Extract: A Postmortem Dream

Page 1

I



n

othing unusual happened during the day preceding that night. It all began in the evening. At seven o’clock I was sitting in the dining room of The Silver Sun Hotel in district town J. I had been drinking there since two that afternoon and intended to take the 8:30 p.m. train to the provincial capital E., where I have a thriving wholesale dry-goods store and a new four-story house. — Behind me sat several farmers boisterously enjoying themselves. One was recounting how he’d caught a crop thief. I was barely listening — — and then these words pierced my hearing: “And five fields I have passed.” There was something grotesque about them. Hardly anyone would find them horrifying, and yet for a moment such a strange, rather nebulous though powerful dread eddied inside me, intimating something inconceivably


monstrous. It so happens that my huckster’s soul harbors the tentative belief that farce and horror are sisters, two sides of the same coin, that all horror is rooted in the mystery of the comical and vice versa, that in the most profound depths only horror, only each and every fear, is comical, that the world is merely a bottomless abyss and a fey ghastly burlesque. I soon forgot about it. Fifteen minutes later I went out to the yard. — On the way back in, I stopped to look up at the stars . . . And here something quite audibly hissed in my ear: “Five fields I have passed,” — my legs turned to jelly and I blacked out. What followed lives in my memory at most as murky fragments. I only know that I soon got to my feet and tottered back to the dining room. I drank there for maybe another half an hour, then took the omnibus to the train station. The entire time I felt as if I were in a waking dream, so that I almost forgot about those words, but every now and again faint, feeble, yet unsettling little flames of terror would continue to flicker in me. They were snuffed out in the train, and I fell into a semiconscious state. All I remember is that once I got home I kissed my wife in the shop — then I sunk into the pillows. And that as I was falling asleep I heard coming somewhere from ~8~


the corner the shrill, horrifying groan of my own voice outside of me — — •

I have no idea when this dream began. Oh, will I ever know? I was making my way through an unspeakably dismal, hilly, sporadically wooded countryside. Thick clouds arched overhead like the vault of a crypt, a somber yellow the likes of which I’d never seen before. Late autumn, death everywhere, death . . . Brown, broken, wet grass bent over in the mud; the corpses of dried tufts, galvanized by a breeze, whispered their postmortem dreams while autumnal strawflowers slowly withered, beseeching the sulfurous sky for a quick death; the sepulchral soil of the field reeked cadaverously. This yellow horror was my companion, and it only grew more intense. Everything frightened me, everything I set eyes on eerily spurned me. “Wretch, wretch!” called to me the grass and clods of dirt, the woods and clouds, “what is it you still seek here? You see that everything casts you out from their midst, driving you away, and you still fail to understand you no longer belong here? Death squats inside you and nothing will ~9~


dislodge it.” At any moment I expected something terrible, the most terrible, the final to appear. And appear it did! About six hundred paces off to the side a man stepped out of the woods and slowly came toward me. I knew at once he was it, the terrible, the final, and I took off in mad terror. Finally stopping for a breather, I looked back. At the same slow gait he was gaining on me, now only five hundred paces away. Again I rushed off, every now and then looking over my shoulder. He hadn’t quickened his stride, and yet was getting closer, now only three hundred paces behind me. “Everything is futile!” I cried, on the verge of collapse — here I ran around a knoll and saw, two hundred and fifty paces in front of me, a structure with a “tavern” sign. “I’m saved,” I wept, “I can make it before he catches up, and among those good folk the ghoul will lose his power over me!” I again started to run, my adversary vanishing from sight behind the knoll. As I ran to the building, I passed a thick hedge surrounding the yard, and from behind the bushes emerged — him. He stood in my way. An entirely ordinary face, dressed in a shabby fustian suit, brown with black checkers. He raised his hands, his fingers interlocked and thumbs twiddling at the height of his face, and he said slowly and jovially: ~ 10 ~


“Five fields I have passed.” An explosion of dread, of a kind nothing could withstand — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — A strange light, nearly white as snow. A small, elegant room, and in it, me, on batiste pillows. The crystalline, eerie glow of the morning sun lingered — undeniably early morning. Everything was somehow so exposed, hollow, resonant, buzzing, aromatic. As if I were in the heart of an enormous glass ball . . . enveloped in fragrant vanilla ice cream. Though what was strangest of all not even the greatest poet could express, much less I, the lowly shopkeeper Matthias Lebermayer! I lay there a long time, feeling bewitchingly delightful. I pushed all that had happened till then out of mind, and although I sensed it was slumbering in my soul and could easily be roused, it wouldn’t be worth the bother. The past seemed to me a light, trivial dream. I finally asked myself: Where am I? What is the meaning of all this? By all indications I guessed I was lying in a hotel room. I rang. A moment later a waiter entered with a bow. I was taken aback as he seemed to me a monstrous shade even though a handsome, rosy lad in an impeccable uniform of fine loden. “My boy, where the heck am I?” I energetically fired at him. ~ 11 ~


“In our hotel, The Silver Sun, Your Lordship!” “The Silver Sun?” A rather clear though bizarre memory flashed in me, “How did I get here? Wait — wait — — aha! But yesterday evening I took the train to E. and slept at home beside my wife!” “Begging his pardon, but His Lordship only dreamed this. Considering that he is a noble gentleman who pays his bills, we took the liberty of giving His Lordship a room when he collapsed in the yard and thus continued to lie there.” “In the yard — wait — aha! I passed out because” — a feeling of dread swelled in me — “Five fields I have passed — — —” “No five fields were passed by His Lordship. From the dining room to the pissoir is about thirty paces and not a field in sight!” “So tell me, my boy, why did I fall down then, huh?” I shouted nearly in a rage. “Because — with all due respect, the twenty-five pints of Pilsner and eight shots of slivovitz marked on your tab are no mere pittance.” “Oh, that wasn’t the problem . . . Look here, you cretin, I know I got up myself and drank for another hour in the dining room.” ~ 12 ~


“I am no cretin, Your Lordship — though someone might be — I am always sober! I picked His Lordship up myself and with the assistance of others carried him up the stairs to this room, and it was quite a slog, His Lordship is easily 200 kilos, surely one deserves a little something extra for this service. No sooner had His Lordship’s head hit the pillow than it pleased him to commence snoring!” “Was the whole thing just a dream? Even at night this — — — Christ almighty, I shouldn’t think this way. But that’s what must’ve happened . . . Well, thank the Lord it wasn’t worse . . . So now I’m awake . . . But can this be — awake? Being awake never felt like this before . . . No, it’s still a dream.” “On my word of honor, Your Lordship, it is not!” “What good is your word of honor if I’m only dreaming you! Tell me, you Tatar, have you ever seen such light? So deep, vitreous, aromatic, ice-creamy?” “A light like on any other day. — And maybe I am a Tatar, but at least I can stand on my own two feet. When one has managed to imbibe so much, he sees double even the next day . . .” “Ah — I guess that’s it . . . Yes, it has to be . . . But how strange, how horrible . . .” ~ 13 ~


“Shall I bring black coffee? It will put your stomach right, and that will put your mind right . . .” “Yes, bring it — and leave me in peace!” He left. Memories roiled in my soul . . . I avoided only a single place. But it was no use. Emerging from them straightaway was the man in the brown coat with black checkers, twiddling his thumbs as he impassively said: “Five fields I have passed.” And my miserable consciousness, as if having been cudgeled, vanished once again. •

And the same room once more . . . Yet the sunlight had dimmed — even though the blazing daystar was nearly at its zenith. Even my consciousness had dimmed, had somehow become apathetic and muddled. I recalled nothing and thought about nothing. Like an animal, I was preoccupied only with the present moment and what was around me: I examined the fabric of the sheets, curtains, rugs, I inspected the cutlery in the cabinet, and eventually washed and got dressed. At the same time, I noticed even more curiosities: for example, I suddenly could see stems growing out of all my fingertips with the heads of children dangling on them. I found this entirely ~ 14 ~


normal and not in the least shocking. You think I had gone mad, or was just hallucinating? Not so fast! It was eerily quiet in the hotel, only the strangely hollow sound of sporadic steps echoed from the street, as if it were midnight. “I’ll go for a walk!” I decided abruptly, “and get away from this place that has brought me such misfortune. The fresh air will put me right at once. I should settle up first — no, I won’t pay! No way! I simply see no reason why I should! My suitcase contains several thousand in cash, but I have no mind to shell out any. I just need to sneak out of here without being noticed.” — — I silently crept catlike down the dark hall . . . I made it to the ground-floor hallway easily enough — but now had to go past the open kitchen emitting the sounds of women’s voices. I stopped and overheard: “Is that old souse still snoozing?” “Yep! Or maybe he’s faking it so he can slink outta here without paying!” “Could be, keep your eyes peeled, girls!” “He should be ashamed of himself, that old geezer, must be pushing fifty-five, a wedding ring on his finger and he gets totally plastered like that!” I froze . . . Did they suspect I would try to sneak past them? . . . The only option left was to make myself as small as possible. I got down on all fours, scrunched up as much as I could, and was delighted to see myself getting smaller ~ 15 ~