Fear falls like snow and blankets the world, rendering it shapeless. But beneath it, the earth and its inhabitants cannot sleep safely; the snow is like a vampire, sucking out their strength, leaving mere empty shells, capable only of continuing a path made by others.
“The art of ruling is finding a balance between calculation and impulse, that is, between reason and desire.”
Josephine, lounging sensually on a couch, looked at him admiringly.
“I’d say the right ratio should be two to one in favor of reason. Any more than that and you are paralyzed. He who is unafraid can overcome even the plague.”
He raised his fist.
Josephine let out a subdued moan of admiration.
Napoleon smiled and quickly raised his eyes.
His head swayed and he had to wait a moment before he was able to go on.
“The world is ours, my dear.”
Anton rested his forehead on the ice-cold metal and persevered in spite of the pain. He had to clear his mind and gather courage. He clenched his fists and took a deep breath. He has a duty and he must accomplish it —
He pushed the door and stepped onto the pavement. The light hurt his eyes, so he closed them, and tears began to run down his cheeks. He wanted to rush back, to safety, to the warmth of the shelter, but he stopped himself.
His sister . . . he had to look after his sister.
He pulled his scarf up to his eyes, trying to breathe only through his nose. It was no good; he had to open his mouth briefly and let in the cold air; it lacerated his throat and he thought he was going to have an asthma attack. He gripped his inhaler in his right hand, but immediately remembered the instructions that said the medication should be kept at a temperature of up to 25 degrees Celsius, so he opened his fist and let the inhaler fall to the bottom of the pocket. However, the temperature outside must have been below the lower limit, which at that moment he couldn’t remember exactly, perhaps . . . what if he . . .
No, he said to himself, what will they say if I loiter in front of my own door?
He locked the door, pressing the handle a number of times, partly just to check, but mainly because the brass in his hand linked him to safety; through the wood and the metal frame it led inside the building, to home.
He had to leave.
Were they already finding his hesitation strange?
He paused without letting go of the door handle and looked back. The prolonged winter had left icy patches on the street corners, a dirty collar along the noise barrier beside the motorway, notches between a long row of brick houses and traces on the church belfry. The clock was showing half past ten already; he had started to set off at nine.
He counted down from twenty, but when the numbers ran out, he still didn’t move. He had to do it again before he got going.
The bread had run out and he had to go to the shop.
A plane was descending towards the nearby airport with a whining noise.
The Mercedes sign on top of the skyscraper on the other side of the overpass was slowly rotating.
“Can I help you?” said the shop assistant, and Anton was prepared. He had practiced at home, but had no intention of answering immediately to prevent the woman seeing through him, so he pretended that he was still thinking. Neither did he want to protract things, although there was nobody behind him as he had deliberately chosen a time when there were few customers, but not too few so that his presence would be considered strange. He thought he was taking too long and spoke. In the middle of the word he thought he was going too fast and decided to slow down, but he acted too hastily and stopped all together. He spoke faster again so that the assistant wouldn’t get suspicious, but . . .
“The usual?” she said.
He picked up the paper bag with two organic bread rolls and an ordinary one and quickly made himself inconspicuous among the shelves. Sweat was beading his back. He always placed his order with his head bowed down and had never seen the assistant’s face very clearly. She moved on the edges of his field of vision, just a body in the uniform of the supermarket chain. Her voice was rather low for a woman, although the few words weren’t really enough to judge.
A man, judging by the shoes he sensed in the corner of his eye, walked into his aisle, and Anton quickly set off for the delicatessen counter, not wanting to attract attention.
The woman’s voice above the sliced cured meats sounded rough when it asked “Can I help you?” Anton wanted to stand up for himself and speak in a decisive manner but then, just as he opened his mouth, he was afraid that he would offend her, so he simply exhaled and waited for another attempt. He became worried that he would be incomprehensible if his enunciation wasn’t clear, so he coughed, positioned his lips and started with “Please . . .”, but it seemed too humble and vague, it would have been much better to finish with this word, but there was no way of relocating it now, so he shut up and . . .
. . . the assistant put a package on the counter.
He took it and left.
The worst was over: he could take the milk from the chill cabinet. He checked the pull date, examined the seams on the carton, squeezed it to make sure it didn’t leak, ran his fingers along the edge, than stroked the surfaces to make sure there were no perforations; he did all this only when he sensed no other customers nearby. If anybody crossed the aisle, he pretended to be thinking about his purchase, or he repositioned his bread and salami in the basket, or tied his shoes.
At the checkout, he waited for the cashier to tell him the total, even though he had the exact amount ready in his pocket. In spite of this, he didn’t dare just hand it over as she would definitely get suspicious, so he rummaged through his wallet and paid with a slightly larger note, but not so large that it would draw attention. At the same time, he didn’t want to drag things out, in case somebody was standing behind him. But of course there was nobody, as before going to the checkout he had passed all the aisles just to make sure that nobody else was completing their shopping.
He should drive to the shopping center on the edge of the city and bulk-buy food, instead of going through the same ordeal every day. But would the shop assistants miss him and notify the police? Would it look suspicious? Or he could place his order over the phone as he was already doing with all the things he needed for his sister’s care. The person receiving orders and parceling up things for the disabled must be used to the fact that those in that condition could not come in person; but if he, clearly strong and healthy, did not leave his home, it would surely get people talking.
Next to a brick building stood a new Mercedes and a well-preserved Wartburg, on which there was a folded ladder, and for a moment through the car window he could see house painter’s equipment. He quickly looked down so that the owner wouldn’t accuse him of curiosity. He walked in the center of the pavement as he didn’t want to be responsible for any damage to cars, while at the same time not wanting the newsagent to think that he was one of those nosey people who looked but never actually bought anything. He had his newspaper delivered, which was quite a normal thing to do and should not seem strange to anyone—daily papers even liked to boast about the number of their subscribers!
Had not the Wartburg and the Mercedes been parked the other way round the day before? It was a good thing that he had been leaving his car in the garage for a year—his memory wasn’t good enough for driving. He remembered his last attempt to drive to the shop—he had first walked the whole way, trying to remember the streets, the dustbins, and parked cars. When he walked back, one of the cars that had previously been parked in one of the spots was gone, leaving a gap. So he had to do the whole journey again. He soon realized that the street at 3:15 wasn’t the same as at 3:18 and that he couldn’t predict what else might happen. When in spite of all this he set off in his car and arrived at his destination unharmed, he was soaking with sweat and nearly passed out at the steering wheel when he turned off the engine. He waited the right amount of time so that nobody would find it suspicious if he turned the engine on again, but not for too long so that people would find it odd him sitting in the car. Then he set off while he was still able.
The bus and suburban supermarkets thus remained merely an idea; it would have been strange if, as a car owner, he had taken public transport for a longer trip. If, on the other hand, he walked to the local shop, leaving the car in the garage, these days this would be seen as something commendable, and even if they did still talk about him, they wouldn’t be able to say anything bad.
Only a few more houses before home. He was about to let out a sigh of relief when he remembered the proverb that you shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch and the fact that most accidents happen to people in their own street, where their attention drops and they become careless. He carefully followed every car driving past, trying to envisage which way he should jump if the driver had a stroke or dizzy spell, lost control of the car, and drove onto the pavement.
He reached the last gap between two buildings, dark and deserted in spite of the time of day. With his head still bent, he quickly looked to see if there was one of the muggers he kept reading about hiding there; he was praying for nothing to happen as he could already feel how shallow and nervous his breathing was. Please, not now, not when he was already on the verge of an asthma attack. How could he defend himself? How could he run if he couldn’t breathe?
He had sorted his sister out in the morning, and she was probably asleep now. He didn’t want to look in her room too often, although he could never resist for too long. Pangs of fear that she was dead attacked him like mosquitoes every time he became engrossed in his work or some other chore.
He looked at the organic bread rolls and the hundred grams of chicken and vegetable salami, feeling a pressure building up inside, as if he was being squeezed by something and would soon start to cry. He shook his head and just managed to pull himself together. What would they say if he cried? He was an adult, after all! He held back the tears and spent the next few minutes expecting an asthma attack, but his bronchi slowly opened up again and allowed him to breathe.
He hated organic bread rolls and salami, it made him want to throw up, he didn’t want to eat it anymore—but what could he do, die of starvation? As the years went by life had gotten increasingly complicated. He was 36 and had recently begun to be afraid of living to a ripe old age. What an unbearable nightmare that must be! But he had to live, as he had to look after his sister and the parrot that had its head beneath its wing in a cage on the kitchen table.
He had lost the ability to say what he wanted in the shop three and a half years ago, and since then he’d been buying the same things every day. If he’d walked to another shop, the assistants would definitely find it strange that he wouldn’t talk to them. But all he actually needed was to be given more time, after all, that was why he came when they didn’t have much to do! But no, they kept pestering him, giving him things he didn’t want.
His mouth was filled with bitterness.
“Damn it! Damn it!” he said.
The parrot stirred and started to repeat one of the two words it knew.
“Damn it! Damn it!”
“Shhh! Shhh!” Anton leaped up, looking through the window in panic. What if they could hear him out there on the road?
Polly repeated “Shhh! Shhh!” and Anton was able to sit down again.
“Baby,” said Bogart, “are you going to stand in that corner much longer?”
Lauren just lifted her eyelids, her chin down:
“I was worried before this meeting and asked for advice so that I wouldn’t appear too weak. They said that everyone who saw us together would watch closely to see which one goes to the other one first, which one is stronger.”
“They forgot to tell you that there is an even greater strength, the strength of a man, a king, who can approach anybody he wants, and every observer still knows who is who.”
He slowly took the first step.
Their parents had left them an inheritance, so he no longer had to work; the ground floor was deserted, the CLOSED sign collecting dust and fly droppings. The mess bothered him, but passersby were bound to find it strange if the exterior of a seemingly abandoned shop was always clean, so he never touched the shop window or the plastic curtains. Every afternoon he went down to the workshop and took one of the many clocks up to the apartment; he hurried past the dark, deep cellar, into which he hadn’t set foot since he was a child. He then sat down in the kitchen next to the window overlooking the yard and started cleaning the mechanism. Slowly he unscrewed the screws, carefully removed the housing and placed it on the table. He gently held his hand above the mechanism, sensing all the dust that had absorbed grease and a stale odor, probably mold. Then he cautiously dismantled it, rinsed each part in the cleaning solution, and unfailingly put it back together again. For a moment he enjoyed the cleanliness in front of him, then he put the housing back on and remained sitting. Not for long—what would they say—but when today he stole a look out of the window, his eyes stopped, unable to move away from the frozen snow in the yard. It glistened in a rancid kind of way, perhaps he should clean up the snow, too. The crust on the top had expanded with the cold and became as hard as stone. This had a hollow effect, as if all that was left from the winter snow was an impenetrable shell.
The kitchen, his favorite place, overlooked a yard surrounded by high walls, some sort of garages and a deserted factory without windows but with an old sign on which the wind and damp had altered the spelling. No one there who could observe him. Anton leaned forward, looking up. He’d read all sorts of things about satellites. He came to and quickly lowered his head so as not to have to meet their eyes, even though he was quite doubtful that they could penetrate the foggy barrier.
He prepared a tin of food for himself and a pureed meal for his sister.
In the afternoon, he read the papers—articles about sport, politics and cars. He had a subscription to a number of dailies and to women’s magazines he’d ordered using his sister’s name. In these, he looked at the faces, trying to penetrate them with his mind. He wondered what they thought, what they were afraid of, how they lived. He wanted to be the man on page 16, but only a couple of pages later he found a woman who caught his eye, and he decided he’d rather be her. In the end, after much hesitation he found three or four people for the final selection, tore out the relevant pages, and arranged them on the table. He then spent a long time thinking, comparing and hesitating until he finally made his choice—this is who I am!—leaned over and rested his head against the face on the paper. For a while he sat like that until his back started to hurt or he started crying. Then he straightened up, tore the magazines into pieces, and chucked them into a large bowl to soak.
“Jane,” said Tarzan, “you lie down and rest. Don’t be afraid, you’re safe. We had to leave Uziri, where the savage Waziri warriors acknowledge me as their ruler, but here in London you and your son won’t experience the discomforts of the rainy season. This is my kingdom, too, albeit a smaller one; after all, I’m not a Lord for nothing.”
Jane didn’t answer. She was probably already asleep. He couldn’t see her very well in the semi-darkness. He sat on the bed and stroked her, then sank into deep thought.
He hadn’t told her about that damned Rokoff, the criminal mastermind who was free again after all he had done—throwing him overboard and trying to kill him in many other ways. Those past deeds would pale into insignificance compared to what the devilish mind still had in store.
He must be careful.
Before going to bed he checked the apartment like a blind person: he felt the rings on the stove to make sure they were cold, he touched all the switches to see they were the right way, he pulled all the plugs out of their sockets and listened for any unusual sounds. The last light he extinguished was the candle below the wedding photograph of his strict, but fair, parents. A candle used to burn continuously, but last summer he could no longer stand the lack of sleep. In the end, he was waking up every five minutes with the smell of smoke in his nostrils, stumbling around barefoot in the darkness, checking that the candle hadn’t started a fire, and on a number of occasions having an asthma attack from all the agitation. Long before he finally started putting out the candle, he begged his parents for forgiveness, and afterwards he would lay in bed so frightened that he dared not even blink, let alone close his eyes. The feeling that a severe but just punishment would follow had never left him. But if there was a fire, how could he save his sister? He had to think of her, too; his mother and father would surely approve of that.
He lay on his back and couldn’t go to sleep for a long time because of backache. What would they say if he tossed and turned or even sat in the kitchen with the light on? Nights were for sleeping. And so, with his eyes shut, he ground his teeth every time the pain cut into his back, and in the end somehow managed to sink into sleep.
In the morning he systematically arranged all the things he needed next to his sister’s bed: from a bowl of warm water—he checked the temperature with his elbow—to various ointments and incontinence pads. He slowly pulled her cover off, gently removed the sheet and put it on a shelf. With his hand he gently stroked his sister’s stomach, felt the warmth of her excretions, smelled the odor of staleness, sickness and decay. He carefully removed her pad, washed her body, massaged what was left of her muscles, anointed her bedsores and then he put on another pad, dressed her, and for a moment enjoyed the cleanliness in front of him before covering her again.
Now to the shop for breakfast again.
He didn’t want to wake Jane, but those sounds, those footsteps? Could the perfidious Rokoff be creeping into the mansion?
The paper in the bowl had dissolved into a thick soup. Anton blew up a balloon and tied the opening with cotton thread. He carefully held the back of the balloon with his left hand, then with his right hand gently stuck to it the first bit of paper. Slowly, he attached one bit after another, covering the balloon with a soft membrane that became harder as it dried.
“That’s what we’re like,” he thought. “This is how we become adults. We’re born empty, then our parents lay on us instructions how to live, and soon we can stand on our own two feet.”
He put the paper head on the table and it remained balanced. He stared at it, repeating to himself that this was how we come into being; he started crying without knowing why.
Friday was the day for the weekly shop, and in spite of the cold, Anton was pouring with sweat when he was finally able to lean on the inside of his front door. How much longer would he be able to endure this suffering? He inhaled as deeply as he dared without bringing on an asthma attack, and he thought he could smell burning. He rushed upstairs, along the wall, as far from the deep hole leading to the cellar as possible, dragging the shopping bag behind him, burst into his parent’s room, and found the flame calmly and lazily flickering upwards. For a moment, he felt relief and he must have let air out of his lungs too forcefully, as only a second later he could already feel pressure and had to take two puffs from his inhaler, then cough for a few minutes, choking, before the medication finally worked. What if one day it stopped helping? Who would look after his sister? And Polly?
Jane was looking at him coquettishly, but didn’t want to move. Tarzan slowly came closer.
“Jane,” he called quietly.
She didn’t answer.
How beautiful she was under the silk cover, perhaps even more so than under the one she had made out of large leaves in her other home, the tree house.
He didn’t hear the footsteps, but the senses heightened by his role of king of the jungle warned him that there was someone standing behind him.
He turned around and came face to face with his greatest enemy.
“Hey up, what the fuck is this?” Rokoff hissed. The boorish Slav!
Tarzan slapped his face. The king of the jungle did not allow vulgarity in the company of women.
Rokoff stumbled and steadied himself in the doorway.
“Hey up, it’s just . . .” Rokoff was holding his hand over his mouth, babbling in his primitive criminal manner, when Tarzan leaped forward and pushed him through the door with all his might.
Rokoff flew backwards, hit the banister, toppled over and fell.
Tarzan looked down after him.
The darkness swallowed his greatest enemy.
The nightmare was over.
Tarzan wanted to spit after Rokoff but knew that such an act didn’t befit the king of the jungle.
“Jane, you’re safe,” and went back to the bedroom.
The balloon burst in his hands and Anton nearly had a heart attack. He grabbed his chest, and the spasm crept up to his throat, tearing his insides, as if his heart was wrapped in barbed wire.
His hands were trembling and sweat from his forehead dripped onto the table. He smoothed his hair and his hand collected droplets of sweat.
He should go and have a look.
He blew up a new balloon, nervously and too quickly and felt the beginning of an asthmatic attack. When he grabbed the inhaler the balloon escaped from his hand, but the constriction in his throat passed.
He should . . .
What if he were to go just to the front door? If it was locked, then nothing had happened.
He put the bits of paper he was holding back into the bowl. There was no point.
He saw his palms shaking and felt the pulse in his temples.
He got up and set off down the hall. Next to his parent’s room he remembered he had forgotten his inhaler and went back for it.
Was it possible that he hadn’t locked the door? He tried to relive every moment: the relief of coming home, the weight of the large shopping bag with its handles digging into his hand, the deep breath he took, the smell of burning. Had he locked it or not?
He must check.
Along the hall, past his parents’ room, his room, around the corner, then down the steps. He put his left hand on the banister and with his right hand opened the door to his sister’s room. Should he rather check that she was still breathing?
No, the front door was more important.
He found it hard to go down as he was walking sideways, with his back towards the opening that descended into the cellar.
He grabbed the handle and the cold entered his hand.
A quick push.
The door opened.
“Oh, no! Oh, NO! NO!” he kept repeating and the freezing air used the opportunity to enwrap his damp, feverish forehead.
What will they say about me standing here in the cold, dressed so scantily?
He slammed the door, locked it and checked the handle.
Maybe nothing had happened?
As if to correct the mistake he’d made in the morning, he again leaned with his back on the door, pressing the handle with his left hand. Locked, locked. That’s how it was supposed to be, how could he have missed it?
But nonetheless, everything was OK, it was only his imagination having playing tricks on him.
He had hardly moved when in the corner under the first step he noticed a dark object. He recognized it immediately and his heart sank, sending ice instead of blood around his veins, melting on contact with the warmth of the skin just enough to seep through the pores and drench him.
The postman’s cap.
It had happened.
He sat in the kitchen, crying. At first, he quickly wiped the tears as they came, but soon he couldn’t keep up and gave in. The crying didn’t help, the terror was still enveloping his body, he was sinking into himself, into his hollowness, his bones were crashing against his internal organs and he was waiting for blood to start running from his eyes. He sat on the toilet long enough to empty his bowels, until all that was left were spasms of piercing pain; sweat poured down his tingling body.
He should go down to the cellar to make sure.
But, he whispered in a squeaky voice, I already went there when I was a child.
He would never be able to do it.
His wet cheeks felt cold. He was shaking and pressed his chin on his shoulder.
He had to give himself a clear order, he had to stop fooling himself, he had to dare, he had to act.
A deep breath.
One: . . .
He just groaned.
He tried again.
One: The postman is lying in the cellar.
The air wheezed out of his lungs. He forced himself to go on.
Two: It’s Friday afternoon. When will he be missed?
He embraced this question with disproportionate hope. If the postman lived on his own, not until Monday, when he didn’t turn up for work—they’d start looking for him, retracing his steps, asking who had seen him last; perhaps they wouldn’t reach him until Tuesday! He was aware of the pointlessness of this hope, but it was too sweet to try and chase it away. For so many years he had tried to live his days as routinely as possible and, if he was lucky, he had another three such days left. What then? Prison. What would happen to his sister?
He leaped up and ran to the cage. And Polly?
His hands were flitting from object to object, his legs running, his whole body twitching, it wanted to do something, to move, to prove to itself it still existed.
He mustn’t do this, what would they say if they saw him. A plan, he needed a plan.
Was he being too optimistic? Didn’t the postman deliver on Saturdays, too? What if they came tomorrow? Today? No, not today, even if his wife started missing him in the afternoon, they wouldn’t go around the houses yet, not until tomorrow.
Another hope: perhaps he wasn’t dead? Only unconscious? Would he come to, get up and go? Had the poor man experienced short-term amnesia and wouldn’t remember what had happened when they find him wandering down the road? He should unlock the door for him.
He took hold of the edge of the table and squeezed hard. He mustn’t fool himself! He must check.
Timidly he approached the banister, leaned over and spoke into the darkness a few times, louder each time:
“Mister postman! Are you there? Hello?”
Oh, what would they do to him! Oh, what would they say! It wasn’t him, it was Tarzan who’d done it!
They’d never understand.
Damn it! Damn it!
He shook his head, groaning.
He must gather his thoughts.
What if they don’t come? His own hope disgusted him, it sounded so false. Why me, why me?
He stared into the blackness and tried to sense movement, but only the darkness reflected in his tears and struck his nerves.
Perhaps the postman had come upstairs, seen (what?), run off and lost his cap? Perhaps he wasn’t down there, in the cellar.
He lifted his hands and started examining them. The scratch on the knuckle of his middle finger, the memory of a blow against a uniform and the button on it; was it all false, only a figment of his feverish brain, which had tormented him all his life?
Somebody rang the bell.
He started in horror and ran to the kitchen. He closed the door behind him and blocked it with his body. The bell wouldn’t stop.
Could he at least conduct his arrest with dignity? What will they think?
With his head bowed, staring at the ground, he opened the door a millimeter at a time, then slowly started to raise his hands for the handcuffs.
He was looking at the cracked asphalt, the ice that had penetrated the cracks and the moccasin shoes in front of him. Quite shabby shoes, with black marks where the big toe dug into them.
They didn’t look like police shoes.
He timidly lifted his eyes.
“You need me,” said the man.
A clean-shaven, shiny, round face, smelling of cologne. His smile, a crescent across his face, never ceased. Fleshy lips, a dimple in the chin, brown hair, cut short. He looked like an office clerk, were it not for the eternal smile and the twinkling of somewhat bulging eyes. The man wore an orange fleece and wide trousers that were rather thin considering how cold it was, and the shoes beneath looked as if they had been a mere afterthought when all the money had already been spent on the other things.
“I can sense that you need me and that I’ve come at the right time.”
Anton looked at the stranger’s thin shoulders and wondered if this man really could carry the postman from the cellar. He didn’t look strong enough, in spite of the large bag on his shoulder, pulling him to the right.
What’s up with me, thought Anton, he can’t know about the postman. He must be a salesman, I never usually open the door to them, I’ve been caught today . . . What am I to do, what will they say if I just slam the door in his face?
“I can sense that your life is full of problems and that you find yourself at a crossroads. I can help you. Honestly.”
Suddenly his head jerked from left to right, without the smile on his face ever faltering. When his eyes returned to Anton, he continued:
“Listen . . .”
Anton’s arm was still hurting when he sat at the kitchen table and opened the first book. The man may have looked weak, but he had managed a burden that Anton had barely been able to carry upstairs and had had to rest three times on the way, and now he could still feel a pain in his shoulder where the strap had been.
The author of the book was an Indian, not a Frenchman called Du Pra, as he had mistakenly heard earlier. He started reading the introduction, soon realized that he didn’t have the time, so he skipped it with a guilty feeling. There followed another introduction to the previous edition and then another. After that came the acknowledgments and when finally the book started, he was able to read it quickly as the lines were well spaced out and the font large. The author said that the whole universe was created for Anton and awaiting his orders. All that was needed was a focused and clearly defined will, and reality would succumb. In order not to miss an instruction or mix them up, Anton went to get a pencil and his father’s old notepad and started making notes.
It was already night outside when he started the next book, this one, judging by the surname, written by a Brazilian author, who said more or less the same as the Indian, adding that the material aspect of the world was insignificant in comparison to the spiritual one. He went even further and claimed that the material world does not really exist, it is just a reflection of spirituality. Anton looked at the photograph on the book cover, the intelligent eyes, the confident smile, the elegant beard, under which it said that the author had sold 50 million books, and Anton desperately wished that he could be the author. He kept banging his forehead against the cover, repeating I am you, I am you, but it brought him no relief this time.
What will they say? I’ve forgotten to see to my sister and the parrot, he suddenly thought and ran to carry out his duties. He dealt very quickly with Polly, and he would have been rough had he not worried about what they would think. Quietly he asked himself yet again how long parrots lived, and then immediately berated himself for thinking like that as Polly had been his mother’s pet.
He grabbed the dirty napkin and his sister’s sheet and squatted in front of the washing machine. Loading it always filled him with discomfort. The metal housing looked firm enough, but when you opened it you put your hand into a void. So he completed the task as quickly as possible.
He couldn’t eat, he was too impatient to finally get to the instructions telling him how to change his life. On the front cover of the third book there was a lotus blossom, and on the back a bearded Indian was staring past him, one of those Yogi Maharishis about whom he was always reading in the newspaper, but had always confused their unpronounceable names. In the first half of the fat book Anton was told about the benefits of this particular type of meditation, from those related to his health and reason to improvements in his life in general. It said a number of times that even the first half-hour of meditation was enough for a shift to occur, and Anton didn’t even have time to swallow, he was so glued to the words with such hope. Maybe that’s why he had been reading so quickly, as in the second half of the book he suddenly realized that the Yogi was talking about the first session as if he had already described it. The author now talked about the wider social effects—if Anton could find another one percent of fellow believers in the city, the number of crimes would fall dramatically, especially murder. This word stabbed Anton to the heart, and he started crying again. He turned back to the beginning to look for the procedure for changing his life, which he must have missed earlier. All he could find was a couple of sentences in which the author said that the procedure was very simple, but it was impossible to learn it from books, and that each student must approach a teacher in person (the list was in Appendix A). Anton jumped to the end and found that the branch in his city was on the other side of town. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.
He put the book down and groaned. How was that possible? How could they write a whole book about the answer without the answer itself? Why write in the first place?
His eyes were burning, and he became aware that for some time now he had been scratching at the left corner of his mouth; the cold sores had already spread like fungus towards his cheek.
I can’t go on, I can’t go on.
I must. Another book, feng shui it said, and he got scared that they would try to force him to take up martial arts—he had never been suited to physical activity. The introduction said that people’s problems could have two causes:
- a childhood trauma
- wrongly arranged furniture
The book was about the second of these. Anton just skimmed half of it, then started thinking. He couldn’t really have had any traumas as he had had a happy childhood. He then spent quite some time looking at the sideboard and decided that there was no way he could on his own move it into a position that would improve how he felt, so he put the book down.
He looked in the open bag that lay at his feet, and out of which protruded yet more books, and hope was clouded by a thought that the salesman may have tricked him. If, as he had told him, his own life had been changed by the Yogi’s meditation, why did his head jerk from left to right in such an odd manner? Was he really changed? How could Anton tell if that was the first time he had seen him?
Anton bent over and fished around the bag. Titles like Overcome Your Fears, Achieve Your Goals, Peace of Mind and Making Money . . . swirled before his eyes, flashing and then falling back into the bag. He rummaged until he again grabbed the book on overcoming fear, and though he kept nodding off, he started reading.
Towards morning, his head slowly sank onto the table, and he fell asleep for a moment, or at least that’s how it seemed. He then jumped up in panic, looking around to see if they had already come. He must continue, he didn’t have much time left. His back felt like it was made of wood and didn’t really belong to him, but still managed to give him a pain that seemed to permeate his whole body.
He reached in the bag for yet another book and screamed with horror when he saw the title: The Secret of a Perfect Memory. The salesman must have foisted it on him or it just happened to get in there by accident—Anton certainly had no need for it, as he wanted to forget what was in the cellar. On the cover of the next book, a woman in a red leotard stood barefoot in the middle of a meadow, holding something invisible. The large text said Rooting and smaller letters beneath that said that this was a unique opportunity to create strong enough inner foundations for greater security. That’s what he needed. With his eyes refreshed again, he started reading, and the morning light was washing the kitchen with its milky haze when he finished. He discovered that he would learn everything when he got through a system of modules, each of which lasted three months. He sniveled and cried.
Am I too stupid? Out of everything that was written in that quite lengthy book he could only understand that you have to stand barefoot, which gives you better contact with Mother Earth and its energy. He stood and straightened up with difficulty because of his back. He looked at his feet, clad in thick, checked felt, lined with sheepskin, and the thought of removing them from this warm embrace filled him with horror. But he had to! He leaned on the table and slowly removed his left slipper. When he moved the sole he saw that it had left a damp imprint on the floor. He bent over, breathing heavily, and took off the sock. Carefully, starting with the tip of his big toe, he dropped the foot to the floor and a chill went right up to his neck. I’m going to catch a cold by rooting myself, he thought, and he put the sock back on. No wonder that the book’s disciples spent three months practicing taking off their socks. How could he, in spite of his desire and strong will, make up for lost time?
It was time he attended to his sister. He washed her thoroughly and fed her, avoiding her eyes as usual—ever since their parents had died, their eyes never met. The first time he asked himself what she must be thinking while she watched him perform, wearing his masks. Tarzan, Bogart, Napoleon and, his favorite, Clark Gable accompanying Carolee Lombard to a flight she would not survive; he sensed it, but manfully resisted the shadow of fate.
Perhaps he should tell her about the postman? A terrible thought a moment later—she had seen it all! He exclaimed and quickly moved away from her; he’d just attached an incontinence pad to the main witness for the prosecution!
What’s wrong with me, he thought, and returned to his task. How can I think about my sister as the key witness? He would admit it all immediately anyway, as soon as the police rang his bell. The night-long reading of the collected knowledge of mankind had so far not helped him.
He hadn’t even moved the postman’s cap, let alone the man himself!
He didn’t want to bother his sister so he took the water to the bathroom and cleaned up.
If only he could change at least enough to be able to lie to them when they come to enquire about the postman, to maybe gain another day or two; his doubt about being able to acquire the courage to venture into the cellar was growing. When the salesman or the meditation instructor, as he had called himself, was describing the wonderful books he sold, and their power to affect change, a picture of hope appeared to Anton: he was descending the stairs he had not used since his childhood, he was moving the coal that had been sitting there since central heating was introduced, smashing the floor and digging as deep a hole as possible, into which he then threw the body, concreting it over and moving the coal back.
I won’t be able to do it, he said, concrete is full of cement, and that means dust, and I’m allergic to dust. I’d die from an asthma attack.
He must go back to books, they were full of the hope he needed, the very last glimmer of hope—he was in a life or death situation!
In the kitchen, he looked at the radio, on which his mother had put a doily and a nodding dog, which had originally been for the car. The last time it shook here was during a minor earthquake four and a half years ago. He should listen to the news to find out if they were looking for the postman yet. He reached for the switch, but after a brief hesitation, he moved his hand away. He was afraid of coming across music, that most cunning manipulator of all. Father had liked it and, because of his deafness, the speakers had blasted it out at full volume, particularly in the years before his death. Anton used to withdraw to his room, trying to keep his self-awareness unblemished, which was impossible when there was music: whenever sad tunes were broadcast, he was filled with a painfully sweet longing; when the rhythm was wild, he became an aggressor, cockily walking along the street, looking for victims. And all the time he felt as if he was just a helpless balloon blown by music.
If he had any coffee, he would have made a cup, but as it was he just sat back down and started the next book. Slowly, he became an experienced learner. As soon as the author started talking about Eastern wisdom, he started reading very superficially and skipping whole pages. With practice, he quickly found that short paragraph amidst all the forecasts of a wonderful future and the descriptions of its consequences; usually, the paragraph simply directed him to a nearby center or a local guru, which was of no use to Anton. In spite of the feelings of guilt, as even his parents had taught him that he should read every book to the very end, which made him stop reading altogether after they had died, he now gave up after the key piece of information and picked up new reading material. His head swayed with fatigue, and after many years, the whispering voice inside him that had made his childhood a misery and then never reappeared, spoke again—”Perhaps the wise men of the East only came to get the money of the West”—giggled and then vanished.
I’m losing my mind, he said.
He went to his parents’ room and spent a long time looking at their wedding photograph above the marital bed. When he was turning towards the door, he paused and, after many years, examined the portrait of Jesus and Mary. His parents had had their faith and it would have been so much easier for him if he had it as well. He had tried, but it never truly settled in him; he knew that it left room for fear. Or perhaps he had already been born this empty and all his parents’ efforts couldn’t fill it? Would it have been different if he had studied books like this earlier? Mother and father had been passionate readers: he liked reading adventure stories and history, while she liked books about the lives of film stars. He looked at the big bookcase and all the spines on it, but he didn’t feel tempted to ever take them off the shelf. He felt that they had the power to change his dreams, which they had already proven, but not his actual life, which was what he needed.
Back to the kitchen. He tidied up the mess on the table and put the books back in the bag, together with the coupons that had fallen out of them. He had a quick look at two of them—the first one was offering glasses for looking at auras (for beginners), and the other one a spray for aura healing with 25% off. He already had one inhaler and, he said to himself, confused as he was, he was bound to mistake them and use the wrong one.
He left a few American female writers on the table, the ones that did not mention Eastern wisdom and whose clothes did not attract attention, even on color photographs. He should go to the shop, but he knew by now that he had the right to say no, and when he had to make an important decision, he should write each possibility on its own bit of paper. If he had a number of things to do, a list was a must. Everyone feels fear, but they overcome it. It’s only a side effect of a small gland in your brain, called the amygdale.
He turned over the bits of paper on which, following the instructions from a book on affirmations, he had written 300 times “I love and appreciate myself,” and now, with a firm hand he started a list:
- go to the ground floor
- pick up the cap and take it with you (he pondered for a moment whether this was two points or one, as he had written, but he didn’t want to start crossing things out—what would they say)
- go to the cellar
- take a shov . . .
“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh . . .”
When he first sensed the sound, he froze with horror and in fear moved only his eyes. The end of his pen dug into the paper and bled blue ink. Finally, Anton was made to get up by concern for his sister, but when he came to the door of her room, he already knew where the sounds was coming from.
In the cellar, the postman had regained consciousness.
He was alive! Alive!
Anton ran to the telephone that was connected only because everybody else’s was, and he was just about to dial the emergency number that was written on a bit of paper next to the phone, just in case, when he changed his mind. You could get twenty years for murder and ten or how many for grievous bodily harm? Questions and doubts descended on him like a flood.
“Ooooh . . . Oooooh . . . Ooooh . . .”
Anton covered his ears.
Stop it! Stop it!
Should he call the police? But what should he say? That he had left an injured man lying in the cellar for a whole day and night?
While he was reading spiritual books?
He started to dart around the kitchen. He opened drawers, slammed cupboard doors, smashed his knee against a corner, collapsed on the floor and rolled with pain.
“STOP IT! STOP IT!” he shouted, “LEAVE ME ALONE! DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU!”
They just won’t leave a man alone!
DAMN IT! DAMN IT!
Salesmen, instructors, postmen!
DAMN IT! DAMN IT!
He grabbed the handle of the bag, lifted it in one fell swoop and ran along the hallway groaning, holding it to his chest. He banged against the banister and the bag jumped from his hands, the darkness swallowed it and all Anton could do was follow it with his eyes. Only a moment passed between its disappearance and a thud, the sound of which washed all the anger out of Anton.
He remembered it from the time when butchers used to chop beef in front of their customers, before they started withdrawing to the back and bringing out vacuum packed parcels. The thud of an axe splitting a thick bone and the sound of a bone, wrapped in meat, hitting the chopping block. The same sound as the one he had just heard from the cellar.
I’ve killed him. I’ve thrown a bag full of books on the postman and crushed him. I’ve finished off what Tarzan had started.
If there had been anything left in his stomach, he would’ve thrown up, but as it was he only bent double and retched a few times.
He didn’t want to look into the darkness any more; he turned around and put his forehead and hands on the door.
I can’t take any more. It’s over.
He pulled the chair to her bed and sat next to her. For a long time he dared not lift his eyes. He was biting his lips, feeling the taste of blood running from the burst cold sore, and wringing his hands as if washing the back of his hands with his palms.
“You know,” he started, “I never meant to hurt anybody. All I ever wanted was just one moment of peace. My whole life for a moment of calm and completeness, without fear and doubt, just peace, peace. I wanted to be the master of my destiny. You know yourself that I have no experience of the outside world and that the outside world just isn’t right for me. I wanted serenity, even if I had to let someone else into me. Tarzan, Tarzan destroyed me, you can see. I was trying to show off in front of you, but I never wanted to hurt anyone. That was the only comfort I had, the only times when I was calm because I wasn’t myself.”
He started weeping. He felt that, finally, after all these years, he should look his sister in the eye, but he just couldn’t.
He stood up and walked over to the shelf, picked up Clark Gable’s papier mâché mask, slowly turned around and put it on.
“We’re lucky, Carole, we’ve got this ranch and, even though it alone wouldn’t be enough to survive on, it’s still our home. We’ve got good jobs, friends, money in the bank and we’re healthy, too. God is good to us.”
He leaned over his sister’s body and lay with his stomach over her face.
“You’re leaving, go. I won’t stop you, I have a premonition, but a man knows how to control it and doesn’t allow it to influence his actions. A man decides by himself, whereas a woman has to resort to coincidence. I know you’ll toss a coin which will choose the plane instead of the train, and thus bring about your death.”
Through the thick layers of cardigans, long sleeved T-shirts, and vests he could feel movement, something between tickling and scratching.
“There are things I can influence and things I can’t. The latter don’t concern me and I don’t lose any sleep over them. Last night I gave you the whole of me and today it’s a new day—a morning when you will fly up into the sky, when you will become a bird that generations to come will long for.”
He kept lifting the mask until it slid off his face and rolled onto the floor. He clumsily got up, not wanting to touch his sister’s body. He closed her eyes by feeling for them before he looked at her once more and took from her mouth a button she’d bitten off his cardigan, and then tilted her chin back.
Strange, he thought, but is what I feel when I don’t feel anything the peace I’ve longed for all my life?
He took the cage with Polly from the kitchen, took it to the bathroom, positioned it sideways in the bath and turned on the tap. The bird screamed “Damn it! Damn it!” but Anton remained untouched.
Am I calm because I’m active? Is inaction a precondition for fear and doubts? Is it easier to be an adventurer in danger than to live routinely, with nothing happening? Odd, he had always read about the moment before suicide as a time when reason clouded and irrationality reigned—would he be the first to do it at a time of exceptional lucidity?
He took one of the rifles from his father’s collection from the locked up cupboard on the ground floor. Not long ago he had cleaned and oiled it; he inserted all five bullets, even though one would suffice.
When he walked past his sister’s room, he thought that perhaps he would find it easier to do what he intended to do if he was someone else. But he shook his head. I don’t want to die as Tarzan or Gable, at least in death let me be me.
He sat on his usual chair at the kitchen table and positioned the gun between his thighs.
Then he put it down again, walked to the bathroom and turned off the tap. His father’s collection was valuable, and he never liked unnecessary damage. All along he kept looking up as he didn’t want to see Polly.
He returned to his previous position.
The gun smelled of fine engine oil, that’s what it said on the bottle; the memory appeared very vividly in front of him. He cocked the gun and put his thumb on the trigger.
He bent his head and aimed in his mouth.
He moved the barrel and opened the only remaining book on the page displaying the source of all his fears.
The amygdale. It looked like a pair of fiery eyes. And that’s exactly how it burnt inside him. Hidden in the very center of his brain, it nibbled away at him, hollowing him out and destroying him.
Damn it! Damn it!
He read about its exact location and tried to aim as accurately as possible.
He got up again to get a plastic sheet and spread it beneath his chair. He never liked creating dirty work for other people.
Maybe he should write a suicide note?
He went to get pen and paper, sat down again and started, “The world will not understand how it is”
He had so much to say, but couldn’t find the right words. So he just added a full stop.
“The world will not understand how it is.”
He got ready again, walked about the flat in his mind, was there anything else he should do: he hadn’t left the cooker on, had he? He should feel all the rings. He remembered that the police would have to search the whole flat, and when he was a child what he hated most was sticking his fingers into a dirty handkerchief in the pocket of his father’s trousers, which he had to go through before putting them in the washing machine.
He got up and looked in all his pockets. He took the two dried up paper tissues to the rubbish bin.
Then he set down yet again. He thought how strange it was that now he was thinking, existing, he was, but only a moment later all those fragments of him that in his case never truly assembled into a firm whole, would go their own way and try starting anew somewhere else, never in him again, never being him again.
It seemed to him that he was awakening. He paused and directed his attention into that feeling, hoping that something new was coming, but soon realized that it was only that the veneer of peace was beginning to fracture under the pressure of doubts and fears battering against it. That his head would soon groan with questions, that he would feel like a hunchback, carting his fear around the world, that he would walk around the flat, opening wardrobes, searching for the source of his fear, but never finding it; that he would be turning around with a life-like feeling that someone was standing behind him, just waiting to attack him, that such a life would drag on and on, and he could barely swallow his own spit, and his finger trembled on the trigger when the greatest doubt of all pierced him, hitting him so hard that it hurled him into pure horror so that he unwittingly squeezed the trigger:
“What if death isn’t the end and we are immortal?”
The Slovenian writer and film-maker Miha Mazzini, born in 1961, is the author of twenty-three books. The Cartier Project (US edition, 2004) was ex-Yugoslavia’s all-time bestselling novel and was make into a feature film. Guarding Hanna (US edition, 2002) was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004. In 2011 the first of his stories to be published in the US won a Pushcart Prize. See more of him at www.MihaMazzini.com.
This story was translated to English by Maja Visenjak-Limon.