands, who were all vaqueros – cattlemen. And on this horseman’s gear, like a son of the plains, he used to sleep amongst the tools of his trade, in a litter of rusty scrap-iron, with a portable forge at his head, under the work-bench sustaining his grimy mosquito-net.
Now and then I would bring him a few candle ends saved from the scant supply of the manager’s house. He was very thankful for these. He did not like to lie awake in the dark, he confessed. He complained that sleep fled from him. “Le sommeil me fuit,” he declared, with his habitual air of subdued stoicism, which made him sympathetic and touching. I made it clear to him that I did not attach undue importance to the fact of his having been a convict.
Thus it came about that one evening he was led to talk about himself. As one of the bits of candle on the edge of the bench burned down to the end, he hastened to light another.
He had done his military service in a provincial garrison and returned to Paris to follow his trade. It was a well-paid one. He told me with some pride that in a short time he was earning no less than ten francs a day. He was thinking of setting up for himself by and by and of getting married.
Here he sighed deeply and paused. Then with a return to his stoical note:
“It seems I did not know enough about myself.”
On his twenty-fifth birthday two of his friends in the repairing shop where he worked proposed to stand him a dinner. He was immensely touched by this attention.
“I was a steady man,” he remarked, “but I am not less sociable than any other body.”
The entertainment came off in a little café on the Boulevard de la Chapelle. At dinner they drank some special wine. It was excellent. Everything was excellent; and the world – in his own words – seemed a very good place to live in. He had good prospects, some little money laid by, and the affection of two excellent friends. He offered to pay for all the drinks after dinner, which was only proper on his part.
They drank more wine; they drank liqueurs, cognac, beer, then more liqueurs and more cognac. Two strangers sitting at the next table looked at him, he said, with so much friendliness, that he invited them to join the party.
He had never drunk so much in his life. His elation was extreme, and so pleasurable that whenever it flagged he hastened to order more drinks.
“It seemed to me,” he said, in his quiet tone and looking on the ground in the gloomy shed full of shadows, “that I was on the point of just attaining a great and wonderful felicity. Another drink, I felt, would do it. The others were holding out well with me, glass for glass.”
But an extraordinary thing happened. At something the strangers said his elation fell. Gloomy ideas – des idées noires – rushed into his head. All the world outside the café appeared to him as a dismal evil place where a multitude of poor wretches had to work and slave to the sole end that a few individuals should ride in carriages and live riotously in palaces. He became ashamed of his happiness. The pity of mankind’s cruel lot wrung his heart. In a voice choked with sorrow he tried to express these sentiments. He thinks he wept and swore in turns.
The two new acquaintances hastened to applaud his humane indignation. Yes. The amount of injustice in the world was indeed scandalous. There was only one way of dealing with the rotten state of society. Demolish the whole sacrée boutique. Blow up the whole iniquitous show.
Their heads hovered over the table. They whispered to him eloquently; I don’t think they quite expected the result. He was extremely drunk – mad drunk. With a howl of rage he leaped suddenly upon the table. Kicking over the bottles and glasses, he yelled: “Vive l’anarchie! Death to the capitalists!” He yelled this again and again. All round him broken glass was falling, chairs were being swung in the air, people were taking each other by the throat. The police dashed in. He hit, bit, scratched and struggled, till something crashed down upon his head. . . .
He came to himself in a police cell, locked up on a charge of assault, seditious cries, and anarchist propaganda.
He looked at me fixedly with his liquid, shining eyes, that seemed very big in the dim light.
“That was bad. But even then I might have got off somehow, perhaps,” he said, slowly.
I doubt it. But whatever chance he had was done away with by a young socialist lawyer who volunteered to undertake his defence. In vain he assured him that he was no anarchist; that he was a quiet, respectable mechanic, only too anxious to work ten hours per day at his trade. He was represented at the trial as the victim of society and his drunken shoutings as the expression of infinite suffering. The young lawyer had his way to make, and this case was just what he wanted for a start. The speech for the defence was pronounced magnificent.
The poor fellow paused, swallowed, and brought out the statement:
“I got the maximum penalty applicable to a first offence.”
I made an appropriate murmur. He hung his head and folded his arms.
“When they let me out of prison,” he began, gently, “I made tracks, of course, for my old workshop. My patron had a particular liking for me before; but when he saw me he turned green with fright and showed me the door with a shaking hand.”
While he stood in the street, uneasy and disconcerted, he was accosted by a middle-aged man who introduced himself as an engineer’s fitter, too. “I know who you are,” he said. “I have attended your trial. You are a good comrade and your ideas are sound. But the devil of it is that you won’t be able to get work anywhere now. These bourgeois’ll conspire to starve you. That’s their way. Expect no mercy from the rich.”
To be spoken to so kindly in the street had comforted him very much. His seemed to be the sort of nature needing support and sympathy. The idea of not being able to find work had knocked him over completely. If his patron, who knew him so well for a quiet, orderly, competent workman, would have nothing to do with him now – then surely nobody else would. That was clear. The police, keeping their eye on him, would hasten to warn every employer inclined to give him a chance. He felt suddenly very helpless, alarmed and idle; and he followed the middle-aged man to the estaminet round the corner where he met some other good companions. They assured him that he would not be allowed to starve, work or no work. They had drinks all round to the discomfiture of all employers of labour and to the destruction of society.
He sat biting his lower lip.
“That is, monsieur, how I became a compagnon,” he said. The hand he passed over his forehead was trembling. “All the same, there’s something wrong in a world where a man can get lost for a glass more or less.”
He never looked up, though I could see he was getting excited under his dejection. He slapped the bench with his open palm.
“No!” he cried. “It was an impossible existence! Watched by the police, watched by the comrades, I did not belong to myself any more! Why, I could not even go to draw a few francs from my savings-bank without a comrade hanging about the door to see that I didn’t bolt! And most of them were neither more nor less than housebreakers. The intelligent, I mean. They robbed the rich; they were also the fools and the mad. Des exaltés – quoi! When I was drunk I loved them. When I got some drink I was angry with the world. That was the best time. I found refuge from misery in rage. But one can’t be always drunk – n’est-ce pas, monsieur? And when I was sober I was afraid to break away. They would have stuck me like a pig.”
He folded his arms again and raised his sharp chin with a bitter smile.
“By and by they told me it was time to go to work. The work was to rob a bank. Afterwards a bomb would be thrown to wreck the place. My beginner’s part would be to keep watch in a street at the back and to take care of a black bag with the bomb inside till it was wanted. After the meeting at which the affair was arranged a trusty comrade did not leave me an inch. I had not dared to protest; I was afraid of being done away with quietly in that room; only, as we were walking together I wondered whether it would not be better for me to throw myself suddenly into the Seine. But while I was turning it over in my mind we had crossed the bridge, and afterwards I had not the opportunity.”
In the light of the candle end, with his sharp features, fluffy little moustache, and oval face, he looked at times delicately and gaily young, and then appeared quite old, decrepit, full of sorrow, pressing his folded arms to his breast.
As he remained silent I felt bound to ask:
“Well! And how did it end?”
“Deportation to Cayenne,” he answered.
He seemed to think that somebody had given the plot away. As he was keeping watch in the back street, bag in hand, he was set upon by the police. “These imbeciles,” had knocked him down without noticing what he had in his hand. He wondered how the bomb failed to explode as he fell. But it didn’t explode.
“I tried to tell my story in court,” he continued. “The president was amused. There were in the audience some idiots who laughed.”
I expressed the hope that some of his companions had been caught, too. He shuddered slightly before he told me that there were two – Simon, called also Biscuit, the middle-aged fitter who spoke to him in the street, and a fellow of the name of Mafile, one of the sympathetic strangers who had applauded his sentiments and consoled his humanitarian sorrows when he got drunk in the café.
“Yes,” he went on, with an effort, “I had the advantage of their company over there on St. Joseph’s Island, amongst some eighty or ninety other convicts. We were all classed as dangerous.”
St. Joseph’s Island is the prettiest of the Iles de Salut. It is rocky and green, with shallow ravines, bushes, thickets, groves of mango-trees, and many feathery palms. Six warders armed with revolvers and carbines are in charge of the convicts kept there.
An eight-oared galley keeps up the communication in the daytime, across a channel a quarter of a mile wide, with the Ile Royale, where there is a military post. She makes the first trip at six in the morning. At four in the afternoon her service is over, and she is then hauled up into a little dock on the Ile Royale and a sentry put over her and a few smaller boats. From that time till next morning the island of St. Joseph remains cut off from the rest of the world, with the warders patrolling in turn the path from the warders’ house to the convict huts, and a multitude of sharks patrolling the waters all round.
Under these circumstances the convicts planned a mutiny. Such a thing had never been known in the penitentiary’s history before. But their plan was not without some possibility of success. The warders were to be taken by surprise and murdered during the night. Their arms would enable the convicts to shoot down the people in the galley as she came alongside in the morning. The galley once in their possession, other boats were to be captured, and the whole company was to row away up the coast.
At dusk the two warders on duty mustered the convicts as usual. Then they proceeded to inspect the huts to ascertain that everything was in order. In the second they entered they were set upon and absolutely smothered under the numbers of their assailants. The twilight faded rapidly. It was a new moon; and a heavy black squall gathering over the coast increased the profound darkness of the night. The convicts assembled in the open space, deliberating upon the next step to be taken, argued amongst themselves in low voices.
“You took part in all this?” I asked.
“No, I knew what was going to be done, of course. But why should I kill these warders? I had nothing against them. But I was afraid of the others. Whatever happened, I could not escape from them. I sat alone on the stump of a tree with my head in my hands, sick at heart at the thought of a freedom that could be nothing but a mockery to me. Suddenly I was startled to perceive the shape of a man on the path near by. He stood perfectly still, then his form became effaced in the night. It must have been the chief warder coming to see what had become of his two men. No one noticed him. The convicts kept on quarrelling over their plans. The leaders could not get themselves obeyed. The fierce whispering of that dark mass of men was very horrible.
“At last they divided into two parties and moved off. When they had passed me I rose, weary and hopeless. The path to the warders’ house was dark and silent, but on each side the bushes rustled slightly. Presently I saw a faint thread of light before me. The chief warder, followed by his three men, was approaching cautiously. But he had failed to close his dark lantern properly. The convicts had seen that faint gleam, too. There was an awful savage yell, a turmoil on the dark path, shots fired, blows, groans: and with the sound of smashed bushes, the shouts of the pursuers and the screams of the pursued, the man-hunt, the warder-hunt, passed by me into the interior of the island. I was alone. And I assure you, monsieur, I was indifferent to everything. After standing still for a while, I walked on along the path till I kicked something hard. I stooped and picked up a warder’s revolver. I felt with my fingers that it was loaded in five chambers. In the gusts of wind I heard the convicts calling to each other far away, and then a roll of thunder would cover the soughing and rustling of the trees. Suddenly, a big light ran across my path very low along the ground. And it showed a woman’s skirt with the edge of an apron.
“I knew that the person who carried it must be the wife of the head warder. They had forgotten all about her, it seems. A shot rang out in the interior of the island, and she cried out to herself as she ran. She passed on. I followed, and presently I saw her again. She was pulling at the cord of the big bell which hangs at the end of the landing-pier, with one hand, and with the other she was swinging the heavy lantern to and fro. This is the agreed signal for the Ile Royale should assistance be required at night. The wind carried the sound away from our island and the light she swung was hidden on the shore side by the few trees that grow near the warders’ house.
“I came up quite close to her from behind. She went on without stopping, without looking aside, as though she had been all alone on the island. A brave woman, monsieur. I put the revolver inside the breast of my blue blouse and waited. A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder destroyed both the sound and the light of the signal for an instant, but she never faltered, pulling at the cord and swinging the lantern as regularly as a machine. She was a comely woman of thirty – no more. I thought to myself, ‘All that’s no good on a night like this.’ And I made up my mind that if a body of my fellow-convicts came down to the pier – which was sure to happen soon – I would shoot her through the head before I shot myself. I knew the ‘comrades’ well. This idea of mine gave me quite an interest in life, monsieur; and at once, instead of remaining stupidly exposed on the pier, I retreated a little way and crouched behind a bush. I did not intend to let myself be pounced upon unawares and be prevented perhaps from rendering a supreme service to at least one human creature before I died myself.
“But we must believe the signal was seen, for the galley from Ile Royale came over in an astonishingly short time. The woman kept right on till the light of her lantern flashed upon the officer in command and the bayonets of the soldiers in the boat. Then she sat down and began to cry.
“She didn’t need me any more. I did not budge. Some soldiers were only in their shirt-sleeves, others without boots, just as the call to arms had found them. They passed by my bush at the double. The galley had been sent away for more; and the woman sat all alone crying at the end of the pier, with the lantern standing on the ground near her.
“Then suddenly I saw in the light at the end of the pier the red pantaloons of two more men. I was overcome with astonishment. They, too, started off at a run. Their tunics flapped unbuttoned and they were bare-headed. One of them panted out to the other, ‘Straight on, straight on!’
“Where on earth did they spring from, I wondered. Slowly I walked down the short pier. I saw the woman’s form shaken by sobs and heard her moaning more and more distinctly, ‘Oh, my man! my poor man! my poor man!’ I stole on quietly. She could neither hear nor see anything. She had thrown her apron over her head and was rocking herself to and fro in her grief. But I remarked a small boat fastened to the end of the pier.
“Those two men – they looked like sous-officiers – must have come in it, after being too late, I suppose, for the galley. It is incredible that they should have thus broken the regulations from a sense of duty. And it was a stupid thing to do. I could not believe my eyes in the very moment I was stepping into that boat.
“I pulled along the shore slowly. A black cloud hung over the Iles de Salut. I heard firing, shouts. Another hunt had begun – the convict-hunt. The oars were too long to pull comfortably. I managed them with difficulty, though the boat herself was light. But when I got round to the other side of the island the squall broke in rain and wind. I was unable to make head against it. I let the boat drift ashore and secured her.
“I knew the spot. There was a tumbledown old hovel standing near the water. Cowering in there I heard through the noises of the wind and the falling downpour some people tearing through the bushes. They came out on the strand. Soldiers perhaps. A flash of lightning threw everything near me into violent relief. Two convicts!
“And directly an amazed voice exclaimed, ‘It’s a mirade!’ It was the voice of Simon, otherwise Biscuit.
“And another voice growled, ‘What’s a miracle?’
“‘Why, there’s a boat lying here!’
“‘You must be mad, Simon! But there is, after all. . . . A boat.’
“They seemed awed into complete silence. The other man was Mafile. He spoke again, cautiously.
“‘It is fastened up. There must be somebody here.’
“I spoke to them from within the hovel: ‘I am here.’
“They came in then, and soon gave me to understand that the boat was theirs, not mine. ‘There are two of us,’ said Mafile, ‘against you alone.’
“I got out into the open to keep clear of them for fear of getting a treacherous blow on the head. I could have shot them both where they stood. But I said nothing. I kept down the laughter rising in my throat. I made myself very humble and begged to be allowed to go. They consulted in low tones about my fate, while with my hand on the revolver in the bosom of my blouse I had their lives in my power. I let them live. I meant them to pull that boat. I represented to them with abject humility that I understood the management of a boat, and that, being three to pull, we could get a rest in turns. That decided them at last. It was time. A little more and I would have gone into screaming fits at the drollness of it.”
At this point his excitement broke out. He jumped off the bench and gesticulated. The great shadows of his arms darting over roof and walls made the shed appear too small to contain his agitation.
“I deny nothing,” he burst out. “I was elated, monsieur. I tasted a sort of felicity. But I kept very quiet. I took my turns at pulling all through the night. We made for the open sea, putting our trust in a passing ship. It was a foolhardy action. I persuaded them to it. When the sun rose the immensity of water was calm, and the Iles de Salut appeared only like dark specks from the top of each swell. I was steering then. Mafile, who was pulling bow, let out an oath and said, ‘We must rest.’
“The time to laugh had come at last. And I took my fill of it, I can tell you. I held my sides and rolled in my seat, they had such startled faces. ‘What’s got into him, the animal?’ cries Mafile.
“And Simon, who was nearest to me, says over his shoulder to him, ‘Devil take me if I don’t think he’s gone mad!’
“Then I produced the revolver. Aha! In a moment they both got the stoniest eyes you can imagine. Ha, ha! They were frightened. But they pulled. Oh, yes, they pulled all day, sometimes looking wild and sometimes looking faint. I lost nothing of it because I had to keep my eyes on them all the time, or else – crack! – they would have been on top of me in a second. I rested my revolver hand on my knee all ready and steered with the other. Their faces began to blister. Sky and sea seemed on fire round us and the sea steamed in the sun. The boat made a sizzling sound as she went through the water. Sometimes Mafile foamed at the mouth and sometimes he groaned. But he pulled. He dared not stop. His eyes became blood-shot all over, and he had bitten his lower lip to pieces. Simon was as hoarse as a crow.
“‘Comrade-‘ he begins.
“‘There are no comrades here. I am your patron.’
“‘Patron, then,’ he says, ‘in the name of humanity let us rest.’
“I let them. There was a little rainwater washing about the bottom of the boat. I permitted them to snatch some of it in the hollow of their palms. But as I gave the command, ‘En route!’ I caught them exchanging significant glances. They thought I would have to go to sleep sometime! Aha! But I did not want to go to sleep. I was more awake than ever. It is they who went to sleep as they pulled, tumbling off the thwarts head over heels suddenly, one after another. I let them lie. All the stars were out. It was a quiet world. The sun rose. Another day. Allez! En route!
“They pulled badly. Their eyes rolled about and their tongues hung out. In the middle of the forenoon Mafile croaks out: ‘Let us make a rush at him, Simon. I would just as soon be shot at once as to die of thirst, hunger, and fatigue at the oar.’
“But while he spoke he pulled; and Simon kept on pulling too. It made me smile. Ah! They loved their life these two, in this evil world of theirs, just as I used to love my life, too, before they spoiled it for me with their phrases. I let them go on to the point of exhaustion, and only then I pointed at the sails of a ship on the horizon.
“Aha! You should have seen them revive and buckle to their work! For I kept them at it to pull right across that ship’s path. They were changed. The sort of pity I had felt for them left me. They looked more like themselves every minute. They looked at me with the glances I remembered so well. They were happy. They smiled.
“‘Well,’says Simon, ‘the energy of that youngster has saved our lives. If he hadn’t made us, we could never have pulled so far out into the track of ships. Comrade, I forgive you. I admire you.’
“And Mafile growls from forward: ‘We owe you a famous debt of gratitude, comrade. You are cut out for a chief.’
“Comrade! Monsieur! Ah, what a good word! And they, such men as these two, had made it accursed. I looked at them. I remembered their lies, their promises, their menaces, and all my days of misery. Why could they not have left me alone after I came out of prison? I looked at them and thought that while they lived I could never be free. Never. Neither I nor others like me with warm hearts and weak heads. For I know I have not a strong head, monsieur. A black rage came upon me – the rage of extreme intoxication – but not against the injustice of society. Oh, no!
“‘I must be free!’ I cried, furiously.
“‘Vive la liberté!’ yells that ruffian Mafile. ‘Mort aux bourgeois who send us to Cayenne! They shall soon know that we are free.’
“The sky, the sea, the whole horizon, seemed to turn red, blood red all round the boat. My temples were beating so loud that I wondered they did not hear. How is it that they did not? How is it they did not understand?
“I heard Simon ask, ‘Have we not pulled far enough out now?’
“‘Yes. Far enough,’ I said. I was sorry for him; it was the other I bated. He hauled in his oar with a loud sigh, and as he was raising his hand to wipe his forehead with the air of a man who has done his work, I pulled the trigger of my revolver and shot him like this off the knee, right through the heart.
“He tumbled down, with his head hanging over the side of the boat. I did not give him a second glance. The other cried out piercingly. Only one shriek of horror. Then all was still.
“He slipped off the thwart on to his knees and raised his clasped hands before his face in an attitude of supplication. ‘Mercy,’ he whispered, faintly. ‘Mercy for me! -comrade.’
“‘Ah, comrade,’ I said, in a low tone. ‘Yes, comrade, of course. Well, then, shout Vive l’anarchie.’
“He flung up his arms, his face up to the sky and his mouth wide open in a great yell of despair. ‘Vive l’anarchie! Vive -‘
“He collapsed all in a heap, with a bullet through his head.
“I flung them both overboard. I threw away the revolver, too. Then I sat down quietly. I was free at last! At last. I did not even look towards the ship; I did not care; indeed, I think I must have gone to sleep, because all of a sudden there were shouts and I found the ship almost on top of me. They hauled me on board and secured the boat astern. They were all blacks, except the captain, who was a mulatto. He alone knew a few words of French. I could not find out where they were going nor who they were. They gave me something to eat every day; but I did not like the way they used to discuss me in their language. Perhaps they were deliberating about throwing me over-board in order to keep possession of the boat. How do I know? As we were passing this island I asked whether it was inhabited. I understood from the mulatto that there was a house on it. A farm, I fancied, they meant. So I asked them to put me ashore on the beach and keep the boat for their trouble. This, I imagine, was just what they wanted. The rest you know.”
After pronouncing these words he lost suddenly all control over himself. He paced to and fro rapidly, till at last he broke into a run; his arms went like a windmill and his ejaculations became very much like raving. The burden of them was that he “denied nothing, nothing!” I could only let him go on, and sat out of his way, repeating, “Calmez vous, calmez vous,” at intervals, till his agitation exhausted itself.
I must confess, too, that I remained there long after he had crawled under his mosquito-net. He had entreated me not to leave him; so, as one sits up with a nervous child, I sat up with him – in the name of humanity – till he fell asleep.
On the whole, my idea is that he was much more of an anarchist than he confessed to me or to himself; and that, the special features of his case apart, he was very much like many other anarchists. Warm heart and weak head – that is the word of the riddle; and it is a fact that the bitterest contradictions and the deadliest conflicts of the world are carried on in every individual breast capable of feeling and passion.
From personal inquiry I can vouch that the story of the convict mutiny was in every particular as stated by him.
When I got back to Horta from Cayenne and saw the “Anarchist” again, he did not look well. He was more worn, still more frail, and very livid indeed under the grimy smudges of his calling. Evidently the meat of the company’s main herd (in its unconcentrated form) did not agree with him at all.
It was on the pontoon in Horta that we met; and I tried to induce him to leave the launch moored where she was and follow me to Europe there and then. It would have been delightful to think of the excellent manager’s surprise and disgust at the poor fellow’s escape. But he refused with unconquerable obstinacy.
“Surely you don’t mean to live always here!” I cried. He shook his head.
“I shall die here,” he said. Then added moodily, “Away from them.”
Sometimes I think of him lying open-eyed on his horseman’s gear in the low shed full of tools and scraps of iron – the anarchist slave of the Marañon estate, waiting with resignation for that sleep which “fled” from him, as he used to say, in such an unaccountable manner.
Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously. This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet. These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.
She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not
take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of
public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories –
stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea
tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave
birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she
stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother,
whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from
neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her
teacher, the girl never visited school.
When the father crossed the sea to collect money from
Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in
this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other
than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in
their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the
figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her
hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of
her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part
evil and part mournful. The girl too
hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for
the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself
into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not
return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other
Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could
not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and
falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths
the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely,
and get in the way of making any sense.
Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature
and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in
this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by
the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’
voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose
truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the
stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in
the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated
around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry
as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life
for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new
literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New
Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep
his image fully awake.
“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the
gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and
called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is
how the evening came to its end.
“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world.
The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she
did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his
wife’s hangman, and also the other way around.
She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes
which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill
into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died,
and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by
night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a
small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing. It was only after his death, when she arrived
at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had
remained there, and maybe she had never
had any in the first place.
Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose
shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was
born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was
nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened
the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could
have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea.
She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about. What is this here and what this now, she
wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars,
epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily
the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time
if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the
quill in her ink and began to write.
But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the
gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of
tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the
rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen
and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so
fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an
incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity
with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would
do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.
She knew that those little stories would come back to
her, but not tonight, and she felt how
her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of
her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on
the bench on the porch.
A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of
light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.
Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It
was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:
“Je suis Madame Bovary”.
Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame
Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board,
considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of
all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In
fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and
revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity
to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had
decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good
taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of
having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and
delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much
experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she
actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the
chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.
Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a
Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on
her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my
Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of
the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women
who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on
nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons
bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth
thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even
remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea
rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was
this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was
that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times
cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?
“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice,
because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if
dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up
with – some village apothecary and a
bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”
“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting
briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even
imagine a life without love?” Having
said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had
to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the
writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to
make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts,
my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along?
The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”
The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn
stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first
to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all
this didn’t depend on me. It was Gustave
who took me for a ride.”
“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to
live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh, “But letting him get away with dumping
you just because his imagination had run
dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that,
being a man, he was never on your side.”
Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The
lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction
it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.
“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors
performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times,
or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when
that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic
hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake
up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your
She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without
admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced,
priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe
it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it? She was at a loss.
The two sat there in silence.
“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said,
remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the
imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your
revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if
you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability
led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”
Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the
“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing
her feetless legs – and then she vanished.
The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long
time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with
their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.
Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had
sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though
I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who
drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our
imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to
whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us
that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists
more, or less, for real than the story itself.
She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading
from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on
her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That
wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her
more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”