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.
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.”
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.”
From outside there came a soft knock at the door: once. Pause. And again—a bit louder and bonier: twice.
Sutulin, without rising from his bed, extended—as was his wont—a foot toward the knock, threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled. The door swung open. On the threshold, head grazing the lintel, stood a tall, gray man the color of the dusk seeping in at the window.
Before Sutulin could set his feet on the floor the visitor stepped inside, wedged the door quietly back into its frame, and jabbing first one wall, then another, with a briefcase dangling from an apishly long arm, said, “Yes: a matchbox.”
“Your room, I say: it’s a matchbox. How many square feet?”
“Eighty-six and a bit.”
“Precisely. May I?”
And before Sutulin could open his mouth, the visitor sat down on the edge of the bed and hurriedly unbuckled his bulging briefcase. Lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he went on. “I’m here on business. You see, I, that is, we, are conducting, how shall I put it…well, experiments, I suppose. Under wraps for now. I won’t hide the fact: a well-known foreign firm has an interest in our concern. You want the electric-light switch? No, don’t bother: I’ll only be a minute. So then: we have discovered—this is a secret now—an agent for biggerizing rooms. Well, won’t you try it?”
The stranger’s hand popped out of the briefcase and proffered Sutulin a narrow dark tube, not unlike a tube of paint, with a tightly screwed cap and a leaden seal. Sutulin fidgeted bewilderedly with the slippery tube and, though it was nearly dark in the room, made out on the label the clearly printed word: quadraturin. When he raised his eyes, they came up against the fixed, unblinking stare of his interlocutor.
“So then, you’ll take it? The price? Goodness, it’s gratis. Just for advertising. Now if you’ll”—the guest began quickly leafing through a sort of ledger he had produced from the same brief-case—“just sign this book (a short testimonial, so to say). A pencil? Have mine. Where? Here: column three. That’s it.”
His ledger clapped shut, the guest straightened up, wheeled around, stepped to the door… and a minute later Sutulin, having snapped on the light, was considering with puzzledly raised eyebrows the clearly embossed letters: quadraturin.
On closer inspection it turned out that this zinc packet was tightly fitted—as is often done by the makers of patented agents— with a thin transparent paper whose ends were expertly glued together. Sutulin removed the paper sheath from the Quadraturin, unfurled the rolled-up text, which showed through the paper’s transparent gloss, and read:
Dissolve one teaspoon of the quadraturin essence in one cup of water. Wet a piece of cotton wool or simply a clean rag with the solution; apply this to those of the room’s internal walls designated for proliferspansion. This mixture leaves no stains, will not damage wallpaper, and even contributes—incidentally—to the extermination of bedbugs.
Thus far Sutulin had been only puzzled. Now his puzzlement was gradually overtaken by another feeling, strong and disturbing. He stood up and tried to pace from corner to corner, but the corners of this living cage were too close together: a walk amounted to almost nothing but turns, from toe to heel and back again. Sutulin stopped short, sat down, and closing his eyes, gave himself up to thoughts, which began: Why not…? What if…? Suppose…? To his left, not three feet away from his ear, someone was driving an iron spike into the wall. The hammer kept slipping, banging, and aiming, it seemed, at Sutulin’s head. Rubbing his temples, he opened his eyes: the black tube lay in the middle of the narrow table, which had managed somehow to insinuate itself between the bed, the windowsill, and the wall. Sutulin tore away the leaden seal, and the cap spun off in a spiral. From out of the round aperture came a bitterish gingery smell. The smell made his nostrils flare pleasantly.
“Hmm … Let’s try it. Although …”
And, having removed his jacket, the possessor of Quadraturin proceeded to the experiment. Stool up against door, bed into middle of room, table on top of bed. Nudging across the floor a saucer of transparent liquid, its glassy surface gleaming with a slightly yellowish tinge, Sutulin crawled along after it, systematically dipping a handkerchief wound around a pencil into the Quadraturin and daubing the floorboards and patterned wallpaper. The room really was, as that man today had said, a matchbox. But Sutulin worked slowly and carefully, trying not to miss a single corner. This was rather difficult since the liquid really did evaporate in an instant or was absorbed (he couldn’t tell which) without leaving even the slightest film; there was only its smell, increasingly pungent and spicy, making his head spin, confounding his fingers, and causing his knees, pinned to the floor, to tremble slightly. When he had finished with the floorboards and the bottom of the walls, Sutulin rose to his strangely weak and heavy feet and continued to work standing up. Now and then he had to add a little more of the essence. The tube was gradually emptying. It was already night outside. In the kitchen, to the right, a bolt came crashing down. The apartment was readying for bed. Trying not to make any noise, the experimenter, clutching the last of the essence, climbed up onto the bed and from the bed up onto the tottering table: only the ceiling remained to be Quadraturinized. But just then someone banged on the wall with his fist. “What’s going on? People are trying to sleep, but he’s …”
Turning around at the sound, Sutulin fumbled: the slippery tube spurted out of his hand and landed on the floor. Balancing carefully, Sutulin got down with his already drying brush, but it was too late. The tube was empty, and the rapidly fading spot around it smelled stupefyingly sweet. Grasping at the wall in his exhaustion (to fresh sounds of discontent from the left), he summoned his last bit of strength, put the furniture back where it belonged, and without undressing, fell into bed. A black sleep instantly descended on him from above: both tube and man were empty.
Two voices began in a whisper. Then by degrees of sonority— from piano to mf, from mf to fff—they cut into Sutulin’s sleep.
“Outrageous. I don’t want any new tenants popping out from under that skirt of yours… Put up with all that racket?!”
“Can’t just dump it in the garbage…”
“I don’t want to hear about it. You were told: no dogs, no cats, no children…” At which point there ensued such fff that Sutulin was ripped once and for all from his sleep; unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion, he reached—as was his wont— for the edge of the table on which stood the clock. Then it began. His hand groped for a long time, grappling air: there was no clock and no table. Sutulin opened his eyes at once. In an instant he was sitting up, looking dazedly around the room. The table that usually stood right here, at the head of the bed, had moved off into the middle of a faintly familiar, large, but ungainly room.
Everything was the same: the skimpy, threadbare rug that had trailed after the table somewhere up ahead of him, and the pho-tographs, and the stool, and the yellow patterns on the wallpaper. But they were all strangely spread out inside the expanded room cube.
“Quadraturin,” thought Sutulin, “is terrific!”
And he immediately set about rearranging the furniture to fit the new space. But nothing worked: the abbreviated rug, when moved back beside the bed, exposed worn, bare floorboards; the table and the stool, pushed by habit against the head of the bed, had disencumbered an empty corner latticed with cobwebs and littered with shreds and tatters, once artfully masked by the corner’s own crowdedness and the shadow of the table. With a triumphant but slightly frightened smile, Sutulin went all around his new, practically squared square, scrutinizing every detail. He noted with displeasure that the room had grown more in some places than in others: an external corner, the angle of which was now obtuse, had made the wall askew; Quadraturin, apparently, did not work as well on internal corners; carefully as Sutulin had applied the essence, the experiment had produced somewhat uneven results.
The apartment was beginning to stir. Out in the corridor, occupants shuffled to and fro. The bathroom door kept banging. Sutulin walked up to the threshold and turned the key to the right. Then, hands clasped behind his back, he tried pacing from corner to corner: it worked. Sutulin laughed with joy. How about that! At last! But then he thought: they may hear my footsteps— through the walls—on the right, on the left, at the back. For a minute he stood stock-still. Then he quickly bent down—his temples had suddenly begun to ache with yesterday’s sharp thin pain—and, having removed his boots, gave himself up to the pleasure of a stroll, moving soundlessly about in only his socks.
“May I come in?”
The voice of the landlady. He was on the point of going to the door and unlocking it when he suddenly remembered: he mustn’t. “I’m getting dressed. Wait a minute. I’ll be right out.”
“It’s all very well, but it complicates things. Say I lock the door and take the key with me. What about the keyhole? And then there’s the window: I’ll have to get curtains. Today.” The pain in his temples had become thinner and more nagging. Sutulin gathered up his papers in haste. It was time to go to the office. He dressed. Pushed the pain under his cap. And listened at the door: no one there. He quickly opened it. Quickly slipped out. Quickly turned the key. Now.
Waiting patiently in the entrance hall was the landlady.
“I wanted to talk to you about that girl, what’s her name. Can you believe it, she’s submitted an application to the House Committee saying she’s—”
“I’ve heard. Go on.”
“It’s nothing to you. No one’s going to take your eighty-six square feet away. But put yourself in my—”
“I’m in a hurry,” he nodded, put on his cap, and flew down the stairs.
On his way home from the office, Sutulin paused in front of the window of a furniture dealer: the long curve of a couch, an extendable round table… it would be nice—but how could he carry them in past the eyes and the questions? They would guess, they couldn’t help but guess…
He had to limit himself to the purchase of a yard of canary-yellow material (he did, after all, need a curtain). He didn’t stop by the cafe: he had no appetite. He needed to get home—it would be easier there: he could reflect, look around, and make adjustments at leisure. Having unlocked the door to his room, Sutulin gazed about to see if anyone was looking: they weren’t. He walked in. Then he switched on the light and stood there for a long time, his arms spread flat against the wall, his heart beating wildly: this he had not expected—not at all.
The Quadraturin was still working. during the eight or nine hours Sutulin had been out, it had pushed the walls at least another seven feet apart; the floorboards, stretched by invisible rods, rang out at his first step—like organ pipes. The entire room, distended and monstrously misshapen, was beginning to frighten and torment him. Without taking off his coat, Sutulin sat down on the stool and surveyed his spacious and at the same time oppressive coffin-shaped living box, trying to understand what had caused this unexpected effect. Then he remembered: he hadn’t done the ceiling—the essence had run out. His living box was spreading only sideways, without rising even an inch upward.
“Stop. I have to stop this Quadraturinizing thing. Or I’ll…” He pressed his palms to his temples and listened: the corrosive pain, lodged under his skull since morning, was still drilling away. Though the windows in the house opposite were dark, Sutulin took cover behind the yellow length of curtain. His head would not stop aching. He quietly undressed, snapped out the light, and got into bed. At first he slept, then he was awoken by a feeling of awkwardness. Wrapping the covers more tightly about him, Sutulin again dropped off, and once more an unpleasant sense of mooringlessness interfered with his sleep. He raised himself up on one palm and felt all around him with his free hand: the wall was gone. He struck a match. Um-hmm: he blew out the flame and hugged his knees till his elbows cracked. “It’s growing, damn it, it’s still growing.” Clenching his teeth, Sutulin crawled out of bed and, trying not to make any noise, gently edged first the front legs, then the back legs of the bed toward the receding wall. He felt a little shivery. Without turning the light on again, he went to look for his coat on that nail in the corner so as to wrap himself up more warmly. But there was no hook on the wall where it had been yesterday, and he had to feel around for several seconds before his hands chanced upon fur. twice more during a night that was long and as nagging as the pain in his temples, Sutulin pressed his head and knees to the wall as he was falling asleep and, when he awoke, fiddled about with the legs of the bed again. In doing this—mechanically, meekly, lifelessly—he tried, though it was still dark outside, not to open his eyes: it was better that way.
Toward dusk the next evening, having served out his day, Sutulin was approaching the door to his room: he did not quicken his step and, upon entering, felt neither consternation nor horror. When the dim, sixteen-candle-power bulb lit up somewhere in the distance beneath the long low vault, its yellow rays struggling to reach the dark, ever-receding corners of the vast and dead, yet empty barrack, which only recently, before Quadraturin, had been a cramped but cozy, warm, and lived-in cubbyhole, he walked resignedly toward the yellow square of the window, now diminished by perspective; he tried to count his steps. From there, from a bed squeezed pitifully and fearfully in the corner by the window, he stared dully and wearily through deep-boring pain at the swaying shadows nestled against the floorboards, and at the smooth low overhang of the ceiling. “So, something forces its way out of a tube and can’t stop squaring: a square squared, a square of squares squared. I’ve got to think faster than it: if I don’t outthink it, it will outgrow me and…” And suddenly someone was hammering on the door, “Citizen Sutulin, are you in there?”
From the same faraway place came the muffled and barely audible voice of the landlady. “He’s in there. Must be asleep.”
Sutulin broke into a sweat: “What if I don’t get there in time, and they go ahead and…” And, trying not to make a sound (let them think he was asleep), he slowly made his way through the darkness to the door. There.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, open up! Why’s the door locked? Remeasuring Commission. We’ll remeasure and leave.”
Sutulin stood with his ear pressed to the door. Through the thin panel he could hear the clump of heavy boots. Figures were being mentioned, and room numbers.
“This room next. Open up!”
With one hand Sutulin gripped the knob of the electric-light switch and tried to twist it, as one might twist the head of a bird: the switch spattered light, then crackled, spun feebly around, and drooped down. Again someone hammered on the door: “Well!”
Sutulin turned the key to the left. A broad black shape squeezed itself into the doorway.
“Turn on the light.”
“It’s burned out.”
Clutching at the door handle with his left hand and the bundle of wire with his right, he tried to hide the extended space from view. The black mass took a step back.
“Who’s got a match? Give me that box. We’ll have a look anyway. Do things right.”
Suddenly the landlady began whining, “Oh, what is there to look at? Eighty-six square feet for the eighty-sixth time. Measuring the room won’t make it any bigger. He’s a quiet man, home from a long day at the office—and you won’t let him rest: have to measure and remeasure. Whereas other people, who have no right to the space, but—”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the black mass muttered and, rocking from boot to boot, gently and even almost affectionately drew the door to the light. Sutulin was left alone on wobbling, cottony legs in the middle of the four-cornered, inexorably growing, and proliferating darkness.
He waited until their steps had died away, then quickly dressed and went out. They’d be back, to remeasure or check they hadn’t under-measured or whatever. He could finish thinking better here—from crossroad to crossroad. Toward night a wind came up: it rattled the bare frozen branches on the trees, shook the shadows loose, droned in the wires, and beat against walls, as if trying to knock them down. Hiding the needlelike pain in his temples from the wind’s buffets, Sutulin went on, now diving into the shadows, now plunging into the lamplight. Suddenly, through the wind’s rough thrusts, something softly and tenderly brushed against his elbow. He turned around. Beneath feathers batting against a black brim, a familiar face with provocatively half-closed eyes. And barely audible through the moaning air: “You know you know me. And you look right past me. You ought to bow. That’s it.”
Her slight figure, tossed back by the wind, perched on tenacious stiletto heels, was all insubordination and readiness for battle .
Sutulin tipped his hat. “But you were supposed to be going away. And you’re still here? Then something must have prevented—”
And he felt a chamois finger touch his chest then dart back into the muff. He sought out the narrow pupils of her eyes beneath the dancing black feathers, and it seemed that one more look, one more touch, one more shock to his hot temples, and it would all come unthought, undone, and fall away. Meanwhile she, her face nearing his, said, “Let’s go to your place. Like last time. Remember?”
With that, everything stopped.
She sought out the arm that had been pulled back and clung to it with tenacious chamois fingers.
“My place… Isn’t fit.” He looked away, having again with-drawn both his arms and the pupils of his eyes.
“You mean to say it’s cramped. My god, how silly you are. The more cramped it is…” The wind tore away the end of her phrase. Sutulin did not reply. “Or, perhaps you don’t …”
When he reached the turning, he looked back: the woman was still standing there, pressing her muff to her bosom, like a shield; her narrow shoulders were shivering with cold; the wind cynically flicked her skirt and lifted up the lapels of her coat.
“Tomorrow. Everything tomorrow. But now…” And, quickening his pace, Sutulin turned resolutely back.
“Right now: while everyone’s asleep. Collect my things (only the necessaries) and go. Run away. Leave the door wide open: let them. Why should I be the only one? Why not let them?”
The apartment was indeed sleepy and dark. Sutulin walked down the corridor, straight and to the right, opened the door with resolve, and as always, wanted to turn the light switch, but it spun feebly in his fingers, reminding him that the circuit had been broken. This was an annoying obstacle. But it couldn’t be helped. Sutulin rummaged in his pockets and found a box of matches: it was almost empty. Good for three or four flares— that’s all. He would have to husband both light and time. When he reached the coat pegs, he struck the first match: light crept in yellow radiuses through the black air. Sutulin purposely, overcoming temptation, concentrated on the illuminated scrap of wall and the coats and jackets hanging from hooks. He knew that there, behind his back, the dead, Quadraturinized space with its black corners was still spreading. He knew and did not look around. The match smoldered in his left hand, his right pulled things off hooks and flung them on the floor. He needed another flare; looking at the floor, he started toward the corner—if it was still a corner and if it was still there—where, by his calculations, the bed should have fetched up, but he accidentally held the flame under his breath—and again the black wilderness closed in. One last match remained: he struck it over and over: it would not light. One more time—and its crackling head fell off and slipped through his fingers. Then, having turned around, afraid to go any farther into the depths, he started back toward the bundle he had abandoned under the hooks. But he had made the turn, apparently, inexactly. He walked—heel to toe, heel to toe—holding his fingers out in front of him, and found nothing: neither the bundle, nor the hooks, nor even the walls. “I’ll get there in the end. I must get there.” His body was sticky with cold and sweat. His legs wobbled oddly. He squatted down, palms on the floorboards: “I shouldn’t have come back. Now here I am alone, nowhere to turn.” And suddenly it struck him: “I’m waiting here, but it’s growing, I’m waiting, but it’s…”
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
One morning, after a fall of snow.
Yasukichi sat on a chair in the physics teachers’ lounge, watching the flames in the heating stove. The flames licked up yellow one moment, then fell to sooty ruins the next, as if they were breathing: proof of their continued struggle against the cold that filled the room. Yasukichi thought of the interplanetary chill beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and felt something akin to sympathy for the brightly glowing embers.
Yasukichi looked up at the physicist called Miyamoto who had stepped in front of the stove. Hands tucked into his trouser pockets, the bespectacled Miyamoto wore a good-natured smile beneath his thin moustache.
“Mr. Horikawa. Tell me, are you aware that even women are physical objects?”
“I’m aware that they are physical beings.”
“Not beings. Objects. It’s a fact that I’ve recently discovered myself, after no small effort.”
“Mr. Horikawa, you mustn’t take Mr. Miyamoto too seriously.”
This was the other instructor, a physicist called Hasegawa. Yasukichi turned to the desk behind him. Hasegawa riffled through some exam papers as a self-conscious smile made its way up toward his balding forehead.
“Why, the cheek — I know for a fact that my discovery is making you very happy indeed. Mr. Horikawa, are you familiar with the Law of Heat Transfer?”
“Heat transfer? Something to do with moving coal?”
“You literature fellows are quite hopeless!”
Even as he said so, Miyamoto tipped another pailful of coal into the mouth of the stove, which glowed as it reflected the flames.
“When you take two physical objects of differing temperatures, and cause them to come into contact with one another, heat transfers from the object with the higher temperature to the object with the lower temperature until their temperatures become equal.”
“Isn’t that simply common sense?”
“Well, that is what we call the Law of Heat Transfer. Now, say that a woman is an object. Agreed? If a woman is an object, then so – undoubtedly – is a man. In which case, passion must equal heat. If we now cause a man and a woman to come into contact with one another, passion must surely transfer like heat, from the more impassioned man to the less impassioned woman, until her passion equals his. Mr. Hasegawa’s case is a perfect example.”
“Here we go.”
In spite of his words, Hasegawa looked delighted, and made a noise as if he was being tickled.
“Now, call E the quantity of heat that transfers within time T across a surface area S, when – are you following? – H is the temperature, X the distance in the direction of heat transfer, and K the conductivity of the material in question. Now, in Mr. Hasegawa’s case…”
Miyamoto started writing what appeared to be a formula on a small blackboard, but then suddenly turned around and threw aside his piece of chalk, looking quite discouraged.
“It’s no use trying to get a layman like you to appreciate my discovery, Mr. Horikawa. In any case, what matters is that Mr. Hasegawa’s betrothed would appear to be warming up nicely, as per the formula.”
“The world would certainly be a simpler place if such a formula really did exist.”
Yasukichi stretched out his legs, and gazed aimlessly at the snowy view outside the window. The physics instructors’ lounge being at the corner of the first floor of the building, he could easily take in the athletic field, with its sporting apparatus, and beyond that the line of pine trees, and beyond that, the red brick buildings. And the sea, too — the sea was visible between the buildings, sending up indistinct grey waves.
“But then the literature fellows would be out of a job. How is your latest book selling?”
“Not at all, as usual. It seems heat transfer doesn’t take place between writers and readers. By the way, Mr. Hasegawa; it can’t be long till your wedding?”
“Yes, only a month or so. There are quite a few arrangements that need taking care of before then — it’s a nuisance not being able to get any work done.”
“Too distracted to work, eh?”
“I’m not you, Mr. Miyamoto! For one thing, we need somewhere to live, and I simply can’t find anything for rent. Just last Sunday I walked across most of town searching. But even when you think you’ve managed to find a house, it’s snapped up before you know it.”
“What about over by me? Provided you don’t mind getting the train in every day.”
“You’re a little too far out. I hear there are houses for rent over there, and my wife would prefer it; however — Why, Mr. Horikawa! Isn’t your shoe getting singed?”
It appeared that one of Yasukichi’s shoes had somehow come into contact with the body of the stove, and was giving off a cloud of steam along with the smell of burning leather.
“There you go — that’s heat transfer again.”
Miyamoto, who was polishing his spectacles, peered up myopically toward Yasukichi, grinning.
* * *
Four of five days later – a frosty dull morning.
Yasukichi, trying to catch his train, was hurrying as fast as his legs would carry him past the outskirts of a seaside town. The path was on an embankment about six feet wide, with wheat fields to his right, and train tracks to his left. The deserted fields were replete with a very slight sound which he could only take to be that of someone walking between the rows of wheat; however, it seemed in fact to be the sound of needle ice beneath the ploughed soil, collapsing under its own weight.
Soon enough, the eight o’clock up-bound train passed by on the bank, keeping up its speed, and giving a long toot on its whistle. The down-bound train that Yasukichi needed to catch departed half an hour after this one. He took out his watch. For some reason, it was showing nearly a quarter past eight. He decided his watch must be at fault for the discrepancy. He even thought, with good reason: No fear of missing my train today. The wheat fields along the path gradually gave way to hedges. Yasukichi lit an Asahi cigarette and went on walking, feeling less hurried than before.
The cinder-laid path sloped upward to a level crossing. Yasukichi had come up to it just as usual when he noticed people gathered on either side of the tracks. Some part of him immediately thought: Someone’s been killed. Fortunately, he spotted the butcher’s boy with his laden bicycle propped beside the crossing railings. Still holding his cigarette, Yasukichi tapped the boy on the shoulder from behind.
“Hey, what’s happened?”
“Got run over. Run over, by the last up train.”
The boy spoke quickly. Under his rabbit-fur ear muffs, his features seemed to sparkle with a strange vitality.
“The crossing guard. He was trying to save a schoolkid that was about to get run over. You know the bookshop called Nagai’s, opposite the Hachiman Shrine? Their little girl.”
“The child was all right?”
“Yes, she’s the one crying over there.”
The boy indicated the crowd on the other side of the crossing. Yasukichi saw that there was indeed a young girl, who was being questioned by a constable. Beside him, a man who was evidently the stationmaster’s deputy put in a word from time to time. As for the crossing guard — Yasukichi spotted the corpse under a straw mat, in front of the guard’s hut. He had to admit that it inspired curiosity in him as well as aversion. Even from this distance, he could make out the guard’s shoes peeking out from beneath the screen.
“Those men moved the body.”
Two or three railway men stood under the crossing’s signal post on the near side, surrounding a small bonfire. The fire with its yellow flame emitted neither light nor smoke, and looked all the more chilly for it. One of the men was drying the seat of his knee-length trousers by the fire.
Yasukichi started over the crossing. This close to the station, numerous tracks intersected the crossing. Each time he passed one, he wondered just where it was that the crossing guard had been run over. But it was immediately evident. Blood on one of the rails told of the tragedy that had taken place only a few minutes ago. Almost reflexively, he looked away to the other side of the crossing, but it was no use. The image of the viscous red substance pooled on the coldly gleaming face of the iron had instantly etched itself onto his memory. The blood was even giving off a faint shimmer of vapor from upon the rail.
Some ten minutes later, Yasukichi was pacing on the station platform. His head was filled with the unsettling sight he had just seen. In particular, he vividly recalled the shimmer of vapor rising from the blood. He thought of the notion of heat transfer, which had been discussed only the other day. The life heat contained in the blood was transferring to the rail according to the law that Miyamoto had taught him — cruelly, and without a modicum of error. It made no difference whose life it was; whether that of the crossing guard killed performing his duty or that of a convicted felon, the heat would be transferring just as cruelly. He knew, of course, that these were meaningless thoughts. He tried repeatedly to convince himself that even a dutiful child must drown in water, even a devoted wife must be burned by fire. But the scene he had witnessed had left such a burdensome impression that it did not easily admit such reasoning.
Meanwhile, the people on the platform seemed for all the world contented, oblivious to his state of mind. That, too, upset Yasukichi. In particular, the loud chatter emanating from a group of Navy officers was viscerally offensive. He lit another Asahi, and walked to the end of the platform. From there, the crossing was visible a few hundred yards ahead. The crowds on either side of the crossing seemed to have mostly dissipated. Only the workmen’s bonfire by the signal post waved its yellow flame.
Yasukichi felt something akin to sympathy for that distant fire. But being in sight of the crossing still made him anxious. He turned his back on it, and started back along the platform toward the mass of people. He hadn’t gone ten steps, however, when he realized that he had dropped one of his red leather gloves, which he’d been carrying after taking it off his right hand to light his cigarette. He turned and looked back. The glove lay fallen at the end of the platform, palm side up. Wordlessly, it seemed to be calling to him.
Beneath the dull frosty sky, Yasukichi sensed the heart of the red leather glove as it lay left behind. In that moment, he knew that even this chill world would someday be pierced by the first warm rays of sun.
Sometime in June, my back started to itch. I thought I’d been bitten by a mosquito or some other insect. That’s how it felt. It was always worst when I’d been out running and worked up a sweat. The thing was, the itch was in such an awkward place – right in the middle of my back and quite high up – that I couldn’t reach it properly with my fingers. I had a go with a pencil and a toothbrush, but that didn’t seem to help much.
I’d headed off to my holiday cottage in the countryside to chill out and find myself. Things were starting to get me down rather. I was forty-something, and many aspects of life had got much trickier since my thirties. Just drifting around wasn’t as pleasant as it had been. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to stop the things I wasn’t doing. What was the point?
I felt I needed some peace and quiet to work out who I really was and what my goals were. So I decided to go to the cottage all on my own, for the whole summer break – just me, my notepad and my running shoes.
For the first few days, everything was just as usual, except that I was on my own. I was used to having lots of people around all the time. Having plenty of company had become like curling up under a cosy blanket. I just liked people and didn’t mind leaving decisions to others. It was fine by me to go with the flow, taking it easy. I was happy to go along with any decision or opinion, no matter what the subject – football, politics, art or whatever. I liked just being in the midst of things, not having to make too much effort. The solitary life has never been my thing. I get restless and anxious, can’t be doing with that stuff they talk about, sitting alone with a book over a cup of tea, meditation, relaxation. I start to get the twitches. I want to go out and meet people, ask them round to my place, or just sit and chew the fat with someone or other. I’ve never been that particular about who I talk to. I used to plunge into random discussions pretty often. If there was a subject and someone had a definite opinion, I’d generally go along with them – or keep quiet. That worked out fine to begin with. We’d agree, and avoid rubbing each other up the wrong way, and most people found me likeable. Thought I was a nice guy, easy to get on with. But after a while I realised that people felt let down if they discovered I’d taken quite a different view when talking to others.
It wasn’t that big a deal as far as I was concerned. After all, what mattered most to me was having a chat for its own sake. But it ended up becoming hard to socialise except two by two. Then I found out that people were even avoiding talking to me one to one. They’d demand my opinion on something first. Things got so bad that some people thought I was unreliable, undependable, two-faced, that sort of thing.
So I decided to take some time out, head over to the cottage and think the whole thing through. Who was I? What did I stand for, what opinions did I have, and did I have any goals? I thought I’d take off and hang out with the wolves, as it were, work stuff out for myself. I did exactly what was recommended – wherever I’d got the idea from, probably some magazine or TV programme – I left my laptop and mobile at home and went off to the cottage without telling anyone. Just did whatever I felt like, went out for the odd run, quarrelled off and on with the gas stove, which stopped working at regular intervals. After that I’d sit there with my notepad, just staring into space.
It was mostly rather dull. I’d spend most of the day browsing through back numbers of ‘The Phantom’ comic and gazing out of the window, and no matter how I racked my brain, I never came up with any particular thoughts or feelings. Not beyond thinking that coffee tastes good, rain is wet, and that sort of stuff. I found my old guitar, which was short of an E string, and sat around for a while trying to tune it, but it wasn’t that easy, so I just let it be.
After only a few days I was already starting to regret the whole project. I’d pictured myself coming up with new insights into myself, one after the other, yet I didn’t seem to be discovering anything at all. I began to wonder whether all that stuff about finding yourself was just so much pretentious bullshit. Was it something people invented because they didn’t have much of a social life? It was then that my back started to itch.
When it had been itching for over three days and nights, I went and had a look in the bathroom mirror to see if I could spot anything. It felt as though the itching was coming from a small patch quite high up on my back, just to the right of my spine.
I stood for a long time with my back to the bathroom mirror, looking at the patch and thinking that it seemed somehow familiar. I thought I recognised it, like a birthmark or an old acne scar. Surely I’d glimpsed it before when I’d chanced to see my back in a mirror? That’s not something you do all the time, after all. Presumably, it had always been there, without my giving it a thought. Now it had started itching it was hard to think of anything else.
For a while, I tried to ignore it. I just tried to avoid thinking too much, despite the itching. I had a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts when I was supposed to be concentrating on something else. It was just like me to find something totally irrelevant to focus on when I was supposed to be chilling out and finding myself.
Anyway, a few days later I could feel that it had grown into a little bump. At about the same time, the itching calmed down, and for a short while, I found what was by now an oversized pimple quite amusing if anything. It wasn’t normal, of course, but I was so relieved the itching had finally let up that I wasn’t too bothered about having a little mound on my back. Surely it didn’t matter that much. And it wasn’t as though it was that big – although it was growing.
At any rate, it was easier to concentrate on other things now it had stopped itching so badly. I found I could sit for long periods thinking about myself and my doings. I even noted down the odd idea or two. Things I thought might be important, that I didn’t want to forget. I made a list of pluses and minuses, noting down the good and the bad – mostly individual words I liked the sound of and which somehow summed up who I was. I wrote down ‘roly-poly’, for example, not because I was at all overweight, but simply because the word appealed to me and gave me good vibes. It seemed to me that if only I could get a grip on something, no matter how insignificant, I could keep hold of it, and eventually I’d haul in something weightier and more definite, whatever that might be. I jotted down ‘mini, midi, maxi’, then I hummed the words to myself for half a day. That felt good too. ‘Itching’ went down in the minus column. ‘Mounds’, on the other hand, went into the plus column. ‘Mounds – good’, I wrote. ‘I like mounds. Especially grassy ones.’ Fun – I liked having fun.Beingsociable. Company. Pleasant company. Good manners. Nice people. Good looks. Raspberry gums. Suddenly the words were pouring out of me into the two columns on the paper. I could fill half a page just with the TV programmes I liked or disliked, for instance. It was only now and then that I went past the mirror and looked at my own mound, the one on my back.
It grew a little with each day that passed until it was slightly bigger than a five-kronor coin. I was beginning to suspect that some kind of creature might have got under my skin after all – a tick or some other creepy-crawly that had dropped out of a tree on one of my runs. It was probably infected. I seemed to recall some jungle story or other about ants – or was it larvae? – crawling under people’s skin to lay their eggs. That wasn’t pleasant, of course, but somehow it struck me as the most reasonable explanation. Ants and larvae both went into the minus column.
It occurred to me that I should put something on it, but I had no idea what might work on a sore spot like the one I had. I tried splashing it with aftershave, and eventually I managed to lay my hands on an old bottle of acetone in what had once been the broom cupboard, which, over the years, had turned into a glory hole full of paint tins, tubes of glue and turps rags.
I splashed a drop or two onto a cloth and rubbed at the lump. But nothing happened, except that the skin around it got drier and began to sting.
It was rather annoying that I had no-one to talk to. It would have been quite something to show off such an amazing physical change. And maybe it would have changed my detractors’ minds. I wasn’t sure whether ‘detractors’ was quite the right word. But it gave me a warm glow when I thought of it; it was a good word to have in your vocabulary. I wasn’t certain whether it belonged in the plus or the minus column, nor was I one hundred percent sure of the spelling, so I didn’t put down anything at all. But I kind of savoured the word for the rest of the day. ‘Detractors’ – it had a certain style. I’d have to remember to use it once I was back among other people. Maybe I’d even look it up to see what it meant.
One morning the bump was so big and my skin so taut that I realised something was going to happen that day. The bump stood out like a sugar loaf as if someone’s finger was pushing at the skin from the inside. I kept running to the mirror, and in the course of the afternoon, a split started to appear.
A rift opened in the middle of the bulge, and in the middle of the weeping sore and the pus, I glimpsed something that looked like a tiny little … head.
It struck me as quite repulsive, and I stood stock-still for ages, staring into the mirror to see what was going on. I’d never seen such a small head before. Tiny though it was, it had a full set of human features: eyes, nose, mouth, even a wisp of hair. I realised straight away that it wasn’t an insect, but a new body part that had suddenly decided to make an unexpected appearance. It dawned on me that it must have been there the whole time, somehow – like a wisdom tooth. Complete with mouth, jaw, eyes, ears, nose, and forehead.
I took an instant dislike to it. I didn’t want it on my back – I just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I took out my toothbrush again and started scrubbing at the opening from which it had emerged, but neither the head nor the film of skin over it would disappear completely. All that happened was that my skin went red, and after a while it began to hurt a good deal.
That evening I couldn’t get off to sleep. Time and again I got up and stood in front of the mirror. I wandered round and round in the cottage, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote ‘I like heads’ in the plus column. And ‘But not on my back’ in the minus column.
I felt that summed up my views pretty well.
Staying in the cottage got more and more boring, and if it hadn’t been for the Head I’d have left a long time ago. But it was clear to me that I couldn’t show myself in public, disfigured as I was. When I woke up in the morning I hoped it would be gone, but when I checked in the mirror it was there as usual. After a while, I didn’t even have to get up. I could clearly feel its presence between me and the sheet. The Calor gas stove broke down regularly, and sometimes the smell of gas hung over the cylinder. Sometimes I’d thump it and get it to work for a while, but I wondered whether it was leaking a bit. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the raw patch on my back seemed to have got slightly infected, but I didn’t make any particular effort to get it to heal. I thought that might be a natural way to get rid of the intruder.
Gradually the Head grew bigger and bigger, and it generally kept itself hidden under its protective membrane. It would peek out just for an instant, then withdraw again. In early July it got up the nerve to pop out and have a look around for a little longer. Its features looked rather like mine, and I would often stand in front of the mirror waiting for it to peek out. Once or twice our eyes met momentarily in the mirror before it popped back inside the bump.
Sometimes I wondered what the Head thought of me. It must have been pretty striking to see its full-size alter ego, so to speak, towering above it on my neck and shoulders.
Since the Head had ears, eyes and a mouth, I soon started talking to it. I’d say ‘Hello’, ‘Hey’, ‘Hi there’ and so on. I’d threaten and cajole by turns, but mostly I chatted away to it as if I were talking to a plant or to myself. After all, in a way, I’d longed for someone to talk to, and now it turned out there was a head inside my back, I thought it would be a pity if we couldn’t hang out together now and then. I started telling it the names of the things around me. For example, I’d say ‘running shoes’ when I put them on to go jogging. ‘Mug’, I’d say when I took out my coffee cup. Then I’d add ‘cup’, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure myself which word was best. Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to give the Head an opportunity to learn some of the words and phrases people use most, so we could rub along together more easily. But it didn’t reply, and after a while, I stopped talking. I felt daft talking to someone who never said anything back.
It became harder and harder to sleep on my back. Sometimes, when I was lying stretched out, reading damp old Donald Duck comics in bed, the Head would suddenly move slightly behind my back. It was as though it were stretching out, or curling up into a ball. I’d always press a little harder when that happened. I don’t really know why. It just happened. Maybe it was a bit mean of me, but I wanted to make the point somehow that it was my back. After a while, the Head would start to resist, and we’d sometimes engage in a low-key wrestling match, which generally ended with my shifting onto my side.
I noticed I was getting hungrier and hungrier. There were days when I’d suddenly crave things I’d never liked before, such as boiled cod, peas in white sauce, grapefruit, muesli, and wholemeal bread. To my surprise, I also noticed that I was gradually becoming less fond of beer. I could see it was all the fault of the new head. It was taking in nutrients through me, of course, not through its own mouth. Now it was clearly trying to influence my habits, to bring them into line with its own tastes and its own aims.
I was annoyed that the Head was starting to take up more space and that it was kind of getting above itself in the evenings and at night, though it wouldn’t reply when spoken to and didn’t even have the guts to come out properly during the daytime.
I started to think the Head had something of an attitude problem. It would never look me in the eye. It wasn’t willing to learn anything about my habits or to repeat any of the words I tried to teach it. And then there was the way it took what it wanted, expanding more and more in the evenings. On top of that, the few times I caught a glimpse of its mouth, I detected a rather superior expression.
To begin with, I interpreted its behaviour as shyness. I thought it looked diffident, touching. It was, after all, so small, and if anything it came across as rather timid. In time, however, I came to think it was being pretty rude in keeping itself to itself. Just what was it scared of? I felt my approach had been quite respectful. Apart from the episode with the toothbrush and the after-shave, I’d been nothing but friendly and obliging, helpful even. Of course, you have to be careful in relations with other people, but the Head’s avoidance tactics sent a negative message, almost like disdain. As though it had no interest whatsoever in its – what could one call me? – host. Didn’t it like my company? I was quite sure I could detect a certain overbearing look in its eyes. Who did it think it was, this creature, to turn up and make silent demands on me? I was gradually feeling more and more determined to show it who was boss.
‘Listen here, you gutless little pipsqueak,’ I said one evening when I was sitting with a can of lager, staring at the wall. I was getting wasted out of pure defiance, just to show who was boss, though the lager was like vinegar. In fact, it tasted vile, and several times I was on the point of throwing up. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it must be worse for the little beast on my back. I’d laid in plenty of lager, but I had no TV, stereo or anything else that might have taken my mind off things. In the absence of any entertainment, I’d generally end up on the sofa in front of the big, empty wall. ‘Why don’t you come out and party a little?’ I said.
That wasn’t like me. It wasn’t my style to carry on and throw my weight about, but what I needed now was to find myself and deal with this uninvited guest. After all, I was over forty. I couldn’t carry on pussyfooting around. I was starting to lose my patience. I sat gazing at the damp around the broken electricity cables where the wallpaper had split.
Everything was silent and still behind me. Gulping down the last drop of lager in the can, I squeezed it in the middle and slung it into the corner where the TV should have been. Opening a new can, I wriggled my shoulder blades a little. I thought the creature might have gone to sleep. ‘Hey, you!’ I called again. ‘Come on out and have a beer, will you? Come on, try and be sociable.’
I raised the can over my head, held it carefully at an angle and let the lager run down the back of my neck. A small amount ended up in my hair, but the rest ran down over my skin, over the mound on my back. I’d thought the Head could just hold its mouth open and have a drink. But nothing happened.
‘Don’t fancy it? Well, it’s your loss,’ I said.
Then I sat there, the can in my hand, without a TV, while the lager gradually settled in a sticky mess between my skin and the leather upholstery.
I decided to try cutting my losses. If the Head didn’t want any contact, well, I was damned if I was going to carry on dancing attendance on it. I made it quite clear that I wanted peace and quiet. Staggering into the kitchen, I found a pencil. Each time I felt any movement inside my back, I jabbed at the opening with the pencil. It took several attempts to hit the right spot, but pretty soon I’d got quite accurate. The least sign of activity and I’d be onto it with the pencil, and as soon as the Head felt me jabbing at it, it would freeze. That gave me a power rush that was pretty cool. I’d have preferred to be on friendlier terms, of course, but with things as they were, there was no alternative. After a while, however, I realised the jabs weren’t having the same impact anymore. The Head would keep shifting around inside my back even after I’d jabbed at it several times, and sometimes I jabbed pretty hard.
I went out into the bathroom and sat in front of the mirror for a long while, quite light-headed and a little queasy from the booze. I nagged loudly at the Head to come out so we could agree on how we were to get on together. As usual, however, it refused to put in an appearance. At one point I got up, went out and pressed my back against the stove two or three times. Really hard. I felt the Head shrinking in on itself, seeking protection from each new impact. But there wasn’t the least sign of any willingness to communicate.
When I’d had no response for over an hour, and the Head had done nothing but keep itself to itself, I felt my patience coming to an end. I took the mirror off the wall and carried it over to the bed. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat down on the edge of the bed with the mirror leaning against the wall behind me, and waited. I breathed slowly, trying to steady my pulse.
Nothing happened for a long while, but then the Head’s curiosity must have got the better of it, for when I was completely still, I could clearly sense it slowly emerging. I stayed where I was, leaning forward, and let it continue for a good while. The longer I sat, the more distinctly I could feel the Head sliding in and out of my back. It was taking the opportunity to move around, thinking I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Maybe it thought I hadn’t noticed anything, and that was what really got me – the fact that it seemed to want nothing to do with me as if I wasn’t good enough for it. Presumably, it had discovered the mirror; it felt as though the thing was slipping out at regular intervals to look at itself. It was becoming bolder and bolder, taking longer each time. It must have thought I was asleep, as pretty soon it seemed to have stopped paying me any attention.
‘What’s that?’ I said, my tone of voice calm and measured, but with a note of surprise, as though I’d spotted something unexpected and was more or less talking to myself. I thought that would tempt the Head out to have a look. And lo and behold, it finally emerged, prompted by curiosity. I waited and waited, breathing calmly, biding my time.
When I thought enough of the Head was out in the open, I swivelled round as quickly as I could and snapped the scissors shut, just where I thought its neck must be. The Head must have had a terrible shock; its eyes were goggling like ping-pong balls. Somehow it had managed to start withdrawing, so the cut had sliced into its chin more than its neck. It was almost as if I’d cut through its mouth. A tongue slid back and forth over the blade, cutting itself again and again.
And a cry came from its mouth. It was all quite horrible. The blood and the tongue, those goggling eyes, and the cry, rising into a scream.
I tried to snap the scissor blades together and snip the whole thing off, but as I’d caught it at an odd angle, there were jaw muscles and bones in the way. It was a terrible mess.
In the end, I opened the scissors and let the creature take cover again.
Blood continued to flow out of the opening for quite a while, so I had to stand in the bathroom splashing water over it for a long time. The floor got messy, and I had to dig out an old 1950s vacuum cleaner to hoover up the blood and the water. The hoover crackled and sparked, and it had little suction power. I had to go over the floor inch by inch with the metal mouthpiece. The Head didn’t show itself.
The morning after, I woke up lying in an awkward position on my front, with my face pressed into the pillow. I had a headache and a bad conscience about the previous evening’s attack. I called to the Head to come out, but there was no response. I begged and pleaded, but nothing happened.
It stayed inside for several days, and I felt nothing at all beyond a dull pain in my back – unsurprisingly, as the Head was linked to some extent with my own nervous system. Though I looked in the mirror a few times, I could see nothing. I began to wonder whether it might have died from its injuries, but little by little, in the evenings, I once again started to feel tiny movements, a cautious scratching. It was if it was literally licking its wounds.
For a while I was afraid it would try to get its own back somehow, slide out when I was least expecting – who knew how quickly its neck was growing? Or maybe it would start eating me up from the inside?
Once again I cursed the fact that I was all on my own. I dared not turn my back on any knives or scissors that might be lying about, and I constantly tried to be aware of whatever was within reach each time I turned round. I developed such a keen awareness of what was behind me that I sometimes forgot to look out for what was in front. I started walking into things, bumping my head when looking through the kitchen hatches and stubbing my toes on the furniture. I should have brought someone along right from the start, I thought. It’s never a good idea to go off on your own as I’d done. If I’d brought someone else, I’d have had someone to talk to who would have witnessed the whole process and understood my plight.
At the same time, I could see it would be tricky to turn up anywhere with the Head as it was now. People would think it was peculiar, maybe even rather frightening. No-one would want to touch it. They’d think I’d done this to myself, that I’d had some sort of operation.
I’d have to deal with the problem on my own.
I started talking again. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably stuff like:
‘Hallo? Are you there?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Why don’t you answer? I know you can.’
But the Head kept mum. I had the feeling it might have learned its lesson, or at least grasped who was boss. Whenever it moved, its movements were very cautious.
I was gradually beginning to relax a little.
In a way, everything had calmed down considerably after the incident. Maybe being a bit rougher had been just the right thing? Maybe I’d held back far too much and given it far too much room for manoeuvre? Cut it too much slack for too long? Perhaps a firmer hand was needed to instil a natural respect for me in the intruder, and to put it in its place.
One day in early August, when I was standing in front of the mirror looking at the igloo-shaped lump on my back, which was growing larger and larger, its forehead and eyes finally emerged, and, for the first time, it looked me straight in the eye for a long while.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked.
It was still for a moment. Then it slowly shook in a way that might well have meant no.
‘How’s your mouth?’ I asked, and the Head’s gaze darkened slightly. It blinked a few times and breathed through its nose as if preparing for something. Finally, it popped out completely, stretching its neck. It gave me quite a fright, as I recall. The Head was already bigger than a fist, and its mouth had healed well. The only visible signs of the scissors’ treatment were a few pink streaks.
It withdrew after showing me its mouth, and neither of us made any further attempt to communicate for the rest of the day. A strange, oppressive atmosphere filled the cottage. Maybe it was angry about the scissors incident, but if that was the case it could have said so, always assuming that it could speak. Of course, my attack might have damaged its powers of speech, but I didn’t think it was that badly injured. After all, it had managed to scream.
Next morning I went straight to the mirror and tapped the bump on my back with a toothbrush. It took a while, but eventually the eyes peeped out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the Head had grown slightly bigger overnight.
‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘Shall we be friends, then?’
The eyes looked at me for a long time. We just stared at one another. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but in the end I thought I saw it give a cautious nod.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about that business with the scissors. That was unkind. I won’t do it again.’
Motionless, the eyes continued to stare at me. After a while, the Head decided to come right out, revealing a slightly distant, superior expression.
‘Can you speak?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head.
I was so astounded that I dropped my toothbrush on the floor. True, I’d heard it scream, and I’d suspected that it had a voice. But it felt strange to hear actual words. It changed something. I felt quite unsure of myself. It was as if it suddenly dawned on me that it had actually understood everything I’d said, which doubled the stress I felt. I tried to control my feelings and maintain a semblance of calm before the Head, which was continuing to stare at me as though amused by my confusion, though it didn’t give that away for an instant. It gave away nothing. And its very expressionlessness only reinforced the menacing impression it made on me. Its voice sounded just like mine.
‘Nothing, just wondering,’ I said. ‘You haven’t said anything.’
The Head said nothing now either but continued to scrutinise me with a slightly blasé expression. He was very like me.
‘Er… are you male or female?’ I continued.
That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out question, but I felt I’d better seize the opportunity to find out as much as possible, now we’d established some kind of contact, so to speak. What did I know? Maybe the Head wasn’t intending to come out again for another few months.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head again.
The voice was calm and steady, like a more stable variant of my own. At the same time, it sounded – how can I put this? – rather reserved and haughty. ‘I think you’re a man,’ I said. ‘And I really don’t like your snarky tone. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a little chat together, without getting on our high horses.’
The Head didn’t reply now either, but it seemed to roll its eyes briefly, exhaling rapidly rather as though it were sighing.
‘Oh, all right then, forget it,’ I said.
The Head said nothing. It just slipped swiftly back into its lair.
The next morning we stared at each other in the bathroom mirror while I was brushing my teeth. He stuck out his whole neck and head and yawned expansively. I could have sworn this was a minor demonstration of power. He’d got even bigger. Soon he’d be the same size as any other head. He was only very slightly smaller than my own.
I said nothing. I’d been feeling a little hurt since the previous day and rather anxious about how all this was going to end. The toothpaste tube slipped out of the washbasin and landed on the floor. My knees creaked when I bent down to pick it up.
A few days later, when I was in front of the bathroom mirror again brushing my teeth, the Head suddenly popped out again, and this time he managed to stretch up over one shoulder. It looked funny to have two heads the same size on the same body, and I couldn’t stop myself asking:
‘How big are you going to get?’
The other head smiled and replied:
‘What do you think?’
For the first time, it felt as though he was actually challenging me in some way, but I just didn’t understand how he was doing it or what it was he wanted. It was as though we were sizing each other up for a while.
Quick I could, I tried to come up with a flash of repartee that would answer that question once and for all. After all, he hadn’t exactly been wonderfully articulate himself. Yet, in just a few brief rejoinders, he’d managed to seize what you might call the rhetorical high ground. And however hard I racked my brains and struggled to think of something, it didn’t really work. Finally, I had to say the first thing that had popped into my head, and I still doubt whether it sounded very smart.
‘Hmmm…,’ said I. ‘What do you think?’
Obviously it was easier for him to inject that edge of ambiguity into what he said. After all, he had the advantage of surprise. Hell, surely anyone would be pretty taken aback if a head on their back suddenly started to talk? He could have said anything at all. Besides, he’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something. I now see I shouldn’t just have recycled what he’d already said; I should have come up with my own unique, quick-fire rejoinder. But that just didn’t work.
He merely smiled, and from that moment on he no longer seemed to pay me much attention. Increasingly, he didn’t bother to crawl back into his lair; instead, he spent more and more time next to my own head.
For several days I went around regretting that unfortunate exchange of words. It felt as though I’d lost something, without really understanding what it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all? Whatever I said, things only seemed to get worse.
‘Can’t we go out some time?’ he asked one day.
‘How would that look?’ I said. ‘Surely you understand it’d scare people silly to see such a monstrosity? No, we’ll have to stay in here till…’
I fell silent, not knowing how to continue.
‘Till what?’ he said.
‘Till we sort this out,’ I said, making it clear the conversation was over. I noticed him looking over my shoulder at the notes I’d jotted down, and sometimes he seemed to be scoffing at something I’d written. As his neck grew stronger, he pushed my head down closer and closer to my shoulder. He tried both sides a few times, but soon he’d made his choice, and there wasn’t much I could do when he made himself comfortable in the middle.
We did some things together. Now and then, out of the blue, he’d take control over an arm or a leg, as if for a joke. He’d make me cross out some new words I’d just written in the plus or minus column. He’d spill a glassful of juice just for the hell of it, so I’d have to wipe it all up before it ran over the chairs as well.
He’d take over for short periods without my noticing. If I didn’t watch out, he’d suddenly stow the coffee tin in the cupboard over the coffee machine, rather than the one over the stove where I’d always kept it. He’d throw rubbish straight into the bin instead of the sink, or turn the gas off. I generally took over control again as soon as I noticed what was going on, but sometimes I’d let him do his own thing, just to see what he’d come up with.
At any time, and without any warning at all, I could be struck by a sudden numbness. It was as if my arms had gone to sleep and it was nearly impossible to raise them – as if he’d decided we were going to take a rest. And once, when I was doing my usual twenty press-ups, just as I was relaxing after the last one I felt as though he’d taken over and was forcing me to do another one. My arms ached, and it was incredibly tough, but I had to go through with it, though I was tired and felt I’d done my fair share already. Once we’d got up again, and I’d sat down, I turned my head as far as I could and yelled straight into his ear, ‘Don’t you bloody well do that again!’
I knew full well how much it hurt when someone bellowed into your ear, but all he did was laugh.
‘What’s that?’ he said all of a sudden one day, looking down at the floor with a startled expression. I bent down to see what he was talking about. But before I’d managed to spot anything, I felt him wrapping one of my arms around my neck. I resisted, trying to push my head back up again, but he seemed to have locked it in place with my other hand. I was held in a grip under one arm. And try as I might to wave my arms about and gesticulate, it was his will that mainly commanded my muscles now. ‘When are you going to let go?’ I yelled as loudly as I could, muffled by the body and the clothes around me.
‘What do you think?’ said he.
When I got back up again I was livid with fury. I tried to punch his head, but my arms would only half obey me. They were directionless and weak, like the arms of a puppet. That felt even more humiliating if anything, so I left off pretty quickly and sat down on the sofa.
‘This isn’t working,’ I said.
As usual, he said nothing. We sat that way for a long time, without doing anything in particular. It was as though we were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
‘Hey, you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we go out?’
‘No chance,’ said I.
When we had our breakfast, each would have his own bowl of cereal, but we’d use the same two hands. I noticed the spoon went up to his mouth more often than to mine. But since I had little appetite, it didn’t matter much. We hardly ever spoke to each other, just exchanged brief utterances like ‘Mind yourself!’ or ‘Shift!’ and stuff like that.
A few days went by in comparative peace. It was getting easier and easier to synchronise our movements. We generally agreed on what our arms and legs should be doing. We’d go out for a short run, shower, sleep, eat – all the usual things. I noticed I no longer needed to think so much. I generally just went along with whatever he was doing, and that was quite agreeable in its way. I could sense that I no longer had the strength I’d once had.
One afternoon, when we were standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth – first mine, then his – he said, in passing as it were, his mouth full of toothpaste:
‘You can hardly see the scar now.’
Looking up, I realised I couldn’t tell straight away which of the two heads was mine. Each was the spitting image of the other. After a moment, it occurred to me to focus on the eyes. The face that gazed back would be me, of course. The whole thing was made more difficult by the fact that he was looking at me too, with an indulgent, almost contemptuous expression. I yelled at him to stop gawping and looked in the mirror to see which one of us was shouting. The tired, worn-out one – that was me.
The new head took over my body more and more, and began to do things differently. It felt unfamiliar and rather irritating. He forced me to climb on the roof to mend the hole in the roofing-felt. Then he’d be off round the whole building, taping up all the loose contacts, taking out the rugs to air, listening to discussion programmes on the radio – that sort of stuff. He dug out the brush and dustpan and set about cleaning the cottage from top to bottom. He started cooking and setting the table, rather than eating straight out of a tin. He’d pour milk into a glass. Then we’d have to stand around washing up afterwards.
My appetite dwindled. Everything went to the other head. He helped himself eagerly, while the flesh shrank from my cheeks and chin. My temples grew closer together, and my eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He picked up the guitar, gathered up all the comics, and put the lot away in the loft, where he found a book about birds and another about flowers that he dusted off and brought down.
Now and then I’d find the Head writing with my hand. I thought I might still be able to tell his handwriting from mine, so I made no particular effort to stop him.
He would write and write, sometimes for hours at a time, and I thought it all terribly boring. He used such complicated language, with difficult words and long sentences. For a while, I was rather impressed and felt a spark of pride at the thought that it was my handwriting it all down, after all. But all things considered, it was dull and hard to understand.
He never wanted to do anything fun. Just boring stuff.
The summer ended and autumn came. After a while, I realised I was finding it harder and harder to hold up my head. I wanted to kind of lie on one shoulder. It was as if my neck muscles had atrophied, and all of a sudden my neck was so scrawny, desiccated and skinny, shrivelled, withered in the middle, that I wondered how the oxygen could get through. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe my entire oxygen intake was now coming in through the new head?
I realised that I was gradually getting used to his dull, monotonous routines, and would often just hang to one side. For a while, he would help me by holding me up with his hands from time to time, but he tired of that soon enough. As he took on more and more activities, I would all too often remain hanging at an angle, unable to hold myself up, so that I viewed the world half upside-down. My neck had shrivelled into a thin thread that increasingly resembled a scrap of umbilical cord attached to newborn babies, which gradually dries out and eventually falls off.
One morning after breakfast he went out to the toolbox and fetched a pair of pincers. He clipped me off and laid me in the bed, on the pillow.
‘Want to be on one side, or facing upwards?’ he asked.
‘On my side,’ I said.
He laid me with one cheek on the pillow, so I could lie there and watch him getting undressed and smartening himself up. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard him turning on the tap and splashing water around. He came back into the bedroom, freshly showered. He’d put a waterproof plaster, such as you might stick over a shaving nick, on the tiny wound where I’d been attached. He opened the wardrobe and changed into smart clothes right in front of my face.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I saw from the calendar that we’ve got a table booked for lunch at “The Gondola”. Thought I’d go along,’ he said.
Before he went, he tucked me in with the cover over my chin. I took the opportunity to have a nap. It was so pleasant to be on my own again, even though my mobility was now severely limited, but it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t really noticed what was going on. Now that I was over forty, I thought to myself, I no longer placed such high demands on life. There was no need to win or to be a top dog all the time, or to have arms and legs and all that sort of thing. I was quite content with everything just the way it was. I wouldn’t have had the strength to creep around outside anyway.
By the time he got home again, it had been dark for a long time. I awoke when the door closed, and pretty soon I saw him looking into the bedroom. Apart from his wet hair, he looked just like me. He wore my clothes, was a little older, and had a slightly more pronounced widow’s peak. The scar had disappeared completely. No-one would ever think he was anyone but me.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Sure,’ I said.
We were both whispering, although there were only the two of us in the cottage. It was as though we didn’t want to disturb the night. Or maybe what we had to say called for a lower volume. He sat down on the edge of the bed but realised that the rest of it was empty. So he edged up further and leaned against the wall.
‘I’m thinking of taking up smoking,’ I said.
He sighed and looked at me. I rocked back and forth a little. I could feel something like a speck of dust settling on my nose. I grimaced a little, trying to get rid of it. Finally, he stretched out a hand and helped me scratch.
‘What’s it like out there?’ I asked.
He leaned back, sinking down against the wall. Shook his head slowly, as though he couldn’t decide whether it was wonderful, or terrible, or just too hard to explain.
‘It’s a different world,’ he said. ‘Trust me, pal, you’d never cope out there.’
The alien parked its car across the street and came and sat down in the waiting room. He must have seen this happen, peripherally. But he was busy settling the bill with a middle-aged woman with curly grey hair and substantial, attractive clothes, to whom he’d taken an irrational dislike. Those who deal with Joe Punter, day in and day out, especially Joe car-owning Punter, are prone to such allergies. He saw her start of concealed surprise, looked up, and there was the alien.
The other customers on the row of seats were pretending, in their English way, that nothing special had happened. He finished dealing with the woman. Other cars and customers left; the alien’s turn came. He went out in the road and hand-waved it into the bay with fatherly care, then sent it back to wait while he looked the red car over. He entered the car’s make and model in the terminal and began to check the diagnostics.
The mechanic worked this franchise alone with the robotics and the electronic presence of cashier, manager, head office. He was able to read print, even to write. It was a necessity of his trade. To be wired-up, routinely, among all this free-running machinery was against health and safety regulations. He used a hear-and-do wire only for the exotics, where the instructions came packaged with the part, and tried to conceal this from his customers. The mystique of craftsmanship was important to him.
Consequently, it took him some little time to examine the tired little runabout. He called in the alien and explained what had to be done, using a lot of gesture.
The convention was that if you couldn’t stomach calling another sentient being “it,” they were all called “she.” The mechanic eyed the alien covertly as he made his exposition: the soft, noseless profile, drooping shoulders, the torso thickened by layers of strange undergarments beneath its drab “overalls,” gawky backwards-jointed legs. It was about as female-looking as the dugongs sailors used to miscall “mermaids.” The confusion, he considered, was an insult to both parties. But it was nonsense to expect the denizen of another star system to be humanly attractive. He was in no hurry. He wasn’t affronted or frightened, as some people might have been, to see one running around loose, out of the enclave. No doubt the alien was going to tip generously, but it wasn’t avarice that made him willing to linger. He was simply, genuinely pleased to have one of them in his shop.
“I just want you to scrub the converter.”
He wasn’t surprised that it could speak English; he’d only imagined it would not trouble itself to do so. But the last thing he’d expected was for an alien to be mean.
“You know, it’s going to be cheaper in the long run to replace the whole exhaust system. You’ve been using a high methanol percentage, there’s a lot of corrosion here…”
The alien looked at the ground.
“Come away –”
He followed it out into the waiting room, where it folded down like a big dog on one of the seats, looking miserable, twisting its puckered, chicken-skin hands against its chest. “I’m going to sell it,” the alien explained. “I want you to do the minimum that’s legally necessary.”
He realized that the alien did not believe that its car could understand English. But nor did it believe that such understanding was impossible. It believed that if you have to say something unpleasant about someone/thing, you remove yourself from the immediate vicinity of the victim. The rules of etiquette were immovable, matter-of-fact, and binding. The car’s level of comprehension was a separate matter, a subject for abstruse philosophy.
It was not unusual for a mechanic to be familiar, as far as this, with alien psychology. Alien nature was the stuff of daytime television. The mechanic could have drowned in the subject, if he had enough idle time between customers.
“What’s legally necessary,” he repeated. He was disappointed, practically and emotionally, by his customer’s poverty; but mollified by its bizarre sensitivity.
Of course he knew that in an alien the state of poverty could only be temporary and relative. The tip dwindled but some other benefit was bound to accrue.
It (or she) nodded glumly.
They nodded. Their gestures were very human, but culturally diverse: for “no” they would jerk the chin, not shake the head. It was as if they’d borrowed a little, deliberately, from every human race, and maybe that was exactly so. Their journey into human space had been through such a saturation of human emissions, no one knew how much of alien behavior on Earth was natural, and how much a carefully devised presentation.
“Shall I wait or shall I come back?”
Throughout this exchange the other customers had remained painfully fixed in bored or casual poses. The mechanic was delighted by their intent, covert attention. Luckily there were no children involved, to spoil the effect of cosmopolitan unconcern.
He did not want it to stay. If it stayed in here it might strike up a conversation, become the temporary property of one of these mere punters.
“You’d better go,” he told it, feigning regret. “I have another job that I can’t put on auto. Come back in about an hour.”
When it had left, regret became real. He went out into the dusty street and stared up and down. It was October. The fronds of the banana tree, that grew over the wall of an unkempt yard next door were acid green under a lowering sky that had been promising rain for days. The tourist center was not far away: the massive grace that all the world admired, which had once been the center of a dock town called Liverpool. He could see the tiny points of the newly gilded Liver Birds, winking above their monument of vast commercial assurance. Far inland, the vague conurbation stretched up the flanks of the Pennines: the hills swimming there out of sight like drowned monuments, drowned in time and lost forever, like the great city.
There was no sign of the alien.
He went into the shop, checked the progress of various operations, and quietly – avoiding camera eyes – sneaked through the door at the back, and upstairs to his living quarters. His wife was at work. Their two children, seven and two years old, were with her in the workplace schoolroom and crèche. The rooms, which were small but well-supplied with consumer durables, seemed unnaturally tidy and silent. He stood in the living room and studied a row of books, discs, journals, on a shelf of the library unit. Dealing with the Alien; What Do They Think of Us; The Farcomers; Through Alien Eyes; Have They Been Here Before?; Xenobiology: Towards the Dawn of a Science… The mechanic and his family were no more than averagely interested in the alien visitors. The books had been bought, not read. But it would have been a strange household indeed, or a very poor one, that didn’t possess at least a few of these titles.
The mechanic did not feel, on the whole, that the human race was over-reacting. He and his wife had voted in favor, in the European referendum on the global change of era, which was now on its way to becoming law. This year, this present year, would be forever year three: 3AC, if the English-speaking lobby had its way. After Contact. It was official: this was the greatest thing that had happened to the human race since the dim and distant “coming of Christ.” And the aliens, unlike Christ, were here. They were in print, on the screen. They were indubitably real.
Everything on the shelves had been entered in their library; the mechanic’s wife was meticulous over this chore. His fingers hovered over the keypad. But the mysterious inertia of human adulthood defeated him. Only the seven-year-old actually used the database. He took a book down, and another: leaved pages, read a paragraph or two. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Surrounded by hard things that did not speak or look at him, he tried to imagine how it felt to be the alien. He had known sentimental drivers: cars with names, cars referred to as “she”; cars abused for bad behavior. He had caught himself (he dredged up fragments of memory), occasionally giving a glossy flank of robot casing an affectionate pat as he put it aside.
But the aliens did not know about animals. They had tools that crept, slithered, flew; but they had made these things. They had no notion of a separate creation, life that was not their own. It might be that conditions on the home planet were different, but the evidence, from their reactions and their own reporting, was otherwise. It seemed likely that they had shared their world with no other, no separate warm-blooded animals.
He went down to the service bay and checked the screen that showed the waiting room. All was quiet in there. It had not come back. He turned from that screen and made work for himself among the ramped vehicles and buzzing tools. He didn’t touch the alien’s car. When it reappeared he told it he was having a few problems. Please be patient, he said. Come back later, or wait. He took no new customers. The afternoon turned to dusk. The waiting room emptied until it (or she) was there alone.
The mechanic’s wife and his children arrived home, on foot from the tram stop, the baby in her buggy. He heard the childish voices chattering and laughing at the street door and gritted his teeth as if interrupted in some highly concentrated and delicate task. But he was doing nothing, just sitting in the gloom among the silent tools.
The alien was folded up on its seat. It looked like an animal dressed up, a talking animal of no known species from a child’s cartoon. It stood and smiled, showing the tips of its teeth: the modified snarl that might or might not be a genuine, shared gesture.
The mechanic was embarrassed because there was really no way he could explain his behavior. A human customer, stranger in a strange land, would by now have been either very angry or – possibly – a little scared. The alien seemed resigned. It did not expect humans to behave reasonably.
It made the mechanic obscurely angry to think that he was not the first person to give it the runaround like this. He would have liked to explain I just want to have you near me for a while… But that would have been a shameful confession.
“I want to do you a favor,” he said. “I didn’t like to tell you before, thought you might get embarrassed. I’m fixing up quite a few things, and I’m only going to charge you for the scrub.”
He thought it looked surprised, perhaps wary. It was impossible not to award them with human feelings; not to read human expressions in their strange faces. “Thank you.”
“The least I could do, after you’ve come all this way!”
He laughed nervously. It didn’t. They did not laugh.
“Would you like to come upstairs? Would you like something to eat, a cup of tea? My wife, my kids would be very pleased to meet you.”
The invitation was completely insincere. The last thing he wanted was to see it in his home. He didn’t want to share the alien with anyone. The alien gave him a dry look as if it knew exactly what was going on. According to some readings of their behavior they were telepathic: intensely so between themselves, mildly with humans.
On the other hand, it had probably been pestered this way before…performing animal. The thought made him wince, for himself and for those others.
“No thank you.” It looked at the ground. “Will the car be ready tomorrow?”
The street was dark. There was little lighting just here, away from the hotels and malls and the floodlit, water-lapped monuments. He felt guilty. The poor alien might be mentally counting up its cash, maybe wondering what the hell to do next. Aliens traveling alone were rarities anywhere. If it couldn’t take refuge in a big rich hotel it would be bothered. People would crowd around it heartlessly, pointing their cameras.
But that wasn’t the mechanic’s fault. He didn’t want to capture it. He didn’t want to turn it out, either. He’d have liked it to stay here; to keep its real live presence. It could sleep on the seats. He would bring down some food. They liked some human foodstuffs: ice cream, white bread, hamburgers; nothing too natural.
“Yes, of course. Come back tomorrow. I open at nine.”
He told his wife that he had to work overtime. This never happened, but she accepted the idea without comment. The routine of their life together was so calm it could swallow the occasional obvious lie without a ripple.
He sat in the machine shop alone and looked around him. Cars.
It was strange how many static, urban Europeans still felt the need to own them, even with the fuel rationing and all the rest of the environmental-protection laws. The mechanic wasn’t complaining. It was a steady job, and often even enjoyable. These are my people, he thought, trying on the alien worldview. My people, the sheep of my flock. He had a grandmother who was a churchgoer. But there came the idea of animals again, the separation of one kind of life from another. That was not what happened between an alien and an alien machine. He went up to the car, clamped on its ramp in an undignified posture, a helpless patient.
“Hallo?” he said tentatively.
The car made no response, but the atmosphere in the shop changed. By speaking to it aloud he had shifted something: his own perception. He’d embarrassed himself, in fact. He could just catch the tail of a more interesting emotion. He was a child creeping past the witch’s door, deliciously afraid. But nothing he could do or say would make the imagined real: make him see the robot eyes wink, the jaws of metal grin or open in speech. Nothing but madness would change things that far.
He began to work, or rather he set the robotics to work. He had no choice now; he would have to do what he had promised and square the accounts somehow. Nothing that happened in his garage went unrecorded. The mechanic had never tried to hack his way around the firm’s system. He’d never been the type to be tempted by the complications of crime, and now he wouldn’t know where to start. He became very gloomy thinking about what he’d have to do: the awkward covering up for this strange impulse.
The free machines skated to and fro. Others slid along the overhead lines and reached down their serpent heads. The mechanic fidgeted. The little car, a fifteen-year-old Korean methanol/mix burner with a red plastic body, liquid clutch, and suspension, was a hardwearing complex of equipment, good for at least another ten years on the road. It needed a certain amount of attention, but it didn’t need his hands-on attention at all. He stood and watched.
I am redundant, he thought – a standard over-reaction to robotics. Why don’t aliens feel redundant? He struggled to perform the mental contortion of looking out of the mirror. If it were not for humans, if it were not for me, there would be no cars, no robots, no machines at all. I cannot be superseded. Even if the machines become self-conscious, become “human” (the ever-receding bogey of the popular media), I will still be God. The maker. The origin.
Upstairs the toddler would be in bed; and the boy too, tucked up with one of the home tutoring wires that supplemented the education provided by his mother’s employers. The mother would be relaxing into her evening, snug in a nest of hardware. Empathically, subliminally, the mechanic was aware of the comings and goings, the familiar routine.
He discovered why the alien filled him with such helpless, inarticulate delight. The machines promised, but they could not perform. They remained things, and people remained lonely. The mechanic had visited his country’s National Forests – the great tracts of land that must remain undisturbed, however small his sitting room became. He accepted the necessity of their existence, but the only emotion he could possibly feel was resentment. He had no friendship with the wilderness. Animals could be pets, but they were not part of you, not the same. The aliens had the solution to human isolation: a talking world, a world with eyes; the companionship that God dreams of. The alien’s visitation had stirred in him a God-like discontent.
He could not make it stay. But perhaps he could learn from it, share its enriched experience. He saw the bay as a microcosm of human technology and civilization – a world extruded like ectoplasm from its human center, full of creatures made in the mechanic’s own image: his finger and thumb, his teeth, his rolling, folding joints, his sliding muscle. His mind, even, in its flickering chemical cloud, permeating the hardware of his brain.
Excited by this insight, he jumped up and hurried to the bay’s keypad. He pulled the robotics out, the shining jointed arms sliding back and folding themselves away into the walls. He took out a box of hand tools. He would pay the alien’s car the greatest compliment in his power. He would give it the benefit of his craftsmanship, the kind of “natural, organic” servicing for which the rich paid ridiculous sums.
For a while he worked like Adam in Eden, joyfully naming the subcreation with his hands and mind. He worked, he slowed… He sat on the cold, dark-stained floor with a socket spanner in one hand and a piece of ragwaste in the other. The lights looked down. They built things with bacteria, as the mechanic understood it. Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything: every tool and piece of furniture, even the massive shell of their ship-world. Human beings, when they wanted to express feelings of profound communion with the planet, with the race, spoke of being “a part of the great whole.” Having lived so many years – from the start of their evolution, in a sense, the pundits reckoned – in a world created by themselves, the aliens could not experience being a part. There were no parts in their continuum: no spaces, no dividing edges.
He suddenly felt disgusted. Scientists had established that the alien bacteria were harmless. That was the story, but it might be wrong. It might be a big lie, maintained to prevent panic in the streets. He wished he hadn’t touched the car. The alien had been using it for months. It must be coated all over with invisible crawling slime.
What was it like, to be part of a living world? He stared at the spanner in his hand until the rod of metal lost its shine. Skin crept over it; the adjustable socket became a cup of muscle, pursed like an anus, wet lips drawn back by a twist on the tumescent rod. The mechanic was nauseated, but he could not put the tool down. He could not go away from it. This oozed drop of self, attached to his hand, would not be parted from him if he dropped it. Tiny strings, strands of living slime, would cling and join them still. The air he breathed was full of self, of human substance.
He stood up. He backed off. A robot casing yielded like flesh. The mechanic yelped and sprang away. His hand, with the rod-flesh spanner growing out of it, hit the keypad; and all the tools began to leap into action. He stood in his own surging, hurrying, pulsating gut – for an instant saved by the notional space of an anatomical drawing, and then the walls closed in. there was no light, only a reddened darkness. The mechanic wailed. He fought a horrible need to vomit; he scrabbled desperately at the keys.
When everything was quiet again, he sat for while. It might have been minutes; it felt like a long time. Eventually he stopped wanting to be sick and managed to put down the spanner. He sat with his head hunched in his arms; became aware of this abject fetal crouch, and came out of it slowly. He took a deep breath.
The garage was the same as it had always been: dead and safe. He realized that he had been highly privileged. Somehow, just briefly, he had succeeded in entering the alien mind, seen the world through alien eyes. How could you expect such an experience to be pleasant? Now that it was over he could accept that, and he was truly grateful.
At last he heaved a sigh and set about putting the bay to work again. He couldn’t bring himself to touch the red car with hand tools now. Besides, he was too shaky. But he would deliver the alien’s vehicle in the morning as promised, as near to perfectly reborn as was humanly possible. He owed it that much.
He had tried to take something from the alien by a kind of force. And he’d got what he wanted. It wasn’t the alien’s fault that he’d bitten off more than he could chew and gagged on the mouthful. Gritting his teeth against the ghostly feel of flesh in the machine, he set up the necessary routines.
In a short time, it was all done. But it was very late. His wife would have to ask questions now, and he’d have to tell her something of what had happened. He stood looking at the plastic shell and the clever, deviously economical innards under the open bonnet. The machines, they said, couldn’t live with the ecosphere. In the end the human race would have to abandon one or the other: motor cars or “the environment.” But “in the end” was still being held at bay. In the meantime this was a good, well-made little compromise with damnation.
He felt lonely and sad. He had seen another world walk into his life, reached out to grasp the wonder, and found something worse than empty air. He’d wanted the alien to give him dreamland, somewhere over the rainbow. He had found, instead, an inimical Eden: a treasure that he could no more enjoy than he could crawl back into the womb.
The mechanic sighed again and gently closed the bonnet.
The red car settled itself a little.
“Thank you,” it said.
In the morning at nine o’clock the alien was there. The car was ready, gleaming on the forecourt. The alien put down its bag, which it carried not on its back or at arm’s length but tucked under one armpit in that very peculiar, lopsided way of theirs. He thought it looked tired and anxious. It barely glanced at the car. Perhaps, like a human, it didn’t even want to know how badly it had been cheated.
“What’s the damage?” it asked.
The mechanic was hurt. He’d have liked to go over the whole worksheet with it: to extract the sweet honey of its approval, or at least to extend this dwindling transaction just a little further. He had to remind himself that the alien owed him nothing. To itself, its feelings were not romantic or bizarre in the least. The world it lived in was commonplace. The mechanic’s experience was his own concern, had been an internal matter from the start. The alien was not responsible for kinks of human psychology, nor for imaginary paranormal incidents.
“look,” he said. “I’ve got a proposition for you. My eldest, my son, he’s just passed his driving test. He won’t be allowed out on his own for a while, of course. But I’ve been thinking about getting him a little runabout. I don’t keep a car myself, you see, I’ve never felt the need. But kids, they like the freedom… I’d like to buy your car.”
In the cold light of day, he couldn’t bear to tell it the truth. He knew the car would never speak to him again. But he had been touched by the world of the other, and he simply had to bring away something: some kind of proof.
The alien looked even more depressed.
The mechanic realized suddenly that he didn’t have to worry about the money. He would tell the firm everything. They were human at head office: and as fascinated as he. The car would stay on the forecourt. He would call in and get it featured on the local news, maybe even national news. It would be extremely good for business.
For the alien’s benefit, however, he would stick to the story about his son. They really shouldn’t be encouraged to believe that human beings thought they were magic.
“List price,” he added, hurriedly. “And a little more. Because anyone would pay a little more, a car that’s been driven by one of our famous visitors. What do you say?”
So the alien walked away with its credit card handsomely e-charged. It turned at the corner of the street, by the yard where the banana fronds hung over the gate, and bared its pointed teeth in that seeming smile. The farewell could have been for the red car on the forecourt as much as for the human beside it, but it made the man feel better anyway.
*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.
The Paradise of Bachelors
It lies not far from Temple-Bar.
Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street – where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies – you adroitly turn a mystic corner – not a street – glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.
In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library, go worship in the sculptured chapel: but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle. Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.
Templar? That’s a romantic name. Let me see. Brian de Bois Gilbert was a Templar, I believe. Do we understand you to insinuate that those famous Templars still survive in modern London? May the ring of their armed heels be heard, and the rattle of their shields, as in mailed prayer the monk-knights kneel before the consecrated Host? Surely a monk-knight were a curious sight picking his way along the Strand, his gleaming corselet and snowy surcoat spattered by an omnibus. Long-bearded, too, according to his order’s rule; his face fuzzy as a pard’s; how would the grim ghost look among the crop-haired, close-shaven citizens? We know indeed – sad history recounts it – that a moral blight tainted at last this sacred Brotherhood. Though no sworded foe might outskill them in the fence, yet the worm of luxury crawled beneath their guard, gnawing the core of knightly troth, nibbling the monastic vow, till at last the monk’s austerity relaxed to wassailing, and the sworn knights-bachelors grew to be but hypocrites and rakes.
But for all this, quite unprepared were we to learn that Knights-Templars (if at all in being) were so entirely secularized as to be reduced from carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land, to the carving of roastmutton at a dinner-board. Like Anacreon, do these degenerate Templars now think it sweeter far to fall in banquet than in war? Or, indeed, how can there be any survival of that famous order? Templars in modern London! Templars in their red-cross mantles smoking cigars at the Divan! Templars crowded in a railway train, till, stacked with steel helmet, spear, and shield, the whole train looks like one elongated locomotive!
No. The genuine Templar is long since departed. Go view the wondrous tombs in the Temple Church; see there the rigidly-haughty forms stretched out, with crossed arm upon their stilly hearts, in everlasting and undreaming rest. Like the years before the flood, the bold Knights-Templars are no more. Nevertheless, the name remains, and the nominal society, and the ancient grounds, and some of the ancient edifices. But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill; the monk-giver of gratuitous ghostly counsel now counsels for a fee; the defender of the sarcophagus (if in good practice with his weapon) now has more than one case to defend; the vowed opener and clearer of all highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre, now has it in particular charge to check, to clog, to hinder, and embarrass all the courts and avenues of Law; the knight-combatant of the Saracen, breasting spear-points at Acre, now fights law-points in Westminster Hall. The helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanter’s Wand, the Templar is to-day a Lawyer.
But, like many others tumbled from proud glory’s height – like the apple, hard on the bough but mellow on the ground – the Templar’s fall has but made him all the finer fellow.
I dare say those old warrior-priests were but gruff and grouty at the best; cased in Birmingham hardware, how could their crimped arms give yours or mine a hearty shake? Their proud, ambitious, monkish souls clasped shut, like horn-book missals; their very faces clapped in bomb-shells; what sort of genial men were these? But best of comrades, most affable of hosts, capital diner is the modern Templar. His wit and wine are both of sparkling brands.
The church and cloisters, courts and vaults, lanes and passages, banquet-halls, refectories, libraries, terraces, gardens, broad walks, domicils, and dessert-rooms, covering a very large space of ground, and all grouped in central neighborhood, and quite sequestered from the old city’s surrounding din; and every thing about the place being kept in most bachelor-like particularity, no part of London offers to a quiet wight so agreeable a refuge.
The Temple is, indeed, a city by itself. A city with all the best appurtenances, as the above enumeration shows. A city with a park to it, and flower-beds, and a river-side – the Thames flowing by as openly, in one part, as by Eden’s primal garden flowed the mild Euphrates. In what is now the Temple Garden the old Crusaders used to exercise their steeds and lances; the modern Templars now lounge on the benches beneath the trees, and, switching their patentleather boots, in gay discourse exercise at repartee.
Long lines of stately portraits in the banquethalls, show what great men of mark – famous nobles, judges, and Lord Chancellors – have in their time been Templars. But all Templars are not known to universal fame; though, if the having warm hearts and warmer welcomes, full minds and fuller cellars, and giving good advice and glorious dinners, spiced with rare divertisements of fun and fancy, merit immortal mention, set down, ye muses, the names of R. F. C. and his imperial brother.
Though to be a Templar, in the one true sense, you must needs be a lawyer, or a student at the law, and be ceremoniously enrolled as member of the order, yet as many such, though Templars, do not reside within the Temple’s precincts, though they may have their offices there, just so, on the other hand, there are many residents of the hoary old domicils who are not admitted Templars. If being, say, a lounging gentleman and bachelor, or a quiet, unmarried, literary man, charmed with the soft seclusion of the spot, you much desire to pitch your shady tent among the rest in this serene encampment, then you must make some special friend among the order, and procure him to rent, in his name but at your charge, whatever vacant chamber you may find to suit.
Thus, I suppose, did Dr. Johnson, that nominal Benedick and widower but virtual bachelor, when for a space he resided here. So, too, did that undoubted bachelor and rare good soul, Charles Lamb. And hundreds more, of sterling spirits, Brethren of the Order of Celibacy, from time to time have dined, and slept, and tabernacled here. Indeed, the place is all a honeycomb of offices and domicils. Like any cheese, it is quite perforated through and through in all directions with the snug cells of bachelors. Dear, delightful spot! Ah! when I bethink me of the sweet hours there passed, enjoying such genial hospitalities beneath those timehonored roofs, my heart only finds due utterance through poetry; and, with a sigh, I softly sing, “Carry me back to old Virginny!”
Such then, at large, is the Paradise of Bachelors. And such I found it one pleasant afternoon in the smiling month of May, when, sallying from my hotel in Trafalgar Square, I went to keep my dinner-appointment with that fine Barrister, Bachelor, aud Bencher, R. F. C. (he is the first and second, and should be the third; I hereby nominate him), whose card I kept fast pinched between my gloved forefinger and thumb, and every now and then snatched still another look at the pleasant address inscribed beneath the name, “No. – Elm Court, Temple.”
At the core he was a right bluff, care-free, right comfortable, and most companionable Englishman. If on a first acquaintance he seemed reserved, quite icy in his air – patience; this Champagne will thaw. And if it never do, better frozen Champagne than liquid vinegar.
There were nine gentlemen, all bachelors, at the dinner. One was from “No. – King’s Bench Walk, Temple;” a second, third, and fourth, and fifth, from various courts or passages christened with some similarly rich resounding syllables. It was indeed a sort of Senate of the Bachelors, sent to this dinner from widely-scattered districts, to represent the general celibacy of the Temple. Nay it was, by representation, a Grand Parliament of the best Bachelors in universal London; several of those present being from distant quarters of the town, noted immemorial seats of lawyers and unmarried men – Lincoln’s Inn, Furnival’s Inn; and one gentleman, upon whom I looked with a sort of collateral awe, hailed from the spot where Lord Verulam once abode a bachelor – Gray’s Inn.
The apartment was well up toward heaven. I know not how many strange old stairs I climbed to get to it. But a good dinner, with famous company, should be well earned. No doubt our host had his dining-room so high with a view to secure the prior exercise necessary to the due relishing and digesting of it.
The furniture was wonderfully unpretending, old, and snug. No new shining mahogany, sticky with undried varnish; no uncomfortably luxurious ottomans, and sofas too fine to use, vexed you in this sedate apartment. It is a thing which every sensible American should learn from every sensible Englishman, that glare and glitter, gimcracks and gewgaws, are not in dispensable to domestic solacement. The American Benedick snatches, down-town, a tough chop in a gilded show-box; the English bachelor leisurely dines at home on that incomparable South Down of his, off a plain deal board.
The ceiling of the room was low. Who wants to dine under the dome of St. Peter’s? High ceilings! If that is your demand, and the higher the better, and you be so very tall, then go dine out with the topping giraffe in the open air.
In good time the nine gentlemen sat down to nine covers, and soon were fairly under way.
If I remember right, ox-tail soup inaugurated the affair. Of a rich russet hue, its agreeable flavor dissipated my first confounding of its main ingredient with teamster’s gads and the rawhides of ushers. (By way of interlude, we here drank a little claret.) Neptune’s was the next tribute rendered – turbot coming second; snowwhite, flaky, and just gelatinous enough, not too turtleish in its unctuousness.
(At this point we refreshed ourselves with a glass of sherry.) After these light skirmishers had vanished, the heavy artillery of the feast marched in, led by that well-known English generalissimo, roast beef. For aids-de-camp we had a saddle of mutton, a fat turkey, a chickenpie, and endless other savory things; while for avant-couriers came nine silver flagons of humming ale. This heavy ordnance having departed on the track of the light skirmishers, a picked brigade of game-fowl encamped upon the board, their camp-fires lit by the ruddiest of decanters.
Tarts and puddings followed, with innumerable niceties; then cheese and crackers. (By way of ceremony, simply, only to keep up good old fashions, we here each drank a glass of good old port.)
The cloth was now removed, and like Blucher’s army coming in at the death on the field of Waterloo, in marched a fresh detachment of bottles, dusty with their hurried march.
All these manoeuvrings of the forces were superintended by a surprising old field-marshal (I can not school myself to call him by the inglorious name of waiter), with snowy hair and napkin, and a head like Socrates. Amidst all the hilarity of the feast, intent on important business, he disdained to smile. Venerable man!
I have above endeavored to give some slight schedule of the general plan of operations. But any one knows that a good, genial dinner is a sort of pell-mell, indiscriminate affair, quite baffling to detail in all particulars. Thus, I spoke of taking a glass of claret, and a glass of sherry, and a glass of port, and a mug of ale – all at certain specific periods and times. But those were merely the state bumpers, so to speak. Innumerable impromptu glasses were drained between the periods of those grand imposing ones.
The nine bachelors seemed to have the most tender concern for each other’s health. All the time, in flowing wine, they most earnestly expressed their sincerest wishes for the entire wellbeing and lasting hygiene of the gentlemen on the right and on the left. I noticed that when one of these kind bachelors desired a little more wine (just for his stomach’s sake, like Timothy), he would not help himself to it unless some other bachelor would join him. It seemed held something indelicate, selfish, and unfraternal, to be seen taking a lonely, unparticipated glass. Meantime, as the wine ran apace, the spirits of the company grew more and more to perfect genialness and unconstraint. They related all sorts of pleasant stories. Choice experiences in their private lives were now brought out, like choice brands of Moselle or Rhenish, only kept for particular company. One told us how mellowly he lived when a student at Oxford; with various spicy anecdotes of most frank-hearted noble lords, his liberal companions. Another bachelor, a gray-headed man, with a sunny face, who, by his own account, embraced every opportunity of leisure to cross over into the Low Countries, on sudden tours of inspection of the fine old Flemish architecture there – this learned, white-haired, sunny-faced old bachelor, excelledin his descriptions of the elaborate splendors of those old guild-halls, town-halls, and stadthold-houses, to be seen in the land of the ancient Flemings. A third was a great frequenter of the British Museum, and knew all about scores of wonderful antiquities, of Oriental manuscripts, and costly books without a duplicate. A fourth had lately returned from a trip to Old Granada, and, of course, was full of Saracenic scenery. A fifth had a funny case in law to tell. A sixth was erudite in wines. A seventh had a strange characteristic anecdote of the private life of the Iron Duke, never printed, and never before announced in any public or private company. An eighth had lately been amusing his evenings, now and then, with translating a comic poem of Pulci’s. He quoted for us the more amusing passages.
And so the evening slipped along, the hours told, not by a water-clock, like King Alfred’s, but a wine-chronometer. Meantime the table seemed a sort of Epsom Heath; a regular ring, where the decanters galloped round. For fear one decanter should not with sufficient speed reach his destination, another was sent express after him to hurry him; and then a third to hurry the second; and so on with a fourth and fifth. And throughout all this nothing loud, nothing unmannerly, nothing turbulent. I am quite sure, from the scrupulous gravity and austerity of his air, that had Socrates, the fieldmarshal, perceived aught of indecorum in the company he served, he would have forthwith departed without giving warning. I afterward learned that, during the repast, an invalid bachelor in an adjoining chamber enjoyed his first sound refreshing slumber in three long, weary weeks.
It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Comfort – fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers, too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fireside.
The thing called pain, the bugbear styled trouble – those two legends seemed preposterous to their bachelor imaginations. How could men of liberal sense, ripe scholarship in the world, and capacious philosophical and convivial understandings – how could they suffer themselves to be imposed upon by such monkishfables? Pain! Trouble! As well talk of Catholic miracles. No such thing. – Pass the sherry, Sir. – Pooh, pooh! Can’t be! – The port, Sir, if you please. Nonsense; don’t tell me so. The decanter stops with you, Sir, I believe.
And so it went.
Not long after the cloth was drawn our host glanced significantly upon Socrates, who, solemnly stepping to the stand, returned with an immense convolved horn, a regular Jericho horn, mounted with polished silver, and otherwise chased and curiously enriched; not omitting two life-like goat’s heads, with four more horns of solid silver, projecting from opposite sides of the mouth of the noble main horn.
Not having heard that our host was a performer on the bugle, I was surprised to see him lift this horn from the table, as if he were about to blow an inspiring blast. But I was relieved from this, and set quite right as touching the purposes of the horn, by his now inserting his thumb and forefinger into its mouth; whereupon a slight aroma was stirred up, and my nostrils were greeted with the smell of some choice Rappee. It was a mull of snuff. It went the rounds. Capital idea this, thought I, of taking snuff at about this juncture. This goodly fashion must be introduced among my countrymen at home, further ruminated I.
The remarkable decorum of the nine bachelors – a decorum not to be affected by any quantity of wine – a decorum unassailable by any degree of mirthfulness – this was again set in a forcible light to me, by now observing that, though they took snuff very freely, yet not a man so far violated the proprieties, or so far molested the invalid bachelor in the adjoining room as to indulge himself in a sneeze. The snuff was snuffed silently, as if it had been some fine innoxious powder brushed off the wings of butterflies.
But fine though they be, bachelors’ dinners, like bachelors’ lives, can not endure forever. The time came for breaking up. One by one the bachelors took their hats, and two by two, and arm-in-arm they descended, still conversing, to the flagging of the court; some going to their neighboring chambers to turn over the Decameron ere retiring for the night; some to smoke a cigar, promenading in the garden on the cool river-side; some to make for the street, call a hack, and be driven snugly to their distant lodgings.
I was the last lingerer.
“Well,” said my smiling host, “what do you think of the Temple here, and the sort of life we bachelors make out to live in it?”
“Sir,” said I, with a burst of admiring candor – “Sir, this is the very Paradise of Bachelors!”
The Tartarus of Maids
It lies not far from Woedolor Mountain in New England. Turning to the east, right out from among bright farms and sunny meadows, nodding in early June with odorous grasses, you enter ascendingly among bleak hills. These gradually close in upon a dusky pass, which, from the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasingly driving between its cloven walls of haggard rock, as well as from the tradition of a crazy spinster’s hut having long ago stood somewhere hereabouts, is called the Mad Maid’s Bellows’ pipe.
Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. From the steepness of the walls here, their strangely ebon hue, and the sudden contraction of the gorge, this particular point is called the Black Notch. The ravine now expandingly descends into a great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains. By the country people this hollow is called the Devil’s Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels suddenly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible lowlands.
Conspicuously crowning a rocky bluff high to one side, at the cataract’s verge, is the ruin of an old saw-mill, built in those primitive times when vast pines and hemlocks superabounded throughout the neighboring region. The blackmossed bulk of those immense, rough-hewn, and spike-knotted logs, here and there tumbled all together, in long abandonment and decay, or left in solitary, perilous projection over the cataract’s gloomy brink, impart to this rude wooden ruin not only much of the aspect of one of rough-quarried stone, but also a sort of feudal, Rhineland, and Thurmberg look, derived from the pinnacled wildness of the neighboring scenery.
Not far from the bottom of the Dungeon stands a large white-washed building, relieved, like some great whited sepulchre, against the sullen background of mountain-side firs, and other hardy evergreens, inaccessibly rising in grim terraces for some two thousand feet.
The building is a paper-mill.
Having embarked on a large scale in the seedsman’s business (so extensively and broadcast, indeed, that at length my seeds were distributed through all the Eastern and Northern States and even fell into the far soil of Missouri and the Carolinas), the demand for paper at my place became so great, that the expenditure soon amounted to a most important item in the general account. It need hardly be hinted how paper comes into use with seedsmen, as envelopes. These are mostly made of yellowish paper, folded square; and when filled, are all but flat, and being stamped, and superscribed with the nature of the seeds contained, assume not a little the appearance of business-letters ready for the mail. Of these small envelopes I used an incredible quantity – several hundreds of thousands in a year. For a time I had purchased my paper from the wholesale dealers in a neighboring town. For economy’s sake, and partly for the adventure of the trip, I now resolved to cross the mountains, some sixty miles, and order my future paper at the Devil’s Dungeon paper-mill.
The sleighing being uncommonly fine toward the end of January, and promising to hold so for no small period, in spite of the bitter cold I started one gray Friday noon in my pung, well fitted with buffalo and wolf robes; and, spending one night on the road, next noon came in sight of Woedolor Mountain.
The far summit fairly smoked with frost; white vapors curled up from its white-wooded top, as from a chimney. The intense congelation made the whole country look like one petrifaction. The steel shoes of my pung craunched and gritted over the vitreous, chippy snow, as if it had been broken glass. The forests here and there skirting the route, feeling the same all-stiffening influence, their inmost fibres penetrated with the cold, strangely groaned – not in the swaying branches merely, but likewise in the vertical trunk – as the fitful gusts remorselessly swept through them. Brittle with excessive frost, many colossal tough-grained maples, snapped in twain like pipe-stems, cumbered the unfeeling earth.
Flaked all over with frozen sweat, white as a milky ram, his nostrils at each breath sending forth two horn-shaped shoots of heated respiration, Black, my good horse, but six years old, started at a sudden turn, where, right across the track – not ten minutes fallen – an old distorted hemlock lay, darkly undulatory as an anaconda.
Gaining the Bellows’-pipe, the violent blast, dead from behind, all but shoved my high-backed pung up-hill. The gust shrieked through the shivered pass, as if laden with lost spirits bound to the unhappy world. Ere gaining the summit, Black, my horse, as if exasperated by the cutting wind, slung out with his strong hind legs, tore the light pung straight up-hill, and sweeping grazingly through the narrow notch, sped downward madly past the ruined saw-mill. Into the Devil’s Dungeon horse and cataract rushed together.
With might and main, quitting my seat and robes, and standing backward, with one foot braced against the dash-board, I rasped and churned the bit, and stopped him just in time to avoid collision, at a turn, with the bleak nozzle of a rock, couchant like a lion in the way – a road-side rock.
At first I could not discover the paper-mill.
The whole hollow gleamed with the white, except, here and there, where a pinnacle of granite showed one wind-swept angle bare. The mountains stood pinned in shrouds – a pass of Alpine corpses. Where stands the mill? Suddenly a whirling, humming sound broke upon my ear. I looked, and there, like an arrested avalanche, lay the large whitewashed factory. It was subordinately surrounded by a cluster of other and smaller buildings, some of which, from their cheap, blank air, great length, gregarious windows, and comfortless expression, no doubt were boarding-houses of the operatives. A snow-white hamlet amidst the snows. Various rude, irregular squares and courts resulted from the somewhat picturesque clusterings of these buildings, owing to the broken, rocky nature of the ground, which forbade all method in their relative arrangement. Several narrow lanes and alleys, too, partly blocked with snow fallen from the roof, cut up the hamlet in all directions.
When, turning from the traveled highway, jingling with bells of numerous farmers – who availing themselves of the fine sleighing, were dragging their wood to market – and frequently diversified with swift cutters dashing from inn to inn of the scattered villages – when, I say, turning from that bustling main-road, I by degrees wound into the Mad Maid’s Bellows’-pipe, and saw the grim Black Notch beyond, then something latent, as well as something obvious in the time and scene, strangely brought back to my mind my first sight of dark and grimy Temple Bar. And when Black, my horse, went darting through the Notch, perilously grazing its rocky wall, I remembered being in a runaway London omnibus, which in much the same sort of style, though by no means at an equal rate, dashed through the ancient arch of Wren. Though the two objects did by no means completely correspond, yet this partial inadequacy but served to tinge the similitude not less with the vividness than the disorder of a dream. So that, when upon reining up at the protruding rock I at last caught sight of the quaint groupings of the factory-buildings, and with the traveled highway and the Notch behind, found myself all alone, silently and privily stealing through deep-cloven passages into this sequestered spot, and saw the long, high-gabled main factory edifice, with a rude tower – for hoisting heavy boxes – at one end, standing among its crowded outbuildings and boarding-houses, as the Temple Church amidst the surrounding offices and dormitories, and when the marvelous retirement of this mysterious mountain nook fastened its whole spell upon me, then, what memory lacked, all tributary imagination furnished, and I said to myself, “This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre.”
Dismounting, and warily picking my way down the dangerous declivity – horse and man both sliding now and then upon the icy ledges – at length I drove, or the blast drove me, into the largest square, before one side of the main edifice. Piercingly and shrilly the shotted blast blew by the corner; and redly and demoniacally boiled Blood River at one side. A long woodpile, of many scores of cords, all glittering in mail of crusted ice, stood crosswise in the square. A row of horse-posts, their north sides plastered with adhesive snow, flanked the factory wall. The bleak frost packed and paved the square as with some ringing metal.
The inverted similitude recurred – “The sweet tranquil Temple garden, with the Thames bordering its green beds,” strangely meditated I.
But where are the gay bachelors?
Then, as I and my horse stood shivering in the wind-spray, a girl ran from a neighboring dormitory door, and throwing her thin apron over her bare head, made for the opposite building.
“One moment, my girl; is there no shed hereabouts which I may drive into?”
Pausing, she turned upon me a face pale with work, and blue with cold; an eye supernatural with unrelated misery.
”Nay,” faltered I, “I mistook you. Go on; I want nothing.”
Leading my horse close to the door from which she had come, I knocked. Another pale, blue girl appeared, shivering in the doorway as, to prevent the blast, she jealously held the door ajar.
“Nay, I mistake again. In God’s name shut the door. But hold, is there no man about?”
That moment a dark-complexioned wellwrapped personage passed, making for the factory door, and spying him coming, the girl rapidly closed the other one.
“Is there no horse-shed here, Sir?”
“Yonder, to the wood-shed,” he replied, and disappeared inside the factory.
With much ado I managed to wedge in horse and pung between the scattered piles of wood all sawn and split. Then, blanketing my horse, and piling my buffalo on the blanket’s top, and tucking in its edges well around the breast-band and breeching, so that the wind might not strip him bare, I tied him fast, and ran lamely for the factory door, stiff with frost, and cumbered with my driver’s dread-naught.
Immediately I found myself standing in a spacious, intolerably lighted by long rows of windows, focusing inward the snowy scene without.
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.
In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it – its tame minister – stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper, which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing.
Seated before a long apparatus, strung with long, slender strings like any harp, another girl was feeding it with foolscap sheets, which, so soon as they curiously traveled from her on the cords, were withdrawn at the opposite end of the machine by a second girl. They came to the first girl blank; they went to the second girl ruled.
I looked upon the first girl’s brow, and saw it was young and fair; I looked upon the second girl’s brow, and saw it was ruled and wrinkled. Then, as I still looked, the two – for some small variety to the monotony – changed places; and where had stood the young, fair brow, now stood the ruled and wrinkled one.
Perched high upon a narrow platform, and still higher upon a high stool crowning it, sat another figure serving some other iron animal; while below the platform sat her mate in some sort of reciprocal attendance.
Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery – that vaunted slave of humanity – here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.
All this scene around me was instantaneously taken in at one sweeping glance – even before I had proceeded to unwind the heavy fur tippet from around my neck. But as soon as this fell from me the dark-complexioned man, standing close by, raised a sudden cry, and seizing my arm, dragged me out into the open air, and without pausing for word instantly caught up some congealed snow and began rubbing both my cheeks.
“Two white spots like the whites of your eyes,” he said; “man, your cheeks are frozen.”
“That may well be,” muttered I; “’tis some wonder the frost of the Devil’s Dungeon strikes in no deeper. Rub away.”
Soon a horrible, tearing pain caught at my reviving cheeks. Two gaunt blood-hounds, one on each side, seemed mumbling them. I seemed Acton.
Presently, when all was over, I re-entered the factory, made known my business, concluded it satisfactorily, and then begged to be conducted throughout the place to view it.
“Cupid is the boy for that,” said the dark complexioned man. “Cupid!” and by this odd fancy-name calling a dimpled, red-cheeked, spirited-looking, forward little fellow, who was rather impudently, I thought, gliding about among the passive-looking girls – like a gold fish through hueless waves – yet doing nothing in particular that I could see, the man bade him lead the stranger through the edifice.
“Come first and see the water-wheel,” said this lively lad, with the air of boyishly-brisk importance.
Quitting the folding-room, we crossed some damp, cold boards, and stood beneath a area wet shed, incessantly showering with foam, like the green barnacled bow of some East Indiaman in a gale. Round and round here went the enormous revolutions of the dark colossal waterwheel, grim with its one immutable purpose.
“This sets our whole machinery a-going, Sir in every part of all these buildings; where the girls work and all.”
I looked, and saw that the turbid waters of Blood River had not changed their hue by coming under the use of man.
“You make only blank paper; no printing of any sort, I suppose? All blank paper, don’t you?”
“Certainly; what else should a paper-factory make?”
The lad here looked at me as if suspicious of my common-sense.
“Oh, to be sure!” said I, confused and stammering; “it only struck me as so strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean.”
He took me up a wet and rickety stair to a great light room, furnished with no visible thing but rude, manger-like receptacles running all round its sides; and up to these mangers, like so many mares haltered to the rack, stood rows of girls. Before each was vertically thrust up a long, glittering scythe, immovably fixed at bottom to the manger-edge. The curve of the scythe, and its having no snath to it, made it look exactly like a sword. To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragged long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint. The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.
“This is the rag-room,” coughed the boy.
“You find it rather stifling here,” coughed I, in answer;” but the girls don’t cough.”
“Oh, they are used to it.”
“Where do you get such hosts of rags?” picking up a handful from a basket.
“Some from the country round about; some from far over sea – Leghorn and London.”
“‘Tis not unlikely, then,” murmured I, “that among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors. But the buttons are all dropped off. Pray, my lad, do you ever find any bachelor’s buttons hereabouts?”
“None grow in this part of the country. The Devil’s Dungeon is no place for flowers.”
“Oh! you mean the flowers so called – the Bachelor’s Buttons?”
“And was not that what you asked about? Or did you mean the gold bosom-buttons of our boss, Old Bach, as our whispering girls all call him?”
“The man, then, I saw below is a bachelor, is he?”
“Oh, yes, he’s a Bach.”
“The edges of those swords, they are turned outward from the girls, if I see right; but their rags and fingers fly so, I can not distinctly see.”
Yes, murmured I to myself; I see it now; turned outward, and each erected sword is so borne, edge-outward, before each girl. If my reading fails me not, just so, of old, condemned state-prisoners went from the hall of judgment to their doom: an officer before, bearing a sword, its edge turned outward, in significance of their fatal sentence. So, through consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life, go these white girls to death.
“Those scythes look very sharp,” again turning toward the boy.
“Yes; they have to keep them so. Look!”
That moment two of the girls, dropping their rags, plied each a whet-stone up and down the sword-blade. My unaccustomed blood curdled at the sharp shriek of the tormented steel.
Their own executioners; themselves whetting the very swords that slay them; meditated I.
“What makes those girls so sheet-white, my lad?”
“Why” – with a roguish twinkle, pure ignorant drollery, not knowing heartlessness – “I suppose the handling of such white bits of sheets all the time makes them so sheety.”
“Let us leave the rag-room now, my lad.”
More tragical and more inscrutably mysterious than any mystic sight, human or machine, throughout the factory, was the strange innocence of cruel-heartedness in this usage-hardened boy.
“And now,” said he, cheerily, “I suppose you want to see our great machine, which cost us twelve thousand dollars only last autumn. That’s the machine that makes the paper, too. This way, Sir.”
Following him, I crossed a large, bespattered place, with two great round vats in it, full of a white, wet, woolly-looking stuff, not unlike the albuminous part of an egg, soft-boiled.
“There,” said Cupid, tapping the vats carelessly, “these are the first beginnings of the paper; this white pulp you see. Look how it swims bubbling round and round, moved by the paddle here. From hence it pours from both vats into that one common channel yonder; and so goes, mixed up and leisurely, to the great machine. And now for that.”
He led me into a room, stifling with a strange, blood-like, abdominal heat, as if here, true enough, were being finally developed the germinous particles lately seen.
Before me, rolled out like some long Eastern manuscript, lay stretched one continuous length of iron frame-work – multitudinous and mystical, with all sorts of rollers, wheels, and cylinders, in slowly-measured and unceasing motion.
“Here first comes the pulp now,” said Cupid, pointing to the nighest end of the machine. “See; first it pours out and spreads itself upon this wide, sloping board; and then – look – slides, thin and quivering, beneath the first roller there. Follow on now, and see it as it slides from under that to the next cylinder. There; see how it has become just a very little less pulpy now. One step more, and it grows still more to some slight consistence. Still another cylinder, and it is so knitted – though as yet mere dragon-fly wing – that it forms an airbridge here, like a suspended cobweb, between two more separated rollers; and flowing over the last one, and under again, and doubling about there out of sight for a minute among all those mixed cylinders you indistinctly see, it reappears here, looking now at last a little less like pulp and more like paper, but still quite delicate and defective yet awhile. But – a little further onward, Sir, if you please – here now, at this further point, it puts on something of a real look, as if it might turn out to be something you might possibly handle in the end. But it’s not yet done, Sir. Good way to travel yet, and plenty more of cylinders must roll it.”
“Bless my soul!” said I, amazed at the elongation, interminable convolutions, and deliberate slowness of the machine; “it must take a long time for the pulp to pass from end to end, and come out paper.”
“Oh! not so long,” smiled the precocious lad, with a superior and patronizing air; “only nine minutes. But look; you may try it for yourself. Have you a bit of paper? Ah! here’s a bit on the floor. Now mark that with any word you please, and let me dab it on here, and we’ll see how long before it comes out at the other end.”
“Well, let me see,” said I, taking out my pencil; “come, I’ll mark it with your name.”
Bidding me take out my watch, Cupid adroitly dropped the inscribed slip on an exposed part of the incipient mass.
Instantly my eye marked the second-hand on my dial-plate.
Slowly I followed the slip, inch by inch; sometimes pausing for full half a minute as it disappeared beneath inscrutable groups of the lower cylinders, but only gradually to emerge again; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; now in open sight, sliding along like a freckle on the quivering sheet, and then again wholly vanished; and so, on, and on, and on – inch by inch; all the time the main sheet growing more and more to final firmness – when, suddenly, I saw a sort of paper-fall, not wholly unlike a water-fall; a scissory sound smote my ear, as of some cord being snapped, and down dropped an unfolded sheet of perfect foolscap, with my “Cupid” half faded out of it, and still moist and warm.
My travels were at an end, for here was the end of the machine.
“Well, how long was it?” said Cupid.
“Nine minutes to a second,” replied I, watch in hand.
“I told you so.”
For a moment a curious emotion filled me, not wholly unlike that which one might experience at the fulfillment of some mysterious prophecy. But how absurd, thought I again; the thing is a mere machine, the essence of which is unvarying punctuality and precision.
Previously absorbed by the wheels and cylinders, my attention was now directed to a sadlooking woman standing by.
“That is rather an elderly person so silently tending the machine-end here. She would not seem wholly used to it either.”
“Oh,” knowingly whispered Cupid, through the din, “she only came last week. She was a nurse formerly. But the business is poor in these parts, and she’s left it. But look at the paper she is piling there.”
“Ay, foolscap,” handling the piles of moist, warm sheets, which continually were being delivered into the woman’s waiting hands. “Don’t you turn out any thing but foolscap at this machine?”
“Oh, sometimes, but not often, we turn out finer work – cream-laid and royal sheets, we call them. But foolscap being in chief demand, we turn out foolscap most.”
It was very curious. Looking at that blank paper continually dropping, dropping, dropping, my mind ran on in wonderings of those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be writ on those now vacant things – sermons, lawyers’ briefs, physicians’ prescriptions, love-letters, marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of births, death-warrants, and so on, without end. Then, recurring back to them as they here lay all blank, I could not but bethink me of that celebrated comparison of John Locke, who, in demonstration of his theory that man had no innate ideas, compared the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper; something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell.
Pacing slowly to and fro along the involved machine, still humming with its play, I was struck as well by the inevitability as the evolvement-power in all its motions.
“Does that thin cobweb there,” said I, pointing to the sheet in its more imperfect stage, “does that never tear or break? It is marvelous fragile, and yet this machine it passes through is so mighty.”
“It never is known to tear a hair’s point.”
“Does it never stop – get clogged?”
“No. It must go. The machinery makes it go just so; just that very way, and at that very pace you there plainly see it go. The pulp can’t help going.”
Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy vail of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. A fascination fastened on me. I stood spell-bound and wandering in my soul. Before my eyes – there, passing in slow procession along the wheeling cylinders, I seemed to see, glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp, the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls I had eyed that heavy day. Slowly, mournfully, beseechingly, yet unresistingly, they gleamed along, their agony dimly outlined on the imperfect paper, like the print of the tormented face on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica.
“Halloa! the heat of the room is too much for you,” cried Cupid, staring at me.
“No – I am rather chill, if any thing.”
“Come out, Sir -out – out,” and, with the protecting air of a careful father, the precocious lad hurried me outside.
In a few moments, feeling revived a little, I went into the folding-room – the first room I had entered, and where the desk for transacting business stood, surrounded by the blank counters and blank girls engaged at them.
“Cupid here has led me a strange tour,” said I to the dark-complexioned man before mentioned, whom I had ere this discovered not only to be an old bachelor, but also the principal proprietor. “Yours is a most wonderful factory. Your great machine is a miracle of inscrutable intricacy.”
“Yes, all our visitors think it so. But we don’t have many. We are in a very out-of-theway corner here. Few inhabitants, too. Most of our girls come from far-off villages.”
“The girls,” echoed I, glancing round at their silent forms. “Why is it, Sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?”
“Oh! as to that – why, I suppose, the fact of their being generally unmarried – that’s the reason, I should think. But it never struck me before. For our factory here, we will not have married women; they are apt to be offand-on too much. We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fastdays. That’s our rule. And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls.”
“Then these are all maids,” said I, while some pained homage to their pale virginity made me involuntarily bow.
Again the strange emotion filled me.
“Your cheeks look whitish yet, Sir,” said the man, gazing at me narrowly. “You must be careful going home. Do they pain you at all now? It’s a bad sign, if they do.”
“No doubt, Sir,” answered I, “when once I have got out of the Devil’s Dungeon, I shall feel them mending.”
“Ah, yes; the winter air in valleys, or gorges, or any sunken place, is far colder and more bitter than elsewhere. You would hardly believe it now, but it is colder here than at the top of Woedolor Mountain.”
“I dare say it is, Sir. But time presses me; I must depart.”
With that, remuffling myself in dread-naught and tippet, thrusting my hands into my huge seal-skin mittens, I sallied out into the nipping air, and found poor Black, my horse, all cringing and doubled up with the cold.
Soon, wrapped in furs and meditations, I ascended from the Devil’s Dungeon.
At the Black Notch I paused, and once more bethought me of Temple-Bar. Then, shooting through the pass, all alone with inscrutable nature, I exclaimed – Oh! Paradise of Bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of Maids!
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?