Clouds pass over the city, it had been raining. Haltingly, the night lowers itself onto the wetly gleaming roofs, here and there lights come on. At first they shimmer, sallow and uncertain in the partial darkness, one by one like yellow fireflies, then, fortified in their quest for constancy by the growing gloom, they multiply rapidly until a flickering carpet of light ensues—a large carpet, damp, heavy, ragged and full of holes, tossed upon a landscape once made up of hills, valleys, rivers and lakes and which now recalls nothing of these.
Over corridors, meadows, paddocks, forests, lakes, houses, and the city. So that’s what she looks like from above. Sounds muffled, movements gentler, the reflection of the evening sun pale on the windowpanes. No glaring colors, no noise, no hustle and bustle. No clocks, no destinies. Nightfall obliterates colors, kills zigzags, rounds off edges; this bird’s eye view deactivates the third dimension. It knows neither heights or depths, longitude nor silhouette. The city as the horizontal projection of herself.
Empty is how the city looks from above, hollowed out. Her inhabitants have no faces, only the one lone face of the city for them all. A city with many names: London perhaps, Paris or Berlin. Or maybe New York, Tokyo, Dublin, Istanbul. Toronto, Calcutta, Kinshasa, Ulan Bator, Samarkand, Astrahan. A pulsating, dully strident creature that lethargically contracts and expands, reels itself in and stretches, tenses and relaxes, so far off in the distance that it appears unreal. Deaf and impassive, unmoved and leaden. The long, straight boulevards are the arteries, the narrow, crooked backstreets a filigree of delicate veins. The large black hole in the center is a park with a small lake where it is possible to row about in rented boats. Red, yellow, and white streaks of light, glowsticks of melting colorful wax move hesitantly, pass by one another in slow motion without touching, flow toward one another, crisscross, diverge, converge, deflect parallel at right angles. Between them houses, courtyards and intersecting sidewings with scattered leafless trees. Only up close does one see how many there are: buildings, buildings, buildings—big tall buildings with blinking neon storefronts and low squat ones with a warm, weak glow at the window. A landscape of roofs, chimneys, mansards, gables, dormers, skylights, domes and now and then, quite unexpectedly, a tower. Brick, tar paper, corrugated sheeting, bowed roofs, flat roofs, pitch roofs, hip roofs, crossroofs, air ducts that pass through crannies of buildings carrying with them fetid odors: rancid oil, the biting smell of cheap schnapps, heating coal and fried fish. Hermetic masonry concealing the stories of permanently wretched people, stories of drink and manslaughter, stories of love and stolidity, poverty and excess. They are no one’s business. Books that tell such stories show up often enough in the febrile Library whose chance volumes are constantly in danger of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity. For the total book that is the cipher and compendium of all the rest only the one well-known story like all stories comes into question. It is not unlikely that it exists it is enough that a book be possible for it to exist. But where to look? A century will not accommodate the regressive approach proposed by the librarian: In order to locate book A, first consult book B, which will indicate the location of book A; in order to locate Book b, first consult Book C and so on ad infinitum… Where to start? Luck is what you need to be at the right place at the right time and to find the right one among the many possible beginnings. To find the right window in the short night. Maybe this one:
A woman, mid-thirties, stands at the window and gazes out into the night. Full lips, long brown hair, light complexion. She is wearing a slip. Is that a possible beginning? Is she the right one? Yes, that she is, definitely. One sees it by her inviting bosom. Who wouldn’t like to put his careworn head between these breasts and have his neck stroked? The round curves of this woman have something yielding about them.
A kettle sings on the stove. The woman takes it off and pours the water into a basin. From the bedroom above the muffled snoring of her husband penetrates the room, it swells rhythmically, fades out. God, is he tired! She, too, needs sleep, beauty sleep. Stop! Oh, no! With a tug, she pulls the dingy patterned curtain shut.
Give up? Try somewhere else? Patience. The story takes place here. Here and this evening. Patience. Complete silence. Patience. Nothing happens. The light is still on. Patiencepatience. It can’t be long now. Patienceienceience.
After a while the curtain are pulled back anew with a yank, sudden light blinds. The woman’s shadow opens the window, a surge of bathwater splashes on the gravel, as loud and as impertinent as if nighttime were the exclusive property of its own sounds. In the silence they know no measure, at night a decibel measures louder than day.
Before the mirror, the woman lets down her long chestnut-brown hair and brushes it with care—yet another test of patience. Then, made even more beautiful by the prospect of impending slumber, she climbs the steps of the narrow staircase and goes quietly down the hall to the bedroom, where her mate has warmed the bed for her. It smells sourly of male.
Ki xe lone, Leopold?
Kiri ten noju?
There is nothing more to say. Full of chicken giblets and lamb kidneys, of red wine, stout and coffee and yet as flaccid as an empty gunnysack, Leopold Bloom rolls over onto his other side; his feet that are sticking out past the blanket at the head of the bed next to Molly’s pillow, turns over too. Yesterday he was out the whole day and had sat up half the night with young Dedalus down in the kitchen till three o’clock in the morning. With his head at the foot of the bed—as usual—he sleeps on.
Half critically, half compassionately, Molly looks over at him. She herself would have it easier and will experience everything from her bed. Not the person who pursues events, but rather the person who stays in one place with open eyes sees and experiences much. Sooner or later all events flow past him, past her. Never tedious, never the same tide. He who abides misses nothing.
Molly shifts till she’s comfortable on the mattress, the loose quoits jungle on the brass bedstead. She extinguishes the lamp, the Bath of Nymph on the wall disappears into the darkness, Molly closes her eyes. She is too tired to carry on a monologue, thankfully her limbs transfer their weight to the surface beneath. Molly sinks deeper and deeper into the bed which gradually accommodates her body. Sleep rises from the foot of the bed, engulfs her toes, her knees, her loins, her bosom and her throat. Shortly before it reaches her ears, she hears a voice:
“Good night, my Queen.”
Good night my Queen? Molly wants to turn over, but her limbs do not obey her. She lets it be, sleep is mightier than the will. But then something rustles. And:
“Asleep already? So early, and on this night, of all nights?”
Tonight? Why tonight? Molly opens her eyes: what is that rustling? A brown bug crawls on the floor across the room. By the glow of the streetlight Molly sees a dent in its back, a wound that only a father could inflict, and smiles.
“Oh it’s you, Gregor!”
“It’s me, Molly, none other than your trusty secret admirer. I did hurry, but I nearly got here too late. I hope you don’t mind me visiting you at this portentous hour. The whole world is celebrating–aren’t you?”
Molly sits up, again the loose quoits on the metal bedframe jingle. At the last moment, Molly is snatched from sleep-and glad to see Gregor.
“No Leopolds asleep and Im not in the mooooooooood for it. I thought you’d come to a wretched end in the care of your family.”
“You see: I am healthy and alive. Better than ever.”
“But didnt the maid throw out your mortal remains?”
“Indeed!” I was playing dead. We bugs are good at that ”
“What if your fatherd heeeeear!”
“I am no longer afraid of him. In the beginning, I was bad off. I had no idea how one goes about getting food for oneself. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had that apple in my carapace and it hurt horribly. After a while, it fell off and the wound healed. In the course of time, I metamorphosed from an unhappy, unfree bugman into a free, happy manbug. Today I am more bug than man. As you can see, I am doing splendidly.”?
Gregor Samsa’s whispering enfolds Molly. He has a wonderful voice, rough, affectionate and flattering. Molly hears it reverberate in her belly. Gregor, keep talking. Please.
“I alays thought youd be larger.”
“I was—back then. It’s been more than 80 years now. I completed a long, very slow metamorphosis. Not overnight—I shrank over the course of many years. Smaller creatures possess better survival skills, since they have fewer needs and provide limited contact surface. Aren’t you as horrified by me as my family?”
Some have only their voices, nothing else. But that is plenty.
“Not atall I think youre sweeeeeet, Gregor sweet and adorable wouldnt you like to get into bed wme?”
“Gladly! I came to wish you a good night. So that you’ll have pleasant dreams.”
“What else can I do but dream my little bug if Im put to bed so early Leopold just wanted to rest a bit now hes been asleep this whole time I cant promise you my dreamsll be pleasant I fear.”
“Do try, my dear lady. Then you can tell them to me—to me and to the rest of the world, to everyone who is congregated at your windowsill. And who gaze, full of longing, at your bosom.”
“Everything without omission! No matter how horrible or obscene.”
“‘Seriousness could be the world’s undoing. Let’s just play a bit instead. We can play at being serious.”
Molly’s limbs relax, her belly softens. Gregor’s voice penetrates her very marrow, resounds in her tailbone. Never before had she perceived a voice riffling her nerve endings in such an uninhibited and pleasant manner as Gregor’s.
“Yes I want to yes,” she says.
Quickly, Gregor climbs up the foot of the brass bed. Bugs can be fast if they have to. Gregor’s legs work industriously, he crawls, scrabbling across the mattress and beneath the coverlet. There he at once begins to explore the sole of Molly’s foot, he breathes her scent in deeply. Then he crawls somewhat slowly and ponderously up the well-formed heel. His hirsute feet tickle. Molly sighs.
“Gregor stop that!”
She wiggles her foot. No sooner than the creature reached the ball of her foot than he slipped off onto the sheet.
“Poor little bug I didn’t mean to did you hurt yrself?”
“Not at all! I’m used to worse treatment at home. Did you like my foot massage?”
“It tickled so. ” After a pause. “It was very nice thank you.”
“I’m the one to say thank you, most honored lady! It has always been my dearest wish to pay you a visit and get to know you better. Today this wish is being granted. You cannot imagine how happy I am.”
“Gregor yre a charmer ya dont expect that of ya I thought you as a sufferbug and a sad sack.”
“That was then. When I was still young and had to please my father at all costs. I have learned to enjoy my life. That is not far off the mark, but it didn’t have to be. Only a few become gourmets, many remain gourmands to the last. That is why I am here.”
Molly pulls up her nightdress above her knees, and, shifting her weight from one buttock to the other, up above her hips. The mattress moves, too, again the brass quoits jingle. Molly looks over at her husband in alarm. He sleeps soundly. Crossing her arms, she slips the nightdress over her breasts and head, balls it up and throws it into the corner. The scent of her body permeates the room.
“Alright,” she says quietly.
Gregor begins anew, scrabbling up along Molly’s heel. Having reached the top, he explores her toes one after the other, kneads the sensitive skin between them. Molly does not move to stop him. She feels the back of her neck and her throat relaxing as if she had been dipped in a thick, warm liquid. Full of anticipation, she closes her eyes.
“Good night, Molly, ma belle.”
From Ja, sagt Molly, by Kemal Kurt, © Hitit Verlag, Berlin, 1998.
With the permission of the Kurt estate.
Translation © Marilya Veteto Reese