The Curse of the Beast
I am afraid of the city, I love the deserted sea and the forest. My soul is soft and plastic, and it always assumes the form of the place in which it lives, the form of that which it hears and sees. Thus is grows large, spacious and bright, like the evening sky above a deserted sea, or it contracts into a little wad, turns into a little cube, stretches out, like a gray corridor between deaf stone walls. There are many doors, but there is no way out—so it seems to my soul when it finds itself in a city, where in cages of stone, placed one upon another, live city dwellers. That’s because all these doors—they’re a lie. When you open one, another lies beyond; and when you open that one, you see more and more doors; and however long you walk through the city, everywhere you will see doors and deceived people, who keep entering and exiting.
And I am afraid of the city, its stone walls and its people, whose souls are small, compressed, and cubic, possessing so many doors and not a single clear way out. But it sometimes happens—and only my mysterious soul knows the cause of this phenomenon—it sometimes happens that I am suddenly enchanted by the distant city. I am so far away from it that I cannot even see the glow of its night lights; I am so far away from it that I cannot even hear its rumble—and suddenly it seems close to me, suddenly it stretches out to me its stone digitate hands and calls me with an imposing reproach.
“Foolish man, sifting sea sand through your fingers and watching its endless flow! The sea wind has no voice and its waves cannot hear—why do you keep knocking on the door that is locked for eternity? Look at me. Am I not also a sea, just like this one, and are my shores not vast? And my houses—they are waves, and my rumble—it is the rumble of a storm, and my streets—they are torrents, and my bowels—the marine abyss. Come, descend into me! Lonely one, become one of my little waves; different one, dissolve in their sameness; great one, be reduced by their smallness; individual, be multiplied by their multitudes. Come, come to me!”
Thus speaks the deceitful city and stretches out its stone digitate hands. And so my beguiled soul trembles, yearning; and so I press to her, my beloved, she whom I love more than anything in the world, and I whisper to her with horror:
“Do you hear? The city is calling me.”
Pale, she says:
“Look: there above the sea the clouds are floating. They are burying a dead hero. Do you see the titans in crimson cloaks, walking ever so importantly? Their hair is scattered, their faces are stern and severe, and there is no sadness on them. They are burying a dead hero.”
“I don’t want to look at the sky!”
Pale, she says:
“Listen: there the waves are singing, beating timpani as they hit the shore.”
“I don’t hear them! I don’t see them, the city is calling me. The clouds are alien to me, these formless, ugly masses of condensed vapors; the splatter of the wave breathes at me with coldness and slime, the fiery sunset scares me with the indifference of eternity. I want nice, lively people, who speak so plainly; I want stone houses, I want electricity, which I myself can turn on and off! Do you remember how at night the humming streetcars sing under the windows—how the hooves click against the asphalt—how the wet dust smells—how tightly the hot crowd moves—how above the mass of the houses there glow against the black sky the fiery words, golden, green, red…”
“‘Chocolate and cocoa’… these are the words you are talking about?”
“Yes, ‘chocolate and cocoa.’” And what does the sun say to me? Eternity. And what do the moon and the stars say to me? Eternity and mystery. I don’t want eternity and mystery. I want chocolate and cocoa. I want there on the sky to be written that which I understand, that which is sweet and does not frighten me.
“Alright,” she says and smiles tenderly. “Go. But you will feel bad there, and I am coming with you.”
My beloved! Protecting me from evil and death! Creating life and all that is good! My beloved! The people see you as a woman, but you—you are a great, bright mystery, a sacred altar before which one must pray. If I was dying, you would say: your grave is dark and damp, I fear that you will feel bad there—you would follow me there. If you were dying, then I would say: don’t die, you don’t know how terrible it will be for me without you—you would overcome death and would remain alive. If I was to say… Who are you, bright mystery?
I am restless, I am in a state of a happy, anxious alarm. This is no longer the forest and the deserted sea, this is a train car, filled with people. We are all sitting, and we are all being carried together to the city; everyone has things: suitcases, bags, and sacks, and I have a suitcase, a bag, and a sack. Everyone is bustling about, grabbing things, pushing, calling the porter, and so am I. And all of us—not I alone, like in the forest—and all of us are walking together to the exit and getting into cabs. The number of my cab: 14800.
All this time I keep somewhat forgetting about her, but in the cab, where for some reason there are only the two of us, I look gratefully at her tired face and kiss her hand:
“So lively, so noisy, isn’t it? How many people! Look: there are soldiers walking.”
“Your eyes are tired.”
“That’s nothing. Will you wait for me?”
“Yes, until you come.”
Stubborn, she wants to settle into a hotel that is at the edge of the city, almost where the large city forest begins. And she does not want to come to the city with me, says that I don’t need her there, on the streets and in the restaurants. It’s true, I keep forgetting about her all this time, and it’s as if she has grown further apart from me. It’s as if the multitude of people, men and women, of whom we are a particle, is dividing us, making her appear like all the women in pink hats, and me—like all the men in black hats. And at times it even feels strange: why am I calling her “you”?1 Why is she calling me “you”? Not pleasant.
At the hotel, we, together with some two ladies and a gentleman, are carried upwards by a lift—all together. In the forest, or on the seashore, one always sees people at a distance, but here we, unacquainted, are so close that our faces seem huge, especially the noses. It’s strange to think that I too must have such a huge, nosed face, and I feel awkward, it feels like somewhere something is wrong with me. Then they lead us to our room, number 212. To the right and to the left along the corridor the doors and rooms are alike, and they are inhabited. Below us, underneath the floor, there are three more floors, and the rooms and doors there are the same, and it is all inhabited. How many people there are in a city! And there, down below, hooves are clicking against the asphalt, the humming streetcars are singing, something is moving, endlessly flowing, and, seized by elation, I throw open the window and cry out, over roofs and treetops, there, into the blueish gray distance, where there are belfries and chimneys and some kind of gleaming spires:
“City! City! City!”
Next, I quickly splash some water on my face, hurriedly eat and drink something, which is served to everyone, hastily kiss her—and then down there, down onto the street, where this sea is bubbling and laughing. I hasten to become one of these small waves, to be reduced by their smallness, to be multiplied by their multitude, to dissolve my lonely, crazy “I” in the homogeneity of all these “I”s, just as lonely and crazy, and who have been turned into “we.”
It was a strange and hazy day, and, like a dream, it is difficult for me to recall and recount it. I remember well the forms of all the clouds that I have ever seen in the sky; I remember clearly the pale face of the sea storm, rushing with a screech at the cliffs; and all the trees in the forest, and all the flowers in the fields—of them I could tell you, because I remember them. But how can one remember that which is so similar to one another, which moves so strangely—that which is known and unknown, that which is I and not I? One thing I know: it seized me, and, like a dream, it possessed me; and it tortured my soul, and it became even more lonely and wild; and there, where my eyes saw “chocolate and cocoa,” there it discovered a new and even more bitter mystery. For I myself became that mystery: individual and numerous, dissolved and indissoluble, man and mankind.
I remember that, at first, when I exited the hotel, I surrendered myself to the crowd. And it picked me up and carried me along the stone houses, past the gleaming, wildly rich, colorfully decorated storefronts; and doors, doors, doors, and mirrored glass panes reflecting white shirts, rings, and faces, and a nice, hot, captivating crowd. I moved like the rest; and however I walked, whether quickly or slowly, and whatever I did, whether I stopped at the storefronts and examined the goods on display, whether I waited at an intersection for a convenient minute in order to jump to the other side, before the heads of horses and the thick wheels of trembling cars, and whenever I smoked a cigar, and whenever I entered a shop, and whenever I bought a newspaper, and whenever I placed a flower that I had just bought into my buttonhole—like a manifestation of fate I mirrored the movements and actions of the others, of the crowd; I doubled them, tripled them, I repeated them infinitely.
And for a whole hour, perhaps even longer, I enjoyed myself like never before; I experienced something akin to familial pride at the thought that I was similar to all the people, just like they are to me, that I also belong to this great and glorious kin. What is a handkerchief? As it is, a trifle, a small, lamentable necessity. But when one person has it, two people, when everyone has it—it becomes a symbol, a little white banner of brotherhood. All of us use a handkerchief; this old, hackneyed truth, which has become an invisible pattern, suddenly filled me with a feeling of absurd ecstasy and sentimentality towards mankind. Without any prearrangements, coming from every end of the earth, speaking in different languages—suddenly both of us, both I and he, take out our handkerchiefs from our pockets, unfold them, with the same motion lift them to our faces and… bam! It’s done.
“Why is it that when a train passes everyone, even strangers, wave their handkerchiefs, specifically the handkerchiefs?” I fantasized. And with pleasure I searched for ever newer and newer similarities, ever newer and newer familial traits… And that which should have soon terrified me—that fated, tragic similarity of that which should have been different, that deathly necessity for all to crawl into one and the same form: to have a nose, a stomach, to feel and to think along the same textbooks of logic and psychology—made me feel happy, like a child, in these first hours of my contact with the city crowd. It’s possible that at this time I sang to myself or whistled something merry, like some of the other happy fellows moving next to me.
The unpleasantness set in gradually, and it began when this unity and likeness, which made me happy, started to penetrate a little deeper than I would have liked. Initially it expressed itself through a very undefined and hazy sensation, that I was not quite the one whom I was before and whom I wished to remain; and soon a whole series of small actions, which I was already doing for a while, but which I noticed only then, brought me to a discovery that my will, and equally my desires, lost their independence and were to a significant degree subordinate to the will and desires of other people. And I had already met one, two, three others dressed like me: same hats, same clothes and boots made of the same material; and all of us had a rose in a our buttonhole. And already I had seen one, two, three others whose face looked similar to mine—and so now my clothes no longer belonged to me, and neither did my face. And the same with my will and my desires: previously my will was mine and so were my desires, but now they were ours, common, like a rose in a buttonhole.
Have I ever enjoyed standing and looking at ties or cheap trinkets made of terra cotta and bad porcelain or hideously colored photographic portraits of mustachioed gentlemen? So why am I now standing there and greedily looking at them? I am inspecting the price tags and making sense of something, and suddenly, seized by an intolerable, insane desire to buy all this rubbish, all this filth, the recollection of which will make me feel ashamed there, on the seashore, I burst in through the treacherous door, I push someone and apologize, and I buy and I buy. And beside me I see gentlemen who are just as confused, picking things with a strained smile, for which they will in turn get it from their wives or their own conscience. Why did I acquire this green lizard made of tinplate, for which there is no place? Only because it was cheap. But have I ever liked cheap things? And why did I buy this disgustingly garish, unbearable tie, which makes one’s face immediately assume all the typical traits of a degenerate? After all, I won’t ever wear it—that I swear.
I remember even laughing at first; but quite soon this merriness, which was somewhat artificial, was drowned in a new, particular feeling, which was gradually taking over me. It was a feeling of hurriedness, of a fear of being late somewhere, of missing out on something. And whether I stood carefree by a storefront, or whether, with the same carefree appearance, I moved with the crowd—inside of me some small second hand was ticking and hurrying me: quickly, quickly! Walk quicker, look quicker, smoke your cigar quicker! By the sea I could lie for hours without moving, sifting sand through my fingers so slowly that it seemed that the whole of eternity lay before me, but here, I—a free man, an idler, a flaneur—I am tormented by the invisible lashes of some sharp whip: quicker, quicker! And that is when I became one with them, with all of these hurried people, I started jumping into the humming streetcars and traveling somewhere. And at first this calmed me: I stood at a square, smoking, without hurrying, and gazed cheerfully at the street, the whole of which was moving somewhere as an avalanche of cabs, cars, and bicycles, together with me.
Maybe there was something in the very movement which aroused a desire to move even faster, maybe the crowd fascinated me, these people who were in such a hurry entering a streetcar, and exiting it, and jumping, obediently I began to jump from one streetcar to another, from a streetcar to the railway, from the railway to the electrical underground. With all of our mass, hurriedly, loudly tapping our heels against the asphalt, we approached a kiosk, we threw our money, and then after one or two steps we ran somewhere, up or down, under a sooted, glass roof, or into the blue light of the large electrical lamps illuminating the underground station. There we scattered across the platform, and the train cars were already arriving to take us away, like sand takes away water, or they threw us out somewhere else, and the doors banged loudly, and already now we are rushing through a deep darkness, or we are somewhere up above, between black, deaf walls, sooted by smoke, plastered with huge signs. How many houses, how many walls, so deaf, so black and terrible! They have no doors, no windows—and suddenly one feels: these are not houses, these are—enormous stone graves, and the whole of the living city is blighted by them.
And it was then that I felt alarmed and unwell; it felt like I’d lost something, and that something which I lost is my “I.” It already happened that at one kiosk I said to the cashier as I threw my money:
“And a ticket for this one also.”
At this I firmly poked myself in the chest with my finger, so that she wouldn’t make a mistake. It was as if it wouldn’t be enough and wouldn’t be clear if I said: a ticket for me. Then, in one of the train cars, I think on the railway, I bumped into one very unpleasant encounter, which even somewhat frightened me. When I was already sitting down, some gentleman took his place across from me, a most ordinary gentleman in a bowler hat, with a small mustache. He wore a black overcoat with a velvet collar, brown gloves, and in his hands he held a cane with a silver handle—I’ve seen canes like this many times in shops and just then I bought one for myself. I cannot describe him in more detail as he was completely ordinary. For one, for two minutes I turned aside in order to look out the window: we were flying past some endless, wide, moving street, and when I looked again, with a sudden fright I saw this: a completely identical gentleman was sitting next to him. It was not a likeness, permissible even in a forest—it was a sameness, it was a crazy transformation of one into two, a monstrous mirror image, suggestive of a phantom. And they sat, terrifyingly identical, thinking of something that was, of course, terrifyingly identical, and their hands, both his and the other’s, lay atop canes with silver handles. But, my God, I too have a cane like that! And what was most terrifying and inexplicable: neither they themselves, nor anybody else noticed this crazy sameness, and everyone was calm.
“Would you let me have a match, I forgot mine,” I say with a somewhat trembling voice.
“I don’t smoke.”
He speaks, he is not a phantom! And suddenly the other, smiling affably, holds out a match for me—he smokes. He is not completely like the other—he smokes! Good man, if only you knew that all of your humanity hangs only on you being a smoker, and the other not, you would never take a cigar out of your mouth, you would sleep with one, you would order them to open the mouth of your dead body and shove a massive Havana with a golden label into it! And let it be that when the dead are resurrected you appear with it before the throne of the Judge, He will forgive you this liberty, my dear brother!
And it seemed that I calmed down. But that frightening and alarming feeling that entered me would not leave me in the hours to come; and no matter of what I did, no matter which movements and actions of the crowd I reflected, I no longer experienced satisfaction and joy, but a light, aching fear. It is likely because of this that everything I saw in the huge, beautiful city was like a bad dream.
I did not think about her. I remember I began to seek solitude. And it was very hot.
It was very hot. It was some time ago that I began to feel that torturous, hopeless heat of the red-hot city, but, because everyone else evidently also felt hot, I acted like the rest: I wiped my face with a handkerchief and tried to sit down closer to an open window, I looked for shade—and I was not especially worried. But when I moved away from the noisy center and began to go deeper into deserted squares, where every inch of the ground is covered by softened, hot asphalt, I felt clearly how terrible and peculiar this heat was, it was unlike anything else.
I don’t want to scold the beautiful city, which does everything in order to look somewhat like a forest, somewhat like a garden. I saw in it a huge shady park, in whose little lakes people even go boating; and these lawns, and these alleys, and flowerbeds; I saw a multitude of people whose only job was to keep pouring water on its asphalt streets and on all of its greenery, for else it would wither at once. But what can one do if the water dries out instantly and the very fountains seem like they aren’t projecting living, cold moisture, but dry, silvery paper, cut into strips, if all this asphalt, and stone, and iron poles, and rails, and a thousand iron train cars, roofs, and bridges are completely baked and fill the air with a hot, hopeless suffocation. After all, I have heard that in this city people die from the heat—not from the sun, like below the tropics, but from the heat, somewhere inside their rooms, in the shade. Suddenly it grows stuffy—and suddenly there is nothing to breathe—and a man dies, his heart had stopped. And the sun is guiltless in these murders. Look at it, when it rises from the sea: can a murderer have such a radiant, such a majestic and benevolent face!
The streets which I was aimlessly wandering, dully plowing the still, suffocating heat, were becaming more deserted, more cramped. These were no longer those wide, straight alleys, which create the illusion of air and open space, these were crooked, narrow corridors with sheer walls propping up the sky, stone cracks full of bewitched, unopenable doors, deceptive paths that lure one into a trap. I walked for an hour already and there was no end to them, just as I did not see their beginning; they looked like a tangled wad, like an enormous, tangled, stone wad, with which a giant cat had been playing. And that which I sought, solitude, suddenly began to alarm me. In the forest, or on the seashore, or in a real desert—I can remain alone for a long time, and there solitude does not frighten me, because it is frank, sincere, honest. There my thought is not touched by a single human thought hidden behind walls, there my will does not cross the invisible waves of other human wills, there I am alone. In the emptiness of these streets, where there are so many windows and doors, I felt falsehood, and, like any falsehood, it immediately turned into a mysterious threat.
Why is there nobody on the street when there are so may people around?
I can feel them. I tap loudly with my heels against the asphalt, and this staccato sound is like a loner, like a pipsqueak-loner, incomprehensible and pitiful! I cross freely from one side to the other, I stop and stand for minutes, and I sing loudly in order to show that I am alone, but I am not alone. My body is isolated, that’s true, but my thought is joined by the thoughts of others, softly touching it, and the feelings of others are entering my heart, and a multitude of hidden people are beginning to fill me with their mysterious life.
I have experienced something similar once in a royal library, to which, with the gracious consent of its director, I was permitted access during a holiday. It was evening and I was working alone in its enormous interior, with a million books crowding silently on the shelves. I remember the strange acuteness of my thought, which was usually slack and inert. Next I remember its gradually rising anxiety, fragmentation, and a disjointedness of forms, the involuntariness of feelings, a strange paradoxicality and unexpectedness of ideas, all that which forced me in the end to admit to myself that I was unwell and to abandon the work that I began. Finally, I remember my fright when I suddenly realized that it was the books that were acting upon me—not the ones that I myself had chosen and which I had been reading, but those silent ones, locked away in cabinets, squeezed on the shelves. It is them, the silent books, which through some mysterious channels connected my brain to a thousand other brains that have already died, and in silence they treacherously poured into me their alien life. I remember the guard who opened the door for me, a gloomy man with an unusually elderly face and with such tense movements of his head that it looked like he kept hearing something incomprehensible.
But those were books: dead voices, faded feelings, dried out tears—and here there are two million living people, repeating two million times that insanely homogeneous “I.” And their being everywhere but out of my sight made them even more palpable and their power over me assumed a fatalistic character. I am certain, I am unshakably convinced, that here, somewhere nearby, behind one of these windows, a woman or a child is weeping—or else where could these mysterious tears of helplessness and pity be coming from, which are now stirring within me?
And my feelings become unbearable. And I want to quickly get away from this desert, filled with weeping phantoms, but I do not know where to go. I have spent a long time here already and it is quite possible that I am going in circles via the same streets, and then I will not be able to get out of here, then I will circle around forever. A stupid thought, but it keeps tormenting me to the point of wanting to run. I could ask for directions, here is a man walking, here one sometimes sees these lonely, hurried figures… No, I can’t—I am afraid of him. Why? I don’t know. But I am afraid of his smile, the way he bows, his politely preemptive reply. Of course he will reply preemptively, but it’s best that I walk past him, I will pretend that I know very well where I am going, and I will walk past him with that same hurried, concerned gait. For some reason it will be better that way.
My God! I am so tired! My God, I am so tired! And there is not a single coachman, but I cannot walk, I am suffocating from this unbearable, diabolical heat, my legs are trembling and starting to give way. My God, what will I do? And suddenly—and this was one of the most savage, heavy, incomprehensible sensations I have ever felt in my life—I felt my own heels. Tall, hard, leather heels, on which I always walked, without noticing them. But now I could feel, and hear, how firmly they made contact with the hot stone, and I was pierced by a sudden, savage dread. What did I imagine during that minute among those silent stone houses? I don’t know—it’s difficult for me to recall that which is like a heavy dream.
I think it is this. I think—I fear to err—that I imagined—that I was beginning to petrify, to turn to stone, to be covered by some hard, impenetrable shell, akin to stone. It was as if I was already clothed in stone, hopelessly separated from the air and the earth and that I was to suffocate in my attire of stone. And it was as if it no longer mattered whether I would keep walking or whether I would fall down, I was hopelessly bound in stone, I was petrified and dead. And that, which was still alive in me, would also now be petrified, and then there would be nothing left.
But the dread did not last long, perhaps only for a second, or even less. And already the following second—and this shows just how weary I was—it disappeared completely and was replaced with a feeling of hopeless, tearful helplessness. I remember I sat down on some stone steps in front of a closed, mirrored door. For a long time I sighed, swayed my head, and then began to weep, quite loudly I think, because I was heard. The door behind me opened and someone asked:
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying? Are you unwell? Why are you sitting on the steps?”
I rose and apologized. The porter—it turned out to be a porter—had a very amiable appearance, and he spoke with concern, behind which one could feel a readiness to offer me first aid or take me to the nearest hospital. What could I say to this city man? What would he understand?
“Do you need a doctor?”
What could I say to this city man? And I quickly walked away, sensing his mistrustful gaze on my back, and I no longer felt afraid or hopeless, only ashamed. And a little sad.
Why didn’t I go straight to her—wasn’t that what I really wanted? I don’t know. But, the moment I sat down comfortably in a soft, wide landau, and by my side appeared a stream of similar landaus, automobiles, streetcars, and on the sidewalk sprouted an animated, hot, amiable crowd, I suddenly felt merry, inside of me the little second hand once again began to run, hurrying me along, and I understood that it was time to go to a restaurant and have lunch, that I very much wanted to eat. I can’t say that I was really hungry, but it was that hour at which everyone has lunch, and I had to hurry so I wouldn’t be late, for then one would have to order the dishes à la carte, which cost more and which is, in any case, considered inconvenient for some reason.
I am not going to tire you with a description of the restaurant. You, of course, know these lavish restaurant-palaces, which simultaneously serve two to three thousand people, where the waiters and cooks alone make up two hundred—three hundred men, I don’t remember how many. These restaurants, decked out in marble, paintings, and precious wood, are the pride of the city, and to dine there is considered to be the duty of the visitors just as much as the viewing of its monuments. It’s likely also that someone told me about this restaurant because I called out its name straight away to the coachman.
There were so many people there that for a long time I couldn’t find a free table and had to wait for some pair who had just finished lunching to rise. And my head was spinning a little for I was forced to go through two floors of tightly packed tables, hubbub, the clinking of knives, large women’s hats; every minute I had to apologize. But, when I finally sat down and let my gaze cover the large hall, tightly packed with people down below, I liked it very much. And I began to eat with pleasure, just like my unacquainted, silent neighbor who had taken the free space across from me. But either because of the ceaseless buzz, into which all this clinking and distant hubbub was transformed, or because I was really tired, I felt somewhat unwell again; some strange, irritating, annoying thought began stirring in my brain. It was as if I had found something, guessed something particular, but could not quite grasp it.
And suddenly I realized: I have never seen a thousand people simultaneously eating all at once. What is food? It’s so simple, so ordinary, that you never notice it: take what’s on the plate into your mouth, chew it, swallow it. And the others at the table are doing the same. But listen, what a horrible, terrifying thing it is when all at once, simultaneously, under one roof, pressed tightly together, a thousand people are eating!
They slice, open their mouths, chew, swallow. They slice, open their mouths, chew, swallow. I look at my neighbor: he has just opened his mouth. He is stuffing something into it. I look to the right, to the left—open mouths everywhere, jaws grinding, peculiar, strange, unfamiliar eyes, which only appear during a meal. Some people’s ears move strangely, just like my neighbor’s, and in the precise, tense work of the jaws one can clearly see the eyeless, bony skull with hard white teeth. My God, but I too have jaws that move like that! And now, having grown pale, I feel my own skull chewing, then the whole of my skeleton, the way it is sitting on the chair, in all its severe, pitiless seriousness; and on my right, and on my left, and in front of me I see a thousand pitilessly serious skeletons just like mine; at the top of them something is smiling, speaking, clinking glasses, nodding its hat, but inside is that same severe seriousness, marvelous simplicity, tranquility. Those, the ones outside, look like they don’t understand that there is no satiety, that it’s all in vain, they yield to greed, and afterwards they smile with satisfaction and smoke cigars; and those, the ones inside, are hopelessly calm, patient, obedient. Now one got up and is making his way towards the exit; I see how his bones started to move, wrapped in gray trousers, and I want to rise and cry out to him:
“Listen, wait! Look who you are carrying inside of you!”
But he had already left. And I turn my calm, obedient skull towards the waiter and anxiously say to him:
“And wine! Why didn’t you bring me some wine?”
“You didn’t order wine.”
“Really? All the same. Bring some. But please, quickly.”
Thank God, I drank some wine and the nightmare is going away. I again see people, and it is only during some moments, as I turn my head, that I feel something wrong inside of me, but even that soon disappears. But what a horrible experience when in such a pleasant place you suddenly begin to feel your own skeleton, the way it sits and shifts its naked skull! And why is it so serious—why does it have that upsetting overbearingness of a general, is he not—is he not I? But enough about him. Thank God, it passed…
And so the wine, quite probably, made my thoughts take a more natural course, which was even somewhat amusing. Suddenly I see clearly that these aren’t people having lunch, that this is a menagerie, a thousand animals brought here to be fed; they sat them down, tied napkins around their necks, and are giving them various types of food. And I am enjoying examining their faces and catching their likeness to this or that animal. I smoke my cigar, smile, and think: and who do I look like?
But they continue to chew and swallow, chew and swallow, and this again begins to irritate me. Besides, I was served bad, sour wine, which makes one bored. I pay, I again move carefully between countless tables, where they chew and swallow, and finally make it out onto the street.
It’s nice here. The sun is shining and, although it’s still as hot as before, there is nevertheless something to breathe. And besides, they are much better when they are walking than when they are eating. I even like them. I grab a coachman and drive to the Zoological garden. Earlier I did not consider going to the garden, even though I heard many good things about it, but now, for some reason, I felt this to be natural and even necessary. Probably some connection of ideas, one of those that is so easy to succumb to in the city when you become one of its tiny waves. Or maybe I remembered the forest and wanted to see trees and greenery, who knows! What can a man answer to that, whose “I” was already melting into a multifaceted grimace, now laughing, now weeping?
I didn’t pay much attention to the garden during the initial minutes. The greenery flashed pleasantly before my eyes, the ceaseless city noise suddenly receded, becoming soft and dull; my wearied, petrified legs were grateful to feel the soft suppleness of the gravel strewn over the paths, and thus far that was all that the garden offered me. All the focus of my attention was immediately turned to the menagerie, to these pavilions, cages, wire and iron fences, stone pools and grottoes, in which at a distance flashed hazily and alluringly a multitude of moving animal figures with those outlines and hues characteristic to animals and birds that are so different to man. Very likely that this happened because all of the other people that have simultaneously entered the garden with me did not find anything interesting in the trees and the greenery and instead, with a voracious curiosity, rushed all at once towards the animals. And at first I was very superficial in my observation, just like the others, I ran from one cage to another, from one pavilion to the next, I saw almost immediately the massive, meaty, hideous mouth of a hippopotamus sticking out from the muddy water, and some small, hopelessly squawking birds; I laughed before the monkeys, had time to throw some bread to the bears—and in what must have been half an hour I managed to cover the whole of the huge, exceedingly rich menagerie.
I then tore myself away from the crowd and sat down, completely fried by the heat, feeling with disgust that my tall, starched collar had grown limp, flabby, crumpled, skewed, like a slovenly aged physiognomy after a bout of heavy drinking. At our place in the forest it always grows cooler in the evening, but here the iron and stone, having gathered up the heat, suffocate the city by day’s end, like bandits. It was easier to sit; and besides, I sat down very comfortably, near the very cage with the tigers and lions. But very soon I repented for having chosen such a spot.
The thing was that as I was looking closer at the animals darting around the cage, I suddenly saw that they were feeling hot, unbearably hot, hotter, it seemed, than even I. And I remember that I felt slightly cross as this seemed to me barbaric.
“Simulation, my friend, simulation!” I said in thought to the Bengal tiger, in vain trying to meet his mysterious, shimmering gaze. “You are not a polar bear from the North Pole, you are from India, you are used to such sun, before which ours is no hotter than a portable heater. Why are you pretending?”
But then I looked closer and closer; I remembered all those downcast bodies, wearily and ceaselessly walking or sprawling powerlessly atop the boards, I recalled the warm, muddy water, heated up like in a bath, pleadingly poking out of which was the fat, stupid face of the hippopotamus with tiny eyes; and with dread I realized that it was unbearably hot not just for one tiger, but for all of them; that all this animal, bird, and water world around me was suffocating from an unnatural, savage, absurd heat. It suffocates in silence, without protest, not understood by anyone, lonely in its animal colorfulness.
And again I sought the eye of the tiger, but now with a different aim: I wanted to offer him my sympathy. Not shake his paw, I wouldn’t dare try that, but simply look into his eyes with sadness and affection. But I was alien to him with all my idiotic sympathy; I did not exist for him, and he kept staring ahead, with the same persistence, with the same mysteriously shimmering gaze. And only when he turned did he lift his head slightly and cover the garden with his eyes, and in that movement I felt something reasonable, something understandable.
“He is rejoicing at the greenery!” I thought. True, how awful it would have been if in this heat they were left completely without greenery!
And here, following his gaze, I looked attentively at the garden. And I felt ashamed. I, a man, felt ashamed before the beast. Not for the cruelty, no—what is cruelty in this world!—but for my, for our human stupidity. A garden, my God! A huge, beautiful garden… And I could rejoice at this! And I could consider this a piece of nature! I could recommend this as a consolation to the beast, the clever, undamaged, honest beast!
And I recalled with anguish all these gardens, in which there isn’t a spot where man’s gaze hadn’t fallen a thousand times over; all these alleys, all these trunks, surrounded by a pitiful strip of earth with scattered cigarette ends; roots, crushed by asphalt. I look at the trees in front of me and see—they feel hot, unbearably hot, like the animals—unhappy trees! And only the flowers are joyful and lift their heads up high, having been watered. But they are slaves—these pitiful city flowers, which can grow even in a prison, which can be bought with a glass of water from a water pipe. Slaves!
“But oxygen and ozone. Oxygen! Understand, tiger, all this is needed for the oxygen. It’s not at all a silly thing, this oxygen!”
But he doesn’t understand. He’s not looking at me; and, rising heavily, I walk farther on, somewhere farther. And my deserted sea appears to me so hopelessly distant, so madly unattainable. But why am I not thinking of her? Why, when I recall her clear eyes, turned to me with a question—I start feeling ashamed, I want to lower my head, hide it inside some dark bag, why is that?
Here’s what else I remember: I am alone in some infrequently visited corner and for a long time I am seriously mulling over a question: how can a tiger escape? Well, suppose the guard gets drunk and forgets to lock the cage, and that happens right as the night approaches, when there is nobody in the garden. And then? A street. No, it’s impossible: what would he do inside his skin on these streets! But, suppose he somehow manages to sneak past them—what then? A highway, a railroad, cleared parks, farms; thousands of armed men, sent in pursuit. No, that won’t work.
I remember—my weariness probably caused me to slip into reverie—I kept imagining the same picture over and over again: a tiger in a top hat, in gloves, concealing his claws, he grabs a ticket at a kiosk and travels via the underground. Then via the railway. He has a briefcase made of yellow leather, a throw rug tied with belts, and he keeps traveling, keeps traveling. After all, it’s a long way to India! And he keeps traveling, keeps traveling. And in his hands is a cane with a silver handle, and in his mouth a huge, smoking cigar. Still traveling…
There were many of them there, small city children with nannies and governesses, but I avoided looked at them: in the condition I was in, in their childish, cute little faces and in their eyes I might have perceived something sad. But slowly my wearied attention was attracted towards a girl—a small girl, with little naked white arms and legs, in a little white shirt, lined at the edges with broad red stripes. I am bad at judging children’s ages: three, four years, or maybe five.
At first, with subconscious persistence, I spent a long time looking at her light, short curls, thrown freely over her little round head, and her tender white neck, across which passed a little, thin silver chain, likely part of a cross—until a feeling of some quiet, immeasurable joy ignited within me, an emotion akin to the exaltation of prayer. Happily bewildered, I now looked at her consciously, at her face, at her light, graceful, sternly proportional little figure. My God, I have never seen such a perfect, such an enchanting child of man! So that’s why I’m happy!
Everything about her was perfect. Her eyes, her movements, every step of the round, naïvely unfamiliar feet in little white shoes—everything about her was perfect. And this was not just perfect beauty, this was a thought, an enormous, mysterious thought, a great and bright mystery, which I read in the heavens when, during a dark night, I throw my gaze through a lens of a telescope into the depths of the Milky Way, into a myriad of sparkling worlds. But a thought, descended to earth! But a mystery, which has assumed the native and familiar form of man! What are you—you, a human being, if you can at times become so beautiful!
And what an independent child: she walks alone among the trees—the governess is not to be seen—she sings, she thinks about something—what thoughts she must have!—she glances at the sky, she glances at me. And all this among beasts with their teeth and their mysterious shimmering gaze! She walks somewhere, all alone—I walk after her, she walks farther—I walk after her. Here beside of one of the side paths is a short, iron fence, and behind it is a stone, oval pool, full of that same warm, muddy water. The water is undulating, moving in large, flat waves; some large body is likely restlessly plowing it down below. This is where we walked!
The girl hugs the iron bars with her thin, little white fingers and presses her marvelous little face to them. The way in which her little legs are standing, her whole pose, reveal a magnificent, a regally calm expectation. She stands and waits, calmly, magnanimously, patiently—the marvelously haughty child of man!
And now, dropping the water off his rounded shoulders, he makes his appearance. He has a rounded, chiseled, intelligent skull, tighly wrapped by a short coat of fur—the water made it lie very tightly as if it was dully gleaming skin. He stands firmly, like a statue, leaning with his flippers against a stone, and he stares motionlessly at the girl with his marvelous, mysterious eyes. Large, black, lacking brows and eyelashes, they stare, like wide open black windows, with the simplicity and majestic sincerity of an unsolved thousand year old mystery. And, looking into these bottomless eyes, it feels like all the clocks in the city had stopped and their restless hands had been frozen; it was as if time did not exist, and, carried away by an unknown force, you are descending into the very springs of being, losing your name, your memory, your human form…
And straight ahead, in front of him, there, looking at him eye to eye, the tsar and beast, is another tsar: a small, haughty, enchanting child of man. What a strange meeting, here, in this city? What are you both thinking about, staring so simply, so plainly at each other?
I hear a soft, enamored mumble:
“My dear! My dear!”
“I love you very much!”
And I tiptoed away from them, not daring to look around, like a stupid spy caught in front of someone’s sacred doors. I remember I spent a long time wandering the alleys, excited, embarrassed, cheerful, and I carried myself so carefully as if I was afraid of spilling something precious. True, new painful impressions had soon smoothed out this feeling and again cast me into a state of sorrow, melancholy and hopelessness, but from then on until today my restless thoughts constantly return to those two and their strange meeting. And was not everything else that I saw afterwards in the city a constant return to that same great mystery? And do not the deserted sea and the forest now appear to me anew? And do I not place a new mysterious meaning into my kisses, when with care my lips touch her lips, my beloved’s, hers, whom I love more than anything in the world?
My beloved! Waiting for me alone in order to give calm to my tortured thoughts and discover the last great mystery. Shielding me against evil! Creating life and all that is good! My beloved…
And again I didn’t go to her like I first wanted to. That strange indecisiveness and lack of willpower, which seized me from my very first steps on the city’s streets, continued to hold me in the garden even though I already took from it its very best and no longer expected anything better. And indeed, I soon bumped into a spectacle that filled me with rage and revulsion.
These were male and female eagles—ten—twelve tsars and tsarinas, locked in a small iron cage. True, for sparrows or some small birds this wide, tall cage, almost two storeys high, would have appeared a most extensive, grand palace. But for them, for these huge, free, regal birds, with their wide sweeping wings, it was monstrously, hideously small. And, when one of the unhappy captive tsars attempted to fly, there was such unrest—such a repulsive, pitiful unrest arose in the cage! This unhappy one beat his wings against the iron bars, against the ground, finally against his comrades, and all of them would begin screaming, scolding, quarreling, like merchants, like women gathered with their pots around a single oven. Their hoarse, wild screeching, which sounds so powerfully above mountaintops, above the great ocean expanse—here it sounded like the drunken voices of grumpy, resentful people, languishing from cramped conditions, disorder, and the pointlessness of life. I don’t speak their tongue but, with revulsion, I clearly understood their vulgar abuse, vile hints, disgusting, teary complaints, cynical laughter and insults.
And these were eagles! All of them had dirty, disarranged feathers, broken wings; their energetic, sharp-beaked faces with keen, powerful eagle eyes expressed petty malice, irritation, stupid envy. And only a few of them attempted to fly; the majority, used to captivity, or even born in it, tenaciously grasped their claws over the dirty, fouled crossbeams or the short, severed branches of trees that were dug into the ground; and when the others tried to fly—these, agitated and annoyed, began to fiercely screech and scold, perhaps they were even calling the police. I wanted to see how these ones moved, and so I waited for them, and I got what I was waiting for: they didn’t fly, they—they made short jumps, like large sparrows, like chickens in a coop.
And these were eagles.
I must be fair to the people who were standing by this cage: they didn’t laugh. They approached it quickly, filled in advance with that involuntary reverence that man has for free beasts and birds; they would then take a quick glance before slowly retreating. It’s difficult to say just by looking at their faces what they were thinking; but it seems to me, judging by the sudden sluggishness of their movements and gait, that they became bored. And while there was always a dense crowd assembled in front of the cage with the monkeys, here it was almost empty.
Regretfully, I must also mention one gentleman who laughed and who even addressed me with some humorous observation. But the less we speak of him the better.
I was already walking towards the exit when a strange, loud, rather prolonged scream sounded from the depths of the garden. Many screamed here: the parrots screeched, the lions roared, the deer let out their wild screams, filling the air with thick, powerful, trumpetlike sounds—so unlike their meek and thoughtful eyes—the hyenas laughed, the dogs yapped and even howled, and I don’t know why I stopped and then began to quickly and decisively walk in the direction of the mysterious sound. Of course, I shouldn’t have done that, but it seems that this was the way this heavy, endless, nightmare day was turning out for me. Moreover, there was something so commanding in the very essence of the mysterious cry that I didn’t dare disobey. Furthermore, many of the presumably typical visitors of the garden reacted to it with complete indifference, and only two or three people followed me with the same decisiveness.
Already two times I have called this cry mysterious, but this is because I could not immediately determine its nature. By its power, by its peculiar wildness, by its spirit—this was, undoubtedly, the voice of a beast, but at the same time one could clearly perceive in it something human, words even, whole phrases, cried out in a strange but very expressive tongue. And it is just as difficult for me to determine that which this cry expressed. Since it was humanlike—this was a feeling of savage wrath, a thunderous music of continuous fiery curses; but because it remained that of an animal—there was in it something that cannot be identified, something even more frightening.
Actually, everything about this scream was so frightening and threatening that I was almost running as I drew nearer, I was beginning to feel that something had happened there and that I had to hurry. But, when there were only a few steps left to go, I could already see a cluster of people crowding at the iron railings—the cry suddenly broke off and silence set in. I took a look around and recognized the place: this was almost near the spot where I saw the girl and the seal; and the people were crowding near the same oval pool with the dirty, agitated water. I approached the very railing: yes, the water was flowing just like this, cut at the bottom by a large, rushing body, but was the strange body larger, or did its movements become faster and wilder—the waves appeared shorter, sharper, more restless.
A flash of a dark, slippery back, one or two restless, broken movements, a heavy, thick breath, snorting, and he makes it out to the surface, the one who was screaming. He turned heavily, inhaled as if he was breathless, and began to motionlessly stare at us, as if giving us time to better examine his ugly, broad, frightening face. It appeared that he was old, very ill, and was soon to die; his large black eyes were gleaming with blood, his sparse, bristly whiskers were gray; and, when he silently opened his mouth, one could see his damaged, rotten, ground teeth. At first I thought that he was looking at us, but no, he was looking farther—much farther.
And so here he began to scream again, at once with all the fullness and power of that strange, wild cry. And just as instantly, growing all cold from a sensation of an incommunicable dread, I realized that he is cursing us. He is standing in his dirty tub, in the middle of an enormous city—and is cursing this city with the curse of the beast, and the people, and the earth, and the sky. He is old, very ill, and will die soon.
It would be madness to attempt to convey the full extent of the terrible power of the unhappy beast’s curses. All the venomous words that we humans share when we want to express our displeasure with each other or with the sky are like mosquito bites in comparison with this speech, in which every tensely trembling sound was filled with deadly venom. I know the noble wrath of the biblical Job; I remember Cain’s furious reproaches; the curses of the prophets, which they sent on the heads of the wicked cities and peoples, still resound in my ears; but what meaning do they have before this simple curse of a dying beast, which was like the voice of the wounded earth itself! He was not waiting for an answer; lonely, dying, he did not seek understanding; he cursed into eternity and space, he threw his voice into their monstrous, mindless emptiness. And I saw a vision: together with his curse, giant shadows of dead centuries rise from the grave and walk triumphantly in a bloody mist; and new ones rise after them; and as a string of pale, bloody shadows they soundlessly wrap the earth and direct their terrible path into space…
“Listen! Listen! Just what is this!” I grabbed a neighbor by his shoulder, whose face, like a mirror, reflected my paled, pain-distorted face.
“I don’t know. He’s like this every day. It’s likely he is very ill.”
“It’s impossible! This one can’t be left alone. He needs to be put down!” said another and started anxiously walking somewhere.
And I ran, persecuted by the beast’s curse. And I burst into a dark room, where in solitude she awaited me; and I fell on my knees before her and with tears cried out to her pale face:
“He cursed me! Do you hear me, he cursed me!”
We were in a forest. The moon was already shining, and we were in a forest, I and she, my beloved. She understood at once what had happened to me; she felt the venom of the city in my incoherent speeches and, as if I was a sick child or a man poisoned by flue gas, she silently enticed me here. And she said to me:
“Breathe! Breathe with the whole of your chest! And don’t think. And look at the forest.”
But I wasn’t looking at the forest—I was looking at her. Under the moonlight her face was cold and white, like marble. She was silent and was thinking about something. What was this woman thinking about, so infinitely foreign and close?
“Why is your face so pale?”
“My cheeks are burning. It looks like that because of the moon.”
“Why do you have such large black eyes? Where are you looking?”
“I’m looking at you, my dear. I want to banish the shadows from your face.”
“Let’s go farther. I can still feel the city here.”
We walked farther and farther, enchanted by the freshness of the forest, and we wanted to enter into the very heart of the silence and soft light. Here, in the depth of the forest, where the station lights could no longer be seen, the moon shone regally and powerfully. And so sacred was the radiant silence that every soft sound, the crunch of a twig under one’s feet, the light rustle of clothes, was as sacrilege. Suddenly she stopped.
“Someone is following us. Listen!”
I listened: it was light and mute. And she, in her white dress, and I, were covered in the colorful shadows of branches and foliage; and so motionless, so silent were these light shadows, that one stopped believing in the existence of sound.
“There is nobody there. You’ve imagined it.”
“I am afraid to go any farther. Let’s sit down here.”
Thus she said it, believing and not believing. And in these words I recognized her, a woman both courageous and cowardly, strong and weak, who would bravely go to her death when the moment comes, and would become frightened to tears of a dark shadow in a corner. And I started laughing at her, kissing her softly; and she became so nice, and suddenly the whole of my soul sighed with joy—for it is a great joy for a man to be the defender and guardian of a woman.
“Coward!” I laughed. “Small, silly woman, who is suddenly frightened by the forest.”
And, slightly offended, she pushed me away:
“No, I’m not afraid of the forest. But I felt so clearly that there was someone here. Let’s sit right here, in the shade…”
And we sat in the shadow of a tall, thick pine tree, propping our backs against its warm, rough trunk. Long shadows of trees stretched out before us, and when I looked back—dewy grass flowed like smoky silver, and the same long, smoky, melting shadows stretched out over it. And they fell like this over the rest of the forest, into the distance, right up to that elusive border where everything suddenly grows fuzzy: shadows and light, niello and silver, the smokiness of the transparent fir foliage, and all of it flows into one silent, silvery-black mystery.
And I complained softly to her, my beloved:
“I am afraid of the beast’s curse. Why did he curse me, what for? Am I to blame for the misery on earth? When I was born, the earth was already like this; and it will remain like this when I die. After all, my life is so short and powerless!”
And she asked me softly, pressing to me:
“And did they also curse—those shadows that you’ve seen?”
“No. They were dead. They walked in silence. They have enormous bloody heads, but they walked in silence…”
“In a bloody mist?”
“Yes… in a bloody mist.”
I looked at the melting black shadows and thought out loud:
“He will burn their cities.”
“The one who will want the truth. And a time will come when there won’t be a single city left on earth. Perhaps man won’t be left either.”
“And who knows the truth?”
“The beast knows.”
She became lost in thought, and I sensed how her brows frowned and came together. And she said with conviction:
“No, he doesn’t know either. Why did he curse you? He doesn’t know the truth. After all, aren’t you suffering as much as him? My dear, give me your forehead, I will kiss it.”
“Take my lips.”
“No. When you pity a man you must kiss his forehead, where his thoughts are.”
And I said:
“What is a kiss? Your lips had only just touched my forehead, and already I am different. Where does this power come from? And what is woman? And what is love?”
“Woman—it is I. And love—it is I.”
“But won’t you die some day? Don’t you feel death?”
“I feel only life. There is no death.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
And, saying these sacred words: “I love you,” and hearing that sacred reply: “I love you”—I suddenly felt the majesty, and the mystery, and the formidable might of our human love. And I felt that, not yet having to fight, still retreating, and falling, and weeping, I have already conquered the unknown foe by having loudly uttered into the moonlit night: “I love you.” I remember bowing to her as if to a miracle, to the woman whom I love, and I fell to her knees in silence and mystery. And I heard how she placed her wonderful hand on my head and blessed me with the great blessing of love in silence and mystery…
And then… O, city! Cursed city.
And then I heard that vile rustle behind us, that odious rapid breathing. I rose a little, called out, and this is what I saw: from behind a tree, which stood several steps behind us, a dark, watchful head in a round bowler hat was peeking. After my call, he, the spying scoundrel, hid in fright; he then walked out and, taking long strides, carefully, on his tiptoes, arms outstretched, one of which was holding a cane with a shining silver handle, departed in silence. He hunched as he walked; and I will forever remember this image: the forest, full of lunar smoke, she, her frightened, offended eyes wide open, and the thief’s shadow of a hunched gentleman in a bowler hat with raised arms sliding over the silvery grass. And I will forever remember this feeling of heavy resentment, unbearable revulsion, close to nausea, and a cold, deathly boredom that kills one’s desire to live.
Yes, I realized at once who this gentleman was. This was one of those repulsive, pitiful, semi-insane, erotomaniacs, who are everywhere and always, day and night, pursued by dirty, lecherous images. The city, full of beautiful but strange and unattainable women, drives them to madness, to utter bestiality. During the day they wander the streets searching for women, they unclothe them in their mind and, when the wind or the woman herself lifts up a little the hem of a silk skirt, they freeze from a vile, lecherous ecstasy. They enter shoe shops in order to see the feet of the women fitting their boots, which acts on them like a drug; and then using these tiny, scanty shreds of reality they create images of the most vile, fanciful debauchery, before which the naïve, truthful debauchery of the ancients seems like chastity and holiness. Using a thousand indecent cards they have researched the full variety of the woman’s body and they know so many forms of women’s breasts and hips that even the Maker would have trouble remembering. Repulsive, they are pitiful and unhappy at the same time for their hunger is insatiable. In the evenings they hopelessly pester decent women, listen to contemptuous abuse, sometimes even tolerate beatings; powerless, they wander the gardens, the dark alleys, where lovers are hiding, they stalk, they lie in wait, so that by the sight of another’s love they could nourish their pitiful imagination, if only with a trick to appease their insatiable hunger. Like those hungry dogs in restaurants outside the city which appear from nowhere and who for whole hours sit at the table and for whole hours, without being noticed by anyone, pleadingly wag their dirty, scruffy tails. And this one had probably been stalking us for a while, perhaps even from the very city, from the train car. How skillfully he had to hide himself, what feats of dexterity he had to accomplish in order to remain unseen and to have been lurking so close. And with disgust I imagined how he stood behind the tree as we were speaking; he understood nothing of which we spoke, his legs were aching from fatigue, but he had heard the word “love,” which he understands in his own way, he saw the kisses, and that filled him with a feeling of lecherous and vile anticipation. It’s likely that he was upset with me: why am stalling so much?… And in his waistcoat pocket his clock was ticking.
“Who is that?” she asked sternly.
“Right. Don’t ask.”
And by the severity of her voice, by the coldness with which she held my arm, I felt that she was offended somewhere in the depth of her woman’s soul, offended not only by him, whom she doesn’t know, but by me also. For I too am a man. But am I also not offended? And thus we walked through the dead forest and were silent, and it was so painful for both of us. And because we were silent and did not speak about that which was painful I was beginning to feel sad and lonely, so sad and lonely. For in her too I felt a woman, and she drew apart from me, and became foreign and strange—she, my beloved, she, clean and pure.
Here is the station, that very station with the big electric lamps. Maybe he is here also—waiting for the train and walking among gentlemen just like him, in bowler hats with canes. Here is someone at the end of the platform smoking a cigar and displaying his blonde, slightly raised mustache—could that be him?
“Did you get the return tickets?”
“Yes. Here’s yours. Take it and go.”
“I’m not going. I want to walk for a little while.”
“Are you sure? It’s night already.”
“I’m sure. You’ll take the cab from the station.”
“Don’t use the streetcar. Take the cab.”
“Alright. Are you coming back late?”
“I don’t know.”
It was so lonely, so sad for both of us. And only when we were saying our goodbyes as she entered the door of the train car did she softly shake my hand. And even though the shaking of the hand appeared as if she was only thanking me for assistance, for helping her climb up the steps, I understood, as I knew her hands well, that she has forgiven me. I looked into her eyes: they are smiling at me. My beloved! But the train was already moving, and, more by the movement of the lips and the expression of the whole of the face rather than by sound, I caught her last words:
“I won’t sleep. I’ll wait for you.”
When you are with women you have to restrain yourself, and rage understands this well: it folds itself into a sharp, prickly ball and sits quietly in one’s soul, only at times pricking and chilling it. And only now, having been left by myself, I freely yielded myself to it.
I remember I took long strides along a smoothly paved road, lined with enormous, black beech trees, I was swinging a stick, not that harmless cane with a silver handle, but a good, real stick; and I was even swinging it at branches, at scattered bushes, spilling the night’s dew. And as I did this I was shouting something, probably some short, angry oaths. I don’t know who my insane rage was directed at, to which I so rarely yield myself. That scoundrel who was watching us somehow suddenly lost his face, became mixed with others whom I saw that day, dissolved in something massive, formless, and foul. Foul, there is no other way in which I can describe that which was blindly crawling at me with its dirty gray belly, a thousand grinning, smirking, idiotic faces.
Where did these faces come from when throughout the whole day I only saw faces that were quite decent; clean, well groomed faces? The devil knows where! Is it possible to understand anything in this utter idiocy, which… which…
On this beech alley, straight as an arrow, which, it appears, served the city dwellers for the purpose of riding, life had not fully halted. Cars rushed by like huge, heavy phantoms, igniting in the distance with a pair of bright, blinding, monstrous eyes and bringing with them a mass of cold, swirling air, and very rarely the quiet, speechless bicycles would swim past, softly and carefully feeling the road. And all this was moving towards the city, and all this irritated me and aroused in me a wild, ridiculous desire for a scandal. Precisely a scandal. Throw a stone at a car or push a cyclist down and, when he starts shouting and swearing, begin screaming yourself and beat him up, break his damned careful, quiet machine. Let him scream! And with hatred I let every bicycle pass me, assessing it with my gaze, and this went on until someone’s cheerful, slightly drunk voice cried out to me from behind a bright acetylene lamp:
“Good evening!” I replied.
And indeed: his bicycle was swaying slightly, and his lamp was either being snatched from the darkness by a thick, smooth trunk, or it would aimlessly leave somewhere into the depth of the forest and melt there.
“Let him be!” I thought. “If he says ‘good evening,’ let him be,” and I stopped hitting the trees with my stick.
But the restlessness, having seized me once, would no longer leave me. Behind my back I continued to sense the city; and with every step, drawing away from me, it grew ever larger, becoming inevitable and fatal. I tried to think of the deserted sea, but my thoughts were dim and my images were pale; and the stony embrace of the spectral monster kept tightening around my exhausted heart. Why did I suddenly begin to loudly utter these sad, hopeless words: he died! I walked, nodding my head affirmatively, and I kept repeating, with anguish and hopeless melancholy:
“He died. Yes, yes. He died!”
Who died? Of whom did I speak so sorrowfully, nodding my head and squinting my eyes with a hopeless, agonizing melancholy?
A car was rushing past, and into its bright, blinding light I threw:
“He died. Yes, yes. He died!”
A cyclist swam by, and I saw off his lonely figure with that same nodding of the head and the strange, hopeless words:
“He died. Yes, yes. He died!”
On the left side of the road, behind a sparse net of trunks and branches, there was a railway track, and from time to time trains would rush past as a flashing line of windows; and to them also I relayed these sad, tragic news:
“He died. He died.”
It seems that both my actions and my feelings had assumed an involuntary character for I still cannot explain much of what I did that day. Right, I remember well that I stepped off the road and, having a most resolute and reasonable appearance, spent a long time looking for a stump on which I could sit down. And after I found one, with the same decisiveness, as if this is what I meant to do, I yielded myself to a most inconsolable grief. I sat hunched over, as if over the grave of a deceased, and wept with continuous, copious tears and I held my handkerchief to my face. Actually, now that I recall that pose of mine, I note with surprise that for some mysterious reasons I was imitating, very diligently, very precisely and earnestly, a man who had just lost someone he loved dearly and was pouring out his grief in the presence of his friends and relatives; above his ashes. And, no longer aloud now, I continued repeating in my mind those inconsolable words:
“He died! Yes, yes. He died!”
I also remember that sad appearance which the sky assumed in these hours. It grew foggy, wholly covered by a dull, whitish, outspreading haze; and the moon, which had already descended low, was shining dimly and dejectedly, like a lamp through blue oiled paper. And by now in the forest there were no longer any bright spots of light or any shadows: all of it stood in silence in this dull, lifeless light and did not breathe. Almost immediately afterwards the same lifeless darkness set in, and the impression was such that it was as if the moon did not descend but went out like a lamp that had run out of oil.
Of whom did I speak with such sorrow and above whose grave did I weep so inconsolably? Was I speaking of a man—or of a beast, dying alone in his dirty tub—or of myself—or of her—or of an unknown, whom I pity even more than myself, more than the beast, more than man? I don’t know. Don’t ask me…
When again I walked along the road, going back to the city, it was dark and deserted. Then a weak light flashed far ahead in the distance, evidently someone with a little lamp walked out from one of the side alleys, and a faint squeaking of the wheels could be heard. And I was so sad that I wanted a man, whoever he might be, that distant and unknown man with the dim lamp. I was tired, it was difficult for me to walk, I swayed from exhaustion and from the recent tears, but I gathered the last of my strength and caught up with him. He was moving very slowly. And in the thick predawn darkness I could make out a small cart filled to the top with something, with a little lamp, standing on the edge, and a silhouette of a tall, hunched, gloomily walking man. He walked leaning down and did not even pay any attention to my steps and greeting, perhaps he did not hear it; but who was driving the cart?
My God! It was a dog. Thin, tall, like her owner, she was stretching in her rope harness, and one could see how strained were her chest and her long, sinewy back legs. And, contrary to that which dogs do when strangers approach them—she did not bark, she did not even look at me. It was as if both of them, her owner and she, were devoid of hearing and sight.
Thus all three of us walked for some time, and the small cinder in the lamp dimly illuminated our gray, evenly outstretching legs. And I loudly said to him, myself frightened of the sound of my hoarse voice:
“Listen, you! What are you doing to the dog?”
But he did not reply, as if he did not hear. And again we walked in darkness: I, the gloomy man, and the dog, and much time had passed until I again cried out to him:
“Listen! Leave the dog alone. I’m telling you!”
And again he did not answer, and my voice was lost somewhere in the darkness behind us, lost and extinguished. And the three of us walked in silence: he, I, and the dog, suddenly so closely bound by the solidarity of some kind of suffering, as if for the whole of our lives, and before that, before life, it was like this: a straight road, he, the dog, and I, walking in silence towards a distant city glow. And from time to time a hoarse and broken solitary voice, pleading and powerless, akin to the voice of a woman, would utter:
“Leave the dog alone! Leave the dog alone!”
And again silence, the squeaking of unoiled wheels, dull steps, and the dim light of the little lamp, illuminating two sinewy dog’s legs evenly outstretching. What is this? The last dream, the last insane nightmare of the city falling asleep?
But no. Now he stopped and for some reason took off his soft, wide-brimmed hat; and the dog stopped by herself, stopped and silently lay down, and suddenly she began breathing, quickly and rapidly. I too stopped. And, replying to all that which I said to him long ago, replying to that which I did not yet say to him, he uttered briefly and dully:
“All of us must work.”
Just that, and nothing more. But there was something in the voice of this old slave which suddenly made me want to go insane, to scream, to run to that unhappy, dying beast, and wake him up with wild words:
“Listen, graybeard! Come out here. I’ll be right by you. We’ll curse together. Scream, scream louder! Let the city hear you, and the earth, and the sky! Scream louder, graybeard. You don’t have long left to live, scream of danger, scream of the horror of this life, scream of death! And curse, curse, and to your curse of the beast I add my last curse of man. City! City!”
And he stood in silence, this old slave, and the exhausted dog was breathing rapidly and quickly. And I took off my hat, and I bowed deeply to him, as to a duke, as to a king. And I took off my hat, and I bowed deeply to his dog—as to a queen I bowed to her.
I go to you, my beloved! Meet me kindly. I am so tired! I am so tired!
The “you” used here is the Russian informal “ты,” rather than the formal “вы,” and is used to address close friends or inferiors. The difference between the two terms is the same as that of the French tu and vous. ↩