"AUBADES AND SERENADES"
IGOR POMERANTSEV TRANSLATED BY FRANK WILLIAMS
I like this dog. Her skinny, elongated body, long muzzle, moist eyes. In the lift she gets excited and even kisses people she barely knows. Once, walking past in the corridor, I heard her say to our new colleague, “pop in and see us”. If she'd said it to me, I'd have said yes straight away. But she avoids me because she feels I've got something on her. Very occasionally, in passing, in the corridor, she'll bark hoarsely: “Hi!” My eyes become moist, my ears go velvety and I rush whining into the toilet to give free rein to my tears behind the locked door of the cubicle.
When it's his turn to share out the meat, it always makes me depressed. It's a cosmic depression. I know: the pieces might all look the same, but he'll still get more than me. I don't begrudge it, it depresses me. I know, he's much older than us; he's old enough to have run with the last packs in the forests. It's the lore of the forest. The main thing there was survival. And since he has survived, one of the few, that really does mean something. I'm depressed because I know I wouldn't have survived then. I suddenly hear my name, in its affectionate short form," ... why haven't you taken your share?" How fortunate that I didn't live with them in the forest. I grab my ration, run without a backward glance to the lift, go up to our department,wrap the meat up in a clean form and throw it into the rubbish bin.
I like the morning best of all. She flies into the office, her beak rose pink, wing wet with rain. The narrow strip between beak and chin is beaded with sweat. I am overcome. These beads are a confession of love. Her breathing is still irregular - she is in my arms. I lick up her sweat, just as I caught raindrops on my tongue when I was little. The day has only just begun, but for me it has already passed.
Crash, tinkle, tinkle - glass is broken on the ground floor. Half an hour later the same sound - a little stronger this time - comes from the first floor. Everybody is working. I, too, am silent. Glass is breaking on the second floor, and I start calculating when it will happen to our windows as well. In four hours. Must do something. I go up to the squirrel and quietly, so as not to cause a panic, ask: "Did you hear it?" The squirrel is bewildered. Follows me with a long stare. Over the next three hours the noise of breaking grows louder and louder. I can imagine what hell it must be downstairs: the wind blowing through the offices, forms and carbon paper flying about, everyone clinging to the walls, to the desks. And out on the street? A carpet of broken glass, the pavement cordoned off, idlers gawping from a distance. They must be looking at our floor now. But it's all quiet here. Typewriters clatter. The squirrel gnaws nuts. What is this - courage or unconcern? I feel sick and go to the toilet. I groom my fur with a damp paw, but it still sticks up. I go back and sit at my desk. We do not look each other in the eye. I press my rump into an armchair, throw back my head, swallow saliva. Here it comes.
The rat reeks of musk. She's got me up against the wall and talks and talks. The smell could drive you mad. A door slams at the end of the corridor. I recognise the rustle of the wings I love. If she flies past and the rat breathes on her, she is doomed. The rustle comes nearer. Oh my beloved, I shall save you! I suddenly sink my teeth into the rat's lips in a deadly kiss and my body becomes swollen with musk. I am soaring and do not see how my shoelaces, undone now, flutter in the wind.
By midday the fog had thickened and was pressing up against the windows. It even became necessary to switch on the light. Never in my life have I seen such a fog: thick, a bluey colour, probably, sticky. A raccoon came into our office and stayed glued to the window. A dog came running in and also froze still. Then others. Everybody, literally everybody was there. To see I had to haul myself up on the coat rack. We didn't take our eyes off the fog. The glass trembled. You could hear it distinctly in the silence. The blue, almost violet on the other side of the glass, electric in the office, us, frozen still. Oh, how terrible, how unbearable!
I am jealous of her fondness for his voice. When the door is ajar we both hear his voice. She sits with the back of her head to the door, and the voice first of all nestles against her fur and kisses it soundlessly, then it reaches her mouth, her knees. But I must not betray myself, and so I sit motionless. Only when the raccoon passes outside in the corridor do I ask, as if by chance, "Be so kind as to shut the door to the office". The door bangs shut, and I see the voice come swimming up to the glass in the door, gawp, flutter his fins and open his mouth convulsively. This is awful: now she will feel sorry for him and so, love him. Agitated, she gets up from her chair and almost runs from the room. I fix my eyes on a paper-clip.
Today is the last day. I can go to the park. They're making bonfires there now. My heart is sad. I'm sure the skunk felt this way this time last year. The week before he was going round with red eyes, and everybody avoided standing next to him even. On the penultimate day they drew lots. The skunk was there, though he didn't have to be. All this year I've remembered the look in his red eyes - the way he looked at me when I drew the lot. That day we were brothers, and the skunk said farewell to everybody except me: after all we were parting for only a year.
They drew lots again yesterday. I didn't go. So I don't know who was next. It's not important. I now realise the skunk went out of weakness. But who said that it's bad or shameful to be weak? I'm strong. But is that good? I do not feel fear. I'm just sad at heart. I'll go to the park. I'll stand a while near a bonfire. The skunk probably cannot think of anything else except meeting me. The wind will carry the smoke away from the bonfire. If only it could carry away my sadness, too!
Today, my attention was caught by the fact that the raccoon was standing for ages near the aquarium in the canteen. I, too, was standing quite close, but the raccoon didn't even see me - he was so absorbed. I watched the aquarium for a long time and came to understand something. The secret of oriental love. This was a harem. The rythmic movements of the fish. Their finery trembled in time to their bodies. This was a dance. The water was thick and closeness difficult. Light draughts, was it, or a tabla provided the rythmn. One fish shamelessly rubbed her lips against the glass. The raccoon was listener and viewer. My head was splitting, and I, like a drunk, moved away. My mouth tasted sweet. The raccoon came back from lunch absolutely shattered and could not start work again for a long time.
We were taken on an excursion. We two are walking along a canal. I do not like this town. It is the work of a glass-blower. I like a different sort of town, thrown by a potter. That kind, the other one, is warm, just right for my paws. This one is cold, sharp. Good to recall in a heatwave. The water is covered with scum and weed. We walk in silence. Suddenly she plunges into the canal. I shudder with disgust: how could she throw herself into the brown, green-tinged scabs. The swill washes into her ears, her mouth. I lean down from the low parapet and stretch out my paw to her. She catches hold. With my right paw I lift her slightly out of the water - her muzzle already green with slime, beak sharpened - and with my left strike hard and unexpectedly between the eyes.
They brought in boxes and began to unpack them right there in the office. By midday I suddenly saw we were crowded out with boxes. All was quiet, and I began to feel uneasy. I put my shoulder to what seemed to me to be the smallest box, but it was nothing of the sort. Then I heard whimpering. I recognised the polecat and for some reason it made me pleased. My shoulder was itchy because bits of sawdust had got into the fur. I picked up a pair of scissors and began jabbing them into the wood. Then I set to with my two fangs, spitting out a continuous stream of wood chips. I called: "Polecat, can you hear me?", he whimpered something in reply. "Polecat, we have to chew a way through to the door." The polecat, judging by the sound of gnawing, had also set to work.
A month ago we had a mole in our office. We could have done with him now! There were Christmas tree decorations in the box. You only had to prick them gently with the scissors and they literally gave up the ghost. A paper streamer was wound painfully round my neck. I was tired, my eyes were watering, my stomach was rumbling. I lay down to take a breather, sucking a sugar lump. Calculated how long it would take to get to the door. Three to four days. Do I have enough strength, determination, and, ultimately, love of life? I don't know, don't know.
They loaded us into cages and took us for a check-up at the clinic. I saw snowflakes through the car window; my eyes watered from the cold and lack of air; the squirrel's breath was flavoured with a smell of rancid nuts. At the clinic we were given an X-ray. We had to get undressed in an office in pitch darkness. My skin was covered in pimples. The radiologist's fingers were electric. I got a shock. I threshed about in the dark; the radiologist pinched me hard and I froze still. When I'd dressed they put the squirrel in the machine. While the radiologist was putting in a new plate the squirrel kicked and scratched and chattered her teeth. I'd got used to the dark and could make things out now. The white blob of a coat seared my eyes. The radiologist pressed a knob so as to restrain the squirrel from two sides. Something scrunched, like a nut, and a dead silence hung. I thought I would go mad. The radiologist dived towards the apparatus and, keeping his back to me, pulled something out, cursing and muttering. Then his back went out through the emergency exit. On the way home, the cage was empty. It was so, so easy to breathe.
Not long before his death, the badger took up learning Mararanian. At first we pulled his leg. "Off to Mararania are you, me old MacBadger?" His table was quite covered with textbooks, dictionaries and children's books. The badger's lips were constantly in motion, as though he was praying or casting a spell. Little by little his mumbling began to form crystals of sounds. The badger went round all the departments declaiming, denouncing, praising, without paying any attention to anybody. We’d all almost stopped talking and wereeeling somehow uneasy. The screech, thunder, roar of Mararanian filled the rooms. One day the badger was called to the telephone and we could tell by his excited tirade that the caller was his Mararanian girl-friend. Somehow at mid-day the din had stopped and each of us guessed what had happened. I now realise why the badger finally took up a foreign language: those who make a beginning are far from the end. Since then, I have only to chance to hear the screech of Mararanian and recall how desperately the badger clung to life.
There are four lifts in our building. They all move simultaneously: up-down, down-up. When you use the stairs you always hear their squeak, rattle, rasp. These noises are all simply obscene. If I happen to be on the stairs with the marten or the weasel, I always blush. The plaited steel cables are taut. The lifts brush against the air, and I haven't the strength to stand next to the marten. Even when you're sitting in your office you can hear a muffled rustling that's even worse than their rasping. The whole building is eaten away by rustling noises; paper, carbon paper, the trees outside the tightly shut windows. We, too, are beginning to speak in whispers. The weasel bends to my ear and whispers something. Her lip rustles against the lobe of my ear. I swallow and hear the saliva slipping slowly down my throat. It's a good thing I've only got one throat. The weasel keeps on whispering while I stare fixedly at a piece of fluff shivering under my gaze.
Mystery and horror just happened. The eider duck, always so neat and tidy, rushed down the corridor looking dishevelled and half-crazed, and on her white downy breast two red wine stains, quite fresh. You felt ashamed if you looked at her, but not to look at her was impossible. It was not the eider duck that was obscene, but us, the fact that we found ourselves by chance in the corridor. Now each of us sits at his desk and pretends to be absorbed in his work. But those two red stains! I even managed to catch a whiff of acerbic stupefying grape. Oh to lick it with the tip of my tongue. But what am I saying - lick? No! Drink it in, suck onto it, choke on it.
Oh, foxawolf! Could any of us forget your leap through the glass? It shattered, splintered, tinkled down, while you flew smoothly and your paws trembled like springs. Oh, how you ran over the squares of the city! Launched out, landed, and between times soared: your body floated slowly through the air, and this soaring was inexpressibly beautiful. What can I say about our feelings, even of those of us who had not loved you until then? In the office a television flickered. They were filming your dash from a helicopter. We could see what was hidden from your eyes. All roads out of the city had already been blocked. The roar of motorcycles, the perfect co-ordination of the foot patrols, the howl of the ambulances, the precision of telescopic sights. All this seemed empty hustle compared with your dash, with your body, now convex, now concave. You ran, you rushed, you flew towards freedom, love - we, fixed to the screen, knew towards what.
Find further contributions from Igor Pomerantsev on Zeitzug