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Mikhail Armalinsky

Muscular Death

Two short stories translated from the Russian edition


Published in "Confrontation" Exile and the Writer, a literary journal of Long Island University Nos. 27-28, 1984


THE DEAL

by Mikhail Armalinsky


to Brian Kvasnik


It was a town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless fields of undistinguished grain. My only reason for going there was to conduct a business deal with a man who had the distinction of owning nearly the entire town. His name was Rail, a veritable lord of the manor who counted among his possessions two banks, impressive acres of land, and several large warehouses of nonferrous metals.
Though I had known this man more than a year, we had never met face to face; all our business had taken place over the phone or through the mail. Our last phone conversation had degenerated into an argument over his refusal to accept an order of high quality aluminum cast at my factory. This considerable order had just been loaded for shipping when Rail phoned with the news that it wouldn’t pay him to accept such a large amount of metal at that time. When I insisted that he accept his merchandise, he refused, I lost my temper, and threatened to drive the load to his home and dump the entire shipment on his doorstep.
Rail hung up at that point, and we hadn’t spoken for nearly a month.
Now he had unexpectedly called to say he was prepared to accept and pay for a substantial part of the order. In the same breath, he invited me to come to his estate and inspect a scrapped wreck of a bomber plane he had acquired.
I found the prospect of further dealings with Rail abhorrent, yet I hadn’t the strength to reject business for the sake of catering to personal feelings. Even as I completed the arrangements for our meeting, I consoled myself with the thought that I would sell my factory as soon as it was large enough to provide me with enough money to last the rest of my life. The problem was, I could never seem to decide what exactly I meant by “large enough”, as no matter how big it grew, it always looked small to me, as a son does to his mother.
It was evening when I arrived in town and checked into a hotel located in the standard, artificially cheerful downtown area. I had just signed the register when the clerk handed me Rail’s message to call him. His eagerness irritated me, and I decided to take a long, hot bath before making that phone call.
I was undressing when the phone rang. It was Rail.
“You’ve arrived? How are you? Did you get my message? When you’re ready, I’ll take you out to dinner and show you the town.”
Rail saved me the problem of answering him in a civil tone by not bothering to wait for my replies. We agreed to meet in an hour’s time in the lobby.
I got there on time, but it was obvious from his pacing that Rail had been waiting for me. He was around fifty-five, with a bald spot that made his hair grow in a horseshoe shape around his head — a configuration which had apparently brought him luck. From the moment he realized who I was, a smile never left his face. It also never quite reached his eyes. Still, he managed to radiate an impression boundless joy, slapping my shoulder in a simulation of friendship of which I was thoroughly sick.
Shaking my hand, he noticed my ring with a small, but very pure diamond.
“Oh, what a marvelous ring,” he gasped in delight, holding my hand in his and bringing it up to his eye level to examine the ring more closely. I carefully freed my hand from his grasping fingers.
As we drove down the main street, my introduction to the town was reduced to a litany of the following phrase spoken glowingly by Rail:
“That’s my bank, beautiful building, isn’t it?”
“I build those apartment buildings two years ago, and their value’s gone up five times since then!”
“You can buy the finest clothing sold in New York in that store. My policy is that the word ‘provincial’ has no place in consumer goods.
The Chinese restaurant in which we ate also belonged to him, and the food was excellent. He had brought the chef from Hong Kong and found him a local beauty to marry so that he wouldn’t be homesick. During the dinner I noticed Rail’s gaze on my ring several times, and as we were finishing dessert, he expressed his delight in it once more. I saw that the bargaining was about to begin.
“How much do you want for that ring?” The possessive gleam in his eye revealed the sparkle of my stone.
As I did not want to part with the ring — it held too many associations for me — I named a sum about quintuple its real value.
Rail smiled politely and dropped the subject, but I sensed that he hadn’t given up.
With dinner finally over, Rail next drove me to his mansion. It was cavernous affair in which he had lived alone for many years, his wife having divorced him long ago. With no real family, Rail had still managed to turn his castle into a home of sorts: a home for the stuffed carcasses and soft pelts of a collection of animals which, had they still lived, would have stocked a small zoo. Rail had even decorated one room entirely in animal skins. Dark brown and black furs covered the floor, light tans and beiges were on the walls, and snowy white ones quilted the ceiling.
From somewhere in his furred abundance, Rail produced an enormous red fox. He held it out to me, its bushy tail dangling lifelessly, and declared, “Let’s trade for your ring.”
I took the fox from him, enjoying the feel of the soft fur as my fingers tightened around the inanimate throat. I hefted it for a moment, then handed the fox back: No. Rail acquiesced meekly, and the fox disappeared.
Though I had no interest in a trade with Rail, I was becoming curious to see how high a price he would put on his desire.
We moved to another room, this one dominated by the huge form of a bald eagle, wings outstretched in a frozen moment of flight. The wingspan was easily two yards. Rail was quick to note my undisguised admiration, and he casually added, “All right, I’ll throw in the eagle, too.”
I shook my head no, still gazing at the magnificent bird, and began unconsciously rubbing the ring with my hand.
Rail’s watchful eyes caught this motion, and he remarked benignly, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it by peaceful means.”
“Is that a threat of military action?” I asked in surprise.
“No, no, you misunderstand me,” Rail assured me.
We continued to tour Rail’s house, but he no longer mentioned anything about a trade. His restraint did not fool me. In his own discreet way, Rail was keeping careful note of the effect of his various treasures on me, and I knew plainly that he hadn’t given up.
The next day, Rail took me to the enormous warehouse where he had stored the remains of the plane. Its stark metal framework, so skeletal in appearance, reminded me vaguely of last night’s silent menagerie. I was glad I had only to finish the business at hand and go home.
As I looked over the plane, I noticed a whispered conference between Rail and a workman. Rail looked at my car; the workman nodded and walked away.
Rail waited patiently as I completed my inspection of the wreck. When I had seen enough, we went to Rail’s office and spent the better part of an hour coming to terms on the price. It was only then, when were shaking hands on the completed deal, that I thought I saw the possessive gleam of the night before in Rail’s eye. When I looked again, though, he was only smiling at me. Had I imagined it? Or had the sparkle of me diamond somehow been reflected in his eyes?
It was time to leave. We walked back to the warehouse where I’d parked my car. I was expecting a final assault on my ring, but Rail remained strangely aloof. We stood for awhile by the car, exchanging the last few required pleasantries and a farewell handshake. I reached out to open my car door and abruptly recoiled without opening it. There, nonchalantly perched on my front seat, was a luminous white human skeleton, its skull turned toward the driver, the left hand hanging familiarly on the back of the driver’s seat.
I looked in dismay at my car, then at Rail, then back at the car. Rail was enjoying my predicament. Patting me reassuringly on the back he said, “Nothing to be frightened of — she’s completely harmless.” He smiled and continued, “I thought you might get lonely on your long trip, so I took the liberty of arranging a traveling companion.”
I continued to stare in disbelief. The intrusion of the skeleton had imbued my familiar auto with the appeal of a coffin.
“Man or woman?” I asked, while trying to think of some way to evict this mass of bones from my front seat.
“A woman, of course,” he answered. “Look at her — see how wide the pelvis is?”
I stared at this fleshless apparition, trying to imagine a human female somehow draped around those bones.
“I’m glad it’s a woman,” I said at last. “I like them thin.”
The attempt at humor came hard. What I really wanted to say was, All right, you’ve had your fun, now get this damned thing out of my car! I didn’t want Rail to know how badly he had startled me, though, and I became determined to play his little charade to the end.
I opened the door and got in. I paused a beat before putting the key in the ignition, certain that at any moment Rail would blessedly call to one of his workmen to remove the skeleton form my car. Rail, however, did nothing but bend down to my window and cheerfully wave me goodbye. There was nothing left for me to do but start the car, turn around, and drive off.
I was driving through the warehouse exit when I saw the workman Rail had spoken to earlier, the one who had, I was certain, taken care of the skeleton. He wore jeans, one leg dark blue, the other light blue. He waved to me without smiling, and I watched him for a moment in the rearview mirror before I turned onto the road.
At least the isn’t carrying a scythe, I thought darkly to myself, though that omission did nothing to relieve my uneasiness.
The road was in poor repair, and my otherwise silent partner signaled her presence by jangling constantly in response to every bump and jolt. She listed violently towards me on a particularly nasty pothole, and I instinctively put my hand out to catch her. I struck the cold hard bone of her empty hips. It was then that I noticed the connective tissues of the joints had all been replaced by thin wires, neatly joining one bone to another. The intricacy of the finger joints particularly caught my eye.
Cars that passed me slowed down while everyone inside, waved, and tried through gestures to ask, “Well, what’s it like driving around with a skeleton?” I smiled tolerantly and indicated ‘OK’ with the familiar thumb to forefinger circle. They invariably laughed in response, and sped away.
My companion had no need of food, but I was getting hungry. I pulled up to a roadside restaurant just as an elderly couple was leaving. When they recognized what was seated beside me they reeled. I saw the fear in their eyes as they hurried away, crossing themselves. I locked the car, just in case.
Seated in the restaurant, I heard the brief wail of a police siren outside, which I forgot about as the waitress returned with my order.
I felt almost refreshed as I left the restaurant, only to walk squarely into the flashing glare of police car lights. My car was surrounded by a small milling crowd, through which two darkly uniformed police officers showed like grease spots. I noticed the elderly couple, describing something to the officers in an agitated manner.
The police were interested in my driver’s license and in my companion. I told them it was a gift form Rail. Though they recognized the name, they still wanted confirmation, and I willingly supplied them with Rail’s phone number. Luck was with me; Rail was still in his office and confirmed that the skeleton was his property, on loan to me. The intervention of the police had at least supplied me with one bit of information on my boney ‘friend’ — she was no gift.
The police said goodbye pleasantly enough, though they left me with a stern warning not to frighten any more people. I promised to go straight home and lock her in the bedroom in case, heaven forbid, she should try to escape. The laughter of the crowd was more a sigh of relief, and they scattered quickly, leaving me alone once more with my companion.
“Well, Mary,” I remarked conversationally as we pulled away from the restaurant, “We reminded the temporary living of death, didn’t we?” The sudden jolt of a pothole jogged her lower jaw open, and for an instant I thought she would answer me. The instant passed, and I noticed the tow rows of small, white even teeth. I reflected on this, and mused that my traveling companion had ended her life young, and if young, why not beautiful as well?
I didn’t arrive home until late in the evening. I welcomed the cover of darkness and carried the skeleton, bride-like, into the house through the connecting garage. I brought her to the guest room, where I tried unsuccessfully to stand her on her feet. She collapsed with alarming speed, and I caught her at the last moment before she crashed to the floor. I looked around, and finally decided the only thing to do was lay her out on the bed.
That night I had many dreams; dreaming rarely happens with me. I awoke with a headache.
My throat was dry, and when I got up to go to the kitchen, the room swayed dizzily. I downed a glass of water and headed back for my bedroom, but felt suddenly so weak that I stumbled into the nearest room. It was the guest room. About to fall, I sank onto the bed next to the skeleton and shut my eyes. My heart was pounding as if I had been running. I dimly felt the touch of a cool shinbone of my side.
The telephone rang abominably loud. I reached it with difficulty on the third ring, and it took me a full minute to recognize the voice of my secretary, asking questions about my trip and wanting to know when I’d be back at the office. I told her I had a fever and wouldn’t be in that day.
“Would you like me to come over and take care of you?” she asked in a tone of voice which reminded me we were lovers.
“No,” I answered after a moment’s hesitation, “I’m fine. Just take care of your business.”
“I’ll come by after work then, all right?”
“If you want. But I already have one here.”
“What do you mean?” she asked anxiously.
“You’ll see when you get here,” I said.
“Are you trying to tell me you have a woman there?”
“Well…” I thought a moment. “Let’s say a former one.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she answered irritably.
“I told you, you’ll see when you get here. Excuse me now, I’m very tired,” I said, and hung up. I fell quickly into a deep sleep.
I was awakened by a scream. It was my secretary, Mary, standing over the bed, shocked and confused. I forced a smile as she gestured vaguely towards the skeleton on the bed and asked, “What’s this?” in a trembling voice. “What time is it?” I finally asked.
“One o’clock. Afternoon.” she answered, looking at her watch.
“I thought you were planning to come after work.”
“What is this?” she asked again.
“Not what,” I corrected her, “Who. This is also Mary.”
“Where did you get it,” she demanded.
“A gift.” I was tired of explaining. “Make me some strong tea, please.”
Her mood changed instantly to solicitous concern. She placed her hand on my brow.
“Keep it there,” I said, closing my eyes. Then I asked her again to make some tea. She gave one last backward glance as she left the bedroom.
My head swam sickeningly each time I tried to open my eyes, but I could keep them shut only for a moment, then the spinning sensation forced me to open them.
The live Mary returned with steaming tea on a tray.
The tea was excellent, strong and hot, with a perfect touch of lemon she had thought to add. I felt my strength returning, and as I drank, I reflected that one of the things I liked about Mary was the way she would ask a question, and, not getting an immediate answer, would stop asking and simply wait for me to tell her myself.
When I had finished my tea, I told her of my boney companion. Mary listened indifferently, then asked, “What are you going to do with her now?”
“Love,” I said with a laugh.
“Well, it’s a good choice,” she said slowly. “I may as well tell you now — I’m moving to Florida.”
I decided to keep discipline. “I wish you luck. Is it John?”
John was her beloved, with whom she had lived four yours and then left to come here, get a job with me, and unselfishly become my mistress. I had nothing against this, as my affairs with my employees did not affect our working relationship.
“Yes, it’s John,” she answered.
“Give him my regards.” I turned to face the skeleton. “You’ll have to excuse me now, I must get back to my bed.”
“All right.” She got up to leave.
“How long will you be working?” I asked as she was almost out the door.
“I can stay two weeks, but I’d rather leave sooner.”
“You can leave in a week.”
She thanked me and left. I listened to her footsteps, and the final soft closing of the front door. I stared for quite a while into Mary’s skull. She didn’t stir, and her teeth without lips to cover them seemed bared in a constant smile. She was so close to my eyes that her contours blurred and undulated. I put my hand on her ribcage, and the weight of it made them creak. I withdrew my hand, afraid of breaking her, and smiled to myself at the thought of the damage a simple embrace might do.
I pressed my forehead against her cold, dry collarbone. ‘You won’t go away to any John,’ I thought sleepily. ‘The men who slept with you have no power now…you’ve no memory of them, no flesh…everything you have left belongs to me…’ I drifted into the living oblivion of sleep, where I remained until late in the evening. The room was dark when I awoke, and my hand had found its way onto her empty stomach, where it lay pressed into her clumsy backbone. I tucked my hand under the blanket and went back to sleep.
I was awakened in the morning by the birds singing outside my window. The fever was gone. I shook my head to test, and felt no pain. My body surged with joy at being cured. The skeleton still lay at my side, and to my refreshed mind this seemed a little strange. Overcoming the lingering weakness in my body, I got up and went to the bathroom where I sat in the tub for my shower, still unable to stay on my feet. In spite of my weak condition, I knew I had to go to the office. My responsibilities there rapidly turned into an unbearable weight around my neck if I let them to go, even for a day.
I remembered Mary’s announcement that she was quitting my company — and my life. Both departures saddened me, though sadness had become a familiar feeling to me because of all the separations I had endured in my life. Mary was an exceptional secretary and mistress, and she had brought definite convenience to my self-contained life.
At the office I sorted through the stacks of mail and phone messages, wrote replies, and generally did everything I could to make up for lost time. I felt weak, but in response to polite of obsequious questions about my health, I responded with the same standard “I’m fine.”
I went home in the afternoon, locking my eyes briefly with Mary on my way out. She was much cooler toward me now that she had made her decision to leave, but she didn’t try to avoid me.
The house seemed unusually big when I got home. It was big, of course, but in the past it had always secretly pleased me to think of all space I wasn’t using. Space that was always there, waiting for me. Today that space reminded me only of another space — the empty space defined by the thin bones of a skeleton. That space awaited me as well.
I entered the bedroom. She lay on the bed, with her legs of bone spread wide apart, with her eternally grinning skull. I envisioned her with muscle and flesh and blood around the white framework, building a woman upon it in my mind, and then mentally tearing her down, undressing her to this final, fragile diagram.
“You know, I’m as lonely as your bones are for their meat,” I said, and the sound of my voice echoed hollowly from the walls. I studied the bedspread through her breasts would have been, slowly letting my fingers fall through the empty slots between her ribs. I then took my hand and placed it inside her ribcage, my fingers reaching and closing around the spot where I knew her heart should have been. But there was no heart, and my fist closed only on empty air.
Still, her heartlessness was no disappointment. It was her silence and openness I felt drawn towards. With her I was calm — as I was with everyone I didn’t love. I sat down next to her on the bed and stroked her skull, its fine smooth coldness contrasted nicely with the other more porous bones of her body. A coldness and hardness that had known life and death. ‘You’ll listen to me,’ I thought, ‘you’ll be with me, experienced, knowing…maybe I’ll even come to love you for your natural devotion…’
The sound of the doorbell intruded on the silence. I don’t like uninvited guests, and I couldn’t think of anyone I would be happy to see. I flung the door open irritably. Before me stood a man in jeans and a jacket.
“Good evening, excuse me for the intrusion,” he said in a gentle voice which seemed incongruous coming from this rough face that seemed oddly familiar. “The boss sent me for the skeleton.”
It was then that I noticed his jeans were made with two differently colored legs, and I recognized the workman from Rail’s estate.
I was stunned. I stared at him stupidly for a moment, then asked, “What did you say?”
“The Boss sent me for the skeleton,” he repeated, more slowly this time.
“I thought it was a gift,” I said wanly.
He shrugged his shoulders inside the loose fitting jacket and fixed me with a steady gaze.
At a loss, I invited him into the living room, where he followed me after removing his shoes. I offered him a drink, but he refused. I grabbed a bottle and poured something into a glass, gulping it down quickly.
“Where is it? Let me get it,” he said.
“Wait a minute. I want to buy it. Her. How much does Rail want?”
A strangely familiar look flickered in the workman’s eyes. “The Boss say’s it’s not for sale. But he’ll trade.”
“For what?”
“The ring.”
Relief flooded my body as if a wave had washed me from head to toe. With weak fingers I slipped the ring from my hand and dropped it into the workman’s outstretched palm. His fingers closed around the ring, making a tight fist.
“Wait,” I said, stopping him at the door. I almost smiled at the look of surprise on his face.
“Give me a receipt.”



Publilshed in Mid-American Review, a literary journal of Bowling Green State University, Volume VI, Number 2, 1986

HERO

by Mikhail Armalinsky


They decided to call the baby Hero. Such an unusual name showed the despairing ambition of the parents, who used the birth of a son as a generally accepted pretext for giving up on their own lives and transferring all of their unfulfilled hope to the child. When Hero was old enough to understand the meaning of his name, he began to feel that people constantly expected him to provide some justification of this meaning. And since he provided no justification, the name elicited laughter at first and then derision. At school, for instance, he tried to distinguish himself in gymnastics classes, but neither strength nor agility was in his movements, and after the last in a sequence of failed exercises the instructor’s voice often thundered: “You there, Hero!” In an attempt to elude ridicule, Hero called himself Harold among his peers. But they soon found out somehow or other that he was not Harold but Hero. The older he grew the more hopelessly convinced he became that he could not fulfill the obligations imposed on him by his name; and by the time he entered technical college to become an engineer he was a stoop-shouldered young man with a stomach ulcer. Although he considered himself a writer and wrote poetry instead of taking notes at lectures, here again he was deficient in that heroism which in art is called “talent.” In his love life also something essential was lacking, and since women guessing this, paid him no particular attention, he developed in himself what is known as a lofty attitude, which allowed him to avoid taking any sort of initiative.
One day the customary exchange of amorous experience was taking place in Hero’s peer group, and each boy discussed in detail the sensations felt and exhibited by his partners in love. Following the end of one lurid story, everyone turned to Hero, since it was his turn to talk. With a disdainful expression on his face Hero recited the following:

“Better drink gallons of gin and lavoris
then loll with you tongue on a stinking clitoris.”

Under cover of the general laughter, someone countered this poetic extemporization with remark, “We know that you couldn’t perform either of these heroic feats.” And in fact Hero never drank hard liquor, for fear of irritation his ulcer.
He very much enjoyed walking in solitude through the city, admiring unusual buildings and marvelling at the interesting thoughts that came into his head. However, when he returned and sat down at the table to write them down, Hero would suddenly discover that all his thoughts were forgotten beyond recall, and he began to think that perhaps he had only imagined them.
On finishing technical college, he married for love. His sweetheart agreed to marry him reluctantly. She had never had a proposal, and her mother was nudging her onto the main traveled road of matrimony — it’s high time, she said — and, for that matter, the girl herself was tired of waiting and afraid to let an opportunity slip by. And Hero was obviously in love.
And so they were married. At the wedding the new bride already held the reins of government and handed out orders to Hero; but still, these were uttered in a soft and tender voice and sounded to the guests, who found everything touching, like billing and cooing. The bride had had Hero grow out his beard for the wedding ceremony — she had always liked a strong willed chin, and Hero had no chin at all. At the wife’s behest they danced, something which Hero never permitted himself, due to his lack of any sense of rhythm. He shifted from leg to leg, a weak, good natured smile shone through his thick beard, and his wife looked at his happy eyes and thought cheerfully: “You know, he’s really not so bad.”
After a year a son was born to them, and the wife bestowed on him all her feelings of affection, something which Hero was unable to evoke in her. Thus only contemptuous indifference remained for his portion. Hero also began to feel indifference, discovering with amazement that his love had irretrievably fled. In his student days, while pontificating on love, he had asserted that one must sever relations immediately upon the vanishing of love, and hurl oneself right away into the search for a new one. However, now, looking at his chile, toward whom he also felt no love and in whom he saw only a new lifelong responsibility, Hero discovered reality for himself, and likewise his own helplessness in it. Once after a particularly noisy fight with his wife he went away to his mother’s and spent the night there. The thought of divorce awoke horror in him, since he saw in divorce not freedom but the necessity for the actions and efforts required for this procedure. Besides, he had a dread of solitude, to which he had simply grown unaccustomed. Hence after work he returned home as if nothing had happened. His wife cursed him out, which even had become a melancholy norm in their relationship, and Hero pretended to ignore her. He comforted himself with the idea that he gave in to her on trifles, but in serious matters held his own. In the depths of his soul he knew this for a lie, and so felt bitter, cast out into the street to wander around with his son.
He remembered the time just after his wedding, when the long kisses of his wife had awakened him mornings. At that time she had been subject to morning passion, and she used to wake up earlier than Hero. He would feel her hungry mouth, redolent of recently applied toothpaste. For his part, he tried not to open his mouth and only stuck his tongue out between clenched teeth, while she traveled over him, he still half asleep. After a couple of months she gave up brushing her teeth before starting to kiss him in the morning, and he no longer bothered to hide his smell; and so by the end of the first year, they had completely forgotten how to be ashamed in front of each other and were able to release gas audibly in bed, which became a place of slumber rather than of love.
Gradually Hero exhausted all interest in his wife’s body, and she no longer woke earlier than he in the mornings. Often, with burning cold in his heart, he would look at her wan sleeping face with imperfectly washed-off makeup on its eyes and was horrified at the strangeness of this person. During sleep his wife would lay her hand on the pillow beside her head; and her thumbnail, which she chewed constantly, nauseated him. During her menstrual period, which in his wife lasted a depressingly long time, Hero always felt a burning shame among friends or in a public place — it seemed to him that everyone was aware of the stench emanation form his wife, so strong that she could not hide it by any means, or, what was likelier, didn’t even try.
When a little drunk in the company of friends, Hero’s wife liked to allude transparently to his sexual indifference toward her. The friends would understand and titter, and he would condescendingly smile as if the conversation were about something else. At such moments he had a great desire to take a lover, but somehow the occasion never arose, and he forgot again about his desires.
Hero often put the question to himself of whether or not his wife was deceiving him, and after analyzing her behavior he could arrive at the desired answer — “No.” This question raised itself again and again, and finally Hero stopped trying to find the answer, and merely regarded the question with a sidelong look, until his energy for questioning ran dry out of indifference to the identity of her lover.
The only thing which shakily bound him to his wife was his son, but he had grown into a malicious beast, and Hero was unable to approach him.
Hero considered himself a talented poet, but he had no time for work in which he might show off his powers. His everyday business obligations amounted to mere hackwork, in which he was either unable or unwilling to find a place for creativity. Goaded by the constant reproaches of his wife concerning his meagre salary, from time to time he pretended that he was looking for an additional job. But whenever any such opportunity materialized, he did his best to ensure that it remained unused.
Hero painstakingly conserved his free time. He partitioned it into time for books, time for movies, time for television. He was always glad of a chance to talk about something he had seen or read, but in his speech there were neither color nor subtlety; and only from the fact that he usually noticed individual felicitous details would it have been possible to guess that unexpressed depths lay in his soul. Hero’s fondest dream was to shoot film; before his eyes stood technicians, who jolted the audience with his and their significance and well-wrought work. Perhaps it goes without saying that Hero made not the slightest effort to realize his dream.
Thus life went on.
Even in childhood he had experienced immense internal revulsion at waking up in the morning when the alarm clock rang or his mother shook him by the shoulder. It was necessary to turn on the radio loudly, shout in his ear, douse him with cold water, to get him out of bed. When he was a little older he trained himself to overcome his hostility toward forced waking and to get up right away when the alarm clock started to ring, but still he continued to think about this hostility. His thinking arrived, for the time being, at no conclusions, but the effort of thinking used up all the energy which was roused every morning after the hated awakening. He ironically referred to himself as the “Sleeping Ugly,” remembering the time when the morning kissed of his wife had made his awakening happy. Even on his days off Hero did not manage to wake up of his own accord — either his son would be making noise, or his wife would be clattering around in the kitchen, or else she could simply wake him, irritatingly reminding him that he had to do some household chore or other.
He experienced the greatest satisfaction in life from waking up naturally, in the first moments, when there is no memory yet, and everything in front of you is unrecognizable, and only after several seconds you remember where your are, and who you are, and what sort of life you have. This sensation was especially beautiful in summer, when tree branches moved by the wind would peep in at the window, and the sun’s rays, shining through the leaves, were transmuted on the wall into muddy wavering shadows which mingled with the botanical drawings of the old wallpaper. Behind the window birds could be heard talking and vying with one another. Sometimes a loud dung beetle would fly in, and would fly around the room in a frenzy until, finally, if flew out the window, leaving behind it the silence of awakening. Thoughts at such a time were characterized be a great mobility, which more than compensated for their lack of depth. In the body a state of peace and joy fluttered like a flag, as if one were happily returning home after a long journey.
Hero had not experienced this state for a long time and sharply yearned for it every time he found himself unceremoniously awakened by the life which it was his fate to live. And the sharper this yearning became the more Hero thought about its essence.
No other single outrage against human nature is so widespread, and therefore can be perceived as so natural, as awakening by force. Hundreds of millions of people are awakened by the bell of an alarm clock, by a trumpet signal, by a cry or a blow. And sleep — thought Hero — is the quintessence of such spiritual life as is possible in a material world. The body continues to perform the minimum of necessary physiological functions, to remain as an unburned bridge between that world to which the soul is sent, and this world. But the nocturnal travels of the soul, with their unknown but extremely important purpose, are offhandedly interrupted under any plausible pretext. Daily work, loathed by the majority of people, is considered the most publicly acceptable pretext, and consequently the most natural one for forced awakening. People masochistically set the alarm for the time allotted to sleep or else ask someone to wake them up. What is more, on awakening they will put their bodies under cold water, set them in motion — in other words, do everything possible to drive out sleep from their bodies. In this way people live as willing slaves, who for their obedience and self-control are called “free.” Thus thinking, Hero dreamed of rebellion.
Sometimes he imagined that by the force of his young life his son would be able to lead him out to some new dimensions of being. And he clumsily tried to establish contact with his son by taking charge of his upbringing. But if Hero refused him something in a threatening voice, the son would run to his mother and get what he wanted either right away or after a tantrum, which would stop the moment he got what he demanded. Throughout the process of his son’s howling, the wife would scream that she would kill him, enumerating dastardly methods, such as “I’ll cut off your head!” — but soon she would relent and kiss him with a passion that had found no better use. If Hero became indignant that his wife was permitting his son what he had just forbidden, his wife would hurl her always copious irritation at him, calling him a “swine,” a “blank,” a “nothing,” or sometimes something altogether different, depending on what seemed to her at a given moment to be the most insulting. The son, clinging to his mother’s skirt, would stare triumphantly at his father. Hero, eyes flashing, walked off into his room with the despairing conviction in his heart that someday he would find a way out of this situation by some extraordinary method not requiring the strength for divorce and the start of a new life.
One day he was sitting with his son watching television. The son madly loved a series of monster movies, but at the same time he was horribly afraid when the monsters appeared on the screen. So when he watched these movies he demanded that one of the grownups sit beside him and hold his hand. This preserved his feeling of safe reality. Hero sat on an armchair a little behind his son, who was positioned nearer to the television. The movie had just started, and the monsters had not appeared yet. After a few minutes they crawled out into the screen, and the son, without turning his head, stretched out his hand behind him, expecting his father to take it in his own. But Hero unexpectedly had become interested in the movie himself and did not notice his son’s extended hand. And then the son, without moving his eyes from the screen, said impatiently, “Take my hand, you swine!” Hero startled and obeyed automatically. After a second he was seized with laughter at this word of his wife’s that so cozily settled into his son’s head. Then he felt fury and shouted: “How dare you talk to your father like that?” The son said: “Don’t bug me, I’m watching TV.” Hero repeated his rhetorical question and then he heard the door opening — his wife had come in. The son turned in tears to his mother, and his father’s anger ceased to be frightening. After this incident Hero clearly understood that his son was out of his reach and would recede form him further and further each year.
At work, which swallowed a significant chunk of Hero’s life, he had no friends. There was nothing for him to discuss with his colleagues, since general topics, which are the basis of conversation, were repulsive to him, and of secret things he did not like to speak with anyone. His job required no effort for its accomplishment and fascinated him with its monotony. After work he would go home and have dinner with his wife and son. The meal, cooked by his wife, was always unpalatable, but he had grown used to this too. During dinner his wife would tell him how her working day had gone, how her boss praised her again, and she could interrupt this story with kisses she lavished on her son. “How I’ve missed you!” she would exclaim, clasping him to her, and then, in the same breath: “Don’t eat with your hands, use your fork — listen to me or I’ll kill you this minute!”
Hero no longer paid any attention to this, just as those who live by the sea no longer notice the sound of the waves. The dinner conversation, as a rule, was essentially always the same: Hero’s wife would reproach him for his meagre salary and momentously conclude that he was fit for nothing. Angry or worn out, Hero would reply: “Shut up!,” get up from the table — which was well-timed, as dinner had ended at that very moment — and hide himself in his room. Earlier he had tried to write, but soon he became more interested in reading, and lately he was unable to tear himself away from the television set. In days gone by he had spoken with contempt of those who watched television for hours every night. But now he convinced himself easily that there were some really informative programs on television which might replace books. But even when a program was uninteresting he was unable to make himself turn off the television, and watched it until late at night, when sleep glazed his eyes.
It was becoming harder every day for Hero to be awakened by the alarm clock. All the protest he was accumulating against the life that he knew splashed out in anger against this infernal machine. One morning he became so savage that he dashed the alarm clock against the floor. His wife fell on him, curses mingled with her putrid morning breath.
That day, at work, while automatically performing endless calculations, he noticed in himself an unhealed sense of outrage forced awakening. Never before had this been so strong. Gradually his excitement waned, but his thoughts would not turn away form the dream of freedom in waking up. It seemed to Hero that if he could but attain his freedom, he would also become free in all other respects. And really he asked so little: nine hours of sleep, but not timed to a required waking-up time — and thus obliging him to go to sleep at ten in the evening if he needed to get up at seven in the morning — but always at his own disposal at any time of day. Every morning, each awakening seemed to him a whole new birth into the world. And continuing the analogy between awakening and birth, he imagined premature awakening as akin to premature birth. Nine hours of sleep — nine months of pregnancy. A premature baby — a sleep of seven hours — may grow up into a healthy child (a day worth living), but only if it is cared for with special love. In the same way the day following a seven-hour sleep might turn out all right, if the two unslept hours were compensated for by love for a woman or for one’s work. But if sleep is limited to two or three hours, then awakening after such sleep is like abortion. And there will be no new life for you until you make up this deficit at a later time.
In the course of the day copulation occurs between body and soul, so that conception takes place toward evening. Sleep brings you forth for a new life, and every morning you are born anew, a new person, wiser for the experience of the preceding day — the previous life. Sleep is the mother of whom you are born, and on how she is permitted to bring you forth depends on your life — the life of the next day.
Now Hero waited for days off and holidays with a special feeling, not so that he could sleep late, but so that he could wake up by himself. Voluntary awakening had become something sacred for him; and when his wife rudely shook him awake on one of his Sundays, demanding that he start doing some household chore, he hit her in the face with his full strength. His wife was extremely frightened, since he had never even raised his hand against her before. He had enjoyed cultivating in himself a feeling of tormented pride because he had never hit a woman. Now, however, after the first slap in the face, Hero enjoyed the loss of this burdensome innocence; and for the first time his wife did not begin a quarrel, but, seeing that that her husband did not respond to the test stone she threw, again went into the same old routine of insults and shrieks, and only voluntary awakening on days off remained inviolate.
Having gained his first victory over the external world, Hero began to think intently of his weekdays. The sweeter his free awakenings on Sundays became, the more humiliating and intolerable became the forced awakening on weekdays. His work seemed to him a sharp implement with the help of which society intruded upon his spiritual life. Only in time of illness did society agree to give a person the freedom to fall asleep and awaken as his soul required — and then only for the mercenary reason that sleep at such time will serve as medicine, and consequently will return the person to the ranks of the able-bodied.
Hero remembered how sometimes he had wanted to wake up at a particular hour. It had been this way on the morning when he had wanted to meet his wife at the airport after her week-long business trip in the second month of their marriage. He had set the alarm for five a.m., but woke up of his own accord at one minute before five. And thus it always happened when his soul made an effort to participate in his physical life. And only a soulless life was making his awakening forced.
In order to justify a disdainful attitude toward sleep, people reduce it to the supposedly elementary repose of the body form righteous labors. But in reality, sleep is the necessary “repose” of the soul from the unbearable materialism of the world. The body — the heart, for example — has demonstrated that it can work without any repose whatever in the course of its entire life.
How funny would seem the rebellion of a person who did not want to wake up on command and did not respond to efforts to awaken him. But if we suppose that all people might decide to wake up of their own accord, we will have to rebuild the whole system of interrelationships in human society, since society will henceforth be founded on spiritual relations. This means that there will be a sorting of people into those who put their souls onto work which interests them and those whose soul is not in the work which has been foisted on them. Once this last group of people has resolved on voluntary awakening, their souls will not allow their lives to be squandered in work alien to them — the soul will put the body to sleep at the most natural time, the time allotted for this uncongenial work; or the soul will delay its return to the body when hated work demands attention. Then it will be discovered that the great majority of people would not wish to wake up, were no one to awaken them.
This thought stupefied Hero. He suddenly saw sleep as a hopeful refuge from life, which was often so unappealing. But the feeling of protest no sooner arose in him that Hero’s brain quickly analyzed and destroyed its power. And the only occasion on which the brain had not managed to attend had been during half-sleep, when he had struck his wife because she had awakened him. “That means that I can find strength in feelings from the realm of sleep, and it means that the domain of sleep is inaccessible to the destructive work of the brain. And if I were able not to react either to noise or pain during sleep, and to wake only at the wish of my soul — it would be the most serious step of my life,” Hero thought.
When on coming home from work he did not turn on the television, his wife asked tauntingly whether he wasn’t sick. Hero gave no answer and went into the bedroom. He undressed, lay down in bed and lay for a long time, mulling over his pleasant resolution, which did not weaken, as his resolutions always did, but only grew stronger.
He heard his wife putting their son to bed. This was a nightly ritual of weeping, threats, storytelling, more weeping and more threats, which occupied no less than an hour. The son demanded a light burning in his room — he was afraid to go to sleep in dark — and he always insisted on having his own way. Hero’s wife could not endure the hysterical crying of her son and returned to turn on the light.
“To fall asleep so that not even his screaming could wake me — ” thought Hero. His wife came in, undressed and lay down, the air current from her act of lying down carried smell of sweat to him. He lay with his back to her and pretended to be asleep.
“What, sleeping already?” asked his wife, but Hero made no reply. Lately this question exhausted their relations in bed. But now Hero was thinking of only one thing — how to enter into sleep. He heard his wife open the drawer of the night-table, fish out the vibrator and set it to her favorite speed. The drone of the vibrator sank Hero into his longed-for sleep.
When he woke up he saw the face of a man bending over him. The man was dressed in a business suit, and a stethoscope hung around his neck. At his side appeared the frightened face of Hero’s wife.
“How do you feel?” asked the man, and Hero understood that he was a doctor but still could not understand why he was there.
The doctor shook Hero by shoulder and repeated his question.
“Great,” replied Hero and sat up in bed, “but what exactly is the matter?”
The doctor was about to open his mouth, but the wife interrupted him:
“I couldn’t wake you up, you were sleeping like the dead.”
“For how long?” asked Hero.
“It’s three in the afternoon,” replied the doctor.
Hero smiled triumphantly. His dream was coming true — he was becoming invulnerable.
“What are you smiling about?” The worry on his wife’s face was quickly replaced by irritation. “You’ve already overslept for work. I shook you, poured water on you, pinched you — nothing helped.”
“Daddy, are you alive?” asked son, opening the door to the bedroom half way.
“Ask your mother,” said Hero.
Meanwhile the doctor had finished taking his pulse. Then he began to examine Hero’s eyes, listened to his heart and finally announced thoughtfully that he would like to examine him more thoroughly in the hospital. In conclusion he assured them that cases of lethargic sleep were extremely rare, and that such a deep sleep as Hero’s might be accounted for by nervous exhaustion. The doctor left with ill-concealed bewilderment on his face.
But the joy of victory bubbled up in Hero’s heart. He felt an unprecedented strength in himself. “This is why deep sleep is called heroic in fairy tales,” thought Hero. He was impatient to test once again the strength of his soul, which had so successfully withstood the pressure of an alien world. The doctor’s visit had given him the status of an invalid, despite the diagnosis of complete health, so Hero decided not to get out of bed. He took down a book, but was unable to read and laid it down beside him. He looked at the window, in which an ancient tree was swaying.
“Are you going to lie around all day?” asked his wife as she entered the room. “I missed work today too, because of you.”
“I want to sleep,” said Hero, looking at the tree as before.
“You’ll sleep long enough when you’re dead,” replied his wife. She was going to add something else, but their son screamed, and the wife ran out of the room.
He looked at the tree and thought about how indifferent he was to people and how indifferent people were to him. Here they are born, pass through all the stages of life, and this seems so natural to you, and other people’s feelings do not touch you. And when they die, you simply transfer your gaze to others, still young, and life continues uninterruptedly for the observer. But at some point you understand that you are not an observer but a participant, and this means that death will come for you, too, and somebody else will just as easily transfer his gaze from you to someone else, And no one will understand your dying feelings until he dies himself, but then it will already be too late for him, so much the more so for you. Thus, by lack of understanding of one another, people are protected from premature knowledge of death.
Hero started so drift off into sleep, and relished his soft but overpowering sensation. He fell asleep in the early evening and heard neither the sound of the television, nor his son’s sobbing, nor his wife’s screaming. He felt only the growing depth of the peace which was filling him.
In the morning Hero’s wife discovered that his body was cold. The doctor was called out to confirm death. The wife, frightened and distraught, wept without sobbing and was tormented by the blasphemous feeling of relief which she recognized among her sensations of bitterness, horror and helplessness. Her mother arrived and after a fleeting glance at her unloved son-in-law took her grandson away from her. When, in answer to the boy’s question “what happened to Daddy,” Hero’s mother-in-law-replied, “He died,” the boy flew to the telephone.
“Who are you calling?” asked the mother-in-law in surprise.
“I want to say goodbye to Daddy,” the son explained.