|Publisher:||Barrytown/Station Hill Press, Inc.|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.03(w) x 9.05(h) x 1.30(d)|
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The moment he entered the city, the stranger was led to the Home. His guard said to him on the way:
"You'll hold it against me, but it's the rule. No one escapes the spectacle of happiness."
"Indeed," said the stranger. "Then what's so terrible about this Home?"
"Nothing," answered the guard, suddenly cautious, "nothing at all."
They walked through an empty garden and then rang the doorbell of a large house.
"I'm going now," the guard said to him in a low voice. "But I urge you to follow my advice: don't trust appearances."
It was a young woman who opened the door. She had round cheeks and plump hands.
"Hello," she said to him. "Don't be afraid of anything. The house is open to you."
She led him into the reception room where a young man with square shoulders and an open, smiling face stood up to greet him.
"This is my husband," the young woman said, offering him a seat. "He's good; you'll like him, everyone does."
"You'll like all of us, of course," the young man added jovially. Then, looking him over and noticing his muddy clothes and dirty face: "May I ask where you come from?"
The stranger felt a lump in his throat and did not manage to give an answer.
"Later," said the young woman, "you'll tell us everything later."
She led him out of the room and up to thenext floor, to a place with a vast row of showers. She handed him a comb, a brush, and a bar of soap.
"See you later," she said, giving him a little push, and then, confidingly: "wash well; we're very concerned about hygiene here."
But as soon as she had closed the door, the stranger felt his exhaustion and cried out: "I'm hungry." He sat down on the floor, and as the steaming water began to splash out from the ten nozzles on the ceiling, he was overcome with nausea and lost consciousness. He woke up on a bed. There was an orderly beside him, rubbing his face with a damp cloth.
"Take it easy," he said, nursing him amiably. "It's not a crime to be hungry."
But the stranger looked at him intensely and asked if he would soon be returned to community life.
"Community life?" asked the orderly. "Everyone lives all together here, but there's no community life."
"No," the stranger murmured, "I'm talking about a free life."
As he got up, he saw the young woman by the door, looking at him in a friendly way.
"Oh well," she said, you can bathe another time. As soon as you can walk, come to the cafeteria. I'll be waiting for you there."
The orderly helped him slip on his miserable sandals. Then he put the stranger's clothes in order, slicked down his hair, and removed some of the mud that was splattered on his suit. Just as he opened the door, he said in his ear:
"It would be better if you went to see your comrades first."
There were about twenty of them gathered in a shed, yawning, playing cards, and drinking.
"This is the newcomer," said the orderly, speaking more or less to everyone, but most directly to a rather old man who was lying on a pile of sacks. "They're waiting for him at the cafeteria. You'll get to know him in a little while."
The young woman served the meal herself, her eyes bright, her face shining, hovering around the stranger as he ate. But after he was finished, she took his hand and asked him: "What do you think of my husband?" The stranger was shocked by this question.
"Why ask me?" he said, trying to get away. "I'm only a vagabond. I don't have time to observe people."
He imagined that he knew the words she was burning to hear.
"Oh!" she said, squeezing him harder, "just wait a few days, and then you'll come to me to talk about him. Look at me one last time."
She had the most joyful face he had ever seen.
"Well, see you soon, Alexander Akim."
This strange name suited him as well as any other: he was no more than a kind of beggar here. Once back in the shed, he lay down on the ground. They were playing and singing around him. But he could not free himself from the memory of that face.
"Where are you from?" asked the old man, crouching down beside him.
"So, you're a spy, too," he answered unpleasantly. "What difference does it make what country I come from? I'm a stranger, that's all."
The old man looked at him with a resigned and tranquil expression.
"I was born in the neighboring region," he said, "in Samard. When you cross the bridge, you can see it near a small stand of chestnut trees, and if you climb the hill, you can even make out the river that flows through the area. I have ten brothers over there, and three of them have daughters ready to be married. If you like, you can meet them later."
"Thank you," said Alexander Akim, "I already have a wife."
His bad humor did not discourage the old man, who called to one of the men yawning on the floor.
"Isaiah Sirotk, come play with us."
The cards were shuffled, cut, and dealt out, but the stranger refused to take part in the game, and all the normal cheating took place as he looked on with disapproval.
"Listen," said the old man, breaking off from the cards, "as you can see, I'm the oldest one here. All passions have died out in a man my age. In a few days, I'll be leaving the Home and returning to my country, and I'll soon forget this horrible past. Trust me, then, and if something is troubling you, confide in me."
The stranger thanked him but said there was nothing troubling him and that he only wanted to sleep. So he was left in a corner, looking with heavy eyes at these rough, slovenly men in the light of a weak electric lamp. Eventually, he managed to fall into a deep sleep. When he woke up in the morning, he was expecting to be beaten with sticks, for that was the punishment he believed was doled out to strangers. But he was led to the director, who greeted him very cordially.
"Alexander Akim," he said, after inviting him to sit down beside him on a couch, "I'm not going to question you by the rules, I'm too young to stick to protocol. Where are you from? Why have you left your country? Have you stolen anything on the way? I'm sure these questions have their usefulness, but they don't happen to interest me. My thoughts are elsewhere. My family absorbs me too much." He mused for several moments over his words, and then, gently sliding his hand along Akim's arm, he asked softly: "Are you married? At a time when you're already beginning to worry about middle age, do you know what it means to find a young woman who has more life and freshness than all the others, a person who understands you totally, who never stops thinking about you, someone who looks for you, someone you look for yourself and who is right there beside you all the time? Have you experienced this? Do you have any idea of the upheaval this causes in your life? It drives you crazy."
He shuddered as he stood up and walked from one end of the room to the other, obviously distraught. Then he recovered his composure, took a photograph album from the table, and leafed through it calmly with his guest. These were snapshots that had been taken during his engagement. The pictures were conventional, but it was impossible not to feel the extraordinary impact created by these two radiant figures who were always turned toward each other, as though they were but two sides of a single face. This display finally irritated Alexander Akim, whose eyes no longer dared to look at the signs of such collusion. He was relieved when the director finally put an end to their meeting by saying:
"We welcome you. I hope you'll have nothing to complain about during your stay."
Right after that, he was led to the quarry to work with the other men. They were supervised by a giant, a very ugly but good-natured person who was always agitated and upset. The work consisted of taking the stones that were dug out of the mountain each day by the city laborers and carting them to a huge pit. In the heat of the sun this was an exhausting task, exhausting and useless. Why throw the stones into this pit when special trucks would be coming afterwards to haul them away? Couldn't these trucks have been loaded right after the stones were dug up, when they were sitting there in neat piles? But the vagabonds had to be given work, and vagabond work was never to any great purpose. Alexander Akim attached himself to the overseer, who secretly passed on brandy and canned goods to him. They did not go back to the Home at night; a cave hollowed out in the mountain served as their shelter, and they rested, slept, and ate there. There was hardly any camaraderie among the members of this small society. Brawls sometimes broke out; but these moments of violence did not last very long and would give way to a reserve mixed with coarse behavior. It was not against the rules to exchange a few words with the laborers from the city, who were dressed in grey and green striped clothes and worked at the bottom of the hills. These were generally good-looking men, sober and serious, and they only talked to the beggarly riff-raff to reproach them for their intemperance and laziness. One of them arranged a meeting with Alexander Akim one day in the tall grass where they spent the noon hour, and without even looking at him declared that when you broke the law you should be deprived of food and lodging and should not be allowed to live comfortably in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The stranger left without answering him, but later he was sorry he had not clobbered this arbiter of morality. The overseer helped him to understand what was required of him. There were no major obligations: a little discipline was demanded, but only on certain days (for example, walking in single file and not talking during work). With the old man not there, the others paid no attention to the newcomer, and he likewise shunned their company. Everything was so arid in this region, with the sun burning all day long and the nights ravaged by silence and cold, that the presence of other men was seen as if through a dream. At dawn, they had to go down through a mine shaft to a little sandy beach where there was a spring. Drinking was the only thing that interested the prisoners. During the rest of the day, they would pass an alcohol-soaked rag over their lips, and the most favored ones would drink a few dropswhich burned them but gave them the illusion of a new life. After a week, Akim went back to the Home. Just as he was leaving, the overseer said to him:
"I was married once, too. But women don't like my job. People who live with vagabonds aren't liked."
Covered with dust, his face dried out, his hands torn, Akim was sent to the infirmary where he became seriously ill, in spite of the good treatment he received. Every afternoon, when the memory of the sun became strongest, he would feel as though he were entering a false night; instead of bringing him sleep and coolness, it was all flames and storms. They wrapped him in icy sheets, but to no avail; his body was burning him and he would call out for the water that had refreshed him earlier, yet he would never drink it. The director came to see him.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked. "Why this sudden indisposition? Everyone else always feels so well here. Are you subject to these kinds of attacks?"
The sick man gave him a hateful look.
"You've treated me brutally," he said in a low voice. "A dog, a swine has the right to more respect. I'll remember your hospitality."
"What's that?" murmured the director, startled by so much passion. "Your words disappoint me. I've done everything I can to make things easy for you. Have you been slighted somehow?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I've been slighted," he cried out, totally beside himself with anger, and then, forgetting where he was, he started to scream: "Get out, get out," so that the director left without saying another word.
He was put in a dark cell where he continued to receive the best care. Only a feeble light came through the air vent, and he felt as though he had been cut off from the world forever, so great was the silence. The orderly tried to encourage him.
"Naturally," he said, "it's hard to have your freedom taken away from you. But is anyone ever free? Can we do what we want? And there are so many other reasons for being unhappy."
"Thank you," said Akim, "but you won't console me with the thought of others' unhappiness. My suffering belongs to me."
The fever let up, and the stranger abandoned hope of leaving his prison through a dream that would be more lasting than his nightmares.
"When can I leave this cell?" he asked. "Have I done such a terrible thing? You're not responsible for what you do in delirium."
The orderly went to find out.
"I couldn't find the director," he said when he returned. And then he added with an air of irritation: "The atmosphere is stormy."
Nevertheless, he was finally let out, and Akim went back to his comrades. He was surprised by the animation that reigned among them, and even though calm returned as soon as they saw him, he noticed a kind of satisfaction or unpleasant interest on their faces.
"What is it now?" he asked peevishly. "What are you hiding from me?"
"Be quiet," the old man said to him. "It's not your job to tell us what we can and can't do. Everyone here has his own prison, but in that prison each person is free."
One of the men, the one called Isaiah Sirotk, insulted him crudely. "Spy," he shouted at him, "informer." The two men began to scuffle. Akim let himself be taken by the throat. He saw his adversary's face, the large protruding ears, the eyes without irises, the hideous features. The old man separated them and swore loudly, but he suddenly stopped talking because a manservant stuck his head through the window and invited the stranger to go to the director.
"Listen," the old man said, pushing him into a corner, "you've already noticed that the director and his wife hate each other. It's a silent hatred with no cause, a terrible feeling that disrupts the whole house. It doesn't even have to be violent to be felt. Calm and hypocrisy are enough. Still, sometimes there are scenes. You can hear the shouting through the walls. It's better to be shut up in a cell than to appear before them."
"Is that so?" said the stranger. "You're so spiteful that now you're trying to upset me with lies just when I need my composure. Why are you trying to ruin me? What have I done?"
He was taken into the large reception room where he had been the first day. There were flowers scattered over the floor. Others had been made into garlands on the table.
"Well, what is it?" the director asked him, his face pinched and apparently unwell. "I only have a little time."
"May I see your wife?" the stranger asked, after giving him a furtive look.
"Yes, yes, of course," the director answered with a distracted smile. "But today is her birthday, and it would be better to wait a little."
The stranger apologized and then remained silent.
"Is that all?" the director asked impatiently. "Don't you have any other questions to ask me? Tell me why you've bothered me like this."
"But I'm only here because you sent for me," the stranger said.
"That's true," said the director with confusion." Forgive me. I'm feeling out of sorts. I'd like to offer my apologies for the punishment you were given. It was painful for me to behave like that towards a sick man. Try to forget itand come back to see me."
Akim was about to leave, but the director held him back, saying, "I'll go call Louise. She'll be happy to say a few words to you." They came back together, she leaning on his arm, he bending towards her. Akim was struck by the youthfulness that lit up their features when they were together. The director seemed completely recovered. He was smiling and moving impishly with small steps.
"Stay and have a drink with us," she said to him, extending her hand. "Did Pierre tell you it's my birthday?" Then, on the way out: "Come back tomorrow, we'll talk."
When he returned to the shed he lay down, determined to stay apart from his comrades. But they all gathered around him, and he had to hold his own against them, contradicting everything they said in a sharp voice.
"Get out of here," the old man shouted, dispersing the group. Then he crouched down in his usual way. "Forgive me, Alexander Akim. You've been sick. You've been separated from the others. I should have been a better companion. Are you willing to listen to me today?"
"Let me sleep."
"Yes, you're going to sleep. But listen to me first. I don't want to be a nuisance. This is a request, a very humble prayer. Maybe you think I'm trying to slander the director?"
"To hell with your thoughts! I'm sick, I need to be alone."
"That's it, you think I have something against him. But no, he's a good man. He's always been generous with me. He could have sent me away, and yet he keeps me on, old as I am. Is he responsible for his unhappiness? Is there anything shameful in being unhappy? And what unhappiness could be more terrible than hating instead of loving yourself?"
"Enough of this, or I'll call the overseer."
"One more word. In your opinion, which one of them is to blame? She's a loose woman, a spoiled child; but he's so somber, so severe, how can anyone live with him?"
Seeing that the stranger had turned over on his side and was no longer listening, he withdrew with a sigh. The next morning, Akim went to the infirmary, where the young woman was treating several indigent men from the city. She made a friendly sign to him but didn't say anything. He went on wandering about the halls of the Home, searching through the empty rooms for traces of a drama that continued to elude him. That day the whole house was open to him. He walked into the administrative offices where, among the files and shelves loaded with documents, there was a flower in a frame, a touching and useless object that stirred up the memory of a faultless love. He lingered beside half-closed drawers, as if the letters he dared not read were meant to prove to him that an affection still existed. He entered the director's apartment. The walls were bare; shells, engraved stones, and glasses tinted with friendly colors adorned the mantlepiece and furniture. It seemed as though a wild river had flowed through these rooms, leaving behind the debris of earth and uprooted weeds in images of glass. Green branches went up to the ceiling, and it was impossible to say if this profusion would wither by the next day or if the garden on the floor would soon be giving off flowers and new leaves. Before he had discovered how this juvenile ornamentation was put together, Akim was surprised by the return of Louise. She looked at him dreamily for several moments.
"My room is around the hall," she said. "But let's stay here."
They sat down ceremoniouslyhe on a chair, she on a bench.
"You really are a stranger," she remarked. "Perhaps you'll begin to fit in to the way we live and work here, but I'd be surprised if you ever forgot your country."
Akim didn't answer.
"What do you find so displeasing about your city? Its size? Its overly tall houses? Its narrow streets? Are you put off by the Home? Have you left someone behind that you miss? I'd like to help you."
"You can," said Akim, straightening up. A new and unexpected expression transformed his face. "I'm suffering because I'm not free. Let me become the man I was before."
"But that's easy," said the young woman. "Your quarantine is almost over. Tomorrow you can visit the city if you like and talk to the people who live there." Then she added: "I'd like to tell you my story."
He listened as she spoke in that childish but cold voice of hers. Predictably, it was the story of her engagement.
"I don't understand why you confide in me like this," he interrupted her. "I know you're happy, even though people say the opposite, but in my situation I can't get mixed up in the private lives of people who are above me."
He thanked her and went back to his comrades. His first walk through the city did not make much of an impression on him. The houses were majestic, but the streets were narrow and irregular, and they lacked air. He was recognized by his slow, provincial way of walking. Entering a bookstore, he was questioned good-naturedly by the owner.
"Are you satisfied with your stay at the Home? What luxury there, what comfort! The people of the city are happy to have it, since it allows them to welcome strangers in the best possible way. We don't like people to live in exile among us."
Akim listened with an air of irritation.
"And what a good director!" said the bookstore owner. "He's an educated and just man. His troubles only make you like him more."
"Thank you for your kindness," Akim said. "Do you happen to have a detailed map of the city and the surrounding area?"
"A map of the city, yes. But we're not very interested in other regions. On the other hand, here is an excellent book about the Home."
The work was illustrated with photographs and, as he expected, it was filled with praise for the penal methods that were such a source of pride to the State: the mixture of severity and gentleness, the combination of freedom and restraintthese were the fruit of long experience, and it was difficult to imagine a more just or reasonable system. When he returned to the Home, he found the director sprawled out on a bench in the garden, his face livid.
"Are you in pain?" he asked. "Do you want me to call for help?"
"Mind your own business," the director answered. "It's only a passing attack; I'd rather be alone."
The house was plunged in silence. Decorated with those wild flowers that are little more than colored grass, it seemed more than ever to be the place of a simple and happy dream.
"A sad house," the orderly said to him, walking in a distracted way through the halls, far from the room where he was supposed to be working. "How can two young people go at each other like that? Who's pushing them to torment each other? The only time they're not in silent despair is when they burst out in anger at each other. And that constant trembling, the suffering in their mouths, their eyes, their hands, whenever they have to see or touch each other."
In the shed, the overseer was whipping a young prisonerthe unfortunate Nicholas Pavlon. Overcome by a burning fever, he had walked through the city almost naked. Akim saw how inhuman the ordeal of flogging was. At the tenth stroke, the victim fainted; the torturer, exhausted by his own violence, began to shudder, as though some poison had suddenly chilled his blood. The old man said to Akim:
"Tomorrow my detention is over. But I've come to an age when you stop hoping for a new life. What illusions could I have after all this useless suffering? Can I still get married? Do I still have enough faith to join myself to a woman and live in peace? No. Everything is finished for a man who gets out of prison."
"Why are you complaining today?" asked Akim. "Yesterday you were thanking the director for not getting rid of you because of your age. Is living in the Home a privilege or a curse?"
The old man made no response. He turned and gave some advice to the prisoners who were sprinkling water on the body of the unfortunate young man.
"If he doesn't wake up before sunset, he'll be lost," he said.
He didn't wake up. The blood had stopped flowing from his body, and the men covered him with the long blanket he had used to wrap himself in at night. Even though Akim had no real feeling for this naive and rough companion, he felt as though his heart had been torn apart, and he let the old man spend the evening with himgroaning, complaining, and rambling on.
"What makes them enemies?" he said. "The lack of family? Orphans can never find happiness. They don't have the gentle common instinct that lies at the heart of family life to prepare them for living with others. And they themselves have no child. They hate everything that could make life easier for them.
"They've made a fatal mistake," he went on. "They thought love was drawing them together, but they really detested each other. Certain signs led them to think they were tied to the same destiny, but it was really a desire to tear each other apart through disagreements and torments. How long did they fool themselves? When they finally discovered the marks of their old intimacy on their bodies, it was too late; these marks did no more than prove to them the fury that has been holding them together. They must go on loving each other in order to go on hating each other.
"Has she deceived him?" he said. "No, she's been very careful; she's denied him the possibility of moving away from her a little, of breathing some other air, another life perhaps free of violent feelings. She doesn't leave him, and in that way she can overwhelm him with her solicitude. This makes him see all the hatred she has for him, all the detachment she inspires in him. She follows him around, as if her only reason for existing were to represent the void his life has become. He's calmer than she is. But nothing ever distracts him from his despair. He's silent. He speaks without caring what he says. When he says nothing, his silence is made into something infinitely sad, humiliated, contemptible. Unhappy young people. Sad house."
"Shut up," said Akim, losing all patience as these disjointed words went on and on. But as he shook the old man, he saw that his eyes were empty and inflamed, just as they were whenever he drank the water with alcohol in it. He tucked him in roughly and then passed the night in the calm that surrounds the dead.
Nicholas Pavlon was given a magnificent funeral. A bier with innumerable flowers stacked around it was set out in the largest room of the Home. The men took turns watching over it, and the overseer, the unwilling instrument of misery, did not leave the dead man, sitting behind the monument in a low chair, sinking into a deep regret over his terrible violence. The procession passed slowly through the city. The stranger had time to study the tall buildings that seemed to merge together in the sky, the dark and narrow shops, the apartments that became more elegant and spacious once they reached the upper floors. He was told that the cemetery was located in the center of the city; it stretched up the side of a hill in a swampy region surrounded by walls that marked off an enclosure. The solemnity of the ceremony, the apparent sadness of the city dwellers weeping falsely for a dead stranger, and the crudeness of the prisoners dressed up in party clothes, inspired a disgust in Akim that would have made him leave the procession immediately if he had not been afraid of being punished. At the moment when the director threw some flowers on the coffin, which had been set beside the grave, and spoke some words befitting the occasion, Akim could not stop himself from shouting out: "What's going on here? Is this a farce, a mockerythe revenge of depraved men?" But he regretted these words, since the people around him thought he was overcome with grief. Still, he could not have done otherwise. Back at the Home, he had to attend another ceremony: the old man's departure. All the prisoners were gathered in the reception room, still warm with the smell of death. Flowers, no less brilliant than the ones on the bier, transformed this farewell ceremony into something that felt like an engagement party. The old man, filled with emotion and already drunk, believed that he had committed grave injustices against those who were there, asked forgiveness, kept walking around the chairs and tables.
"You have honored this institution," the director said, smiling. "You're going home completely adjusted. I'm sure your stay here has not always been agreeable; there are dark hours when everything becomes inexplicable, when you blame the ones who love you, when the punishments seem to be absurd cruelties. But in every life it is so. The essential thing is to leave prison one day."
Everyone applauded. Akim wanted to ask something, but he was ashamed to speak up in front of all these people, and he withdrew silently into a corner. After the reception, the director called for him:
"I sense that you're impatient, troubled. That's not good. It will make getting used to your new life even harder. In my opinion, you're wrong not to see things as they are: you're in a house where we have your best interests in mind; you should leave it to us and not worry about unpleasant things."
The director was standing beside the table. His wife was sitting behind him, and she smiled as she listened. "Is it possible that they hate each other?" Akim asked himself. "No, everything is a travesty, in this city. They love each other. At the most, they have the usual quarrels of young married people."
"I'm not troubled," he answered. "I don't understand the customs of the house and I suffer from it, that's all. If I'm allowed to go back to my own country, I'll always remember your excellent hospitality."
"He's a stranger," Louise said joyfully. "I always thought sohe'll never really fit in here."
"How long are you going to keep me prisoner?" he asked.
"Prisoner?" answered the director, frowning. "Why do you say prisoner? The Home isn't a jail. You weren't allowed to go out for several days for reasons of hygiene, but now you're free to go wherever you like in the city."
"Excuse me," said Akim, "I meant to say: when can I leave the Home?"
"Later," said the director, annoyed, "later. And besides, Alexander Akim, that depends on you. When you no longer feel like a stranger, then there will be no problem in becoming a stranger again."
He laughed. Akim wanted to get back at him for this joke, but he was overcome by sadness.
"You wife explained it: I'll never be anything but a man from another city."
"Please, please, no discouragement. My wife says anything that pops into her head; you mustn't take it seriously."
He leaned over Louise and caressed her shoulders. Akim looked at them for a moment before returning to the shed.
The vagabonds, who had secretly carried off some provisions, were still carousing. They were drinking and singing sad songs of this sort:
Land of my birth,
Why did I leave you?
I've lost my youth
And live with woe,
And jailed forever,
Death alone is not my foe.