The Third Room
"That won't help you much," he said, leading me into a third room.
I got undressed, looked at myself and began to cry. What has happened to me?
I wasn't speaking to you, I thought.
"But I heard," he said, his little black eyes darting from side to side.
I carried the furniture from the corners, set the room to rights. Months later, I twisted the hands off the clock and put them in the ashtray.
"That won't help you much," he said from a speaker in the ceiling.
A sparrow slanted across the droning light, its head wrapped in a piece of blanket. Cocking the head at me, it remained there in the air.
The hour began to strike. I laid out two suits of underwear, the one I'd had on and the one given me. A door opened onto a little downward stairway. On a card pinned to the banister, in childish writing, I read: "You can go on home, Varla," and my throat pumped faster than any sparrow's.
"It's enjoyable to talk to you. At first one feels timid, but..."
He could not open his eyes. On the little bedside table, his hand lay half open, as though it had fallen there. The sun appeared to be shining behind the white metal shutters. A bell tolled in the distance.
"So you are thinking of making yourself a nest, are you? Look here, on my finger. The night passed badly, I assure you. Oh, yes, that little bird! 'Let him alone,' I told myself. 'He's turned jackdaw now.' But you know how things go."
In twenty years of experience, he'd seen plenty, but now he could be sure of only one thing: Some lunatic or joker was telegraphing him from Yalta.
"Don't be surprised; that's not delirium yet. Anything may happen. Anything may... the world is full of surprises."
His face twitched.
"Me, a philosopher? Devil knows! Just let me embrace you! -- Oh, what should you understand! I warned you, dear guest. Thank God, the crisis is at hand."
A smell of lamp oil and clover. Brown spots with livid green edges swam between his eyeballs and closed lids. Those and other fragments shivered into a mass, and then he woke.
Seeing the stranger huddled over him, he spoke, and it was as though he'd come down from a mountain. "It's the earth that rests on three fishes," he said, "not the other way around."
Certainly, he talked very little, but his silence often went unnoticed. Now I think maybe he didn't always exist. I am full of good intentions!
There are moments when I recover him as he must have been: a certain word I read, write, moves aside to make room for his own word:
"Why am I a human being? I do not leave my tongue hanging out. I am dead and despise anyone who is not."
Almost nothing else could grow in that dark field. Yet there was something else: something like a canal lock would open and we would change levels in relation to each other.
Soon, almost every subject can be talked about once again.
People may say "the body" and then call it "it." He will be put in a box. He is in that box. He looks as if he is breathing. He looks puzzled, as though he is refusing something.
The idea that he was sleeping, that is horrifying too -- a sleep that is never altogether closed, that is open on one side. I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus.
I get the flashlight. One could persuade oneself he was hiding himself. He didn't make my life easy. There is something just the right size, shape, and color. There is an unpleasant animal smell.
"Dear Stephen," I write. It's his turn to take care of the baby. I add commas where missing and question marks where required. I correct some misspellings. In one case I correct the spelling of his name. There is a tendency toward non-sequiturs. One sentence has little to do with the sentence that follows it:
"We went over a big bump and went flying through the air. Peter is the same boy. That is all I have to tell you. When it was over, some trees were bent and broken." It concludes by saying "Stephen should eat well" and "Stephen should have fun" and to plead, "Your stocking is not finished," before signing off with formulaic expressions of sympathy in handwriting that is well-rounded and upright.
It was like throwing a stone that would never be thrown back at me.
It was very late. The grandfather clock made heavy thudding human footsteps. He couldn't sleep. He'd lost his toothbrush and his loaf of Polish bread.
He put on his coat and hat and went out into the street. In a long, narrow restaurant with windows curtained with newspaper, he ate up all his money, and then wrote something down in his notebook.
He was still sitting in the same place, electric light hanging over him, when the whistles summoned the workers. In a few minutes, columns of golden smoke rose free -- the sun, lurking behind brick walls, climbing up their backs.
He returned to his room and got into bed. Some kind of strange picking like the scratching of a mouse. He wanted to go out into the corridor with a knife. If only his ears had lids like those of certain sea creatures.
Someone knocked. A woman's voice spoke with authority: "Get down on your knees." He got down on his knees. The clock marked the footsteps of her departure. After that, it ticked the way all such clocks do when they are alone in a room.