OED LOC arXiv Bodleian

The Street of Crocodiles

Bruno Schulz



IN JULY my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.
   On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun-the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious black morellos that smelled so much better than they tasted; apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids-the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell.
   The dark first floor apartment of the house in Market Square was shot through each day by the naked heat of summer: the silence of the shimmering streaks of air, the squares of brightness dreaming their intense dreams on the floor; the sound of a barrel-organ rising from the deepest golden vein of day; two or three bars of a chorus, played on a distant piano over and over again, melting in the sun on the white pavement, lost in the fire of high noon.
   After tidying up, Adela would plunge the rooms into semi-darkness by drawing down the linen blinds. All colours immediately fell an octave lower, the room filled with shadows, as if it had sunk to the bottom of the sea and the light was reflected in mirrors of green water- and the heat of the day began to breathe on the blinds as they stirred slightly in their day-dreams.
   On Saturday afternoons I used to go for a walk with my mother. From the dusk of the hallway, we stepped at once into the brightness of the day. The passers-by, bathed in melting gold, had their eyes half closed against the glare, as if they were drenched with honey. Upper lips were drawn back, exposing the teeth. Everyone in this golden day wore that grimace of heat-as if the sun had forced his worshippers to wear identical masks of gold. The old and the young, women and children, greeted each other with these masks, painted on their faces with thick gold paint; they smiled at each other's pagan faces-the barbaric smiles of Bacchus.

   Market Square was empty and white hot, swept by hot winds like a biblical desert. The thorny acacias, growing in this emptiness, looked with their bright leaves like the trees on old tapestries. Although there was no breath of wind, they rustled their foliage in a theatrical gesture, as if wanting to display the elegance of the silver lining of their leaves that resembled the fox-fur lining of a nobleman's coat. The old houses, worn smooth by the winds of innumerable days, played tricks with the reflections of the atmosphere, with echoes and memories of colours scattered in the depth of the cloudless sky. It seemed as if whole generations of summer days, like patient stonemasons cleaning the mildewed plaster from old facades, had removed the deceptive varnish, revealing more and more clearly the true face of the houses, the features that fate had given them and life had shaped for them from the inside. Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep; the balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine.

   A bunch of ragamuffins, sheltering in a corner of the square from the flaming broom of the heat, beleaguered a piece of wall, throwing buttons and coins at it over and over again, as if wishing to read in the horoscope of those metal discs the real secret written in the hieroglyphics of cracks and scratched lines. Apart from them, the square was deserted. One expected that, any minute, the Samaritan's donkey, led by the bridle, would stop in front of the wine-merchant's vaulted doorway and that two servants would carefully ease a sick man from the red-hot saddle and carry him slowly up the cool stairs to the floor above, already redolent of the Sabbath.

   Thus my mother and I ambled along the two sunny sides of Market Square, guiding our broken shadows along the houses as over a keyboard. Under our soft steps the squares of the paving stones slowly filed past-some the pale pink of human skin, some golden, some blue-grey, all flat, warm and velvety in the sun, like sun-dials, trodden to the point of obliteration, into blessed nothingness.

   And finally on the corner of Stryjska Street we passed within the shadow of the chemist's shop. A large jar of raspberry juice in the wide window symbolised the coolness of balms which can relieve all kinds of pain. After we passed a few more houses, the street ceased to maintain any pretence of urbanity like a man returning to his little village who, piece by piece, strips off his Sunday best, slowly changing back into a peasant as he gets closer to his home.
   The suburban houses were sinking, windows and all, into the exuberant tangle of blossom in their little gardens. Overlooked by the light of day, weeds and wild flowers of all kinds luxuriated quietly, glad of the interval for dreams beyond the margin of time on the borders of an endless day. An enormous sunflower, lifted on a powerful stem and suffering from hypertrophy, clad in the yellow mourning of the last sorrowful days of its life, bent under the weight of its monstrous girth. But the naive, suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower's tragedy.


A tangled thicket of grasses, weeds and thistles crackled in the fire of the afternoon. The sleeping garden was resonant with flies. The golden field of stubble shouted in the sun like a tawny cloud of locusts; in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed; seed pods exploded softly like grasshoppers.
   And over by the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad, peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth. There the untidy, feminine ripeness of August had expanded into enormous, impenetrable, clumps of burdocks spreading their sheets of leafy tin, their luxuriant tongues of fleshy greenery. There, those protuberant bur clumps spread themselves, like resting peasant women, half enveloped in their own swirling skirts. There, the garden offered free of charge the cheapest fruits of wild lilac, the heady aquavit of mint and all kinds of August trash. But on the other side of the fence, behind that jungle of summer in which the stupidity of weeds reigned unchecked, there was a rubbish heap on which thistles grew in wild profusion. No one knew that there, on that refuse dump, the month of August had chosen to hold that year its pagan orgies. There, pushed against the fence and hidden by the elders, stood the bed of the halfwit girl, Touya, as we all called her. On a heap of discarded junk of old saucepans, abandoned single shoes and chunks of plaster, stood a bed, painted green, propped up on two bricks where one leg was missing.

   The air over that midden, wild with the heat, cut through by the lightning of shiny horseflies, driven mad by the sun, crackled, as if filled with invisible rattles, exciting one to frenzy.

   Touya sits hunched up among the yellow bedding and odd rags, her large head covered by a mop of tangled black hair. Her face works like the bellows of an accordion. Every now and then a sorrowful grimace folds it into a thousand vertical pleats, but astonishment soons straightens it out again, ironing out the folds, revealing the chinks of small eyes and damp guns with yellow teeth under snout-like, fleshy lips. Hours pass, filled with heat and boredom; Touya chatters in a monotone, dozes, mumbles softly and coughs. Her immobile frame is covered by a thick cloak of flies. But suddenly the whole heap of dirty rags begins to move, as if stirred by the scratching of a litter of newlyborn rats. The flies wake up in fright and rise in a huge, furiously buzzing cloud, filled with coloured light reflected from the sun. And while the rags slip to the ground and spread out over the rubbish heap, like frightened rats, a form emerges and reveals itself: the dark halfnaked idiot girl rises slowly to her feet and stands like a pagan idol, on short childish legs; her neck swells with anger, and from her face, red with fury, on which the arabesques of bulging veins stand out as in a primitive painting, comes forth a hoarse animal scream, originating deep in the lungs hidden in that half-animal, half-divine breast. The sun-dried thistles shout, the plantains swell and boast their shameless flesh, the weeds salivate with glistening poison, and the half-wit girl, hoarse with shouting, convulsed with madness, presses her fleshy belly in an excess of lust against the trunk of an elder which groans softly under the insistent pressure of that libidinous passion, incited by the whole ghastly chorus to hideous unnatural fertility.

   Touya's mother Maria hired herself to housewives to scrub floors. She was a small saffron-yellow woman, and it was with saffron that she wiped the floors, the deal tables, the benches and the bannisters which she scrubbed in the homes of the poor.

   Once Adela took me to the old woman's house. It was early in the morning when we entered the small blue-walled room, with its mud floor, lying in a patch of bright yellow sunlight in the still of the morning broken only by the frighteningly loud ticking of a cottage clock on the wall. In a straw-filled chest lay the foolish Maria, white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn. And, as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy. Maria's time the time imprisoned in her soul-had left her and-terribly real-filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning, rising from the noisy mill of the clock like a cloud of bad flour, powdery flour, the stupid flour of madmen.

In one of those cottages, surrounded by brown railings and submerged in the lush green of its garden, lived Aunt Agatha. Coming through the garden to visit her, we passed numerous coloured glass balls stuck on flimsy poles. In these pink, green and violet balls were enclosed bright shining worlds like the ideally happy pictures contained in the peerless perfection of soap bubbles.

   In the gloom of the hall, with its old lithographs, rotten with mildew and blind with age, we rediscovered a well-known smell. In that old familiar smell was contained a marvellously simple synthesis of the life of those people, the distillation of their race, the quality of their blood and the secret of their fate, imperceptibly mixed day by day with the passage of their own, private, time. The old, wise door, the silent witness of the entries and exits of mother, daughters, sons, whose dark sighs accompanied the comings and goings of those people, now opened noiselessly like the door of a wardrobe and we stepped into their life. They were sitting as if in the shadow of their own destiny and did not fight against it; with their first, clumsy gestures they revealed their secret to us. Besides, were we not related to them by blood and by fate?

   The room was dark and velvety from the royal blue wallpaper with its gold pattern, but even here the echo of the flaming day shimmered brassily on the picture frames, on door knobs and gilded borders, although it came through the filter of the dense greenery of the garden. From her chair against the wall, Aunt Agatha rose to greet us, tall and ample, her round white flesh blotchy with the rust of freckles. We sat down beside them, as on the verge of their lives, rather embarrassed by their defenseless surrender to us, and we drank water with rose syrup, a wonderful drink in which I found the deepest essence of that hot Saturday.

   My aunt was complaining. It was the principal burden of her conversation, the voice of that white and fertile flesh, floating as it were outside the boundaries of her person, held only loosely in the fetters of
individual form, and, despite those fetters, ready to multiply, to scatter, branch out, and divide into a family. It was an almost selfpropagating fertility, a femininity without rein, morbidly expansive.

   It seemed as if the very whiff of masculinity, the smell of tobacco smoke, or a bachelor's joke, would spark off this feverish femininity and entice it to a lascivious virgin-birth. And in fact, all her complaints about her husband or her servants, all her worries about the children were only the caprices of her incompletely satisfied fertility, a logical extension of the rude, angry, lachrymose coquetry with which, to no purpose, she plagued her husband. Uncle Mark, small and hunched, with a face fallow of sex, sat in his grey bankruptcy, reconciled to his fate, in the shadow of a limitless contempt in which he seemed only to relax. His grey eyes reflected the distant glow of the garden, spreading in the window.

   Sometimes he tried with a feeble gesture to raise an objection, to resist, but the wave of self-sufficient femininity hurled aside that unimportant gesture, triumphantly passed him by, and drowned the feeble stirrings of male assertiveness under its broad flood.

   There was something tragic in that immoderate fertility; the misery of a creature fighting on the borders of nothingness and death, the heroism of womanhood triumphing by fertility over the shortcomings of nature, over the insufficiency of the male. But their offspring showed justification for that panic of maternity, of a passion for child bearing which became exhausted in ill-starred pregnancies, in an ephemereal generation of phantoms without blood or face.

   Lucy, the second eldest, now entered the room, her head overdeveloped for her child-like, plump body, her flesh white and delicate. She stretched out to me a small doll-like hand, a hand in bud, and blushed all over her face like a peony. Unhappy because of her blushes, which shamelessly revealed the secrets of menstruation, she closed her eyes and reddened even more deeply under the touch of the most indifferent question, for she saw in each a secret allusion to her most sensitive maidenhood.
   Emil, the eldest of the cousins, with a fair moustache in a face from which life seemed to have washed away all expression, was walking up and down the room, his hands in the pockets of his voluminous trousers.

   His elegant expensive clothes bore the imprint of the exotic countries he had visited. His pale, flabby face, seemed from day to day to lose its outline, to become a white blank wall with a pale network of veins, like lines on an old map occasionally stirred by the fading memories of a stormy and wasted life.

   He was a master of card tricks, he smoked long, noble pipes and smelled strangely of distant lands. With his gaze wandering over old memories, he told curious stories, which at some point would suddenly stop, disintegrate, and blow away.

   My eyes followed him nostalgically, and I wished he would notice me and liberate me from the tortures of boredom. And indeed, it seemed as if he gave me a wink before going into an adjoining room and I followed him there. He was sitting on a small low sofa, his crossed knees almost level with his head, which was bald like a billiard ball. It seemed as if it were only his clothes that had been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair. His face seemed like the breath of a face-a smudge which an unknown passer-by had left in the air. In his white, blue-enamelled hands he was holding a wallet and looking at something in it.

   From the mist of his face, the protruding white of a pale eye emerged with difficulty, enticing me with a wink. I felt an irresistable sympathy for Emil.

   He took me between his knees and, shuffling some photographs in front of my eyes as if they were a pack of cards, he showed me naked women and boys in strange positions. I stood leaning against him looking at those delicate human bodies with distant, unseeing eyes, when all of a sudden the fluid of an obscure excitement with which the air seemed charged, reached me and pierced me with a shiver of uneasiness, a wave of sudden comprehension. But meanwhile that ghost of a smile which had appeared under Emil's soft and beautiful moustache, the seed of desire which had shown in a pulsating vein on his temple, the tenseness which for a moment had kept his features concentrated, all fell away again and his face receded into indifference and became absent and finally faded away altogether.


CAME THE YELLOW DAYS of winter, filled with boredom. The rust-coloured earth was covered with a threadbare, meagre tablecloth of snow full of holes. There was not enough of it for some of the roofs and so they stood there, black and brown, shingle and thatch, arks containing the sooty expanses of attics-coal-black cathedrals, bristling with ribs of rafters, beams and spars-the dark lungs of winter winds. Each dawn revealed new chimney stacks and chimney pots which had emerged during the hours of darkness, blown up by the night winds: the black pipes of a Devil's organ. The chimney-sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch, only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt, undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent crowing the musty-yellow streaks of light. The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year's loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference.
   Father had stopped going out. He banked up the stoves, studied the ever elusive essence of fire, experienced the salty, metallic taste and the smoky smell of wintry flames, the cool caresses of salamanders that licked the shiny soot in the throat of the chimney. He applied himself lovingly at that time to all manner of small repairs in the upper regions of the rooms. At all hours of the day one could see him crouched on top of a ladder, working at something under the ceiling, at the cornices over the tall windows, at the counter-weights and chains of the hanging lamps. Following the custom of house painters, he used a pair of steps as enormous stilts and he felt perfectly happy in that bird's eye perspective close to the sky, leaves and birds painted on the ceiling. He grew more and more remote from practical affairs. When my mother, worried and unhappy about his condition, tried to draw him into a conversation about business, about the payments due at the end of the month, he listened to her absentmindedly, anxiety showing in his abstracted look. Sometimes he stopped her with a warning gesture of the hand in order to run to a corner of the room, put his ear to a crack in the floor and, by lifting the index finger of both hands, emphasise the gravity of the investigation, and begin to listen intently. At that time we did not yet understand the sad origin of these eccentricities, the deplorable complex which had been maturing in him.

   Mother had no influence over him, but he gave a lot of respectful attention to Adela. The cleaning of his room was to him a great and important ceremony, of which he always arranged to be a witness, watching all Adela's movements with a mixture of apprehension and pleasurable excitement. He ascribed to all her functions a deeper, symbolic meaning. When, with young firm gestures, the girl pushed a long-handled broom along the floor, father could hardly bear it. Tears would stream from his eyes, silent laughter transformed his face and his body was shaken by spasms of delight. He was ticklish to the point of madness. It was enough for Adela to waggle her fingers at him to imitate tickling, for him to rush through all the rooms in a wild panic, banging the doors after him, to fall at last flat on the bed in the furthest room and wriggle in convulsions of laughter, imagining the tickling which he found irresistible. Because of this, Adela's power over father was almost limitless.

   At that time we noticed for the first time father's passionate interest in animals. To begin with, it was the passion of the huntsman and the artist rolled into one. It was almost perhaps a deeper, biological sympathy of one creature for kindred, yet different forms of life, a kind of experimenting in the unexplored regions of existence. Only at a later stage did matters take that uncanny, complicated, essentially sinful and unnatural turn, which it is better not to bring into the light of day.
But it all began with the hatching out of birds' eggs.

   With a great outlay of effort and money, father imported from Hamburg, or Holland, or from zoological stations in Africa, birds' eggs on which he set enormous broody hens from Belgium. It was a process which fascinated me as well-this hatching out of the chicks, which were real anomalies of shape and colour. It was difficult to anticipate in these monsters with enormous, fantastic beaks which they opened wide immediately after birth, hissing greedily to show the backs of their throats, in these lizards with frail, naked bodies of hunchbacks, the future peacocks, pheasants, grouse or condors. Placed in cottonwool, in baskets, this dragon brood lifted blind, wall-eyed heads on thin necks, croaking voicelessly from their dumb throats. My father would walk along the shelves, dressed in a green baize apron like a gardener in a hothouse of cacti, and conjure up from nothingness these blind bubbles, pulsating with life, these impotent bellies receiving the outside world only in the form of food, these growths on the surface of life, climbing blindfold towards the light. A few weeks' later when these blind buds of matter burst open, the rooms were filled with the bright chatter and scintillating chirruping of its new inhabitants. The birds perched on the curtain pelmets, on the tops of wardrobes; they nestled in the tangle of tin branches and the metal scrolls of the hanging lamps.

   While father pored over his large ornithological textbooks and studied their coloured plates, these feathery phantasms seemed to rise from the pages and fill the rooms with colours, with splashes of crimson, strips of sapphire, verdigris and silver. At feeding time they formed a motley, undulating bed on the floor, a living carpet which at the intrusion of a stranger would fall apart, scatter into fragments, flutter in the air, and finally settle high under the ceilings. I remember in particular a certain condor, an enormous bird with a featherless neck, its face wrinkled and knobbly. It was an emaciated ascetic, a Buddhist lama, full of imperturbable dignity in its behaviour, guided by the rigid ceremonial of its great species. When it sat facing my
father, motionless in the monumental position of ageless Egyptian idols, its eye covered with a whitish cataract which it pulled down sideways over its pupil to shut itself up completely in the contemplation of its dignified solitude-it seemed, with its stony profile, like an older brother of my father's. Its body and muscles seemed to be made of the same material, it had the same hard, wrinkled skin, the same desiccated bony face, the same horny deep eye sockets. Even the hands, strong in the joints, my father's long thick hands with their rounded nails, had their counterpart in the condor's claws. I could not resist the impression, when looking at the sleeping condor, that I was in the presence of a mummy-a dried out, shrunken mummy of my father. I believe that even my mother noticed this strange resemblance although we never discussed the subject. It is significant that the condor used my father's chamberpot.

   Not content with the hatching out of more and more new specimens, my father arranged the marriages of birds in the attic, he sent out matchmakers, he tied up eager attractive brides in the holes and crannies under the roof, and soon the roof of our house, an enormous double-ridged shingle roof, became a real birds' hostel, a Noah's ark to which all kinds of feathery creatures flew from far afield. Long after the liquidation of the birds' paradise, this tradition persisted in the avian world and during the period of spring migration our roof was besieged by whole flocks of cranes, pelicans, peacocks and sundry other birds. However, after a short period of splendour, the whole undertaking took a sorry turn.

   It soon became necessary to move my father to two rooms at the top of the house which had served as box rooms. We could hear from there, at dawn, the mixed clangour of birds' voices. The wooden walls of the attic rooms, helped by the resonance of the empty space under the gables, sounded with the roar, the flutterings, the crowing, the gurgling, the mating cries. For a few weeks father was lost to view. He only rarely came down to the flat and, when he did, we noticed that he seemed to have shrunk, to have become smaller and thinner. Occasionally forgetting himself, he would rise from his chair at table, wave his arms as if they were wings, and emit a long-drawn-out bird's call while his eyes misted over. Then, rather embarrassed, he would join us in laughing it off and try to turn the whole incident into a joke.

   One day, during spring cleaning, Adela suddenly appeared in father's birds' kingdom. Stopping in the doorway, she wrung her hands at the foetid smell that filled the room, the heaps of droppings covering the floor, the tables and the chairs. Without hesitation, she flung open a window and, with the help of a long broom, she prodded the whole mass of birds into life. A fiendish cloud of feathers and wings arose screaming and Adela, like a furious Maenad protected by the whirlwind of her thyrsus, danced the dance of destruction. My father, waving his arms in panic, tried to lift himself into the air with his feathered flock. Slowly the winged cloud thinned until at last Adela remained on the battlefield, exhausted and out of breath, along with my father who now, adopting a worried hang dog expression, was ready to accept complete defeat.

   A moment later, my father came downstairs-a broken man, an exiled king who had lost his throne and his kingdom.

Cinnamon Shops

AT THE TIME of the shortest, sleepy winter days, edged on both sides with the furry dusk of mornings and evenings, when the city reached out ever deeper into the labyrinth of winter nights, and was shaken reluctantly into consciousness by the short dawn, my father was already lost, sold and surrendered to the other sphere.
His face and head became overgrown with a wild and recalcitrant shock of grey hair, bristling in irregular tufts and spikes, shooting out from warts, from his eyebrows, from the openings of his nostrils and giving him the appearance of an old ill-tempered fox.
His sense of smell and his hearing sharpened extraordinarily and one could see from the expression of his tense silent face that through the intermediary of these two senses he remained in permanent contact with the unseen world of mouseholes, dark corners, chimney vents and dusty spaces under the floor.
He was a vigilant and attentive observer, a prying fellow-conspirator, of the rustlings, the nightly creakings, the secret gnawing life of the floor. He was so engrossed in it that he became completely submerged in an inaccessible sphere and one which he did not even attempt to discuss with us.
He often used to flip his fingers and laugh softly to himself when the manifestations of the unseen became too absurd; he then exchanged knowing looks with our cat which, also initiated in these mysteries, would lift its cynical cold striped face, closing the slanting chinks of its eyes with an air of indifference and boredom.
It sometimes happened that, during a meal, my father would suddenly put aside his knife and fork and, with his napkin still tied around his neck, would rise from the table with a feline movement, tiptoe to the door of the adjoining room and peer through the key-hole with the utmost caution. Then, with a bashful smile, he would return to the table slightly embarrassed, murmuring and whispering indistinctly in tune with the interior monologue that wholly preoccupied him.
To provide some distraction for him and to tear him away from these morbid speculations, my mother would force him to go out for a walk in the evenings. He went in silence, without protest but also without enthusiasm, distrait and absent in spirit. Once we even went all together to the theatre.
We found ourselves again in that large, badly lit, dirty hall, full of somnolent human chatter and aimless confusion. But when we had made our way through the crowd, there emerged before us an enormous pale blue curtain, like the sky of another firmament. Large, painted pink masks, with puffed up cheeks floated in a huge expanse of canvas. The artificial sky spread out in both directions, swelling with the powerful breath of pathos and of great gestures, with the atmosphere of that fictitious floodlit world created on the echoing scaffoldings of the stage. The tremor sailing across the large area of that sky, the breath of the vast canvas which made the masks revive and grow, revealed the illusory character of that firmament, caused that vibration of reality which, in metaphysical moments, we experience as the glimmer of revelation.
The masks fluttered their red eyelids, their coloured lips whispered voicelessly and I knew that the moment was imminent when the tension of mystery would reach its zenith and the swollen skies of the curtain would really burst open to reveal incredible and dazzling events.
But I was not allowed to experience that moment, because in the meantime my father had begun to betray a certain anxiety. He was feeling in all his pockets and at last declared that he had left behind at home a wallet containing money and certain most important documents.
After a short conference with my mother, during which Adela's honesty was submitted to a hasty assessment, it was suggested that I should go home to look for the wallet. According to my mother, there was still plenty of time before the curtain rose and, fleet-footed as I was, I had every chance of returning in time.
I stepped into a winter night bright from the illuminations of the sky. It was one of those clear nights when the starry firmament is so wide and spreads so far that it seems to be divided and broken up into a mass of separate skies, sufficient for a whole month of winter nights and providing silver and painted globes to cover all the nightly phenomena, adventures, occurrences and carnivals.
It is exceedingly thoughtless to send a young boy out on an urgent and important errand into a night like that because in its semiobscurity the streets multiply, becoming confused and interchanged. There open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets. One's imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which the streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night. The temptations of such winter nights begin usually with the innocent desire to take a shortcut, to use a quicker but less familiar way. Attractive possibilities arise of shortening a complicated walk by taking some never used side street. But on that occasion things began differently.
Having taken a few steps, I realised that I was not wearing my overcoat. I wanted to turn back, but after a moment that seemed to me an unnecessary waste of time, especially as the night was not cold at all; on the contrary, I could feel waves of an unseasonal warmth, like breezes of a spring night. The snow shrank into a white fluff, into a harmless fleece smelling sweetly of violets. Similar white fluffs were sailing across the sky on which the moon was doubled and trebled, showing all its phases and positions at once.
On that night the sky laid bare its internal construction in many sections which, like quasi-anatomical exhibits showed the spirals and whorls of light, the pale green solids of darkness, the plasma of space, the tissue of dreams.
On such a night, it was impossible to walk along Rampart Street or any other of the dark streets which are the obverse, the lining as it were, of the four sides of Market Square, and not to remember that at that late hour the strange and most attractive shops were sometimes open, the shops which on ordinary days one tended to overlook. I used to call them cinnamon shops because of the dark panelling of their walls.
These truly noble shops, open late at night, have always been the objects of my ardent interest. Dimly lit, their dark and solemn interiors were redolent of the smell of paint, varnish and incense; of the aroma of distant countries and rare commodities. You could find in them Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long forgotten countries, Chinese transfers, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in jars, microscopes, binoculars and most especially strange and rare books, old folio volumes full of astonishing engravings and amazing stories.
I remember those old dignified merchants who served their customers with downcast eyes, in discreet silence, and who were full of wisdom and tolerance for their customers' most secret whims. But most of all, I remember a bookshop in which I once glanced at some rare and forbidden pamphlets, the publications of secret societies lifting the veil on tantalizing and unknown mysteries.
I so rarely had the occasion to visit these shops-especially with a small but sufficient amount of money in my pocket-that I could not forgo the opportunity I had now, in spite of the important mission entrusted to me.
According to my calculations I ought to turn into a narrow lane and pass two or three side streets in order to reach the street of the night shops. This would take me even further from home, but by cutting across Saltworks Street, I could make good the delay.
Lent wings by my desire to visit the cinnamon shops, I turned into a street I knew and ran rather than walked, anxious not to lose my way. I passed three or four streets, but still there was no sign of the turning I wanted. What is more, the appearance of the street was different from what I had expected. Nor was there any sign of the shops. I was in a street of houses with no doors and of which the tightly shut windows were blind from reflected moonlight. On the other side of those houses-I thought-must run the street from which they were accessible. I was walking faster now, rather disturbed, beginning to give up the idea of visiting the cinnamon shops. All I wanted now was to get out of there quickly into some part of the city I knew better. I reached the end of the street, unsure where it would lead me. I found myself in a broad, sparsely built avenue, very long and straight. I felt on me the breath of a wide open space. Close to the pavement or in the midst of their gardens, picturesque villas stood there, the private houses of the rich. In the gaps between them were parks and walls of orchards. The whole area looked like Lesznianska Street in its lower and rarely visited part. The moonlight filtered through a thousand feathery clouds like silver scales on the sky. It was pale and bright as daylight-only the parks and gardens stood black in that silvery landscape.
Looking more closely at one of the buildings, I realised that what I saw was the back of the high school which I had never seen from that side. I was just approaching the gate which, to my surprise, was open; the entrance hall was lit. I walked in and found myself on the red carpet of the passage. I hoped to be able to slip through unobserved and come out through the front gate, thus taking a splendid shortcut.
I remembered that at that late hour there might be, in Professor Arendt's classroom, one of the voluntary classes which in winter were always held in the late evenings and to which we all flocked, fired by the enthusiasm for art which that excellent teacher had awakened in us.
A small group of industrious pupils was almost lost in the large dark
hall on whose walls the enormous shadows of our heads broke abruptly, thrown by the light of two small candles set in bottles.
To be truthful, we did not draw very much during these classes and the Professor was not very exacting. Some boys brought cushions from home and stretched themselves out on forms for a short nap. Only the most diligent of us gathered around the candle, in the golden circle of its light.
We usually had to wait a long while for the Professor's arrival, filling the time with sleepy conversation. At last the door from his room would open and he would enter-short, bearded, given to esoteric smiles and discreet silences and exuding an aroma of secrecy. He shut the door of his study carefully behind him: through it for a brief moment we could see over his head a crowd of plaster shadows, the classical fragments of suffering Niobides, Danaids and Tantalides, the whole sad and sterile Olympus, wilting for years on end in that plaster-cast museum. The light in his room was opaque even in daytime, thick from the dreams of plaster-cast heads, from empty looks, ashen profiles and meditations dissolving into nothingness. We liked to listen sometimes in front of that door-listen to the silence laden with the sighs and whispers of the crumbling gods withering in the boredom and monotony of their twilight.
The Professor walked with great dignity and unction up and down among the half-empty forms in which, in small groups, we were drawing amidst the grey reflections of a winter night. Everything was quiet and cosy. Some of my class-mates were asleep. The candles were burning low in their bottles. The Professor delved into a deep bookcase, full of old folios, unfashionable engravings, woodcuts and prints. He showed us, with his esoteric gestures, old lithographs of night landscapes, of tree clumps in moonlight, of avenues in wintry parks outlined black on the white moonlit background.
Amidst sleepy talk, time passed unnoticed. It ran by unevenly, as if making knots in the passage of hours, swallowing somewhere whole empty periods. Without transition, our whole gang found ourselves on
the way home long after midnight on the garden path white with snow, flanked by the black, dry thicket of bushes. We walked alongside that hairy rim of darkness, brushing against the furry bushes, their lower branches snapping under our feet in the bright night, in a false milky brightness. The diffuse whiteness of light filtered by the snow, by the pale air, by the milky space, was like the grey paper of an engraving on which the thick bushes corresponded to the deep black lines of decoration. The night was copying now, at that late hour, the nightly landscapes of Professor Arendt's engravings, re-enacting his fantasies.
In the black thickets of the park, in the hairy coat of bushes, in the mass of crusty twigs there were nooks, niches, nests of deepest fluffy blackness, full of confusion, secret gestures, conniving looks. It was warm and quiet there. We sat on the soft snow in our heavy coats, cracking hazel nuts of which there was a profusion in that spring-like winter. Through the copse, weasels wandered silently, martens and ichneumons, furry, ferreting elongated animals on short legs, stinking of sheepskin. We suspected that among them were the exhibits from the school cabinets which, although degutted and moulting, felt on that white night in their empty bowels the voice of the eternal instinct, the mating urge, and returned to the thickets for short moments of illusory life.
But slowly the phosphorescence of the spring-like snow became dulled: it vanished then, giving way to a thick black darkness preceding dawn. Some of us fell asleep in the warm snow, others went groping in the dark for the doors of their houses and walked blindly into the sleep of their parents and brothers, into a continuation of deep snoring which caught up with them on their late return.
These nightly drawing sessions held a secret charm for me, so that now I could nest forgo the opportunity of looking for a moment into the art room. I decided however that I would not stop for more than a little while. But walking up the back stairs, their cedar wood resounding under my steps, I realised that I was in a wing of the school building completely unknown to me.
Not even a murmur interrupted the solemn silence. The passages were broader in this wing, covered with a thick carpet and most elegant. Small, darkly glowing lamps were hung at each corner. Turning the first of these, I found myself in an even wider, more sumptuous hall. In one of its walls there was a wide glass arcade leading to the interior of an apartment. I could see a long enfilade of rooms, furnished with great magnificence. The eye wandered over silk hangings, gilded mirrors, costly furniture and crystal chandeliers and into the velvety softness of the luxurious interiors, shimmering with lights, entangled garlands and budding flowers. The profound stillness of these empty rooms was filled with the secret glances exchanged by mirrors and the panic of friezes running high along the walls and disappearing into the stucco of the white ceilings.
I faced all that magnificence with admiration and awe, guessing that my nightly escapade had brought me unexpectedly into the Headmaster's wing, to his private apartment. I stood there with a beating heart, rooted to the spot by curiosity, ready to escape at the slightest noise. How would I justify, if surprised, that nocturnal visit, that impudent prying? In one of those deep plush armchairs there might sit, unobserved and still, the young daughter of the Headmaster. She might lift her eyes to mine black, Sybilline, quiet eyes, the gaze of which none could hold. But to retreat half-way, not having carried through the plan I had, would be cowardly. Besides, deep silence reigned in those magnificent interiors, lit by the hazy light of an undefined hour. Through the arcades of the passage, I saw on the far side of the drawing room a large glass door leading to the terrace. It was so still everywhere that I felt suddenly emboldened. It did not strike me as too risky to walk down the short steps leading to the level of the drawing room, to take a few quick steps across the large costly carpet and to find myself on the terrace from which I could get back without any difficulty to the familiar street.
This is what I did. When I found myself on the parquet floor under the potted palms that reached up to the frieze of the ceiling. I noticed
that now I really was on neutral ground, because the drawing room did not have a front wall. It was a kind of large loggia, connected by a few steps with a city square, an enclosed part of the square, because some of the garden furniture stood directly on the pavement. I ran down the short flight of stone steps and found myself at street level once more.
The constellations in the sky stood steeply on their heads, all the stars had made an about turn, but the moon, buried under the featherbed of clouds which were lit by its unseen presence, seemed still to have before her an endless journey and, absorbed in her complicated heavenly procedures, did not think of dawn.
A few horse-drawn cabs loomed black in the street, half-broken and loose-jointed like crippled, dozing crabs or cockroaches. A driver leaned down towards me from his high box. He had a small, red, kindly face, "Shall we go, master?" he asked. The cab shook in all the joints and ligatures of its many-limbed body and made a start on its light wheels.
But who would entrust oneself on such a night to the whims of an unpredictable cabby? Amidst the click of the axles, amidst the thud of the box and the roof, I could not agree with him on my destination. He nodded indulgently at everything I said and sang to himself. We drove in a circle around the city.
In front of an inn stood a group of cabbies who waved friendly hands to him. He answered gaily and then, without stopping the carriage, he threw the reins on my knees, jumped down from the box and joined the group of his colleagues. The horse, an old, wise cab-horse, looked round cursorily and went on in a monotonous regular trot. In fact, that horse inspired confidence- it seemed smarter than its driver. But I myself could not drive so I had to rely on the horse's will. We turned into a suburban street, bordered on both sides by gardens. As we advanced, these gardens slowly changed into parks with tall trees and the parks in turn into forests.
I shall never forget that luminous journey on that brightest of winter nights. The coloured map of the heavens expanded into an immense dome, on which there loomed fantastic lands, oceans and seas, marked with the lines of stellar currents and eddies, with the brilliant streaks of heavenly geography. The air became light to breathe and shimmered like silver gauze. One could smell violets. From under the white woolly lambskin of snow, trembling anemones appeared with a speck of moonlight in each delicate cup. The whole forest seemed to be illuminated by thousands of lights and by the stars falling in profusion from the December sky. The air pulsated with a secret spring, with the matchless purity of snow and violets. We entered a hilly landscape. The lines of hills, bristling with the bare spikes of trees, rose like sighs of bliss. I saw on these happy slopes groups of wanderers, gathering among the moss and the bushes the fallen stars which now were damp from snow. The road became steep, the horse began to slip on it and pulled the creaking cab only with an effort. I was happy. My lungs soaked up the blissful spring in the air, the freshness of snow and stars. Before the horse's breast the rampart of white snowy foam grew higher and higher, and it could hardly wade through that pure fresh mass. At last we stopped. I got out of the cab. The horse was panting, hanging its head. I hugged its head to my breast and saw that there were tears in its large eyes. I noticed a round black wound on its belly. "Why did not you tell me?" I whispered, crying. "My dearest, I did it for you," the horse said and became very small, like a wooden toy. I left him and felt wonderfully light and happy. I was debating whether to wait for the small local train which passed through here or to walk back to the city. I began to walk down a steep path, winding like a serpent amidst the forest; at first in a light, elastic step; later, passing into a brisk, happy run which became gradually faster, until it resembled a gliding descent on skis. I could regulate my speed at will and change course by light movements of my body.
On the outskirts of the city, I slowed this triumphal run and changed it into a sedate walk. The moon still rode high in the sky. The transformations of the sky, the metamorphoses of its multiple domes into ever more complicated configurations were endless. Like a silver
astrolabe the sky disclosed on that magic night its internal mechanism and showed in infinite evolutions the mathematics of its cogs and wheels.
In the market square I met some people enjoying a walk. All of them, enchanted by the displays of that night, walked with uplifted faces, silvery from the magic of the sky. I completely stopped worrying about father's wallet. My father, absorbed by his manias, had probably forgotten its loss by now, and as for my mother, I did not much care.
On such a night, unique in the year, one has happy thoughts and inspirations, one feels touched by the divine finger of poetry. Full of ideas and projects, I wanted to walk towards my home, but met some school friends with books under their arms. They were on their way to school already, having been wakened by the brightness of that night that would not end.
We went for a walk all together along a steeply falling street, pervaded by the scent of violets; uncertain whether it was the magic of the night which lay like silver on the snow or whether it was the light of dawn...


MY FATHER kept in the lower drawer of his large desk an old and beautiful map of our city. It was a whole folio sheaf of parchment pages which, originally fastened with strips of linen, formed an enormous wall map, a bird's eye panorama.
   Hung on the wall, the map covered it almost entirely and opened a wide view on the valley of the River Tysmienica which wound itself like a wavy ribbon of pale gold, on the maze of widely spreading ponds and marshes, on the high ground rising towards the south, gently at first, then in ever tighter ranges, in a chessboard of rounded hills, smaller and paler as they receded towards the misty yellow fog of the horizon. From that faded distance of the periphery, the city rose and grew towards the centre of the map, an undifferentiated mass at first, a dense complex of blocks and houses, cut by deep canyons of streets, to become on the first plan a group of single houses, etched with the sharp clarity of a landscape seen through binoculars. In that section of the map, the engraver concentrated on the complicated and manifold profusion of streets and alleyways, the sharp lines of cornices, architraves, archivolts and pilasters, lit by the dark gold of a late and cloudy afternoon which steeped all corners and recesses in the deep sepia of shade. The solids and prisms of that shade darkly honeycombed the ravines of streets, drowning in a warm colour here half a street, there a gap between houses. They dramatized and orchestrated in a bleak romantic chiaroscuro the complex architectural polyphony.
   On that map, made in the style of baroque panoramas, the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known. The lines of only a few streets were marked in black and their names given in simple, unadorned lettering, different from the noble script of the other captions. The cartographer must have been loath to include that district in the city and his reservations found expression in the typographical treatment.
   In order to understand these reservations, we must draw attention to the equivocal and doubtful character of that peculiar area, so unlike the rest of the city.
   It was an industrial and commercial district, its soberly utilitarian character glaringly underlined. The spirit of the times, the mechanism of economics, had not spared our city and had taken root in a sector of its periphery which then developed into a parasitical quarter.
   While in the old city a nightly semi-clandestine trade prevailed, marked by ceremonious solemnity, in the new district modern, sober forms of commercial endeavour had flourished at once. The pseudoAmericanism, grafted on the old, crumbling core of the city, shot up here in a rich but empty and colourless vegetation of pretentious vulgarity. One could see there cheap jerry-built houses with grotesque facades, covered with a monstrous stucco of cracked plaster. The old, shaky suburban houses had large hastily constructed portals grafted on to them which only on close inspection revealed themselves as miserable imitations of metropolitan splendour. Dull, dirty and faulty glass panes in which dark pictures of the street were wavily reflected, the badly planed wood of the doors, the grey atmosphere of those sterile interiors where the high shelves were cracked and the crumbling walls were covered with cobwebs and thick dust, gave these shops the stigma of some wild Klondike. In row upon row there spread tailors' shops, general outfitters, china stores, chemists' shops and barbers' saloons. Their large grey display windows bore slanting semicircular inscriptions in thick gilt letters: CONFISERIE, MANICURE, KING OF


   The old established inhabitants of the city kept away from that area where the scum, the lowest orders had settled-creatures without character, without background, moral dregs, that inferior species of human being which is born in such ephemereal communities. But on days of defeat, in hours of moral weakness, it would happen that one or another of the city dwellers would venture half by chance into that dubious district. The best among them were not entirely free from the temptation of voluntary degradation, of breaking down the barriers of hierarchy, of immersion in that shallow mud of companionship, of easy intimacy, of dirty intermingling. The district was an Eldorado for such moral deserters. Everything seemed suspect and equivocal there, everything promised with secret winks, cynically stressed gestures, raised eyebrows, the fulfilment of impure hopes, everything helped to release the lowest instincts from their shackles.
   Only a few people noticed the peculiar characteristics of that district: the fatal lack of colour, as if that shoddy, quickly growing area could not afford the luxury of it. Everything was grey there as in blackand-white photographs, or in cheap illustrated catalogues. This similarity was real rather than metaphorical because at times, when wandering in those parts, one in fact gained the impression that one was turning the pages of a prospectus, looking at columns of boring commercial advertisements, among which suspect announcements nestled like parasites, together with dubious notices and illustrations with a double meaning. And one's wandering proved as sterile and pointless as the excitement produced by a close study of pornographic albums.
   If one entered for example a tailor's shop to order a suit-a suit of cheap elegance characteristic of the district-one found that the premises were large and empty, the rooms high and colourless. Enormous shelves rose in tiers into the undefined height of the room and drew one's eyes towards the ceiling which might be the sky-the shoddy, faded sky of that quarter. On the other hand the storerooms which could be seen through the open door, were stacked high with boxes and crates-an enormous filing cabinet rising to the attic to disintegrate into the geometry of emptiness, into the timbers of a void. The large grey windows, ruled like the pages of a ledger, did not admit daylight yet the shop was filled with a watery anonymous grey light which did not throw shadows and did not stress anything. Soon, a slender young man appeared, astonishingly servile, agile and compliant, to satisfy one's requirements and to drown one in the smooth flow of his cheap sales talk. But when, talking all the time, he unrolled an enormous piece of cloth, fitting, folding and draping the stream of material, forming it into imaginary jackets and trousers, that whole manipulation seemed suddenly unreal, a sham comedy, a screen ironically placed to hide the true meaning of things.
   The tall dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty (appropriately for that district of remaindered goods), came and went, stood in the doorways watching to see whether the business entrusted to the experienced care of the salesman had reached a suitable point. The salesman simpered and pranced around like a transvestite. One wanted to lift up his receding chin or pinch his pale powdered cheek as with a stealthy meaningful look he discreetly pointed to the trademark on the material, a trademark of transparent symbolism.
   Slowly the selection of the suit gave place to the second stage of the plan. The effeminate and corrupted youth, receptive to the client's most intimate stirrings, now put before him a selection of the most peculiar trade marks, a whole library of labels, a cabinet displaying the collection of a sophisticated connoisseur. It then appeared that the outfitter's shop was only a facade behind which there was an antique shop with a collection of highly questionable books and private editions. The servile salesman opened further storerooms, filled to the ceiling with books, drawings and photographs. These engravings and etchings were beyond our boldest expectations: not even in our dreams had we anticipated such depths of corruption, such varieties of licentiousness .
   The salesgirls now walked up and down between the rows of books, their faces, like grey parchment, marked with the dark greasy pigment spots of brunettes, their shiny dark eyes shooting out sudden zigzag cockroachy looks. But even their dark blushes, the piquant beauty spots, the traces of down on their upper lips betrayed their thick, black blood. Their over-intense colouring, like that of an aromatic mocca, seemed to stain the books which they took into their olive hands, their touch seemed to run on the pages and leave in the air a dark trail of freckles, a smudge of tobacco, as does a truffle with its exciting, animal smell.
   In the meantime, lasciviousness had become general. The salesman, exhausted by his eager importuning, slowly withdrew into feminine passivity. He now lay on one of the many sofas which stood between the bookshelves, wearing a pair of deeply cut silk pyjamas. Some of the girls demonstrated to one another the poses and postures of the drawings on the book-jackets, while others settled down to sleep on makeshift beds. The pressure on the client had eased. He was now released from the circle of eager interest and left more or less alone. The salesgirls, busy talking, ceased to pay any attention to him. Turning their backs on him they adopted arrogant poses, shifting their weight from foot to foot, making play with their frivolous footwear, abandoning their slim bodies to the serpentine movements of their limbs and thus laid siege to the excited onlooker whom they pretended to ignore behind a show of assumed indifference. This retreat was calculated to involve the guest more deeply, while appearing to leave him a free hand for his own initiative.
   But let us take advantage of that moment of inattention to escape from these unexpected consequences of an innocent call at the tailor's, and slip back into the street.
   No one stops us. Through the corridors of books, from between the long shelves filled with magazines and prints, we make our way out of the shop and find ourselves in that part of Crocodile Street where from the higher level one can see almost its whole length down to the distant, as yet unfinished buildings of the railway station. It is, as usual in that district, a grey day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so grey, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people and the vehicles. Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character. At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillistic picture of a city thoroughfare, while on either side, the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us into plaster and sawdust, into the lumber room of an enormous, empty theatre. The tenseness of an artificial pose, the assumed earnestness of a mask, an ironical pathos tremble on this facade.
   But far be it from us to wish to expose this sham. Despite our better judgment we are attracted by the tawdry charm of the district. Besides, that pretense of a city has some of the features of self-parody. Rows of small, one-storey suburban houses alternate with many-storeyed buildings which, looking as if made of cardboard, are a mixture of blind office windows, of grey-glassed display windows, of fascia, of advertisements and numbers. Among the houses the crowds stream by. The street is as broad as a city boulevard, but the roadway is made, like village squares, of beaten clay, full of puddles and overgrown with grass. The street traffic of that area is a by-word in the city; all its inhabitants speak about it with pride and a knowing look. That grey, impersonal crowd is rather self-conscious of its role, eager to live up to its metropolitan aspirations. All the same, despite the bustle and sense of purpose, one has the impression of a monotonous, aimless wandering, of a sleepy processing of puppets. An atmosphere of strange insignificance pervades the scene. The crowd flows lazily by, and, strange to say, one can see it only indistinctly; the figures pass in gentle disarray, never reaching complete sharpness of outline. Only at times do we catch among the turmoil of many heads a dark vivacious look, a black bowler hat worn at an angle, half a face split by a smile formed by lips which had just finished speaking, a foot thrust forward to take a step and fixed for ever in that position.
   A peculiarity of that district are the cabs without coachmen, driving along unattended. It is not as if there were no cabbies, but mingling with the crowd and busy with a thousand affairs of their own, they do not bother about their carriages. In that area of sham and empty gestures no one pays much attention to the precise purpose of a cab ride and the passengers entrust themselves to these erratic conveyances with the thoughtlessness which characterizes everything here. From time to time one can see them at dangerous corners, leaning far out from under the broken roof of a cab as, with the reins in their hands, they perform with some difficulty the tricky manoeuvre of overtaking.
   There are also trams here. In them the ambition of the city councillors has achieved its greatest triumph. The appearance of these trams, though, is pitiful, for they are made of papier mache with warped sides dented from the misuse of many years. They often have no fronts, so that in passing one can see the passengers, sitting stiffly and behaving with great decorum. These trams are pushed by the town porters. The strangest thing of all is, however, the railway system in the Street of Crocodiles.
   Occasionally, at different times of day towards the end of the week, one can see groups of people waiting at a crossroads for a train. One is never sure whether the train will come at all or where it will stop if it does. It often happens therefore that people wait in two different places, unable to agree where the stop is. They wait for a long time standing in a black, silent bunch alongside the barely visible lines of the track, their faces in profile: a row of pale cut-out paper figures, fixed in an expression of anxious peering.
   At last the train suddenly appears: one can see it coming from the expected side street, low like a snake, a miniature train with a squat, puffing locomotive. It enters the black corridor, and the street darkens from the coal dust scattered by the line of carriages. The heavy breathing of the engine and the wave of a strange sad seriousness, the suppressed hurry and excitement transform the street for a moment into the hall of a railway station in the quickly falling winter dusk.
   A black market in railway tickets and bribery in general are the especial plagues of our city.
   At the last moment, when the train is already in the station, negotiations are conducted in nervous haste with corrupt railway
officials. Before these are completed, the train starts, followed slowly by a crowd of disappointed passengers who accompany it a long way down the line before finally dispersing.
   The street, reduced for a moment to form an improvised station filled with gloom and the breath of distant travel, widens out again, becomes lighter and again allows the carefree crowd of chattering passers-by to stroll past the shop windows-those dirty grey squares filled with shoddy goods, tall wax dummies and barbers' dolls.
   Showily dressed in long lace-trimmed gowns, prostitutes have begun to circulate. They might even be the wives of hairdressers or restaurant band-leaders. They advance with a brisk rapacious step, each with some small flaw in her evil corrupted face; their eyes have a black, crooked squint, or they have hare-lips, or the tips of their noses are missing.
   The inhabitants of the city are quite proud of the odour of corruption emanating from Crocodile Street. "There is no need for us to go short of anything, " they say proudly to themselves, "we even have truly metropolitan vices." They maintain that every woman in that district is a tart. In fact, it is enough to stare at any of them, and at once you meet an insistent clinging look which freezes you with the certainty of fulfilment. Even the schoolgirls wear their hair-ribbons in a characteristic way and walk on their slim legs with a peculiar step, an impure expression in their eyes that foreshadows their future corruption.
   And yet, and yet-are we to betray the last secret of that district, the carefully concealed secret of Crocodile Street?
   Several times during our account we have given warning signals, we have intimated delicately our reservations. An attentive reader will therefore not be unprepared for what is to follow. We spoke of the imitative, illusory character of that area, but these words have too precise and definite a meaning to describe its half-baked and undecided reality.
   Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness. Let us say it bluntly: the misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Gestures hang in the air, movements are prematurely exhausted and cannot overcome a certain point of inertia. We have already noticed the great bravura and prodigality in intentions, projects and anticipations which are one of the characteristics of the district. It is in fact no more than a fermentation of desires, prematurely aroused and therefore impotent and empty. In an atmosphere of excessive facility, every whim flies high, a passing excitement swells into an empty parasitic growth; a light grey vegetation of fluffy weeds, of colourless poppies sprouts forth, made from a weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish. Over the whole area there floats the lazy licentious smell of sin, and the houses, the shops, the people seem sometimes no more than a shiver on its feverish body, the gooseflesh of its febrile dreams. Nowhere as much as there do we feel threatened by possibilities, shaken by the nearness of fulfilment, pale and faint with the delightful rigidity of realization. And that is as far as it goes.
   Having exceeded a certain point of tension, the tide stops and begins to ebb, the atmosphere becomes unclear and troubled, possibilities fade and decline into a void, the crazy grey poppies of excitement scatter into ashes.
   We shall always regret that, at a given moment, we had left the slightly dubious tailor's shop. We shall never be able to find it again. We shall wander from shop sign to shop sign and make a thousand mistakes. We shall enter scores of shops, see many which are similar. We shall wander along shelves upon shelves of books, look through magazines and prints, confer intimately and at length with young women of imperfect beauty, with an excessive pigmentation who yet would not be able to understand our requirements.
   We shall get involved in misunderstandings until all our fever and excitement have spent themselves in unnecessary effort, in futile pursuit.
Our hopes were a fallacy, the suspicious appearance of the premises and of the staff were a sham, the clothes were real clothes and the salesman had no ulterior motives. The women of Crocodile Street are depraved to only a modest extent, stifled by thick layers of moral prejudice and ordinary banality. In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be aroused.
   The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year's mouldering newspapers.


THE AFFAIR OF THE BIRDS was the last colourful and splendid counter-offensive of fantasy which my father, that incorrigible improviser, that fencing-master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defence-works of a sterile and empty winter. Only now do I understand the lonely heroism with which he alone had waged war against the fathomless elemental boredom that strangled the city. Without any support, without recognition on our part, that strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry. He was like a magic mill, into the hoppers of which the bran of empty hours was poured, to reemerge flowering in all the colours and scents of Oriental spices. But, used to the splendid showmanship of that metaphysical conjuror, we were climbed to underrate the value of his sovereign magic which saved us from the lethargy of empty days and nights.
   Adela was not rebuked for her thoughtless and brutal vandalism. On the contrary, we felt a vile satisfaction, a disgraceful pleasure that father's exuberance had been curbed, for although we had enjoyed it to the full, we later ignominiously denied all responsibility for it. Perhaps in our treachery there was secret approval of the victorious Adela to whom we dimly ascribed some commission and assignment from forces of a higher order. Betrayed by us all, father retreated without a fight from the scenes of his recent glory. Without crossing swords, he surrendered to the enemy the kingdom of his former splendour. A voluntary exile, he took himself off to an empty room at the end of the passage and there immured himself in solitude.
We forgot him.

   We were beset again from all sides by the mournful greyness of the city which crept through the windows with the dark rash of dawn, with
the mushroom growth of dusk, developing into the shaggy fur of long winter nights. The wallpaper of the rooms, blissfully unconstrained in those former days and accessible to the multicoloured flights of the birds, closed in on itself and hardened, becoming engrossed in the monotony of bitter monologues.

   The chandeliers blackened and wilted like old thistles; now they hung dejected and ill-tempered, their glass pendants ringing softly whenever anybody groped their way through the dimly lit room. In vain did Adela put coloured candles in all the holders; they were a poor substitute for, a pale reflection of, those splendid illuminations which had so recently enlivened these hanging gardens. Oh, what a twittering had been there, what swift and fantastic flights cutting the air into packs of magic cards, sprinkling thick flakes of azure, of peacock and parrot green, of metallic sparkle, drawing lines and flourishes in the air, displaying coloured fans which remained suspended, long after flight, in the shimmering atmosphere. Even now, in the depth of the greyness, echoes and memories of brightness were hidden but nobody caught them, no clarinet drilled the troubled air.

Those weeks passed under the sign of a strange drowsiness.

   Beds unmade for days on end, piled high with bedding crumpled and disordered from the weight of dreams, stood like deep boats waiting to sail into the dank and confusing labyrinths of some dark starless Venice. In the bleakness of dawn, Adela brought us coffee. Lazily we started dressing in the cold rooms, in the light of a single candle reflected many times in black window panes. The mornings were full of aimless bustle, of prolonged searches in endless drawers and cupboards. The clacking of Adela's slippers could be heard all over the flat. The shop assistants lit the lanterns, took the large shop keys which mother handed them and went out into the thick swirling darkness. Mother could not come to terms with her dressing. The candles burnt smaller in the candlesticks. Adela disappeared somewhere into the furthest rooms or into the attic where she hung the washing. She was deaf to our calling. A newly lit, dirty, bleak fire in
the stove licked at the cold, shiny growth of soot in the throat of the chimney. The candle died out, and the room filled with gloom. With our heads on the tablecloth, among the remains of breakfast, we fell asleep, still half-dressed. Lying face downward on the furry lap of darkness, we sailed in its regular breathing into the starless nothingness. We were awakened by Adela's noisy tidying up. Mother could not cope with her dressing. Before she had finished doing her hair, the shop-assistants were back for lunch. The halflight in the market place was now the colour of golden smoke. For a moment it looked as if out of that smoke-coloured honey, that opaque amber, a most beautiful afternoon would unfold. But the happy moment passed, the amalgam of dawn withered, the swelling fermentation of the day, almost completed, receded again into a helpless greyness. We assembled again around the table, the shop assistants rubbed their hands, red from the cold, and the prose of their conversation suddenly revealed a fullgrown day, a grey and empty Tuesday, a day without tradition and without a face. But it was only when a dish appeared on the table containing two large fish in jelly lying side by side, head to tail, like a sign of the Zodiac, that we recognised in them the coat of arms of that day the calendar emblem of the nameless Tuesday: we shared it out quickly among ourselves, thankful that the day had at last achieved an identity.

   The shop assistants ate with unction, with the seriousness due to a calendar feast. The smell of pepper filled the room. And when they had used pieces of bread to wipe up the remains of the jelly from their plates, pondering in silence on the heraldry of the following days of the week, and nothing remained on the serving dish but the fishheads with their boiled out eyes, we all felt that by a communal effort we had conquered the day and that what remained of it did not matter.

   And, in fact, Adela made short work of the rest of the day, now surrendered to her mercies. Amidst the clatter of saucepans and splashing of cold water, she was energetically liquidating the few hours remaining until dusk, while mother slept on the sofa. Meanwhile, in
the dining room the scene was being set for the evening. Polda and Pauline, the sewing girls, spread themselves out there with the props of their trade. Carried on their shoulders, a silent immobile lady had entered the room, a lady of oakum and canvas, with a black wooden knob instead of a head. But when stood in the corner between the door and the stove, that silent woman became mistress of the situation. Standing motionless in her corner, she supervised the girls' advances and wooing as they knelt before her, fitting fragments of a dress marked with white tacking thread. They waited with attention and patience on the silent idol, which was difficult to please. That moloch was inexorable as only a female moloch can be, and sent them back to work again and again, and they, thin and spindly, like wooden spools from which thread is unwound and as mobile, manipulated with deft fingers the piles of silk and cloth, cut with noisy scissors into its colourful mass, whirred the sewing machine, treading its pedal with one cheap patent-leathered foot, while around them there grew a heap of cuttings, of motley rags and pieces like husks and chaff spat out by two fussy and prodigal parrots. The curved jaws of the scissors tapped open like the beaks of those exotic birds.

   The girls trod absentmindedly on the bright shreds of material, wading carelessly in the rubbish of a possible carnival, in the lumber room of some great, unrealized masquerade. They disentangled themselves with nervous giggles from the trimmings, their eyes laughed into the mirrors. Their hearts, the quick magic of their fingers, were not in the boring dresses which remained on the table, but in the thousand scraps, the frivolous and fickle trimmings, with the colourful fantastic snowstorm with which they could smother the whole city.

   Suddenly they felt hot and opened the window to see, in the frustration of their solitude, in their hunger for new faces, at least one nameless face pressed against the pane. They fanned their flushed cheeks with the winter night air in which the curtains billowed-they uncovered their burning decolletes, full of hatred and rivalry for one another, ready to fight for any Pierrot whom the dark breezes of night
might blow in through the window. Ah! how little did they demand from reality! They had everything within themselves, they had a surfeit of everything in themselves. Ah! they would be content with a sawdust Pierrot with the long-awaited word to act as the cue for their wellrehearsed roles, so that they could at last speak the lines, full of a sweet and terrible bitterness, that crowded to their lips exciting them violently like some novel devoured at night while the tears streamed down their cheeks.

   During one of his nightly wanderings about the flat, undertaken in Adela's absence, my father stumbled upon such a quiet evening sewing session. For a moment he stood in the dark door of the adjoining room, a lamp in his hand, enchanted by the scene of feverish activity, by the blushes-that synthesis of face-powder, red tissue-paper and atropine-to which the winter night, breathing on the waving window curtains acted as a significant backdrop. Putting on his glasses, he stepped quickly up to the girls and walked twice around them, letting fall on them the light of the lamp he was carrying. The draught from the open door lifted the curtains; the girls let themselves be admired, twisting their hips; the enamel of their eyes glinted like the shiny leather of their shoes and the buckles of their garters, showing from under their skirts lifted by the wind; the scraps began to scamper across the floor like rats towards the half-closed door of the dark room and my father gazed attentively at the panting girls, whispering softly: "Genus avium . . . If I am not mistaken, scansores or pistacci . . . very remarkable, very remarkable indeed."

   This accidental encounter was the beginning of a whole series of meetings, in the course of which my father succeeded in charming both of the young ladies with the magnetism of his strange personality. In return for his witty and elegant conversation, which filled the emptiness of their evenings, the girls permitted the ardent ornithologist to study the structure of their thin and ordinary little bodies. This took place while the conversation was in progress and was done with a seriousness and grace which ensured that even the more risky points
of these researches remained completely unequivocal. Pulling Pauline's stocking down from her knee and studying with enraptured eyes the precise and noble structure of the joint, my father would say:

   "How delightful and happy is the form of existence which you ladies have chosen. How beautiful and simple is the truth which is revealed by your lives. And with that mastery, with what precision you are performing your task. If, forgetting the respect due to the Creator, I were to attempt a criticism of creation, I would say 'Less matter, more form!' Ah, what relief it would be for the world to lose some of its contents. More modesty in aspirations, more sobriety in claims, Gentlemen Demiurges, and the world would be more perfect!" my father exclaimed, which his hands released Pauline's white calf from the prison of her stocking.

   At that moment Adela appeared in the open door of the dining room, the supper tray in her hands. This was the first meeting of the two enemy powers since the great battle. All of us who witnessed it felt a moment of terrible fear. We felt extremely uneasy at being present at the further humiliation of the sorely tried man. My father rose from his knees very disturbed, blushing more and more deeply in wave after wave of shame. But Adela found herself unexpectedly equal to the situation. She walked up to father with a smile, and flipped him on the nose. At that, Polda and Pauline clapped their hands, stamped their feet and each grabbing one of father's arms, began to dance with him round the table. Thus, because of the girls? good nature, the cloud of unpleasantness dispersed in general hilarity.

   That was the beginning of a series of most interesting and most unusual lectures which my father, inspired by the charm of that small and innocent audience, delivered during the subsequent weeks of that early winter.

   It is worth noting how, in contact with that strange man, all things reverted, as it were, to the roots of their existence, rebuilt their outward appearance anew from their metaphysical core, returned to the primary idea, in order to betray it at some point and to turn into the doubtful,
risky and equivocal regions which we shall call for short the Regions of the Great Heresy. Our Heresiarch walked meanwhile like a mesmerist, infecting everything with his dangerous charm. Am I to call Pauline his victim? She became in those days his pupil and disciple, and at the same time a guinea-pig for his experiments.

   Next I shall attempt to explain, with due care and without causing offence, this most heretical doctrine which held father in its sway for many months to come and which during this time prompted all his actions.


"The Demiurge," said my father, "has had no monopoly of creation, for creation is the privilege of all spirits. Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation which invites us to create as well. In the depth of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions build up, attempts at form appear. The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities which send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself.

   "Deprived of all initiative, indulgently acquiescent, pliable like a woman, submissive to every impulse, it is a territory outside any law, open to all kinds of charlatans and dilettanti, a domain of abuses and of dubious demiurgical manipulations. Matter is the most passive and most defenceless essence in cosmos. Anyone can mould it and shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organising matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve. There is no evil in reducing life to other and newer forms. Homicide is not a sin. It is sometimes a necessary violence on resistant and ossified forms of existence which have ceased to be amusing. In the interests of an important and fascinating experiment, it can even become meritorious. Here is the starting point of a new apologia for sadism. "

   My father never tired of glorifying this extraordinary element- matter.

   "There is no dead matter," he taught us, "lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life. The range of these forms is infinite and their shades and nuances limitless. The Demiurge was in possession of important and interesting creative recipes. Thanks to them he created a multiplicity of species, which renew themselves by their own devices. No one knows whether these recipes will ever be reconstructed. But this is unnecessary, because even if the classical methods of creation should prove inaccessible for evermore, there still remain some illegal methods, an infinity of heretical and criminal methods. "

   As my father proceeded from these general principles of cosmogony to the more restricted sphere of his private interests, his voice sank to an impressive whisper, the lecture became ever more complicated and difficult to follow and the conclusions which he reached became more dubious and dangerous. His gestures acquired an esoteric solemnity. He half-closed one eye, put two fingers to his forehead while a look of extraordinary slyness came over his face. He transfixed his listeners with these looks, violated with his cynical expression their most intimate and most private reserve, until he had reached them in the furthest corner whither they had retreated, pressed them against the wall and tickled them with the finger of irony, finally producing a glimmer of understanding laughter, the laughter of agreement and admission, the visible sign of capitulation.

   The girls sat perfectly still, the lamp smoked, the piece of material under the needle of the sewing machine had long since slipped to the floor, and the machine ran empty, stitching only the black, starless cloth unwinding from the bale of winter darkness outside the window.

   "We have lived for too long under the terror of the matchless perfection of the Demiurge," my father said. "For too long the perfec
tion of his creation has paralysed our own creative instinct. We don't wish to compete with him. We have no ambition to emulate him. We wish to be creators in our own, lower sphere; we want to have the privilege of creation, we want creative delights, we want- in one word-Demiurgy. " I don't know on whose behalf my father was proclaiming these demands, what community or corporation, sect or order supported him loyally and lent the necessary weight to his words. As for us, we did not share these demiurgical aspirations.

   But father had meanwhile developed the programme of this second Demiurgy, the picture of the second Genesis of creatures which was to stand in open opposition to the present era.

   "We are not concerned," he said, "with long-winded creations, with long-term beings. Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise; their characters- without a background. Sometimes for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life. We openly admit: we shall not insist either on durability or solidity of workmanship; our creations will be temporary, to serve for a single occasion. If they be human beings, we shall give them, for example, only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed for their role. It would be pedantic to bother about the other, unnecessary, leg. Their backs can be made of canvas or simply whitewashed. We shall have this proud slogan as our aim: a different actor for every gesture. For each action, each word, we shall call to life a different human being. Such is our whim, and the world will be run according to our pleasure. Demiurge was in love with consummate, superb and complicated materials; we shall give priority to trash. We are simply entranced and enchanted by the cheapness, shabbiness and inferiority of material."

   "Can you understand," asked my father, "the deep meaning of that weakness, that passion for coloured tissue, for papier mache, for distemper, for oakum and sawdust? This is," he continued with a pained smile, "the proof of our love for matter as such, for its fluffiness or porosity, for its unique mystical consistency. Demiurge, that great
master and artist, made matter invisible, made it disappear under the surface of life. We, on the contrary, love its creaking, its resistance, its clumsiness. We like to see behind each gesture, behind each move, its inertia, its heavy effort, its bear-like awkwardness."

   The girls sat motionless, with glazed eyes. Their faces were long and stultified by listening, their cheeks flushed, and it would have been difficult to decide at that moment whether they belonged to the first or the second Genesis of Creation.

   "In one word," father concluded, "we wish to create man a second time, in the shape and semblance of a tailor's dummy."

   Here, for reasons of accuracy, we must describe an insignificant small incident which occurred at that point of the lecture and to which we do not attach much importance. The incident, completely nonsensical and incomprehensible in the sequence of events, could probably be explained as vestigial automatism, without cause and effect, as an instance of the malice of inanimate objects transferred into the region of psychology. We advise the reader to treat it as lightly as we are doing. Here is what happened.

   Just as my father pronounced the word "dummy," Adela looked at her wristwatch and exchanged a knowing look with Polda. She then moved her chair forward and, without getting up from it, lifted her dress to reveal her foot tightly covered in black silk, and then stretched it out stiffly like a serpent's head.

   She sat thus throughout that scene, upright, her large eyes, shining from atropine, fluttering, while Polda and Pauline sat at her sides. All three looked at father with wide open eyes. My father coughed nervously, fell silent and suddenly became very red in the face. Within a minute the lines of his face, so expressive and vibrant a moment before, became still and his expression became humble.

   He-the inspired heresiarch, just emerging from the clouds of exaltation-suddenly collapsed and folded up. Or perhaps he had been exchanged for another man? That other man now sat stiffly, very flushed, with downcast eyes. Polda went up to him and bent over him.
Patting him lightly on the back, she spoke in the tone of gentle encouragement: "Jacob must be sensible. Jacob must obey, Jacob must not be obstinate. Please, Jacob . . . Please . . ."

   Adela's outstretched slipper trembled slightly and shone like a serpent's tongue. My father rose slowly, still looking down, took a step forward like an automaton, and fell to his knees. The lamp hissed in the silence of the room, eloquent looks ran up and down in the thicket of wallpaper patterns, whispers of venomous tongues floated in the air, zigzags of thought....


The next evening father reverted with renewed enthusiasm to his dark and complex subject. Each wrinkle of his deeply lined face expressed incredible cunning. In each fold of skin, a missile of irony lay hidden. But occasionally inspiration widened the spirals of his wrinkles and they swelled horribly and sank in silent whorls into the depths of the winter night.

   "Figures in a wax-work museum," he began, "even fair-ground parodies of dummies, must not be treated lightly. Matter never makes jokes: it is always full of the tragically serious. Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will not eat into it like fate, like destiny? Can you imagine the pain, the dull imprisoned suffering, hewn into the matter of that dummy which does not know why it must be what it is, why it must remain in that forcibly imposed form which is no more than a parody? Do you understand the power of form, of expression, of pretense, the arbitrary tyranny imposed on a helpless block, and ruling it like its own, tyrannical, despotic soul? You give a head of canvas and oakum an expression of anger and leave it with it, with the convulsion, the tension enclosed once and for all, with a blind fury for which there is no outlet. The crowd laughs at the parody. Weep, ladies,
over your own fate, when you see the misery of imprisoned matter, of tortured matter which does not know what it is and why it is, nor where the gesture may lead that has been imposed on it for ever.

   "The crowd laughs. Do you understand the terrible sadism, the exhilarating, demiurgical cruelty of that laughter? Yet we should weep, ladies, at our own fate, when we see that misery of violated matter, against which a terrible wrong has been committed. Hence the frightening sadness of all those jesting Golems, of all effigies which brood tragically over their comic grimaces.

   "Look at the anarchist Luccheni, the murderer of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria; look at Draga, the diabolical and unhappy Queen of Serbia, look at that youth of genius, the hope and pride of his ancient family, ruined by the unfortunate habit of masturbation. Oh, the irony of those names, of those pretensions!

   "Is there anything left of Queen Draga in the wax-figure likeness, any similarity, even the most remote shadow of her being? But the resemblance, the pretence, the name reassures us and stops us from asking what that unfortunate figure is in itself and by itself. And yet it must be somebody, somebody anonymous, menacing and unhappy, some being that in its dumb existence had never heard of Queen Draga....

   "Have you heard at night the terrible howling of these wax figures, shut in their fair-booths; the pitiful chorus of those forms of wood or porcelain, banging their fists against the walls of their prisons?"

   In my father's face, convulsed by the horror of the visions which he had conjured up from darkness, a spiral of wrinkles appeared, a maelstrom growing deeper and deeper, at the bottom of which there flared the terrible eye of a prophet. His beard bristled grotesquely, the tufts of hair growing from warts and moles and from his nostrils stood on end. He became rigid and stood with flaming eyes, trembling from an internal conflict like an automaton of which the mechanism has broken down.

Adela rose from her chair and asked us to avert our eyes from
what was to follow. Then she went up to father and, with her hands on his hips in a pose of great determination, she spoke very clearly.

   The two other girls sat stiffly, with downcast eyes, strangely numb . . .


On one of the following evenings, my father continued his lecture thus: "When I announced my talk about lay figures, I had not really wanted to speak about those incarnate misunderstandings, those sad parodies that are the fruits of a common and vulgar lack of restraint. I had something else in mind."

   Here my father began to set before our eyes the picture of that generatio aequivoca which he had dreamed up, a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudo-fauna and pseudo-flora, the result of a fantastic fermentation of matter.

   They were creations resembling, in appearance only, living creatures such as crustaceans, vertebrates, cephalopods. In reality the appearance was misleading-they were amorphous creatures, with no internal structure, products of the imitative tendency of matter which, equipped with memory, repeats from force of habit the forms already accepted. The morphological scope of matter is limited on the whole and a certain quota of forms is repeated over and over again on various levels of existence.

   These creatures-mobile, sensitive to stimuli and yet outside the pale of real life-could be brought forth by suspending certain complex colloids in solutions of kitchen salt. These colloids, after a number of days, would form and organise themselves in precipitations of substance resembling lower forms of fauna.

   In creatures conceived in this way, one could observe the processes of respiration and metabolism, but chemical analysis revealed in them neither traces of albumen nor of carbon compounds.
   Yet these primitive forms were unremarkable compared with the richness of shapes and the splendour of the pseudo-fauna and the pseudo-flora, which sometimes appeared in certain strictly defined environments, such as old apartments saturated with the emanations of numerous existences and events; used up atmospheres rich in the specific ingredients of human dreams; rubbish heaps, abounding in the humus of memories, of nostalgia and of sterile boredom. On such a soil, this pseudo-vegetation sprouted abundantly yet ephemerally, brought forth short-lived generations which flourished suddenly and splendidly, only to wilt and perish.

   In apartments of that kind, wallpapers must be very weary and bored with the incessant changes in all the cadenzas of rhythm; no wonder that they are susceptible to distant, dangerous dreams. The essence of furniture is unstable, degenerate and receptive to abnormal temptations: it is then that on this sick, tired and wasted soil colourful and exuberant mildew can flourish in a fantastic growth, like a beautiful rash.

   "As you will no doubt know," said my father, "in old apartments there are rooms which are sometimes forgotten. Unvisited for months on end, they wilt neglected between the old walls and it happens that they close in on themselves, become overgrown with bricks and, lost once and for all to our memory, forfeit their only claim to existence. The doors, leading to them from some backstairs landing, have been overlooked by people living in the flat for so long that they merge with the wall, grow into it, and all trace of them is obliterated in a complicated design of lines and cracks.

   "Once early in the morning towards the end of winter," my father continued, "after many months of absence, I entered such a forgotten passage, and I was amazed at the appearance of the rooms.

   "From all the crevices in the floor, from all the mouldings, from every recess, there grew slim shoots filling the grey air with a scintillating filigree lace of leaves: a hot-house jungle, full of whispers and flicking lights-a false and blissful spring. Around the bed, under the lamp, along the wardrobes, grew clumps of delicate trees which, high above, spread their luminous crowns and fountains of lacy leaves, spraying cholorphyl, and thrusting up to the painted heaven of the ceiling. In the rapid process of blossoming, enormous white and pink flowers opened among the leaves, bursting from bud under your very eyes, displaying their pink pulp and spilling over to shed their petals and fall apart in quick decay.

   "I was happy," said my father, "to see that unexpected flowering which filled the air with a soft rustle, a gentle murmur, falling like coloured confetti through the thin rods of the twigs.

   "I could see the trembling of the air, the fermentation of too rich an atmosphere which provoked that precocious blossoming, luxuriation and wilting of the fantastic oleanders which had filled the room with a rare, lazy snowstorm of large pink clusters of flowers.

   "Before nightfall," concluded my father, "there was no trace left of that splendid flowering. The whole elusive sight was a Data Morgana, an example of the strange make-believe of matter which had created a semblance of life."

   My father was strangely animated that day; the expression in his eyes-a sly, ironic expression-was vivid and humorous. Later he suddenly became more serious and again analysed the infinite diversity of forms which the multifarious matter could adopt. He was fascinated by doubtful and problematic forms, like the ectoplasm of a medium, by pseudo-matter, the cataleptic emanations of the brain which in some instances spread from the mouth of the person in a trance over the whole table, filled the whole room, a floating, rarefied tissue, an astral dough, on the borderline between body and soul.

   "Who knows," he said, "how many suffering, crippled, fragmentary forms of life there are, such as the artificially created life of chests and tables quickly nailed together, crucified timbers, silent martyrs to cruel human inventiveness. The terrible transplantation of incompatible and hostile races of wood, their merging into one misbegotten personality.

   "How much ancient suffering is there in the varnished grain, in the veins and knots of our old familiar wardrobes? Who would recognise in them the old features, smiles and glances, almost planed and polished out of all recognition?"

   My father's face, when he said that, dissolved into a thoughtful net of wrinkles, began to resemble an old plank full of knots and veins, from which all memories had been planed away. For a moment we thought that father would fall into a state of apathy which sometimes took hold of him, but all of a sudden he recovered himself and continued to speak:

   "Ancient, mythical tribes used to embalm their dead. The walls of their houses were filled with bodies and heads immured in them: a father would stand in a corner of the drawing room- stuffed, the tanned skin of a deceased wife would serve as a mat under the table. I knew a certain sea captain who had in his cabin a lamp, made by Malayan embalmers from the body of his murdered mistress. On her head, she wore enormous antlers. In the stillness of the cabin, the face stretched between the antlers at the ceiling, slowly lifted its eyelids: on the half-opened lips a bubble of saliva would glint, then burst with the softest of whispers. Octopuses, tortoises, and enormous crabs, hanging from the rafters in place of chandeliers, moved their legs endlessly in that stillness, walking, walking, walking without moving .

   My father's face suddenly assumed a worried, sad expression when his thoughts, stirred by who knows what associations, prompted him to new examples:

   "Am I to conceal from you," he said in a low tone, "that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion, singing to the luckless creature endless lullabies on winter nights? Can there by anything sadder than a human being changed into the rubber tube of an enema? What disappointment for his parents, what confusion for their feelings,
what frustration of the hopes centered round the promising youth! And yet, the faithful love of my poor cousin was not denied him even during that transformation."

   "Oh, please, I cannot, I really cannot listen to this any longer!" groaned Polda leaning over her chair. "Make him stop, Adela . . ."

   The girls got up, Adela went up to my father with an outstretched finger made as if to tickle him. Father lost countenance, immediately stopped talking and, very frightened, began to back away from Adela's moving finger. She followed him, however, threatening him with her finger, driving him, step by step, out of the room. Pauline yawned and stretched herself. She and Polda, leaning against one another, exchanged a look and a smile.

The Comet

THAT YEAR the end of the winter stood under the sign of particularly favorable astronomical aspects. The predictions in the calendar flourished in red in the snowy margins of the mornings. The brighter red of Sundays and Holy days cast its reflection on half the week and these weekdays burned coldly, with a freak, rapid flame. Human hearts beat more quickly for a moment, misled and blinded by the redness, which, in fact, announced nothing, being merely a premature alert, a colorful lie of the calendar, painted in bright cinnabar on the jacket of the week. From Twelfth Night onwards, we sat night after night over the white parade-ground of the table gleaming with candlesticks and silver, and played endless games of patience. Every hour, the night beyond the windows became lighter, sugarcoated and shiny, filled with sprouting almonds and sweetmeats. The moon, that most inventive transmogrifier, wholly engrossed in her lunar practices, accomplished her successive phases and grew ever brighter and brighter. Already by day, the moon stood in the wings, prematurely ready for her cue, brassy and lustreless. Meanwhile whole flocks of feather clouds passed like sheep across her profile on their silent white extensive wandering, barely covering her with the shimmering mother-of-pearl scales into which the firmament froze towards the evening.
   Later on, the pages of days turned emptily. The wind roared over the roofs, blew through the cold chimneys to the very hearths, built over the city imaginary scaffoldings and grandstands and then destroyed these resounding air-filled structures with a clatter of planks and beams. Sometimes, a fire would start in a distant suburb. The
chimney-sweeps explored the city at roof level among the gables under a gaping verdigris sky. Climbing from one foothold to another, on the weather vanes and flagpoles, they dreamed that the wind would open for them for a moment the lids of roofs over the alcoves of young girls and close them again immediately on the great stormy book of the city-providing them with breathtaking reading matter for many days and nights.
   Then the wind grew weary and blew itself out. The shop assistants dressed the shop window with spring fabrics and soon the air became milder from the soft colours of these woollens. It turned lavender blue, it flowered with pale reseda. The snow shrank, folded itself up into an infant fleece, evaporated drily into the air, drunk by the cobalt breezes, and was absorbed again by the vast sunless and cloudless sky. Oleanders in pots began to flower here and there inside the houses, windows remained open for longer, and the thoughtless chirping of sparrows filled the room, dreaming in the dull blue day. Over the cleanly swept squares, tom tits and chaffinches clashed for a moment in violent skirmishes with an alarming twittering, and then scattered in all directions, blown away by the breeze, erased, annihilated in the empty azure. For a second, the eyes held the memory of coloured speckles-a handful of confetti flung blindly into the air-then they dissolved in the fundus of the eye.
   The premature spring season began. The advocates' juniors twirled their moustaches, turning up the ends, wore high stiff collars and were paragons of elegance and fashion. On days hollowed out by winds as by a flood, when gales roared high above the city, the young lawyers greeted the ladies of their acquaintance from a distance, doffing their sombre coloured bowler hats and leaning their backs against the wind so that their coat tails opened wide. They then immediately averted their eyes, with a show of self-denial and delicacy so as not to expose their beloved to unnecessary gossip. The ladies momentarily lost the ground under their feet, exclaimed with alarm amidst their billowing skirts and, regaining their balance, returned the greeting with a smile.
In the afternoon the wind would sometimes calm down. On the balcony Adela began to clean the large brass saucepans that clattered metallically under her touch. The sky stood immobile over the shingle roofs, stock-still, then folded itself into blue streaks. The shop assistants, sent over from the shop on errands, lingered endlessly by Adela on the threshold of the kitchen, propped against the balcony rails, drunk from the day-long wind, confused by the deafening twitter of sparrows. From the distance, the breeze brought the faint chorus of barrel-organ. One could not hear the soft words which the young men sang in undertones, with an innocent expression but which in fact were meant to shock Adela. Stung to the quick, she would react violently, and, most indignant, scold them angrily, while her face grey and dulled from early spring dreams, would flush with anger and amusement. The men lowered their eyes with assumed innocence and wicked satisfaction at having succeeded in upsetting her.
Days and afternoons came and went, everyday events streamed in confusion over the city seen from the level of our balcony, over the labyrinth of roofs and houses bathed in the opaque light of those grey weeks. The tinkers rushed around, shouting their wares. Sometimes Abraham's powerful sneeze gave comical emphasis to the distant, scattered tumult of the city. In a far-away square the mad Touya, driven to despair by the nagging of small boys, would dance her wild saraband, lifting high her skirt to the amusement of the crowd. A gust of wind smoothed down and levelled out these sounds, melted them into the monotonous, grey din, spreading uniformly over the sea of shingle roofs in the milky, smoky air of the afternoon. Adela, leaning against the balcony rails, bent over the distant, stormy roar of the city, caught from it all the louder accents and, with a smile put together the lost syllables of a song trying to join them, to read some sense into the rising and falling grey monotony of the day.
It was the age of electricity and mechanics and a whole swarm of inventions was showered on the world by the resourcefulness of human genius. In middle class homes cigar sets appeared equipped with an electric lighter: you pressed a switch and a sheaf of electric sparks lit a wick soaked in petrol. The inventions gave rise to exaggerated hopes. A musical box in the shape of a Chinese pagoda would, when wound, begin to play a little rondo while turning like a merry-go-round. Bells tinkled at intervals, the doors flapped wide to show the turning barrel playing a snuff-box triolet. In every house electric bells were installed. Domestic life stood under the sign of galvanism. A spool of insulated wire became the symbol of the times. Young dandies demonstrated Galvani's invention in drawing rooms and were rewarded with radiant looks from the ladies. An electric conductor opened the way to women's hearts. After an experiment had succeeded, the heroes of the day blew kisses all round, amidst the applause of the drawing rooms.
It was not long before the city filled with velocipedes of various sizes and shapes. An outlook based on philosophy became obligatory. Whoever admitted to a belief in progress had to draw the logical conclusion and ride a velocipede. Tile first to do so were of course the advocates' juniors, that vanguard of new ideas, with their waxed moustaches and their bowler hats, the hope and flower of youth. Pushing through the noisy mob, they rode through the traffic on enormous bicycles and tricycles which displayed their wire spokes. Placing their hands on wide handlebars, they manoeuvred from the high saddle the enormous hoop of the wheel and cut into the amused mob in a wavy line. Some of them succumbed to apostolic zeal. Lifting themselves on their moving pedals, as if on stirrups, they addressed the crowd from on high, forecasting a new happy era for mankind- salvation through the bicycle . . . And they rode on amid the applause of the public, bowing in all directions.
And yet there was something grievously embarrassing in those splendid and triumphal rides, something painful and unpleasant which even at the summit of their success threatened to disintegrate into parody. They must have felt it themselves when, hanging like spiders among the delicate machinery, straddled on their pedals like great jumping frogs, they performed duck-like movements above the wide turning wheels. Only a step divided them from ridicule and they took it with despair, leaning over the handlebars and redoubling the speed of their ride, in a tangle of violent head over heels gymnastics. Can one wonder? Man was entering under false pretences the sphere of incredible facilities, acquired too cheaply, below cost price, almost for nothing, and the disproportion between outlay and gain, the obvious fraud on nature, the excessive payment for a trick of genius, had to be offset by self-parody. The cyclists rode on among elemental outbursts of laughter-miserable victors, martyrs to their genius-so great was the comic appeal of these wonders of technology.
When my brother brought an electromagnet for the first time from school, when with a shiver we all sensed by touch the vibrations of the mysterious life enclosed in an electric circuit, my father smiled a superior smile. A long-range idea was maturing in his mind; there merged and forged a chain of ideas he had had for a long time. Why did father smile to himself, why did his eyes turn up, misty, in a parody of mock admiration? Who can tell? Did he foresee the coarse trick, the vulgar intrigue, the transparent machinations behind the amazing manifestations of the secret force? Yet that moment marked a turning point: it was then that father began his laboratory experiments.
Father's laboratory equipment was simple: a few spools of wire, a few bottles of acid, zinc, lead and carbon-these constituted the workshop of that very strange esoterist. "Matter," he said, modestly lowering his eyes and stifling a cough, "matter, gentlemen..." He did not finish his sentence, he left his listeners guessing that he was about to expose a big swindle, that all we who sat there, were being taken for a ride. With downcast eyes my father quietly sneered at that age-long fetish. "Panta rei!" he exclaimed, and indicated with a movement of his hands the eternal circling of substance. For a long time he had wanted to mobilise the forces hidden in it, to make its stiffness melt, to pave its way to universal penetration, to transfusion, to universal circulation in accordance with its true nature.
"Principium individuationis-my foot," he used to say, thus expressing his limitless contempt for that guiding human principle. He threw out these words in passing, while running from wire to wire. He half-closed his eyes and touched delicately various points of the circuit, feeling for the slight differences in potential. He made incisions in the wire, leant over it, listening, and immediately moved ten steps further, to repeat the same gestures at another point of the circuit. He seemed to have a dozen hands and twenty senses. His brittle attention wandered to a hundred places at once. No point in space was free from his suspicions. He leant over to pierce the wire at some place and then, with a sudden jump backwards, he pounced at another like a cat on its prey and, missing, became confused. "I am sorry," he would say, addressing himself unexpectedly to the astonished onlooker. "I am sorry, I am concerned with that section of space which you are filling. Couldn't you move a little to one side for a minute?" And he quickly made some lightning measurements, agile and nimble as a canary twitching efficiently under the impulses of its sympathetic system.
The metals dipped in acid solutions, salty and rusting in that painful bath, began to conduct in darkness. Awakened from their stiff lifelessness, they hummed monotonously, sang metallically, shone molecularly in the incessant dusk of those mournful and late days. Invisible charges rose in the poles and swamped them, escaping into the circling darkness. An imperceptible tickling, a blind prickly current traversed the space polarised into concentric lines of energy, into circles and spirals of a magnetic field. Here and there an awakened apparatus would give out signals, another would reply a moment later, out of turn, in hopeless monosyllables, dash-dot-dash in the intervals of a dull lethargy. My father stood amongst those wandering currents, a smile of suffering on his face, impressed by that stammering articulation, by the misery, shut in once and for all, irrevocably, which was monotonously signalling in crippled half-syllables from the unliberated depths.
As a consequence of these researches, my father achieved amazing results. He proved for instance that an electric bell, built on the principle of Neeff's hammer, is an ordinary mystification. It was not man who had broken into the laboratory of nature, but nature that had drawn him into its machinations, achieving through his experiments its own obscure aims. My father would touch during dinner the nail of his thumb with the handle of a spoon dipped in soup, and suddenly Neeff's bell would begin to rattle inside the lamp. The whole apparatus was quite superfluous, quite unnecessary: Neeff's bell was the point of convergence of certain impulses of matter, which used man's ingenuity for its own purposes. It was Nature that willed and worked, man was nothing more than an oscillating arrow, the shuttle of a loom, darting here or there according to Nature's will. He was himself only a component, a part of Neeff's hammer.
Somebody once mentioned "mesmerism" and my father took this up too, immediately. The circle of his theories had closed, he had found the missing link. According to his theory, man was only a transit station, a temporary junction of mesmeric currents, wandering hither and thither within the lap of eternal matter. All the inventions in which he took such pride were traps into which nature had enticed him, were snares of the unknown. Father's experiments began to acquire the character of magic and legerdemain, of a parody of juggling. I won't mention the numerous experiments with pigeons which, by manipulating a wand, he multiplied into two, four or ten, only to enclose them, with visible effort, back again into the wand. He would raise his hat and out they flew fluttering, one by one, returning to reality in their full complement and settling on the table in a wavy, mobile, cooing heap. Sometimes father interrupted himself at an unexpected point of the experiment, stood up undecided, with half-closed eyes and, after a second, ran with tiny steps to the entrance hall where he put his head into the chimney shaft. It was dark there, bleak from soot, cosy as in the very centre of nothingness, and warm currents of air streamed up and down. Father closed his eyes and stayed there for a time in that warm, black void. We all felt that the incident had little to do with the matters in hand, that it somehow occurred at the back stage of things we inwardly shut our eyes to that marginal fact which belonged to quite a different dimension.
My father had in his repertoire some really depressing tricks that filled one with true melancholy. We had in our dining room a set of chairs with tall backs, beautifully carved in the realistic manner into garlands of leaves and flowers; it was enough for father to flip the carvings and they suddenly acquired an exceptionally witty physiognomy; they began to grimace and wink significantly. This could become extremely embarrassing, almost unbearable, for the winking took on a wholly definite direction, an irresistible inevitability and one or another of those present would suddenly exclaim: "Aunt Wanda, by God, Aunt Wanda!" The ladies began to scream for it really was Aunt Wanda's true image; it was more than that-it was she herself on a visit, sitting at table and engaging in never-ending discourses during which one could never get a word in edgeways. Father's miracles cancelled themselves out automatically, for he did not produce a ghost but the real Aunt Wanda in all her ordinarinees and commonness, which excluded any thought of a possible miracle.
Before we relate the other events of that memorable winter, we might shortly mention a certain incident which has been always hushed up in our family. What exactly had happened to Uncle Edward? He came at that time to stay with us, unsuspecting, in sparkling good health and full of plans, having left his wife and small daughter in the country. He just came in the highest of spirits, to have a little change and some fun away from his family. And what happened? Father's experiments made a tremendous impression on him. After the first few tricks, he got up, took off his coat and placed himself entirely at father's disposal. Without reservations! He said this with a piercing direct look and stressed it with a strong and earnest handshake. My father understood. He made sure that Uncle had no traditional prejudices regarding "principium individuationis." It appeared that he had none, none at all. Uncle had a progressive mind and no prejudices. His only passion was to serve Science.
At first father left him a degree of freedom. He was making preparations for a decisive experiment. Uncle Edward took advantage of his leisure to look round in the city. He bought himself a bicycle of imposing dimensions and rode it around Market Square, looking from the height of his saddle into the windows of first floor flats. Passing our house, he would elegantly lift his hat to the ladies standing in the window. He had a twirled, upturned moustache and a small pointed beard. Soon however, Uncle discovered that a bicycle could not introduce him into the deeper secrets of mechanics, that that astonishing machine was unable to provide lasting metaphysical thrills. And then the experiments began, based on the "principium individuationis." Uncle Edward had no objections at all to being physically reduced, for the benefit of science, to the bare principle of Neeff's hammer. He agreed without regret to a gradual shedding of all his characteristics in order to lay bare his deepest self, in harmony, as he had felt for a long time, with that very principle.
Having shut himself in his study, father began the gradual penetration into Uncle Edward's complicated essence by a tiring psychoanalysis which lasted for many days and nights. The table of the study began to fill with the isolated complexes of Edward's ego. At first Uncle, although much reduced, turned up for meals and tried to take part in our conversations. He also went once more for a ride on his bicycle, but soon gave it up as he felt rather incomplete. A kind of shame took hold of him, characteristic for the stage at which he found himself. He began to shun people. At the same time, father was getting ever nearer to his objective. He had reduced Uncle to the indispensable minimum, by removing from him one by one all the inessentials. He placed him high in a wall recess in the staircase, arranging his elements in accordance with the principle of Leclanche's reaction. The wall in that place was mouldy and white mildew showed on it. Without any scruples father took advantage of the entire stock of Uncle's enthusiasm, he spread his flex along the length of the entrance hall and the left wing of the house. Armed with a pair of steps he drove small nails into the wall of the dark passage, along the whole path of Uncle's present existence. Those smoky, yellow afternoons were almost completely dark. Father used a lighted candle with which he illuminated the mildewy wall at close quarters, inch by inch. I have heard it said that at the last moment Uncle Edward, until then heroically composed, showed a certain impatience. They say that there was even a violent, although belated, explosion which very nearly ruined the almost completed work. But the installation was ready and Uncle Edward, who all his life had been a model husband, father and businessman, eventually submitted with dignity to his final role.
Uncle functioned excellently. There was no instance of his refusal to obey. Having discarded his complicated personality, in which at one time he had lost himself, he found at last the purity of a uniform and straightforward guiding principle to which he was subjected from now on. At the cost of his complexity, which he could manage only with difficulty, he had now achieved a simple problem-free immortality. Was he happy? One would ask that question in vain. A question like this makes sense only when applied to creatures who are rich in alternative, possibilities, so that the actual truth can be contrasted with partly real probabilities and reflect itself in them. But Uncle Edward had no alternatives; the dichotomy "happy/unhappy" did not exist for him because he had been completely integrated. One had to admit to a grudging approval when one saw how punctually, how accurately he was functioning. Even his wife, Aunt Teresa, who followed him to our city, could not stop herself from pressing the button quite often, in order to hear that loud and sonorous sound in which she recognised the former timbre of her husband's voice in moments of irritation. As to their daughter, Edy, one might say that she was fascinated by her father's career. Later, it is true, she took it out on me, avenging my father's action, but that is part of a different story.


The days passed, the afternoons grew longer: there was nothing to do in them. The excess of time, still raw, still sterile and without use, lengthened the evenings with empty dusks. Adela, after washing up early and clearing the kitchen, stood idly on the balcony looking vacantly at the pale redness of the evening distance. Her beautiful eyes, so expressive at other times, were blank from dull reveries, protruding, large and shining. Her complexion, at the end of winter matted and grey from kitchen smells, now, under the influence of the springwards gravitation of the moon which was waxing from quarter to quarter, became younger, acquired milky reflexes, opaline shades and the glaze of enamel. She now had the whip hand over the shop assistants who cringed under her dark looks, discarded the role of would-be cynics, frequenters of city taverns and other places of ill repute, and, enraptured by her new beauty, sought a different method of approach, ready to make concessions towards putting the relationship on a new basis and to recognise positive facts.
Father's experiments did not, in spite of expectations, produce any revolution in the life of the community. The grafting of mesmerism on the body of modern physics did not prove fertile. It was not because there was no grain of truth in father's discoveries. But truth is not a decisive factor for the success of an idea. Our metaphysical hunger is limited and can be satisfied quickly. Father was just standing on the threshold of new revelations when we, the ranks of his adherents and followers, began to succumb to discouragement and anarchy. The signs of impatience became ever more frequent: there were even open protestations. Our nature rebelled against the relaxation of fundamental laws, we were fed up with miracles and wished to return to the old, familiar, solid prose of the eternal order. And father understood this. He understood that he had gone too far, and put a rein on the flight of his fancies. The circle of elegant female disciples and male followers with waxed moustaches began to melt away day by day. Father, wishing to withdraw with honour, was intending to give a final concluding lecture, when suddenly a new event turned everybody's attention in a completely unexpected direction.
One day my brother, on his return from school, brought the improbable and yet true news of the imminent end of the world. We asked him to repeat it, thinking that we had misheard. We hadn't. This is what that incredible, that completely baffling piece of news was: unready and unfinished, just as it was, at a random point in time and space, without closing its accounts, without having reached any goal, in mid-sentence as it were, without a full stop or exclamation mark, without a last judgement or God's Wrath-in an atmosphere of friendly understanding, loyally, by mutual agreement and in accordance with rules observed by both parties-the world was to be hit on the head, simply and irrevocably. No, it was not to be an eschatological, tragic finale as forecast long ago by the prophets, nor the last act of the Divine Comedy. No. It was to be a trick cyclist's, a prestidigitator's, end of the world, splendidly hocus-pocus and bogus-experimental- accompanied by the plaudits of all the spirits of Progress. There was almost no one to whom the idea would not appeal. The frightened, the protesters, were immediately hushed up. Why did not they understand that this was a simply incredible chance, the most progressive, freethinking end of the world imaginable, in line with the spirit of the times, an honourable end, a credit to the Supreme Wisdom? People discussed it with enthusiasm, drew pictures "ad oculos" on pages torn from pocket notebooks, provided irrefutable proofs, knocking their opponents and the sceptics out of the ring. In illustrated journals whole-page pictures began to appear, drawings of the anticipated catastrophe with effective staging. These usually represented panic-stricken populous cities under a night sky resplendent with lights and astronomical phenomena. One saw already the astonishing action of the distant comet, whose parabolic summit remained in the sky in immobile flight, still pointing towards the earth, and approaching it at a speed of many miles per second. As in a circus farce, hats and bowlers rose into the air, hair stood on end, umbrellas opened by themselves and bald patches were disclosed under escaping wigs-and above it all there spread a black enormous sky, shimmering with the simultaneous alert of all the stars.
Something festive had entered our lives, an eager enthusiasm. An importance permeated our gestures and swelled our chests with cosmic sighs. The earthly globe seethed at night with a solemn uproar from the unanimous ecstasy of thousands. The nights were black and vast. The nebulae of stars around the earth became more numerous and denser. In the dark interplanetary spaces these stars appeared in different positions, strewing the dust of meteors from abyss to abyss. Lost in the infinite, we had almost forsaken the earthly globe under our feet; we were disorientated, losing our bearings; we hung head down like antipodes over the upturned zenith and wandered over the starry heaps, moving a wetted finger across maps of the sky, from star to star. Thus we meandered in extended, disorderly, single file, scattering in all directions on the rungs of the infinite ladders of the night- emigrants from the abandoned globe, plundering the immense antheap of stars. The last barriers fell, the cyclists rode into stellar space, rearing on their vehicles, and were perpetuated in an immobile flight in the interplanetary vacuum, which revealed ever new constellations. Thus circling on an endless track, they marked the paths of a sleepless cosmography, while in reality, black as soot, they succumbed to a planetary lethargy, as if they had put their heads into the fireplace, the final goal of all those blind flights.
After short, incoherent days, partly spent in sleeping, the nights opened up like an enormous, populated motherland. Crowds filled the streets, turned out in public squares, head close to head, as if the top of a barrel of caviar had been removed and it was now flowing out in a stream of shiny buckshot, a dark river under a pitch-black night noisy with stars. The stairs broke under the weight of thousands, at all the upper floor windows little figures appeared, matchstick people jumping over the rails in a moonstruck fervour, making living chains, like ants, living structures and columns-one astride another's shoulders- flowing down from windows to the platforms of squares lit by the glare of burning tar barrels.
I must beg forgiveness if in describing these scenes of enormous crowds and general uproar, I tend to exaggerate, modelling myself unwittingly on certain old engravings in the great book of disasters and catastrophes of the human species. But they all create a pre-image and the megalomanic exaggeration, the enormous pathos of all these scenes proved that we had removed the bottom of the eternal barrel of memories, of an ultra-barrel of myth, and had broken into a pre-human night of untamed elements, of incoherent anamnesis, and could not hold back the swelling flood. Ah, these nights filled with stars shimmering like fish-scales! Ah, these banks of mouths incessantly swallowing in small gulps, in hungry draught, the swelling undrunk streams of those dark rain-drenched nights! In what fatal nets, in what miserable trammels did those multiplicated generations end?
Oh, skies of those days, skies of luminous signals and meteors, covered by the calculations of astronomers, copied a thousand times, numbered, marked with the watermarks of algebra! With faces blue from the glory of those nights, we wandered through space pulsating from the explosions of distant suns, in a sidereal brightness-human ants, spreading in a broad heap on the sandbanks of the milky way spilled over the whole sky-a human river over-shadowed by the cyclists on their spidery machines. Oh, stellar arena of night, scarred by the evolutions, spirals and leaps of those nimble riders; oh, cycloids and epi-cycloids executed in inspiration along the diagonals of the sky, amidst lost wire spokes, hoops shed with indifference, to reach the bright goal denuded, with nothing but the pure idea of cycling! From these days dates a new constellation, the thirteenth group of stars, included forever in the Zodiac and resplendent since then in the firmament of our nights: THE CYCLIST.
The houses, wide open at night during that time, remained empty in the light of violently flickering lamps. The curtains blew out far into the night and the rows of rooms stood in an all-embracing, incessant draught, which shot through them in violent, relentless alarm. It was Uncle Edward sounding the alert. Yes, at last he had lost patience, cut off his bonds, trod down the categorical imperative, broken away from the rigours of high morals, and sounded the alarm. One tried to silence him with the help of a long stick, one put kitchen rags to stop the violent explosions of sound. But even gagged in this way he never stopped agitating, he rang madly, without respite, without heed that his life was flowing away from him in the continuous rattling, that he was bleeding white in everybody's sight, beyond held, in a fatal frenzy.
Occasionally someone would rush into the empty rooms pierced by that devilish ringing under the glowing lamps, take a few hesitant steps on tiptoe and stop abruptly as if looking for something. The mirrors took him speechlessly into their transparent depths and divided him in silence between themselves. Uncle Edward was ringing to high heaven through all these bright and empty rooms. The lonely deserter from the stars, conscience stricken, as if he had come to commit an evil deed, retreated stealthily from the flat, deafened by the constant ringing. He went to the front door accompanied by the vigilant mirrors which let him through their shiny ranks, while into their depth there tiptoed a swarm of doubles with fingers to their lips.
Again the sky opened above us with its vastness strewn with stellar dust. 'n that sky, at an early hour of each night appeared that fatal Comet, hanging aslant, at the apex of its parabola, aiming unerringly at the earth and swallowing many miles per second. All eyes were directed at him, while he, shining metallically, oblong in shape, slightly brighter in his protuberant middle, performed his daily work with mathematical precision. How difficult it was to believe that that small worm, innocently glowing among the innumerable swarms of stars, was the fiery finger of Balthasar, writing on the blackboard of the sky the perdition of our globe. But every child knew by heart the fatal formula expressed in the logarithm of a multiple integer, from which our inescapable destruction would result. What was there to save us?
While the mob scattered in the open, losing itself under the starry lights and celestial phenomena, my father remained stealthily at home. He was the only one who knew a secret escape from our trap, the back door of cosmology. He smiled secretly to himself. While Uncle Edward, choked with rags, was desperately sounding the alarm, father silently put his head into the chimney shaft of the stove. It was black and quiet there. It smelled of warm air, of soot, of silence, of stillness. Father made himself comfortable and sat blissfully, his eyes closed. Into that black carapace of the house, emerging over the roof into the starry night, there entered the frail light of a star and breaking as if in the glass of a telescope lit a spark in the hearth, a tiny seed in the dark retort of the chimney. Father was slowly turning the screw of a microscope and the fatal creation, bright like the moon, brought near to arm's length by the lens, plastic and shining with a limestone relief in the silent blackness of planetary emptiness, moved into the field of vision. It was slightly scrofulous, somewhat pock-marked-that brother of the moon, his lost double, returning after a thousand years of wandering to the motherland of the Earth. My father moved it closer to his protruding eye: it was like a slice of Gruyere cheese riddled with holes, pale yellow, sharply lit, covered with white, leperous spots. His hand on the screw of the microscope, his gaze blinded by the light of the oculars, my father moved his cold eyes on the limestone globe, he saw on its surface the complicated print of the disease gnawing at it from inside, the curved channels of the book-worm, burrowing under the cheesy, unhealthy surface. Father shivered and saw his mistake: no, this was not Gruyere cheese, this was obviously a human brain, an anatomical crosscut preparation of the brain in all its complicated structure. Concentrating his gaze, he could even decipher the tiny letters of captions running in all directions on the complicated map of the hemisphere. The brain seemed to have been chloroformed, deeply asleep and blissfully smiling in its sleep. Intrigued by its expression, my father saw the essence of the phenomenon through the complex surface print and again smiled to himself. There is no telling what one can discover in one's own familiar chimney, black like tobacco ash. Through the coils of grey substance, through the minute granulations father saw the clearly visible contours of an embryo in a characteristic head-over-heels position, with fists next to its face, sleeping upside down its blissful sleep in the light waters of amnion. Father left it in that position. He rose with relief and shut the trap-door of the flue.
Thus far and no further. But what has become of the end of the world, that splendid finale, after the magnificently developed introduction? Downcast eyes and a smile. Was there a slip in calculation, a small mistake in addition, a printer's error when the figures were being printed? Nothing of the sort. The calculations were correct, there was no fault in the column of figures. What had happened then? Please listen. The comet proceeded bravely, rode fast like an ambitious horse in order to reach the finishing post on time. The fashion of the season ran with him. For a time, he took the lead of the era, to which he lent his shape and name. Then the two gallant mounts drew even and ran neck to neck in a strained gallop, our hearts beating in fellow feeling with them. Later on, fashion overtook by a nose and outstripped the indefatigable bolide. That millimetre decided the fate of the comet. It was doomed, it has been outdistanced forever. Our hearts now ran along with fashion, leaving the splendid comet behind. We looked on indifferently as he became paler, smaller and finally sank resignedly to a point just above the horizon, leant over to one side, trying in vain to take the last bend of its parabolic course, distant and blue, rendered harmless for ever. He was unplaced in the race, the force of novelty was exhausted, nobody cared any more for a thing that had been outstripped so badly. Left to itself, it quietly withered away amid universal indifference.
With heads hung low we reverted to our daily tasks, richer by one more disappointment. The cosmic perspectives were hurriedly rolled down, life returned to its normal course. We rested at that time by day and by night, making good for the lost time of sleep. We lay flat on our backs in already dark houses, heavy with sleep, lifted up by our breathing to the blind paths of starless dreams. Thus floating, we undulated-squeaky bellies, bagpipes and flutes, snoring our way through the pathless tracts of the starless nights. Uncle Edward had been silenced forever. There still remained in the air the echo of his alarmed despair, but he himself was alive no more. Life had flowed out of him in that paroxysm of frenzy, the circuit had opened, and he himself stepped out unhindered onto the higher rungs of immortality.
In the dark apartment my father alone was awake, wandering silently through the rooms filled with the sing-song of sleep. Sometimes he opened the door of the flue and looked grinning into its dark abyss, where a smiling Homunculus slept for ever its luminous sleep, enclosed in a glass capsule, bathed in fluorescent light, already adjudged, erased, filed away, another record card in the immense archives of the sky.


ALREADY for some time our town had been sinking into the perpetual greyness of dusk, had become affected at the edges by a rash of shadows, by fluffy mildew and by moss the dull colour of iron.
   Hardly was it freed from the brown smoke and the mists of the morning, than the day turned into a lowering amber afternoon, became for a brief moment transparent, taking the golden colour of ale, only to ascend under the multiple fantastic domes of vast, colour filled nights.
   We lived in Market Square, in one of those dark houses with empty blind looks, so difficult to distinguish one from the other.
   This gave endless possibilities for mistakes. For, once you had entered the wrong doorway and set foot on the wrong staircase, you were liable to find yourself in a real labyrinth of unfamiliar apartments and balconies, and unexpected doors opening on to strange empty courtyards, and you forgot the initial object of the expedition, only to recall it days later after numerous strange and complicated adventures, on regaining the family home in the grey light of dawn.
   Full of large wardrobes, vast sofas, faded mirrors and cheap artificial palms, our apartment sank ever deeper into a state of neglect owing to the indolence of my mother, who spent most of her time in the shop, and the carelessness of slim-legged Adela who, without anyone to supervise her, spent her days in front of a mirror, endlessly making up and leaving everywhere tufts of combed out hair, brushes, odd slippers and discarded corsets.
   No one ever knew exactly how many rooms we had in our flat, because no one ever remembered how many of them were let to strangers. Often one would by chance open the door to one of these
forgotten rooms to find it empty; the lodger had moved out a long time ago. In the drawers, untouched for months, one would make unexpected discoveries.

   In the downstairs rooms lived the shop-assistants and sometimes during the night we were awakened by their nightmares. In winter it would be still deep night when father went down to these cold and dark rooms, the light of his candle scattering flocks of shadows so that they fled sideways along the floor and up the walls; his task to wake the snoring men from their stone-hard sleep.

   In the light of the candle, which father left with them, they unwound themselves lazily from the dirty bedding, then, sitting on the edge of their beds, stuck out their bare and ugly feet and, with socks in their hands, abandoned themselves for a moment to the delights of yawning-a yawning crossing the borders of sensuous pleasure, leading to a painful cramp of the palate, almost to nausea.

   In the corners, large cockroaches sat immobile, hideously enlarged by their own shadows which the burning candle imposed on them and which remained attached to their flat, headless bodies when they suddenly ran off with weird, spider-like movements.

   At that time, my father's health began to fail. liven in the first weeks of this early winter, he would spend whole days in bed, surrounded by bottles of medicine and boxes of pills, and ledgers brought up to him from the shop. The bitter smell of illness settled like a rug in the room and the arabesques on the wallpaper loomed darker.

   In the evenings, when mother returned from the shop, father was often excited and inclined to argue.

   As he reproached her for inaccuracies in the accounts his cheeks became flushed and he became almost insane with anger. I remember more than once waking in the middle of the night to see him in his nightshirt, running in his bare feet up and down the leather sofa to demonstrate his irritation to my baffled mother.

   On other days he was calm and composed, completely absorbed in the account books, lost in a maze of complicated calculations.
   I can still see him in the light of the smoking lamp, crouched among his pillows under the large carved headboard of the bed, swaying backwards and forwards in silent meditation, his head making an enormous shadow on the wall.

   From time to time, he raised his eyes from the ledgers as if to come up for air, opened his mouth, smacked his lips with distaste as if his tongue were dry and bitter, and looked around helplessly, as if searching for something.

   It then sometimes happened that he quietly got out of bed and ran to the corner of the room, where an intimate instrument hung on the wall. It was a kind of hour-glass shaped water-jar marked in ounces and filled with a dark fluid. My father attached himself to it with a long rubber hose as if with a gnarled, aching navel-cord, and thus connected with the miserable apparatus, he became tense with concentration, his eyes darkened and an expression of suffering, or perhaps of forbidden pleasure, spread over his pale face.

   Then again came days of quiet, concentrated work, interrupted by lonely monologues. While he sat there in the light of the lamp among the pillows of the large bed, and the room grew enormous as the shadows above the lampshade merged with the deep city night beyond the windows, he felt, without looking, how the pullulating jungle of wallpaper, filled with whispers, lisping and hissing, closed in around him. He heard, without looking, a conspiracy of knowingly winking hidden eyes, of alert ears opening up among the flowers on the wall, of dark, smiling mouths.

   He then pretended to become ever more engrossed in his work, adding and calculating, trying not to betray the anger which rose in him and overcoming the temptation to throw himself blindly forward with a sudden shout to grab fistfuls of those curly arabesques, or of those sheaves of eyes and ears which swarmed out from the night and grew and multiplied, sprouting, with ever new ghostlike shoots and branches, from the womb of darkness. And he calmed down only when, in the morning with the ebb of night, the wallpaper wilted, shed its leaves and petals and thinned down autumnally, letting in the distant dawn.

   Then, among the twittering of wallpaper birds in the yellow wintry dawn, he would fall, for a few hours, into a heavy black sleep.

   For days, even for weeks, while he seemed to be engrossed in the complicated current accounts-his thoughts had been secretly plumbing the depths of his own entrails. He would hold his breath and listen. And when his gaze returned, pale and troubled, from that labyrinth, he calmed it with a smile. He did not wish to believe those assumptions and suggestions which oppressed him, and rejected them as absurd.

   In daytime, these were more like arguments and persuasions; long monotonous reasonings, conducted half aloud and with humorous interludes of teasing and banter. But at night these voices rose with greater passion. The demands were made more clearly and more loudly, and we heard him talk to God, as if begging for something or fighting against someone who made insistent claims and issued orders.

   Until one night that voice rose threateningly and irresistibly, demanding that he should bear witness to it with his mouth and with his entrails. And we heard the spirit enter into him as he rose from his bed, tall and growing in prophetic anger, choking with brash words which he emitted like a machine-gun. We heard the din of battle and father's groans, the groans of a titan with a broken hip, but still capable of wrath.

   I have never seen an Old Testament prophet, but at the sight of this man stricken by God's fire, sitting clumsily on an enormous china chamberpot behind a windmill of arms, a screen of desperate wrigglings over which there towered his voice, grown unfamiliar and hard, I understood the divine anger of saintly men.

   It was a dialogue as grim as the language of thunder. The jerkings of his arms cut the sky into pieces, and in the cracks there appeared the face of Jehovah swollen with anger and spitting out curses. Without looking, I saw him, the terrible Demiurge, as, resting on darkness as on Sinai, propping his powerful palms on the pelmet of the curtains, he pressed his enormous face against the upper panes of the window which flattened horribly his large fleshy nose.

   I heard my father's voice during the intermissions in these prophetic tirades. I heard the windows shake from the powerful growl of the swollen lips, mixed with the explosions of entreaties, laments and threats uttered by father.

   Sometimes the voices quietened down and grumbled softly like the nightly chatter of wind in a chimney, then again they exploded with a large, tumultuous noise, in a storm of sobs mixed with curses. Suddenly the window opened with a dark yawn and a sheet of darkness wafted across the room.

   In a flash of lightning I could see my father, his nightshirt unbuttoned, as, cursing terribly, he emptied with a masterful gesture the contents of the chamberpot into the darkness below.

My father was slowly fading, wilting before our eyes.

   Hunched amongst the enormous pillows, his grey hair standing wildly on end, he talked to himself in under-tones, engrossed in some complicated private business. It seemed as if his personality had split into a number of opposing and quarrelling selves; he argued loudly with himself, persuading forcibly and passionately, pleading and begging; then again he seemed to be presiding over a meeting of many interested parties whose views he tried to reconcile with a great show of energy and conviction. But every time these noisy meetings, during which tempers would rise violently, dissolved into curses, execrations, maledictions and insults.

   Then came a period of appeasement, of an interior calm, a blessed serenity of spirit. Again the great ledgers were spread on the bed, on the table, on the floor, and an almost monastic calm reigned in the light of the lamp, over the white bedding, over my father's grey, bowed head.
   But when mother returned late at night from the shop, father became animated, called her and showed her with great pride the wonderful, coloured transfers with which he had laboriously adorned the pages of the main ledger.

   About that time we noticed that father began to shrink from day to day like a nut drying inside the shell.

   This shrinking was not accompanied by any loss of strength. On the contrary, there seemed to be an improvement in his general state of health, in his humour and in his mobility.

   Now he often laughed loudly and gaily; sometimes he was almost overcome with laughter; at others, he would knock on the side of the bed and answer himself: "Come in," in various tones, for hours on end. From time to time, he scrambled down from the bed, climbed on top of the wardrobe and, crouching under the ceiling, sorted out old dust-covered odds and ends.

   Sometimes he put two chairs back to back and taking his weight on them, swung his legs backwards and forwards, looking with shining eyes for an expression of admiration and encouragement in our faces. It seemed as if he had become completely reconciled with God. Sometimes at night, the face of the bearded Demiurge would appear at the bedroom window, bathed in the dark purple glare of Bengal fire, but it only looked for a moment benevolently on my sleeping father whose melodious snoring seemed to wander far into the unknown regions of the world of sleep.

   During the long twilight afternoons of this winter, my father would spend hours rummaging in corners full of old junk, as if he were feverishly searching for something.

   And sometimes at dinner time, when we had all taken our places at the table, father would be missing. On such occasions, mother had to call "Jacob!" over and over again and knock her spoon against the table before he emerged from inside a wardrobe, covered with dust and cobwebs, his eyes vacant, his mind on some complicated matter known only to himself which absorbed him completely.
   Occasionally he climbed on a pelmet and froze into immobility, a counterpart to the large stuffed vulture which hung on the wall opposite. In this crouching pose, with misty eyes and a sly smile on his lips, he remained for long periods without moving, except to flap his arms like wings and crow like a cock whenever anybody entered the room.

   We ceased to pay attention to these oddities in which father became daily more and more involved. Almost completely ridden of bodily needs, not taking any nourishment for weeks, he plunged deeper every day into some strange and complex affairs which were beyond our understanding. To all our persuasions and our entreaties, he answered in fragments of his interior monologue which nothing from the outside could disturb. Constantly absorbed, morbidly excited, with flushes on his dry cheeks he did not notice us or even hear us any more.

   We became used to his harmless presence, to his soft babbling and that childlike self-absorbed twittering which sounded as if they came from the margin of our own time. During that period he used to disappear for many days into some distant corner of the house and it was difficult to locate him.

   Gradually these disappearances ceased to make any impression on us, we became used to them and when, after many days, father reappeared a few inches shorter and much thinner, we did not stop to think about it. We did not count him as one of us any more, so very remote had he become from everything that was human and real. Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us, point by point he gave up the ties joining him to the human community.

   What still remained of him-the small shroud of his body and the handful of nonsensical oddities-would finally disappear one day, as unremarked as the grey heap of rubbish swept into a corner, waiting to be taken by Adela to the rubbish dump.

in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni