Occurrences In Current Unreality

excerpts I could find antiques and old objects evoking sad memories on still another deserted floor in my grandfather's house. There the walls were covered by strange pictures having thick, gilded, wooden frames, or thinner frames of red plush. There were also several frames made of small, clustered shells, which had been worked so minutely that I spent hours contemplating them. Who had put the shells together? What diminutive, lively gestures had joined them? In such antiquated works entire lives were resuscitated, lives that had been lost in the darkness of time, just like images in two parallel mirrors, plunged into green, dreamy depths. The gramophone lay in one corner, its funnel painted in yellow and pink stripes and turned upside down, looking like an enormous vanilla and rose ice cream, while on the table several engravings could be seen, of which two represented King Charles the First and Queen Elizabeth. These pictures intrigued me for a long while. I thought that the artist had a lot of talent, because the lines were very firm and thin, yet I could not understand why he had painted them in gray, washed-out colours, as if the paper had been long kept in water. One day I made a stunning discovery: what I had taken for washed-out colours was nothing but a conglomeration of extremely tiny letters, that could only be deciphered with the help of a magnifying glass. There was no touch of brush or pencil in the entire drawing; everything was a combination of words that told the story of the lives of the King and the Queen. My astonishment suddenly reversed the incomprehension in which I looked at the drawings. My distrust in the art of the painter was replaced by a newly born boundless admiration. I could feel in this new attitude bitterness for not having earlier noticed the essential quality of the picture, as well as a growing lack of confidence in my accurate perception of the things I saw: since I had for so many years contemplated the pictures without being able to discover the very matter they were made of, wasn't it possible that I should be equally shortsighted as far as all the other things around me were concerned, and thus miss their meaning, which was, maybe, as obviously inscribed in them as the letters that made up the pictures? Around me, the surface of things suddenly acquired a strange glitter as well as an uncertain opacity, the kind of opacity curtains have, which suddenly turns into transparence, revealing the depths of a hidden room as soon as a light is lit behind the curtains. Behind the objects, however, no light was ever lit, and they continued to swim in the volumes that enclosed them hermetically, and that sometimes seemed to grow thinner to let the real meaning of the objects transpire. The floor had other curiosities, too, that could only be found there. Such was the view of the street that you could get through the front windows. As the walls of the house were very thick, the windows were deeply buried in them, forming a kind of caves where one could lie at ease. I would make myself comfortable in one of those caves as in a glass room and open the windows to the street. The coziness of the cave and the enjoyment of watching the street from a pleasant position suggested to me the idea of a vehicle of the same size, with soft cushions on which I could lie, and with small windows out of which I could look at various unknown towns and landscapes, while the vehicle would run throughout the world. Once, as my father told me some of his childhood experiences, I asked him which had been his secret most ardent wish and he told me that he had mostly wished to have a wonderful vehicle in which he could lie and which could carry him all over the world. I knew that, when a child, he used to sleep in the upper floor room, the windows of which had a view to the street and I asked him if he enjoyed lying in the caves of the windows, so that he might look down at the street. He answered, quite surprised, that, indeed, every evening, when he went to bed upstairs, he would get into one of those caves and would stay there for hours on, and he would often even fall asleep there. He must have had the dream about the vehicle at the same place and under the same circumstances as I had. There were, then, in the world, beside cursed places which caused dizziness and faints, some other, more benevolent locations, through the walls of which enjoyable and lovely images percolated to us. The walls of the cave filtered the dream of a vehicle running about the world and those who would lie there were slowly impregnated with this idea as with the intoxicating smoke of hashish… The floor also had two garrets one of which had a skylight that opened out through the roof. I would get on top of the house through there. The whole city lay around me, shapeless and gray, to the fields in the distance, where minute trains would cross the frail, toy-like bridge. What I mostly desired was not to have any feeling of dizziness and to obtain a sensation of balance similar to that I had down, on the ground. I wanted to lead my "normal" life there on the roof and, unaware of the gap opening below, to move fearlessly in the refined and fresh air of the height. I thought that, if I could manage that, I would have felt the weight of my body become more elastic and more airy, which would have transformed me entirely, changing me into a kind of bird-man. I was sure that it was only my being mindful of the steps I took, for fear I might fall, that made my body more ponderous and the awareness of being at such a great height gave me a piercing pain that I would have liked to uproot and rid my body of. So that nothing seems exceptional to me up there I always tried to do something specific and ordinary: to read, to eat or to sleep. I took the bread and cherries that my grandfather gave me and climbed onto the roof. I would divide each cherry into four quarters that I ate one after the other so that my "normal" activity should last as long as possible. When I finished a cherry I tried to throw its stone down in the street, into a big bin that was displayed in front of a shop. As soon as I got down I rushed into the street to see how many stones I had managed to put into the cauldron. There were always three or for inside it. What disappointed me extremely, however, was that around the cauldron I could only find three or four more cherry stones. This meant that I had only eaten very few cherries while I had had the feeling that I had spent hours on end on the roof. In my grandfathers room, on the clock's green faience dial, I could also notice that only a few minutes had passed since I had climbed up. Time probably became increasingly dense as it elapsed at a "higher altitude." Vainly did I try to make it last longer by staying as long as possible on the roof. When I got to the ground floor I always had to admit that much less time had passed than I had imagined. This made even stronger the strange feeling I had on the ground of indefiniteness, of incompleteness… Down here, time was more rarified than in reality, it contained less substance than up there, on the roof, and thus participated in the frailness of all objects, which seemed so dense around me and were, nevertheless, so unstable and ready at any moment to abandon their temporary contour and meaning to appear in the shape of their exact existence… …The floor disintegrated piece by piece, object by object after my grandfather's death. He died in the little shabby room which he had chosen as a shelter in his old age and which he would not leave but for his last journey. It was there that I went to see him every day before he died and I witnessed the prayer for dying people that he said for himself in a trembling and unemotional voice, after he had put on a new white shirt so that the prayer should be more solemn.It was in that room that I saw him dead a few days later, lying on a tin table for his last ritual ablution. My grandfather had a brother, a couple of years his junior, who strikingly resembled him: they both had the same perfectly round head, just like a small sphere, covered by white, bright hair, the same vivid, piercing look in their eyes and the same rare beard, whose hairs looked like white foam full of empty spaces. This uncle asked the family to grant him the honour of washing the dead body and though he was old and skinny, he zealously set about the job. He trembled from top to toe while he carried several bucketfuls of water from the pump in the backyard to the kitchen. There he heated the water and when it was hot he brought it into the small room and started to wash the corpse with lye, using also wisps of straw. While rubbing, he swallowed his tears and – as if grandpa could hear him – whispered to him, sobbing bitterly: "I have lived to see this day…here is where my unlucky stars brought me… you are now dead and I am washing you… woe to me… why did I have to live so long and see this unfortunate day…?" He wiped his wet cheeks and beard of sweat and tears with the sleeve of his coat and went on washing the corpse even more zealously. The two old men, who were so stunningly alike, one of them dead and the other one washing him, composed a quite hallucinating picture. The embalmers of the churchyard, who usually did this kind of job and got tipped by the entire family of the deceased, sat in a corner and looked spitefully at this intruder that had assumed their duties. They talked to each other in a whisper, smoking and spitting all around. After about an hour of labour, grandfather's brother finished up. The body lay on the table, face downwards. "Have you finished?" one little red-bearded man in the group asked him, snapping his fingers nervously and maliciously. "I have," the dead man's brother answered. "Now let's get him dressed…" "I see! You say you've finished," the little man said again, ironically. "You think you've finished? You think that you can put a dead man into the ground in this condition? That filthy?" The poor man stood flabbergasted in the middle of the room, a wisp of straw in his hand, looking at us all who were sitting in the room and silently imploring us to come to his defense. He knew too well that he had washed the body very carefully and did not deserve such an insult. "I'll show you now that you must not meddle with other people's business"… the impudent little man continued and, snatching the wisp from the old man's hand rushed to the table and swiftly introduced it into the dead man's anus and took it out with a thick turd on it. "See you can't wash a dead man?" he said. "Would you bury him with this filth inside?" My grandfather's body was shaken by a violent tremor and the poor man burst into tears… The burial took place on a scorching summer day: nothing is sadder and more impressive than a burial in the heat and light of the sun, when people and objects look bigger, as if enlarged by a magnifying glass, because of the steaming heat. What else could people do on such a day than bury their dead? In the heat and torpor of the day, their gestures appeared century-old, the same now as before, as ever. The wet grave sucked in the body into a coolness and darkness that undoubtedly gave it a shiver of ultimate bliss. The clods of earth fell heavily on the coffin while people in dusty clothes, sweating and tired, continued their imperious existence on the earth. * I was a tall, lean, pale young man, my thin neck sticking out of the two loose tunic collar. My long hands hung out of my coat's cuffs, like recently skinned animals. My pockets bulged with papers and various objects. I had problems finding my handkerchief at their bottom to wipe the dust off my boots when I reached the "central" streets of the city. Around me simple and elementary facts of life kept taking place. A pig scratched itself against a fence and I stopped to look at eat for many minutes. Nothing could match the perfection of the scraping sound of its rough hairs against the wood; I found this sound immensely satisfactory interpreting it as a reassuring proof that the world continued to exist… In one of the streets at the outskirts of the city, there was a woodcarving workshop where I spent long hours, too. There were thousands of white, polished objects in the workshop, amidst the curly shavings spread around by the carpenter's plane, filling the room with their tough foam, that smelt of resin. The piece of wood under the tool became smoother, paler, its delicate veins were clearly outlined, as under a woman's skin. Beside it, on the table, there lay the wooden balls, the heavy, peaceful balls that filled my hand, touching the entire surface of my palm's skin with their smooth, evanescent weight. There were also the chessmen with their fragrance of fresh stain, and the wall entirely covered in flowers and angels. The matter could thus yield sublime eczema with dented, carved or colourful suppuration. In winter, the bitter cold spawned ice crystals, which took the ragged shape of the water that had been rendered heavier by frost; in summer, flowers surged in thousand of minute, colourful explosions with their flame-like red, blue or orange petals. Throughout the year, the master carver, wearing a pair of glasses that only had one lens, extracted from the wood wreaths of smoke, Indian arrows, shells and ferns, peacock feathers and human ears. Vainly did I study his slow activity to capture the moment when the ragged, wet piece of wood succumbed into a frozen rose. Vainly did I try to gradually perform the miracle myself. Sure, I held the rough, rugged, hard fir tree block in my hand all right, but only something slippery like a swoon would sometimes turn up from under my plane. Maybe I fell into a deep sleep the very moment I started planing the board and supernatural powers extended their tentacles in the air getting into the wood and causing the disaster. Maybe the whole world stopped during those moments and nobody was aware of the time that lapsed. The master must have carved all the lilies on the walls and all the snail-like violin handles. When I woke up, the board displayed the lines of its age in front of my eyes, as an open palm shows its lines to a fortune teller. I held one object after another in my hand and their variety dazed me. Vainly did I take a ball in my hand, I slowly slid my fingers on its surface, I pressed it against my cheek, I span it and I let it roll…To no avail…to no avail… there was nothing to understand. Around me, the hard still matter closed on me from all sides – here under the form of balls and carvings – in the street under the form of trees, houses and stones; boundless and useless, encapsulating me from top to toe. Whatever I thought of, matter surrounded me, starting with the clothes I wore, continuing with the walls, the trees, the stones, the bottles, up to the streams in the forests. Everywhere, in every corner, the lava of matter had come out of the ground and had petrified in the blank air, under the shape of houses with windows, of trees with branches that always grew up to pierce the void, of flowers which, with their soft, coloured contours, filled in small curved volumes in the surrounding space, of churches whose steeples rose higher and higher, to the cross on top, where matter had stopped its upward flow, unable to rise any further. Matter, in its upsurge, had infested the air everywhere, filling it with the frozen abscesses of stones, with the gaping wounds of the tree hollows... I walked about, driven mad by the things that I saw and of which I was cursed to be unable to rid myself. I sometimes happened, however, to find some secluded place where I could find a moment of peace and rest my mind. There, for a moment my dizziness was appeased and I felt better. I once found such a place of refuge in the strangest and most unexpected place in town. It was, indeed, so bizarre that I myself could never imagined that it might represent an isolated and delightful hole.I guess it was only that burning thirst of filling up the void of days, now matter how and where, that pushed me into this new adventure. …One day, passing in front of the town's variety theatre I plucked up my courage and went in. It was a peaceful, bright afternoon. I crossed a dirty yard with many closed doors – until I found an open one in the back that led to a staircase. In the entrance hall a woman was doing the laundry. The corridor smelt of lye. I climbed the stairs and the woman said nothing in the beginning, then, as I was halfway up the staircase, she turned her head towards me and mumbled rather to herself: "There you are, then!… You've come!…" undoubtedly taking me for someone she knew. Much later, when I remembered this detail, the words of the woman didn't seem that simple to me any more: they were probably foretelling the fate that presided over my torments, they were letting me know, through the mouth of the launderette, that the locations of my adventures had been established long time before and that I was doomed to run into those places and be entrapped in them as in some very well placed snares. "There you are, then!," the voice of destiny told me, "you are there because you had to, because you could not escape your fate…" I reached a long corridor, intensely heated by the sunlight that got inside through all the windows that opened to the yard. The doors of the rooms were closed; no noise was heard anywhere. In a corner, water was dripping incessantly from a tap. It was hot and desolate in the corridor and the sewage sucked in, slowly, every drop of water, as if sipping a drink that was too cold. At the far end there was a door that opened to a garret where I found some laundry hanging on ropes. I crossed the garret and got into a little hall with clean, small, newly painted rooms. There was a trunk and a mirror in each of them; they must have been the dressing rooms of the variety theatre artists. On one side a stair led downwards and I climbed it down to the stage of the theatre. I thus suddenly found myself on the empty stage of the theatre, in front of the vacant hall. My steps had a strange resonance. All the chairs and tables were properly placed, as for a performance. I was in front of them, alone, on the stage, amidst a theatre scenery representing a forest. I opened my moth, feeling I had to say something aloud, but the silence around petrified me. Suddenly I saw the prompter's cage. I bent down and looked inside. At first I could not distinguish anything, but gradually I managed to make out the objects in the dark and discover the space beneath the stage, full of battered chairs and old theatre props. I cautiously introduced myself into the cage and slowly descended underneath. Everywhere the dust covered the objects in thick layers. Some stars and wreaths lay in a corner; they had no doubt been used in a fairy play. In another corner there was some rococo furniture, a table and a number of chairs with broken legs. In the middle, an impressive armchair, something like a royal throne. I sat in it, exhausted. I finally was in a neutral place, where nobody could find me. I rested my arms on the gilded arms of the chair and I abandoned myself to the most delightful sensation of solitude. The darkness around me dissipated a little as daylight entered, dirty and dusty, through several double windows. I was far from the world, far from the hot, maddening streets, in a cool, secret cell, at the heart of the earth. The silence floated in the air, antiquated and musty. Who could suspect where I was? It was the most unwonted place in town and the thought I was there filled me with a sort of serene happiness. Distorted armchairs, dusty beams and deserted objects lay all around me: it was the very essence, the common denominator of all my dreams. I stayed like that, quietly, in a state of utter bliss, for several hours. I finally left my hiding place following the same route by which I had got there. Strangely enough, I met nobody this time either. Bathed in the light of the setting sun, the corridor seemed to be on fire. The sewage continued to suck in water, in short, regular sips. In the street I thought for a moment that nothing of all these had actually happened. But my trousers were dusty and I decided not to clean them and let them like that, a handy proof of the admirable, distant feeling of privacy I had enjoyed under the stage. The next day, at the same time in the afternoon, I was suddenly seized with the nostalgia of the secluded under stage room. It was almost certain that this time I would meet someone either in the corridor, or in the hall. For a while I tried to resist the temptation of going there again. Yet, I was too tired, too heated by the hotness of the day for the likelihood of such a risk to scare me away. No matter what, I had to return again under the stage. I entered the same door in the yard and climbed the same stair. The corridor was as deserted as ever and there was nobody either in the garret or downstairs in the hall. In a couple of minutes I was again in my place, in the theatre armchair, steeped in my delightful loneliness. My heart throbbed violently; I was excessively excited with the extraordinary success of my expedition. I started to ecstatically fondle the arms of the chair. I would have liked the state I was in to penetrate me as deep as possible, to fill me with its weight, to enter every fibre of my body, so that I feel it real and verisimilar. I stayed there for a long while this time, too, and I again left without meeting anyone… I started to come there, under the stage, regularly, every afternoon. As if this had been perfectly natural, the corridors were always empty. I would collapse into my armchair, crushed by my state of sublime happiness. The same blue, cool, basement light came in through the dirty windows. The same secret atmosphere of perfect solitude reigned, and I never had enough of it. These daily trips into the basement of the theatre ended up one afternoon as strangely as they had begun.. When I came down from the garret. At dusk, a woman took water from the tap. I passed by her slowly, risking to be asked what I was doing there. She remained, however, focused on her business, with that indifferent and defensive air that women put on when they suspect that a stranger wants to address them. On top of the stairs I stopped, as I now wanted to talk to her. It was, on the one hand, my hesitation, and, on the other, the surly certitude of the woman that I was going to address her. The gurgle of the tap water coldly divided the silence in two quite distinct areas. I turned back and came closer to her. I thought of asking her if she didn't know some person that would sit for a number of sketches I wanted to draw. I uttered the word "person" in a perfectly detached manner, lest it should be interpreted as a sign of some trivial wish of mine of simply seeing a naked woman, making it clear that mine was a painter's interest, purely artistic and abstract. A couple of days before, a student, no doubt wishing to impress me, had told me that he used to take young women to his place in Bucharest, using the modeling business as a pretext, and then he slept with them. I was sure that there was nothing true about that, and I somehow felt, in the student's story, the clumsiness of someone retelling, in their own words, a story they had heard from somebody else. It had remained, however, well imprinted on my memory, and now a marvelous opportunity had presented itself for me to make use of it. Thus, the adventures of a distant stranger, after traversing the barren ground of another person, had once again become mature enough to fall back into reality. The woman did not understand, or pretended she didn't, though I was trying to explain things as clear as possible to her. While I was talking, a door half-opened and another woman came. They deliberated for a while in a whisper. "Well, then, let's take him to Elvira, she doesn't have anything to do anyway," one of them said. They took me to a low, dark room, which I had not noticed, near the garret. Inside, instead of windows, there were two holes in the wall, through which a cold draft was let it. It was the projection room from where films were projected during summer into the variety theatre garden. You could still see the marks of the projector on the cement pedestal. In a corner of the room a sick woman lay in bed, covered to the chin, her teeth chattering. The other women left, leaving me alone in the middle of the room. I went to the bed. The sick woman took out one of her hands from under the quilt and extended it to me. It was a long, thin, frozen hand. I told her in a few words that it was a mistake, that I had been brought there by mistake. I blabbered some excuses, explaining her vaguely what it was all about: a collection of drawings for an art contest. Of all I had said she only understood the word "collection." "OK…OK, I'll try to collect some money for you… when I get well again… I haven't got a penny now…" She had understood that I needed money and wanted her to help me. I gave up any other attempt of explaining her what I wanted and stayed there embarrassed for a few moments, not knowing how to prepare my exit. In the meantime, she started complaining in a very natural tone, as if she wanted to apologize for not giving me anything. "You see, I've got ice on my belly… I'm hot… I'm hot… I feel very ill…"

by M. Blecher (1909-1938)