At first, I thought I was imagining things. I’d froze, listening to the silence in the dead of the night, then the muffled rasping was heard again, and this time I saw the door handle move. I shot upright; while jumping over the upturned chair, I heard the floor in the hallway squeaking under heavy footsteps, followed by the shuffling of the slippers on the stairs. I glimpsed with a swift gaze the stiff back of the old man, his black gown fluttering like a raven wing and his fleshless fingers clutching the handrail. I slammed the door and bent over to slide the lock when I realized how hard my hands were shaking.
I sat again at my desk, in front of the paper onto which rows filed neatly. But the spell was gone. The thoughts refused to gather, the words set down toilsomely, the sentences came out devoid of grace. I squeezed my eyelids, calling forth the realm that has just built up, but only the old man face emerged into the darkness beyond my forehead: a waxen mask that had alive only the burning, piercing eyes. Tomorrow, I said to myself, crumpled up the paper in anger. Tomorrow I’ll be leaving this place, and the thought, pent-up inside for so long, brought me unexpected relief.
…I was in the old man’s house for six months: six months minus nine days. My mind kept remembering the afternoon when I stepped under the portal guarded by huge dogs, its bronze whitewashed by rains; maybe it was because of the rental advertising brochure, forgotten on the corner of the table, catching my eyes with its glossy covers. Among the houses drowned in ivy, far from the bustle of the crowdy streets, the old man’s pleased me the most. It was stark and strong, built to defeat time. It had a grim facade plated in sandstone tiles that peeled off here and there, and windows with gothic arches; it soared its chimneys into the sky like grabbing fingers and its fence was granite with rusted grates: bulkiness and ruin, loftiness and decay. Poking halfway above the trees in the garden, the house seemed one of those ancient ship whose rotten hull can still miraculously battle the ocean.
The old man greeted me warily, sizing me up harshly. I was wearing close-fitting leather pants and a gossamer blouse and my eyelids was heavy with mascara…he relented, almost with disgust, only after I’ve paid a full-year rent, giving me the top floor, then he still found it hard to believe I was going to stay when he saw me showing up in the evening with my fully loaded suitcases. I stayed, alright. Thinking that, after a year of recluseness, I will have stacked up a mountain of written pages: events no one experienced that could happen to anyone, anytime. That was my job and my dream–to forge with great toil within the silence of my mind. That’s why I ran away from the world, from the ringing of the phone, from my friends and acquaintances who didn’t want to understand my squalls and anxieties and said I wasted ten years of my life.
I’d thought that here – in the house with chilly rooms, forever in shadows – I found my peace. I quickly got used to the blinds always drawn, the curtains hiding every window and the furniture creaking all over. It was only the strange cloying smell that filled the whole house I failed to get used to. One could barely smell it in the morning, but got stronger toward the night fall, an odour of rotten lillies that lingered, encroaching on each room like an unseen mist. It didn’t come from the garden – only dry hints of autumn came therefrom – but somewhere from the basement. I searched in vain for its scent. The house looked bigger on the inside: long maze-like hallways that I wandered along for hours on end, stairs that led nowhere, doors the size of a cathedral gate, low doors as for dwarfs and round hallways resembling beehives. Almost all the door wings were ajar and, beyond the doorsills, you could see curtains of brocade and velvet, Persian rugs, mahogany-padded walls; each room had statues, paintings in murky colors and a panoply of arms above the ever-present fireplace. In some places, the steely mirror of the armor reflected the glimmering of the huge chandeliers: memories from the past, long gone…The library was nowhere to be found. I imagined it to be a match for the house, with leather-bound tomes and titles in gold letters gleaming even in the dim light. Maybe the old man kept it locked up, afraid I would ask him to loan me a book; I too was loath to loan books and couldn’t find peace until I saw them back on their shelves.
The old man: he was stooping, had flimsy hair and a way of rising his right eyebrow in disdain. He always carried an air of offended dignity and lumbered along to hide his limping. Since I came here, nobody paid him a visit. A man forgotten by the world, living in his own time, stale and smelling of naphtalene like a moth trapped in a cupboard; his loneliness should’ve moved me, but each time we met in the shadow of some hallway I would stutter badly, not knowing how to hide my awkwardness. His wheezing and the shaking of his yellow bony hands made me feel guilty about my youth and I hurried to my work desk to be amongst the stacks of written pages: an oasis, a refuge. To protect me from whom?
I belatedly picked out the change. The old man was watching me with the eyes of a stalking beast, and his gaze wouldn’t lower when I caught it on me. Sometimes, after writing until the break of dawn, I would go out on the empty streets so as the cold air would banish my fatigue – and every time the old man was in the hallway as though he waited for me. When I got back from town after a lost night, my clothes still giving off the perfume of some affair, he eyed me glumly and shook his head, then I had to tiptoed past him, eyes down, like some teenage girl coming home from her first date. At first, that constant lookout irritated me; then, over time, I understood. The old man was afraid of the life beyond his walls, he dreaded that, some day, it would sneak past the gate and fill his house with its carefree laughter, breaking the urn-like silence of the rooms.
I found him once in my room: bent over the table, he was reading from a crumpled page, muttering something indiscernable. The other pages lay on the floor like wind-scattered leaves. When he heard me, he straightened his shoulders so fast that I thought I heard broken bones snapping. The gesture had nothing weary or sickening and I stared at him, forgetting my anger; he seemed taller now and his eyes had a glow that enlivened his withered face. His hands weren’t shaking anymore; the pen broke in their clenching, bleeding blue, then the old man ambled away, wearing his ancient gown like a cape. I stood by the door obsessing vacuously with one single thought: he just lost his limp or was I imagining things?
I didn’t see him since. Sometimes I’d hear a door slamming shut behind me or the stairs creaking, and I knew he was there, amidst the shadows of the sepulcher-like house, a creature of the darkness feeding off the night…
I flinched: the tall-case clock struck the twelfth hour and the echo rumbled with majesty, just like the bell of a sinking warship…I wrote a few words, crossed them out, then wrote others instead. The sentences flowed strenuously like trapped mountain springs when the shapes around me started to sneak away. The ideas dashed forth, out from the abyss they had slept in and coalesced in word-images—keys that opened worlds.
Darkness. So sudden that, at first, I didn’t understand what was happening. I stood, lost in the night that engulfed me like a swamp; I groped the air with my hands, stumbling on the furniture that stood in my way with perfidy. When I finally reached the commode where I kept my flashlight, I almost tore out the drawer; only the golden globe cast about by that nickel toy sober me out from that dread that still gave me the jitters. I got out, but the darkness followed, touching me with icy fingers in the empty hallway; the stairs were guarded by innumerable portraits, generation after generation of men with lanky faces, resembling the grains of sand from a dune.
My thoughts started to run wild. I knocked on the old man’s door, I called him out, then I went searching for him, barely stifling my anger. For months he followed my steps; where was he now, when I needed him?
I sought in vain all around the ground floor, then I went down into the basement, full of junk. Tables with missing legs, armchairs with tattered leather, chests with no doors, misty mirrors, jumbled-up coffers and drawers, woodwork of all sorts—I could barely walked through. I felt the coldness of the water beneath my feet: a rivulet flowing on the floor, merging with another, then another, into a palm-wide river that meandered toward a place only it knew. Leaning over, I glimpsed a miniature riverbed, dug into the brownstone slabs: the water had flowed there for many years to run such a furrow through. I felt a strange fidgeting and, forgetting about the darkness, about the old man that was gone now and the almost drained batteries, I followed the little stream. After a while, an opening came up by the wall, a glen in the motionless maze of the furniture. In the middle, a breach in the floor where dozens of streams reached their death, just like the one that brought me here. I fell on my knees by the silver mirror. The water was so clear and deep that I couldn’t tell its bottom. The waves seemed to be crossed by flashes of light like some fireflies; when I got closer with my flashlight, I saw that the teeming pearly shapes were floating imovably, not far away from me. Before I knew better, I plunged my arm shoulder-deep; I grabbed something slippery, I yanked, and the prey I was snatching from the waters came to the surface in splashes. A crystal tuft…I remembered the chandeliers hanging all over the house, even in the narrowest hallways; the same smoothed lacework, same pearly glitter, undulled by the time.
An underwater chandelier? I didn’t even blink and I stepped over the brink of the pit. The tip of my foot met nothing and I brought down the other one, I clinging by my hands. I sank with care into the waves that enshrouded me with their sensuous softness; when they reached past my midriff, my arms begun to shake from strain and I let go, making up my mind.
I went down like a rock. My eyes was wide open, letting my gaze wander about the huge hall with walls covered by sagged-in shelves under the weight of thousands of tomes. When I touched the carpet, by the lion paw-legs of the table that held silver candlesticks, I snorted: a crazy chuckle, a blustering one, impossible to hold in. I stopped only when I’d already swallowed enough water to snap out of it. It was all real. The drowned bookcase, the marble fireplaces where there were no fires, the black-leather armchairs like seashells.
Staggering – a dreamy run, impossibly slow – I got closer and passed my fingers over the rounded spines: Homer, Haffiz, Dostoievski, Shakespeare, Dickens, Zola… I said something, a question or an astonished whisper, and the air bubbles got off my lips raising up to the carved nutwood ceiling. I was reading title after title, written with befitting words out of charisma or just craft; it was all there: the human yearning, sins and endeavors from all times. The eternal story of the soul that seek itself, the eternal rush toward and unreachable ideal. The wisdom and the insanity of the world.
I had a lump in my throat. I turned my back to the shelves and I saw the book lying on the floor. The pages browsed themselves and the ink dripped into a black cloud like the blood of some felled creature. A dead book in the graveyard of the books that were buried under translucent slabs…It seemed that the letters on the spines started to shaking and thinning. My eyes got misty and a wave of dizziness made me fumbling for support, but the treachery waves slithered and ran through between my tightened lips. I darted up blindingly, again and again, until I bumped my head into the ceiling: I had missed the breach. I started looking for it. My temples were throbbing and I struggled not to lose my temper, but fear snuck into my veins and I found myself pushing into the wooden beams, scrawling them with my nails. The weight that crushed my chest was ever growing, my feet felt like lead and any movement drained me, quickening the oblivion. The crystal fish of the chandelier started to toss in the hooks, a cold stream surrounded me and I looked down, in spite of myself.
A door opened – no, a huge gate with the frame hidden by the shelves. Someone was on the threshold. I only saw his pointy gnarled shadow, but it was enough for me. With a scream turned into burbles, I went on; I groped over the brink of the pit and hauled myself out as though from a cannon barrel, while the weighty air was exploding into my lungs. I climbed feverishly over the stone tiles, stayed there bent over for a few moments, gulping air, panting and coughing, then I ran through the dusty rubbish.
The hallways never felt so long before. When I got to the back of the stairs, I was weak at my knees, but I climbed three steps at a time thinking one single thing, one wish: to be in my room and lock to door, chasing away the memory of the drowned hall…I was barely out of the basement that I found myself bathed in a blinding light. The lights were on everywhere as I never saw them before in that house, and I stopped under the white rain, squeezing my eyelids.
The burning of a gaze: the old man was looking at me. His eyes lingered over my breasts stuck to my wet satin, then lowered slowly to my naked thighs under my short shirt. I felt like choking, but something stronger than my will made me stand still. The skeleton fingers kneaded the air in bursts, the silence crowded ice walls between us; I was mesmerized by the humid stain that grew larger underneath me, my cheeks burned and my body shook with a nervous shiver. The old man turned in an instant and the spell was broken. A few leaps and I was in the hallway, then in my room, splashing water all over. I plunked into my bed and I fell asleep right away, a heavy slumber without dreams, rather the stilness of a statue.
A faraway voice summoned me, so weak I could barely distinguished the whispered cries. I jumped from the bedsheets; there was no one in the room. But the door was aside, stuck to the wall, the light was on, the paper sheets scattered over the table and the bedsheet crumpled by the bed. Was the old man here, inside with me…? I leaned on the bed post, waiting for the ghosts under my forehead to go away, but I heard the call again. The voice seemed familiar and when I heard it again, imperious, I turned to the wall-sized mirror. The woman inside was me; yet, another. She had my body, my face, the shift I slept in. Her eyelids and lips were glowing in black, she half-smiled with leniency or, maybe, malice. She stretched her arms toward me. I obeyed and went over, steps of a sleepwalker; while our fingers clenched, it occured to me I was dreaming. Then I let myself be pulled through the silver curtain of the glass and felt nothing.
…it was dark beyond the mirror. A sticky fog through which I was walking not knowing where or since when. Front and behind the same darkness, underneath my feet sharp rocks grazing my flesh, then a sliver of sand and no blade of grass. And the flames. At first bashful flickerings, then getting bigger, thinning the darkness. At times, a burst of wind made them surge and hot air swirls beat down on me. The horizon changed into a purple ribbon, the air started to burn. I reached my hands to the lips, to the stinging eyebrows: they were wet and black stains stuck to my fingers that didn’t want to go away…Late, very late, I reached the first bonfires. Piles over piles of books bitten by starving flames raised up a labyrinth with red walls and ramparts, broken by smoky ruins. The rustling of the pages all over rose in an incessant wail and the bonfires burned and burned.
I was wandering through the soot snowfall that stuck to my shirt, to my sweated skin. Sometimes, a wall of flames crumbled behind me, other times the way was blocked by pinnacles made by embers. Each breath tore at my chest and, passing by the last pile, I collapsed.
A squeaky laughter: the old man, wearing a large cape and nothing on his head, was watching me. He had a book in his hand; as if in slow motion he threw the book and I heard the flutter of the pages in the soft flight, broken by the flames that snatched the papery bird.
I jumped on my feet, but the old man grabbed my hair and tore the blackened satin in one pull. My scream died on my lips; now I knew who he was, I knew that all the world obeyed him, fearing only him. Just that I thought him to be different: careless, without passion. Had he got weaknesses, sins?
The bony fingers plunged into my body like hooks. A stench of rotten lilies overpowered the smell of burnt paper, then my breasts crushed onto the chest that heaved no more. The end: no pain, no joy, only memories fading away like mist in the storm. Then? In the endless night I was his forever.
All of a sudden, a rumble of flooding waters was heard and the earth started shaking. The one who knew no mercy twisted towards it, heaving me up like an insignificant weight. I writhed in vain: heedless, he looked at the first shadows that enter the dusk and I saw they were people. Crowds without number, advancing abreast in a silence that was more threatening that any other scream. Strange faces, yet so familiar…minstrels, clowns, kings and queens, seamen, hussars, archers, centurions. A man wearing a high hat holding the hand of a little boy in tatters, a girl wearing crinoline and a samurai with his sword across his back, musketeers, beggars, pirates, florist girls. The crossroads of time and world: a scottish man wearing kilt and a gheisha, a German and a British soldier having their boots stained by the same yellow clay, passing a cigarette to each other, a courtesan guiding a blind old man. Winning creatures bestowed with life by those that slept in all bookcases, drown and burnt but never forgotten.
His claws stiffened, then came out of my flesh. I slipped into the dirt mixed up with soot and The Guardian of the Oblivion walked toward the bonfires, among those that did not lower their eyes in front of him; his set face showed neither hatred, nor disappointment. When he stepped into the flame and the fire raised angrily to the sky, I thought I heard his scream: waiting.
Someone grabbed my arm, helping me on my feet. A grey-haired black man with eyes that gathered all the kindness of the world. Nearby, the grenadiers from The Old Watch smiled at me and I set out with them onto the stone plain. Where and when were we to reach our destination? I didn’t know. But somewhere, in a library, a little girl was already reading, holding her breath, the pages that said the barefoot woman wearing a satin shirt wandered around the basement full of junk, snatched a crystal tuft with a big splash and sank into the waters that filled the graveyard of the books buried under translucent slabs…
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA