The novel Journey along the Shadow, from which the excerpt has been taken, is a story about storytelling: about stories’ power to attract, to find their path towards one another and mutually complete one another. The action unfolds in a nineteenth century that is more mythological than the one known from history books. The place is the Balkans, understood not so much as a geographical concept, but as a setting for fanciful plots. The narrator, a foreigner and collector of stories named Ian Van Atten, joins with the other characters as an equal and without privileges; often comical in his insistence on fabricating even the most realistic fact, he is exposed along with all the others in the twists and turns of the narrative.
If “the past” is a foreign country—as Iana Boukova says in an interview—our gaze has a tendency to be fixed on that country with a “colonizing” glint. The novel explores the “exoticism” of the past, poetry, and the cliché of the “Balkan myth,” the richness of the constant clash between the “outside point of view” and the “inside point of view” in every story and event.
A similar theme, but examined from the vantage point of geographical and literary distance, can be found in the story “Solidad,” from the collection A as in Anything. Built upon the “osmosis” between the high stylistics of South American literature and the inexhaustible narrative inventiveness of the South American soap opera, “Solidad” represents a kind of “hybrid” text, at once homage towards authors such as Márquez, Cortázar, and Donoso, yet also an ironic wink.
A Love Story in 41 Episodes
To M. with all my love
In Solidad’s garden, the light shines through the silk of the sky as through a lampshade. From that height, the sea looks fragile and motionless, with the black ship leaving its linear, fading trail like the tip of the arrow of time. Emilio is on the ship, spreading open a book with the tips of his fingers and on his shirt, on his bare chest over his heart, Solidad has embroidered another heart with her name inside it from her hair. His one hand instinctively strokes the knotty surface of the embroidery beneath his garment, while the other holds open the book and somewhere high above the sails flap like slaps in the face with every change of the wind.
Motionlessness is a skill possessed by predators, Solidad’s garden becomes motionless at sunset, awaiting the night, swallowing drily, awaiting the night. Some friend comes to scatter Solidad’s sorrow, which circles around her face alongside the cold, noiseless gnats that you cannot chase away in any way, even if you jump up and down waving your arms constantly, looking from afar like someone arguing with someone and making ever more aggressive movements or like someone starting to go mad, most of all like someone going mad. The friend kisses Solidad’s knee through the cloth of her dress and she allows him this intimacy like a queen throwing coins to the crowd over her shoulder, without turning around, without looking at the motionless sea, in which the ship is disappearing in the direction of time, nor at the garden, which is growing quiet, nor the friend, who has gotten a gnat in his eye, making it water along with his anguish, and she says in an even voice, as easy as dropping a fruit bowl on the tiles—give me the scissors. The friend brings the scissors, which will one day cut an umbilical cord, but which are now clean and shiny and in their place in this house, where everything is in its place and Solidad cuts off a thread of red, which flows away like a trickle of blood between her fingers and gathers together in a red ball in her lap and, having turned her back on the vanished sea, on the garden, where the darkness is thickening, taking on flesh, on her friend, whose eye grows red, weeping in the darkness, she collects her handiwork and goes into the house.
The friend is left alone, a piece of darkness in the garden, his thoughts are subterranean, they do not touch the air, they run down blind corridors, passing there, where they always pass, past his dead wife amidst the roots of the gardenias, past the sturdy foundations of his family home that has survived four earthquakes with its three inhabitable and twelve uninhabitable rooms, returning to the place where they always return, inevitably, to the dirty earth beneath Solidad’s feet, full of blind, legless, convulsing creatures, sometimes higher, sometimes touching at least the hem of Solidad’s skirts, Solidad who does not smile when she speaks and says “give me the scissors” or “you need to sleep less, Hereira, your features grow innocent, sleep doesn’t suit you.”
In his narrow bunk, Emilio has left the book open on his chest beneath the low ceiling. The space resembles a coffin and smells like one, like an unused coffin made long ago, only there’s water down below, wind above and earth nowhere, the earth is growing farther and farther away, losing its existence in the darkness and on top of it steps Solidad with her little feet, with her always too-narrow shoes, stifling her smile and saying, “there’s nothing to worry about, Emilio, tomorrow all the evidence of what has happened with be just a figment of your imagination.”
On his back, now in his nightshirt, with no embroidery, Emilio senses how his own scent fills the narrow space, he thinks to himself that this is surely what tortures those sentenced to life in prison the most, that saturation—more cruel and more sadistic than any deprivation, he writes down his thoughts, the first waves start, rocking his little wooden room and the light of the candle and his hand and his handwriting comes out full of agitation, he thinks to himself that agitation very often arises from other sources, completely different from those we have so easily assigned it to, but he doesn’t write that in the margin of the book, a book which will remain unread, which will go to the bottom of the sea with his handwriting and the rest of his belongings.
In the dining room, the light with its usual effects, from the candles upon the multifaceted crystal of the glasses, upon the caramel liquid in the gravy-boat, along the indisputable hierarchy of the silverware on the large table, where birds’ beaks will leave their abusive inscriptions, where birds shall set foot undisturbed, with slightly spread wings, fattened up, mashing food and their feces into one beneath their feet, upon the protruding mirror of the tureen, a nest for two or three generations of salamanders, where the water from the missing room will gather and turn greenish, but until then dinner has upheld the order of the world just like mass on Sunday, Solidad debones a pigeon with the dexterity with which some women extricate themselves from their lingerie, raises the fork to her mouth with one small little bubble of light in the corner of it, you must sleep less, Hereira, sleep less and eat more.
Only on the third glass can a person think cold-bloodedly, not on the first, which hits the teeth with the impatience of the gesture, not on the second, which finishes too quickly, only on the third, and at the start of it at that, then you can think about the place you have been assigned, to think calmly and not only that, you can also accept it and plant your feet firmly on it, cold-blooded and imperturbable, even with a certain forgiveness, indifferent, standing tall upon the hot coals, having stepped into the abyss, upon the whistling wind, finally on friendly terms with your place, which is yours and yours alone and no one else’s. Hereira leans his back against the wall, not noticing that his hand is gradually warming his glass, somewhere, barely audibly—the bell tower in a distant village, a forgotten clock in the uninhabited rooms—strikes 12, the new moon suits the evening, a thread of light outlining the half-moon, but the circle stands out clearly, entirely black, he takes little sips, straining the steaming liquid through his teeth, the third glass really is the best, Maurizio, Maria-Laura would say, kneeling on the floor, picking up the pieces of the broken vase without calling the maid, who was certainly eavesdropping by the door in any case, gathering up the petals of the chrysanthemums that had come apart as they had struck the wall, oh Maurizio, if only you could stop at the third glass.
Maria-Laura’s patience had been so vast, ruling over a Sisyphean household, where just when the towels had been starched, the silverware needed polishing and then the flour ran out, while fresh vegetables had to be gotten from the villagers and then a change of the pillowcases in the salon and immediately thereafter the tuning of the piano, then, when the soil was still pure for his subterranean thoughts that were kissing the bare soles of Solidad’s feet, soil so aromatic and full of innocent larvae and future sprouts, there was such endless patience in her large, slightly bulging eyes that so naturally filled with tears, behind the black glass of those eyes she would think things over, elaborate on them, lovingly understand him and forgive all his trespasses without even asking him, and later, in the evening, when his body was ramming inside hers, breathlessly on Solidad’s trail, her patience was so enormous and heroic, she did not even bite her lips or clench her fists, but simply waited, so patient. It was so enormous and it came to an end so suddenly with a single rain, with a hat whose roses looked faded, even though made of paper, just imagine, a hat with melancholy roses, forgotten on a table in the garden so as to make her go outside in the cold rain and later inside the house her hair hanging loose, darkened by the rain, her bare feet on the tiles, leaving wet trails in the form of a flower bud, too bad he had not been there to see that, just imagine it, Maria-Laura, who so adored the rules, the streamlets trickling from her clothing, sitting in front of the not-yet-tuned piano, but he saw the rest later, the fever, her cracked lips, which gave the maid precise orders about the proper preparations for making jam, about gravy for the roasted meat and about the final details for the organization of the funeral. He was not perturbed when all the food was burned, both the first course, the second course and the dessert, nor when he closed off the twelve rooms and fired most of the servants, not now when he could kiss Solidad’s knee through her clothes now and then, finally cold-blooded on his third glass, along beneath his black full moon, freed from any patience whatsoever.
Solidad’s belly was swelling, displacing the air in the room, making the room more cramped, making her mother’s breasts sag all the more, no one came to the house anymore, only he did, dinner dragged out unbearably in time like a scream, between Solidad’s lips, sparkling in the candlelight, orange, green, yellow piece of vegetables disappeared, pink, slightly bloody pieces of meat, white fluffy spoonfuls of whipped cream, Hereira, don’t you think it needs more powdered sugar? Hereira, don’t you think, he repeated to himself, talking to himself, Good God, what nonsense, what idiocy, Solidad opening the pale lunar embrace of her thighs, giving her kiss, which sucks everything in, swallows it down and debones it, to someone destined for the bottom of the sea along with his unread books and unwritten poems and his ring with the cameo of his presumably ancient clan and his vague, yet surely ambitious trans-oceanic plans. When Solidad found out is unknown, perhaps from a letter, standing by the fireplace, perhaps from that foreign fortune-teller, whose finger resembled the finger of some prehistoric bird, nailing down the map, those are pearls that were his eyes. Look! But Solidad spared herself the fainting fit, she remained upright by the fireplace, upon the earth which disappeared from beneath her feet, which swayed and opened up beneath her feet, and later as well, when that ceased to be a metaphor amidst the muted womb-like rumbling of the soil, amidst the crack that split the house precisely in two, beneath the sky, which opened up over her head, strewn with the white angelic dust of the plaster, unscathed, there where things are turned on their head and there is a new twist to the plot, because a twist is certainly needed, since it had reached a dead end with those endless dinners, unscathed by the fifth and strongest earthquake of the past century. Solidad, emerging through the place where only a short while earlier there had been the wall with the big window onto the garden, outside, where it was just as light as inside, without turning around, because she already sees the abusive birds soiling their food on the table in the dining room, the salamanders in the soup tureen, the iguana eggs in the dresser with the starched clothes, everything is before her eyes, everything is clear, there is no need to turn around, there is no need for a prehistoric finger to nail down the map and say look, this is what will happen.
Still, she manages to push him away, without turning around, without speaking to him, burying her mother by herself amidst a hellish, overheated, uninhabited city, without a single tear, following the cart and her huge belly all by herself, and later, pelted with stones by children, Solidad will give birth to a bat, Solidad will give birth to a monster, giving birth alone in the shadow of the gutted house, not a monster, but a child, who surely has Emilio’s eyes, but no voice, cutting the dead child off of herself with those same scissors mentioned in the first act, cutting her dead child off of herself, braiding her hair, without calling to him once, sitting in that very same place where only the view of the sea has survived, leaving it behind her once and for all, I didn’t hear you, Hereira, you creep up as if stepping on an ant hill.
This is followed by new scenes, new characters, a villager with a fluffy Santa Claus beard and a nice smile, his little gray donkey, the road that opens itself before Solidad, leading somewhere, who knows where, yet nevertheless somewhere, Solidad is bleeding so badly that two trickles of blood entwine beneath the donkey’s belly like a bow, the villager’s beard, which gradually swallows up his smile and loses its innocence and becomes satyr-like, Solidad, running through an ever thicker woods, with ever more rapacious bushes, leaving a red yarn behind her from the ball unwinding itself in her womb, the dogs sniffing out her trail, the hunter who lifts Solidad up in his arms, very carefully, her hair reaches the ground, Solidad waking up in a completely unknown place, a cottage in the woods, extremely humble, extremely clean, a hunter-hermit, who leans over her with several wild berries in his hands, he has a kindly smile, they all have kindly smiles in the beginning.
He doesn’t follow her, not yet, not now, when neither the fourth, nor the fifth glasses are enough, alone in his uninhabitable house, with his dead-end thoughts chirping along the endlessly forking corridors, biting his nails down to the quick, a little chunk of flesh along with the nails, ever bigger chunks of himself, to fill the time, which is necessary, suspecting the continuation, Solidad in a sunny field, feeding the wild birds from the palms of her hands, not noticing the approaching shadows, Solidad, who attracts misfortune just as flowers attract insects, just as blood attracts insects, just as Solidad attracts his thoughts.
Her body runs wild amidst the sumptuous green leaves, amidst the slanting light between the trees, her teeth grow strong from the fresh catch, her hands know how to break the spine of a small creature, how to trap a fish amidst the foam between the rocks, she can recognize poisonous fruits, which are the most beautiful, matted hair becomes her, the black smudges on her face lend a sweet naturalness to her beauty, everything is innocent, everything comes to an end, one morning, with a muffled rumble, with the howl of chainsaws, with the treads of excavators, the explosions that shatter the silence into a thousand pieces that are impossible to glue back together, Solidad beneath the acid rain, amidst the dead birds all around, in an intervention from another time, which the plot has not sought, but which it can tolerate, she retreats before a countless army of hardhats, of identical orange uniforms, before the crash of their dump trucks, the explosions that unleash the river and the water covers the trees, covers the cottage, covers the hermit, whose smile, strangely enough, remains kindly up to the very end, until he disappears beneath the water.
Solidad in the big city, scrubbing the endless wooden floors in a wealthy home, her injured hands, suffering a malevolent mistress’s pinches, her hands bathed in the lovelorn tears of an indecisive master with a trembling mustache, Solidad in a small town, bent over her sewing machine, absorbed, the clatter of hoofs outside the low window, perhaps it is now time to set out looking for her on the back of his horse along the endless dusty roads, running through equally insignificant little towns, always arriving after the fact, not managing to touch even the hem of her gown, resigned to his role of representing a confirmation of what has happened in the previous episode, you’re late, Hereira, the bandits just dragged her off with them, you’re late, Hereira, Domingo just sold her to Mama Leone’s brothel… But always calm, with a calmness separate from the shaking of his hands in the morning, from the incurably grainy taste in his mouth, from the chirping in his ears, a certainty which continues to hold him on the back of his melancholy horse, because they are all minor characters, Emilio at the bottom of the ocean and the wretched Maria-Laura, and the two civil wars coming immediately one after the other, and the rape and even Dr. Morillieau, whose thin, sensitive fingers deliver Solidad’s second child, fingers which brush aside the hair plastered with sweat to Solidad’s forehead, which place an engagement ring upon her hand in the salon of the enormous house with the sugary columns beneath the gaze of his petrified family, shortly before the rebels decide who to kidnap for their noble aims, sending his body back part by part to the wealthy family, a misunderstanding about the ransom, several shots in the dark and they receive the final parcel, containing Dr. Morillieau’s head. But Soldiad spares herself the fainting fit in front of yet another fireplace, in yet another house which she leaves, buffeted by the winds, which do not know where to blow her to, nearly weightless in the cobweb of roads, disappearing in the morning haze behind a heavy garden gate, nearly swallowed up by the curling greenery, which she shuts behind her, I don’t know, Hereira, that place gives me the shivers, there is a yellow bitch there howling at the moon, there is a silence like after an extinguished candle, I don’t know how to help you, nobody would ever agree to accompany you there.
Because the end is his, when he will find Solidad in the moonlight next to a huge, half-burned tree, when he will pick her up in his arms, her hair will reach the ground, his whole embrace smells of Solidad, of vanilla and alum, the road of return, which he wishes would never end, the old family home with its sturdy foundations, which has survived five earthquakes, only in need of a repainting, sufficiently roomy so as to fit the endless future with Solidad, now, when the end is his, when he reigns alone, without interruptions, without reversals, over his small estate, so irrevocably his, so easily taken in with a glance from the room’s doorstep. At the far end of the room is Solidad, the nanny has just led the child, who is not his, who belongs to Lord knows who, since there were nine of them in the dark and two gringos among them, away to bed, but he loves the child, he surely loves it, because everything is now easier, even from the first glass. At the far end of the room, Solidad is in the rocking chair, in her beautiful magenta dress, in a little veil that hides half of her face, that half unrecognizable after the fire at that cursed estate, there is no trace of a smile under that veil, when she reaches out her hands, when she stretches her body with a lazy afternoonish movement, turned towards the light, late as always in noticing his presence, tossing words to him over her shoulder like a handful of coins that he must lean over so as to gather up, which he must kneel down, to gather up, for God’s sake, Hereira, would you finally shut that door!
He started by asking him a few questions to test the ground: Had he seen any cities in the shape of a cougar? Had he ever come across women on his travels whose tongues were rough like a cat’s? Or women whose nipples were so hard they pierced their clothes?
Outis1 amply moistened a large conical cigarette with saliva and didn’t reply immediately. Having lit the cigarette, he began to exhaling a series of intricate circles. They looked like meaningless naughts placed after a non-existent One. Ian Van Atten expected him to exhale a smaller circle and guide it skillfully through a larger one, at which point Van Atten, convinced that he was dealing with an inveterate crook, would turn his back and walk away. But eventually Outis did answer, saying he hadn’t come across any of those things. However, there was a group of islands in the Pacific… they were called the Low Islands because they only rose about a foot above sea-level. When it was high tide, the islands were flooded; what’s more, everything on them—houses, furniture, even their altars—were shaped like rafts. And another thing. The women on those islands were dark-skinned, but their moles were a lighter color, pale-pink, in fact. Their bodies looked as if covered with constellations.
As far as Ian Van Atten was concerned, this proved to be more than enough reason to invite the stranger for dinner. Though obviously very hungry, Outis ate without haste, his movements were measured and efficient, nor did his eating stop him from talking. He had a strong accent but he spoke fluently, always finding the words he needed. Van Atten had the feeling that the particular words Outis found to a large extent determined the way his stories unfolded. By the time they’d imbibed the four liters of beer that sealed their friendship, Outis had recounted several tidbits from his rich and ambiguous biography, including the strange procedure involving a card game on the island of Borneo. Later Van Atten would come to learn that a large part of his guide’s tales revolved around this magical island.
Outis related how the inhabitants of Borneo worshipped chance as the sole cause of existence and non-existence, of everything that succeeds or fails, of everything begun or ended. They worshipped chance in the form of a headless statue without limbs and of indeterminate gender. In earlier, more savage times the islanders even made human sacrifices to chance, rendering the victims in the form of the statue. Those days were gone, thank God, and all that remained of the ancient belief was their habit and love for playing cards. On Borneo there is only one card game, which the locals jealously guard as a vestige of their unique identity and refuse to teach to outsiders. The rules are complicated; there are four individual players and no partners. The islanders learn the game in childhood and spend all their time playing it (to be frank, given the mild climate and the fact that fish get stranded in the shallows and fruit is plentiful on the trees, nobody has much work to do on Borneo), becoming singularly adept at the game. Gradually, however, this abundance of free time has created a serious problem. Despite the theory that there’s only a one-in-a-million chance—excluding cases of extremely good luck or the lack thereof—that cards will be dealt twice in the same way, the islanders suffer from the feeling that they’ve been playing the same tiresome game over and over, without any surprises. Just as we can’t escape the feeling that our day-to-day life repeats itself and that nothing new ever happens, even though there’s an even more negligible chance for events to recur in the same order from one day to the next. Besides, the island’s population is so small that everyone has played with everyone else many times over and knows each person’s style—who’s a risk-taker, who’s cautious and who’d rather wait. Thus, the players are never surprised by their opponents’ reactions. To solve this problem the islanders did something that makes sense only on Borneo—they attempted to render chance even more random. From time to time (though not really all that often) they organize the so-called Big Game. It’s always organized for one particular player, sometimes to honor an outstanding citizen, or sometimes it’s organized by the player himself, if he’s rich enough to cover the required expenses (class inequality being inevitable in this case). A Big Game can last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. In addition to the player, it includes a blind man, a foreigner, and a woman. The blind man, as you might expect, relies on blind luck and represents pure chance; the foreigner plays semi-blind since he isn’t informed of the rules; and the woman plays like a woman. Indeed, all islanders know that women think differently from men and use different tactics. (There’s also another, less popular school of thought on Borneo which prefers an adolescent boy to a woman, claiming that a youth of unformed character plays more impulsively and unpredictably than a grown-up). In short, the player—always a master—has to bear in mind not only the distribution of the cards but all of the above factors as well. Yet nothing in these games is constant (except for blind luck). The foreigner may start figuring out the rules without anyone explaining them to him; the woman may turn out to reason like a man, or the youth could prove to be mature for his age. A good player must take account of all these possibilities. Of course, ultimate victory on the player’s part (which is determined by adding together the points earned in multiple individual games) is quite rare and is celebrated across the island with a three-day feast. If the blind man turns out to be the winner, the pious islanders declare a religious holiday. The other two cases are considered a bad omen and the islanders refrain from beginning any new undertakings until the next Big Game.
Outis had spent several pleasant months on Borneo, at first having played as the foreigner and afterwards resting on his laurels for a while, as he had quickly guessed the rules—to everyone’s astonishment. He would even have become the ultimate winner if it wasn’t for the outrageous luck of the blind man, who beat him at the last moment by only a few points. This won Outis the respect of the male islanders, the affection of the women (who were not particularly beautiful, but exceptionally amenable to instruction, according to Outis himself), a few months’ stay at the municipality’s expense, and the title of “the player’s honorary right-hand kibitzer” for the next two Big Games. The island had remained in his heart forever from then on.
Ian Van Atten had begun to get lost early in the story, but when they came out of the pub, he realized that all astronomical claims were indeed based on solid truth. First, the Earth was round, which meant that its surface formed a never-ending, curved and slightly slippery slope that one had to climb, and, secondly, that it continually spun about. But then again, it’s one thing for Copernicus to stamp his foot and make this claim, and quite another to experience it for yourself. He tried to calm himself with nostalgic memories of other, flatter lands, ones that were square or plate-shaped, carried slowly and unfalteringly by tortoises, elephants or giant birds; but he didn’t succeed. It was a one-way process, irreversible. Like boiling an aquarium into fish soup, which can never be turned back into an aquarium. Some calculations, a sham trial, one obstinate stomp of the foot and no one could ever stop the Earth again. And everyone with the sensitivity gained from a few cups in excess was irrevocably, scientifically doomed to endure his vertigo. At least until the morning. He sought to share these thoughts with Outis but surprisingly the sounds that came out of Van Atten’s mouth were different from those he was trying to pronounce. He and Outis walked together, leaning on each other, and in their knightly unity, in their shared brotherly resistance to gravity, there was something so touching that tears welled up in Van Atten’s eyes. Despite the tears, he still managed to find his house. Outis lay down and immediately fell asleep on the huge trunk that had not yet been moved from the entrance hall. With his last remnants of consciousness, Van Atten, feeling his way toward the door of his room, wondered whether there wasn’t something symbolic in this gesture.
He dreamed of vast flooded spaces, through which he waded knee-deep, the water drifting slowly along the diagonal of the frame into the distance where, almost on the horizon’s line, the edge of the Earth was located. Or, upon closer inspection, in its upper right-hand corner. And all of this beneath a warm sky sprinkled with tiny, pale-pink stars.
He woke without a headache and with an inexplicable but rather pleasant feeling of relief which intensified when he found Outis in the garden. The Greek had happily discovered the wild and fragrant vegetation, he had rolled himself a cigarette and was exhaling circles and spitting at the wall. So Van Atten had no choice but to sit beside him and listen to his stories. The only difference was that this time, he took notes.
According to the established method Van Atten used to arrange his material, Outis’ life unfolded as follows:
Outis Condoleon was born in a place where most things were encountered in triplicate. His village consisted of three neighborhoods—a Greek, a Bulgarian, and a Turkish one; this fact automatically tripled each detail of village life. Consequently, there were three village squares, three snaggletoothed old midwives, three inns, three notables in an advanced stage of obesity, three graveyards, three threshing yards, three dumps, etc. The village stood there like a coin with three sides, tucked in the bottom of the valley, almost but not quite untouched by the winds of history. And since someone was always trading, or quarrelling, or (albeit rarely and with great drama) getting married to a person from another neighborhood, Outis, who was undoubtedly talented, grew up knowing three languages.
As for the origin of his name that so impressed his Dutch friend, each time Outis explained it he told a different story without worrying that he’d forgotten the previous one. When Van Atten finally confronted him about this and asked which version was true, unperturbed he replied, “What I say on Tuesday is the truth for Tuesday, and what I say on Wednesday is the truth for Wednesday,” and went on telling the story he’d begun without losing the thread for even a moment.
According to the first version, the name was the result of his father’s obstinate character. At the time there were two books in their neighborhood—one belonged to the priest, the other to the school teacher. From the one, they took religious names, from the other, ancient names. Despite the priest’s protests, with time the teacher’s book grew in popularity, and among the children of the village a number of composite florid names appeared. Normally, the teacher would suggest a name, and the proud parent would ponder its flavor and weight and accept it if he liked it; if not, they would seek another one. However, Outis’ father opened the book himself and chanced upon a short and, to his mind, melodious name. The teacher protested that this was not a name at all and did not refer to anyone. It had only been used once, and even then as a lie. The father straightway dug in his heels and retorted that, first of all, in so thick and ancient a book there were no insignificant names and, secondly, even if a name has only been used once and as a lie, the moment it’s used to designate a person it becomes a name. His father was ready to offer a third and a fourth argument, but the teacher refused to engage in any further debate. The father was pleased that he’d out-talked the teacher, and Outis acquired the name he came to be known by.
Another version claimed that his name was initially Onuphrius. In his neighborhood the custom was to name the first male child after the paternal grandfather, the second after the maternal grandfather, while from the third onwards all sorts of relatives, friends and even chance acquaintances offered their names and claimed the honor of becoming godfathers. With his birth Outis found himself in the awkward position of a third child after two elder brothers had already died. Genuine family names had been exhausted and his father was showered with all kinds of suggestions, as he was a generous and warm-hearted man, such that many people offered their names on behalf of his son. Nevertheless, he decided to christen him Onuphrius. The name was rare and dissonant in at least two of the languages spoken in the village but the father was a cunning man. His mind was razor-sharp. As he explained to the priest (who warned that there wasn’t even an icon of St. Onuphrius in the village to pray to if the need arose), he wasn’t going to run any further risks. St. Georgis, St. Yannis and St. Dimitris were so busy with their countless godchildren that they couldn’t keep watch over them even if they felt a deep desire to do so. He chose the hermit saint, Onuphrius, to guard and protect the child with his undivided attention.
The young Outis-Onuphrius quickly survived several childhood diseases, but that didn’t impress anyone. However, when he was five years old, he overturned a pot of boiling water. The water tanned the cat’s tail, spraying a couple of drops on his own body, leaving marks but not causing him any serious harm. At six he fell under the hooves of an unruly horse. The horse rose on its hind legs, threw off its rider, then jumped over the child and galloped away. The rider was left with a lifelong limp, but the child remained unscathed. At seven, despite all orders to the contrary, he climbed the tall walnut tree by the gate. A branch broke and, when the child fell head-first into the hay-filled cart left standing by the tree, that was the last time the saint paid him such close attention. In the meantime, people had begun talking about how diligent the hermit saint was and by then at least seven newborn babes in the village already bore his name. Likewise, a painter had been engaged so that the saint’s image could now be seen in the church, in accordance with the canon’s description: naked, skinny, and covered by his hair. Thus Outis-Onuphrius quickly had to abandon the illusion that he enjoyed more protection than other people. Moreover, his father, with his customary strictness, not only forbade him to climb trees but would not even allow him so much as to poke his nose beyond the fence, hence the rest of his childhood was very lonely. And when, without knowing what had befallen him, he got married at the age of sixteen, he realized that the saint had completely deserted him.
At this point the story became rather evasive. Outis was suddenly forgetting words he’d used freely until then. He spent a long time searching for them, would digress from his topic, insert other stories or jump backwards and forwards to other moments of his life. What Van Atten managed to grasp was that Outis’ wife was beautiful, several years older than him, and as cunning as a flower that wants to be pollinated. The only reason Outis offered for his wedding was that his father was an accommodating person and couldn’t resist a match-maker’s three-day harangue. (Here Van Atten ultimately gave up trying to fathom the father’s character. He had heard about various complicated and eccentric personalities but had never met someone as full of contradictions as this). In any case, Outis, with no further ado, was married and then, even more quickly, became a father.
Outis took part in the birth in his own way. All the while that his wife’s belly kept on growing with surprising speed, he noticed that people’s eyes increasingly avoided his own, preferring to direct their gaze somewhere beyond his left ear. And an obstinate childish itch was eating away at his gums, driving him to chew whatever he saw—pieces of shoe leather, tree bark or the end of his sleeve if nothing else was at hand. He couldn’t stand still, all his clothes felt too tight, he chewed on bones like a dog and munched on twigs like a goat and kept walking away from the village, on each occasion going further afield before he returned. Only when his wife went into labor did the itching subside. Three of his wisdom-teeth sprouted at once—two on the right side and the third on the left, all three at an angle. His head throbbed almost symmetrically, with a slight predominance on the right side. Consequently, while the women ran about with clean towels and pots of warm water, Outis went on howling in the yard without anyone paying attention to him. Only when they saw him quietly and methodically banging his head against the wall of the house did several men lift him—almost off the ground—and drag him to the Turkish neighborhood where they sat him down on a chair without letting him go. The room was nearly dark. There was only one Inquisition-like candle and, on the table by the candle, were some tools whose appearance made Outis want to run away or, at the very least, wake up. But the men gripped him tightly and forced open his mouth. A Turk appeared in the darkness behind the candle, very old and very wiry, and in a flash poured three glasses of brandy down his throat. The Turk thought a little and then added another glass. While Outis was choking and trying to swallow, the Turk began to pull out the first tooth…
When Outis came to, the pain from his hangover was vying to surpass the ache from his missing teeth, the holes in his gums pulsated like three autonomous, badly injured hearts, and his jaws were stuck together with blood, as he accepted congratulations on the birth of his son.
Soon afterwards he left the village forever, and this is the reason why: the donkey of a man transporting planks stopped right in front of the gate of Outis’ house. While the man was cursing and kicking the animal to get it to move on, Outis came outside and they got to talking. He asked where the man was going and he replied he was heading down to the sea. “What are the planks for?” Outis asked, and the man said they would be made into oars. Outis asked what an oar was. Since the donkey wouldn’t budge, the man not only explained it for him but even drew an oar in the dirt of the road, with a boat and the sea’s waves.
Outis spoke with passion about his route to the sea, which from afar resembled a silver fish scale on the horizon, and smelled like a woman at close range. About the old man who refused to give him directions, about the prickle bushes and his breathless run down the steep slopes. Ian Van Atten, who was still under the spell of the previous story, explained this inclination for the sea as the awakening of ancient seafarer blood. Outis was familiar with this interpretation. Quite a few people insisted on explaining some of his actions with his ancient blood. The rest of his actions (usually the greater part), which could not be accounted for by ancient blood, remained unexplained.
Indeed, “ancient blood” was the first thing he heard from Captain Dunne as soon as he set foot on his ship. The schooner creaked with every step and Outis felt the deck was reeling not because of the imperceptible choppiness in the port but because of his own stride. He was already a sailor, with some (albeit little) experience. He had reached the largest port he had ever seen and, among all the ships that bore exuberant female names like Providencia or The Queen of India, he had chosen this one to seek a job. The Captain asked what his reason was and Outis muttered that he felt a kind of attraction to her name. That’s when Dunne remarked, emphasizing the exclamation mark, “It’s the ancient blood!”
The schooner was called The Seven Against Thebes, and Captain Dunne was well versed in the classics. He had had a more than adequate education before his own seafarers’ blood, without any explanation, drew him to ships. He felt a special interest in tragedies – those elaborate traps of fate; even if you succeed in snatching the one-in-a-thousand chance to escape with the cheese between your teeth, in the end it turns out to be poisonous. The protagonists didn’t stand a chance, and Dunne couldn’t help admiring the mathematical precision with which circumstances, the gods, and human error guaranteed the ultimate destructive outcome. Not only the tragedies but countless examples in life had led him to the conclusion that disaster could not be averted. If such a thing were possible, all those imbeciles who did nothing on the thirteenth and avoided crossing paths with a black cat would be leading a life free of peril—something that simply wasn’t true. It would do no harm, therefore, to name your ship after a tragedy. It might even be more likely to help (bearing in mind the futility of all attempts to avert doom). And besides, there was a simpler and more practical reason for choosing this name—the old schooner that he had bought for a song had seven sails.
Captain Dunne had managed to bring together (although it took some time) a crew of unlikely companions who nevertheless shared the same attitude toward fate; he had a few loyal clients and, for whatever reason, it was a fact that the creaking schooner delivered her cargo on time, avoided rocks and reefs and came out of tempests with repairable damage. Captain Dunne was so free of superstitions that he sometimes even took his wife with him—a tall bony lady who drank her tea on deck while smoking thin but foul-smelling cigars. They spent their time in endless games of bridge à deux during which every loss provoked tempestuous rage and many hours of low spirits in the captain, while every victory was met with the stoic indifference of Mrs. Dunne. The sailors could never decide whether they were annoyed by her presence. Her being aboard always meant a thorough and senseless clean-up of the ship. She would make numerous remarks about their hygiene and speech, but by means of strict control over the cook, buying special provisions, and a great amount of ingenuity she succeeded in providing a dessert after every meal. The sailors felt simultaneously oppressed and comfortable, and all this blended into the (ultimately) pleasant sensation of being at home.
But on this voyage Mrs. Dunne was not present and all the energy the captain normally reserved for playing bridge he now put into educating Outis. (For his part, according to the present version of the story, Outis did not yet call himself by this name, whereas the Captain had heartily disliked the name Onuphrius. He heard it with a politely suppressed repugnance, as one suppresses a yawn, declined to use it and would only call the newcomer “boy”.) Amused by the presence of a person with such ancient blood, Dunne took to providing him with some obligatory knowledge (as he deemed it in this case). Thus, before they had even reached the equator, Outis had acquired a great number of brief and chaotic yet memorable lessons in mythology, history and ancient literature. He also learned some words in Ancient Greek and one of them served him well.
The night they passed the equator, Outis awoke with the depressing sensation of being dead. He felt incredibly cold, he couldn’t move and, furthermore, it turned out he was lying in a coffin. There were fifteen ghosts gathered around him and, despite his terror, he couldn’t help marveling at how close to the truth the human idea of a ghost was. They were white figures, as if covered by sheets, their movements were too jerky really for apparitions, and they were roaring with laughter. He perceived the distinctive smell of rum and it was this smell, so strongly reminiscent of the old pirate song, that inexplicably instilled in him, frozen as he was with cold and fear, the certainty that this was all real. Although he had already established that the cold could largely be attributed to his wet clothes, from the moment he counted the ghosts he had no option but to accept with quiet resignation that he was the dead man in the chest. One of them then turned to him and asked with an unusually clear (for an apparition) British accent: “Who are you?” Fully paralyzed, Outis replied with the first word that entered his head due to the ancient blood or last night’s literature lesson: “Nobody!” The reply threw the apparition into a fit of wild laughter, recognizably that of Captain Dunne, so strong that it transformed into hiccups, and the ropes around Outis’ hands and feet were then cut, and the bottle of rum reached his lips as well, and thus he came to cross the equator with his new name.
He spent a total of seven years on the unexpectedly tough schooner (here Van Atten frowned at the excessive use of the number seven in the story), until the death of Captain Dunne. Ian Van Atten, who was already asking himself whether people with a certain (not necessarily solid) classical education attracted Outis or the opposite was true, had felt from the start a strong kinship with a connoisseur of tragedies such as Captain Dunne, and took a special interest in his end. Nor could his end be said to confirm or to refute the captain’s theories. Dunne died on solid ground, choking to death at a family dinner with his countless aunts and nephews, a dinner which—foreseeing its tedium—he had postponed many times. After his death the schooner underwent her final massive, elaborate clean-up under the inspection of Mrs. Dunne. The sailors performed the task uncomplainingly, even with enthusiasm, as a sign of respect for their late captain. It was this cleaning that made the schooner almost presentable and, to everyone’s surprise, she managed to attract a buyer. The new owner immediately renamed her The Lovely Mariana before she sank on one of her first voyages in a quiet sea with a light south-easterly breeze. There’s no need to mention that neither Outis nor anyone from her experienced crew was on board. They all flatly refused to set foot on the ship once she’d been given her new name.
This, in short, was Outis’ story, which revolved almost entirely around his name. His other stories were about travels, islands and oddities. On the whole, as Van Atten had noticed, Outis could speak about anything and anyone but would not say much about himself. But even his name lost a lot of its luster after the death of Captain Dunne. Unaccompanied by the captain’s roaring laughter, it seemed deprived of its raison d’être, it faded and became quite banal in its convenient shortness. Outis continued to use the name, but others rarely called him by it. And as it was no longer appropriate to call him ‘boy,’ they called him either “the Greek” or employed some casual nicknames acquired for minor reasons.
At an indeterminate age somewhere between thirty and fifty, one night he found himself in the familiar threefold dilemma of having no money, no job and no place to sleep. On the street along the waterfront he watched with interest, as well as with undisguised admiration, as a Gypsy woman sold a young man a dream-flower. The young man displayed the startled appearance of someone who had just stumbled but didn’t fall, and Outis now thought it appropriate to use his forgotten ancient name. And it had the necessary effect.
For a while Outis and Van Atten argued about what direction their journey should take. Several months had passed and the garden plants were noticeably sparser. Ian Van Atten had also started smoking—still making no progress with the rings, though enjoying the same carefree, jovial effects. One morning, however, he woke up with the thought that this was how he was going to spend the rest of his life. That was fine by him. He’d already written down the stories about a difficult childbirth and the person who’d found water with a vine stalk; he was pleased with them both. He’d come to the conclusion that stories you hear are easier to write down than the stories that happen to you personally. Made-up stories were easiest of all. The question of someone’s name and its relation to fate, as posed by the whole of Outis’ biography, led him to think up a story of his own, based not so much on his friend’s tales but on his own multiple readings and re-readings of The Arabian Nights. This idea also pleased him. But on that morning the phrase “the rest of his life” gripped him by the throat like a clamp, while “this was how” felt like an unexpected punch in the stomach. Weakened by the treachery of words, he at last came to the decision to set out on his much-postponed voyage. This time he had a perfect pretext – he was going to accompany Outis on his return journey home.
The truth is, he felt incredibly lazy. He’d grown accustomed to his stuff: to the books he’d bought and, without much ado, rudely opened in the middle, to the tangled, creative plant life in the garden, to the crumbs in his bed, to the bees in his bonnet, to his meaningless walks along the seaside and the painless visits to the same brothel all over again. Contrary to the spirit of adventure he’d been so diligently cultivating, he didn’t like change. He relied on his friend’s enthusiasm. Yet the idea of returning to an unfaithful wife after more than twenty years and to another man’s child who bore his name did not appeal to Outis in the least. He proposed an entirely different journey: to the South Pacific, to the island of Borneo with its high crystalline skies and coral ports, to the women with rough feline tongues and the Southern Cross, a pendant on the warm bosom of the night. Van Atten marveled at the power of sloth’s persuasive eloquence. We should ponder, he thought to himself, whether sloth gives rise to rhetoric, or rhetoric to sloth. Outis was well aware of Van Atten’s inability to travel by sea. And Van Atten was well aware that the scale of any undertaking negatively impacted on its chance of coming about. And that’s where he dug in his heels. In fact (he surmised, trying to analyze the whole matter), if Outis had shown enthusiasm, for his part he’d have found a sufficient pretext to give up on the journey. It was precisely Outis’ unwillingness that finally led him to make up his mind. “How strange the way we make decisions,” he reflected. “We toss the coin once, then twice, but finally we choose something that has nothing to do with the coin.”
“It doesn’t really matter which direction we go,” Outis remarked with resignation, after Van Atten declared that he intended to travel with or without Outis’ guidance. “No matter where you turn, you’re bound to step on your shadow, my father used to say. That is, whichever way you turn, you always see yourself.” And he continued, “Actually it has to do with reflections. One moment you’re looking at something, and then suddenly you see yourself. Could be in a window, could be in a puddle.
One runs into oneself in the strangest places.” “Or finds no trace of oneself in the strangest places,” Van Atten decided to add. Then having written down their words, he set about packing.
The journey turned out to be a rather exhausting experience. Outis was reticent and nervous. Never before in his travels had he met a German sailor, or a Czech, not to mention a Hungarian. Being in a country whose language he didn’t speak made him feel insecure and suspicious of everything. Van Atten suffered from the chronic indigestion of travelers and from the eccentric culinary whims of the local cuisine. He discovered he could never become a travel writer. Pictures kept rapidly changing before his eyes, too rapidly for him to think. And yet some images remained in his mind—of their own accord, without his volition. In Germany he saw swans on the Rhine, a dog that was run over by the wheels of their car and died without a sound, Prussian army drills with their ballet movements and the deafening roar of drums. In Prague a giant cockroach walked along the windowsill, filling the room with unearthly melancholy to the low, almost imperceptible sounds of a piano muffled by the wall. Nor was there any shortage of emotional experiences. In a hotel room decorated in a fading Austro-Hungarian style, with a squeaking floor and a sturdy baldaquin bed, Atilla Sergeevna Krivoshieva (who was traveling to Balaton and had momentarily escaped the supervision of her older companion) dived beneath his bed covers without even removing her riding spurs. Later the Dutchman would remember the event as one recalls the epic canvases of third-rate painters – lightning bolts lacerating the sky, horses neighing, mouths distorted with shrieking, bodies frozen in strenuous postures under the sudden flash of a storm. The night in question was something like a battle and Van Atten considered his survival nothing less than pure luck. “Women,” Outis remarked the next morning, gazing at the string of various-sized, dark purple marks on the Dutchman’s neck, “have plenty of yeses but only a single no, and once they’ve used it up, they can’t find another one…” (Yes, on the subject of women Outis always had some piece of wisdom to share). Van Atten, on the other hand, feeling a piercing pain with every intake of breath and wondering whether he’d cracked a rib, found the remark on the whole inappropriate.
He heard his first story within this realm in a Transylvanian inn with damp walls, where shadows rose to acquire a monstrous and independent life of their own, and having heard it, he decided he might well be on the right track. A freezing draught of uncertain origin swayed and extinguished the flame of the only candle in the room. The host spoke slowly, with long theatrical pauses which Outis misplaced while he searched about for the words in his translation. Van Atten listened, numb with the cold that seeped into his body from the stone wall he was leaning on. But as he had noticed that the speakers happily took his every quiver to be the effect of their sinister tale, he dared not disappoint them by drawing closer to the fire. Thus, risking a fever, he listened to the whole of the story, and then he wrote it down in a slightly polished version:
The Story of Count Dracula,
The Scourge of the Carpathians
At midnight, under the cool gaze of the moon, among the stifled cries of nocturnal birds above a forest numb with windless terror, Count Dracula, the Scourge of the Carpathians, came forth on his sinister hunt. He flew low over the ground, spreading his wide cloak like a huge black butterfly (a bat, Outis corrected himself, and Van Atten was annoyed by the correction). Like a huge bat drawn to the warmth of bodies asleep in the dark. His long curved fingernails skillfully undid the trickiest locks, raised latches, opened shutters that had been locked from the inside. Deftly and in silence the monster slid into the room and the victim only let out a single cry.
But not all blood was equal to him, and this was his sole and constant concern. Since each draught of blood contained its owner’s character and thoughts sealed within it, the immortal monster was doomed to experience, briefly but repeatedly, hundreds of wretched human lives. That’s why he abhorred the blood of peasants and their wives with their constant fear of droughts and hailstorms, robbers and taxmen, riots and wicked masters, diseases, evil spirits and generally everything that walks, flies or crawls upon this earth. It caused him to wake up in the middle of the day inside his coffin where he tried to rest, sweating with the thought of endless and impending perils. He detested artisans’ and merchants’ blood, which filled his head with countless petty calculations, as well as the blood of their wives with its continuous reckonings about what to cook and in what manner. He was so bored he just felt like biting himself. He was annoyed by the blood of virgins that conjured an idiotic smile of joyful expectation on his face, and anxious anticipation of some impending event—indeterminate but assuredly lovely, something that robbed him of his sleep and filled his chest with sighs. Most of all he detested the blood of children. It brought nightmares and more often than not an enormous black bat that burst through the window and bit into his throat. What he liked was the blood of jolly butchers who loved their trade, of merry soldiers prone to rape and loot, of cynical but slightly bored barons pleased with the world and themselves, of gamblers (when they have just won), of drunkards even, though in small numbers, for though he experienced a certain high, it brought with it the inevitable hangover. But as he worked in the dark and it was impossible to plan his raids, the choice of each new victim depended on pure chance. Yet it wasn’t darkness or bad luck that led to his greatest, fatal mistake. A blunder of this nature was impossible to foresee or avoid. Consequently, one night, spurred on by hunger, the monster of the Carpathians sunk his teeth into the throat of a true believer.
It is worth pointing out that there was nothing that might have suggested the risk. During all his years of lonely, bloodthirsty hunts he had imbibed the blood of several variously bearded priests, a dozen itinerant monks, two donkey-riding Andalusian padres (a rather unusual sight in these parts), and even that of a skinny Protestant pastor, but never with any special consequences to his health (though the pastor filled his head with innumerable quotations from the Bible). Moreover, nothing about the person in question betrayed any evidence of true faith. He was a traveler asleep beside his fire, and like all the rest he let out a brief shriek, rolled his eyes and then never moved again.
Only afterwards did Count Dracula begin to feel ever stranger. At first he felt a mounting, paralyzing pity for his victim who lay lifeless near the fire. Along with this came a raw condemnatory pity toward himself—the instrument of the crime. And yet, though dampened by these feelings, he experienced a subversive and insistent joy that he existed in this world and could feel its sorrows and its delights. He also sensed an unflinching certainty that everything in the world had its place—the wind that swayed the branches of the trees, the birds that sang in the translucent dusk, each blade of grass that split the soil on its way upwards, closer to the sun. A certainty that kept him motionless, standing higher and higher on his toes, enthralled by the beautiful order of the world. It was already late when the first ray of sun cut through his face like a razor. Only his shriek abided throughout the wakeful woods—a shriek of terror and joy—while his body melted into the light, while he became one with the light.
Van Atten was surely aware (no matter how much he tried to ignore it) that sooner or later they would reach the Danube. The aquatic barrier existed, clearly and unconditionally indicated on all maps, and no matter how they traveled they would have to cross it. However, due to their rather whimsical route, for the most part chosen by Outis, they popped up at the most unsuitable of places. The barrier turned out to be far wider than Van Atten expected. The other river bank was scarcely visible. It looked like a sea that had a direction and a goal, a running sea, and this definitely troubled the Dutchman. Watery expanses seemed to have been created specifically to remind him of his weaknesses, and not just the immediate one in question, but all the others as well. They made him feel helpless. “Nothing to fear,” Outis sneered. “We’ll wait for the winter freeze to set in and then we’ll just walk across. And if this winter isn’t cold enough, we’ll wait for the next one.” Outis had replaced his Central-European melancholic mood with jolly loquacity, interrupted occasionally by outbursts of belligerent irony. For the observant Van Atten this was a sure sign that Outis was fighting against progressively overwhelming nostalgia.
What Outis said could only be interpreted as a symptom of impatience, Van Atten thought as he went down to the river to accustom himself to the sight. On this occasion it was a clearer day and the opposite bank was sufficiently visible. He could even make out the roof tops of a village. “Red as smiles,” Van Atten noted, pleased with his mental observation. To one side of him, close to the shore, some people were battling a fish. It was an unequal fight, a bloody skirmish. Enormous, almost as big as a person, the fish had gotten wedged into the shallows, surrounded on all sides and being beaten with just about anything to hand. It swam in wide and ever-slower circles, splashing about in its blood. It appeared to contain a lot of blood, almost like a man or a slaughtered pig. Its tail slapped the surface less often, transforming the muddy water into a pink froth. Van Atten looked away. A little further on, a duck swayed as it floated on the water. The sight was enough to turn Van Atten’s stomach. He closed his eyes but the darkness under his lids went on flowing, his nausea persisted. “It must be the fish blood,” he thought. Then he went to negotiate a price for the river crossing with the boatmen. Once again Outis, with his own firm decision, had succeeded in convincing him.
The same day, for the first time, he met the photographer—a little chap with a checkered coat and prickly ears that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of supporting his hat. He had arranged this morning’s fishermen on the square and was about to take their picture. A picture serious and solemn, like everything meant to last. The men had put on their best clothes, some sitting on chairs, others standing behind them resting their hands on the first men’s shoulders or holding the fish, all washed and shiny, which stood among them like a member of their crowd. No one would even dream of smiling. When the photographer noticed Van Atten looking at the scene, he became talkative and employed much gesticulation to get him to join them for the picture. Van Atten immediately pasted the intelligent smile of a foreigner who may not speak the tongue but is no simpleton (he’d practiced it with diligence in front of the mirror) onto his face and rejected the offer with courteous but unconditional gestures.
Later the same afternoon he ran into the photographer again. He’d bought or hired the fish and was offering to let all passersby take their picture with it. Having obviously forgotten Van Atten’s face, he turned to him with the same invitation. Van Atten rejected it just as flatly, this time without a smile. He was getting tired of both the photographer and his fish.
“Here’s one thing I’ll surely be rid of,” he thought to give himself extra courage for the next day while the water was splashing just a couple of feet away from his right ear. They hired a raft, which seemed more stable than the small rocking boats. Van Atten lay on his back and didn’t dare move, expecting a fit of vertigo any moment. But the raft rarely swayed and only then due to the raftsman’s footsteps. Then it set out on its way and remained completely calm. Outis started some sort of conversation with the raftsman, the words muffled by the splashing of the water, and Van Atten kept gazing at the sky above. It was full of all kinds of scattered clouds, one shaped like a bull with a missing horn, another like a man with a low-brimmed hat. It made him feel sleepy. The other bank was approaching, looking lusher and more detailed between his stretched-out feet. He felt truly helpless but also happy, and only the fact that he was advancing feet-first from time to time vaguely disturbed him.
He arrived well-rested and rather pleased with himself. He was pleasantly surprised to find that there were cities on this side of the river as well, and that roads, albeit of poor quality, nevertheless did exist. But most of all, that there was always someone to tell you a blood-curdling story. He discovered he had a special weakness for blood-curdling stories. “Say what you will, no ending is ever more convincing than death,” he noted to his companion. “There is no other ending, anyway,” retorted Outis, who was once again in a carping mood. The supposed deepening of his nostalgia was not making his manners smoother. “A story ending, I mean,” the Dutchman murmured but Outis had other things on his mind. He insisted that since they couldn’t count on finding transportation, they should buy a cart. And once they had bought a cart, they would have to buy some horses and find someone to look after them.
Van Atten tapped the Foundling for the job, mostly on account of his name. The boy was tough (which appealed to Outis), spoke little (which appealed to Van Atten), and had a surreptitious look (which didn’t appeal to either of them). Van Atten, however, was convinced that his turning up could not be a matter of chance. In fact, the first morning the Dutchman had nearly tripped over him when he left the malodorous room where he’d spent the night, intending to relieve his bowels outside. The youngster slept, wrapped in his clothes and almost buried under leaves the night wind had gathered from the nearby trees. The drowsy Van Atten bumped into him but was unable to wake him. The boy muttered a lengthy phrase and turned on his other side, scattering the leaves with a papery noise. In one hand he was clutching a piece of bread and this touched the Dutchman ever so slightly. To find a person named Foundling appeared to him to be a tautology laden with meaning. Outis had some objections but they met with no response. Meanwhile, other things of no small significance happened. Most importantly, Van Atten discovered the Southern Cross.
He hardly knew how it had happened. One of the inns they stayed in next was a strange place indeed. There was no town or village nearby, nor was it at a crossroads, and yet it was densely inhabited. People came and went, ate, and went on trying to outshout each other. And in the midst of all the tumult the owner of the place prevailed and, it seemed to Van Atten, even directed all the arrivals and departures, looking misshapen but inexplicably dignified. Van Atten watched the owner’s movements – asymmetrical but always accurate—and was startled every time a deep and manly voice came out of his small stooping body. Outis, quickly finding someone to talk to, turned his back on the owner and showed no interest in translating. Consequently, when the owner gestured to Van Atten to follow him, he immediately complied, thinking he would finally be led to his room (he was still vaguely hopeful he’d be given a room of his own). Judging from the outside, he hadn’t expected the inn to contain so many rooms—all filled with impenetrable darkness and totally damp. Van Atten followed the candle whose flame fluttered with the jerky pace of the man ahead of him; the candle was too low to help him see anything, or perhaps he was just too tall by the local standards. In fact, he twice bumped his head on some cross-beams. Finally, he was obliged to bend low down, almost to the height of his guide. They had reached a small but airy room. The inn-keeper set down the candle and disappeared, leaving Van Atten alone with a strange woman. Van Atten hastened to paste on his intelligent foreigner’s smile, but it didn’t seem to work properly, whether because the light was too dim or because his head still hurt from the two blows. The woman simply took it to be a sign of shyness, even inexperience, and she began to talk in a soothing way which simultaneously touched Van Atten and offended him.
On the whole, she seemed to talk a lot. She was warm, abundant and very soft, but it was her practice occasionally to grip his head between her hands and go on talking while she gazed into his eyes. It was both relaxing and slightly boring, and Van Atten put up with it like someone reclining in an increasingly uncomfortable pose puts up with numbness because he can’t be bothered to roll over. On the whole, she gave the impression of knowing something about him that he didn’t know himself, and this was rather unnerving. On the other hand, she guessed things he hadn’t even wished for, which was excellent. Once again, a two-sided situation—like that of a small coin, Van Atten thought in the most unsuitable moment. He at last fell into a sound sleep, waking the next morning with the Southern Cross before his eyes.
The bed they were in was too low and the proximity of the floor left Van Atten with the impression that he had fallen rather than that he had lain down, but at the same time he had no desire to get up. The light coming from the small window was murky and sparse, but the shoulder of the sleeping woman was so white that her moles stood out not only with the correct layout but they also had the right intensity. The lowest and largest was α-Cru, the thirteenth brightest star on the horizon, above and to the left was β-Cru, unexplainably called the Mimosa, and the two weaker γ and δ Cru, above her and to her right, forming the irregular diamond which, were one to draw a vertical line between α and γ and a horizontal line between β and δ, the wide and slightly tilted cross of the southern sky would appear. And, as he saw it now before his very eyes, he could swear that its vertical line must be pointing directly towards the South Pole. Most amazingly, the faint but visible ε-Cru was there as well, superfluous but undeniably present between the right side and the base of the cross, breaking the symmetry and therefore indispensable, because, as he’d always thought, it was the one that made the Southern Cross so precious and unique. Its presence now confirmed for him the unutterable meaning of what he beheld, confirmed it with the insight of drowsiness, with that sense of enlightenment that only the half-asleep can experience, with the firm faith that the world had fallen into place down to its smallest component and everything that had happened so far, and everything that would ever happen, was completely justified. A feeling that lasted even beyond breakfast.
Van Atten was pleased and he paid for several nights in advance. Though windy, the place appealed to him. There were rocks with dramatic outlines that boggled the imagination like clouds. He took walks away from the bustle of the new arrivals. He gazed at rocks and wet his pencil copiously with saliva. A woman with the name of a holiday and constellations on her skin. Not bad, not bad at all. “On the whole,” he thought, “my love life is thriving as never before.” An irrefutable argument, indeed, for stepping out of the house from time to time. But he didn’t share it with his companion, first, because he didn’t want a sarcastic remark to smother his enthusiasm and, second, because he’d discovered that Outis, too, was visiting Nedelya2. No matter how democratic his principles, sharing a woman initiated a new phase in his relationship with his guide and lent it an intimacy he would clearly have preferred to avoid. Such intimacy was all the more undesirable in the case of the Foundling who looked after the horses and had also made a visit to Nedelya, though nobody knew where he’d found the money for it. Van Atten, in conformity with his literary instincts, rather sinisterly thought, “This woman will not come to a good end.”
It turned out that to visit Nedelya, you didn’t have to follow the complicated route along which he’d hit his head. Her room had another door that opened onto the courtyard and various people made use of it, coming and going during the day. He wasn’t even surprised to see the photographer emerge with a radiant expression, meticulously adjusting his hat over his ears. It seemed he’d totally failed to recognize him, straightaway trying to sell him a photograph of a decently dressed, solemn-looking man hugging a fish that was nearly a foot taller than himself. This time Van Atten wasn’t particularly annoyed, just worried. Was there something about his face that made it indistinguishable? Or was it that someone whose job it is to photograph faces eventually loses all ability to discriminate between them? Taking his silence to be a refusal (which, in fact, it was), the photographer adroitly conjured up a new photograph—that of a man quietly posed as a sleeper but missing his head. This time they couldn’t make do without Outis. “The man was a brigand,” the photographer explained with the haste of someone trying to hang on to a client. Even though he knew Van Atten would buy the picture. And Van Atten knew that he knew. The man was a brigand, he’d been the leader of a gang of outlaws. Before that he’d been in a monastery. He had run away, though. He had gathered together his men and became famous. For a long time he hid in the mountains. Then he was captured. He was sentenced to death. “And then?” asked Van Atten. It was clear that there was no “and then,” but the photographer didn’t stop teasing him. Unexpectedly, though, he became uneasy. “And then,” he said, “the execution never took place.” “How come? Was he pardoned?” “No.” “Did he run away?” “No,” replied the photographer, who felt increasingly awkward. “It just never took place.” It was so unconvincing that Van Atten immediately believed him.
“Then he returned to the monastery. But he didn’t stay long. This time he didn’t simply leave, he knew where he was going. He left for Tsarigrad3. He traveled on foot and his shoes were torn along the way, simultaneously. He reached Tsarigrad by asking the way.” “Why by asking?” Van Atten wondered out loud. “That’s how you’re supposed to arrive there,” the photographer explained. He’d stopped before the doors of Hagia Sophia4 and crossed his heart. And then he was about to enter. It was going to rain. The light was beautiful. Pure. “There are moments,” the photographer said, “when light is absolutely pure. As if someone has swept away all the dust of the world.” “If he goes on talking about the light, I might start to like him,” the Dutchman worried. There were clouds but the light penetrated through them. Soft but abundant. “Like a woman,” the photographer said. At this point Van Atten swallowed hard.
There had been one other photograph taken of that moment. Unfortunately it was already sold. He’d been able to sell it immediately at a very good price because it was extremely vivid and full of drama. You could see the pilgrim make the sign of the cross and, at the same moment, you could see the three zaptiehs5 leap forth to cut him down with their naked swords. And if you look closely at one of the swords, you can see his reflection on it as well, the photographer’s—his head and camera covered by the checkered cloth, as he bent forward the very instant he took the picture.
“But how had he managed to capture this fleeting moment, this flashing picture?” Van Atten couldn’t resist asking. The truth is, the photographer said, without any trace of embarrassment, he had requested that the participants slow down the moment in question, freezing during the climax of their dramatic movement. He hadn’t modified reality at all, in fact, but had just slowed time down a bit for the sake of his art. “Everybody wants to remain in time,” the photographer said, “any way that he can. Nobody says no.” He added, “Time is a great fly-catcher. Everyone rises to the bait.” There was a lengthy meaningless pause that Van Atten maliciously prolonged until the smile between the photographer’s ears melted away completely. He then paid for the photograph that was being offered to him. “He speaks well about the light but when it comes to time, he’s out of his league,” he thought.
He no longer had any reason to stay on in the place. His nights with Nedelya had left him totally exhausted. Moreover, he suspected that like any misguided foreigner he’d paid well above the normal fee, and Outis and the boy who looked after the horses had used the opportunity to visit her. Their last night, one by one Nedelya sucked all Van Atten’s fingers, making use of her tongue she outlined his upper lip, the grooves of his eyelids and the curve of his eyebrows, and then she dropped below to write something on his penis, something Van Atten didn’t understand, but whatever it was, it seemed to end with an exclamation mark! She appeared to be in love, which truly puzzled the Dutchman. This time she was exceptionally quiet, but instead of lulling him to sleep, the silence woke him up completely. Out of some statistical curiosity as well as in hopes of finally falling asleep at dawn, he started counting the moles on her body. He reached a total of 216 and gave up on any further specifications. He looked for a meaning in the number 216 which, if you divide it in half, gives you 108, though there didn’t seem to be any logic in either number. Aside, that is, from the observation that even numbers, when divided in half, are always female, while odd numbers are male since they always display a protruding digit. With these mathematical conundrums in his head he finally fell into a sort of sleep, if only for brief moment, because somebody starting loudly banging on the door, insisting on being let in. The last thing he wanted was to run into Nedelya’s next visitor so he rushed out the other door that led into the wet, dark rooms, stooping almost double, not fearing he might lose his way in the darkness, and he didn’t lose his way, for his mind was engaged with other things, how the distance covered by a single step is sufficient for nostalgia to occur, and how astonishingly human beings can produce nostalgia in every circumstance, nostalgia for anything, even for the meaningless number 216…
1 Outis (Ancient Greek) – Nobody. The name Odysseus used for himself when addressing the cyclops Polyphemus.
2 Her name means “Sunday” in Bulgarian.
3 The Bulgarian name for Istanbul.
4 Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: "Holy Wisdom")—a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque and now a museum in Istanbul.
5 Zaptieh - Turkish policeman.