The Journey of Hisato Khalid

Born in London to a Japanese mother
and Egyptian father.

 

square abstractStill honouring their own cultures, his loving parents brought Hisato up to embrace western society and adopt English as his first language. As a happy young child he would often peacefully drift to sleep listening to his mother’s story telling, which without fail ended, ‘and they all lived happy ever after.
The abiding memory that came with those childhood stories was to remain with Hisato for the rest of his life. He was a bright child, studied well and achieved excellent results at a prestigious university, where he studied philosophy and ancient history. To the joy of his aging parents, Hisato married a pretty young woman whose parents were wealthy entrepreneurs. She had an eye for material gains and made the most of her position in life to accumulate substantial wealth. Hisato was more spiritually inclined, believing that we can never truly own anything; we merely borrow it while we live. His views made no difference to what he perceived as his wife’s obsessive behaviour with financial gain. A big house, social standing and an interesting and clever husband led to ever more success and no room for children. For Hisato this was not the dream life he’d desired from childhood. After his parents died, he knew it was time to move on.
He imagined they would live forever. After all, didn’t the fairy stories promise this? He took little with him but a few necessities and a change of clothing. With a reasonable bank balance of his own and passport in hand, he set out for the lands of his ancestors. There he hoped to find the answers to immortality that abounded in eastern mythology. First stop, Cairo, then on to Luxor, where his Egyptian parentage, smattering of Arabic and extensive knowledge of ancient history made him a most welcome guest among the local people. He bonded well with boatman Mustafa Mohamed and spent several weeks staying at the family home. They were good days, good company, fine weather, simple healthy food and a chance to meet genuine minded seers of ancient mythology. But even the guides working the valley of Kings only had superficial knowledge and it soon became apparent that what Hisato was discovering, as interesting as it might be, was not taking him towards the edge of immortality. Mustapha and his family begged Hisato to stay. Why not? He could settle there, marry a fine and devoted wife and enjoy a long and happy life in Egypt. But such a life was not long enough to fulfil Hisato’s dream. Many a tear was shed at the airport for his parting, as the aircraft took off for an interconnecting flight to Japan. Perhaps the spiritual city of Kyoto would bring him the answers he sought.
Once more, Hisato soon made friends by his humble ways, his knowledge of the ancients and the Japanese language which his mother had taught him. Hisato seemed frustrated at every turn; Kyoto had become superficially spiritual in order to attract tourist dollars. Hisato already knew as much as any of the priests, monks and scholars of their day and the only gain, was meeting with relatives of his mother. They felt blessed by his arrival; they could not have been more attentive and kind to him. Old Uncle Morihiro, as Hisato knew him, made him welcome in his own home and soon secretly dreamed of marrying Hisato off to a beautiful Japanese woman and there, in the village, they would all live happily ever after, all family and friends together.
One night, as Hisato sat with Uncle Morihiro, he told him of his dreams to realise immortality, just as the ancient Gods had done. Uncle was deeply saddened by the conversation. Being a deep thinking philosopher himself, he had found no reason to believe in the possibilities of immortality.
‘Hisato, my dear boy,’ he said with great affection, ‘only the Gods are immortal and they, only so, while they live in the mind’s of our children and in their children. It is the destiny of man to die. Don’t waste a good life by trying to avoid that which is inevitable, for indeed it is.’
But Hisato was not sure death was inevitable, there must be a way, if only he could find it. He was irritated that the very root of his beliefs, in the lands of his ancestors, failed to provide the answers he sought. He was by now short of money, having spent it on gurus, monks and mystics, but had enough for one more flight. Hisato had already trawled the finest libraries and private collections for manuscripts that might help his quest. He had once read a quite plausible report of an Hermitage of Immortality near an obscure Tibetan/Mongolian border. Here would lay the answer, of this he was sure. Yes, this would be the place.
Once more a happy family was to be saddened by his parting. With much begging and wringing of hands they watched him leave. Part of them died, for he’d taken a piece of their life away with him.
The journey to the Hermitage was long, much longer and harder than he ever imagined it could be. With his money soon gone, he fell on charity, begging lifts from drovers and other travelling folk. Much of it, though, he walked. As the weeks wore on, his clothes were rags, his feet blistered through worn shoes and his joints ached with the sorrowful hunger for rest. In truth, this was a lonely, painful road and its only saving grace was his belief that, at the end, the secret of immortality awaited.
Eventually, Hisato came within grasp of his destination, a villager pointed towards the distant greenery of a small valley amidst an otherwise barren and stony landscape. It took Hisato a whole day to arrive. By then the Sun had dropped behind a mountain peak and he felt the cold bite his bones. In front of him was a humble stone hovel showing thin wisps of smoke from a dwindling fire. The hermit welcomed him in. It was hard to tell who looked the more ancient, as both had suffered much, in search of their respective desires. Hisato was surprised to see how frail the Hermit appeared and was obviously not a candidate for immortality. Weakened by the dust of his road and demoralised by this final disappointment, Hisato collapsed exhausted on the cold earthen floor. With the last remnant of his own life the Hermit eased Hisato’s body on to the cot and sheltered him with sack cloth. Now all alone and in the dark, Hisato was just conscious when the death came for him and tapped on the doorway of his soul.
Hisato’s search was over.

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Mildred and her messy closet : Back to Basics Descartes’ Method

messy roomMildred had her head stuck in the closet and was tossing items of clothing out into the room in a reckless fashion. Renée was struck in the face by a maroon and white striped cardigan as she came in.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“Rethinking my wardrobe,” Mildred replied with a muffled voice, and then pulled her head out of the closet. “I have nothing to wear,” she continued. “I hate my clothes. Nothing matches, nothing fits, nothing is ever appropriate.”

Renée peered into the closet. “Where’d you get all this stuff, anyway?”

“I dunno. A lot of it I get on sale. But some of it has been there forever. I’ve just always had it,” Mildred concluded vaguely.

“So what are you going to do?”

“Give it all to the thrift shop and start again.” Mildred ripped several dresses off their hangars.

Renée stopped her friend. “Now don’t do that,” she said. “Some of it may be useful. What you need to do is get back to basics.”

“Basics?” Mildred emerged partially from the closet.

“Sure. The classics. Things that never go out of style. I bet you already have some right in here.” Renée started to rummage through the closet.

“How do you know?” Mildred sounded doubtful.

“The point is, how will you know. You just will. You will recognize a classic article of clothing right away. Clear as clear.”

“Well, I will if I can ever find it in this mess. I’ll have to pull it all out just to begin.” And Mildred began to throw more things out into the room, adding to the general confusion.

“STOP!” Renée shouted.

This was so unlike her friend’s normal behavior that Mildred did just that.

“You need a plan. A method.” Renée spoke again in her normal, quiet voice. “Let me make a suggestion.”

“Well, I wish you would.” Mildred pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes.

“First, don’t settle for anything but the basics. Don’t be tempted by a fabulous velvet-trimmed jacket that might be great if you only had the right slacks to go with it and the right occasion to wear it. Ask yourself if it is unquestionably a classic. If it isn’t. . .”

“I know!” Mildred cried. “Throw it out.”

“NO!” Renée said. “Of course not. It may come in useful, or I might want it. Just put it over here, on the bed.”

“And you say I will know, for sure?”

“No question about it.”

“Well, I better get started right away, then,” Mildred moved toward the closet again, quite excited about the new plan.

“STOP!”

“What now?”

“That was only part of the plan,” Renée explained. “The second part of the plan is to sort everything out in an organized way so you can see what you actually have and discover your classic items. Right now this place is such a mess, you’ll never find anything, and you’ll be discouraged before you start.”

“Is that the whole plan?” Mildred asked humbly.

“No. Later on, maybe tomorrow, after you come up with your basic items–and there won’t be very many, believe me, just a few key pieces–then you can begin to put together a decent wardrobe again, perhaps using some of the stuff you put on the bed, and maybe purchasing some new things. Only this time you’ll start from your basics and go from there. That’s the reasonable way. No more buying things on impulse.” She gave Mildred a severe look.

“Oh, it will be such a relief,” Mildred sighed. “I’ve been so muddled about what to wear.”

“Follow this plan,” Renée said grandly, “and you’ll never be confused again. But you have to follow it exactly. No getting lazy, no deviations, no sentimental favorites. Be ruthless. ”

When Renée returned several hours later, Mildred had made great progress. She had organized her clothing and accessories by season, style and type, and was now contemplating a corduroy jumper. She looked up at Renée excitedly.

“I did just what you said. So far, though, I haven’t discovered anything classic.” And she nodded over at the bed where she had placed rejected candidates in various piles. Renée gave her an approving smile.

“I can’t wait until I do,” Mildred continued. “I mean, this will really be a breakthrough!”

The minutes passed, until, finally, Mildred held up a navy wool blazer. The two women, who had been chatting animatedly, fell silent. Mildred looked over at Renée, a strange gleam in her eyes.

“This is it. I’ve found it. There’s just no question about it! This is a classic piece of clothing.” Mildred was triumphant.

Renée congratulated Mildred. She was very positive about Mildred’s accomplishment. “This will be your key to a whole new world of fashion. The modern woman, well-dressed for any occasion. It will mean a whole new you.”

Mildred looked happily at her blazer, but then voiced a new concern. “A whole new me. I hope you’re right. I just hope that when I come up with these three or four “classics,” it’ll all hang together in a total look, an ensemble. I don’t want to represent Ms. mix and match. You know what I mean–the kind of person who never gets beyond separates.”

But Renée never heard her. She had already left the room.

10 short Zen stories

These short stories will assist you in your journey to peace and contentment, if you pay them close attention and let them talk to the depths of your being.

May you learn and enjoy.

1. A Useless Life

A farmer got so old that he couldn’t work the fields anymore. So he would spend the day just sitting on the porch. His son, still working the farm, would look up from time to time and see his father sitting there.

“He’s of no use any more,” the son thought to himself, “he doesn’t do anything!” One day the son got so frustrated by this, that he built a wood coffin, dragged it over to the porch, and told his father to get in.

Without saying anything, the father climbed inside. After closing the lid, the son dragged the coffin to the edge of the farm where there was a high cliff.

As he approached the drop, he heard a light tapping on the lid from inside the coffin. He opened it up. Still lying there peacefully, the father looked up at his son. “I know you are going to throw me over the cliff, but before you do, may I suggest something?” “What is it?” replied the son. “Throw me over the cliff, if you like,” said the father, “but save this good wood coffin. Your children might need to use it.”

2. Working Very Hard

A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

3. The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

4. A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

5. The Gates of Paradise

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin. “I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.” Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!” At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

6. The Other Side

One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier.

Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”?

The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and yells back, “My son, you are on the other side”.

7. Time to Die

Ikkyu, the Zen master, was very clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked: “Why do people have to die?”

“This is natural,” explained the older man. “Everything has to die and has just so long to live.”

Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: “It was time for your cup to die.”

8. Moving Mind

Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind.

“It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” contended the second.

A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said, “It is MIND that moves.”

9. It Will Pass

A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”

“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!’

“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

10. Cliffhanger

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice.

As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine.

Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

 

 

Success is a word, not a way of life

AbstractartAs a cold grey dawn broke outside the warm doorway of Cayman Executive Finances, Big John, a burly homeless man, gathered his cardboard and meagre belongings. He knew a good thing when he found it and didn’t want staff turning up and making a complaint. The night had passed with one interesting incident, a false alarm call to the fire brigade from the nearby hotel. John had a good relationship with the hotel staff, who would find him suitable leftovers from the evening meals. He’d shared a friendly chat and a cup of tea with the fire-fighters that night. Big John was a likeable, non-drinking man and previously owning a smallholding business, gave him an air of respectability. He couldn’t cope anymore with four walls, it was his freedom that kept him sane. Regardless of weather he took life in his stride and a smile on his face. As he wandered with his few but useful possessions in the direction of the local park, he nodded a friendly hello to the early morning postman and received a cheery wave in reply. They had much in common, out in rain or shine while most were still tucked up under their duvets.

An hour or so after John had left ‘home’ at the prestigious Cayman Executive Finances building, the silence was broken by the arrival of chief executive Clive ’wonder boy’ Rothenchild. Roaring into his reserved parking space in his red Ferrari, he was ready to start work and kickass in the world of banking, a euphemism for shifting poor people’s money into rich people’s offshore bank accounts. Even with the windows closed, his new age ‘rock a bully’, music almost ruptured the eardrums of a passing stray dog. Clive made his way to the grand entrance, where he had to wait briefly for the caretaker to open up. ‘Good day sir, lovely morning now,’ he welcomed with a smile. Clive stared in fury at the cretin someone had obviously mistaken as suitably employable and ignored him. Clive took the lift, one floor up, and hoped his dim witted secretary would be in early just as he’d texted, late last evening.
Clive entered his office, turned up the heating and took off his coat, briefly stopping to admire himself in one of several office mirrors. He sat at his desk, turned on his computer and drummed his fingers impatiently while it warmed up. It requested his personal password to continue.
He tapped them in slowly with one clumsy finger, S H E E P, a £ sign and a smiley face. His soulless and greedy eyes led his equally soulless and greedy mind to look out of the window and survey the land of peasants, all ready for fleecing. He snarled a few words at his secretary as she hurried in, looking flustered. ‘Get your act together deary, I’ve got important friends visiting today. No mistakes, right? Smarten yourself up too, you look a mess, like you’ve been up all night.’
She forced a smile, looking after two small children and a sick husband was taking its toll on her and she’d had to pay through the nose to find a last minute childminder so she could arrive early for work. She desperately needed to keep this job. ‘Yes sir, of course sir. It’s the mayor and head of chamber of commerce isn’t it? I have everything organised for them, just as you asked.’
As she bustled off to prepare for his guests, he sneered under his breath, ‘Dopey woman, no idea why I keep her.’
**********************

                  Let us consider the successes of both men.

One of them can find his way anywhere in peace and calm regardless of the weather, he is given food freely by those who care for him. He has no need of modern technology to get him though the day. He uses his mind creatively and is always willing to help others – he knows the meaning of gratitude and of empathy. He is rich in spirit and at peace with the world despite his various hardships. He lives in tune with the seasons. He is content with his cardboard box in the warm doorway of Cayman Buildings.

The other one, has no friends except on social media, where pretence takes the place of honesty. He cannot find his way home without sat nav and is afraid to go out at night. No one makes him a dinner unless he pays for it. He must have holidays abroad in warm countries but no place he considers dirty. He has burglar alarms and cameras at his house. When not bragging on facebook he watches TV. His success, if that is what you call it, comes from robbing old ladies of their pensions. (Perfectly legal, the small print explains the risks.) He is despised by all who meet him. He has no soul. But his Ferrari tells the world he is successful.

What is your choice?
You’ll hear your inner voice, but will you listen? 

The Secret of True Happiness

imagesOnce upon a time there was a King who was very generous towards his citizens but somehow remained unhappy and sad. Various ministers of his cabinet kept on thinking of different ways of rescuing him from the depression, but none succeeded. One day one wise person advised, ” Bring the apparel of the happiest person of this kingdom and make the King wear it. This shall ward off the King’s obscurity and sadness.”

People ran in different directions to search for the happiest man. Everyone tried hard to find such a person even in anticipation of winning a handsome reward.

After days of hunting, one of the ministers came across a saint who was totally engrossed in meditation & public benevolence. He seemed unaware of the futile happenings around him. He looked very happy, content and fully devoted towards his objective. The saint always wore an infectious smile on his face which attracted the minister’s attention. The minister implored him to go along with him as the King was in dire need of meeting him. The saint reluctantly agreed to meet the King.

Once in the court, the King welcomed and embraced him. After exchanging a few pleasantries he offered him baskets full of gems and jewelery. The Saint got intrigued and inquired, ” Son! I am a Saint. Hence all these valuables hold no significance for me. Kindly tell me the purpose of our meeting.”

The King hesitantly explained his condition and begged for his dress. The saint mysteriously grinned and announced, ” I am just a disciple of ideals I have set for my life. I only possess bare necessities for my survival and I lead a life, like that of flowing stream. One day here, the other day there, ever roaming. Therefore, I’m sorry, I don’t have any shirts to spare.” The King got enlightened and understood that contentment and gaiety do not lie in materialistic possessions.

The primary reason for a person’s dejection and sufferings is his own desires and fantasies. The moment we free ourselves from their shackles we experience satisfaction, salvation and happiness all around.

The Library of Babel | Jorge Luis Borges

By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters . . .
The Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, sect. II, mem. IV

abstractThe universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal librarian. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite . . . Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite. I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.) Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.

There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-two books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color. There are also letters on the spine of each book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say. I know that this incoherence at one time seemed mysterious. Before summarizing the solution (whose discovery, in spite of its tragic projections, is perhaps the capital fact in history) I wish to recall a few axioms.

First: The Library exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, cannot be placed in doubt by any reasonable mind. Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god. To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters inside: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical.

Second: The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number.[1]This finding made it possible, three hundred years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Library and solve satisfactorily the problem which no conjecture had deciphered: the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books. One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the next-to-last page says Oh time thy pyramids. This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences. (I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm . . . They admit that the inventors of this writing imitated the twenty-five natural symbols, but maintain that this application is accidental and that the books signify nothing in themselves. This dictum, we shall see, is not entirely fallacious.)

For a long time it was believed that these impenetrable books corresponded to past or remote languages. It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians, used a language quite different from the one we now speak; it is true that a few miles to the right the tongue is dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible. All this, I repeat, is true, but four hundred and ten pages of inalterable MCV’s cannot correspond to any language, no matter how dialectical or rudimentary it may be. Some insinuated that each letter could influence the following one and that the value of MCV in the third line of page 71 was not the one the same series may have in another position on another page, but this vague thesis did not prevail. Others thought of cryptographs; generally, this conjecture has been accepted, though not in the sense in which it was formulated by its originators.

Five hundred years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon[2] came upon a book as confusing as the others, but which had nearly two pages of homogeneous lines. He showed his find to a wandering decoder who told him the lines were written in Portuguese; others said they were Yiddish. Within a century, the language was established: a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections. The content was also deciphered: some notions of combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition. These examples made it possible for a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books, the treatise that Bede could have written (and did not) about the mythology of the Saxons, the lost works of Tacitus.

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proferred dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad . . . The Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to persons of the future, to persons who are perhaps not imaginary) but the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.

At that time it was also hoped that a clarification of humanity’s basic mysteries—the origin of the Library and of time—might be found. It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries could be explained in words: if the language of philosophers is not sufficient, the multiform Library will have produced the unprecedented language required, with its vocabularies and grammars. For four centuries now men have exhausted the hexagons . . . There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.

As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable. A blasphemous sect suggested that the searches should cease and that all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable gift of chance, these canonical books. The authorities were obliged to issue severe orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.

Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves: their hygienic, ascetic furor caused the senseless perdition of millions of books. Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the “treasures” destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is infinitesimal. The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma. Counter to general opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers’ depredations have been exaggerated by the horror these fanatics produced. They were urged on by the delirium of trying to reach the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical.

We also know of another superstition of that time: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf in some hexagon (men reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god. In the language of this zone vestiges of this remote functionary’s cult still persist. Many wandered in search of Him. For a century they have exhausted in vain the most varied areas. How could one locate the venerated and secret hexagon which housed Him? Someone proposed a regressive method: To locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A’s position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity . . . In adventures such as these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe;[3] I pray to the unknown gods that a man—just one, even though it were thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified. The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak (I know) of the “feverish Library whose chance volumes are constantly in danger of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity.” These words, which not only denounce the disorder but exemplify it as well, notoriously prove their authors’ abominable taste and desperate ignorance. In truth, the Library includes all verbal structures, all variations permitted by the twenty-five orthographical symbols, but not a single example of absolute nonsense. It is useless to observe that the best volume of the many hexagons under my administration is entitled The Combed Thunderclap and another The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö. These phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner; such a justification is verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures in the Library. I cannot combine some characters

dhcmrlchtdj

which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god. To speak is to fall into tautology. This wordy and useless epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons—and its refutation as well. (An nnumber of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?)

The methodical task of writing distracts me from the present state of men. The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms. I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter. Epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned suicides, more and more frequent with the years. Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the unique species—is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.

I have just written the word “infinite.” I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can, inconceivably, come to an end—which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.[4]

Translation by James E. Irby (slightly modified)


[1] The original manuscript does not contain digits or capital letters. The punctuation has been limited to the comma and the period. These two signs, the space and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are the twenty-five sufficient symbols enumerated by this unknown author. (Editor’s note.)

[2] Before, there was a man for every three hexagons. Suicide and pulmonary diseases have destroyed that proportion. A memory of unspeakable melancholy: at times I have traveled for many nights through corridors and along polished stairways without finding a single librarian.

[3] I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book can be a ladder, although no doubt there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a ladder.

[4] Letizia Álvarez de Toledo has observed that this vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a single volume would be sufficient, a volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number if infinitely thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century, Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the superimposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silky vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.

I Bought a Little City | Donald Barthelme

LittletownSo I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas) and told everybody that nobody had to move, we were going to do it just gradually, very relaxed, no big changes overnight. They were pleased and suspicious. I walked down to the harbor where there were cotton warehouses and fish markets and all sorts of installations having to do with the spread of petroleum throughout the Free World, and I thought, A few apple trees here might be nice. Then I walked out this broad boulevard which has all these tall thick palm trees maybe 40 feet high in the center and oleanders on both sides, it runs for blocks and blocks and ends up opening up to the broad Gulf of Mexico — stately homes on both sides and a big Catholic church that looks more like a mosque and the Bishop’s Palace and a handsome red brick affair where the Shriners meet. I thought, What a nice little city, it suits me fine.

It suited me fine so I started to change it. But softly, softly. I asked some folks to move out of a whole city block on I Street, and then I tore down their houses. I put the people into the Galvez Hotel, which is the nicest hotel in town, right on the seawall, and I made sure that every room had a beautiful view. Those people had wanted to stay at the Galvez Hotel all their lives and never had a chance before because they didn’t have the money. They were delighted. I tore down their houses and made that empty block a park. We planted it all to hell and put some nice green iron benches in it and a little fountain — all standard stuff, we didn’t try to be imaginative.

I was pleased. All the people who lived in the four blocks surrounding the empty block had something they hadn’t had before, a park. They could sit in it, and like that. I went and watched them sitting in it. There was already a black man there playing bongo drums. I hate bongo drums. I started to tell him to stop playing those goddamn bongo drums but then I said to myself, No, that’s not right. You got to let him play his goddamn bongo drums if he feels like it, it’s part of the misery of democracy, to which I subscribe. Then I started thinking about new housing for the people I had displaced, they couldn’t stay in that fancy hotel forever.

But I didn’t have any ideas about new housing, except that it shouldn’t be too imaginative. So I got to talking to one of these people, one of the ones we had moved out, guy by the name of Bill Caulfield who worked in a wholesale tobacco place down on Mechanic Street.

“So what kind of a place would you like to live in?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “not too big.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Maybe with a veranda around three sides,” he said, “so we could sit on it and look out. A screened porch, maybe.”

“Whatcha going to look out at?”

“Maybe some trees and, you know, the lawn.”

“So you want some ground around the house.”

“That would be nice, yeah.”

“’Bout how much ground are you thinking of?”

“Well, not too much.”

“You see, the problem is, there’s only x amount of ground and everybody’s going to want to have it to look at and at the same time they don’t want to be staring at the neighbors. Private looking, that’s the thing.”

“’Well, yes,” he said, “I’d like it to be kind of private.”

“Well,” I said, “get a pencil and let’s see what we can work out.”

We started with what there was going to be to look at, which was damned difficult. Because when you look you don’t want to be able to look at just one thing, you want to be able to shift your gaze. You need to be able to look at at least three things, maybe four. Bill Caulfield solved the problem. He showed me a box. I opened it up and inside was a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of the Mona Lisa on it.

“Lookee here,” he said. “If each piece of ground was like a piece of this-here puzzle, and the tree line on each piece of property followed the outline of a piece of the puzzle — well, there you have it, Q.E.D. and that’s all she wrote.”

“Fine,” I said. “Where are the folk going to park their cars?”

“In the vast underground parking facility,” he said.

“O.K., but how does each householder gain access to his household?”

“The tree lines are double and shade beautifully paved walkways possibly bordered with begonias,” he said.

“A lurkway for potential muggists and rapers,” I pointed out.

“There won’t be any such,” Caulfield said, “because you’ve bought our whole city and won’t allow that class of person to hang out here no more.”

That was right. I had bought the whole city and could probably do that. I had forgotten.

“Well,” I said finally, “let’s give ’er a try. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it seems a little imaginative.”

We did and it didn’t work out badly. There was only one complaint. A man named A.G. Bartie came to see me.

“Listen,” he said, his eyes either gleaming or burning, I couldn’t tell which, it was a cloudy day, “I feel like I’m living in this gigantic jiveass jigsaw puzzle.”

He was right. Seen from the air, he was living in the middle of a titanic reproduction of the Mona Lisa, too, but I thought it best not to mention that. We allowed him to square off his property into a standard 60 x 100 foot lot and later some other people did that too — some people just like rectangles, I guess. I must say it improved the concept. You run across an occasional rectangle in Shady Oaks (we didn’t want to call the development anything too imaginative) and it surprises you. That’s nice.

I said to myself:

Got a little city

Ain’t it pretty

By now I had exercised my proprietorship so lightly and if I do say so myself tactfully that I wondered if I was enjoying myself enough (and I had paid a heavy penny too — near to half my fortune). So I went out on the streets then and shot six thousand dogs. This gave me great satisfaction and you have no idea how wonderfully it improved the city for the better. This left us with a dog population of 165,000, as opposed to a human population of something like 89,000. Then I went down to the Galveston News, the morning paper, and wrote an editorial denouncing myself as the vilest creature the good God had ever placed upon the earth, and were we, the citizens of this fine community, who were after all free Americans of whatever race or creed, going to sit still while one man, one man, if indeed so vile a critter could be so called, etc. etc.? I gave it to the city desk and told them I wanted it on the front page in fourteen-point type, boxed. I did this just in case they might have hesitated to do it themselves, and because I’d seen that Orson Welles picture where the guy writes a nasty notice about his own wife’s terrible singing, which I always thought was pretty decent of him, from some points of view.

A man whose dog I’d shot came to see me.

“You shot Butch,” he said.

“Butch? Which one was Butch?”

“One brown ear and one white ear,” he said. “Very friendly.”

“Mister,” I said, “I’ve just shot six thousand dogs, and you expect me to remember Butch?”

“Butch was all Nancy and me had,” he said, “we never had no children.”

“Well, I’m sorry about that,” I said, “but I own this city.”

“I know that,” he said.

“I am the sole owner and I make all the rules.”

“They told me,” he said.

“I’m sorry about Butch but he got in the way of the big campaign. You ought to have had him on a leash.”

“I don’t deny it,” he said.

“You ought to have had him inside the house.”

“He was just a poor animal that had to go out sometimes.”

“And mess up the streets something awful?”

“Well,” he said, “it’s a problem. I just wanted to tell you how I feel.”

“You didn’t tell me,” I said. “How do you feel?”

“I feel like bustin’ your head,” he said, and showed me a short length of pipe he had brought along for the purpose.

“But of course if you do that you’re going to get your ass in a lot of trouble,” I said.

“I realize that.”

“It would make you feel better, but then I own the jail and the judge and the po-lice and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. All mine. I could hit you with a writ of mandamus.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“I’ve been known to do worse.”

“You’re a black-hearted man,” he said. “I guess that’s it. You’ll roast in Hell in the eternal flames and there will be no mercy or cooling drafts from any quarter.”

He went away happy with this explanation. I was happy to be a black-hearted man in his mind if that would satisfy the issue between us because that was a bad-looking piece of pipe he had there and I was still six thousand dogs ahead of the game, in a sense. So I owned this little city which was very, very pretty and I couldn’t think of any more new innovations just then or none that wouldn’t get me punctuated like the late Huey P. Long, former governor of Louisiana. The thing is, I had fallen in love with Sam Hong’s wife. I had wandered into this store on Tremont Street where they sold Oriental novelties, paper lanterns and cheap china and bamboo birdcages and wicker footstools and all that kind of thing. She was smaller than I was and I thought I had never seen that much goodness in a woman’s face before. It was hard to credit. It was the best face I’d ever seen.

“I can’t do that,” she said, “because I am married to Sam.”

“Sam?”

She pointed over to the cash register where there was a Chinese man, young and intelligent-looking and pouring that intelligent look at me with considered unfriendliness.

“Well, that’s dismal news,” I said. “Tell me, do you love me?”

“A little bit,” she said, “but Sam is wise and kind and we have one and one-third lovely children.”

She didn’t look pregnant but I congratulated her anyhow, and then went out on the street and found a cop and sent him down to H Street to get me a bucket of Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, extra crispy. I did that just out of meanness. He was humiliated but he had no choice. I thought:

I own a little city

Awful pretty

Can’t help people

Can hurt them though

Shoot their dogs

Mess ’em up

Be imaginative

Plant trees

Best to leave ’em alone?

Who decides?

Sam’s wife is Sam’s wife and coveting

Is not nice.

So I ate the Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken extra crispy, and sold Galveston, Texas, back to the interests. I took a bath on that deal, there’s no denying it but I learned something — don’t play God. A lot of other people already knew that, but I have never doubted for a minute that a lot of other people are smarter than me, and figure things out quicker, and have grace and statistical norms on their side. Probably I went wrong by being too imaginative, although really I was guarding against that. I did very little, I was fairly restrained. God does a lot worse things, every day, in one little family, any family, than I did in that whole little city. But He’s got a better imagination than I do. For instance, I still covet Sam Hong’s wife. That’s torment. Still covet Sam Hong’s wife, and probably always will. It’s like having a tooth pulled. For a year. The same tooth. That’s a sample of His imagination. It’s powerful.

So what happened? What happened was that I took the other half of my fortune and went to Galena Park, Texas, and lived inconspicuously there, and when they asked me to run for the school board I said No, I don’t have any children.

Memnon the Philosopher | Voltaire

Desire AbstractMemnon one day took it into his head to become a great philosopher. “To be perfectly happy,” said he to himself, “I have nothing to do but to divest myself entirely of passions; and nothing is more easy, as everybody knows. In the first place, I will never be in love; for, when I see a beautiful woman, I will say to myself, these cheeks will one day grow sallow and wrinkled, these eyes be encircled with vermilion, that bosom become lean and emaciated, that head bald and palsied. Now I have only to consider her at present in imagination as she will afterwards appear in reality, and certainly a fair face will never turn my head.

“In the second place, I shall always be temperate. It will be in vain to tempt me with good cheer, with delicious wines, or the charms of society, I will have only to figure to myself the consequences of excess — an aching head, a loathing stomach, the loss of reason, of health, and of time: I will then only eat to supply the waste of nature; my health will be always equal, my ideas pure and luminous. All this is so easy that there is no merit in accomplishing it.”

“But,” says Memnon, “I must think a little of how I am to regulate my fortune: why, my desires are moderate, my wealth is securely placed with the Receiver General of the finances of Nineveh. I have wherewithal to live independent; and that is the greatest of blessings. I shall never be under the cruel necessity of dancing attendance at court. I will never envy any one, and nobody will envy me. Still all this is easy. I have friends, and I will preserve them, for we shall never have any difference. I will never take amiss anything they may say or do; and they will behave in the same way to me. There is no difficulty in all this.”

Having thus laid this little plan of philosophy in his closet, Memnon put his head out of the window. He saw two women walking under the plane-trees near his house. The one was old, and appeared quite at her ease. The other was young, handsome, and seemingly much agitated. She sighed, she wept, and seemed on that account still more beautiful. Our philosopher was touched, not, to be sure, with the lady, (he was too much determined not to feel any uneasiness of that kind) but with the distress which he saw her in. He came downstairs, and accosted the young Ninevite, designing to console her with philosophy. That lovely person related to him, with an air of the greatest simplicity, and in the most affecting manner, the injuries she sustained from an imaginary uncle — with what art he had deprived her of some imaginary property, and of the violence which she pretended to dread from him.

“You appear to me,” said she, “a man of such wisdom, that if you will come to my house and examine into my affairs, I am persuaded you will be able to relieve me from the cruel embarrassment I am at present involved in.”

Memnon did not hesitate to follow her, to examine her affairs philosophically, and to give her sound counsel.

The afflicted lady led him into a perfumed chamber, and politely made him sit down with her on a large sofa, where they both placed themselves opposite to each other, in the attitude of conversation; the one eager in telling her story, the other listening with devout attention. The lady spoke with downcast eyes, whence there sometimes fell a tear, and which, as she now and then ventured to raise them, always met those of the sage Memnon. Their discourse was full of tenderness, which redoubled as often as their eyes met. Memnon took her affairs exceedingly to heart, and felt himself every instant more and more inclined to oblige a person so virtuous and so unhappy. By degrees, in the warmth of conversation they drew nearer. Memnon counseled her with great wisdom, and gave her most tender advice.

At this interesting moment, as may easily be imagined, who should come in but the uncle. He was armed from head to foot, and the first thing he said was, that he would immediately sacrifice, as was just, both Memnon and his niece. The latter, who made her escape, knew that he was disposed to pardon, provided a good round sum were offered to him. Memnon was obliged to purchase his safety with all he had about him. In those days people were happy in getting so easily quit. America was not then discovered, and distressed ladies were not then so dangerous as they are now.

Memnon, covered with shame and confusion, got home to his own house. He there found a card inviting him to dinner with some of his intimate friends.

“If I remain at home alone,” said he, “I shall have my mind so occupied with this vexatious adventure, that I shall not be able to eat a bit, and I shall bring upon myself some disease. It will therefore be prudent in me to go to my intimate friends and partake with them of a frugal repast. I shall forget, in the sweets of their society, the folly I have this morning been guilty of.”

Accordingly he attends the meeting; he is discovered to be uneasy at something, and he is urged to drink and banish care.

“A little wine, drank in moderation, comforts the heart of God and man:” so reasoned Memnon the philosopher, and he became intoxicated. After the repast, play is proposed.

“A little play, with one’s intimate friends, is a harmless pastime.” He plays and loses all in his purse, and four times as much on his word. A dispute arises on some circumstance in the game, and the disputants grow warm. One of his intimate friends throws a dice-box at his head, and strikes out one of his eyes. The philosopher Memnon is carried home drunk and penniless, with the loss of an eye.

He sleeps out his debauch, and, when his head becomes clear, he sends his servant to the Receiver General of the finances of Nineveh, to draw a little money to pay his debt of honor to his intimate friends. The servant returns and informs him, that the Receiver General had that morning been declared a fraudulent bankrupt, and that by this means an hundred families are reduced to poverty and despair. Memnon, almost beside himself, puts a plaster on his eye and a petition in his pocket, and goes to court to solicit justice from the king against the bankrupt. In the saloon he meets a number of ladies, all in the highest spirits, and sailing along with hoops four-and-twenty feet in circumference. One of them, slightly acquainted with him, eyed him askance, and cried aloud: “Ah! what a horrid monster!”

Another, who was better acquainted with him, thus accosts him: “Good-morrow, Mr. Memnon, I hope you are well, Mr. Memnon. La! Mr. Memnon, how did you lose your eye?” and turning upon her heel, she tripped unconcernedly away.

Memnon hid himself in a corner, and waited for the moment when he could throw himself at the feet of the monarch. That moment at last arrived. Three times he kissed the earth, and presented his petition. His gracious majesty received him very favorably, and referred the paper to one of his satraps. The satrap takes Memnon aside, and says to him with a haughty air and satirical grin:
“Hark ye, you fellow with the one eye, you must be a comical dog indeed, to address yourself to the king rather than to me: and still more so, to dare to demand justice against an honest bankrupt, whom I honor with my protection, and who is also a nephew to the waiting-maid of my mistress. Proceed no further in this business, my good friend, if you wish to preserve the eye you have left.”

Memnon having thus, in his closet, resolved to renounce women, the excess of the table, play, and quarreling, but especially having determined never to go to court, had been in the short space of four-and-twenty hours duped and robbed by a gentle dame, had got drunk, had gamed, had been engaged in a quarrel, had got his eye knocked out, and had been at court, where he was sneered at and insulted.

Petrified with astonishment, and his heart broken with grief, Memnon returns homeward in despair. As he was about to enter his house, he is repulsed by a number of officers who are carrying off his furniture for the benefit of his creditors. He falls down almost lifeless under a plane-tree. There he finds the fair dame of the morning, who was walking with her dear uncle; and both set up a loud laugh on seeing Memnon with his plaster. The night approached, and Memnon made his bed on some straw near the walls of his house. Here the ague seized him, and he fell asleep in one of the fits, when a celestial spirit appeared to him in a dream.

It was all resplendent with light: it had six beautiful wings, but neither feet, nor head, and could be likened to nothing.

“What art thou?” said Memnon.

“Thy good genius,” replied the spirit.

“Restore me then my eye, my health, my fortune, my reason,” said Memnon; and he related how he had lost them all in one day. “These are adventures which never happen to us in the world we inhabit,” said the spirit.

“And what world do you inhabit?” said the man of affliction.

“My native country,” replied the other, “is five hundred millions of leagues distant from the sun, in a little star near Sirius, which you see from hence.”

“Charming country!” said Memnon. “And are there indeed with you no jades to dupe a poor devil, no intimate friends that win his money and knock out an eye for him, no fraudulent bankrupts, no satraps, that make a jest of you while they refuse you justice?”

“No,” said the inhabitant of the star, “we have nothing of the kind. We are never duped by women, because we have none among us; we never commit excesses at table, because we neither eat nor drink; we have no bankrupts, because with us there is neither silver nor gold; our eyes cannot be knocked out, because we have not bodies in the form of yours; and satraps never do us injustice, because in our world we are all equal.”

“Pray my lord,” said Memnen, “without women and without eating how do you spend your time?”

“In watching, over the other worlds that are entrusted to us; and I am now come to give you consolation.”

“Alas!” said Memnon, “why did you not come yesterday to hinder me from committing so many indiscretions?”

“I was with your elder brother Hassan,” said the celestial being. “He is still more to be pitied than you are. His most gracious majesty, the sultan of the Indies, in whose court he has the honor to serve, has caused both his eyes to be put out for some small indiscretion; and he is now in a dungeon, his hands and feet loaded with chains.”

“‘Tis a happy thing, truly,” said Memnon, “to have a good genius in one’s family, when out of two brothers, one is blind of an eye, the other blind of both; one stretched upon straw, the other in a dungeon.”

“Your fate will soon change,” said the spirit of the star. “It is true you will never recover your eye; but, except that, you may be sufficiently happy if you never again take it into your head to be a perfect philosopher.”

“Is it then impossible?” said Memnon.

“As impossible as to be perfectly wise, perfectly strong, perfectly powerful, perfectly happy. We ourselves are very far from it. There is a world indeed where all this takes place; but, in the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees. There is less philosophy and less enjoyment in the second than in the first, less in the third than in the second, and so forth till the last in the scale, where all are completely fools.”

“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds, of which your lordship does me the honor to speak.”

“Not quite,” said the spirit, “but very nearly; everything must be in its proper place.”

“But are those poets and philosophers wrong, then, who tell us that everything is for the best?”

“No, they are right, when we consider things in relation to the gradation of the whole universe.”

“Oh! I shall never believe it till I recover my eye again,” said the unfortunate Memnon.

 

 

Link to the Original Text

The Wall | Jean-Paul Sartre

(1939)

They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes. Then I saw a table and four men behind the table, civilians, looking over the papers. They had bunched another group of prisoners in the back and we had to cross the whole room to join them. There were several I knew and some others who must have been foreigners. The two in front of me were blond with round skulls: they looked alike. I supposed they were French. The smaller one kept hitching up his pants: nerves.

It lasted about three hours: I was dizzy and my head was empty; but the room was well heated and I found that pleasant enough: for the past 24 hours we hadn’t stopped shivering. The guards brought the prisoners up to the table, one after the other. The four men asked each one his name and occupation. Most of the time they didn’t go any further‐‐or they would simply ask a question here and there: “Did you have anything to do with the sabotage of munitions?” Or “Where were you the morning of the 9th and what were you doing?” They didn’t listen to the answers or at least didn’t seem to. They were quiet for a moment and then looking straight in front of them began to write. They asked Tom if it were true he was in the International Brigade: Tom couldn’t tell them otherwise because of the papers they found in his coat. They didn’t ask Juan anything but they wrote for a long time after he told them his name.

“My brother Jose is the anarchist,” Juan said “You know he isn’t here any more. I don’t belong to any party. I never had anything to do with politics.”

They didn’t answer. Juan went on, “I haven’t done anything. I don’t want to pay for somebody else.” His lips trembled. A guard shut him up and took him away. It was my turn.
“Your name is Pablo Ibbieta?”
“Yes.”

The man looked at the papers and asked me “Where’s Ramon Gris?” “I don’t know.”
“You hid him in your house from the 6th to the 19th.”
“No.”

They wrote for a minute and then the guards took me out. In the corridor Tom and Juan were waiting between two guards. We started walking. Tom asked one of the guards, “So?”

“So what?” the guard said.
“Was that the cross‐examination or the sentence?” “Sentence” the guard said.
“What are they going to do with us?”
The guard answered dryly, “Sentence will be read in your cell.”

As a matter of fact, our cell was one of the hospital cellars. It was terrifically cold there because of the drafts. We shivered all night and it wasn’t much better during the day. I had spent the previous five days in a cell in a monastery, a sort of hole in the wall that must have dated from the middle ages: since there were a lot of prisoners and not much room, they locked us up anywhere. I didn’t miss my cell; I hadn’t suffered too much from the cold but I was alone; after a long time it gets irritating. In the cellar I had company. Juan hardly ever spoke: he was afraid and he was too young to have anything to say. But Tom was a good talker and he knew Spanish well.

There was a bench in the cellar and four mats. When they took us back we sat and waited in silence. After a long moment, Tom said, “We’re screwed.”

“l think so too,” I said, “but I don’t think they’ll do anything to the kid.”.
“They don’t have a thing against him,” said Tom. “He’s the brother of a militiaman and that’s all.”

I looked at Juan: he didn’t seem to hear. Tom went on, “You know what they do in Saragossa? They lay the men down on the road and run over them with trucks. A Moroccan deserter told us that. They said it was to save ammunition.”

“It doesn’t save gas.” I said.
I was annoyed at Tom: he shouldn’t have said that.

“Then there’s officers walking along the road,” he went on, “supervising it all. They stick their hands in their pockets and smoke cigarettes. You think they finish off the guys? Hell no. They let them scream. Sometimes for an hour. The Moroccan said he damned near puked the first time.”

“I don’t believe they’ll do that here,” I said. “Unless they’re really short on ammunition.”

Day was coming in through four air holes and a round opening they had made in the ceiling on the left, and you could see the sky through it. Through this hole, usually closed by a trap, they unloaded coal into the cellar. Just below the hole there was a big pile of coal dust: it had been used to heat the hospital, but since the beginning of the war the patients were evacuated and the coal stayed there, unused; sometimes it even got rained on because they had forgotten to close the trap.

Tom began to shiver. “Good Jesus Christ, I’m cold,” he said. “Here it goes again.”

He got up and began to do exercises. At each movement his shirt opened on his chest, white and hairy. He lay on his back, raised his legs in the air and bicycled. I saw his great rump trembling. Tom was husky but he had too much fat. I thought how riffle bullets or the sharp points of bayonets would soon be sunk into this mass of tender flesh as in a lump of butter. It wouldn’t have made me feel like that if he’d been thin.

I wasn’t exactly cold, but I couldn’t feel my arms and shoulders any more. Sometimes I had the impression I was missing something and began to look around for my coat and then suddenly remembered they hadn’t given me a coat. It was rather uncomfortable. They took our clothes and gave them to their soldiers leaving us only our shirts‐‐ and those canvas pants that hospital patients wear in the middle of summer. After a while Tom got up and sat next to me, breathing heavily.

“Warmer?”
“Good Christ, no. But I’m out of wind.”

Around eight o’clock in the evening a major came in with two falangistas. He had a sheet of paper in his hand. He asked the guard, “What are the names of those three?”

“Steinbock, Ibbieta and Mirbal,” the guard said.

The major put on his eyeglasses and scanned the list: “Steinbock…Steinbock…Oh yes…You are sentenced to death. You will be shot tomorrow morning.” He went on looking. “The other two as well.”

“That’s not possible,” Juan said. “Not me.” The major looked at him amazed. “What’s your name?” “Juan Mirbal” he said.
“Well your name is there,” said the major. “You’re sentenced.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Juan said.

The major shrugged his shoulders and turned to Tom and me.

“You’re Basque?”

“Nobody is Basque.”

He looked annoyed. “They told me there were three Basques. I’m not going to waste my time running after them. Then naturally you don’t want a priest?”

We didn’t even answer.

He said, “A Belgian doctor is coming shortly. He is authorized to spend the night with you.” He made a military salute and left.

“What did I tell you,” Tom said. “We get it.” “Yes, I said, “it’s a rotten deal for the kid.”

I said that to be decent but I didn’t like the kid. His face was too thin and fear and suffering had disfigured it, twisting all his features. Three days before he was a smart sort of kid, not too bad; but now he looked like an old fairy and I thought how he’d never be young again, even if they were to let him go. It wouldn’t have been too hard to have a little pity for him but pity disgusts me, or rather it horrifies me. He hadn’t said anything more but he had turned grey; his face and hands were both grey. He sat down again and looked at the ground with round eyes. Tom was good hearted, he wanted to take his arm, but the kid tore himself away violently and made a face.

“Let him alone,” I said in a low voice, “you can see he’s going to blubber.”

Tom obeyed regretfully: he would have liked to comfort the kid, it would have passed his time and he wouldn’t have been tempted to think about himself. But it annoyed me: I’d never thought about death because I never had any reason to, but now the reason was here and there was nothing to do but think about it.

Tom began to talk. “So you think you’ve knocked guys off, do you?” he asked me. I didn’t answer. He began explaining to me that he had knocked off six since the beginning of August; he didn’t realize the situation and I could tell he didn’t want to realize it. I hadn’t quite realized it myself, I wondered if it hurt much, I thought of bullets, I imagined their burning hail through my body. All that was beside the real question; but I was calm: we

had all night to understand. After a while Tom stopped talking and I watched him out of the corner of my eye; I saw he too had turned grey and he looked rotten; I told myself “Now it starts.” It was almost dark, a dim glow filtered through the air holes and the pile of coal and made a big stain beneath the spot of sky; I could already see a star through the hole in the ceiling: the night would be pure and icy.

The door opened and two guards came in, followed by a blonde man in a tan uniform. He saluted us. “I am the doctor,” he said. “I have authorization to help you in these trying hours.”

He had an agreeable and distinguished voice. I said, “What do you want here?”

“I am at your disposal. I shall do all I can to make your last moments less difficult.”

“What did you come here for? There are others, the hospital’s full of them.”

“I was sent here,” he answered with a vague look. “Ah! Would you like to smoke?” he added hurriedly, “I have cigarettes and even cigars.”

He offered us English cigarettes and puros, but we refused. I looked him in the eyes and he seemed irritated. I said to him, “You aren’t here on an errand of mercy. Besides, I know you. I saw you with the fascists in the barracks yard the day I was arrested.”

I was going to continue, but something surprising suddenly happened to me; the presence of this doctor no longer interested me. Generally when I’m on somebody I don’t let go. But the desire to talk left me completely; I shrugged and turned my eyes away. A little later I raised my head; he was watching me curiously. The guards were sitting on a mat. Pedro, the tall thin one, was twiddling his thumbs, the other shook his head from time to time to keep from falling asleep.

“Do you want a light?” Pedro suddenly asked the doctor. The other nodded “Yes”: I think he was about as smart as a log, but he surely wasn’t bad. Looking in his cold blue eyes it seemed to me that his only sin was lack of imagination. Pedro went out and came back with an oil lamp which he set on the corner of the bench. It gave a bad light but it was better than nothing: they had left us in the dark the night before. For a long time I watched the circle of light the lamp made on the ceiling. I was fascinated. Then suddenly I woke up, the circle of light disappeared and I felt myself crushed under an enormous weight. It was not the thought of death, or fear; it was nameless. My cheeks burned and my head ached.

I shook myself and looked at my two friends. Tom had hidden his face in his hands. I could only see the fat white nape of his neck. Little Juan was the worst, his mouth was open and his nostrils trembled. The doctor went to him and put his hand on his shoulder to comfort him: but his eyes stayed cold. Then I saw the Belgian’s hand drop stealthily along Juan’s arm, down to the wrist. Juan paid no attention. The Belgian took his wrist between three fingers, distractedly, the same time drawing back a little and turning his back to me. But I leaned backward and saw him take a watch from his pocket and look at it for a moment, never letting go of the wrist. After a minute he let the hand fall inert and went and leaned his back against the wall, then, as if he suddenly remembered something very important which had to be jotted down on the spot, he took a notebook from his pocket and wrote a few lines. “Bastard,” I thought angrily, “let him come and take my pulse. I’ll shove my fist in his rotten face.”

He didn’t come but I felt him watching me. I raised my head and returned his look. Impersonally, he said to me “Doesn’t it seem cold to you here?” He looked cold, he was blue.

I’m not cold,” I told him.

He never took his hard eyes off me. Suddenly I understood and my hands went to my face: I was drenched in sweat. In this cellar, in the midst of winter, in the midst of drafts, I was sweating. I ran my hands through my hair, gummed together with perspiration: at the same time I saw my shirt was damp and sticking to my skin: I had been dripping for an hour and hadn’t felt it. But that swine of a Belgian hadn’t missed a thing; he had seen the drops rolling down my cheeks and thought: this is the manifestation of an almost pathological state of terror; and he had felt normal and proud of being alive because he was cold. I wanted to stand up and smash his face but no sooner had I made the slightest gesture than my rage and shame were wiped out; I fell back on the bench with indifference.

I satisfied myself by rubbing my neck with my handkerchief because now I felt the sweat dropping from my hair onto my neck and it was unpleasant. I soon gave up rubbing, it was useless; my handkerchief was already soaked and I was still sweating. My buttocks were sweating too and my damp trousers were glued to the bench.

Suddenly Juan spoke. “You’re a doctor?”

“Yes,” the Belgian said.

“Does it hurt… very long?”

“Huh? When… ? Oh, no” the Belgian said paternally “Not at all. It’s over quickly.” He acted as though he were calming a cash customer.

“But I… they told me… sometimes they have to fire twice.”
“Sometimes,” the Belgian said, nodding. “It may happen that the first volley reaches no vital organs.”

“Then they have to reload their rifles and aim all over again?” He thought for a moment and then added hoarsely, “That takes time!”

He had a terrible fear of suffering, it was all he thought about: it was his age. I never thought much about it and it wasn’t fear of suffering that made me sweat.

I got up and walked to the pile of coal dust. Tom jumped up and threw me a hateful look: I had annoyed him because my shoes squeaked. I wondered if my face looked as frightened as his: I saw he was sweating too. The sky was superb, no light filtered into the dark corner and I had only to raise my head to see the Big Dipper. But it wasn’t like it had been: the night before I could see a great piece of sky from my monastery cell and each hour of the day brought me a different memory. Morning, when the sky was a hard, light blue, I thought of beaches on the Atlantic: at noon I saw the sun and I remembered a bar in Seville where I drank manzanilla and ate olives and anchovies: afternoons I was in the shade and I thought of the deep shadow which spreads over half a bull‐ring leaving the other half shimmering in sunlight: it was really hard to see the whole world reflected in the sky like that. But now I could watch the sky as much as I pleased, it no longer evoked anything tn me. I liked that better. I came back and sat near Tom. A long moment passed.

Tom began speaking in a low voice. He had to talk, without that he wouldn’t have been able no recognize himself in his own mind. I thought he was talking to me but he wasn’t looking at me. He was undoubtedly afraid to see me as I was, grey and sweating: we were alike and worse than mirrors of each other. He watched the Belgian, the living.

“Do you understand?” he said. “I don’t understand.”

I began to speak in a low voice too. I watched the Belgian. “Why? What’s the matter?”

“Something is going to happen to us than I can’t understand.”

There was a strange smell about Tom. It seemed to me I was more sensitive than usual to odors. I grinned. “You’ll understand in a while.”

“It isn’t clear,” he said obstinately. “I want to be brave but first I have to know. . . .Listen, they’re going to take us into the courtyard. Good. They’re going to stand up in front of us. How many?”

“l don’t know. Five or eight. Not more.”

“All right. There’ll be eight. Someone’ll holler ‘aim!’ and I’ll see eight rifles looking at me. I’ll think how I’d like to get inside the wall, I’ll push against it with my back. . . . with every ounce of strength I have, but the wall will stay, like in a nightmare. I can imagine all that. If you only knew how well I can imagine it.”

“All right, all right!” I said. “I can imagine it too.”

“lt must hurt like hell. You know they aim at the eyes and the mouth to disfigure you,” he added mechanically. “I can feel the wounds already. I’ve had pains in my head and in my neck for the past hour. Not real pains. Worse. This is what I’m going to feel tomorrow morning. And then what?”

I well understood what he meant but I didn’t want to act as if I did. I had pains too, pains in my body like a crowd of tiny scars. I couldn’t get used to it. But I was like him. I attached no importance to it. “After,” I said. “you’ll be pushing up daisies.”

He began to talk to himself: he never stopped watching the Belgian. The Belgian didn’t seem to be listening. I knew what he had come to do; he wasn’t interested in what we thought; he came to watch our bodies, bodies dying in agony while yet alive.

“It’s like a nightmare,” Tom was saying. “You want to think something, you always have the impression that it’s all right, that you’re going to understand and then it slips, it escapes you and fades away. I tell myself there will be nothing afterwards. But I don’t understand what it means. Sometimes I almost can…. and then it fades away and I start thinking about the pains again, bullets, explosions. I’m a materialist, I swear it to you; I’m not going crazy. But something’s the matter. I see my corpse; that’s not hard but I’m the one who sees it, with my eyes. I’ve got to think… think that I won’t see anything anymore and the world will go on for the others. We aren’t made to think that, Pablo. Believe me: I’ve already stayed up a whole night waiting for something. But this isn’t the same: this will creep up behind us, Pablo, and we won’t be able to prepare for it.”

“Shut up,” I said, “Do you want me to call a priest?”

He didn’t answer. I had already noticed he had the tendency to act like a prophet and call me Pablo, speaking in a toneless voice. I didn’t like that: but it seems all the Irish are that way. I had the vague impression he smelled of urine. Fundamentally, I hadn’t much sympathy for Tom and I didn’t see why, under the pretext of dying together, I should have any more. It would have been different with some others. With Ramon Gris, for example. But I felt alone between Tom and Juan. I liked that better, anyhow: with Ramon I might have been more deeply moved. But I was terribly hard just then and I wanted to stay hard.

He kept on chewing his words, with something like distraction. He certainly talked to keep himself from thinking. He smelled of urine like an old prostate case. Naturally, I agreed with him. I could have said everything he said: it isn’t natural to die. And since I was going to die, nothing seemed natural to me, not this pile of coal dust, or the bench, or Pedro’s ugly face. Only it didn’t please me to think the same things as Tom. And I knew that, all through the night, every five minutes, we would keep on thinking things at the same time. I looked at him sideways and for the first time he seemed strange to me: he wore death on his face. My pride was wounded: for the past 24 hours I had lived next to Tom, I had listened to him. I had spoken to him and I knew we had nothing in common. And now we looked as much alike as twin brothers, simply because we were going to die together. Tom took my hand without looking at me.

“Pablo. I wonder… I wonder if it’s really true that everything ends.”

I took my hand away and said, “Look between your feet, you pig.”

There was a big puddle between his feet and drops fell from his pants‐leg.

“What is it,” he asked, frightened.

“You’re pissing in your pants,” I told him.

“lt isn’t true,” he said furiously. “I’m not pissing. I

don’t feel anything.”

The Belgian approached us. He asked with false solicitude. “Do you feel ill?”

Tom did not answer. The Belgian looked at the puddle and said nothing.

“I don’t know what it is,” Tom said ferociously. “But I’m not afraid. I swear I’m not afraid.”

The Belgian did not answer. Tom got up and went to piss in a corner. He came back buttoning his fly, and sat down without a word. The Belgian was taking notes.

All three of us watched him because he was alive. He had the motions of a living human being, the cares of a living human being; he shivered in the cellar the way the living are supposed to shiver; he had an obedient, well‐fed body. The rest of us hardly felt ours‐‐not in the same way anyhow. I wanted to feel my pants between my legs but I didn’t dare; I watched the Belgian, balancing on his legs, master of his muscles, someone who could think about tomorrow. There we were, three bloodless shadows; we watched him and we sucked his life like vampires.

Finally he went over to little Juan. Did he want to feel his neck for some professional motive or was he obeying an impulse of charity? If he was acting by charity it was the only time during the whole night.

He caressed Juan’s head and neck. The kid let himself be handled, his eyes never leaving him, then suddenly he seized the hand and looked at it strangely. He held the Belgian’s hand between his own two hands and there was nothing pleasant about them, two grey pincers gripping this fat and reddish hand. I suspected what was going to happen and Tom must have suspected it too: but the Belgian didn’t see a thing, he smiled paternally. After a moment the kid brought the fat red hand to his mouth and tried to bite it. The Belgian pulled away quickly and stumbled back against the wall. For a second he looked at us with horror, he must have suddenly understood that we were not men like him. I began to laugh and one of the guards jumped up. The other was asleep, his wide open eyes were blank.

I felt relaxed and over‐excited at the same time. I didn’t want to think any more about what would happen at dawn, at death. It made no sense. I only found words or emptiness. But as soon as I tried to think of anything else I saw rifle barrels pointing at me. Perhaps I lived through my execution twenty times; once I even thought it was for good: I must have slept a minute. They were dragging me to the wall and I was struggling; I was asking for mercy. I woke up with a start and looked at the Belgian: I was afraid I might have cried out in my sleep. But he was stroking his moustache, he hadn’t noticed anything. If I had wanted to, I think I could have slept a while; I had been awake for 48 hours. I was at the end of my rope. But I didn’t want to lose two hours of life; they would come to wake me up at dawn. I would follow them, stupefied with sleep and I would have croaked without so much as an “Oof!”; I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to die like an animal, I wanted to understand. Then I was afraid of having nightmares. I got up, walked back and forth, and, to change my ideas, I began to think about my past life. A crowd of memories came back to me pell‐mell. There were good and bad ones‐‐or at least I called them that before. There were faces and incidents. I saw the face of a little novillero who was gored tn Valencia during the Feria, the face of one of my uncles, the face of Ramon Gris. I remembered my whole life: how I was out of work for three months in 1926, how I almost starved to death. I remembered a night I spent on a bench in Granada: I hadn’t eaten for three days. I was angry, I didn’t want to die. That made me smile. How madly I ran after happiness, after women, after liberty. Why? I wanted to free Spain, I admired Pi y Margall, I joined the anarchist movement, I spoke in public meetings: I took everything as seriously as if I were immortal.

At that moment I felt that I had my whole life in front of me and I thought, “It’s a damned lie.” It was worth nothing because it was finished. I wondered how I’d been able to walk, to laugh with the girls: I wouldn’t have moved so much as my little finger if I had only imagined I would die like this. My life was in front of me, shut, closed, like a bag and yet everything inside of it was unfinished. For an instant I tried to judge it. I wanted to tell myself, this is a beautiful life. But I couldn’t pass judgment on it; it was only a sketch; I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing. I missed nothing: there were so many things I could have missed, the taste of manzanilla or the baths I took in summer in a little creek near Cadiz; but death had disenchanted everything.

The Belgian suddenly had a bright idea. “My friends,” he told us, “I will undertake‐‐if the military administration will allow it‐‐to send a message for you, a souvenir to those who love you. . . .”

Tom mumbled, “I don’t have anybody.”

I said nothing. Tom waited an instant then looked at me with curiosity. “You don’t have anything to say to Concha?”

“No.”

I hated this tender complicity: it was my own fault, I had talked about Concha the night before. I should have controlled myself. I was with her for a year. Last night I would have given an arm to see her again for five minutes. That was why I talked about her, it was stronger than I was. Now I had no more desire to see her, I had nothing more to say to her. I would not even have wanted to hold her in my arms: my body filled me with horror because it was grey and sweating‐‐and I wasn’t sure that her body didn’t fill me with horror. Concha would cry when she found out I was dead, she would have no taste for life for months afterward. But I was still the one who was going to die. I thought of her soft, beautiful eyes. When she looked at me something passed from her to me. But I knew it was over: if she looked at me now the look would stay in her eyes, it wouldn’t reach me. I was alone.

Tom was alone too but not in the same way. Sitting cross‐legged, he had begun to stare at the bench with a sort of smile, he looked amazed. He put out his hand and touched the wood cautiously as if he were afraid of breaking

something, then drew back his hand quickly and shuddered. If I had been Tom I wouldn’t have amused myself by touching the bench; this was some more Irish nonsense, but I too found that objects had a funny look: they were more obliterated, less dense than usual. It was enough for me to look at the bench, the lamp, the pile of coal dust, to feel that I was going to die. Naturally I couldn’t think clearly about my death but I saw it everywhere, on things, in the way things fell back and kept their distance, discreetly, as people who speak quietly at the bedside of a dying man. It was his death which Tom had just touched on the bench.

In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm‐‐because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. At times I could still feel it, I felt sinkings, and fallings, as when you’re in a plane taking a nose dive, or I felt my heart beating. But that didn’t reassure me. Everything that came from my body was all cockeyed. Most of the time it was quiet and I felt no more than a sort of weight, a filthy presence against me; I had the impression of being tied to an enormous vermin. Once I felt my pants and I felt they were damp; I didn’t know whether it was sweat or urine, but I went to piss on the coal pile as a precaution.

The Belgian took out his watch, looked at it. He said, “It is three‐thirty.”

Bastard! He must have done it on purpose. Tom jumped; we hadn’t noticed time was running out; night surrounded us like a shapeless, somber mass. I couldn’t even remember that it had begun.

Little Juan began to cry. He wrung his hands, pleaded, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”

He ran across the whole cellar waving his arms in the air then fell sobbing on one of the mats. Tom watched him with mournful eyes, without the slightest desire to console him. Because it wasn’t worth the trouble: the kid made more noise than we did, but he was less touched: he was like a sick man who defends himself against his illness by fever. It’s much more serious when there isn’t any fever.

He wept: I could clearly see he was pitying himself; he wasn’t thinking about death. For one second, one single second, I wanted to weep myself, to weep with pity for myself. But the opposite happened: I glanced at the kid, I saw his thin sobbing shoulders and I felt inhuman: I could pity neither the others nor myself. I said to myself, “I want to die cleanly.”

Tom had gotten up, he placed himself just under the round opening and began to watch for daylight. I was determined to die cleanly and I only thought of that. But ever since the doctor told us the time, I felt time flying, flowing away drop by drop.

It was still dark when I heard Tom’s voice: “Do you hear them?” Men were marching in the courtyard.
“Yes.”
“What the hell are they doing? They can’t shoot in the dark.” After a while we heard no more. I said to Tom, “It’s day.”

Pedro got up, yawning, and came to blow out the lamp. He said to his buddy, “Cold as hell.”

The cellar was all grey. We heard shots in the distance.
“It’s starting,” I told Tom. “They must do it in the court in the rear.”

Tom asked the doctor for a cigarette. I didn’t want one; I didn’t want cigarettes or alcohol. From that moment on they didn’t stop firing.

“Do you realize what’s happening,” Tom said.

He wanted to add something but kept quiet, watching the door. The door opened and a lieutenant came in with four soldiers. Tom dropped his cigarette.

“Steinbock?”

Tom didn’t answer. Pedro pointed him out.

“Juan Mirbal?”

“On the mat.”

“Get up,” the lieutenant said.

Juan did not move. Two soldiers took him under the arms and set him on his feet. But he fell as soon as they released him.

The soldiers hesitated.

“He’s not the first sick one,” said the lieutenant. “You two carry him: they’ll fix it up down there.”

He turned to Tom. “Let’s go.”

Tom went out between two soldiers. Two others followed, carrying the kid by the armpits. He hadn’t fainted; his eyes were wide open and tears ran down his cheeks. When I wanted to go out the lieutenant stopped me.

“You Ibbieta?”
“Yes.”
“You wait here: they’ll come for you later.”

They left. The Belgian and the two jailers left too, I was alone. I did not understand what was happening to me but I would have liked it better if they had gotten it over with right away. I heard shots at almost regular intervals; I shook with each one of them. I wanted to scream and tear out my hair. But I gritted my teeth and pushed my hands in my pockets because I wanted to stay clean.

After an hour they came to get me and led me to the first floor, to a small room that smelt of cigars and where the heat was stifling. There were two officers sitting smoking in the armchairs, papers on their knees.

“You’re Ibbieta?” “Yes.”

“Where is Ramon Gris?”
“l don’t know.”
The one questioning me was short and fat. His eyes were hard behind his glasses. He said to me, “Come here.”

I went to him. He got up and took my arms, staring at me with a look that should have pushed me into the earth. At the same time he pinched my biceps with all his might. It wasn’t to hurt me, it was only a game: he wanted to dominate me. He also thought he had to blow his stinking breath square in my face. We stayed for a moment like that, and I almost felt like laughing. It takes a lot to intimidate a man who is going to die; it didn’t work. He pushed me back violently and sat down again. He said, “It’s his life against yours. You can have yours if you tell us where he is.”

These men dolled up with their riding crops and boots were still going to die. A little later than I, but not too much. They busied themselves looking for names in their crumpled papers, they ran after other men to imprison or suppress them: they had opinions on the future of Spain and on other subjects. Their little activities seemed shocking and burlesqued to me; I couldn’t put myself in their place. I thought they were insane. The little man was still looking at me, whipping his boots with the riding crop. All his gestures were calculated to give him the look of a live and ferocious beast.

“So? You understand?”
I don’t know where Gris is,” I answered. “I thought he was in Madrid.”

The other officer raised his pale hand indolently. This indolence was also calculated. I saw through all their little schemes and I was stupefied to find there were men who amused themselves that way.

“You have a quarter of an hour to think it over,” he said slowly. “Take him to the laundry, bring him back in fifteen minutes. If he still refuses he will he executed on the spot.”

They knew what they were doing: I had passed the night in waiting; then they had made me wait an hour in the cellar while they shot Tom and Juan and now they were locking me up in the laundry; they must have prepared their game the night before. They told themselves that nerves eventually wear out and they hoped to get me that way.

They were badly mistaken. In the laundry I sat on a stool because I felt very weak and I began to think. But not about their proposition. Of course I knew where Gris was; he was hiding with his cousins, four kilometers from the city. I also knew that I would not reveal his hiding place unless they tortured me (but they didn’t seem to be thinking about that). All that was perfectly regulated, definite and in no way interested me. Only I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct. I would rather die than give up Gris. Why? I didn’t like Ramon Gris any more. My friendship for him had died a little while before dawn at the same time as my love for Concha, at the same time as my desire to live. Undoubtedly I thought highly of him: he was tough. But it was not for this reason that I consented to die in his place; his life had no more value than mine; no life had value. They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference. I knew he was more useful than I to the cause of Spain but I thought to hell with Spain and anarchy; nothing was important. Yet I was there, I could save my skin and give up Gris and I refused to do it. I found that somehow comic; it was obstinacy. I thought, “I must be stubborn!” And a droll sort of gaiety spread over me.

They came for me and brought me back to the two officers. A rat ran out from under my feet and that amused me. I turned to one of the falangistas and said, “Did you see the rat?”

He didn’t answer. He was very sober, he took himself seriously. I wanted to laugh but I held myself back because I was afraid that once I got started I wouldn’t be able to stop. The falangista had a moustache. I said to him again, “You ought to shave off your moustache, idiot.” I thought it funny that he would let the hairs of his living being invade his face. He kicked me without great conviction and I kept quiet.

“Well,” said the fat officer, “have you thought about it?”

I looked at them with curiosity, as insects of a very rare species. I told them, “I know where he is. He is hidden in the cemetery. In a vault or in the gravediggers’ shack.”

It was a farce. I wanted to see them stand up, buckle their belts and give orders busily.

They jumped to their feet. “Let’s go. Molés, go get fifteen men from Lieutenant Lopez. You,” the fat man said, “I’ll let you off if you’re telling the truth, but it’ll cost you plenty if you’re making monkeys out of us.”

“They left in a great clatter and I waited peacefully under the guard of falangistas. From time to time I smiled, thinking about the spectacle they would make. I felt stunned and malicious. I imagined them lifting up tombstones, opening the doors of the vaults one by one. I represented this situation to myself as if I had been someone else: this prisoner obstinately playing the hero, these grim falangistas with their moustaches and their men in uniform running among the graves; it was irresistibly funny. After half an hour the little fat man came back alone. I thought he had come to give the orders to execute me. The others must have stayed in the cemetery.

The officer looked at me. He didn’t look at all sheepish. “Take him into the big courtyard with the others,” he said. “After the military operations a regular court will decide what happens to him.”

“Then they’re not… not going to shoot me?…”
“Not now, anyway. What happens afterwards is none of my business.” I still didn’t understand. I asked, “But why…?”

He shrugged his shoulders without answering and the soldiers took me away. In the big courtyard there were about a hundred prisoners, women, children and a few old men. I began walking around the central grass plot, I was stupefied. At noon they let us eat in the mess hall. Two or three people questioned me. I must have known them, but I didn’t answer: I didn’t even know where I was.

Around evening they pushed about ten new prisoners into the court. I recognized Garcia, the baker. He said, “What damned luck you have! I didn’t think I’d see you alive.”

“They sentenced me to death,” I said, “and then they changed their minds. I don’t know why.” “They arrested me at two o’clock,” Garcia said.
“Why?” Garcia had nothing to do with politics.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They arrest everybody who doesn’t think the way they do.” He lowered his voice. “They got Gris.”

I began to tremble. “When?”

“This morning. He messed it up. He left his cousin’s on Tuesday because they had an argument. There were plenty of people to hide him but he didn’t want to owe anything to anybody. He said, ‘ I’d go and hide in Ibbieta’s place, but they got him, so I’ll go hide in the cemetery.'”

“In the cemetery?”

“Yes. What a fool. Of course they went by there this morning, that was sure to happen. They found him in the gravediggers’ shack. He shot at them and they got him.”

“In the cemetery!”
Everything began to spin and I found myself sitting on the ground: I laughed so hard I cried…

A Country Doctor | Franz Kafka

(1919)

 

I was in great difficulty. An urgent journey was facing me. A seriously ill man was waiting for me in a village ten miles distant. A severe snowstorm filled the space between him and me. I had a carriagecountryart—a light one, with large wheels, entirely suitable for our country roads. Wrapped up in furs with the bag of instruments in my hand, I was already standing in the courtyard ready for the journey; but the horse was missing—the horse. My own horse had died the previous night, as a result of overexertion in this icy winter. My servant girl was at that very moment running around the village to see if she could borrow a horse, but it was hopeless—I knew that—and I stood there useless, increasingly covered with snow, becoming all the time more immobile. The girl appeared at the gate, alone. She was swinging the lantern. Of course, who is now going to lend his horse for such a journey? I walked once again across the courtyard. I couldn’t see what to do. Distracted and tormented, I kicked my foot against the cracked door of the pig sty which had not been used for years. The door opened and banged to and fro on its hinges. A warmth and smell as if from horses came out. A dim stall lantern on a rope swayed inside. A man huddled down in the stall below showed his open blue-eyed face. “Shall I hitch up?” he asked, crawling out on all fours. I didn’t know what to say and merely bent down to see what was still in the stall. The servant girl stood beside me. “One doesn’t know the sorts of things one has stored in one’s own house,” she said, and we both laughed. “Hey, Brother, hey Sister,” the groom cried out, and two horses, powerful animals with strong flanks, shoved their way one behind the other, legs close to the bodies, lowering their well-formed heads like camels, and getting through the door space, which they completely filled, only through the powerful movements of their rumps. But right away they stood up straight, long legged, with thick steaming bodies. “Help him,” I said, and the girl obediently hurried to hand the wagon harness to the groom. But as soon as she was beside him, the groom puts his arms around her and pushes his face against hers. She screams out and runs over to me. On the girl’s cheek are red marks from two rows of teeth. “You brute,” I cry out in fury, “do you want the whip?” But I immediately remember that he is a stranger, that I don’t know where he comes from, and that he’s helping me out of his own free will, when everyone else is refusing to. As if he knows what I am thinking, he takes no offence at my threat, but turns around to me once more, still busy with the horses. Then he says, “Climb in,” and, in fact, everything is ready. I notice that I have never before traveled with such a beautiful team of horses, and I climb in happily. “But I’ll take the reins. You don’t know the way,” I say. “Of course,” he says; “I’m not going with you. I’m staying with Rosa.” “No,” screams Rosa and runs into the house, with an accurate premonition of the inevitability of her fate. I hear the door chain rattling as she sets it in place. I hear the lock click. I see how in addition she chases down the corridor and through the rooms putting out all the lights in order to make herself impossible to find. “You’re coming with me,” I say to the groom, “or I’ll give up the journey, no matter how urgent it is. It’s not my intention to give you the girl as the price of the trip.” “Giddy up,” he says and claps his hands. The carriage is torn away, like a piece of wood in a current. I still hear how the door of my house is breaking down and splitting apart under the groom’s onslaught, and then my eyes and ears are filled with a roaring sound which overwhelms all my senses at once. But only for a moment. Then I am already there, as if the farm yard of my invalid opens up immediately in front of my courtyard gate. The horses stand quietly. The snowfall has stopped, moonlight all around. The sick man’s parents rush out of the house, his sister behind them. They almost lift me out of the carriage. I get nothing from their confused talking. In the sick room one can hardly breathe the air. The neglected cooking stove is smoking. I want to push open the window, but first I’ll look at the sick man. Thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt, the young man under the stuffed quilt heaves himself up, hangs around my throat, and whispers in my ear, “Doctor, let me die.” I look around. No one has heard. The parents stand silently, leaning forward, and wait for my judgment. The sister has brought a stool for my handbag. I open the bag and look among my instruments. The young man constantly gropes at me from the bed to remind me of his request. I take some tweezers, test them in the candle light, and put them back. “Yes,” I think blasphemously, “in such cases the gods do help. They send the missing horse, even add a second one because it’s urgent, and even throw in a groom as a bonus.” Now for the first time I think once more of Rosa. What am I doing? How am I saving her? How do I pull her out from under this groom, ten miles away from her, with uncontrollable horses in the front of my carriage? These horses, who have now somehow loosened their straps, are pushing open the window from outside, I don’t know how. Each one is sticking its head through a window and, unmoved by the crying of the family, is observing the invalid. “I’ll go back right away,” I think, as if the horses were ordering me to journey back, but I allow the sister, who thinks I am in a daze because of the heat, to take off my fur coat. A glass of rum is prepared for me. The old man claps me on the shoulder; the sacrifice of his treasure justifies this familiarity. I shake my head. In the narrow circle of the old man’s thinking I was not well; that’s the only reason I refuse to drink. The mother stands by the bed and entices me over. I follow and, as a horse neighs loudly at the ceiling, lay my head on the young man’s chest, which trembles under my wet beard. That confirms what I know: the young man is healthy. His circulation is a little off, saturated with coffee by his caring mother, but he’s healthy and best pushed out of bed with a shove. I’m no improver of the world and let him lie there. I am employed by the district and do my duty to the full, right to the point where it’s almost too much. Badly paid, but I’m generous and ready to help the poor. I still have to look after Rosa, and then the young man may have his way, and I want to die, too. What am I doing here in this endless winter! My horse is dead, and there is no one in the village who’ll lend me his. I have to drag my team out of the pig sty. If they hadn’t happened to be horses, I’d have had to travel with pigs. That’s the way it is. And I nod to the family. They know nothing about it, and if they did know, they wouldn’t believe it. Incidentally, it’s easy to write prescriptions, but difficult to come to an understanding with people. Now, at this point my visit might have come to an end—they have once more called for my help unnecessarily. I’m used to that. With the help of my night bell the entire region torments me, but that this time I had to sacrifice Rosa as well, this beautiful girl, who lives in my house all year long and whom I scarcely notice—this sacrifice is too great, and I must somehow in my own head subtly rationalize it away for the moment, in order not to leave this family who cannot, even with their best will, give me Rosa back again. But as I am closing up by hand bag and calling for my fur coat, the family is standing together, the father sniffing the glass of rum in his hand, the mother, probably disappointed in me—what more do these people really expect?—tearfully biting her lips, and the sister flapping a very bloody hand towel, I am somehow ready, in the circumstances, to concede that the young man is perhaps nonetheless sick. I go to him. He smiles up at me, as if I was bringing him the most nourishing kind of soup—ah, now both horses are whinnying, the noise is probably supposed to come from higher regions in order to illuminate my examination—and now I find out that, yes indeed, the young man is ill. On his right side, in the region of the hip, a wound the size of the palm of one’s hand has opened up. Rose coloured, in many different shadings, dark in the depths, brighter on the edges, delicately grained, with uneven patches of blood, open to the light like a mining pit. That’s what it looks like from a distance. Close up a complication is apparent. Who can look at that without whistling softly? Worms, as thick and long as my little finger, themselves rose coloured and also spattered with blood, are wriggling their white bodies with many limbs from their stronghold in the inner of the wound towards the light. Poor young man, there’s no helping you. I have found out your great wound. You are dying from this flower on your side. The family is happy; they see me doing something. The sister says that to the mother, the mother tells the father, the father tells a few guests who are coming in on tip toe through the moonlight of the open door, balancing themselves with outstretched arms. “Will you save me?” whispers the young man, sobbing, quite blinded by the life inside his wound. That’s how people are in my region. Always demanding the impossible from the doctor. They have lost the old faith. The priest sits at home and tears his religious robes to pieces, one after the other. But the doctor is supposed to achieve everything with his delicate surgeon’s hand. Well, it’s what they like to think. I have not offered myself. If they use me for sacred purposes, I let that happen to me as well. What more do I want, an old country doctor, robbed of my servant girl! And they come, the family and the village elders, and are taking my clothes off. A choir of school children with the teacher at the head stands in front of the house and sings an extremely simple melody with the words
Take his clothes off, then he’ll heal,
and if he doesn’t cure, then kill him.
It’s only a doctor; it’s only a doctor.

Then I am stripped of my clothes and, with my fingers in my beard and my head tilted to one side, I look at the people quietly. I am completely calm and clear about everything and stay that way, too, although it is not helping me at all, for they are now taking me by the head and feet and dragging me into the bed. They lay me against the wall on the side of wound. Then they all go out of the room. The door is shut. The singing stops. Clouds move in front of the moon. The bedclothes lie warmly around me. In the open space of the windows the horses’ heads sway like shadows. “Do you know,” I hear someone saying in my ear, “my confidence in you is very small. You were only shaken out from somewhere. You don’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping, you give me less room on my deathbed. The best thing would be if I scratch your eyes out.” “Right,” I say, “it’s a disgrace. But now I’m a doctor. What am I supposed to do? Believe me, things are not easy for me either.” “Should I be satisfied with this excuse? Alas, I’ll probably have to be. I always have to make do. I came into the world with a beautiful wound; that was all I was furnished with.” “Young friend,” I say, “your mistake is that you have no perspective. I’ve already been in all the sick rooms, far and wide, and I tell you your wound is not so bad. Made in a tight corner with two blows from an axe. Many people offer their side and hardly hear the axe in the forest, to say nothing of the fact that it’s coming closer to them.” “Is that really so, or are you deceiving me in my fever?” “It is truly so. Take the word of honour of a medical doctor.” He took my word and grew still. But now it was time to think about my escape. The horses were still standing loyally in their place. Clothes, fur coat, and bag were quickly gathered up. I didn’t want to delay by getting dressed; if the horses rushed as they had on the journey out, I should, in fact, be springing out of that bed into my own, as it were. One horse obediently pulled back from the window. I threw the bundle into the carriage. The fur coat flew too far and was caught on a hook by only one arm. Good enough. I swung myself up onto the horse. The reins dragging loosely, one horse barely harnessed to the other, the carriage swaying behind, last of all the fur coat in the snow. “Giddy up,” I said, but there was no giddying up about it. We dragged slowly through the snowy desert like old men; for a long time the fresh but inaccurate singing of the children resounded behind us:
“Enjoy yourselves, you patients.
The doctor’s laid in bed with you.”

I’ll never come home at this rate. My flourishing practice is lost. A successor is robbing me, but to no avail, for he cannot replace me. In my house the disgusting groom is wreaking havoc. Rosa is his victim. I will not think it through. Naked, abandoned to the frost of this unhappy age, with an earthly carriage and unearthly horses, I drive around by myself, an old man. My fur coat hangs behind the wagon, but I cannot reach it, and no one from the nimble rabble of patients lifts a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! Once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again—not ever.