Stefan Grabiński (1887 — 1936) was a Polish writer of horror fiction who considered himself an expert on demonology and magic. Some critics have called him the “Polish Poe” or the “Polish Lovecraft,” and suggested he believed in the supernatural forces in his stories. Known primarily as a novelist, he wrote many short stories, including those under the name Stephen Żalny. Grabiński was popular in his day, until a trend toward more realistic fiction doomed him to obscurity. The importance of translations by writer Miroslaw Lipinski to bring Grabiński to an English-language readership (for the collection The Dark Domain, 1993) cannot be understated. As displayed by his story in The Weird, “The White Weyrak” (1921), Grabinski possessed a talent for atmosphere and strangeness in his writing. The tale reprinted here, “Strabismus,” further proves that particular talent. You can find print versions of “Strabismus” in both The Dark Domain and the most recent collection of Grabinski’s stories translated for English, On the Hill of Roses, published by Hieroglyphic Press. – The Editors
He had attached himself to me, I don’t know how or when.
His name was Brzechwa, Jozef Brzechwa. What a name! Something about it fastens and hooks onto the nerves, irritating them with its grating resonance. He was cross-eyed. He especially saw poorly out of his right eye, which peered out in a stone gaze under ruddy lashes. His small, brick-colored repulsive face grimaced perpetually in a malicious sneer of half-irony, as if in this sorry way it could avenge its own ugliness and squalor. A tiny, rusty moustache, twirled rakishly upward, moved constantly, like the pincers of a poisonous scarabaeus — sharp, stinging, evil.
A horrible man.
He was agile, elastic as a ball, slender-figured, of medium build; he walked with a light, elusive step and could slip into a room unnoticed like a cat.
I couldn’t stand him from the first time I saw him. His repugnant look seized me with indescribable disgust and made me think of his character, which suited his physical features so well.
This person was extremely different from me in his disposition, tastes and behavior. For me, he was the personification of antipathy. He was my living antithesis, with whom there could be no reconciliation. Maybe precisely because of this he latched himself onto me with a rabid passion, as if sensing my natural aversion toward him.
He probably experienced particular delight in seeing how unsuccessfully I tried to extricate myself from the nets he was ensnaring me with more and more. He was my inseparable companion in cafes, on walks, at the club; he knew how to worm his way into the circles of my nearest acquaintances; what’s more, he could conquer the favor of women to whom I was closely connected. He knew of my smallest plans, my slightest movements.
More than once, so as to be free of looking at his loathsome physiognomy for even just a single day, I would escape unseen by carriage or automobile to the outskirts of town, or else, with no prior word betraying my intention, I would set out for another locality. How can I describe my amazement when, after a while, Brzechwa would suddenly spring up, as if from under the ground, saying with a sneering sweet smile how happy he was at our unexpected, pleasant meeting?
It finally reached the point where I began to regard him with superstitious fear and consider him as an evil spirit or demon. His annoying cat-like movements, the cunning narrowing of his eyes, and, most of all, his strabismus, with the cold glossiness of the scleras, curdled my blood with inconceivable dread, while simultaneously stirring up boundless rage.
And he knew perfectly well the easiest way to infuriate me. He was always able to agitate my most sensitive nerves. As soon as he had discovered my tastes and what I held important, he took every opportunity to deride them so savagely, and in such an arbitrary manner, that it seemed he wanted to exclude any opposition.
One point of contention fundamentally separating us was the question of individualism, which I always defended with ardent passion. I have a feeling that around this very axis revolved our entire antagonism.
I was a staunch admirer of everything personal, original, unique, self-contained. Brzechwa, to the contrary, scoffed at every kind of individualism, considering it a chimera of presumptuous fools. Hence, he didn’t believe in any inventiveness or ingeniousness, reducing them to the influences of environment, race, the “spirit of the times,” and so on.
“I even believe,” he would drawl more than once, crisscrossing his eyes in my direction, “that each one of us contain several individuals who fight for that worthless scrap, the so-called ‘soul.’”
This obvious banter was meant to elicit a passionate reaction on my part at any cost. Realizing this, I would pretend that I hadn’t heard anything and ignore him in silence. Then he would be on the lookout for another opportunity to pronounce his “collective position,” as he termed it.
Whenever I displayed admiration and rapture for some new work of art or scientific discovery, Brzechwa, with cynical calm, would attempt to prove the groundlessness of my adoration, or else he would silently sit opposite me and transfix me with his frightful strabismus, a smile of malicious sarcasm never leaving his open lips.
He didn’t feel any aesthetic thrills at all: beauty didn’t act upon him in any sense of the word. Instead, he was a sports enthusiast. There wasn’t an automobile race, a cycling competition or soccer match in which he didn’t excel. He fenced like a master, was a great shot, and had the reputation of being a first-class swimmer. Education and scholars he ignored, holding to the maxim nihil novi sub sole. Despite this, one couldn’t deny his great intelligence, which showed itself in witty and vitriolic sayings. Of a hot-headed nature, he was unable to endure opposition and had continual rows and countless affairs of honor, from which he always emerged successful.
A strange thing, however: he was never offended by anything I said, however uncivil or downright insulting my words, words I frequently employed in reaction to his behavior. I alone had the privilege of insulting him. Apparently he saw this as my due for his never-ending sneering and pestering. Perhaps there was another reason, a more significant one — but what, I don’t know.
Sometimes I would intentionally embellish my insults to goad him into a serious quarrel that would decisively end our relationship. A fruitless activity. Sensing what was happening, he would dismiss my moral drubbing with his very sweet smile and turn everything into a joke .…
Finally I got rid of him. An event occurred that seemed, once and for all, to liberate me from his clutches. He died a sudden, violent death, and I was the indirect cause.
One day, at the end of my rope, I struck him in the face. Brzechwa instantly bridled. He turned white as a sheet, and then I caught sight of a steely flash in his eyes that I had never seen before. He quickly hid his anger, however, and laid a shaking hand on my shoulder.
“You got unnecessarily carried away,” he said with a tremulous voice. “It’s to no avail. Neither you nor I are capable of offending the other. You see, my dear sir, it is exactly as if someone wanted to slap his own face. Both of us are really one.”
“Bastard!” I muttered through my teeth.
“As you please. This will not change a thing.”
And his eyes began to criss-cross like crazy.
The row had, nevertheless, a serious, tragic consequence for him. Since everything had occurred in the presence of several witnesses, people found out about the incident and from then on no one granted him the freedom to do as he pleased. Brzechwa flew into rages, arranged scandalous practical jokes, and eventually forced one of his greatest enemies to an encounter with revolvers. Even though my argument with him had set up the basis for such an event, Brzechwa asked me to be his second. I refused, and though I didn’t care for Brzechwa’s opponent, I offered my services to him. I did this intentionally, pleased that, at least obliquely, I could do away with my persecutor. My offer was accepted, and the duel, under very strict conditions, took place in a grove on the outskirts of the city. Brzechwa fell, fatally shot in the forehead.
I remember his last glance: it was directed at me, a piercing, skewed look that paralyzed the will. Immediately afterwards he breathed his last. I left, not daring to look any longer at that demonic, twisted face. But that frozen mask will never disappear from my memory; it is deeply etched there in indelible lines, and that terrible strabismus will eternally gash my soul with its cross-eyed stare.
Brzechwa’s death, particularly the last painful moments of his life, upset me so strongly that shortly afterwards I came down with a severe brain fever. The illness dragged on for months, and when — thanks to the untiring help of doctors and amid constant anxiety about a relapse — I finally got well, I was unrecognizable. My character was completely altered; it seemed alien, and even antagonistic, to the person I had been before. My former tastes, my noble fervor for everything beautiful and profound, my refined faculty for perceiving a flicker of originality were now gone. There only remained — an enigmatic detail — the memory that I had once possessed these virtues and anguish over the change in my character.
I became a practical person, “healthy,” normal to the point of nausea, an enemy of any type of eccentricity — and the most painful thing for me — I started to sneer at my former ideals. Behind my every word and gesture was sarcasm, malicious laughter or acrimony; everything I did seemed false.
The most interesting thing, however, was that despite this, I was completely aware of these unexpected changes, which I attempted to vainly resist. So began a fierce struggle within me between two fundamental natures, two primal selves, of whose coexistence I was deeply convinced. But that new self, who had entered me I knew not how, always prevailed, and with inner loathing I always listened to his urgings.
It was like the difference between theory and practice. In my principles I remained the same as always and with indignation watched the actions of the other me, who had like a thief slipped into my innermost core and was getting rid of what had been built up through the years to replace it with garbage.
And I wouldn’t describe my condition as the commonly-known “split personality,” for what had occurred was a completely different matter that could not be psychologically explained by the first half of my life. I felt that one couldn’t speak of a splitting of oneself, rather of a doubling up, a damnable addition. It was as if some diabolic intruder had moved in. I carried him within, continually wounding myself with this horrid coexistence, powerless, despairing over the awareness of a change I couldn’t dismiss. Each one of my deeds aroused an inner opposition and represented itself as a will imposed on me from outside, each word was a lie unsupported by conviction, devoid of the strength of feelings. Worse still, the intruder encroached into the domain of my thoughts and beliefs, trying to reshape me completely in his own image.
Whenever I wanted to behave in a manner consistent with my true ego and my former attitude toward the world and people, a strong force, like a command, would compel me to the new, unbearable path, and I would hear a snigger inside me and see in the distance a flash of that skewed, devilish strabismus.
I detested myself both physically and morally. I couldn’t stand my own being because it seemed disgusting, grotesque.
So as to reduce the antics of the new “I” to a tolerable minimum, I shut myself up at home for days on end and avoided people, in whose eyes I saw both amazement and aversion.
Here in my quiet abode, in a secluded quarter of the city, I passed long hours of spiritual torment, struggling with my hidden enemy. Here within four silent walls I spent long moments thinking about my internal agony.
In due course in my struggle with the alien intruder, I achieved a certain skill in excluding him, at least for a brief time, from the process of my thinking. Total isolation, freedom from the hustle and bustle allowed me, even if only for a couple of minutes, to focus my attention on my real, former self and liberate it from the brutal iron hand of the usurper.
These were truly great efforts. I had the impression of a person who, with titanic strength, separates two heavy half-globes and succeeds in keeping them apart for a few moments.
Then, taking advantage of such occasions, I threw myself into my writing and filled up page after page with the thoughts that had been seething inside me but which couldn’t find an outlet, for they had been suppressed by my other self. With bated breath, I wrote like a madman, driving my hand across the paper to express what I thought and felt, to state before the world that I am not the person I will appear to be in an hour or a few minutes’ time.
But this frantic effort never lasted long. All that was needed was a shout from the street, the entrance of a servant into the room, or the sight of a passerby’s face, and my tense nerves would split like cords, my taut muscles would snap with a dull crack, and the obstinate half-globes would press together to form a hermetically sealed, uniform sphere. A horrible, cynical laugh would issue from my lips, and sobbing with anguish, I would tear to pieces my manuscripts, stomp on written notes, destroy sheets filled with writing.
And once again I’d return to the outside world, disgracefully changed to a base, sneering individual without any values and beliefs. And once again long exertions of thought would be necessary, withdrawal from the world and absolute solitude, so that I could, even if only for a couple of minutes, isolate myself from the incursions of that hateful being and exclude him from my soul.
Yet in repeating these experiences I achieved increasingly encouraging results. For longer periods I was able to hold myself apart from the alien intruder; more definitively during these brief moments could I sense my individuality and cleanse myself of his parasitic filth.
Afterwards, of course, everything reverted to the previous state, but the memory of these short liberations stimulated further attempts. Eventually I became myself for a couple of hours, and I took advantage of this in the best possible manner, hurrying before my enemy would return.
But constant observation and guarding of oneself at every step, a necessity for this mental electrolysis of the doubled “I,” wearied me extremely, making me nervous and leaving me with violent headaches.
Nevertheless, having acquired a dim hope of reclaiming my true being, I didn’t spare myself and already dreamt of the moment I could freely appear as my own person in the company of people.
One day, after a longer stay in the world, I shut myself in for a specific aim and undertook the arduous work of separation. As a result of practice this task was easier, and I soon inhabited my own being again. I turned my attention to my immediate physical surroundings so that, under this condition, I could get accustomed to maintaining a measure of control over my individuality, eventually doing so in the face of the hundredfold stronger distractions of the world.
As I was slowly moving away from self-concentration and absentmindedly glancing about the room, I thought I heard some noise beyond the left wall. Curious, I began to listen, but this directed me too strongly to the outside, bringing about the fatal merging of barely separated elements, and again I stopped being myself.
Brokenhearted, I cursed the suspicious noise, which, anyway, might only have been an illusion of wandering thoughts caused by nervous tension. Thus my first attempt at reclaiming myself while being attentive to my surroundings proved abortive. Nevertheless, I didn’t lose hope, and a couple of days later I conducted a test .…
As long as I was preoccupied with myself, I didn’t hear anything suspicious beyond the wall — but as soon as I started to pay more attention to my environment, I heard that same mysterious noise coming from the left side. Even though I knew perfectly well that as a consequence I would lose myself and return to that loathsome double existence, I immediately thrust my head out of the window and glanced to the left with the hope of discovering the cause of this noise.
The house I lived in had one storey and consisted of three sections. I occupied the end wing, so that beyond me on the left side were no more rooms, and the outer wall faced a small, enclosed garden. As usual at that time no one was in it; generally, no one came up on my side, respecting my privacy and discreetly avoiding the line of my windows.
Uneasy, I drew my head back inside.
It occurred to me that perhaps the puzzling noise had been accompanying the cleansing process of the self for some time. Very likely, taken up with intense internal work and projecting it onto paper, I hadn’t noticed what had been happening around me. Only when I had pulled back a certain distance from my newly crystallized individuality and turned my attention to my surroundings had I been able to detect these mysterious sounds. Though I wasn’t sure why this was happening during my attempts at spiritual emancipation, I eventually had to admit to a connection, because the noise made itself heard only when I succeeded in casting off my hateful fetters.
Frequently, when I was in my usual double state, I would listen for something to reach me from that side — but to no avail: the wall at those times didn’t let through the slightest tremor.
Sometimes I thought I was succumbing to an acoustic illusion and that the noise was in reality coming from the right wall, behind which lived a quiet bachelor. But this speculation was rejected after scrupulous evaluation of the sounds.
Therefore the noise was coming only from beyond the left wall, beyond a wall that bordered on empty space. Most strange!
After a while, when the sounds persisted, I began to carefully examine the left wall. Soon I came to the opinion that there was a cavity inside, because when I banged it, the wall emitted a hollow reverberation.
This assumption was subsequently strengthened by a detail observed on the outside of the house. Scrutinizing attentively the left wing, I noticed for the first time, with no little surprise, that the distance between the boundary of the wall and the last window amounted to four metres. Since the wall on the inside was separated from the window by at most a metre, then its thickness was three metres, an unusual dimension for a house of this sort. Beyond me, then, was a walled-up room. And that particular noise originated from it. This was obvious.
Amazed at this discovery, for a long time I practically never left my home, spending hours on end in trying to reach my true self. Now, however, this proved to be more difficult because, catching sounds from the void, I diverted my attention too quickly from my own being. Realizing that by this road I wouldn’t attain my goal, I concentrated my entire energy on thinking of myself, and only when I felt the strong intensity of my regained individuality did I listen to those sounds emanating from the hidden room.
After a while I noticed they contained rather audible semi-tones, like gradations. The deeper I would sink into the process of my spiritual liberation and the more I would purge myself of my other self — the more distinctly the noise would make itself heard. Something restless was tramping inside that enclosed space, roaming about the corners, wandering along the length of the walls as if in frantic helplessness.
But when I was trapped again in that unhappy double state, more strongly restrained by the co-presence of the alien element, the sounds beyond the wall calmed down and faded away, as if soothed.
There was something puzzling about this, something that stimulated my utmost curiosity while evoking ice-cold fear. One had the impression that while I was here dealing with my hated enemy, endeavoring to oust him from my unfortunate ego, there, beyond the wall, some entity was being born, something was being formed, was emerging .… Finally I decided to smash down the wall and see what was inside that hidden room.
It was appropriate, however, to proceed systematically and slowly, so as not to scare away the strange being. Whenever I listened at length to the particular details of its movements, everything ceased, and I — a thing for me incomprehensible — would burst out with devilish laughter and return to my double state.
“This is some cunning beast,” I muttered, calming down after these unexpected outbursts. “However, we will find even for this a remedy; we will find it, and it will be infallible. One has to catch you off guard.”
I soon proceeded with my plan. I took a piece of chalk and drew on the wall a quadrangle corresponding, more or less, to my size. Then I chipped off the plaster within the marked boundaries, after which I carefully cut out with a sharp tool the inside section of the wall, leaving only a thin layer, which according to my estimate would give way with one blow.
After finishing these preparations during the day, I decided to break into the room that very evening and catch whatever had been unsettling me for many weeks.
Outside it was rainy, a foul autumnal evening. Along narrow suburban back-streets the early dusk unreeled grey lines of curled mist and disappeared into weeping, sieve-like trees. From sparsely scattered lanterns spread out golden, flickering trails, dying in the distended watery expanse. Some kind of wagons, wet, slippery, dragged along the road in a clattering file, bending under the weight of a chain.…
I lowered the blind and lit a lamp.
I felt strange and not myself. I dropped my weary head onto my hands and sank into the work of liberation. As usual, I reminded myself of my former character, its development and its tastes; I immersed myself in drawing out my experiences before my illness; I imagined myself in typical situations in which my individuality had manifested itself most clearly. Thus I went further and further, going down ever deeper to reach the most primary layers of my ego .…
I was happy; I was that former self, full of belief and confidence in the future, infused with the love of goodness and beauty, fascinated by life and its secret wonders. I was at the peak of my emancipation, without a particle of alien matter, with the cleanest ego .…
Suddenly I looked around, taking in the room with a quick glance. At that moment a noise to my left pierced my solitude. Something was hurling itself around beyond the wall, as if from the floor to the ceiling, scraping along the walls in despair, rolling around in painful fits, without finding egress.
I listened with bated breath, clenching a pick in my hand. After several minutes the noise quieted down; fretful, nervous steps followed. Someone, clearly of this world, was pacing up and down in that hidden room, from corner to corner.
I raised the pick and with all my strength hit the marked wall.
It fell in a rubble, exposing a narrow, black entrance.
I rushed inside, and at that moment came a deadly silence.
I was hit with the stifling, putrid odor of a sealed space.
At first, stunned by the blinding darkness, I saw nothing. But a long streak of light from my lamp slipped into the void after me, and its thin edge crept along the floor to the corner .…
I looked there and let go of the pick, horror-struck.
At the corner of the little room, squeezed between two walls, crouched some human figure, staring at me with a piercing, greenish look. Drawn by the magnetic power of his gaze, I advanced .… The figure straightened up, grew .… I cried out. It was Brzechwa.
He stood silent and still, only his moustache twitched slightly. Suddenly he inclined himself in my direction, leaned against my chest, and — entered me, vanishing inside without a trace .…
Dazed, like an automaton I went and grabbed the lamp from the table and rushed back through the breach. In vain. The room was empty. Under the ceiling swung cobwebs, along the walls trickled cold tears of humidity.
Suddenly a sound cut the air, hoarse, whizzing, grating .…
“What’s that?! What’s that?!”
Then I realized: it was my laughter.