Bruno Schulz (1892 — 1942) was a Polish writer of stories that share some affinity with the work of Alfred Kubin, Franz Kafka, Leonora Carrington, and Michael Cisco, among others. He was shot dead by a Nazi officer when he ventured into an “Aryan” section of his town during World War II. A great prose stylist, Schulz created a mythical childhood in his fiction that centered on surreal, sometimes grotesque events. English-language translations include The Street of Crocodiles (1963) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1988). The following story, “The Comet,” is the concluding story of The Street of Crocodiles and a decidedly weird and surreal take on science and impending apocalypse, among other things. We’re delighted to feature this story here in a new translation courtesy of John Curran Davis. - The Editors
The end of winter stood that year under the banner of an especially favourable astronomical conjunction. The calendar’s coloured predictions blossomed redly on the snow which lay on the outskirts of the mornings. From the fiery red of those Sundays and holidays, a glow fell onto half of the week, and those days burned coldly in a false fire. For a moment, deluded hearts beat more rapidly, enthralled by that heralding redness, which heralded nothing, but was merely a premature alarum, coloured calendar boasting painted onto the week’s binding in bright vermilion. Every night since Twelfth Night, I had been sitting over our table’s white parade — gleaming with candlesticks and silverware — and playing endless games of patience. The night beyond the window grew brighter by the hour, all iced and glistening, filled with endlessly sprouting almonds and candies, whilst the moon, an inexhaustible transformist, utterly absorbed in its late lunar practices, assumed its phases by turns. Brighter and brighter, it turned over all the court cards in a game of Préférence, then it replicated all of their colours. Often now, it was visible in the daytime, standing to the side and awaiting its turn, equipped too early, brassy and without radiance, a melancholy knave with his shining club. Meanwhile, whole skyfuls of cloudy wisps passed in a silent, white, and immense motion across its solitary profile, barely covering it with their shimmering and piscine shell of mother-of-pearl, into which the coloured firmament would curdle toward evening. Those days were leafed through vacantly. A gale gusted noisily, high above the roofs; it blew the chimneys cold to their very hearths; it erected imaginary scaffolding and gantries over the town; then it knocked those lofty, clattering constructions down in a tumult of rafters and beams. Occasionally, a fire would break out in a distant suburb. The chimney sweeps ran about the town on high roofs and little galleries, under a verdigris and torn sky. In that aerial perspective, stepping from the field of one roof to the next amid the pinnacles and pennants of the town, they dreamed that the gale had briefly opened up for them the lids of roofs over girls’ alcoves; then it slammed them shut over the great, billowing book of the town — astonishing literature for many days and nights. The breezes blew themselves out and were still. The shop assistants were putting spring fabrics on display in the shop window, and from the soft hues of the wool, the weather soon abated, was tinted with lavender and flushed with pale mignonette. The snow dwindled. It was pleated into a baby’s blanket, which drifted drily away into the air, sucked up by cobalt breezes, reabsorbed by an immense and concave, sunless and cloudless sky. Here and there, oleanders were blossoming in people’s apartments. Windows were thrown open, and in the aimless reverie of a sky blue day, the mindless chirruping of sparrows filled the room. Vehement scuffles of chaffinches, bullfinches, and tomtits converged for a moment above the empty squares, twittering dreadfully. They flew off in all directions, blown away by the breeze, annihilated, blotted out in empty blue, and coloured spots remained behind them for a moment in one’s eye, a handful of confetti tossed blindly into the bright expanse, and melted deep within the eye in neutral azure.
A premature spring season began. Lawyers’ apprentices, the epitome of elegance and chic, wore thin moustaches curled up into spirals and high, stiff collars. On days scoured by the gale, as if by a flood, as the wind gusted clamorously, high above the town, they doffed their coloured bowler hats from afar to ladies of their acquaintance. They leaned with their backs against the wind, their coat tails fluttering. They averted their eyes, all denial and gentility, not wishing to expose their ladyloves to scandal. For a moment, those ladies didn’t know where to look; they cried out in fright, beaten about by their dresses. But then, recovering their composure, they graciously returned a smile of acknowledgement.
Often in the afternoon, the wind would die down. On the porch, Adela cleaned huge copper pans, which rattled metallically at her touch. The sky drew to a halt over the shingled roofs, exhausted, its blue roads branching. The shop assistants, sent forth from the shop on some errand, lingered near her for a long time on the threshold of the kitchen, leaning against the balustrade of the porch, drunk on the day long wind, a jumble of thoughts in their heads, stirred by the strident chirruping of the sparrows. A breeze carried the lost refrain of a barrel organ from the distance. Their soft words were inaudible, enunciated in hushed tones, with an air of innocence, as if merely in passing; although in truth they were calculated to scandalise Adela. Cut to the quick, she reacted violently. She admonished them in utter rage and exultation, and her face, clouded and grey from springtime dreams, flushed redly with anger and amusement. They lowered their eyes in their despicable devotion, with inappropriate satisfaction that they had succeeded in provoking her.
Days and afternoons went by. Everyday events, seen from the height of our porch, flowed in confusion over the town, over the labyrinth of the roofs and houses in the hazy glow of those grey weeks, weeks crowded with tinkers proclaiming their services. Occasionally in the distance, Szloma’s powerful sneeze lent comical emphasis to the town’s effusive, faraway tumult. On some far removed square, Tłuja, the mad girl, driven to despair by the teasing of boys, began to dance her wild sarabande, kicking her skirts high, to the delight of the crowd. A puff of wind smoothed and levelled those outbursts, distributed them amid the monotonous and grey tumult, dragged them around incessantly on a shore of shingled roofs in the afternoon’s milky, smoky air. Resting her hands on the balustrade, leaning over that distant, tempestuous roaring of the town, Adela could catch all the louder emphases. Smiling, she rearranged those lost syllables, trying to connect them, to read something meaningful in that great, grey, rising and falling monotony of the day.
The epoch stood under the banner of mechanics and electricity. From under the wings of human genius, a whole swarm of inventions was showered upon the world. Cigar boxes fitted with electric lighters appeared in bourgeois homes. A switch was thrown, and a swarm of electric sparks ignited a petrol-soaked wick. Stupendous hopes were founded on this. A musical box in the shape of a Chinese pagoda, wound up with a key, immediately began to play its miniature rondo, rotating like a carousel as tiny bells trilled at its edges, and on its opposite sides, wings of tiny doors opened to reveal its revolving, barrel-organ core as it played its snuffbox triolet. Electric doorbells were installed in every home. Domestic life stood under the banner of galvanism. A coil of insulated wire had become the symbol of the times. Fashionably dressed young men in salons demonstrated Galvani’s phenomenon and received the radiant looks of ladies. An electrical conductor opened the door to women’s hearts. The experiment successfully concluded, those heroes of the day blew kisses amid the applause of those salons.
There was not long to wait before the town was overrun with velocipedes of all shapes and sizes. A philosophical view of the world had become obligatory, and whoever acknowledged the notion of progress had to accept the consequences and mount a velocipede. First, of course, came the lawyers’ apprentices, that vanguard of new ideas with their curled-up moustaches and coloured bowler hats, the hope and flower of our youth. Scattering the raucous crowd, they ploughed into its throng on enormous bicycles and tricycles, their wire spokes chiming. Holding tightly to the handlebars, they manœuvred their enormous, lofty front wheels, cutting their way through the amused rabble in a winding, wobbling line. One or two were seized with apostolic frenzy, and rising up on their whirring pedals, like stirrups, they addressed the people from on high, foretelling a new and happy era for mankind — salvation through the bicycle… And they rode onward amid the cheers of their audience, doffing their hats in all directions.
And yet, there was something woefully compromising in those magnificent and triumphal excursions, some painful and unpleasant grinding which caused them to incline dangerously at the height of their triumph and fall headlong into self-parody. Surely they sensed it themselves, suspended spiderlike in their filigree apparatus, straddling their pedals like huge hopping frogs as they executed, amid their widely rolling wheels, their ducklike movements. A mere step away from the ridiculous, they lurched desperately forward, leaning over the handlebars and pedalling ever faster, a gymnastic cloud of vehement contortions, flying head over heels into a somersault. Is it any wonder? On the strength of that unlawful practical joke, Man was encroaching on a realm of stupendous facilitation, bought too cheaply, below cost price, almost for nothing, and in the end, that disproportion between cause and effect, that blatant fraud on Nature, that excessive reward for a brilliant trick, had to be offset by self-parody. And so they rode onward, pitiful victors, martyrs of their own genius, amid elemental outbursts of laughter, so great was the comedic power of those miracles of technology.
The first time my brother brought an electromagnet home from school, when we all experienced, with an inward shudder, the secretly vibrating life locked up inside an electric circuit, Father gave a condescending smile. A far-reaching thought had taken shape in his mind, which drew together and connected certain suspicions, which had begun to beset him long ago. Why did Father smile to himself? Why did his watering eyes revolve into the backs of their orbits in comical mock-sincerity? Who knows? Did he perhaps have some inkling of a crude trick, some vulgar intrigue, certain transparent machinations lying behind the stupendous revelations of mysterious power? That moment marked Father’s return to his laboratory experiments.
Father’s laboratory was rather basic: a few lengths of coiled wire, some jars of acid, zinc, lead, and coal — such was the entire workshop of that bizarre esotericist. “Matter,” he said, stifling a cough and modestly lowering his eyes. “Matter, good sirs…” He left the sentence unfinished; although he let it be understood that he was on the trail of some crude deception, which we, even as we sat there, had all been taken in by. His eyes downcast, Father quietly mocked that age old fetish. “Panta rei!” he cried, demonstrating with movements of his hands the eternal circulation of substance. For a long time, he had wanted to mobilise the hidden power which circulates within matter, to melt its rigidity and clear its path to thorough penetration, transfusion, and universal circulation, its only true nature. “Principium individuationis be damned,” he declared, giving vent to his boundless contempt for that primal human principle; though this was thrown in incidentally, in passing, as he ran his fingers along a length of wire. He closed his eyes, feeling different places in the circuit, his sensitive touch discerning faint differences in potentials. He made cuts in the wire; he leaned forward, listening intently, and suddenly he set off again, repeating this activity at another place in the circuit. He seemed to have ten hands and twenty senses. His divided attention was turned in a hundred different directions at once; no point in space evaded his suspicion. He leaned forward once more, tapping the wire at a certain place, and suddenly jumping back, he shot like a cat to the place he had been looking for, and with faint embarrassment, missed his target. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, turning to an amazed spectator who had been following his actions closely. “Excuse me. It is this little space here which interests me, which you yourself, sir, are occupying. If you will kindly move aside for a moment…” And he quickly made his cursory measurements, as agile and nimble as a canary hopping blithely in convulsions of its somatic system.
Metals dipped in acid solutions, saline, corroding in their pitiful bath, had become conductive in the darkness. They buzzed monotonously, sang metallically, and glowed intermolecularly, roused from numb lifelessness in the unending twilight of those funereal and late days. Invisible charges amassed at their poles, and superceded them, emptying into the whirling darkness. A barely perceptible prickliness coursed through space, blind, teeming currents polarised into concentric lines of power, the circulations and spirals of a magnetic field. Now here, now there, pieces of apparatus signalled from their slumber and replied to one another, belatedly, too late, in despondent monosyllables — a line, a dot, at intervals in muted lethargy. Father stood with a pained smile in the midst of those wandering currents, shocked by that stuttering articulation, that irrevocably closed and inescapable distress, signalling monotonously in crippled half-syllables from its unliberated depths.
On the basis of these investigations, Father arrived at stupendous conclusions. He proved, for example, that an electric bell, based on the principle of the so-called Neef’s hammer, is a rather commonplace mystification. Man had never broken into Nature’s laboratory; it was Nature itself that had drawn Man into its own machinations, achieving, through his experiments, its own ends, heading who can say where. At lunchtime, my father touched with the nail of his index finger the handle of his spoon, dipped in his soup, and lo and behold, Neef’s bell began to rattle inside a lamp. The whole apparatus was an unnecessary pretext, with no meaning in reality. Neef’s bell was merely a meeting place for certain impulses of substance finding their way through human ingenuity. What Nature wanted, Nature produced. Man was merely an oscillating arrow, a weaver’s shuttle, soaring here, soaring there, in accordance with its will. He was merely an element, a component of Neef’s hammer.
Someone proposed the term, “mesmerism”, and Father eagerly seized on it. The range of his theory narrowed until it had found its fundamental cell. According to this theory, Man was a mere transit station, a momentary knot of mesmeric currents, entwined here, entwined there, in the womb of eternal matter. The inventions he had gloried in were all merely the snares which Nature had drawn him into, mantraps of the unknown. Father’s experiments began to assume a character of magic and prestidigitation, not lacking in a faint tinge of parodistic jugglery, to say nothing of his various experiments with doves, which, with a wave of his wand, he arranged into twos and threes, into dozens, and then, with a great show of effort, reincorporated, one by one, back into the wand. He tipped his hat, and out they flew in a fluttering stream, their full compliment returning to reality, filling the tabletop in a bustling, waddling, cooing cluster. Sometimes, he would come to a halt at an unexpected point in the experiment. He stood uncertainly, his eyes closed, and after a moment’s pause he went with tripping steps to the hallway, where he thrust his head into the chimney shaft. It was dark and blissful there, deadened by soot, like the very core of nothingness, and warm currents trailed up and down. Father closed his eyes and remained awhile in that warm, black nothingness. We all considered this incident to be meaningless in reality. It had retreated, as it were, into the wings of affairs, and we inwardly turned a blind eye to that extramarginal occurrence, part of an entirely different order of things.
My father had some truly dispiriting tricks in his repertoire, to pierce the heart with true melancholy. The chairs in our dining room had high backrests with flower and leaf garlands, beautifully carved in a realistic style, but Father had only to flick these carvings with his finger, and suddenly they took on an unusually comical physiognomy, some vague suggestion. They began to flicker and twinkle knowingly, which was extremely, almost unbearably embarrassing, until at last that twinkling began to follow a quite definite course, an irresistible compulsion, and someone or other in the room began to exclaim, “Aunt Wanda, by God! It’s Aunt Wanda!” And the ladies began to squeal; for there, indeed, was Aunt Wanda, true to life. Or rather, it was the real Aunt Wanda, who had come to visit us. She was really sitting there, carrying on her endless discourse, leaving no one else an opportunity to speak. Father’s miracles had cancelled themselves out. It was not an apparition: it was just Aunt Wanda, in all her ordinariness and commonness, which precluded all thoughts of the miraculous.
Before considering the further events of that memorable winter, I ought briefly to mention a certain incident which has always been ruefully hushed up in the chronicle of our family. What happened to Uncle Edward? Unsuspecting, bursting with health and enterprise, he came to visit us at that time. He had left his wife and daughter in the country, dutifully awaiting his return, and arrived in the best of spirits, to take a break from his family and to have some fun. And what happened? Father’s experiments made an electrifying impression on him. Having witnessed the first few examples of his accomplishments, Edward stood up at once and took off his overcoat. He placed himself entirely at Father’s disposal. “Unreservedly!” as he proclaimed, with a steadfast look and a firm shake of the hand. My father understood, and began by ensuring that Uncle had none of the traditional prejudices regarding the principium individuationis. It appeared he had none whatsoever. Uncle was broad-minded and unsuperstitious. His one passion was to serve Science.
At first, Father allowed him a certain latitude. He was laying the foundations for a radical experiment. Uncle Edward made use of his freedom by exploring the town. He purchased a velocipede of impressive size and circuited the market square atop its enormous front wheel, looking in at first-floor windows from the heights of his saddle. Passing by our house, he tipped his hat elegantly to the ladies standing at the window. He had a moustache curled up into spirals and a small, pointed beard. But he soon became convinced that a velocipede could never lead him to the deeper secrets of mechanics, that so brilliant an apparatus was, nonetheless, incapable of providing lasting metaphysical shudders. And then the experiments began, to which Uncle’s lack of prejudices regarding the principium individuationis were so indispensable. Uncle Edward had no qualms whatsoever about being reduced physically, for the benefit of Science, to the naked principle of Neef’s hammer. He agreed ungrudgingly to the progressive paring away of all his characteristics, with the aim of laying bare his deepest essence, identical, as he had long felt, to the aforementioned principle.
Father, shutting himself away in his study, set about the gradual disassemblement of Uncle Edward’s convoluted essence, an exhausting process of psychoanalysis extending over days and nights. The table in his study began to fill with the scattered complexes of Uncle’s ego. In the early stages, Uncle Edward still turned up at mealtimes. Drastically reduced, he attempted to participate in our conversations. He took one last ride on his velocipede, and then, seeing himself more and more dismantled, gave it up. He seemed to be burdened by something shameful, something characteristic of the stage that he had reached, and he took to avoiding people. Father, meanwhile, was drawing ever nearer to the goal of his efforts. Removing all the inessentials, one by one, he had reduced Uncle to the indispensable minimum. He placed him high up in a niche in the wall of the stairwell, arranging his elements on the basis of the Leclanché cell. The wall was mouldy in that spot; mildew had spread its whitish pleating there. Without scruple, Father availed himself of all the capital of Uncle’s enthusiasm, pulling him out in a long thread, all along the hallway and the left wing of the house. Advancing on his stepladders along the dark corridor, he drove little nails into the wall, all along the trail of Uncle’s remaining being. Those smoky and yellow afternoons were almost totally dark, and Father held a lighted candle close to the rotting wall, illuminating it inch by inch. Accounts vary, but it appears that Uncle Edward, so heroically self-possessed until that point, betrayed at the last moment a certain impatience. They even say that this culminated in a violent, though belated, outburst, which all but wrecked the work in its final stages of completion. But the installation was ready now, and Uncle Edward, who had been a model husband, father, and businessman all his life, submitted also in the end, of higher necessity, to this, his final role.
Uncle functioned splendidly. On no occasion did he refuse obedience. Having left his embroiled complications behind, in which he had become lost and entangled so many times before, he had at last discovered the purity of a uniform and straightforward principle, to which he would remain subordinate from that time onward. At the cost of his barely manageable multifacetedness, he had acquired simple, unproblematic immortality. Was he happy? There is no point in asking. Such a question has meaning only in cases of beings replete with a wealth of alternatives and possibilities, wherein actual reality may stand in opposition to possibilities incompletely real, and be reflected in them. But Uncle Edward had no alternatives; for him, there was no such thing as the dichotomy of happy and unhappy. He was fully integrated, entirely self-identical. One could not suppress a certain admiration at seeing how punctually, how precisely he functioned. Even his wife, Aunt Teresa, who came looking for her husband some time later, could not restrain herself from pressing the button now and then, to hear that sonorous, resonant tone in which she recognised the former timbre of his voice at moments of irritation. As for his daughter, Edza, one might say that she admired her Father’s career. Later, it is true, she did take a certain revenge on me for my father’s deed, but that is part of another story now.
DAYS WENT BY. The afternoons grew longer. There was nothing to be done with them. A surfeit of time, still raw, still vain and useless, dragged the evenings out into empty twilights. Adela, having washed the dishes early and cleaned the kitchen, was standing bemused on the porch, gazing vacantly into the evening’s palely reddening distance. Her beautiful eyes — large, convex, and shining, so expressive at other times — were frozen in blank contemplation. Her complexion, clouded and greyed at the end of winter from the kitchen’s fumes, was now imbued with milky reflexes, iridescent shades, and enamel sparkles, rejuvenated under the influence of that month’s springtime gravitation, waxing quarter-moon by quarter-moon. She had now prevailed over the shop assistants. They had lost face under her dark looks. They had abandoned their role as jaded frequenters of taverns and bordellos, and, shaken by her new beauty, now sought another basis on which to approach her, ready to concede to relations on new terms, to acknowledge empirically established facts.
Despite all expectations, Father’s experiments produced no upheavals in everyday life. The grafting of mesmerism onto the body of modern physics had not proven fertile; not because there was no grain of validity in Father’s discoveries; it is not truth that determines the success of an idea. Our metaphysical hunger is limited, easily sated. Father was standing at the very threshold of new and sensational discoveries when disinclination and anarchy began to sneak into all of us, the ranks of his supporters and neophytes. The signs of impatience came ever more frequently, building up to open protest. Our natures rebelled against the relaxation of fundamental laws. We could take no more new wonders; we wanted a return to the old, solid, and reliable prose of the eternal order. And Father understood this. He understood that he had gone too far, and curtailed the flight of his ideas. The circle of his elegant disciples — men with twirled-up moustaches, and their ladyfriends — began to melt away by the day. Father, hoping to withdraw with honour, was about to deliver his last, decisive lecture, when a new event suddenly turned everyone’s attention in an entirely unexpected direction.
One day, my brother, returning home from school, brought us the news, improbable but true, of the impending end of the world. We made him repeat it, certain that we had misheard. But no. Here is precisely that incredible, that inconceivably incomprehensible news that we heard:
Just so, as it stood, unready and unfinished, at a chance point in time and space, without closing its accounts or reaching any goal, in midsentence, so to speak, with no full stop or exclamation mark, without God’s judgement or wrath, on the friendliest of terms, dutifully, and in accordance with common consent and mutually acknowledged principles, the world was about to come simply and irrevocably to grief.
No; it was not to be the eschatological and tragical End augured long ago by prophets, no last act of The Divine Comedy. No. Rather, it would be a trick cyclist’s hoopla-prestidigitatory, magnificently hocus-pocus and tyro-experimental end of the world, amid the applause of all the spirits of progress. Almost no one was left unconvinced. The terrified and the protesting were shouted down immediately; for why did they not understand that this was a simply stupendous chance, the most progressive, free thinking end of the world, befitting the times, plainly honourable, and a credit to the Supreme Wisdom? Fervent conviction held sway. Sketches were made ad oculos on pages torn from notebooks. Irrefutable demonstrations were performed, and the opponents and sceptics were defeated. Full-page drawings appeared in illustrated magazines, images anticipating the disaster in spectacular staging, wherein populous cities were shown in panic at night beneath a sky resplendent with glowing signs and astral phenomena. The astounding motion of a distant bolide was portrayed, its parabolic course levelled unwaveringly at the terrestrial globe, hanging in the sky in motionless flight, approaching at a speed of many miles per second. Like a circus farce, top hats and bowler hats flew into the air, hair stood on end, umbrellas opened by themselves, bald patches were revealed under wigs which flew away — all beneath a huge, black sky and the flickering, simultaneous alarum of all the stars.
Something festive became infused in our lives, a kind of enthusiasm, an eagerness. A kind of ponderousness and solemnity entered our movements. Cosmic sighs swelled our breasts. By night, the terrestrial globe was ebullient with ceremonial uproar, the unanimous ecstasy of the thousands. Black and enormous nights came, and nebulæ of stars amassed around the Earth in untold swarms, and those variously arranged swarms, suspended in the black, interplanetary expanses, sprinkled meteor dust from abyss to abyss. Lost in the infinite spaces, we all but abandoned the terrestrial globe beneath our feet. Disoriented, losing our way, we hung over the inverted zenith with our heads downward, like antipodeans. We followed in the wake of astral throngs; we ran a licked finger along all the light years between star and star. In this way, we meandered in an incoherent, chaotic line-formation in the sky, dispersed in all directions on the endless rungs of the night, emigrants from a forsaken globe, plundering the vast multitude of the stars. The last barricades were breached, and into the black, astral space rode cyclists, standing upright on their velocipedes. They hung in motionless flight in the interplanetary vacuum, amid the perpetual opening of ever newer constellations. Flying down a siding, they blazed their trails of sleepless cosmography. But in truth, they were caught up in interplanetary lethargy, blackened with soot as if they had thrust their heads into the ventilator shaft of a stove, their ultimate goal, the finishing line of all those blind flights.
At the end of one short, incoherent, and half-slept-through day, the night opened like a great, teeming homeland. Crowds turned out onto the streets, spilled onto the squares, a mass of heads like a barrelful of shining caviar, pouring out in streams of glistening scattershot, flowing in rivers under a night sky as black as pitch and raucous with stars. Ladders broke under the weight of the thousands. Anguished figurines appeared at every window. Matchstick people, standing on shifting kindling, jumped over parapets in somnambulant fervour. They formed living chains, moving clusters and columns, like ants, standing on each other’s shoulders, streaming from the windows onto the platforms of the squares, illuminated by the glow of burning tar barrels.
Please forgive me if, in describing these scenes full of enormous congregation and tumult, I fall into exaggeration, inadvertently following the example of certain old engravings in the great book of the calamities and catastrophes of the human race. Why, they all incline toward a single proto-image, and that megalomaniacal exaggeration, the enormous pathos of those scenes, tells us that here, we have smashed the bottom of the eternal barrel of memories, some proto-barrel of myth, and broken into a prehuman night filled with the babbling of the elements, the bubbling of anamnesis, and no longer can we hold back the rising of the deluge. Ah, those teeming, piscine nights, stocked with a spry of stars, glistening with scales! Ah, those shoals of mouths, tirelessly swallowing in small gulps, hungry mouthfuls, all the swelling, undrunk streams of those black and torrential nights! But what fatal traps, what woeful dragnets were those dark, thousandfold propagated generations drawing toward?
O skies of those days, all in illuminated signals and meteors, delineated by astronomers’ calculations, traced a thousandfold, monogrammed, and marked with watery algebraic signs. We wandered in the wake of heavens pulsating with explosions of distant suns, in sidereal dazzlements, our faces lit by the cerulean glory of those nights, human swarms drifting in a broad trail across the shallows of a Milky Way spilled across the whole sky, a human stream, over whose heads rose cyclists on their spiderlike apparatus. O starry arena of night, inscribed to your furthest limits by the evolutions and spirals, the lariats and nooses of those elastic rides. O cycloids and epicycloids, executed inspiredly along the sky’s diagonals, losing your wire spokes, unconcerned at discarding your glimmering wheels, and reaching, to a truly illuminating degree, the bare, pure, and singular principle of cycling! Why, a new constellation dates from those days, a thirteenth figure ranked now and for ever among the zodiacal number, resplendent in our night sky from that time onward: The Cyclist.
The apartments, open on every side during those nights, stood empty in the light of their insistently smoking lamps. Their curtains blew, streaming far into the night, and those enfilades stood in the midst of an unending and all-embracing stream, which weaved through them in one incessant, insistent alarum. It was Uncle Edward, sounding the alert.
There it was. In the end, he had lost his patience and broken free from his bonds. He had trampled on his categorical imperative, torn himself free from the rigours of his lofty morality, and sounded the alert. Hastily, he was rendered speechless with the aid of a long washing pole. His insistent outburst was strenuously stifled with kitchen rags. But even gagged in this way, he went on wildly insisting, frantically and unrestrainedly rattling. He was past caring now; his life drained out of him together with that rattle. He bled openly in the sight of all, in terrible vehemence, with no help at hand.
Occasionally, someone might fall into an empty room pierced by that vehement alarum, amid lamps burning with tall flames. He would take a few steps from the threshold on tiptoe and come hesitantly to a halt, as if looking for something. Without a word, the mirrors would take him into their transparent depths, divide that taciturn soul among themselves. Throughout all of those bright and empty rooms, Uncle Edward would be insisting at the top of his voice, and the lonely deserter of the stars, filled with a bad conscience, as if he were there to commit some indecent act, would withdraw furtively from the room. He made his way to the door, marched out by the vigilant mirrors, which opened their gleaming lane to him, whilst in their depths, a swarm of doubles, also frightened away, dispersed in different directions on tiptoe, each holding a finger to his lips.
The sky, its immensities strewn with stardust, opened up above us once more. In that sky, night after night at an early hour, that terrible, obliquely tilting bolide would appear, suspended at the apex of its parabola, levelled motionlessly at the Earth, swallowing, to no effect, some number or other of thousands of miles per second. All gazes were levelled at it — cylindrical, glowing metallically, somewhat brighter at its bulbous core — as it fulfilled its daily quota with mathematical precision. One could scarcely believe that that tiny maggot, shining innocently among the innumerable swarms of the stars, was Balthazar’s fiery finger writing the destruction of our globe on the tablet of the sky. But every child knew by heart that fatal formula, its domain delimited, bracketed by the curling tips of a multiple integral symbol, its final result our inevitable perdition. What could save us now?
As the mob ran hither and thither in that great night, ever more lost among astral splendours and phenomena, Father stayed furtively at home. He alone knew the secret way out of that predicament, the stage door of cosmology. And he gave a mysterious smile. As Uncle Edward, stifled by rags, went on desperately sounding the alert, Father put his head quietly into the ventilator shaft of the stove. It was muffled there, as black as pitch; it smelt of warm air and soot, his refuge and his harbour. Father settled down comfortably and closed his eyes in bliss, and into that black diving bell of the house, raised high above the roof and into the starlit night, fell the dim ray of a star, bent as if in the lenses of a telescope. It sprouted with light at the focal point; it germinated in the dark retort of the alembic of the chimney. Father cautiously turned the screw of his micrometer, and that dreadful manifestation slowly came into view in the visual field of his telescope, as bright as the moon, brought within hand’s reach by magnification, in chalky relief, plastic, and glowing in the silent blackness of the planetary emptiness. It was rather scrofulous and pockmarked, a full brother of the moon, its lost double, returning, after its thousand year journey, to its maternal globe. My father brought it close to his protruding eye: it was riddled throughout with holes, like a slice of Swiss cheese, pale yellow, sharply lit, its surface everywhere pimpled as white as leprosy. Father, his hand on the screw of the micrometer, his eye dazzled by the light from the eyepiece, cast a cold glance over that calcareous globe, and he saw on its surface the convoluted image of the sickness eating away at it from within, the sinuous channels of a bookworm tunnelling through its cheesy, maggoty surface. Father gave a start. He realised his mistake. No! It wasn’t Swiss cheese at all. Quite clearly, it was a human brain, an anatomical dissection of a brain in its entire, complicated structure. Father could distinctly see the edges of its layers, its rolls of grey matter, and straining his eyes still further, he was even able to read the faint letters of inscriptions running in different directions on the convoluted map of that hemisphere. The brain, seeming to have been chloroformed, was fast asleep, smiling as it slept. Penetrating through that complicated surface picture to the core of that smile, Father caught a glimpse of the essence of the phenomenon. And he, too, smiled quietly to himself. For what might we not find in our own, trusted chimney, as black as snuff in the corner! Father discerned, shining distinctly through the rolls of grey matter, through its minute granulation of bumps, the contours of an embryo in its characteristic head-over-heels position, its tiny fists before its face, sleeping its blissful sleep upside-down in the clear water of the amnion. Father left it in that position. He got up, relieved, and closed the tiny door of the chimney shaft.
Thus far and no further.
But why? And what has happened to the end of the world? What has become of that magnificent finale, after so magnificently expounded an introduction? Downcast eyes and a smile. Had an error crept into the calculations, a tiny mistake of addition, a misprint in the transcription of the figures? Nothing of the sort. The calculations were exact. No errors had crept into the column of digits. So, what had happened? Please listen. The bolide was advancing dauntlessly, coming at a gallop like an ambitious horse, in order to finish first, and the fashion of the times kept pace with it. For a while, it flew at the head of the epoch to which it lent its form and its name. Those two bold courses then came into alignment. They ran at a powerful gallop in parallel, and our hearts, too, beat in time to them. But fashion drew ahead by a nose. Slowly, it began to outpace the indefatigable bolide. That millimetre decided the comet’s fate. It was doomed now, outdistanced once and for all. Our hearts now beat in time to fashion’s pace and gradually left the magnificent bolide behind. We watched with indifference as it grew pale, receded, and at last stood resignedly on the horizon, tilted to the side, attempting in vain the last bend on its curving path, distant and blue, harmless now and for ever. It came nowhere in the race. Its newsworthiness was all used up. Nobody was interested in the loser. Left to its own devices, it wilted quietly amid universal indifference.
We returned to our daily tasks with our heads bowed, richer by one disappointment. Hurriedly, the cosmic perspectives were rolled up, and life returned to its usual paths. We slept incessantly in those days, by day and by night, making up for time of lost sleep. We lay side-by-side in dark apartments, overcome by sleep, borne by our own breathing down a siding of starless dreams. Drifting in this way, we undulated — squeaking bellies, bagpipes, and banduras — making our way in time to our melodious snoring over all the rough terrain of a now closed and starless night. Uncle Edward had fallen silent for the ages. An echo of his alaruming despair still hung in the air, but he himself was dead. Life had escaped him along with that rattling paroxysm. The circuit had opened, and he had stepped out unhindered onto ever higher rungs of immortality. In the dark apartment, Father kept his solitary watch, silently wandering through rooms filled with melodious sleep. Sometimes, he would open the ventilator of the chimney, and smiling, peek into its dark chasm where a smiling Homunculus slept its illuminated sleep for the ages, enclosed in a glass ampule, surrounded by a flowing plenitude of neonlike light, doomed now, crossed out and filed away, an archival entry in the great record office of the sky.