Wrong is the creator-owned magazine of uncanny and disturbing stories.

Friday, 30 October 2020

The Moonlit Road

by Ambrose Bierce


I am the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated and of sound health — with many other advantages usually valued by those having them and coveted by those who have them not — I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy if they had been denied me, for then the contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need of effort I might sometimes forget the somber secret ever baffling the conjecture that it compels.
I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The one was a well-to-do country gentleman, the other a beautiful and accomplished woman to whom he was passionately attached with what I now know to have been a jealous and exacting devotion. The family home was a few miles from Nashville, Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwelling of no particular order of architecture, a little way off the road, in a park of trees and shrubbery.
At the time of which I write I was nineteen years old, a student at Yale. One day I received a telegram from my father of such urgency that in compliance with its unexplained demand I left at once for home. At the railway station in Nashville a distant relative awaited me to apprise me of the reason for my recall: my mother had been barbarously murdered — why and by whom none could conjecture, but the circumstances were these:
My father had gone to Nashville, intending to return the next afternoon. Something prevented his accomplishing the business in hand, so he returned on the same night, arriving just before the dawn. In his testimony before the coroner he explained that having no latchkey and not caring to disturb the sleeping servants, he had, with no clearly defined intention, gone round to the rear of the house. As he turned an angle of the building, he heard a sound as of a door gently closed, and saw in the darkness, indistinctly, the figure of a man, which instantly disappeared among the trees of the lawn. A hasty pursuit and brief search of the grounds in the belief that the trespasser was someone secretly visiting a servant proving fruitless, he entered at the unlocked door and mounted the stairs to my mother’s chamber. Its door was open, and stepping into black darkness he fell headlong over some heavy object on the floor. I may spare myself the details; it was my poor mother, dead of strangulation by human hands!
Nothing had been taken from the house, the servants had heard no sound, and excepting those terrible finger marks upon the dead woman’s throat — dear God! that I might forget them! — no trace of the assassin was ever found.
I gave up my studies and remained with my father, who, naturally, was greatly changed. Always of a sedate, taciturn disposition, he now fell into so deep a dejection that nothing could hold his attention, yet anything — a footfall, the sudden closing of a door — aroused in him a fitful interest; one might have called it an apprehension. At any small surprise of the senses he would start visibly and sometimes turn pale, then relapse into a melancholy apathy deeper than before. I suppose he was what is called a ‘nervous wreck.’ As to me, I was younger then than now — there is much in that. Youth is Gilead, in which is balm for every wound. Ah, that I might again dwell in that enchanted land! Unacquainted with grief, I knew not how to appraise my bereavement; I could not rightly estimate the strength of the stroke.
One night, a few months after the dreadful event, my father and I walked home from the city. The full moon was about three hours above the eastern horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn stillness of a summer night; our footfalls and the ceaseless song of the katydids were the only sound, aloof black shadows of bordering trees lay athwart the road, which, in the short reaches between, gleamed a ghostly white. As we approached the gate to our dwelling, whose front was in shadow, and in which no light shone, my father suddenly stopped and clutched my arm, saying, hardly above his breath:
‘God! God! what is that?’
‘I hear nothing,’ I replied.
‘But see — see!’ he said, pointing along the road, directly ahead.
I said: ‘Nothing is there. Come, Father, let us go in — you are ill.’
He had released my arm and was standing rigid and motionless in the center of the illuminated roadway, staring like one bereft of sense. His face in the moonlight showed a pallor and fixity inexpressibly distressing. I pulled gently at his sleeve, but he had forgotten my existence. Presently he began to retire backward, step by step, never for an instant removing his eyes from what he saw, or thought he saw. I turned half round to follow, but stood irresolute. I do not recall any feeling of fear, unless a sudden chill was its physical manifestation. It seemed as if an icy wind had touched my face and enfolded my body from head to foot; I could feel the stir of it in my hair.
At that moment my attention was drawn to a light that suddenly streamed from an upper window of the house: one of the servants, awakened by what mysterious premonition of evil who can say, and in obedience to an impulse that she was never able to name, had lit a lamp. When I turned to look for my father he was gone, and in all the years that have passed no whisper of his fate has come across the borderland of conjecture from the realm of the unknown.

Today I am said to live; tomorrow, here in this room, will lie a senseless shape of clay that all too long was I. If anyone lift the cloth from the face of that unpleasant thing it will be in gratification of a mere morbid curiosity. Some, doubtless, will go further and inquire, ‘Who was he?’ In this writing I supply the only answer that I am able to make — Caspar Grattan. Surely, that should be enough. The name has served my small need for more than twenty years of a life of unknown length. True, I gave it to myself, but lacking another I had the right. In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even when it does not establish identity. Some, though, are known by numbers, which also seem inadequate distinctions.
One day, for illustration, I was passing along a street of a city, far from here, when I met two men in uniform, one of whom, half pausing and looking curiously into my face, said to his companion, ‘That man looks like 767.’ Something in the number seemed familiar and horrible. Moved by an uncontrollable impulse, I sprang into a side street and ran until I fell exhausted in a country lane.
I have never forgotten that number, and always it comes to memory attended by gibbering obscenity, peals of joyless laughter, the clang of iron doors. So I say a name, even if self-bestowed, is better than a number. In the register of the potter’s field I shall soon have both. What wealth!
Of him who shall find this paper I must beg a little consideration. It is not the history of my life; the knowledge to write that is denied me. This is only a record of broken and apparently unrelated memories, some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant beads upon a thread, others remote and strange, having the character of crimson dreams with interspaces blank and black-witch-fires glowing still and red in a great desolation.
Standing upon the shore of eternity, I turn for a last look landward over the course by which I came. There are twenty years of footprints fairly distinct, the impressions of bleeding feet. They lead through poverty and pain, devious and unsure, as of one staggering beneath a burden —

Remote, untended, melancholy, slow.

Ah, the poet’s prophecy of Me — how admirable, how dreadfully admirable!
Backward beyond the beginning of this via dolorosa — this epic of suffering with episodes of sin — I see nothing clearly; it comes out of a cloud. I know that it spans only twenty years, yet I am an old man.
One does not remember one’s birth — one has to be told. But with me it was different; life came to me full-handed and dowered me with all my faculties and powers. Of a previous existence I know no more than others, for all have stammering intimations that may be memories and may be dreams. I know only that my first consciousness was of maturity in body and mind — a consciousness accepted without surprise or conjecture. I merely found myself walking in a forest, half-clad, footsore, unutterably weary and hungry. Seeing a farmhouse, I approached and asked for food, which was given me by one who inquired my name. I did not know, yet knew that all had names. Greatly embarrassed, I retreated, and night coming on, lay down in the forest and slept.
The next day I entered a large town which I shall not name. Nor shall I recount further incidents of the life that is now to end — a life of wandering, always and everywhere haunted by an overmastering sense of crime in punishment of wrong and of terror in punishment of crime. Let me see if I can reduce it to narrative.
I seem once to have lived near a great city, a prosperous planter, married to a woman whom I loved and distrusted. We had, it sometimes seems, one child, a youth of brilliant parts and promise. He is at all times a vague figure, never clearly drawn, frequently altogether out of the picture.
One luckless evening it occurred to me to test my wife’s fidelity in a vulgar, commonplace way familiar to everyone who has acquaintance with the literature of fact and fiction. I went to the city, telling my wife that I should be absent until the following afternoon. But I returned before daybreak and went to the rear of the house, purposing to enter by a door with which I had secretly so tampered that it would seem to lock, yet not actually fasten. As I approached it, I heard it gently open and close, and saw a man steal away into the darkness. With murder in my heart, I sprang after him, but he had vanished without even the bad luck of identification. Sometimes now I cannot even persuade myself that it was a human being.
Crazed with jealousy and rage, blind and bestial with all the elemental passions of insulted manhood, I entered the house and sprang up the stairs to the door of my wife’s chamber. It was closed, but having tampered with its lock also, I easily entered and despite the black darkness soon stood by the side of her bed. My groping hands told me that although disarranged it was unoccupied.
‘She is below,’ I thought, ‘and terrified by my entrance has evaded me in the darkness of the hall.’
With the purpose of seeking her I turned to leave the room, but took a wrong direction — the right one! My foot struck her, cowering in a corner of the room. Instantly my hands were at her throat, stifling a shriek, my knees were upon her struggling body; and there in the darkness, without a word of accusation or reproach, I strangled her till she died!
There ends the dream. I have related it in the past tense, but the present would be the fitter form, for again and again the somber tragedy reenacts itself in my consciousness — over and over I lay the plan, I suffer the confirmation, I redress the wrong. Then all is blank; and afterward the rains beat against the grimy windowpanes, or the snows fall upon my scant attire, the wheels rattle in the squalid streets where my life lies in poverty and mean employment. If there is ever sunshine I do not recall it; if there are birds they do not sing.
There is another dream, another vision of the night. I stand among the shadows in a moonlit road. I am aware of another presence, but whose I cannot rightly determine. In the shadow of a great dwelling I catch the gleam of white garments; then the figure of a woman confronts me in the road — my murdered wife! There is death in the face; there are marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in terror — a terror that is upon me as I write. I can no longer rightly shape the words. See! they ——
Now I am calm, but truly there is no more to tell: the incident ends where it began — in darkness and in doubt.
Yes, I am again in control of myself: ‘the captain of my soul.’ But that is not respite; it is another stage and phase of expiation. My penance, constant in degree, is mutable in kind: one of its variants is tranquillity. After all, it is only a life-sentence. ‘To Hell for life’ — that is a foolish penalty: the culprit chooses the duration of his punishment. Today my term expires.
To each and all, the peace that was not mine.

I had retired early and fallen almost immediately into a peaceful sleep, from which I awoke with that indefinable sense of peril which is, I think, a common experience in that other, earlier life. Of its unmeaning character, too, I was entirely persuaded, yet that did not banish it. My husband, Joel Hetman, was away from home; the servants slept in another part of the house. But these were familiar conditions; they had never before distressed me. Nevertheless, the strange terror grew so insupportable that conquering my reluctance to move I sat up and lit the lamp at my bedside. Contrary to my expectation this gave me no relief; the light seemed rather an added danger, for I reflected that it would shine out under the door, disclosing my presence to whatever evil thing might lurk outside. You that are still in the flesh, subject to horrors of the imagination, think what a monstrous fear that must be which seeks in darkness security from malevolent existences of the night. That is to spring to close quarters with an unseen enemy — the strategy of despair!
Extinguishing the lamp I pulled the bedclothing about my head and lay trembling and silent, unable to shriek, forgetful to pray. In this pitiable state I must have lain for what you call hours — with us there are no hours, there is no time.
At last it came — a soft, irregular sound of footfalls on the stairs! They were slow, hesitant, uncertain, as of something that did not see its way; to my disordered reason all the more terrifying for that, as the approach of some blind and mindless malevolence to which is no appeal. I even thought that I must have left the hall lamp burning and the groping of this creature proved it a monster of the night. This was foolish and inconsistent with my previous dread of the light, but what would you have? Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell — we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.
Forgive, I pray you, this inconsequent digression by what was once a woman. You who consult us in this imperfect way — you do not understand. You ask foolish questions about things unknown and things forbidden. Much that we know and could impart in our speech is meaningless in yours. We must communicate with you through a stammering intelligence in that small fraction of our language that you yourselves can speak. You think that we are of another world. No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship. O God! what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair!
No, I did not die of fright: the Thing turned and went away. I heard it go down the stairs, hurriedly, I thought, as if itself in sudden fear. Then I rose to call for help. Hardly had my shaking hand found the door-knob when — merciful heaven! — I heard it returning. Its footfalls as it remounted the stairs were rapid, heavy and loud; they shook the house. I fled to an angle of the wall and crouched upon the floor. I tried to pray. I tried to call the name of my dear husband. Then I heard the door thrown open. There was an interval of unconsciousness, and when I revived I felt a strangling clutch upon my throat — felt my arms feebly beating against something that bore me backward — felt my tongue thrusting itself from between my teeth! And then I passed into this life.
No, I have no knowledge of what it was. The sum of what we knew at death is the measure of what we know afterward of all that went before. Of this existence we know many things, but no new light falls upon any page of that; in memory is written all of it that we can read. Here are no heights of truth overlooking the confused landscape of that dubitable domain. We still dwell in the Valley of the Shadow, lurk in its desolate places, peering from brambles and thickets at its mad, malign inhabitants. How should we have new knowledge of that fading past?
What I am about to relate happened on a night. We know when it is night, for then you retire to your houses and we can venture from our places of concealment to move unafraid about our old homes, to look in at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon your faces as you sleep. I had lingered long near the dwelling where I had been so cruelly changed to what I am, as we do while any that we love or hate remain. Vainly I had sought some method of manifestation, some way to make my continued existence and my great love and poignant pity understood by my husband and son. Always if they slept they would wake, or if in my desperation I dared approach them when they were awake, would turn toward me the terrible eyes of the living, frightening me by the glances that I sought from the purpose that I held.
On this night I had searched for them without success, fearing to find them; they were nowhere in the house, nor about the moonlit lawn. For, although the sun is lost to us forever, the moon, full-orbed or slender, remains to us.
Sometimes it shines by night, sometimes by day, but always it rises and sets, as in that other life.
I left the lawn and moved in the white light and silence along the road, aimless and sorrowing. Suddenly I heard the voice of my poor husband in exclamations of astonishment, with that of my son in reassurance and dissuasion; and there by the shadow of a group of trees they stood — near, so near! Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the elder man fixed upon mine. He saw me — at last, at last, he saw me! In the consciousness of that, my terror fled as a cruel dream. The death-spell was broken: Love had conquered Law! Mad with exultation I shouted — I must have shouted, ‘He sees, he sees: he will understand!’ Then, controlling myself, I moved forward, smiling and consciously beautiful, to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with endearments, and, with my son’s hand in mine, to speak words that should restore the broken bonds between the living and the dead.
Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes were as those of a hunted animal. He backed away from me, as I advanced, and at last turned and fled into the wood — whither, it is not given to me to know.
To my poor boy, left doubly desolate, I have never been able to impart a sense of my presence. Soon, he, too, must pass to this Life Invisible and be lost to me forever.

Friday, 23 October 2020

In A Grove

by Ryƫnosuke Akutagawa

The Testimony of a Woodcutter Questioned by a High Police Commissioner

Yes, sir. Certainly, it was I who found the body. This morning, as usual, I went to cut my daily quota of cedars, when I found the body in a grove in a hollow in the mountains. The exact location? About 150 meters off the Yamashina stage road. It's an out-of-the-way grove of bamboo and cedars.
The body was lying flat on its back dressed in a bluish silk kimono and a wrinkled head-dress of the Kyoto style. A single sword-stroke had pierced the breast. The fallen bamboo-blades around it were stained with bloody blossoms. No, the blood was no longer running. The wound had dried up, I believe. And also, a gad-fly was stuck fast there, hardly noticing my footsteps.
You ask me if I saw a sword or any such thing?
No, nothing, sir. I found only a rope at the root of a cedar near by. And … well, in addition to a rope, I found a comb. That was all. Apparently he must have made a battle of it before he was murdered, because the grass and fallen bamboo-blades had been trampled down all around.
"A horse was near by?"
No, sir. It's hard enough for a man to enter, let alone a horse.

The Testimony of a Traveling Buddhist Priest Questioned by a High Police Commissioner

The time? Certainly, it was about noon yesterday, sir. The unfortunate man was on the road from Sekiyama to Yamashina. He was walking toward Sekiyama with a woman accompanying him on horseback, who I have since learned was his wife. A scarf hanging from her head hid her face from view. All I saw was the color of her clothes, a lilac-colored suit. Her horse was a sorrel with a fine mane. The lady's height? Oh, about four feet five inches. Since I am a Buddhist priest, I took little notice about her details. Well, the man was armed with a sword as well as a bow and arrows. And I remember that he carried some twenty odd arrows in his quiver.
Little did I expect that he would meet such a fate. Truly human life is as evanescent as the morning dew or a flash of lightning. My words are inadequate to express my sympathy for him.

The Testimony of a Policeman Questioned by a High Police Commissioner

The man that I arrested? He is a notorious brigand called Tajomaru. When I arrested him, he had fallen off his horse. He was groaning on the bridge at Awataguchi. The time? It was in the early hours of last night. For the record, I might say that the other day I tried to arrest him, but unfortunately he escaped. He was wearing a dark blue silk kimono and a large plain sword. And, as you see, he got a bow and arrows somewhere. You say that this bow and these arrows look like the ones owned by the dead man? Then Tajomaru must be the murderer. The bow wound with leather strips, the black lacquered quiver, the seventeen arrows with hawk feathers—these were all in his possession I believe. Yes, Sir, the horse is, as you say, a sorrel with a fine mane. A little beyond the stone bridge I found the horse grazing by the roadside, with his long rein dangling. Surely there is some providence in his having been thrown by the horse.
Of all the robbers prowling around Kyoto, this Tajomaru has given the most grief to the women in town. Last autumn a wife who came to the mountain back of the Pindora of the Toribe Temple, presumably to pay a visit, was murdered, along with a girl. It has been suspected that it was his doing. If this criminal murdered the man, you cannot tell what he may have done with the man's wife. May it please your honor to look into this problem as well.

The Testimony of an Old Woman Questioned by a High Police Commissioner

Yes, sir, that corpse is the man who married my daughter. He does not come from Kyoto. He was a samurai in the town of Kokufu in the province of Wakasa. His name was Kanazawa no Takehiko, and his age was twenty-six. He was of a gentle disposition, so I am sure he did nothing to provoke the anger of others.
My daughter? Her name is Masago, and her age is nineteen. She is a spirited, fun-loving girl, but I am sure she has never known any man except Takehiko. She has a small, oval, dark-complected face with a mole at the corner of her left eye.
Yesterday Takehiko left for Wakasa with my daughter. What bad luck it is that things should have come to such a sad end! What has become of my daughter? I am resigned to giving up my son-in-law as lost, but the fate of my daughter worries me sick. For heaven's sake leave no stone unturned to find her. I hate that robber Tajomaru, or whatever his name is. Not only my son-in-law, but my daughter … (Her later words were drowned in tears.)

Tajomaru's Confession

I killed him, but not her. Where's she gone? I can't tell. Oh, wait a minute. No torture can make me confess what I don't know. Now things have come to such a head, I won't keep anything from you.
Yesterday a little past noon I met that couple. Just then a puff of wind blew, and raised her hanging scarf, so that I caught a glimpse of her face. Instantly it was again covered from my view. That may have been one reason; she looked like a Bodhisattva. At that moment I made up my mind to capture her even if I had to kill her man.
Why? To me killing isn't a matter of such great consequence as you might think. When a woman is captured, her man has to be killed anyway. In killing, I use the sword I wear at my side. Am I the only one who kills people? You, you don't use your swords. You kill people with your power, with your money. Sometimes you kill them on the pretext of working for their good. It's true they don't bleed. They are in the best of health, but all the same you've killed them. It's hard to say who is a greater sinner, you or me. (An ironical smile.)
But it would be good if I could capture a woman without killing her man. So, I made up my mind to capture her, and do my best not to kill him. But it's out of the question on the Yamashina stage road. So I managed to lure the couple into the mountains.
It was quite easy. I became their traveling companion, and I told them there was an old mound in the mountain over there, and that I had dug it open and found many mirrors and swords. I went on to tell them I'd buried the things in a grove behind the mountain, and that I'd like to sell them at a low price to anyone who would care to have them. Then … you see, isn't greed terrible? He was beginning to be moved by my talk before he knew it. In less than half an hour they were driving their horse toward the mountain with me.
When he came in front of the grove, I told them that the treasures were buried in it, and I asked them to come and see. The man had no objection— he was blinded by greed. The woman said she would wait on horseback. It was natural for her to say so, at the sight of a thick grove. To tell you the truth, my plan worked just as I wished, so I went into the grove with him, leaving her behind alone.
The grove is only bamboo for some distance. About fifty yards ahead there's a rather open clump of cedars. It was a convenient spot for my purpose. Pushing my way through the grove, I told him a plausible lie that the treasures were buried under the cedars. When I told him this, he pushed his laborious way toward the slender cedar visible through the grove. After a while the bamboo thinned out, and we came to where a number of cedars grew in a row. As soon as we got there, I seized him from behind. Because he was a trained, sword-bearing warrior, he was quite strong, but he was taken by surprise, so there was no help for him. I soon tied him up to the root of a cedar. Where did I get a rope? Thank heaven, being a robber, I had a rope with me, since I might have to scale a wall at any moment. Of course it was easy to stop him from calling out by gagging his mouth with fallen bamboo leaves.
When I disposed of him, I went to his woman and asked her to come and see him, because he seemed to have been suddenly taken sick. It's needless to say that this plan also worked well. The woman, her sedge hat off, came into the depths of the grove, where I led her by the hand. The instant she caught sight of her husband, she drew a small sword. I've never seen a woman of such violent temper. If I'd been off guard, I'd have got a thrust in my side. I dodged, but she kept on slashing at me. She might have wounded me deeply or killed me. But I'm Tajomaru. I managed to strike down her small sword without drawing my own. The most spirited woman is defenseless without a weapon. At least I could satisfy my desire for her without taking her husband's life.
Yes … without taking his life. I had no wish to kill him. I was about to run away from the grove, leaving the woman behind in tears, when she frantically clung to my arm. In broken fragments of words, she asked that either her husband or I die. She said it was more trying than death to have her shame known to two men. She gasped out that she wanted to be the wife of whichever survived. Then a furious desire to kill him seized me. (Gloomy excitement.)
Telling you in this way, no doubt I seem a crueler man than you. But that's because you didn't see her face. Especially her burning eyes at that moment. As I saw her eye to eye, I wanted to make her my wife even if I were to be struck by lightning. I wanted to make her my wife … this single desire filled my mind. This was not only lust, as you might think. At that time if I'd had no other desire than lust, I'd surely not have minded knocking her down and running away. Then I wouldn't have stained my sword with his blood. But the moment I gazed at her face in the dark grove, I decided not to leave there without killing him.
But I didn't like to resort to unfair means to kill him. I untied him and told him to cross swords with me. (The rope that was found at the root of the cedar is the rope I dropped at the time.) Furious with anger, he drew his thick sword. And quick as thought, he sprang at me ferociously, without speaking a word. I needn't tell you how our fight turned out. The twenty-third stroke … please remember this. I'm impressed with this fact still. Nobody under the sun has ever clashed swords with me twenty strokes. (A cheerful smile.)
When he fell, I turned toward her, lowering my blood-stained sword. But to my great astonishment she was gone. I wondered to where she had run away. I looked for her in the clump of cedars. I listened, but heard only a groaning sound from the throat of the dying man.
As soon as we started to cross swords, she may have run away through the grove to call for help. When I thought of that, I decided it was a matter of life and death to me. So, robbing him of his sword, and bow and arrows, I ran out to the mountain road. There I found her horse still grazing quietly. It would be a mere waste of words to tell you the later details, but before I entered town I had already parted with the sword. That's all my confession. I know that my head will be hung in chains anyway, so put me down for the maximum penalty. (A defiant attitude.)

The Repentance of a Woman Who Has Come to Kiyomizu Temple

That man in the blue silk kimono, after forcing me to yield to him, laughed mockingly as he looked at my bound husband. How horrified my husband must have been! But no matter how hard he struggled in agony, the rope cut into him all the more tightly. In spite of myself I ran stumblingly toward his side. Or rather I tried to run toward him, but the man instantly knocked me down. Just at that moment I saw an indescribable light in my husband's eyes. Something beyond expression … his eyes make me shudder even now. That instantaneous look of my husband, who couldn't speak a word, told me all his heart. The flash in his eyes was neither anger nor sorrow … only a cold light, a look of loathing. More struck by the look in his eyes than by the blow of the thief, I called out in spite of myself and fell unconscious.
In the course of time I came to, and found that the man in blue silk was gone. I saw only my husband still bound to the root of the cedar. I raised myself from the bamboo-blades with difficulty, and looked into his face; but the expression in his eyes was just the same as before.
Beneath the cold contempt in his eyes, there was hatred. Shame, grief, and anger … I don't know how to express my heart at that time. Reeling to my feet, I went up to my husband.
"Takejiro," I said to him, "since things have come to this pass, I cannot live with you. I'm determined to die … but you must die, too. You saw my shame. I can't leave you alive as you are."
This was all I could say. Still he went on gazing at me with loathing and contempt. My heart breaking, I looked for his sword. It must have been taken by the robber. Neither his sword nor his bow and arrows were to be seen in the grove. But fortunately my small sword was lying at my feet. Raising it over head, once more I said, "Now give me your life. I'll follow you right away."
When he heard these words, he moved his lips with difficulty. Since his mouth was stuffed with leaves, of course his voice could not be heard at all. But at a glance I understood his words. Despising me, his look said only, "Kill me." Neither conscious nor unconscious, I stabbed the small sword through the lilac-colored kimono into his breast.
Again at this time I must have fainted. By the time I managed to look up, he had already breathed his last—still in bonds. A streak of sinking sunlight streamed through the clump of cedars and bamboos, and shone on his pale face. Gulping down my sobs, I untied the rope from his dead body. And … and what has become of me? Only that, since I have no more strength to tell you. Anyway, I hadn't the strength to die. I stabbed my own throat with the small sword, I threw myself into a pond at the foot of the mountain, and I tried to kill myself in many ways. Unable to end my life, I am still living in dishonor. (A lonely smile.) Worthless as I am, I must have been forsaken even by the most merciful Kwannon. I killed my own husband. I was violated by the robber. Whatever can I do? Whatever can I … I … (Gradually, violent sobbing.)

The Story of the Murdered Man, as Told Through a Medium

After violating my wife, the robber, sitting there, began to speak comforting words to her. Of course I couldn't speak. My whole body was tied fast to the root of a cedar. But meanwhile I winked at her many times, as much as to say "Don't believe the robber." I wanted to convey some such meaning to her. But my wife, sitting dejectedly on the bamboo leaves, was looking hard at her lap. To all appearance, she was listening to his words. I was agonized by jealousy. In the meantime the robber went on with his clever talk, from one subject to another. The robber finally made his bold brazen proposal. "Once your virtue is stained, you won't get along well with your husband, so won't you be my wife instead? It's my love for you that made me be violent toward you."
While the criminal talked, my wife raised her face as if in a trance. She had never looked so beautiful as at that moment. What did my beautiful wife say in answer to him while I was sitting bound there? I am lost in space, but I have never thought of her answer without burning with anger and jealousy. Truly she said, … "Then take me away with you wherever you go."
This is not the whole of her sin. If that were all, I would not be tormented so much in the dark. When she was going out of the grove as if in a dream, her hand in the robber's, she suddenly turned pale, and pointed at me tied to the root of the cedar, and said, "Kill him! I cannot marry you as long as he lives." "Kill him!" she cried many times, as if she had gone crazy. Even now these words threaten to blow me headlong into the bottomless abyss of darkness. Has such a hateful thing come out of a human mouth ever before? Have such cursed words ever struck a human ear, even once? Even once such a … (A sudden cry of scorn.) At these words the robber himself turned pale. "Kill him," she cried, clinging to his arms. Looking hard at her, he answered neither yes nor no … but hardly had I thought about his answer before she had been knocked down into the bamboo leaves. (Again a cry of scorn.) Quietly folding his arms, he looked at me and said, "What will you do with her? Kill her or save her? You have only to nod. Kill her?" For these words alone I would like to pardon his crime.
While I hesitated, she shrieked and ran into the depths of the grove. The robber instantly snatched at her, but he failed even to grasp her sleeve.
After she ran away, he took up my sword, and my bow and arrows. With a single stroke he cut one of my bonds. I remember his mumbling, "My fate is next." Then he disappeared from the grove. All was silent after that. No, I heard someone crying. Untying the rest of my bonds, I listened carefully, and I noticed that it was my own crying. (Long silence.)
I raised my exhausted body from the foot of the cedar. In front of me there was shining the small sword which my wife had dropped. I took it up and stabbed it into my breast. A bloody lump rose to my mouth, but I didn't feel any pain. When my breast grew cold, everything was as silent as the dead in their graves. What profound silence! Not a single bird-note was heard in the sky over this grave in the hollow of the mountains. Only a lonely light lingered on the cedars and mountains. By and by the light gradually grew fainter, till the cedars and bamboo were lost to view. Lying there, I was enveloped in deep silence.
Then someone crept up to me. I tried to see who it was. But darkness had already been gathering round me. Someone … that someone drew the small sword softly out of my breast in its invisible hand. At the same time once more blood flowed into my mouth. And once and for all I sank down into the darkness of space.

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Undertaker

by Alexander Pushkin

The last remaining goods of the undertaker, Adrian Prohoroff, were piled on the hearse, and the gaunt pair dragged the vehicle for the fourth time along from the Basmannaia to the Nikitskaia, where the undertaker had moved with all his household. Closing the shop, he nailed to the gates an announcement that the house was to be sold or let, and then started on foot for his new abode. Approaching the small yellow house which had long attracted his fancy and which he at last bought at a high price, the old undertaker was surprised to find that his heart did not rejoice. Crossing the strange threshold he found disorder inside his new abode, and pined for the old hovel, where for eighteen years everything had been kept in the most perfect order. He began scolding both his daughters and the servant for being so slow, and proceeded to help them himself. Order was speedily established. The case with the holy pictures, the cupboard with the crockery, the table, sofa, and bedstead, took up their appropriate corners in the back room. In the kitchen and parlour was placed the master’s stock in trade, that is to say, coffins of every colour and of all sizes; likewise wardrobes containing mourning hats, mantles, and funeral torches. Over the gate hung a signboard representing a corpulent cupid holding a reversed torch in his hand, with the following inscription: ‘Here coffins are sold, covered, plain, or painted. They are also let out on hire, and old ones are repaired.
The daughters had retired to their own room, Adrian went over his residence, sat down by the window, and ordered the samovar to be got ready.
The enlightened reader is aware that both Shakespeare and Walter Scott have represented their gravediggers as lively jocular people, no doubt for the sake of a strong contrast. But respect for truth prevents me from following their example; and I must confess that the disposition of our undertaker corresponded closely with his melancholy trade. Adrian Prohoroff was usually pensive and gloomy. He only broke silence to scold his daughters when he found them idle, looking out of window at the passers by, or asking too exorbitant prices for his products from those who had the misfortune (sometimes the pleasure) to require them. Sitting by the window drinking his seventh cup of tea, according to his custom, Adrian was wrapped in the saddest thoughts. He was thinking of the pouring rain, which a week before had met the funeral of a retired brigadier at the turnpike gate, causing many mantles to shrink and many hats to contract. He foresaw inevitable outlay, his existing supply of funeral apparel being in such a sad condition. But he hoped to make good the loss from the funeral of the old shopkeeper, Tiruhina, who had been at the point of death for the last year. Tiruhina, however, was dying at Basgulai, and Prohoroff was afraid that her heirs, in spite of their promise to him, might be too lazy to send so far, preferring to strike a bargain with the nearest contractor.
These reflections were interrupted unexpectedly by three robust knocks at the door. ‘Who is there?’ enquired the undertaker. The door opened and a man, in whom at a glance might be recognised a German artisan, entered the room, and with a cheery look approached the undertaker.
‘Pardon me, my dear neighbour,’ he said, with the accent which even now we Russians never hear without a smile; ‘Pardon me for disturbing you; I wanted to make your acquaintance at once. I am a bootmaker, my name is Gottlieb Schultz, I live in the next street—in that little house opposite your windows. Tomorrow I celebrate my silver wedding, and I want you and your daughters to dine with me in a friendly way.’
The invitation was accepted. The undertaker asked the bootmaker to sit down and have a cup of tea, and thanks to Gottlieb Schultz’s frank disposition, they were soon talking in a friendly way.
‘How does your business get on?’ enquired Adrian.
‘Oh, oh,’ replied Schultz, ‘one way and another I have no reason to complain. Though, of course, my goods are not like yours. A living man can do without boots, but a corpse cannot do without a coffin.’
‘Perfectly true,’ said Adrian, ‘still, if a living man has nothing to buy boots with he goes barefooted, whereas the destitute corpse gets his coffin sometimes for nothing.’
Their conversation continued in this style for some time, until at last the bootmaker rose and took leave of the undertaker, repeating his invitation.
Next day, punctually at twelve o’clock, the undertaker and his daughters passed out at the gate of their newly-bought house, and proceeded to their neighbours. I do not intend to describe Adrian’s Russian caftan nor the European dress of Akulina or Daria, contrary though this be to the custom of fiction-writers of the present day. I don’t, however, think it superfluous to mention that both, maidens wore yellow bonnets and scarlet shoes, which they only did on great occasions.
The bootmaker’s small lodging was filled with guests, principally German artisans, their wives, and assistants. Of Russian officials there was only one watchman, the Finn Yurko, who had managed, in spite of his humble position, to gain the special favour of his chief. He had also performed the functions of postman for about twenty-five years, serving truly and faithfully the people of Pogorelsk. The fire which, in the year 1812, consumed the capital, annihilated also his humble sentry box. But no sooner had the enemy fled than in its place appeared a small, new, grey sentry box, with tiny white columns of Doric architecture, and Yurko resumed his patrol in front of it with battle-axe on shoulder, and in the civic armour of the police uniform.
He was well known to the greater portion of the German residents near the Nikitski Gates, some of whom had occasionally even passed the night from Sunday until Monday in Yurko’s box.
Adrian promptly made friends with a man of whom, sooner or later, he might have need, and as the guests were just then going in to dinner they sat down together.
Mr and Mrs Schultz and their daughter, the seventeen-year-old Lotchen, while dining with their guests, attended to their wants and assisted the cook to wait upon them. Beer flowed. Yurko ate for four, and Adrian did not fall short of him, though his daughters stood upon ceremony.
The conversation, which was in German, grew louder every hour.
Suddenly the host called for the attention of the company, and opening a pitch-covered bottle, exclaimed loudly in Russian:
‘The health of my good Louisa!’
The imitation champagne frothed. The host kissed tenderly the fresh face of his forty-year old spouse and the guests drank vociferously the health of good Louisa.
‘The health of my dear guests!’ cried the host opening the second bottle. The guests thanked him and emptied their glasses. Then one toast followed another. The health of each guest was proposed separately; then the health of Moscow and of about a dozen German towns. They drank the health of the guilds in general, and afterwards of each one separately; The health of the foremen and of the workmen. Adrian drank with a will and became so lively, that he himself proposed some jocular toast.
Suddenly one of the guests, a stout baker, raised his glass and exclaimed:
‘The health of our customers!’
This toast like all the others was drunk joyfully and unanimously. The guests nodded to each other; the tailor to the bootmaker, the bootmaker to the tailor; the baker to them both and all to the baker.
Yurko in the midst of this bowing called out as he turned towards his neighbour:
‘Now then, my friend, drink to the health of your corpses.’
Everybody laughed except the undertaker, who felt himself affronted and frowned. No one noticed this; and the guests went on drinking till the bells began to ring for evening service, when they all rose from the table.
The party had broken up late and most of the guests were very hilarious. The stout baker, with the bookbinder, whose face looked as if it were bound in red morocco, led Yurko by the arms to his sentry box, thus putting in practice the proverb, ‘One good turn deserves another.’
The undertaker went home drunk and angry.
‘How, indeed,’ he exclaimed aloud. ‘Is my trade worse than any other? Is an undertaker brother to the executioner? What have those heathens got to laugh at? Is an undertaker a hypocritical buffoon? I meant to invite them to a housewarming, to give them a grand spread, but let them wait. I will ask my customers instead – my orthodox corpses.’
‘What!’ exclaimed the maid, who at that moment was taking off the undertaker’s boots. ‘What is that, sir, you are saying? Make the sign of the cross! Invite the dead to your housewarming! How awful!’
‘I will certainly invite them,’ persisted Adrian, ‘and not later than for tomorrow. Honour me, my benefactors, with your company to-morrow evening at a feast. I will offer you what God has given me.’
With these words the undertaker retired to bed, and was soon snoring.
It was still dark when Adrian awoke. The shopkeeper, Triuhina, had died in the night, and her steward had sent a special messenger on horseback to inform Adrian of the fact. The undertaker gave him a silver fourpenny bit for his trouble, to buy vodka with; dressed hurriedly, took a cab, and drove off to Rasgulai. At the gate of the dead woman’s house the police were already standing, and dealers in mourning goods were hovering around, like ravens who have scented a corpse. The deceased was lying in state on the table, yellow like wax, but not yet disfigured by decomposition. Relations, neighbours, and friends crowded around. All the windows were open; wax tapers were burning; and the clergy were reading prayers. Adrian went up to the nephew, a young merchant in a fashionable coat, and informed him that the coffin, tapers, pall, and the funeral paraphernalia in general would promptly arrive. The heir thanked him in an absent manner, saying that he would not bargain about the price, but leave it all to his conscience. The undertaker, as usual, vowed that his charges should be moderate, exchanged significant glances with the steward, and left to make the necessary preparations.
The whole day was spent in travelling from Rasgulai to the Nikitski Gates and back again. Towards evening everything was settled, and he started home on foot after discharging his hired carriage. It was a moonlit night, and the undertaker got safely to the Nikitski Gates. At the Church of the Ascension our friend Yoorko hailed him, and on recognizing the undertaker wished him good-night. It was late. The undertaker was close to his house when he thought he saw someone approach the gates, open the wicket, and go in.
‘What can this mean?’ thought Adrian. ‘Who can be wanting me at this hour? Is it a burglar, or can my foolish girls have lovers coming after them? It bodes ill.’ And the undertaker was on the point of calling his friend Yurko to his assistance when someone else came up to the wicket and was about to enter, but seeing the master of the house nearby, he stopped and took off his hat. His face seemed familiar to Adrian, but in his hurry he had not been able to see it properly.
‘You want me?’ said Adrian, out of breath. ‘Come in, in that case.’
‘Don’t stand on ceremony, my friend,’ replied the other in a hollow voice. ‘You go first, and show your guest the way.’
Adrian had no time to waste on formality. The gate was open, and he went up to the steps followed by the other. Adrian heard people walking about in his rooms.
‘What the devil is going on?’ he wondered, and he hurried inside. But now his legs seemed to be giving way. The room was full of dead people. The moon, shining through the windows, lit up their yellow and blue faces, sunken mouths, dim half-closed eyes, and putrid noses. To his horror Adrian recognised them as people he had buried, and the guest who came in with him was the brigadier who had been interred in the pouring rain. All the ladies and gentlemen surrounded the undertaker, bowing, and greeting him – all except one poor fellow, who had quite recently been buried gratis, and who, ashamed of his rags, did not venture to come forward, but stood shyly in a corner. The others were all decently clad; the female corpses in caps and ribbons, the soldiers and officials in their uniforms, but with unshaven beards; and the tradespeople in their best caftans.
‘Prohoroff,’ said the brigadier, speaking on behalf of all the company, ‘we have all risen at your invitation. The only ones to remain behind are those who could not possibly come, having crumbled to pieces, or who have nothing left but bare bones. But even in that state, there was one who could not resist—he wanted so much to come.’
At this moment a diminutive skeleton pushed his way through the crowd and approached Adrian. His death’s head grinned affably at the undertaker. Shreds of green and red cloth and of rotten linen hung on him as on a pole; while the bones of his feet clattered inside his heavy boots like pestles in mortars.
‘Don’t you recognise me, Prohoroff?’ said the skeleton. ‘Don’t you remember the retired sergeant in the guards, Peter Petrovitch Kurilkin, him to whom you in the year 1799 sold your first coffin, and of pine instead of oak?’
With these words the corpse stretched out his long arms to embrace him. But Adrian collecting his strength, shrieked, and pushed him away. Peter Petrovitch staggered, fell over, and crumbled to pieces. There was a murmur of indignation among the company of the dead. All stood up for the honour of their companion, threatening and upbraiding Adrian till the poor man, deafened by their shrieks and quite overcome, lost his senses and fell unconscious among the bones of the retired sergeant of the guard.
The sun had been shining for some time upon the bed on which the undertaker lay, when he at last opened his eyes and saw the servant lighting the samovar. With horror he recalled all the incidents of the previous day. Triuchin, the brigadier, and the sergeant, Kurilkin, passed dimly before his imagination. He waited in silence for the servant to speak and tell him what had occurred during the night.
‘How you have slept, Adrian Prohorovitch!’ said the maid, handing him his dressing-gown. ‘Your neighbour the tailor called, also the watchman, to say that to-day was Turko’s namesday; but you were so fast asleep that we did not disturb you.’
‘Did anyone come from the late Triuhina?’
‘The late? Is she dead, then?’
‘What a fool! Didn’t you help me yesterday to make arrangements for her funeral?’
‘Have you lost your mind, sir, or are you still suffering from last night’s drink? You were feasting all day at the German’s. You came home drunk, threw yourself on the bed, and have slept till now, when the bells have stopped ringing for Mass.’
‘Really!’ exclaimed the undertaker, delighted at the explanation.
‘Of course,’ replied the servant.
‘Well, if that's the case, let's have a nice cup of tea.’