“Esther” is a very interesting story to me, in how it inverts the traditional relationship between male and female characters and their narrative roles. It is not accomplished the way you'd expect it to be—by simply assigning a masculine voice to a female character, on the contrary—the literary trope of the pining woman, the one who stays, the one who wonders and doubts and reflects, is turned on its head—she is rescued from her passivity without being liberated of her longing. In a direct parallel to the Colonizers from the story (a parallel that maybe only I am seeing), it is unclear whether she is trapped by her desire or has given in to it because of being trapped, by herself or circumstance. The final scene, with her walking home with the naked boy’s body in her arms reminded me a lot of the album art for Bat For Lashes’ “The Haunted Man”—carrying your captor, your man-demon with the grim, determined, even resentful awareness of your own weakness, even as a subject rather than object—and is, for me, the emotional core, the apex of the story.
“Esther” is the second short story of Vladimir’s I’ve had the pleasure of translating. I am not sure if I always understand his intentions for his characters (my struggle with the abstraction of his prose is somewhat of a running joke between us) or get their “voice” right on the first attempt, so it is an exciting process to see how my instinctive idea of how they would sound in English can be aligned with Vladimir’s particular vision for who they are, and the role they play in the story. I hope you enjoy being let into his imagination as much as I did.
Esther stares at the plaque:
The Impossible Colonization
Esther lets out a sigh, takes a few steps back and eases herself onto a bench. The blurry stain of her face, caught between her small black flats, grimaces back at her from the smooth, reflective museum floor. She holds her gaze for a moment, then closes her eyes, lifts her head and opens them again. It’s become a ritual, almost, and she performs it diligently, day in and day out. When the museum is shut, she struggles through the anxiety and sense of dread and rehearses the motions in her living room. In those moments—days, even—she feels so pathetic and laughable, she’s glad there’s never anyone to look into herflat’s ground floor window. But today is a workday, the museum is open, and she’s not daydreaming, she’s sitting on the bench in the middle of one of its vast exhibition spaces and staring. It is the most beautiful thing in this city, the most wonderful thing she’s ever laid her eyes on. Not even beautiful, she sometimes catches herself thinking as the configurations on the other side of the glass shiver and re-arrange, not really—but it is mine.
1. It is known: the Master is always right. His Thoughts are the fastest, his Words—the most powerful. His Body, however, is weak. Much too weak. There’s only one Master outside the Ship. One Master, submerged in a liquid, the essence of which is a mystery to everyone but the Ship’s Computer. The other Masters move around freely, behind walls of star-stained black metal, away from the Planet’s atmosphere, waging their War from a distance. We are not afforded such luxury—we’re stuck on the outside, in the shadows of Sobremundo’s vast mountains and forests, waiting for the War to end. It is strange, but you get used to it. They call it the War that Changes the World.
Esther has long forgotten the first time she saw the Work, because she doesn’t want to remember a time without it. There was never a before; her memory is unblemished by it. Life began with the Work, with the bodies behind the glass, locked in their movements that never seem to cease. She imagines, sometimes, a faceless husband figure who is scandalized, even hurt, by the thought of her coming here every day, watching them writhe. The Men. The beautiful, naked men. ‘Art?! You call this art?!’ he would scream and she would look down, as if in shame, and let her tongue glide across a coy smile. Her silence is sadistic, an act of outright violence. Her husband is a loser. He could never find his way to her or to anything else, for that matter. She is sure now, that even if he wanted to pleasure himself, his hand would get lost, feeling, grasping, clawing at thin air. Nothing but thin air. Not like the many hands in the Work. Hands are never left empty in the Work. There are no gaps there, just flesh. The men, the boys, the thinner figures—women perhaps? Or girls? No, no, definitely men, maybe boys—are full only of themselves, of each other. The way they are supposed to be. It is captivating watching them. She doesn’t know exactly how many of them there are, but it’s a lot. Their bodies are strong, sweaty, entangled, kinetic—a kaleidoscope of pure desire and she cannot take her eyes off it. She plays around with it, turns it over:
eyes, heads, many, many heads, lips, lips and anuses, fingers
Shakes it and the images rearrange:
a finger, eyes, many, many eyes, a head, lips and an anus
If her husband was to look at it, what would the pieces mean to him? Nothing, she smiles to herself—they would mean nothing because his views don’t matter, he is not her husband and does not even exist.
2. We have never seen the locals, the ‘Aboriginals’ as we are explicitly prohibited from calling them. They hide: in the jungle, in underground caves, in treetops and war stories. Not in cities or behind walls or in Ships, because they are Savages. Yes, Savages, that name at least we are allowed. ‘Savages’, we whisper across the void of the Ship’s sleeping quarters, where the Dark envelops all, mercifully, making possible the step from one body to another. ‘Savages’, we exhale, taste the other’s breath on our tongues, then their lips, the skin of their neck; the Dark renders us as one, uninterrupted. ‘Savages’ we repeat, fervently, and commit last night’s lessons to memory—the map of our bodies grows ever clearer, ever more detailed, as the landscape remains alien, unknowable, impenetrable. We are the failed cartographers of the outside world. Who sent us here? Did they not know that all we are ever to explore we were born with? The geography of our own skin, it’s not much. Not much at all.
Esther doesn’t remember when the Boy’s face swims into focus in the centre of the Work, when he becomes the cynosure of her desire. He must have always been there, she reasons: if I could peer into the centre of my want, if that centre had a face, it would be the Boy’s. I’ve been erected around him, I know him by heart. I can’t count the number of breaths he has taken, but I can record everything else—every minute detail, every flinch, every movement. He never stops fucking. Never ceases giving himself away, flowing out: his semen and his urine, filling up the others’ holes, flowing down their canals, leaving his trace in them the way he has in herself. The only difference is that he had entered her through her eyes alone, where she would have welcomed him everywhere: in her mouth, or in her vagina, or, really, wherever she could. And she could, oh, couldn’t she just—her body is capable of so much, pay no mind that it sometimes feels dry— dry as kindling, as parchment, as…
‘Excuse me.’ A voice snaps her out of her thoughts. She turns around slowly to face the Curator’s apologetic smile. ‘I’m interrupting you, I realize, but I simply cannot help myself…’ he trails off until her nod lets him know he can continue. He sits down next to her.
‘I’ve noticed you only ever look at ‘The Impossible Colonization’. We have so many other installations, what is it about this one that holds your particular interest?
What is it about this one?!’
She glances at him with disbelief, uncomprehending. ‘I guess I just like it,’ she says.
‘I, for one, am horrified.’
Esther closes her eyes.
‘They are horrific. All the bodies. All those men and boys. All those men and boys,’ the man repeats, ‘are nothing but death.’
The Master is standing in the entrance of the chamber, his elongated Shadow digging its nails into the wet walls of the corridor outside, trying to escape: even his darkest part refusing to bear witness to the scene in front of him. His reproach hits us headfirst, our armors, shiny with moisture and humming with information, trying desperately to reflect some of the impact back at him. Something flows between us, it’s almost palpable, but we struggle to identify it. Is it guilt? Is it remorse that he expects? Whatever it is, we are either unable to feel it or don’t realize we do—under the Master’s gaze, inside the quarters’ walls, the only regret we have is not being able to continue. So much regret. The Master begins to withdraw, perhaps having read something else in our reaction. We can’t help but cry out, silently, for his approval, for a chance to stay in his eyes, in his thoughts, to make our way into his heart, but our repeated cries only echo in the empty halls of our own heads.
Esther is alone. The Museum is about to close. Esther is ready to leave but hesitates. She recalls how two of her girlfriends, in the very same day yet independently of one another, have promised to finally find her a man:‘Get a life!’ ‘Establish a connection!’
Esther is horrified: as soon as the Museum closes, she will have to venture out into the street, into the city, into a world inhabited by her girlfriends and their kind. Esther doesn’t want anything to do with that place and its abominable human fauna. But the Museum is closing and she has no choice.
‘Madame, could I steal you for a moment…?’ it’s the Curator again. ‘Forgive my impertinence, but maybe you would like to learn some more about the author of the installation?’
‘Yes, of ‘The Impossible Colonization’. He is widely regarded as a visionary, would you believe, and this particular work is the final chapter of a series called ‘Statica.’ You might have heard of another piece of his, ‘Trolls’? Several heaps of stones under bridges in New York, London and Paris? And then maybe…’
‘I haven’t heard of it.’ She really hasn’t.
‘Ah, then you should certainly investigate—they are all lovely, yes, not really suitable for a museum, but lovely nonetheless. Anyway, I digress. They are all lovely, apart from that last one. The last one is horrific.’
‘You said so.’
‘Look, I can see why it is provocative, illustrating stasis through movement, I get it. But it is just so… gaudy… And this extravagant fantastical landscape, the moons, the star at the top, the purple rocks.’
Esther looks back at the Work and sees the background for the first time. Phantasmagoric, indeed.
‘It is an interpretation of one of the artist’s earlier short stories, by the way. Published in Amazing Stories in 1957, which in itself is revolutionary for a sci-fi genre pre-occupied with sketching out the bright, anthropocentric future we were promised at the time… Forgive me, I seem to be wasting your time…’
4. But before that he says the following:
‘What is this? What has become of you? Instead of fighting the War that Changes the World, you spin around in circles! You atrophy! Look at yourselves, you are no longer human!’ His last words get caught in the Ship’s loudspeaker and thunder around its enormous antrum.
around its hallways and chambers
its control rooms and laboratories
its gymnasiums and shower rooms…
Oh yes, the shower rooms, where the Dark is even darker, because, and this is hardly a secret, humidity always makes the Dark darker and us—more whole. When the Master’s amplified voice dies down, we look up, then at our feet, then to the people by our side and behind us, and wonder what we are expected to do now. We are here, aren’t we? Finally knee-deep in this Alien world? What are we to do now?
Esther is in her flat, asleep in an armchair in front of the TV. It’s nighttime, there’s a pornographic movie on. She is oblivious to what goes on. The light from the screen flickers off her eyelids: tongues, penises and lips abstracted to mere spots, lines and colours. Beneath the lids and reflections, Esther dreams. Her dream is so filthy that she won’t be able to bear remembering it come morning—it will be replaced by the image of a man, her future husband maybe, and his harmless, vanilla-scented kisses. For now, however, she is weak with ecstasy as a skeleton fingers her, pinches the reddened skin between her thighs, his exposed jawbone with its small sharp teeth suckling blood from her breast. The skeleton’s fingers are soiled, leaving dirt and mud between her legs. So much mud, it fills her up, it shuts her off, like an antique vessel just unearthed by the trembling hands of a young archeologist, full of the past, almost whole, almost preserved.
The Curator interrupts her ritual again ‘You should know, the installation’s time is coming to an end soon.’
‘But…’ sentences refuse to form, but her surprise and… horror? are apparent. The two of them are sat side by side on the bench back in the Museum. It’s the day after her dream.
‘The artist’s contract with us runs out in a matter of days. But at least he’s not taking any of his materials, isn’t that exciting? That’s what he always does, leaves the used parts behind, for someone else to find.’
It takes Esther a while to understand what he’s trying to say. At first his words mean nothing, empty platitudes to make her feel like a valued customer of his institution. But then sounds pull back, like lips over teeth, to reveal their meaning:
‘You can take something, if you want. As a memento, a present from the Museum’
Just like that: you can take something. Anything.
And then Esther remembers her dream. Naked female bodies slithering, rubbing against each other amidst rotten fish and octopus carcasses. It’s not a dream, not really, but a memory, of another painting down the hall that she’s only ever registered in her peripheral vision. But she doesn’t know that.
5. We’re in the Chamber. The soft walls pulsate all around us. The hard, cold second skin of our suites embalms us, leaves no room for heat, or sweat or a tremor, even if we’re scared to death, even if we’re dying of fear. One of us is lying on the ground, three more standing in a circle around him. The recumbent one is waiting for the Chamber to exhale a mechanical sigh and spit out its medicine, the pills that make us strong enough to venture Out. But the other three are not thinking of the world outside, they are concentrated on him instead: how vulnerable his body looks, how pale and soft, how sensually exposed in the centre of the room’s pulse. How his chest plate rises with every breath to meet them, in mid-air, to become one with the Dark, to enchant and lead them back down, like a siren song, to him, to something inside of him, something inside, not Out.
Esther knows nothing about Art, never has. There’s a picture hanging above her bed, a calendar cutout of a cherub (the month of May) in a cheap plastic frame. On the desk in her bedroom, which she never uses, sitting as she does in an office for most of the day (when not stealing an hour to go back to the Museum), she keeps a cube the size of a child’s fist. Each of its six sides is a famous painting—the Mona Lisa, the Water Lilies, the Starry Night and then three more she no longer remembers. That’s what Art is for Esther. She does not haunt the halls of the Museum as an expert or a connoisseur or even a casual hobbyist. The Work is the only thing that draws her there and she cannot recall a single second of her life before the Work became a part of it. If she were to be questioned, if her testimony is to be taken seriously, Esther and the Work materialized together, out of the thin air of the Before, each on the opposite side of the glass, not a reflection but an assemblage. So when Esther agrees to take a piece of the Work home, she does not think of herself as an artist, or even as an instrument of some aesthetic gesture. In fact, her mind is completely blank as her arms extend to accept the Boy’s body from the Curator, she simply desires.
(6) But before we’ve rushed headstrong into the new day, into the future the Masters’ fingers point towards; before we’ve opened the apertures and crossed the threshold of the Ship’s titanium doors; before we’ve zipped up our suites, before their needles and tubules have pumped us full of energy and purified and sanitized us; before we’ve heard the last of their orders and before we’ve even begun to imagine what the Battle would be like; before we’ve really seen the Outside, before we’ve heard the Savages battle cries’ respond to ours, before we’ve managed to take one last look back and remembered the bliss of being uninterrupted, before we’ve realized how painfully we want to return; before we’ve closed our eyes to imagine the Trophies we would come back with to lay at the feet of our friends and loved ones, before we’ve started composing the stories we would whisper in the Dark—stories of cosmic beasts and killer labyrinths and monstrous scientists and viscid tentacled aliens—and smile in embarrassed modesty at our own courage and resolve, something stops us in our tracks.
Esther carries the Boy in her arms. He is so thin and light as to be almost immaterial. Esther herself feels invisible, insubstantial, like a character in a mime’s sketch—on the streets, on the subway, in the elevator and on the stairwell—a stylized action of no consequence. No one pays attention to a woman holding up a naked male body all by herself. The whole trip feels eerily make-believe, so much so that when she finally collapses into her armchair, she is surprised to actually find herself there. The Boy’s face is covered, his body naked and white. Esther wants his features to remain hidden to everyone but herself. That’s why she’s wrapped his head up, without thinking, with the large men’s handkerchief a former colleague gave her in one of several attempts to earn her friendship. It was a strange gift, is all Esther remembers, but here it is now, proving useful. The Boy’s face is hers and hers alone. The Curator is wrong: Death is grand; Death is a vast open space; it cannot be contained in a body so thin, so frail, so translucent. What IS inside his body, she asks herself as she lays him down on the bed and starts to change into her house clothes. For a moment she pauses, naked, between the twin eternities of her work and house selves, but there’s no mirror in the room to certify her nakedness. I will find out in a second, she says to herself, best to try the eyes first. But when her fingers lift his eyelids, gently and lovingly, the eyes beneath are black, matte black, and entirely opaque—she can’t see through them, she can’t see herself reflected. They are not a window, nor a mirror.
7. And it is something we cannot find words for.