Bruno Schulz (1892 – 1942) is one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century and a key touchstone in the history of weird fiction. His collections The Street of Crocodiles (first published in English in 1963) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1988) are classics of literature, marked by Schulz’s unique and powerful aesthetic: surreal, weird, sometimes grotesque, and always deeply personal. His sad, abrupt death at the hands of a Nazi officer during World War II deprived the world of a masterful writer and storyteller, but his stories continue to impact and influence readers to this day. The following story, “A Night of the High Season,” is the penultimate story from The Street of Crocodiles and appears here in a new translation courtesy of John Curran Davis. – The Editors
Everybody knows that whimsical time, in the course of mundane and ordinary years, occasionally will bring forth from its womb other years, odd years, degenerate years, somewhere in which, like a little sixth finger upon a hand, a spurious thirteenth month sprouts up; spurious, we say, since it will seldom grow to full size. Like late begotten children, it lags behind in its development: a hunchback month, a half-wilted offshoot, and more conjectured than real.
It is the intemperance of summer’s age that is to blame for it, its licentious, belated vitality. It may happen, though August has already gone by, that summer’s thick and hoary stem continues to burgeon by force of habit, and from its touchwood it pushes out those wilding days, barren and idiotic weed days, and for good measure it throws in cabbage-stump days for free—empty and inedible, white, bewildered, and unnecessary days.
They sprout up irregular and misshapen, formless and fused together like the fingers of a monstrous hand, sprouting buds and coiled up into a fist.
Others liken those days to apocrypha slipped in furtively between the chapters of the great book of the year, to palimpsests inserted secretly among its pages, or to those white, unprinted sheets upon which one’s eyes, having read their fill and become replete with content, might be drained of visions and relinquish colours, ever paler on those empty pages, reposing on their nothingness before being drawn into the labyrinths of new adventures and chapters.
Ah, that old, yellowed romance of the year! That great, crumbling book of the calendar! It lies forgotten, somewhere in the archives of time, where its contents continue to grow between the covers, endlessly swollen by months of garrulousness, a rapid autogeny of gibberish, all the storytelling and the reveries that multiply within it. Ah! And in writing down these stories of mine, arranging these tales of my father in the used up margin of its text, do I not yield to the secret hope that, someday, they will strike root imperceptibly between the faded leaves of that most magnificent, scattering book; that they will fall into the great rustle of its pages, which will enfold them?
The matters of which we shall speak here took place then, in the thirteenth, supernumerary, and somewhat spurious month of that year, on those dozen or so empty pages of the great chronicle of the calendar.
The mornings were strangely pungent and invigorating then. From a serene and cooler pace of time, an entirely new taste in the air, a change in the consistency of the light, it was plain to see that a different run of days had arrived, a new region of the Holy Year. One’s voice resonated beneath those skies with the sonorousness and freshness of a still new and unoccupied apartment, its aroma of lacquer and paint, incipient and speculative matters. That new echo was tested with a strange stirring of emotion, sliced into with curiosity, like a ring cake on some cool and sober morning, on the eve of a journey.
Once more, my father was sitting in the rear office of the shop, a vaulted little chamber crisscrossed like a beehive into multi-cellular registries, endlessly shedding its layers of papers, letters and invoices. The cross-ruled and empty existence of that room sprang from the rustling of those pages, the endless shuffling of those documents, and from the incessant sifting of those letters, with their innumerous company headings, an apotheosis was created in the air in the form of a factory town as birds in flight see it—bristling with smoking chimneys, surrounded by stacks of coins, its limits described by the flourishes and meanderings of grandiloquent &s and Sons.
There sat Father on a high stool, as if in an aviary, as the dovecotes of the filing cabinets rustled their paper sheaves and all of their birds’ nests and tree-hollows chimed throughout with a twittering of numbers.
The depths of the great shop were darkened and enriched every day with new supplies of cloth, serge, velvet and cord. On those dark shelves, in those storehouses and repositories of cool, felty hues, the dark and mellow pageantry of things yielded its hundredfold interest and autumn’s abundant capital was increased and consolidated. That capital grew larger and darker there, distributed ever more widely on the shelves as if in the galleries of some great theatre, replenished and supplemented each morning with new consignments of merchandise, which arrived along with the cool of the dawn, in boxes and crates carried in on the great, bearlike shoulders of groaning, bearded porters, in mists of autumn freshness and vodka. The shop assistants unpacked those new supplies of lavish, deep-blue hues. They filled with them, neatly plugged with them, all of the chinks and gaps in the tall cupboards. It was a colossal register of all possible autumnal hues, ordered into layers and sorted into shades, running up and down as if on a ringing flight of stairs, a scale of all variegated octaves. It began at the bottom, where, plaintively and timidly, it ventured alto slides and semitones, then it passed to the faded ashes of the distance, to tapestry azures, and rising to the heights in ever broader harmonies, it arrived at deep royal blues, the indigo of distant forests, the plush of murmuring parks, and from there it entered the rustling shade of wilting gardens, through all of their ochres, rich reds, russets and sepias, finally to arrive at a dark aroma of mushrooms, a waft of touchwood in the depths of an autumn night, to the muted accompaniment of the deepest double basses.
My father walked along those arsenals of the cloth autumn. He placated and silenced those hulks and their rising force, the calm power of the Season. He wanted to keep those reserves of stowed-away hues intact for as long as possible. He was reluctant to break up that endowment fund of the autumn and exchange it for ready cash. But he knew, he sensed, that the time was at hand, that soon an autumn gale, ravaging and warm, would blow over those cupboards and they would empty. There would be no restraining their outflow, those torrents of colourfulness about to burst over the whole town.
For the time of the High Season was approaching and the streets were growing busy. At six o-clock in the evening, the town blossomed with fervour: the houses blushed and the people wandered, animated by some inner fire, glaringly made up and painted, their eyes shining with some beautiful and evil, festival fever.
In the side streets, in quiet alleyways leading nowhere now but into an evening district, the town was empty. Only children played on the little squares, beneath their balconies. They played breathlessly, raucously, and nonsensically. They put tiny balloons to their lips, to inflate them and suddenly, glaringly to scowl themselves into great, gurgling, swashing excrescences, or to cock-a-doodle-doo themselves into stupid cockerel masks, autumn apparitions, red and crowing, colourful, fantastic, and absurd. So puffed up and crowing, they seemed about to soar into the air in long, coloured chains, to be strung over the town like autumn “V” formations of birds, fantastic flotillas of tissue-paper and autumnal weather, or they rode, screaming, on noisy little carts, which resounded with a coloured rattling of wheels, spokes, and poles. Loaded up with their screams, those carts rolled to the bottom of the street, all the way down to a yellow evening brook that was surging in a crevice, where they fell to pieces in a wreckage of splinters, wheels, and sticks.
And as the children’s games grew noisier and more confused, the town’s blushes deepened, flushed with crimson. The whole world suddenly began to wilt and blacken, and an hallucinatory twilight rapidly seeped out and infected everything. That pestilence of the twilight spread everywhere; insidiously and venomously, it went from place to place, and whatever it touched quickly mouldered, blackened, and crumbled into dust. The people fled the twilight in silent panic, but that leprosy caught up with them at once, breaking out in a dark rash on their foreheads, and their faces were lost, falling away in great, shapeless smears as they ran, without features now, without eyes, casting off mask after mask until the twilight teemed with those discarded masks and dominoes, tumbling in the wake of their flight. Then everything began to develop a patina of putrefying black bark, infected scabs of darkness peeling away in great flakes. But as everything down below fell into confusion and ruin in that silent turmoil, the panic of its hasty schedule, the silent alarum of sunset remained up above, rising ever higher and higher and trembling with the tinkling of a million silent bluebells, surging with the ascent of a million silent skylarks, all flying together into one great, silver infinity. And suddenly it was night-time, holy night, still growing, the gusts of wind that swelled it still gathering their strength. In its multifarious labyrinth, bright nests were carved out—shops, great coloured lanterns, heaped up with merchandise and filled with the bustling of customers. Through the bright panes of those lanterns, the ritual of autumn shopping could be discerned, noisy and full of bizarre ceremony.
That great, voluminous autumn night, dilated by the wind, its shadows lengthening, concealed bright pockets in its dark folds, pouches of coloured trinkets and gaudy merchandise, a grocer’s shop miscellany of chocolates and biscuits. Botched from confectionery boxes, brightly wallpapered with advertisements for chocolate bars and filled with tablets of soap, cheerful rubbish, golden trifles, tinfoil, trumpets, wafers and coloured mints, those kiosks and stalls were stations of frivolity, rattle-boxes of blitheness strewn along the creepers of an enormous, labyrinthine night flapping in the winds.
Huge, dark crowds flowed in noisy confusion in the darkness, the shuffling of a thousand feet and the uproar of a thousand mouths, a teeming, tangled migration dragging along the arteries of the autumnal town. And that river flowed on, full of turmoil and dark looks, broken into conversations and shreds of gossip, a great pulp of rumours, laughter and tumult, as if dried autumnal poppy heads were moving in a crowd and scattering their seeds—rattlebox-heads, doorknocker-people.
Restless, tinged with blushes, his eyes shining, my father wandered about the brightly lit shop, listening intently. Through the display window and portal, the noise of the town, the muffled hubbub of the flowing throng, arrived from afar. Above the silence of the shop, suspended from its great vault, a paraffin lamp shone brightly, and it silently chased the last trace of shadow from every nook and cranny. The vast, empty floor crackled softly in its light, calculating, down and across, all of its gleaming squares, its chessboard of great tiles, which spoke to one another in a silence of crackles, and replied, now here, now there, with a loud crack. But the layers of cloth lay quiet, voiceless in their felty downiness, passing looks back and forth behind Father’s back, all along the walls, exchanging silent, knowing signs from cupboard to cupboard.
Father listened. His ears seemed to grow elongated in that nocturnal silence, to branch out beyond the window like a fantastic coral, an undulating red polyp in the sediment of the night. He listened and he heard. He heard with growing unease the distant tide of the approaching crowd. He looked around the empty shop in dismay, searching for the shop assistants, but those dark, red haired angels had flown away somewhere, and he was left alone in fear of the crowd that soon would swamp the silence of the shop in a raucous, plundering multitude and divide it among themselves, auction off all that rich autumn accumulated throughout the years in its great, secluded storehouse. Where were the shop assistants? Where were those handsome cherubs who ought to be defending the dark cloth ramparts? Father had the awful suspicion that, somewhere deep inside the house, they were sinning with the daughters of men. Standing motionless, filled with foreboding, his eyes shining in the bright silence of the shop, he heard with his inner ear what was going on deep inside the house, in the rear chambers of that great, coloured lantern. Room after room, chamber after chamber, the house opened before him like a house of cards. He saw the shop assistants’ pursuit of Adela through all of those empty and brightly lit rooms—upstairs, downstairs, until at last she gave them the slip and fell into the bright kitchen, which she barricaded with the credenza. She stood breathless, shiny and amused, smiling, and fluttering her great eyelashes. The shop assistants giggled, crouching at the door. The kitchen window was open onto a great, black night filled with reveries and confusion, its black, half-open panes ablaze with a reflex of distant illumination. Here and there stood shining pots and demijohns, in perfect stillness, their greasy glaze gleaming in the silence. Adela, her eyelids fluttering, cautiously leaned her tinged, rouged face out of the window. She was looking in the dark courtyard for the shop assistants, certain of their ambush. And she saw them. They were making their way in cautious single file along a narrow ledge at first-floor level, along a wall red in a glow of distant illumination, and stealing up to the window. Father shrieked with fury and despair. But just then, the uproar of voices grew very loud and suddenly the bright shop window was populated with faces up close and contorted with laughter, garrulous faces flattening their noses onto the glistening panes. Father turned scarlet with distress. He jumped onto the counter, and when the crowd had lain siege to that fortress, when that raucous throng had stormed the shop, he leaped in a single bound onto a shelf piled high with bales of cloth, where, suspended high above the crowd, he blew with all his might into a huge shofar and trumpeted the alert. But it was no sound of angels hurrying to his aid that came to fill that vault. In reply to each wail of his trumpet there came only the great, laughing chorus of the crowd.
“Jakub, trade with us! Jakub, sell to us!” they called out in unison, and those continually repeated cries fell into the rhythm of a chorus, which slowly became the melody of a refrain sung by every throat. My father conceded defeat. He jumped down from the high ledge and ran, shrieking, toward the barricades of cloth. He was grown gigantic with anger, his face bulging into a purple fist. He ran at the cloth ramparts like a prophet of war and began to rage against them. He pushed with all his might into the huge bales of wool and prised them from their places. He pushed his way with his whole body under the enormous bales of cloth and heaved them onto the counter, where they fell with a dull flop. The bales flew out into enormous banners, unwinding and fluttering in the air. The shelves burst forth from all sides with explosions of drapery, waterfalls of cloth, as if smote with Moses’ rod.
Surging, flowing in broad rivers, the cupboards’ reserves poured out. The shelves’ colourful contents were disgorged. They grew; they increased; they flooded all of the counters and desks. The walls of the shop disappeared under the mighty formations of that cloth cosmogony, those mountain ranges towering into lofty peaks. Wide valleys opened between the mountainsides and the contours of continents thundered amid a broad pathos of uplands. The shop’s expanse widened into a panorama of an autumn landscape, full of lakes and distances, and against the backdrop of that scene, Father walked between the folds and valleys of a fantastic Canaan. He walked with great strides, his hands outspread prophetically in the clouds, and with inspired strokes he fashioned a country.
But down below, on the foothills of that Sinai grown out of Father’s anger, the multitude gesticulated and transgressed; they were worshipping Baal, and trading. They grasped whole handfuls of those soft folds and draped themselves in that coloured cloth. They wound themselves up in improvised carnival masks and mantles, and chattered profusely, though unintelligibly.
Grown tall with anger, my father rose over those groups of traders, and with a powerful word he reproved their idolatry from on high. Seized by despair, he clambered onto the high gallery of the cupboards and ran madly over the beams of their shelves, over the clattering planks of their bare scaffolding, pursued by an image of shameless licentiousness which he sensed behind his back, deep inside the house. The shop assistants had now reached the iron balcony at the kitchen window, and clinging to the balustrade, had seized Adela by the waist and were pulling her out of the window, her eyelids fluttering and her slender legs in silk stockings trailing behind her.
As my father’s gestures of fury, in his mortification at the odiousness of sin, became as one with the menace of the landscape, Baal’s carefree multitude below began to succumb to immoderate gaiety. Some parodistic passion, some pestilence of laughter, had taken possession of that mob. But how could one expect solemnity of them, that multitude of doorknockers and nutcrackers! How could one expect those hand-mills, incessantly grinding out a coloured pulp of words, to comprehend Father’s great concerns? Deaf to the thunder of his prophetic anger, those dealers in their silk frogged coats squatted in small clusters around the folded foothills of the material, where they thrashed out, effusively and amid laughter, the merits of the merchandise. Those black marketeers eagerly besmirched the noble substance of the landscape; they ground it up into a hash of idle talk, and all but consumed it.
Elsewhere stood groups of Jews in coloured gabardines and huge fur kalpaks, before the high waterfalls of bright material. These were the men of the High Council, gentlemen venerable and full of solemnity, stroking their long, well-kept beards and conducting quiet, diplomatic conversations. But even in the midst of that ceremonious talk, there was a flash of smiling irony in the looks they exchanged.
Among those groups, the vulgar multitude wound its way: an amorphous crowd, a mob without faces or identities. They began to fill the gaps in the landscape; they carpeted its background with bluebells and rattle-boxes of mindless chattering. They were a clownish element, a crowd of Pulcinellas and Arlecchinos, dancing with abandon, who reduced to absurdity with their clownish pranks, lacking as they did the serious intentions of traders, the occasional transactions that were entered into. But gradually, grown bored with their clownishness, that cheerful little multitude began to disband among the further regions of the landscape, and slowly they became lost there, amid its stone curves and valleys. It seemed likely that they had fallen somewhere, one after the other, between the folds and crevices of that terrain, like children in the corners and nooks of an apartment who are weary of revelry on the night of a ball.
Meanwhile, the Town Fathers, the men of the Great Sanhedrin, strolled in solemn and dignified groups and conducted quiet and profound disputes. Dispersed throughout that great, mountainous country, they wandered in twos and threes on its remote, winding roads, and that whole desert upland was populated with their dark, tiny silhouettes, above which there sagged a dark and heavy sky, cloudy and folded, ploughed into long, parallel furrows, silver and white slices, exhibiting in its profundities the ever more distant layers of its stratification.
The lamplight created an artificial day in that country, a strange day, a day with no morning or evening.
My father slowly grew calm. His anger settled; it cooled down in the layers and strata of the landscape. He was now sitting in the galleries of the high shelves and gazing out into an immense country passing into autumn. He could see people out fishing on distant lakes. Those fishermen sat in pairs in little cockleshell boats, casting their nets into the water. Boys on the banks carried baskets on their heads, filled with a flapping, silvery catch.
Then he noticed groups of wanderers in the distance, turning their heads to the sky and pointing at something with upraised hands.
And the sky broke out in a colourful, teeming rash; it spilled over with undulating smears, which grew, developed, and rapidly filled the sky with a strange multitude of birds. They circled and wheeled in great, overlapping spirals, and the whole sky was filled with their soaring flights, the flapping of their wings and the majestic lines of their quiet gliding. Some floated, like enormous storks, unmoving on their calmly outspread wings, whilst others, reminiscent of colourful plumes waving in barbarian adulation, flapped clumsily and heavily to remain aloft on currents of warm air. Others, finally, inept conglomerations of wings, huge legs and plucked necks, called to mind badly stuffed vultures and condors with sawdust spilling out of them. Among them were two-headed birds, many-winged birds, and cripples, hobbling in the air in ungainly one-winged flight. The sky began to resemble an old fresco, full of abnormities and fantastic beasts, which circled, crossed each other’s paths, and returned once more in colourful ellipses.
My father, bathed in sudden radiance, hoisted himself aloft by the joists. He stretched out his hands, calling to the birds with an old incantation. Filled with emotion, he recognised them: It was the remote, forgotten progeny of that avian generation that Adela, once upon a time, had driven off to every fringe of the sky. And now it had returned, degenerate and luxuriant, that artificial progeny, that internally wasted avian tribe. Grown preposterously huge, a stupidly shot up manifestation, they were empty and lifeless inside. All the energy of those birds had gone into their plumage, expanded into fantasticality. They resembled some museum of disused species—rejects of bird paradise. Some were flying on their backs; they had heavy, ungainly beaks, like padlocks or zip fasteners, weighted down with coloured excrescences, and they were blind. How that unexpected return affected Father! How he marvelled at their avian instinct, their attachment to their Master, whom that banished tribe had kept like a legend in their souls, finally to return after many generations to their primæval homeland, on the last day before the extinction of their tribe.
But those blind, paper birds could no longer recognise Father. He called to them in vain with the old incantation, in forgotten avian speech. They heard him not, nor did they see him.
Suddenly stones began to whistle through the air. It was the jesters, the stupid and mindless tribe; they had begun to aim projectiles into the fantastic avian sky.
In vain, Father called the alert. In vain, he tried to warn them with imploring gestures. They could not catch his words. They could not make him out. And the birds fell. Each one, struck by a projectile, drooped ponderously and sagged in the air. Before they hit the ground, they were nothing more than ill-proportioned clumps of feathers.
That upland was strewn in the blinking of an eye with that strange, fantastic carrion. Before Father could reach the site of the massacre, the whole magnificent avian brood already lay dead, scattered over the rocks. Only now, at close quarters, could Father perceive how utterly paltry was that impoverished generation, how truly comical its tawdry anatomy. They were enormous bunches of feathers, old carcasses stuffed any old how. Many had no discernible head, since that club-shaped part of their body bore no indications of a soul. Some were coated with fur, clotted with a pelage, like bison, and they stunk abominably. Others were reminiscent of hunchbacked, bald and sickly camels. And others, finally, were apparently made of a kind of paper, empty inside, albeit magnificently coloured on the outside. And some, at close quarters, were shown to be nothing more than huge peacock tails, coloured fans into which, by incomprehensible means, some semblance of life had been breathed.
I saw my father’s woeful return. The artificial day had already begun to take on the hues of an ordinary morning. In the ravaged shop, the highest shelves were replete with the colours of a morning sky. Among the fragments of a dead landscape painting, in the devastated wings of a nocturnal stage, Father saw the shop assistants rising from their sleep. They rose from among the bales of cloth and yawned to the sunshine. Upstairs in the kitchen, Adela, warm from sleep, her hair tousled, was grinding coffee in a mill, pressing it to her white bosom, from which the grindings derived their sheen and their heat. The cat was washing itself in the sunshine.