He remembered touching the water with his toe.
The lake was scaldingly cold.
Shivers ran from his toe up, all the way to his head.
The water plashed silently.
His reflection floated
between the surface and the bottom,
smearing pebbles with the sky's veneer.
Even now some of that water seared him
as he descended
towards the pool of the doorframe
filled with grey morning air.
As soon as his face touched
that shifty wall of the next day,
his soul responded with a blaze,
weakening each time, but still bringing him pain.
He glided along the russet bricks of the buildings,
for papers, calculations and tables.
In the evening,
having finished his work,
too monotonous to be remembered,
he put on his hat, his grey coat and went home.
Passing by a small cafй,
he always stopped and had a glass of sherry.
This was his only pleasure,
something he anticipated all day long –
sitting in the warmth, near the window,
sipping and feeling the dense sweetness tumble down his throat,
all the way towards that in him,
which was still alive and woke up
at the first collision with the miniature sweet avalanche,
a tiny happiness dissolving as it reached deeper.
He usually did not pay attention
to people around him. The cafй was empty, anyway,
an hour or so before closing.
He noticed her
only because she wore a scarlet scarf,
so bright it stood out among the murky shapes
of the window frame, and the tables, and chairs,
and the shelf bristling with bottles.
Her scarf seemed the first brushstroke
on a lifeless, just prepared canvas,
a bold smear of paint, the beginning of a painting,
the first attack of a reckless, but masterly hand.
He sat on his chair, sipping sherry and watching her scarf.
Soon he began to think that the painting was already there,
behind the canvas, that the canvas was a husk now peeling off
and the scarf showed where the crust was gone.
He waited for the rest of the painting to appear,
but it was just the scarf. Her lips were red, too.
He did not dare to shift his eyes higher or lower.
He dreamed that night about poppies
spurting like blood
wherever the field's hide
was punctured by stems of wheat.
When he saw the red scarf again
in the same place, he was amazed that he had forgotten about it,
but now this one and the other, revived in his memory,
coalesced and glowed with greater force.
Still, he did not have enough courage to…
To do what? He did not know himself. He went home.
Next day, he remembered and waited for the evening.
Sure, she sat in her place. She did not look at him.
There was nothing on her table. She seemed cold and reticent,
yet the scarf continued to beacon through the waves of hissing air,
where twilight had already began to spread, not broken,
but only varnished by the electric glow.
He got up to buy another sherry
and, on his way back, sat closer to her.
Terrible weather, he said and blushed to his ears.
Yes, it is.
As soon as she spoke these words,
he began to see her much better.
She was very pale
and her hands shifted nervously.
Her eyes looked directly at him,
yet she did not continue the conversation.
The weather here is always terrible.
He wanted to sip his sherry, but his hands shook
and he spilled some on his trousers.
Fortunately, she could not have seen this.
There was no reply. He decided to press further.
You are not drinking? Let me buy you som… som…
She glanced at him with such fright
that he stammered and fell silent.
He moved to get up.
She quickly said: No, thank you. I don't drink. But you go ahead.
Emboldened, he moved closer, now almost touching her.
Another sherry appeared on his table, and then another, and another.
He spoke, he tried to joke, he laughed,
becoming more and more forward.
The dusk had peeled off completely
and she stood out in overwhelming clarity.
He could see every thread on her scarf, on her bluish blouse,
he even glanced a few times at her breasts.
They were not large, but neatly shaped.
He was aroused. He drank more.
Something in him, which could not get drunk,
kept observing both her and himself,
registering his uncouthness and her reticence.
The barmaid, a plump widow, made him a sign. The cafй was closing.
What are you doing here? I have seen you before.
She did not answer. She lowered her eyes.
We need to leave. Where will you go?
She shrugged her shoulders.
He took this for encouragement. A wave of suffocating heat flushed his face,
even his teeth rattled. He was freezing and burning.
You can come to my place. I live nearby.
It was so simple that he stared and gaped.
She could not be called beautiful. She had green eyes.
There was a birthmark on her left cheek.
Her hair was straight and scattered over her shoulders,
making her head look like an auburn comet
endlessly flying towards the ceiling.
They went along the empty street to his apartment,
a tiny nook he rented. It was raining. She walked on his left.
He did not have enough courage to take her hand.
At the stairs, he let her go up first
and followed her hips gently swinging
like a hypnotist's pendulum.
She stopped at his door, as if she knew where he lived.
He wrestled with the lock, overcame it
and, exhausted, lumbered into the room.
He sat on his bed, his heart pounding like mad,
he wanted to say something, and then all went blank…
… He woke up in the morning,
because his bladder was bursting. His head ached,
as if someone had pushed his fingers into his head
and was picking his brain, piece by piece.
He looked around. There was no one on the bed.
She sat on the chair, near the window, dressed and quiet,
looking at him.
I am sorr.. His headache spiked so badly
that he groaned. With staggering steps he reached the bathroom
and closed the door. It occurred to him that she might hear.
He opened the tub. As the noisy stream glided out of him
and the pain in his groin eased, he began to feel gnawing embarrassment.
The poor girl had sat all night by the window. Her legs might be wet.
This is just terrible. How stupid… He flushed. The sound was very loud.
She definitely heard it. He felt so ashamed. He stood for a while,
splashing his face with cold water. It helped the headache.
I am very sorry, he said returning to the room. I drank too much. Why didn't you lie down?
She looked at him with tears in her eyes.
Please forgive me. I must go to work. You can stay here, if you wish. The key is on the table.
He wanted to add something, but changed his mind,
pursed his mouth and walked out.
He felt utterly disgusted with himself,
walking in yesterday's clothes, crumpled and sweaty,
along the street, now waking up in the first convulsions of the bleak dawn.
The day was long and monotonous. He couldn't wait for it to end,
exhausted by the anticipation of finding her in his apartment.
It may still be all right. She has the whole day. Now she may eat something, take a bath and sleep her fill. The place is very quiet. And then I will return, and speak with her, and… That was as far as his thoughts went. He was also afraid that she might not be there. He might never see her again. How pathetic. He ground his teeth and tried to lose himself in work. The day stretched out without mercy.
He did not stop for his sherry,
but rushed home. The steps seemed to be made of sticky resin,
so weak his legs were. He choked.
The lock rattled. He had already seen that no light was oozing through the keyhole.
His heart sunk.
In utter despondency, he entered.
There was a grey silhouette by the window,
as if cut from a solid sheet of the later, more nightly dusk.
He switched on the light. She was sitting on her chair, in the same pose.
Her eyes glowed. There was something indefinable in them,
anguish, perhaps, or despair.
My God! You are here! Have you eaten?
He glanced at his bed. It was still indented by his body.
There were two tiny pools around her boots. He saw only one line of footprints,
leading to the chair. She had not risen from it all day.
She was looking at him, saying nothing.
There were drops of yesterday's rain on her forehead.
Her hair was still wet.
Feeling very strange,
he went to the kitchen and took some bread from the breadbin
and some cheese from the cupboard.
Come eat something.
She shook her head. Her eyes were glowing.
He sat on the bed, opposite her, and began to eat.
All the time, she was looking directly at him.
He kept eating.
How to explain this? Who is she?
He was still attracted to her and now, his hunger satiated,
was beginning to feel aroused again.
She seemed even more pleasing,
as if his yesterday's unspent emotions were added to the ones of today
and enhanced her.
Yet all this was odd. She did not wash herself,
she did not go to the bathroom, she did not sleep or eat,
but sat all night and day with wet feet, in the cold.
He decided to ask her again. Would you like a cup of hot tea?
The bathroom is over there.
She turned away. He saw a bit of her neck,
shimmering like a moonlit path in the wood.
When she looked at him again,
he could clearly see struggle in her eyes. She was frightened.
Kiss me, she said.
His mouth was full of bread. He began to chew more quickly,
swallowed the tasteless paste and got up.
The lake began to shift and deepen.
The mountains around it disappeared.
His face was descending into the mass of water
made even heavier by the light it absorbed,
not coming from the sun, but spreading from horizon to horizon
with oppressive evenness.
Half way through, he halted.
Her lips were waiting for him, cold, pale lips,
still wearing tiny patches of yesterday's vermilion.
Something in him revolted, resisted.
Kiss me, she repeated with insistence. Quickly.
He gawked at her and sat back on the bed.
There was so much anguish in her eyes, so much pain.
It terrified him. An uneasy feeling began to spread all over his body,
but he could not think. He felt so exhausted. He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. The water still glinted through his eyelids. He fell asleep.
When he opened his eyes, she still sat on the chair.
Who… He cleared his throat, for his voice cowered in his mouth,
like a starved animal in a trap. Who are you?
She did not reply. Her lips were twitching.
He got up. His clothes, his body were dirty, disgusting.
A madwoman, probably. Congratulations on your first pick-up.
Look, lady, he said with feigned firmness. I don't know who you are or what you want. I need to change and go to work. Please use the bathroom and kitchen if you want. You may sleep here. But, please, leave before I come back.
Not waiting for her reply, he went to the bathroom, got undressed.
His heart pounded when he stood in the shower, when he wiped himself with a towel
and put on fresh underwear and clothes. He also shaved and cut himself, for his hands were shaking. There was no blood. It all must have gone to his heart. His face was indeed cold and stiff. He touched his forehead. It burned.
He returned to the room. She followed him with her eyes.
Something plucked in his chest, like a flower stem
twisted around the finger and pulled out.
He shrugged his shoulders.
In the street, the air cooled him and he began to think again.
She cannot be a drifter. She is too well dressed. A madwoman. Or someone's wife on the run? God knows. She will have to go. She has been sitting on that chair for nearly… Has it been two days?
He did not remember what he did at work. The day whistled past him,
like a stone dropped from the roof of a sky-high building.
As he walked home, the stone continued to fall.
He entered the cafй, but did not sit down.
The plump barmaid was there, at her usual place,
wiping glasses. Excuse me, do you know that girl…
…who sat here the day before yesterday. She and I spoke some.
The creature stared at him from behind her enormous breasts. What girl?
She wore a red scarf. I spoke to her. She sat there, by the window. She came here several times. Do you know her? His voice was becoming more insistent as he spoke, and he finished almost on a shrill.
There wasn't any girl here. Have a drink.
You didn't see her? She sat right there! I spoke with her!
No girl here. Have a drink.
He took a glass of sherry, gulped it down and stepped out to the street. The stone reached the ground, but went on flying to the top of the other building, which towered in the opposite direction. He hovered in the middle, like that reflection in the lake,
detained by the pull of the opposite forces,
of the pebbled sky and of the sand patched with sunken clouds.
The street seemed darker and lonelier than usual.
A few streetlamps leaned down,
like thirsty giraffes licking moonlight off the asphalt.
He could see their tongues gleaming with yellow sap.
He was still unpleasantly sober. His agitation swelled.
He was out of breath before stepping on the stairs. He stopped, put a palm on his chest. His heart was racing.
When he opened the door.
the room was very dark. He glanced towards the window.
There was that silhouette there, clear, as if cut out with a sharp knife.
His hands shook as he was groping for the switch.
Dim light spread over the room. She sat on the chair.
Her hair was still wet. There were pools of water around her boots.
She slowly lifted her eyes towards him.
He stepped back. His head hit the door's edge. The door moaned.
The rain from her hair must have trickled into her eyes,
for they were full of water. Huge eyes, so huge he could see the pupils refracted under their transparent domes.
Don't come ne…
He panted, holding his arm out. She did not move.
He rushed down, jumping over the steps. It seemed to him that he had flown, descended into the street from a giant hill.
Half an hour later he returned with two policemen.
The door was open. All was quiet inside. The light was on.
She sat by the window. Her eyes, which a second ago
wandered all over the room, stopped, as soon as they found him,
and began to stare at him. He shuddered.
Here she is, officers! She has been here three days. She wouldn't leave.
The policemen, two identical men in dark-blue uniform,
glanced at each other. One of them asked: What do you mean?
There is a woman here. On the chair, look!
The officers whispered something to each other.
He felt angry. But look here! Don't you see her? Here she is! Arrest her!
Calm down, calm down. Do you live here alone?
Yes, I do. But what does it have to…
Don't worry. We will take care of it. Tell me about your work.
I am an accountant. His voice faltered and he looked at the officers with embarrassment. One of them said: Well, I'll leave you two have a chat. Be back.
Questions followed, about him, his work, his pastime. All the while he looked askance at the chair. He could only see her eyes and the red scarf under them, as if they were swimming in the pool of blood. The policeman did not see her. This was frightening. He answered the questions, but didn't remember a word.
The other officer returned with a stooped man, who wore a long coat and a hat. There was a briefcase in his hand. What have we here? The man's voice was cracked. Let me introduce myself. I…
I don't care who you are! He felt so angry. Why are you not helping me? All I ask is to remove this woman. Why is it so hard to do?
There is no need to worry… What is your name, my friend?
I am not your friend! I am not interested in your pleasantnesses! Tell that woman to leave! He was pacing the room now. His head lashed like a bird, which some cruel boy had drenched with kerosene and set on fire. Everything in the room seemed burning now, except for a black patch by the window, inside which the trees kept rustling in rain and wind.
He felt there was no energy inside him to sustain this anger. It spiked, but soon slumped in the tenuous air. He stopped.
The man put his bag on the bed, took out a syringe and was attaching a needle to it.
Fear tore through his chest.
Excuse me, excuse me! Please don't. I am all right now.
Are you? The man's voice became very strict.
Oh, yes-yes. I was just tired. I must have drunk more than usual. You know how these things are.
He tried to laugh. His lips curved downwards.
I am overworked. End of the year.
The man and the policemen exchanged glances. Maybe, it would be better for you to come with me, to have a rest.
No, doctor, please! I am completely, completely all right. I don’t know what came over me. It is all stress at work. I was also drinking. All I need is a good sleep.
The doctor was thinking. The policemen waited. Finally, he said: All right. I will allow this. However, you should take better care of yourself. That woman is still here?
What woman? This time he did let out a miserable giggle. What woman? Ah, no, no! There is no woman. It is all stress.
Well, if she comes again, call me at once. He put a card on the table. Promise?
Yes, of course. But I will be all right. It's all gone now. I need to sleep.
They left. Oh god, what is happening to me?
He stood in the doorway, panting.
He was afraid to turn his head. When he did, he felt such unbearable anguish
as a wild beast must feel when the net is tightening around him,
the unfangable, unclawable net…
He kept repeating these words that came to his head,
as if seeking refuge in their strangeness. The ghost rose from the chair
and made a step towards him.
He made a weird sound, something between a howl and a whine.
His legs froze. He didn't even tremble any more. Only his teeth rattled
and he was very-very cold. He could not feel his body.
The woman moved slowly towards him. Or, rather, her eyes moved,
and the rest of her body trudged behind them, a grey mass of limbs and clothes,
getting dimmer with each step as the eyes grew in brightness.
Then the voice came, not as she spoke before,
but a different voice, weak and crumbling.
Kiss me. There is still time.
Her lips were now very close to his.
He saw how her lips tried to break
through the transparent screen,
which seemed to separate her and him,
how they stretched, how they struggled.
Her eyes were so close how
they merged into a blue lake of his memory.
He dipped his toe in the water. It was scaldingly cold.
Father must think him a coward. There he stands, in his bathing suit,
his arms on his hips, and waits. The sun has already rolled out,
like an egg yolk, from the cup of the surrounding mountains
right into the cerulean throat of the sky,
to moisten this throat, ready to burst
with the crystal roulades of the awakened birds.
All he needed was to take a deep breath and jump.
He felt his father's hand on his back, gently pushing him forward.
Kiss me, his father said.
He opened his eyes. There she was, right in front of him.
With the last power left in him, he pulled back, and back, and back.
His was on the landing now, his right hand scrabbling behind him.
As soon as it touched the handrail, his body came alive.
He whizzed down the stairs and stopped, trembling, in the dark.
My god, my god… What have I got myself into?
He didn't know what to do or where to go.
Mechanically, he went to work, although he knew
the office would be closed.
A man was pushing a baby carriage in the empty street.
The carriage wheels creaked monotonously,
their spokes gleamed in the light of the lonely giraffe,
whose limp tongue still dripped with moonlight.
Excuse me, have you got a cigarette?
The man turned. It was one of the policemen
who had come to his apartment.
He shook his head and continued to push the carriage.
The creaking resumed. The giraffe lowered its neck
and now almost touched the asphalt.
Feeling strange, uneasy,
he walked on. He hoped that, against all odds,
the bar would be open. He desperately needed to have another sherry.
But there was no bar. Its walls had become very low,
like the ruins of an ancient house. The counter was still inside.
A little lamp hung above it, on a wire descending from the leaden sky.
The barmaid stood behind the counter and wiped it with a red cloth.
Her bulky breasts moved rhythmically, following the swings of her arm.
Everything colourless, only the bright cloth
moved rapidly to and fro,
like a crayfish tossed by the bubbles of boiling water.
The barmaid lifted her eyes and smiled.
Do you want anything? Her voice was very low, like the voice of that doctor.
He quickly walked on. The office must be here. It is all stress. It is all stress.
He began to run. The guard must be inside. I will say I have extra work to do. He will understand. Unfangable… Unclawable…
He reached the office. It was unlit. He knocked on the door.
It creaked, exactly like the spokes of that baby carriage, and opened.
The guard was not there. Quietly, he went upstairs, to his room.
He switched on the desk lamp and sat at his table. They must have been cleaning, for all his papers were gone. Even his waste bin was empty. It sat in the corner, like a hat, which some demon had taken off, leaving for the night shift.
The table and all the drawers were empty. He opened them one by one. There was nothing inside. The last drawers made a louder sound, which lasted even after the drawers had stopped moving. He realised that the sound came not from the drawers, but from the steps on the stairs. Someone was coming up. The guard, perhaps.
The steps were soft, rustling. They did not grow louder,
yet he could feel them coming closer and closer.
Now they reached the top and moved towards his door.
Now they were behind the door. The door opened
and that woman came in. She must have followed him.
He straightened his back. Instead of hitting the wall, his head sagged. There was no wall behind. The woman stood in the doorway. Her eyes were like two holes punctured in the black canvas, through which he saw the bright blue sky.
The blue spilled over, the eyes merged and spread across the murky room.
That was the lake. The freezing water of his childhood years.
In the blue light, he could now see the woman's face.
It was frightening, distorted. Her lips glared in it, like an infected wound.
Her lips shifted, parted and that voice, that gnawing voice, came out again.
Kiss me. There is no time. Kiss me now.
The scarf on her neck was so unbearably red, like a waterfall, on top of which a large animal had been torn apart. In total desperation, he turned around. Instead of the wall, he found a window behind him, a very wide one, wider than the wall had been. The lake sighed and glowed. The woman stepped towards him. Her eyes were still plashing, but their light became bleaker. Her lips moved, but he could hear no voice any more.
Hey! Hold on! Come here, here!
The two policemen, the doctor and the barmaid
stood around the lake, within the window, in the glaring sunlight.
The doctor was calling him.
Hey! Jump in! It is all stress! I will help! Jump in now!
The barmaid laughed. The policemen waved their hands.
Quickly, quickly! Everything around him began to disappear. The walls were gone, the table and chair, as soon as he got up, vanished. In the distance, a few streetlamps kept twinkling.
The woman was still in front of him, the blue of her eyes insistent, refusing to be absorbed by the brighter blue that gushed from the window.
Kiss her, whispered a voice inside him.
Hey, come! Jump! That was the doctor. All four were waving their hands.
He made a step towards the window. The woman lifted her hand. He shut his eyes and jumped.
Almost immediately something in him knew that he had made a mistake.
He expected to fall into the cold blue water,
but his body met a hard surface. He groaned
and writhed like an animal hit by a car.
This was not water, but a thick cloth,
not blue any more, but faded, with many rustling folds.
He tried to get up, but his body was very stiff. He could not feel it.
His heart hardened like a bone.
He could still see, though. The policemen, the doctor and the barmaid
picked up the corners of the lake and pulled them over him.
He could see four faces,
frozen like masks, with painted smiles.
He tried to get up, but the lake, dirty white,
clung to his body and swaddled it.
Kiss me, said the barmaid. She leaned towards him. She had the doctor's face. Her moustache pressed against his lips. The kiss was metallic, bitter. He folded his lips, trying to avoid it, but to no avail. Harder and harder pressed her lips. He could feel her teeth, her slimy tongue shifting, like a wet snake. Then he was no more.
The woman opened her eyes, still dazed and half-conscious.
The priestess, an older woman, was moistening her temples with a cloth.
A strong smell of vinegar made her body tremble.
She rose from the couch and sat on it.
Her eyes asked the question. She could not speak yet.
No, the older woman said. I am sorry.
With the same cloth, she wiped the young woman's neck,
which glowed with blood
still trickling from a tiny cut.
The ruby pool,
collected in her jugular notch,
had broken, and the blood streamed down,
towards the wrinkle between her breasts.
Let me rest a bit and we'll do it again.
It is not possible, daughter.
I will pay more.
It can't be done. His heart stopped.
She pointed to the other couch, upon which a dead man lay,
stiff, with an indifferent face, his nose sharp, his cheeks slightly blue with stubble.
The younger woman put both palms on her face and began to cry.
The other waited, not trying to console her.
Why did you wake me up? I almost…
I had to. The cock had crowed. Shamash is showing his face.
Indeed, the room was getting bluer. Scarlet rays hung in air,
like threads tightened on a weaving loom.
I was so close… Why… didn't he kiss me?
You cannot force life on death, daughter. Did you remember my orders?
The younger woman nodded. Tears kept dropping from her eyelashes.
Did you eat or drink there?
Did you touch him?
The priestess paused and asked again:
Did you speak to him?
The woman lowered her eyes and whispered:
You are safe, then. There is no bridge. Go home, daughter. You are still young. Find a new husband.
She rose from the couch, folded her palms and bowed.
She also made a movement towards the corpse, but the priestess raised her hand.
She halted and turned around. Her long dress flared up in the column of light now lying across the room. For a brief moment, the antelopes and lions embroidered on the creased linen came to life in a burst of hectic, orange-smeared movement, but the light was too strong and washed them away.
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