Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Cosmos

A Novel

by Witold Gombrowicz

Cosmos is a vicious and uncompromised little gem of the obscene.” —Adam Novy, The Believer

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date November 01, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4562-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date November 16, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9526-5
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Milan Kundera called Witold Gombrowicz “one of the great novelists of our century.” His most famous novel, Cosmos, the recipient of the 1967 International Prize for literature, is now available in a critically acclaimed translation by the award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt. Cosmos is a metaphysical noir thriller narrated by Witold, a seedy, pathetic, and witty student, who is charming and appalling by turns. On his way to a relaxing vacation he meets the despondent Fuks. As they set off together for a family-run pension in the Carpathian Mountains where they discover a dead bird hanging from a string. Is this a strange but meaningless occurrence or is it the beginning of a string of bizarre events?

Tags Literary

Praise

“A master of verbal burlesque, a connoisseur of psychological blackmail.” —John Updike

Cosmos is a vicious and uncompromised little gem of the obscene.” —Adam Novy, The Believer

“Probably the most important twentieth-century novelist that most Western readers have never heard of.” —Benjamin Paloff, Words Without Borders

Awards

Selected for AAUP Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries, 2006

Excerpt

Chapter 1

I’ll tell you about another adventure that’s even more strange . . .

Sweat, Fuks is walking, I’m behind him, pant legs, heels, sand, we’re plodding on, plodding on, ruts, clods of dirt, glassy pebbles flashing, the glare, the heat humming, quivering, everything is black in the sunlight, cottages, fences, fields, woods, the road, this march, from where, what for, a lot could be said, actually I was worn out by my father and mother, by my family in general, I wanted to prepare for at least one of my exams and also to breathe in change, break loose, spend time someplace far away.

I went to Zakopane, I’m walking along the Krupówki, thinking about finding a cheap little boarding house, when I run into Fuks, his faded-blond, carroty mug, bug-eyed, his gaze smeared with apathy, but he’s glad, and I’m glad, how are you, what are you doing here, I’m looking for a room, me too, I have an address—he says—of a small country place where it’s cheaper because it’s far away, out in the sticks somewhere. So we go on, pant legs, heels in the sand, the road and the heat, I look down, the earth and the sand, pebbles sparkling, one two, one two, pant legs, heels, sweat, eyelids heavy from a sleepless night on the train, nothing but a rank-and-file trudging along. He stopped.

“Let’s rest.”

“How far is it?”

“Not far.”

I looked around and saw whatever there was to see, and it was precisely what I didn’t want to see because I had seen it so many times before: pines and fences, firs and cottages, weeds and grass, a ditch, footpaths and cabbage patches, fields and a chimney . . . the air . . . all glistening in the sun, yet black, the blackness of trees, the grayness of the soil, the earthy green of plants, everything rather black. A dog barked, Fuks turned into a thicket.

“It’s cooler here.”

“Let’s go on.”

“Wait a minute. Let’s sit down a while.”

He ventured deeper into the bushes where recesses and hollows were opening up, darkened from above by a canopy of intertwining hazel branches and boughs of spruce, I ventured with my gaze into the disarray of leaves, twigs, blotches of light, thickets, recesses, thrusts, slants, bends, curves, devil knows what, into a mottled space that was charging and receding, first growing quiet, then, I don’t know, swelling, displacing everything, opening wide . . . lost and drenched in sweat, I felt the ground below, black and bare. There was something stuck between the trees—something was protruding that was different and strange, though indistinct . . . and this is what my companion was also watching.

“A sparrow.”

“Ah.”

It was a sparrow. A sparrow hanging on a piece of wire. Hanged. Its little head to one side, its beak wide open. It was hanging on a thin wire hooked over a branch.

Remarkable. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow. The eccentricity of it clamored with a loud voice and pointed to a human hand that had torn into the thicket—but who?

Who hanged it, why, for what reason? . . . my thoughts were entangled in this overgrowth abounding in a million combinations, the jolting train ride, the night filled with the rumble of the train, lack of sleep, the air, the sun, the march here with this Fuks, there was Jasia and my mother, the mess with the letter, the way I had “cold-shouldered” my father, there was Roman, and also Fuks’s problem with his boss in the office (that he’s been telling me about), ruts, clods of dirt, heels, pant legs, pebbles, leaves, all of it suddenly fell down before the bird, like a crowd on its knees, and the bird, the eccentric, seized the reign . . . and reigned in this nook.

“Who could have hanged it?”

“Some kid.”

“No. It’s too high up.”

“Let’s go.”

But he didn’t stir. The sparrow was hanging. The ground was bare but in some places short, sparse grass was encroaching on it, many things lay about, a piece of bent sheet metal, a stick, another stick, some torn cardboard, a smaller stick, there was also a beetle, an ant, another ant, some unfamiliar bug, a wood chip, and so on and on, all the way to the scrub at the roots of the bushes—he watched as I did. “Let’s go.” But he went on standing, looking, the sparrow was hanging, I was standing, looking. “Let’s go.” “Let’s go.” But we didn’t budge, perhaps because we had already stood here too long and the right moment for departure had passed . . . and now it was all becoming heavier, more awkward . . . the two of us with the hanging sparrow in the bushes . . . and something like a violation of balance, or tactlessness, an impropriety on our part loomed in my mind . . . I was sleepy.

“Well, let’s get going!” I said, and we left . . . leaving the sparrow in the bushes, all alone.

Further march down the road in the sun scorched and wearied us, so we stopped, disgruntled, and again I asked “Is it far?” Fuks answered by pointing to a notice posted on a fence: “They’ve got rooms for rent here too.” I looked. A little garden. In the garden there was a house behind a hedge, no ornaments or balconies, boring and shabby, low budget, with a skimpy porch sticking out, wooden, Zakopane-style, with two rows of windows, five each on the first and second floors, while in the little garden—a few stunted trees, pansies withering in the flower beds, a couple of gravel footpaths. But he thought we should check it out, why not, sometimes in a dingy place like this the food could be finger-licking good, cheap too. I was ready to walk in and look, though we had passed a few similar notices and hadn’t paid any attention, and besides, I was dripping with sweat. He opened the gate, and we walked along the gravel path toward the glittering windowpanes. He rang the bell, we stood a while on the porch until the door opened and a woman, no longer young, about forty, came out, maybe a housekeeper, bosomy and slightly plump.

“We’d like to see the rooms.”

“One moment please, I’ll get the lady of the house.”

We waited on the porch, the din of the train still in my head, the journey, the previous day’s events, the swarm, the haze, the roar. Cascading, overwhelming roar. What intrigued me in this woman was a strange deformity of the mouth in the face of a bright-eyed, decent little housekeeper—her mouth was as if incised on one side, and its lengthening, just by a bit, by a fraction of an inch, made her upper lip curl upward, leap aside, or slither away, almost like a reptile, and that sideways slipperiness slipping away repelled me by its reptilian, frog-like coldness, and, like a dark passage, it instantly warmed and aroused me, leading me to a sin with her, sexual, slippery, and lubricious. And her voice came as a surprise—I don’t know what kind of voice I had expected from such a mouth—but she sounded like an ordinary housekeeper, middle-aged and corpulent. I now heard her call from inside the house: “Auntie! A couple of gentlemen are here about the room!”

After a few moments the aunt trundled out on her short little legs as if on a rolling pin, she was rotund—we exchanged a few remarks, yes indeed, there is a room for two, with board, please come this way! A whiff of ground coffee, a narrow hallway, a small alcove, wooden stairs, you’re here for a while, ah, yes, studying, it’s peaceful here, quiet . . . at the top there was another hallway and several doors, the house was cramped. She opened the door to the last room off the hallway, I only glanced at it, because it was like all rooms for rent, dark, shades drawn, two beds and a wardrobe, one clothes hanger, a water pitcher on a saucer, two small lamps by the beds, no bulbs, a mirror in a grimy frame, ugly. From under the window shade a little sunlight settled in a spot on the floor, the scent of ivy floated in and with it the buzzing of a gadfly. And yet . . . and yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not quite as she should have been, though I don’t know what gave me the sense of this being, let’s say, so out of place—whether it was that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress—or that her leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day. Was she asleep? When she saw us she sat up and tidied her hair.

“Lena, what are you doing, honey? Really! Gentlemen—my daughter.”

In response to our bows she nodded her head, rose, and left silently—her silence put to rest the thought of anything out of the ordinary.

We were shown another room next door, exactly the same but slightly cheaper because it wasn’t connected directly to a bathroom. Fuks sat on the bed, Mrs. Wojtys, a bank manager’s wife, sat on a little chair, and the final upshot was that we rented the cheaper room, with board, of which she said: “You’ll see for yourselves.”

We were to have breakfast and lunch in our room and supper downstairs with the family.

“Go back for your luggage, gentlemen, Katasia and I will get everything ready.”

We returned to town for our luggage.

We came back with our luggage.

We unpacked while Fuks was explaining how lucky we were, the room was inexpensive, the other one, the one that had been recommended to him would surely have been more expensive . . . and also farther away . . . “The grub will be good, you’ll see!” I grew more and more weary of his fish-face, and . . . to sleep . . . sleep . . . I went to the window, looked out, that wretched little garden was scorching in the sun, farther on there was the fence and the road, and beyond that two spruce trees marked the spot in the thicket where the sparrow was hanging. I threw myself on the bed, spun around, fell asleep, mouth slipping from mouth, lips more like lips because they were less like lips . . . but I was no longer asleep. Something had awakened me. The housekeeper was standing over me. It was morning, yet dark, like night. Because it wasn’t morning. She was waking me: “The Mr. and Mrs. Wojtys would like you to come down for supper.” I got up. Fuks was already putting on his shoes. Supper. In the dining room, a tight cubbyhole, a sideboard with a mirror, yogurt, radishes, and the eloquence of Mr. Wojtys, the ex-bank manager, who wore a signet ring and gold cufflinks:

“Mark you, dear fellow, I have now designated myself to be at the beck and call of my better half, and I am to render specific services, namely, when the faucet goes on the fritz, or the radio . . . I would recommend more sweetie butter with the radishes, the butter is tip-top . . . ”

“Thank you.”

“This heat, there’s bound to be a thunderstorm, I swear on the holiest of holies, bless me and my grenadiers!”

“Did you hear the thunder, Daddy, beyond the forest, far away?” (This was Lena, I hadn’t seen much of her yet, I hadn’t seen much of anything, in any case the ex-manager or the ex-director was expressing himself with a flourish.) “May I suggest a teensy-weensy helping of curdled milk, my wife is a very special specialist when it comes to curdled milkie, and what is it that makes hers the crème de la crème, my dear fellow? It’s the pot! The quality of milk fermentation depends on the lactic attributes of the pot.” “What do you know, Leon!” (The ex-manager’s wife interjected this.) “I’m a bridge player, my dears, an ex-banker, now a bridge player in the afternoons as well as Sunday nights, by special wifely dispensation! So, gentlemen, you are here to study? Quite so, perfect, peace and quiet, the intellect can wallow like fruit in a compote . . . ” But I wasn’t really listening, Mr. Leon’s head was like a dome, elf-like, its baldness riding over the table, accentuated by the sarcastic flashing of his pince-nez, next to him Lena, a lake, and the polite Mrs. Leon sitting on her rotundity and rising from it to preside over supper with self-sacrifice, the nature of which I had not yet grasped, Fuks saying something pallid, white, phlegmatic—I ate a piece of meat pie, still feeling sleepy, they talked about the dust in the air, that the season had not yet begun, I asked if it was cool at night, we finished the meat pie, then the fruit compote made its appearance, and, after the compote, Katasia pushed an ashtray toward Lena, the ashtray had a wire mesh—as if an echo, a faint echo of the other net (on the bed), on which a leg, a foot, a calf lay on the wire netting of the bed when I had walked into the room etc., etc. Katasia’s lip, slithering, found itself near Lena’s little mouth.

I hovered over it, I, who after leaving the other, there, in Warsaw, now became stuck in this, here, and I was beginning to . . . I hovered for one brief moment, but then Katasia left, Lena moved the ashtray to the center of the table—I lit a cigarette—someone turned on the radio—Mr. Wojtys drummed on the table with his fingertips and hummed a little tune, something like ti-ri-ri, but then broke off—drummed again, hummed again and broke off. It was cramped. The room was too small. Lena’s mouth closing and parting, its shyness . . . and that’s it, goodnight, we’re on our way upstairs.

We were undressing, and Fuks, shirt in hand, resumed his complaints about his boss, Drozdowski, he moaned whitely and wanly, carrot-like, that Drozdowski, that at first they got along famously, then something or other went sour, one way or another, I began to get on his nerves, can you imagine, I get on his nerves, let me move a finger and I get on his nerves, do you understand that, to get on your boss’s nerves, seven hours a day, he can’t stand me, he obviously tries not to look at me for seven hours straight, and if he happens to look at me his eyeballs skip away as if he’d been scalded, for seven hours! I don’t know—Fuks went on, his eyes fixed on his shoes—sometimes I feel like falling on my knees and crying out: Forgive me, Mr. Drozdowski, forgive me! But forgive me for what? And it’s not even his fault, I really do irritate him, my friends at work tell me shush, stay out of his sight, but—Fuks ogled me sadly, fish-like, with melancholy—but how can I keep in or out of his sight when we’re together in the same room seven hours a day, if I clear my throat, move my hand, he breaks out in a rash. Maybe I stink? And in my mind I associated the lamentations of the rejected Fuks with my departure from Warsaw, resentful, disdaining, both of us, he and I, dispossessed . . . the resentment . . . and so we went on undressing in this rented, unfamiliar room, in a house found by a fluke, by accident, like two castaways, spurned. We talked some more about the Wojtyses, the family atmosphere, I fell asleep. I awoke. It was night. Dark. Buried under my sheets, a few minutes passed before I found myself again in the room with the wardrobe, the night table, the water pitcher, until I found my bearings in relation to the windows and the door—which I managed to do thanks to a persistent though silent cerebral effort. I vacillated for a long time, what should I do, go back to sleep or not . . . I didn’t feel like sleeping, I didn’t feel like getting up either, so I mulled it over: should I get up, or sleep, or lie here, finally I stuck out my leg and sat up on the bed, and when I sat up the white blotch of the curtained window loomed before my eyes and, stepping up to it barefoot, I drew the curtain aside: there, beyond the little garden, beyond the fence, beyond the road was the spot where the sparrow was hanging, hanged among the tangled branches, the black soil below it, where the bit of cardboard, the piece of sheet metal, the strips of lath, were lying about, where the tips of spruce were basking in the starlit night. I pulled the curtain back but I didn’t move away because it occurred to me that Fuks might be watching me.

In fact, I couldn’t hear him breathing . . . and if he wasn’t asleep he must have seen that I was looking out the window, which in itself wouldn’t be anything perverse were it not for the night and the bird, the bird in the night, the bird with the night. Because my looking out the window must have had something to do with the bird . . . and this was embarrassing . . . but the silence had lasted far too long and was too absolute, bringing me to the certainty that he was not there, that he had not been there all along, that no one lay on his bed. I drew the curtain back again, and by the glow of the starry swarms I saw a vacant space where Fuks should have been. Where did he go?

To the bathroom? No, the hum of water from there was solitary. But in that case . . . what if he had gone to see the sparrow? I don’t know why I thought of it, but I knew right away that this was quite possible, he could have gone, he had been interested in the sparrow, he was in the bushes looking for an explanation, his carroty, phlegmatic mug was just the thing for such a search, it was just like him . . . to ponder, to scheme, who hanged it, why did he hang it . . . and, maybe he chose this house, among other things, because of the sparrow (this would be stretching it a bit, but the thought was there, additionally, in the background), anyway, he had awakened, or maybe he hadn’t gone to sleep at all, and, his curiosity piqued, he got up, maybe he went to check some detail and to look around in the night? . . . was he playing detective? . . . I was inclined to believe it. More and more I was inclined to believe it. His doing this did me no harm, on balance, but I would have preferred not to begin our stay at the Wojtyses’ with such nocturnal escapades and, furthermore, I was a bit irritated that the sparrow was emerging again, bothering us, and it seemed to fluff its feathers, put on airs and pretend to be more important than it really was—and if this moron had actually gone to it, the sparrow would become a personage accepting visitors! I smiled. What next? I didn’t know what to do, yet I didn’t feel like going back to bed, I put on my pants, opened the door to the hallway, stuck out my head. There was no one, it was cooler, in the wan darkness I was aware of a little window to the left at the top of the stairs, I listened but heard nothing . . . I went out into the hallway, but somehow I didn’t relish the idea that a short while ago he had silently gone out, and now I’m silently going out . . . in sum, our two exits were not quite so innocent . . . And when I left the room I re-created in my mind the floor plan of the house, the branching of the rooms, the arrangement of walls, alcoves, passages, furniture, and even people . . . all unfamiliar, I was barely becoming acquainted with it.

But here I was in the hallway of a strange house, in the dead of night, in just my pants and shirt—this peeked at sensuality, it was like slithering toward Katasia with the same slipperiness as her lip . . . where was she sleeping? Sleeping? As soon as I asked myself that, I became someone walking toward her in the night, down the hallway, barefoot, in just my shirt and pants, the tiny, just-a-tad twirl-up of her lip, slippery and reptilian, together with my cold and disagreeable rejection and estrangement from those I had left behind in Warsaw, drove me coldly toward her swinish lust which, somewhere here, in this sleeping house . . .Where was she sleeping? I took a few steps, reached the stairs and looked out the little window, the only one in the hallway, it looked out from the other side of the house, the one opposite the road and the sparrow, onto a wide space surrounded by a wall and lit by swarms and multitudes of stars; here was a similar little garden with gravel footpaths and frail little trees, passing farther on into a vacant lot with a pile of bricks and a small shed . . . To the left, next to the house, was an addition, probably the kitchen, the laundry, maybe it was there that Katasia rocked to sleep the frolic of her little mouth . . .

Moonless star-filled sky—stupendous—constellations emerged out of the swarms of stars, some I knew, the Big Dipper, the Great Bear, I was identifying them, but others, unfamiliar to me, were also lurking there, as if inscribed into the distribution of the major stars, I tried to fill in lines that might bind them into forms . . . and this deciphering, this charting, suddenly wearied me, I switched to the little garden, but here too the multiplicity of objects such as a chimney, a pipe, the angle of a gutter, the cornice of a wall, a small tree, as well as their more involved combinations like the turn and disappearance of the path, the rhythm of shadows, soon wearied me . . . yet I would begin anew, though reluctantly, to look for forms, patterns, I no longer felt like it, I was bored and impatient and cranky, until I realized that what riveted me to these objects, how shall I put it, what attracted me to the “behind,” the “beyond,” was the way that one object was “behind” the other, that the pipe was behind the chimney, the wall was behind the corner of the kitchen, just like . . . like . . . like . . . at supper when Katasia’s lips were behind Lena’s little mouth when Katasia moved the ashtray with the wire mesh while leaning over Lena, lowering her slithering lips close to . . . I was more surprised than I should have been, at this point I was inclined to exaggerate everything, and besides, the constellations, the Big Dipper, etc., amounted to something cerebral, exhausting, and I thought “what? mouths, together?” I was particularly astonished by the fact that both their mouths were now, in my imagination, in my memory, more closely linked together than then, at the table, I tried to clear my head by shaking it, but that made the connection of Lena’s lips with Katasia’s lips even more clear-cut, so I smirked, because truly, Katasia’s twirled-up lasciviousness, her slipping into swinish lust had nothing, absolutely nothing in common with the fresh parting and innocent closing of Lena’s lips, it’s just that one was “in relation to the other”—as on a map, where one city is in relation to another city—anyway, the idea of maps had entered my head, a map of the sky, or an ordinary map with cities, etc. The entire “connection” was not really a connection, merely one mouth considered in relation to another mouth, in the sense of distance, for example, of direction and position . . . nothing more . . . but, while I now estimated that Katasia’s mouth was most likely somewhere in the vicinity of the kitchen (she slept thereabouts), in fact I wondered where, in what direction, and at what distance was it from Lena’s little mouth. And my coldly-lustful striving in the hallway toward Katasia underwent a dislocation because of Lena’s incidental intrusion.

And this was accompanied by increasing distraction. Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us. And I, gazing at the little garden, at the sky, at the “beyond” duality of the two mouths, I knew, I knew that something was eluding me . . . something important . . . Fuks! Where was Fuks? Was he “playing detective”? I hoped this wouldn’t end in a big mess! I was disgruntled about having rented a room with this fish-like Fuks whom I hardly knew . . . but there, ahead of me was the little garden, the trees, the footpaths passing into a field with a pile of bricks and all the way on to a wall that was incredibly white, but this time it all appeared as a visible sign of something that I could not see, namely the other side of the house, where there also was a bit of a garden, then the fence, the road, and beyond it the thicket . . . and within me the tension of starlight merged with the tension of the hanged bird. Was Fuks there, by the sparrow?

The sparrow! The sparrow! Actually neither Fuks nor the sparrow was of much interest to me, it was the mouth, quite plainly, that really intrigued me . . . or so I thought in my distraction . . . and as I let go of the sparrow to concentrate on the mouth, a tiresome game of tennis evolved, for the sparrow sent me to the mouth, the mouth back to the sparrow, and I found myself between the sparrow and the mouth, one hiding behind the other, and, as soon as I caught up with the mouth, eagerly, as if I had lost it, I already knew that beyond this side of the house was the other side, that beyond the mouth was the sparrow hanging all alone . . . But worst of all, the sparrow could not be placed on the same map as the mouth, it was totally beyond, in another realm, it was here quite by chance, ridiculous actually, so why was it cropping up, it had no right! . . . Oh, oh, it had no right! Had no right? The less justification it had the more strongly it inflicted itself upon me and became more intrusive and more difficult for me to shake off—if it had no right, then the fact that it was pestering me was all the more significant!

I stood a while longer in the hallway, between the sparrow and the mouth. I returned to my room, lay down, and fell asleep faster than one would have expected.

The next day we took out our books and papers and went to work—I didn’t ask him what he had done during the night—I felt reluctant to recall my own adventures in the hallway, I was like someone who had succumbed to fanciful extravagances and now feels awkward, yes, I felt awkward, but Fuks looked sheepish too and mutely turned to his calculations, which were laborious, on numerous scraps of paper, he even used logarithms, his goal being to develop a method at roulette, a method that would be, without the slightest doubt—and he knew it—humbug, tommyrot, but on which he focused all his energies because he had nothing better to do, nothing to keep him busy, his situation was hopeless, his vacation would be over in two weeks, he would then return to his office and to Drozdowski who would make superhuman efforts not to look at him, but there was no way around it because, even if he were to carry out his duties diligently, this too would be unbearable to Drozdowski . . . Exuding yawns, his eyes turned into tiny slits, he even stopped complaining, he was the way he was, who cares, all he could do now was to taunt me about my aggravation with my family, that’s it, see, everyone’s got his troubles, they’re bugging you too, shit, I tell you, it’s horrible, it’s all a sham!

In the afternoon we went by bus to Krupówki, did some shopping. Suppertime came, I had been waiting for it impatiently because I wanted to see Lena and Katasia, Katasia with Lena, after last night. In the meantime, I restrained myself from thinking about them, first, let me see them again, then think.

But what an unexpected upset of the apple cart!

She was a married woman! Her husband showed up after we had started eating, and now he was bringing his longish nose to his plate, while I watched this erotic mate of hers with a distasteful curiosity. What confusion—not that I was jealous, it’s just that now she seemed different, totally changed by this man who was so alien to me, yet privy to the most secret closings of her little mouth—it was obvious that they were only married recently, he covered her hand with his hand and looked into her eyes. What was he like? Quite a big man, well built, on the heavy side, intelligent enough, an architect working on the construction of a hotel. He spoke little, reached for a radish now and then—but what was he like? What was he like? And how were they with each other when alone, how was he with her, she with him, the two of them together? . . . ugh, to bump into a man at the side of a woman who turns us on, that’s no fun . . . worse still, such a man, a total stranger, suddenly becomes the object of our—compulsory—curiosity, and we have to keep guessing his personal likes and dislikes . . . even though it disgusts us . . . we have to experience him through the woman. I don’t know which I would prefer: alluring as she is, that she should now turn out to be repulsive because of him, or that she also become enticing because of the man she has chosen—awful possibilities either way!

Were they in love? Passionate love? Sensible? Romantic? Easy? Difficult? Not in love at all? Here, at the table, in the presence of her family, it was just the casual tenderness of a young couple that one could not, after all, watch at will, but only by stealing glances, by applying a whole system of maneuvers “on the border,” that would not transgress the demarcation line . . . I couldn’t very well stare him in the face, my inquiry, ardent yet somewhat disgusting, had to be limited to his hand as it lay on the table in front of me, near her palm, I looked at this hand, big, clean, fingers not unpleasant, nails clipped . . . I continued watching it, and I became more and more infuriated that I had to penetrate the erotic possibilities of this hand (as if I were her, Lena). I found out nothing. Actually, the hand looked decent enough, but what of it, everything depends on the touch (I thought), on how he touches her, and I could perfectly well imagine their touching each other to be decent, or indecent, or dissolute, wild, mad, or simply conjugal—and nothing, nothing is known, nothing, because why couldn’t shapely hands touch each other grotesquely, even astraddle, what assurance was there? Yet it was hard to imagine that a hand, so healthy and decent, would indulge in such excesses. Really, but suppose that it “nevertheless” did, then this “nevertheless” would become yet one more depravity. And if I could not have any certainty about their hands, what about their persons, in the background, where I hardly dared to look? And I knew that a single, clandestine, barely visible hooking of his finger round her finger would be enough for their persons to become infinitely licentious, even though he, Ludwik, was just at that moment saying that he had brought the photos, and that they had come out very well, he’ll show them after supper . . .

“What a comical phenomenon,” Fuks was finishing his account of finding the sparrow in the bushes on our way here. “A hanged sparrow! Who would ever think of hanging a sparrow? It’s like flavoring borscht with two mushrooms instead of just one—it’s too much!”

“Two mushrooms, two mushrooms indeed!” Mr. Leon politely assented, happy to agree. “Two mushrooms, now you figuree that, if you please, fiddle-de-dee, but what sadism!”

“Hooligans,” opined Mrs. Roly-Poly curtly and picked a thread off his cuff, while he instantly and happily agreed: “Hooligans.”To which Roly-Poly replied:

“You always have to contradict!”

“But Marysweetie, I say yes, hooligans!”

“But I say, hooligans!” she exclaimed, as if he had said something different.

“That’s right, hooligans, I say, hooligans . . .”

“You don’t know what you’re saying!”

She straightened the border of the handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket.

Katasia emerged from the pantry to clear the plates, and her twirled-up, slippery, darting lip appeared near the mouth that was across the table from me—I had been anxiously awaiting this moment while at the same time restraining myself, turning away from it so as not to influence anything, or interfere . . . so that the experiment would come off objectively. Mouth immediately began to “relate to” mouth . . . and I saw that just then her husband was saying something to her, and Leon was butting in, and Katasia was busy walking around, and all the while mouth was relating to mouth, like a star to a star, and this mouth constellation corroborated my nocturnal escapades which I’d rather be done with . . . yet mouth with mouth, that slithering away disgusting twirled-up lip slipping away with that soft and pure mouth closing-and-parting . . . as if they really had something in common! I lapsed into something like a trembling incredulity over two mouths having nothing in common yet having something in common, this fact overwhelmed me and actually plunged me even deeper into unbelievable distraction—and it was all suffused with the night, as if steeped in yesterday, murky.

Ludwik wiped his mouth with a napkin, and, setting it aside in an orderly fashion (he seemed to be very neat and clean, but his cleanliness could actually be filthy . . .), and he said, in his bass-baritone voice, that about a week ago he too had noticed a hanged chicken on a spruce by the roadside—but he had not given it much thought, anyway after a couple of days the chicken was gone.

“Oh, wonder of wonders,” Fuks marveled, “hanged sparrows, hanging chickens, maybe it’s an omen that the world is coming to an end? How high up was the chicken hanging? How far from the road?”

He was asking these questions because Drozdowski couldn’t stand him, because he hated Drozdowski, because he didn’t know what else to do . . . He ate a radish.

“Hooligans,” repeated Mrs. Roly-Poly. She adjusted the bread in the basket with the gesture of a good hostess and provider of meals. She then blew off some bread crumbs. “Hooligans! There are lots of kids around, they do whatever they please!”

“That’s right!” Leon agreed.

“The crux of the matter is,” Fuks wanly remarked, “both the sparrow and the chicken were hanged at the reach of an adult’s hand.”

“Well? If not hooligans then who? So you think, siree, that it’s some weirdo? I haven’t heard of any weirdos in this vicinity.”

He hummed ti-ri-ri and with great attention turned to making bread pellets—he lined them up in a row on the tablecloth, watched them.

Katasia pushed the wire-mesh ashtray toward Lena. Lena flicked the ash from her cigarette, while within me her leg responded on the wire netting of the bed, what distraction, mouth above mouth, bird and wire, chicken and sparrow, she and her husband, chimney behind drainpipe, lips behind lips, mouth and mouth, little trees and footpaths, trees and the road, too much, too much, without rhyme or reason, wave after wave, immensity in distraction, dissipation. Distraction. Tiresome confusion, there in the corner was a bottle standing on a shelf and one could see a piece of something, maybe of a cork, stuck to the neck . . .

. . . I glued myself to the cork, and thus I rested with it until we went to bed, then, dreaming, sleeping, for the next few days nothing, nothing at all, a mire of activities, words, eating, going up and going down the stairs, though I did find out this and that, primo, that Lena taught foreign languages, she had married Ludwik merely two months ago, they went to Hel Peninsula, now they’ll live here until he finishes their little house—all this Katasia told me, kindly, happy to oblige, dustcloth in hand, from one piece of furniture to another, secundo (this from Roly-Poly) “it needs to be cut again, then sewn up, the surgeon told me, an old friend of Lena’s, I’ve told Katasia so many times that I’ll cover the costs because, you know, she’s my niece even though she’s a simple peasant from the country, near Grojec, but I’m not one to disown poor relatives, and besides, it’s not aesthetic-looking, it offends one’s sense of the aesthetic, really, it’s just gross, how many times have I told her over the years, because it’s already been five years you know, since the accident, the bus ran into a tree, lucky nothing worse happened, how many times have I told her Kata, don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid, go to the surgeon, have it done, look at yourself, fix your face, but no, well, she’s lazy, scared, days pass, once in a while she’ll say I’ll go, auntie, I’ll go right away, but she doesn’t, and now we’re used to it, until someone reminds us, then it stares us in the face again, and even though I’m sensitive to the aesthetic, imagine the drudgery, cleaning, laundry, do this and that for Leon, then Lena wants something, then do something for Ludwik, from morning ’til night, one thing after another, while the operation waits, there’s no time for it, when Ludwik and Lena move to their little house, maybe then, but in the meantime, it’s a good thing that at least Lena has found an honest man, well, let him go and make her unhappy, I swear I’d kill him, I’d grab a knife and kill him, but thank God so far it’s not bad, it’s just that they won’t do anything for themselves, neither he, nor she, just like Leon, she’s taken after her father, I have to take care of everything, remember everything, hot water this, coffee that, do the laundry, socks, mend, iron, buttons, handkerchiefs, sandwiches, paper, polish this, glue that, they won’t do a thing, steaks, salads, from morning ’til late into the night, and, on top of it, lodgers, you know yourself how it is, I’m not saying anything, it’s true they pay, they rent rooms, but I still have to remember things for this one and for that one, have it all on time, one thing after another . . .”

. . . a multitude of other events filling, absorbing me, and every evening, as unavoidable as the moon, supper, sitting across the table from Lena, Katasia’s mouth circling around. Leon manufacturing his bread pellets and lining them up in a row, with great care—watching them intently—then after a moment’s deliberation impaling a pellet on a toothpick. Sometimes, after reflecting for a while, he would pick up a little salt on the tip of his knife and sprinkle it on the pellet, watching it dubiously through his pince-nez.

“Ti-ri-ri!

“Grażyna mine!” he said, turning to Lena,”why don’t you toss your Daddydaddy some radishy foodie food? Toss it!”

Which meant that he was asking her to pass him the radishes. It was difficult to understand such gibberish. “Oh Grażyna mine, your Daddy’s princess beautiful!” “Roly-Poly my petite, what are you dawdling over, can’t you see I want sucko!” He didn’t always speak in “word-monsters,” sometimes he began crazily and ended quite normally, or vice versa—the shining roundness of his bald dome, his face stuck below it, his pince-nez stuck to that, hovered above the table like a balloon—his mood often turned humorous, and he would crack jokes, mommydear, easy does it, you know the one about the bicycle and the tricycle, when Icyk sat on a bicyk, what a tricyk, yahoo! . . .While Roly-Poly would smooth out something around his ear or on his collar. He would sink into a reverie and braid the fringe of a napkin, or push a toothpick into the tablecloth—not just anywhere but in certain spots only, to which, after lengthy reflection and with knitted brow, he would return.

“Ti-ri-ri.”

This irritated me because of Fuks, I knew it was grist for his Drozdowski mill, the mill that kept grinding him from morning until night, because he could not escape returning to his office in three weeks, and then Drozdowski would stare at the heating stove with a martyr-like expression, because, Fuks said, he even gets a rash from my jacket, he’s grown sick of me, it can’t be helped, he’s grown sick of me . . . and Leon’s eccentricities somehow suited Fuks because he watched them with his yellow, pallid, carroty look . . . and this pushed me even further into resenting my parents, into rejecting all that was there, in Warsaw, and I sat with resentment and hostility, halfheartedly watching Ludwik’s hand that I couldn’t care less about, that repulsed me, that riveted me, compelling me to penetrate its erotic-tactile possibilities . . . then there was Roly-Poly again, I knew, overflowing with activities, laundry, sweeping, mending, tidying up, ironing, etc., etc., and so on and on. Distraction. Swish and swirl. I would find my piece of cork on the bottle, watch the neck and the cork for the sake, I suppose, of not watching everything, the cork became in a way my bark on the ocean, even though only a distant hum reached me from the ocean, a hum too universal and too general to be really audible. And that was all. Several days filled with a little of everything.

The sweltering heat continued. What an exhausting summer! And so it dragged on with the husband, the hands, the mouths, with Fuks, with Leon, it dragged on in the sweltering heat, like someone walking down the road . . . On the fourth or fifth day my eyes strayed, not for the first time actually, far into the room, I was sipping tea, smoking a cigarette, and, having abandoned the cork, I fastened my eye on a nail in the wall, next to the shelf, and from the nail I moved on to the cupboard, I counted the slats, tired and sleepy I forayed into the less accessible places above the cupboard where the wallpaper was frayed, and I went trudging on to the ceiling, a white desert; but the tedious whiteness changed slightly farther on, near the window, into a rough, darker expanse contaminated with dampness and covered with a complex geography of continents, bays, islands, peninsulas, strange concentric circles reminiscent of the craters of the moon, and other lines, slanting, slipping away—sick in places like impetigo, elsewhere wild and unbridled, or capricious with curlicues and turns, it breathed with the terror of finality, lost itself in a giddy distance. And dots, I don’t know what from, not likely from flies, their origins totally inscrutable . . . Gazing, drowned in it and in my own complexities, I gazed and gazed without any particular effort yet stubbornly, until in the end it was as if I were crossing some kind of a threshold—and little by little I was almost “on the other side”—I took a gulp of tea—Fuks asked:

“What are you gawking at?”

I didn’t feel like talking, it was stuffy, the tea. I replied:

“That line there, in the corner, behind the island, and that sort of a triangle . . . Next to the straits.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What about it?”

“Well . . .”

After a long while I asked:

“What does it remind you of?”

“That smudge and the line?” he took it up eagerly, and I knew why so eagerly, I knew this would distract him from Drozdowski. “That? I’ll tell you, just a minute. A rake.”

“Maybe a rake.”

Lena joined in the conversation because we were playing at guessing, a parlor game, easy and in keeping with her shyness.

“What do you mean a rake?! It’s a little arrow.”

Fuks protested: “Nonsense, it’s not an arrow!”

A couple of minutes filled with something else, Ludwik asked Leon, “Would you like to play chess, father?” I had a broken fingernail that was bothering me, a newspaper fell to the floor, dogs barked outside the window (two little dogs, young, amusing, off their leashes at night, there was also a cat), Leon said, “One game,” Fuks said:

“Maybe it is an arrow.”

“Maybe an arrow, maybe not an arrow,” I remarked, I picked up the newspaper, Ludwik rose, a bus rolled down the road, Roly-Poly asked “Did you make that phone call?”

Chapter 2

I don’t know how to tell this . . . this story . . . because I’m telling it ex post. The arrow, for instance . . . The arrow, for instance . . . The arrow, at that time, at supper, was no more important than Leon’s chess, or the newspaper, or tea, everything—equally important, everything—was contributing to a given moment, a kind of consonance, the buzzing of a swarm. But today, ex post, I know it was the arrow that was the most important, so in telling this I move it to the forefront, from a myriad of undifferentiated facts I extract the configuration of the future. But how can one describe something except ex post? Can nothing be ever truly expressed, rendered in its anonymous becoming, can no one ever render the babbling of the nascent moment, how is it that, born out of chaos, we can never encounter it again, no sooner do we look than order . . . and form . . . are born under our very eyes? No matter. Never mind. Katasia awoke me with breakfast every morning and, with my eyes just opened from sleep, I would catch above me the impropriety of her mouth, that slippery slipaway lip superimposed on her peasant-woman’s cheeks, looking on, blue-eyed and kindly. Couldn’t she have moved away from my bed a quarter of a second sooner? Wasn’t she stooping over me a fraction of a second too long? Maybe yes . . . maybe no . . . the uncertainty . . . this possibility burrowed into me as I lay thinking of my nocturnal machinations with her. On the other hand . . . what if she stood over me out of sheer kindness? It was hard to tell, there are substantial obstacles to watching people, it’s different with inanimate objects, it’s only objects that we can truly watch. In any case, my lying beneath her mouth pinned me down each morning and remained with me throughout the day, maintaining the configuration of her mouth in which I had so stubbornly entangled myself. It was too hot for us to work, we were tired, he was bored, he stewed in his own juices, became a wretch, he was like a howling dog though he didn’t howl, he was just bored. The ceiling. One afternoon we lay supine on our beds, the windows were shaded, the afternoon buzzed with flies—and I heard his voice.

“Maybe Majziewicz would give me a job, but I can’t leave where I am, it counts as training, I’d lose a year and a half, no doubt about it, I just can’t . . . Look there, on the ceiling . . .”

“What?”

“On the ceiling. There, by the stove.”

“What?”

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“If only I could spit in his mug. But I can’t. And why should I? He means well, but I really get on his nerves, his jaw goes out of joint when he sees me . . . Have a better look at that mark on the ceiling. Don’t you see anything?”

“What?”

“It’s like that arrow, the one we spotted on the ceiling in the dining room. It’s even more distinct.”

I didn’t answer, one minute, two, then he spoke again:

“The remarkable thing is that it wasn’t there yesterday.” Silence, the heat, my head lies heavy on the pillow, a feeling of faintness, but he spoke again as if clinging to his own words that were floating in the juices of the afternoon: “It wasn’t there yesterday, a spider lowered itself from that spot yesterday and I watched it, I would have noticed the arrow—it wasn’t there yesterday. See the main line in the middle, the shaft itself, that wasn’t there, the rest, the point, the branching at the base, those, I grant you, are the old pockmarks, but the shaft, the shaft itself . . . that wasn’t there . . . ” He drew a breath, lifted himself slightly, leaned on his elbow, dust whirled around in a cluster of light rays coming through a hole in the window shade. “The shaft wasn’t there.” I heard him scramble out of bed, and I saw him in his underpants, craning his neck, examining the ceiling—it surprised me—such diligence! That ogling expression! He stuck his ogle face at the ceiling and declared: “Fifty, fifty. Yes or no. Devil only knows.” And he returned to his bed, but I knew he continued looking from there, which I found so tiresome.

After a while I heard him get up again and walk over to look at the ceiling, I wished he’d let it go . . . but he would not let it go.

“The scratch that goes through the center, the shaft itself, mind you . . . I have a hunch, it seems freshly made with a nail. It’s more conspicuous. It wasn’t there yesterday . . . I would have noticed . . . And it points in the same direction as the other, the one in the dining room.”

I lay there.

“If it’s an arrow, it must be pointing to something.”

I replied: “And if it’s not an arrow it’s not pointing.”

Last night, at supper, while examining Ludwik’s hand with that disgusting curiosity of mine—again!—I shifted my gaze to Lena’s hand that also lay on the table, and then the little hand seemed to tremble or coil ever so slightly, I was not at all sure, yet fifty, fifty . . . But as to Fuks, I didn’t like it, maybe it even infuriated me that whatever he did or said derived from Drozdowski, from disrespect, dislike, disgust . . . all the “dises” . . . well, if only I didn’t have my own problems with my parents in Warsaw, but the two together, one fed on the other. He was talking again.

He stood in his underpants, in the center of the room, talking. He suggested that we should see if the arrow pointed to anything—”what’s the harm in checking, if we’re satisfied it doesn’t point to anything, it will give us blessed peace, then it will be clear this is not an arrow that anyone has drawn on purpose but merely an illusion—there’s no other way to establish whether it’s an arrow or not an arrow.” I listened silently, I wondered how to refuse him, he insisted rather weakly, but I felt weak too, weakness pervaded everything. I suggested he check it himself if he was so keen on it—he began to insist that I would be indispensable to him in establishing the exact direction because someone has to go out, mark the direction in the hallway, in the garden—finally he said, “Two heads are better than one.”And all at once I agreed, I even rose immediately from my bed because the thought of a thrusting, resolute motion along a fixed line suddenly seemed more delectable than a glass of cold water!

We pulled our pants on.

The room now filled with decisive and clear-cut activities that, originating as they did from boredom, from idleness, from whimsy, concealed some kind of idiocy within them.

The task was not easy.

The arrow didn’t point to anything in our room, we could tell at a glance, so it was necessary to extend its course through the wall, to see if it connected with anything in the hallway, and then continue the line as accurately as possible into the garden—this called for rather complicated maneuvers that he really wouldn’t have managed without my participation. I went down to the garden and pulled out a rake from a small shed so that I could use the handle to show the line on the lawn which would correspond to the one that Fuks was signaling to me with a broomstick from the staircase window. It was close to five in the afternoon—the burning-hot gravel, the drying grasses around the young trees that gave no shade—that was down below—while above, white whorls of large, roundish clouds drifted in the mercilessly blue sky. The house gazed with two rows of windows, on the first and second floor—the windowpanes glittered . . .

Did one of the windowpanes look at me with a human eye? People were still having their afternoon naps—judging by the silence—but it was quite possible that someone watched us from behind a windowpane—Leon? Roly-Poly? Katasia?—and it was conceivable that the one watching us was the same person who sneaked into our room, most likely during the morning hours, and gouged the line that created the arrow—what for? To poke fun at us? For a lark? To tell us something? No, it didn’t make sense! Well alright, indeed, yet irrationality is a stick that has two ends, and Fuks and I at the other end of this irrationality moved and acted quite rationally—and I, engaged in such laborious maneuvers, had to bear in mind (if I didn’t want to betray my action) the possibility of a gaze lurking behind the painfully glistening and blinding windowpanes.

So I did bear it in mind. And Fuks’s gaze, looking from above, was helpful to me. I moved about cautiously so as not to arouse suspicion, I raked the grass here and there, dropped the rake as if worn out by the heat, then imperceptibly moved it with my foot in the desired direction. These precautions increased the intensity of my collaboration with Fuks more than I had intended, I moved about almost like his slave. We finally determined the direction of the arrow—the line led all the way past the tool shed by the wall where the lot, partially littered with rubble and bricks, ended as an extension of the little garden. We moved slowly in that direction, diverging here and there as if busy studying flowers and herbs, talking, gesticulating from time to time, and carefully looking for something significant. From furrow to furrow, from twig to pebble, our gaze lowered, we were absorbed by the ground that unfolded before us—gray, yellowish, rusty-dark, boring, complex, sleepy, monotonous, barren, and hard. I wiped the sweat off my face. It was all a waste of time!

We came close to the wall . . . but here we stopped, helpless . . . it seemed quite difficult to conquer the remaining ten steps, we were too exposed! So far, our march through the little garden under the gaze of the windowpanes has been relatively easy—about fifty yards across level ground—and yet it became difficult because of a concealed difficulty that turned it almost into a climb—and now this same difficulty, brought about by the progressively steeper and more dizzying climb, increased sharply, as if we were reaching a summit. What an altitude! He squatted, pretending to look at a bug, and so, hunkering down and moving as though following the bug, he reached the wall; I veered to the side, meandering here and there in order to join him in a roundabout way. We were by the wall, at the far end, in the corner made by the shed.

The heat. Grasses, some rather luxuriant and swaying in the breeze, a beetle marches on the ground, bird droppings by the wall—the heat, yet now somehow different, and a different odor, of urine perhaps, I daydreamed of remoteness, it was all remote as if we had wandered for months, a place thousands of miles away, at the ends of the earth—suddenly a whiff of warm decay, there was a pile of garbage nearby, rains had created a seepage by the wall—stalks, stems, rubble—clods of dirt, pebbles—yellowish stuff . . . The heat again, yet different, unfamiliar . . . yes, yes . . . our reaching this corner that lived apart, referred us to that other, the darkly-cool thicket with its little pieces of cardboard and sheet metal—with the sparrow—as if by the power of distance, the one echoed back to the other—and our searching here seemed to come to life.

An onerous task . . . because, even if something were hiding here, to which the arrow, on the ceiling, in our room, was pointing, how would we find it in this entanglement, among weeds, among bits and pieces, in the litter, surpassing in number everything that could be happening on walls, on ceilings? An overwhelming abundance of connections, associations . . .How many sentences can one create out of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet? How many meanings can one glean from hundreds of weeds, clods of dirt, and other trifles? Heaps and multitudes gushed also from the boards of the shed, from the wall. I got bored. I straightened up and looked at the house and the garden—these huge, synthesized shapes, these enormous mastodons of the world of reality, were restoring order—I rested. Let’s go back. I was about to say this to Fuks but his face, stuck to one spot, stopped me short.

Slightly above our heads the cracked wall formed a recess consisting of what looked like three caves diminishing in size—inside one of the caves something was hanging. A stick. A small stick, about an inch long. It hung on a white thread, not much longer. It was hitched over a jagged brick.

Nothing more. We searched through everything in the area once again. Nothing. I turned around and looked at the house, glistening with its windowpanes. A whiff of freshness announced the evening, a breath that released leaves and grasses from their torpor in the heat. The leaves trembled on the young trees standing in a row, whitewashed and propped up with stakes.

We returned to our room.

Fuks collapsed on his bed.

‘say what you will, but the arrow has led us to something,” he said warily, and I, no less warily, muttered: “Like what?”

Yet it was hard to pretend that one didn’t know: a hanged sparrow—a hanged stick—the hanging of the stick from the wall repeating the hanging in the thicket—a grotesque result that suddenly increased the sparrow’s intensity (revealing the extent to which the sparrow had lodged within us, regardless of any pretense of our forgetting it). The stick and the sparrow, the sparrow reinforced by the stick! It was hard not to think that someone had led us to the stick to make us see the connection with the sparrow . . . but why? What for? As a joke? A prank? Someone had played a trick on us, made fools of us, to amuse himself . . . I felt uneasy, Fuks felt it too, and this prompted caution.

“I wouldn’t bet three cents that somebody isn’t pulling our leg.”

“Who?”

“One of them . . . someone who was there when I talked about the sparrow and how we identified the arrow on the ceiling in the dining room. The same person gouged the arrow in our room that leads to what? To the stick on the thread. A practical joke. A hoax.”

Yet it didn’t make sense. Who would want to play such elaborate jokes? What for? Who could have known that we’d discover the arrow and take such a deep interest in it? No—this concurrence, however small, between the stick on the thread and the sparrow on the wire—was pure chance. Granted, a stick on a thread, one doesn’t see this every day . . . yet the stick could have been hanging there for a thousand reasons unrelated to the sparrow, we had exaggerated its importance because it turned up at the end point of our search, as its outcome—when in fact it wasn’t any outcome at all, it was just a stick hanging on a thread . . . Pure chance then? Indeed . . . and yet one could sense in this series of events a propensity for congruity, something hazily linking them together—the hanged sparrow—the hanged chicken—the arrow in the dining room—the arrow in our room—the stick hanging on a thread—something was trying to break through and press toward meaning, as in charades, when letters begin to make their way toward forming a word. What word? Indeed, it seemed that everything wanted to act in the name of an idea . . .What idea?

What idea? Whose idea? If there was an idea, someone must have been behind it—but who? Who would have wanted to bother? But what if . . . what if Fuks had played a trick on me, I don’t know, out of boredom maybe . . . but no, why on earth Fuks . . . so much effort into a stupid caper . . . no, this didn’t make sense either. Pure chance then? I might have finally conceded that it was pure chance were it not for another abnormality that somehow had the tendency to hook onto this abnormality . . . were it not for the strangeness of the stick backed by another strangeness that I preferred not to tell Fuks.

“Katasia.”

Obviously he too had thought of at least one of the faces of the Sphinx—he sat on his bed, head bowed, slowly swinging his dangling legs.

“What?” I asked.

“When someone has such an affected little beak . . . ” he mused and added cunningly: “Go to your own for whatever turns you on!” He liked that and repeated with conviction: “I tell you, believe me, go to your own for whatever turns you on.”

Indeed . . . the lip and the stick appeared to be roughly related, if only because the lip was so eerie . . . but what then? Accept that Katasia was amusing herself with such subtle intrigues? Nonsense. And yet there was a kinship . . . the kinship, the associations opened before me like a dark cavern, dark yet pulling me in, sucking me in, because behind Katasia’s lip loomed Lena’s lips parting-and-closing, and I even felt a hot shock because the stick, in relating, after all, to the sparrow in the bushes, was as if the first sign (but oh, how pale and indistinct) in the objective world that confirmed, as it were, my hallucinations about Lena’s mouth “relating to” Katasia’s mouth—a faint, fantastic analogy but, after all, this same “relating to” came into play here, somehow establishing a pattern. Did Fuks know anything about this mouth connection or the association between Lena and Katasia—had he imagined such a thing—or was it solely and entirely my own? . . . Not for the world would I ask him . . . And not just because it was embarrassing. Not for the world would I entrust this whole affair to his say or to his ogling eyes that had unnerved Drozdowski, his having problems with Drozdowski, just as I had mine with my parents, weakened me, stifled and tortured me—I didn’t want him as a confidant or a buddy! No to that—”no” was generally the key word in our relationship. No and no. And yet, I became excited when he said “Katasia”—I was almost happy that someone else, not just I, had spotted the possibility that her lip had some connection with the stick and the bird.

“Katasia,” he said slowly, reflecting, “Katasia . . . ” But I could already see, after a brief euphoria, the whitish pallor of his gaze return, Drozdowski appeared on the horizon and, just for the sake of killing time, Fuks went on spinning his inept reasoning: “The minute I saw her . . . the problem with her mouth seemed . . . but . . . it could be either way . . . this way or that . . . What do you think?”