A SMILE AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Maybe a law of gravitation was in force here too:
Suddenly I found myself attracted to a strange unknown city. This city wasn’t included in the itinerary of my voyage round the world by air. I didn’t even know its name, or whether such a clime was to be found on Earth at all.
It happened this way:
When the airplane slid out of the slanted air onto the silky smooth runway, on its way to kick out some passengers to their connecting flight, glugging itself full of gas, or some other drinkable, en route to another nonstop across the sea — I nonchalantly grabbed my bag and in a daze followed the few passengers off the plane.
I miraculously got free of the high, transparent aerodrome, where the people looked like flies under a huge glass.
I left without saying goodbye to my stewardess, the beautiful daughter of Bengal, with a glowing ruby above the delicate meeting of her brows.
In the airplane I also left behind a half day of my life; who knows if eternity will return the loss.
Jumping into the best car I could find, I said to the Chinese man with the cheeks of a mummy:
“Take me to Main Street!”
As the car zoomed off to the main street, though no main street – of course – was to be found, and no main man either, two black cleavers from the airplane rendered molten by the sun quickly sliced into the car, like the half day that was choked up in my insides.
In an endless narrow street, like a swollen vein the color of a cloudy blue sky, I asked the driver to stop at a post office.
According to the calendar it was spring. But it seemed to me to be a fifth season. The four seasons of the year, like four wheels of a wagon, rolled off the axles and went to hell. Only a fifth season was left: the whipped horse.
An in-between sort of color, when the moon takes over from the sun guard duty for the earth, imbued the steamy air between the walls.
The narrow street was lined with trees; the sidewalks, swarming with people, were paved with a mosaic of smashed shells. From the trees hung fruit which one could have mistaken for plump birds.
I went into the post office and considered this situation, new for me: should I telegraph my friends that I had had to stop in such-and-such a city, or find a hotel first and unloose a cold waterfall over my head?
I fingered my address book, which opened up by itself. My eye, or subconscious eye, fell on Buk. William Buk. A long forgotten name; his address: in this city where I was now. Buk, Buk – oh, I remember: a year ago and maybe more I got a letter from an unknown William Buk who was publishing a dictionary of modern world literature. He asked me to send him a bio. I satisfied his request, receiving an elegant thank-you note in return.
I tried my luck and rang him up.
A soft voice, like the smoke of a Havana cigar, curled out of the receiver. When I uttered my name, I sensed a smoky smile issuing from the telephone.
“What hotel are you in?”
“None, for the moment.”
“So where are you calling from?” the voice asked with the same fatherly tenderness.
“From the post office, the post office where the sidewalks are paved with smashed seashells.”
“I’m coming soon. My self-portrait: a short beard, a cigar in my mouth, an orange hat with a broad brim and a black walking stick.”
Not ten minutes passed, and I felt a friendly slap on my back, as if he was the one who had recognized me over the telephone.
“William Buk. You’re my guest. A room is waiting for you in the Gong Hotel.”
A brand new Cadillac folded both of us into its soft rocking plush, as if into lukewarm water.
“I must warn you,” said William Buk, treating me to a cigar, two of which together could make a walking stick, “that in this city, which is, by the way, the city of my birth, just turning around is frightening. The inhabitants, albeit not all of them, have X-ray vision. Even if you could hide your money in your appendix, they would be capable of detecting and extracting it.” His face donned a smile like a smoky mask.
“My appendix was taken out a long time ago,” I smiled back through the tissue of smoke.
“Nevertheless you must remember where you are. Please turn around and look behind you, out the rear window. Do you see that little red car following us? That’s my guards. I can’t allow myself the luxury of traveling without an escort. I’m like the director of an insane asylum, who doesn’t have backup.” We both burst out laughing like two jealous thunderbolts – and our laughter stopped suddenly when we got to the Gong Hotel.
William Buk took me by the arm:
“Wash up and get some rest. I’ll take you out to dinner later.”
* * *
William was here. A different William. His face was pink, pink like a carrot, wrinkle-free like a freshly washed corpse.
“I wasn’t clever enough to ask you how long you were staying in our city,” he said, taking me by the arm and helping me into the Cadillac, “but you’re my guest as long as you’re here. I have already arranged a banquet in your honor in my villa – for tomorrow. There you will meet some remarkable people. I have already spoken with the mayor. He will come too.”
It was quite late at night. The red car floated after the Cadillac like a trained seal. And the hands of my watch displayed a nonexistent hour.
Flowing streams. Slender naked manhorses with feathers on their heads and bells on their necks leaped while racing, bells tinkling, trying hard to act like real horses to amuse the couples embracing in the floating carriages. On the walls, fiery dragons in red and blue. The screaming advertisements, seen from the speeding car, dazzled and enchanted like a swarm of microbes under the powerful ray of a microscope.
The Cadillac stopped. We were in the middle of some cherry trees. The boulevard led downhill. William broke off a cherry twig, first bringing it to my mouth and then swallowed the rest of them.
The boulevard ended in a small door – we had to bend down to go in. The light was like sunset in a storm.
Two girls with long eyelashes like butterflies, their porcelain bodies barely wrapped in pink, shimmering silk, came running up with flasks of water, knelt before us, took off our socks and shoes and washed our feet. After washing them and drying them with a towel, they put purple slippers on us. It happened so unexpectedly, that for a moment I was sure they had stolen my old feet and put new ones on me. William reassured me:
“This is the custom here. In Europe people wash their hands before eating, and here – their feet. In your honor I chose a restaurant where in addition to the other curiosities the dishes are very tasty. In Paris and London you can stuff your belly with mud if you like.”
It was obvious that William Buk was in his element here. People bowed to him and stepped aside to let him pass. He barely had a chance to acknowledge the porcelain smiles of the guests and wait staff.
“Do you know why everyone’s smiling here?” William Buk gazed at me mysteriously while the maître d’, who looked like a Chinese Napoleon, led us to a table. “Because everybody wants to show everyone else that he has teeth – sharp teeth.” And he gave a capacious smile to show the meaning of the symbolism.
William Buk inserted a monocle in his left eye, made a dazzling scan of the menu with it, and made a professional determination:
“We will start with the viper. A delicate dish. The art is as impressive as the artist. I mean to say, that the art of preparation plays the main role here. The viper is cooked together with its deadly venom. The venom is neutralized in the heat – the Angel of Death’s needle stabs no longer, but caresses like a girl’s tongue. After eating viper one should wash it down with Hummingbird wine. Here is the bottle.”
While William was praising the exotic delicacy, I concocted an elegant excuse, pulled it right off the tip of my nose, that I had a stomachache and I must, unfortunately, make do with, I don’t know, a bowl of rice or a cup of sour milk.
But William knew his way around lies and excuses even before they came to be. He got out ahead of me.
“Actually, this very dish is a treatment and relief for those suffering from stomachache. Yes, my friend, just as the head feels brighter after a revelation, the belly feels brighter after tasting viper.”
Fingers snapped like castanets. I heard my friend mutter something to the maître d’, the one who looked like a Chinese Napoleon.
“Chu chu chu…”
My watch still showed a nonexistent time, or maybe it did exist, just not for me.
A chef with a white boot on his head brought our table a vase of Tibetan green glass swarming with vipers. It looked like a display window at a pharmacist’s. But here the spectacles were swimming around in the vase together with the spotted slippery faces. Behind the spectacles zig zag eyes were shining.
William pointed with his cigar at the viper he wanted and the chief grabbed it by the neck with long, silver tongs.
It got darker in the dining room. The sun’s wick was turned down lower and lower. A small theater lit up across from us. A midget raised the curtain.
On stage was a violet aquarium. A seashell opened up on the floor and a mother of pearl swam out of it. The pearl became a dancer with a flute, who swam out of the aquarium and danced into the crowd, her belly contracting or swelling with the louder or softer notes of the flute.
When the dancer pearled back into the shell – our plates were already filled with viper. Steamed in hell, it was the color of red pepper. Only the spectacles, without their glass, were still dark around the deep skeletal eyes, like an eternal tattoo.
William couldn’t get enough. He washed down every bite with Hummingbird wine. And as for me, to be tactful, I faked eating, moving my lips with pleasure, like the angel in the Bible…
The lights went up on stage again and the midget raised the curtain.
For the audience’s delectation a set of Siamese twins appeared: two little sisters in one dress. Both with the same faces, sweating together in a figure 8. They sang. It grated like electronic music. The gluttons whinnied.
I felt my throat closing up. William didn’t let me have a second thought:
“Both sisters have husbands already. I was at their wedding myself. They say that both sisters cheat on them. Each sister with the other’s husband. The husbands are grown together. Who knows how the tragedy will end.”
“I guess they could divorce and then remarry, each one with her lover,” I get pulled into the tale.
“We both had the same bright idea. I gave them the same piece of advice, but the sisters didn’t want to listen. What will we get from divorcing and remarrying, they said. We’ll just lose – both our husbands and our lovers.”
The curtain dropped. The concert went on in our plates.
A soup was served. William explained it to me.
“Nest of blue swallows, that’s what the soup is called. A poetic name. People climb trees, steal nests of blue swallows and turn them into this soup, which smells like Chanel perfume. Apart from the rare taste it’s also very healthy for the heart. They even say that it prevents heart attacks. No surprise there. All life is a continual process of transformation. I was in the slaughterhouses of Chicago – do you know what they do there with the millions of eyes of butchered cattle? They are turned into expensive ladies’ stockings.”
“I was in the slaughterhouses of Chicago as well” – I tried to show off for William, — “but I didn’t see anything like that. You know why? Because I felt like I had to throw up.”
“The time will come when they’ll turn ladies’ stockings back into cows’ eyes.” William brought to his lips a spoonful of blue swallows’ nest.
“My apologies for changing the subject, which is very interesting” – I got bolder – “but is your encyclopedia of modern world literature already out?”
“Oh, right,” William recollected, “if you stay here for two weeks longer you can take a copy with you. You are very well represented, but I have to tell you the truth: the encyclopedia work is just my hobby. Everybody has their eccentricities which make them more or less normal. My passion is politics. I was already a politician in the womb. And to be a politician in these parts you need a lot of talent, no less than a Hemingway or a Picasso.”
After finishing up his plate of blue swallows-nest, he pointed out a sign which ran the length of the stage:
“You know what that says? I’ll translate for you. ‘Revolvers, hand grenades and bombs are forbidden. Our dear guests are kindly requested to please leave these items in the coatcheck.’ So that’s an illustration of how easy it is to be a politician in this city where we are now.”
The next moment his smile fled into the deep wrinkles of his forehead like a white mouse. He pleasantly greeted a fat man at a table next to ours.
“The Minister of Culture,” my host winked at me with Asian irony, “or at least that’s what he’s called. That’s the title he was given. One fine day someone said to him, Hey, loser, starting today you’re our Minister of Culture. Did he have a choice? That’s what he became. We are victims of illusion. Idiots blare all sorts of stupidity in our ears and we, of little courage, nod our heads.
“Who is a great artist? The one who’s called that. A true artist doesn’t know his true worth at all. But the poor bastard who’s called Minister of Culture has no luck. You see the beautiful lady at the table with her fan? A young widow. 10 days ago the boys in the jungle shot her husband – the general.”
His smile stretched to his ears: “And see what a dish he ordered. The bastard. He knows very well that the current liberal government forbade this delicacy. The widow of the murdered general will enjoy herself tonight.”
I turned my head and improved my observation post.
Forward came the maître d’ – the Chinese Napoleon, and behind him two Filipinos in leopard-skin uniforms, carrying through the empty aisle between the occupied tables a square cage made of intersecting bars.
They carried the cage by two brass handles. Like a heavy suitcase. When they put it down on the table where the Minister of Culture and his lady were sitting, only then did I notice that something was sticking out from the cage’s cover, through a ring around its neck – the confused head of a monkey in a shaggy hairy mask.
And perhaps this was no monkey head but a wild coconut? I saw such hairy coconuts once upon a time in Zululand. But there’s no reason to delude myself. Amidst the coconut’s flowing hair I glimpsed moist, trembling blinks. They seared themselves terribly into my memory, they pleaded for mercy, the head rotated helplessly as in a crucible, unable to duck back into the cage – but by the same token he could not yank his hands and feet out of that cage either.
The culture minister was still flirting with the widow. The cage with the monkey was still at his right. Apparently he was finishing up a spicy story. The widow hid coquettishly behind her red fan, and teased him, like someone provoking a bull with a read cloth. Now the culture minister took a long, special mallet and leveled a powerful, practiced whack at the monkey’s brain.
There was a sobbing. Like the cry of a defective child. And the moist blinking turned inward from cosmic terror. But the culture minister saw and heard nothing. He was hungry and (in my imagination) already full from the widow, but now he took from a dish a little pile of cooked rice, pressed it together with heavy ringed fingers, dipped the rice into the split-open brain of the monkey, salted and peppered the warm matter, tossed it into his mouth and washed it down with a tall glass of something.
An orchestra hurried up and drowned out the crying.
“I see you’re tired. Drank too much Hummingbird wine,” William tries to shake me free of the nightmare. “So, let’s go. It’s getting too crowded here. The X-ray eyed men are coming out. You see that guy at the entrance with the half burned face, like the fur of a dead mouse? They call him Zuzupa Kandali. The opium dealers are scared of him, tremble before him. So let’s go. I’ll take you back to the hotel. Don’t forget tomorrow: the banquet in your honor in my personal villa.”
I was in a daze when I got to the hotel. I barely had time to peel off my dirty clothes. The iron headboard of the bed, and the bars at my feet, gravitated to each other and grew together over my body. The bed became my cage. My head stuck out through a brass ring in the top. I couldn’t pull my body out and couldn’t drag my head back inside.
The door slowly opened: William. The cigar in his mouth half-smoked, just the cold dead ash attached by a spiderweb-thread, like a glimmer of sun on the top of a damp tree when the sun itself has passed on beyond the day. In William’s hand: a silver hammer. One William becoming another. A third. The room now full with Williams, all with the same face. All of them with the same cigar in their mouths, the cold ash hanging by a spider-thread. In the hand of every one: a silver hammer.
I heard the pounding of a thought inside me: it can’t be, can it, that a plural is so like a singular? Every particle of dust, every atom has its own face. And perhaps I was surrounded by mirrors here, like at the barber’s at home?
I wanted to scream. But it doesn’t matter what I wanted. My tongue was a wet rock. The monkey wanted to scream too and she could only sob like a retarded child.
All the Williams approached the cage. Came closer and closer to me. Each one – raised the hammer and dealt me a blow to the brain. At that blow, the dangling ash fell off the cigars. I felt like handfuls of rice were being dipped in me. The Williams would soon devour my soul.
“Run away!” I begged my soul. “As fast as you can!”
“Where to?” she showed her teeth, scared. “Where can I run to if I want to stay in the body?”
“Hide in my heel. The cannibals will not reach you there.”
When I woke up, as if rising from the dead, it was already quite late in the day. The cage had turned back into a bed. A mosquito was standing on my forehead and pounding with a little hammer. Besides the mosquito on my forehead, a whole troop of mosquitoes were fiddling away with silken ruthlessness. The room was full of bluish, airborne ash.
“Thanks and praise to you, Creator, who separated dream and reality,” I prayed.
And the same power which had yanked me out of the airplane and brought me to the foreign city – catapulted me back to the airport.
“Even if I have to wait an entire day, I will happily wait at the aerodrome,” I said to myself on the way there. But I got lucky – or maybe it wasn’t luck, but thanks to the one who planned the whole adventure: I came to the aerodrome at the same time as yesterday. And just like yesterday, an airplane landed right away and a half an hour later it was off again eagling through the dry seascape, to the place where I must land, where my friends are already worried and tired of waiting.
What happened to me? Why did I run away all of a sudden? Why am I insulting William and not coming to the banquet today, in honor of me? Who is directing the whole show here?
I felt a tear in my throat and swallowed it. I felt a lot better. Did the tear perceive what my eyes didn’t see? Yes, the tear had revealed to me, as in a vision, the reason why I fled. Should I call William, tell him and ask for forgiveness over the phone? I wouldn’t be capable of explaining my strange behavior, so I decided to write him a letter.
And since I had never before written such a letter to anybody, I remember its contents word for word, as one remembers a face, and I quote it in full here for the reader, so that he too can remember — until he forgets:
To the very strange William Buk,
I write these words at the aerodrome. I’m flying away from here soon. I am running away into the air, if one can use that expression.
Neither of us is to blame that I didn’t come to the banquet (Zuzupa Kondoli was probably there too!) and made you a laughingstock in the eyes of the city president and the fantastic elite.
Let me tell you briefly the reason for my unfriendly return on your favor.
When we sat in the restaurant while your culture minister broke open the monkey’s skull – my glance trembled over your face for just a moment. Do you know that you smiled then too, to show your canines? In that smile, I think, I suddenly understood that you and no other are my true murderer.
Don’t worry. You did not hang or shoot me. Just the opposite, you were very humane to me and demonstrated generous friendship. Without you I would have had the same fate here as the monkey. But if we had met each other in Auschwitz – you have undoubtedly read about such a locale in the modern world – you would have certainly been my murderer. My intuition doesn’t deceive me.
I know it’s not your fault. You were never in Auschwitz and we never met there. It’s fair that you should still become prime minister, and if the boys in the jungle don’t do away with you, you will live out your years in honor, they’ll make a nice funeral for you and erect a granite monument. But even then you will not stop being my murderer. And that is the reason, why I had to flee from my esteemed murderer as fast as possible.
Till we meet again!
AVROM SUTZKEVER was the greatest Jewish poet of his time. He spent his childhood in Siberia and emerged as a writer in the youthful literary flowering of Jewish Vilna. As poet and Jew in the Vilna Ghetto, he was transformed into a living remnant of a people’s near death, writing immortal works and helping to conceal Jewish cultural treasures for later rescue. After the war, he became a prophetic symbol and a cultural-historical institution, founding Yiddish literature’s greatest journal in Israel. A committed Zionist, he earned his country’s highest literary honor even as its powerful never abandoned their suspicion of Yiddish literary creativity. He died in 2010.
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About the Translator:
ZACKARY SHOLEM BERGER is a poet, translator, and short-story writer in Baltimore. His book of poetry in Yiddish and English, One Nation Taken Out of Another, is a Pentateuchic joyride on a bassackward chimera; it was published by Apprentice House in 2014. He also translates from Mandarin and Hebrew. By day, Berger is a mild-mannered internal medicine doctor. His website is zackarysholemberger.com.
Read more translations by Zackary Sholem Berger: