Bruno Schulz lived as a Jewish teacher in
the Polish town of Orogobych. His writings didn't sell. In 1941 he was
shot to death by a Nazi officer.
It happened in the late and forlorn
period of complete disruption, at the time of the liquidation of our business.
The signboard had been removed from over our shop, the shutters were halfway
down, and inside the shop my mother was conducting and unauthorized trade
in remnants. Adela had gone to America, and it was said that the boat on
which she had sailed had sunk and that all the passengers had lost their
lives. We were unable to verify this rumour, but all trace of the girl
was lost and we never heard of her again.
A new age began - empty, sober and joyless, like a sheet of white paper.
A new servant girl, Genya, anaemic, pale, and boneless, mooned about the
rooms. When one patted her on the back, she wriggled, stretched like a
snake, or purred like a cat. She had a dull white complexion, and even
the insides of her eyelids were white. She was so absent-minded that she
sometimes made a white sauce from old letters and invoices: it was sickly
At that time my father was definitely dead. He had been dying a number
of times, always with some reservations that forced us to revise our attitude
towards the fact of death. This had its advantages. By dividing his death
into instalments, Father had familiarized us with his demise. We became
gradually indifferent to his returns - each one shorter, each one more
pitiful. His features were already dispersed throughout the room in which
he had lived, and were sprouting in it, creating at some points strange
knots of likenesses that were most expressive. The wallpaper began in certain
places to imitate his habitual nervous tic; the flower designs arranged
themselves into the doleful element of his smile, symmetrical as the fossilized
imprint of a trilobite. For a time, we gave wide berth to his fur coat
lined with polecat skins. The fur coat breathed. The panic of small animals
sewn together and biting into one another passed through it in helpless
currents and lost itself in the folds of the fur. Putting one's ear against
it, one could hear the melodious purring unison of the animals' sleep.
In this well-tanned form, amid the faint smell of polecat, murder, and
the nighttime matings, my father might have lasted for many years. But
he did not last.
One day, Mother returned from town with a preoccupied face.
"Look, Joseph," she said, "what a lucky coincidence. I caught him on
the stairs, jumping from step to step" - and she lifted a handkerchief
that covered something on a plate. I recognized him at once. The resemblance
was striking, although now he was a crab or a large scorpion. Mother and
I exchanged looks: in spite of the metamorphosis, the resemblance was incredible.
"Is he alive?" I asked.
"Of course. I can hardly hold him," Mother said. "Shall I place him
on the floor. She put the plate down, and leaning over him we observed
him closely. There was a hollow place between his numerous curved legs,
which he was moving slightly. His uplifted pincers and feelers seemed to
be listening. I tipped the plate, and Father moved cautiously and with
a certain hesitation to the floor. Upon touching the flat surface under
him, he gave a sudden start with all of his legs, while his arthropod joints
made a clacking sound. I barred his way. He hesitated, investigated the
obstacle with his feelers, then lifted his pincers and turned aside. We
let him run in his chosen direction, where there was no furniture to give
him shelter. Running in wavy jerks on his many legs, he reached the wall
and, before we could stop him, ran lightly up it, not pausing anywhere.
I shuddered with instinctive revulsion as I watched his progress up the
wallpaper. Meanwhile, Father reached a small built-in kitchen cupboard,
hung for a moment on its edge, testing the terrain with his pincers, and
then crawled into it.
He was discovering the apartment afresh from the new point of view of
a crab; evidently, he perceived all objects by his sense of smell, for,
in spite of careful checking, I could not find on him any organ of sight.
He seemed to consider carefully the objects he encountered in his path,
stopping and feeling them with his antennae, then embracing them with his
pincers, as if to test them and make their acquaintance; after a time,
he left them and continued on his run, pulling his abdomen behind him,
lifted slightly from the floor. He acted the same way with the pieces of
bread and meat that we threw on the floor for him, hoping he would eat
them. He gave them a perfunctory examination and ran on, not recognizing
that they were edible.
Watching these patient surveys of the room, one could assume that he
was obstinately and indefatigably looking for something. From time to time
he ran to a corner of the kitchen, crept under a barrel of water that was
leaking, and, upon reaching the puddle, seemed to drink.
Sometimes he disappeared for days on end. He seemed to manage perfectly
well without food, but this did not seem to affect his vitality. With mixed
feelings of shame and repugnance, we concealed by day our secret fear that
he might visit us in bed during the night. But this never occurred, although
in the daytime he would wander all over the furniture. He particularly
liked to stay in the spaces between the wardrobes and the wall.
We could not discount certain manifestations of reason and even a sense
of humour. For instance, Father never failed to appear in the dining room
during mealtimes, although his participation in them was purely symbolic.
If the dining-room door was by chance closed during dinner and he had been
left in the next room, he scratched at the bottom of the door, running
up and down along the crack, until we opened it for him. In time, he learned
how to insert his pincers and legs under the door, and after some elaborate
manoeuvres he finally succeeded in insinuating his body through it sideways
into the dining room. This seemed to give him pleasure. He would then stop
under the table, lying quite still, his abdomen slightly pulsating. What
the meaning of these rhythmic pulsations was, we could not imagine. They
seemed obscene and malicious, but at the same time expressed a rather gross
and lustful satisfaction. Our dog, Nimrod, would approach him slowly and,
without conviction, sniff at him cautiously, sneeze, and turn away indifferently,
not having reached any conclusions.
Meanwhile, the demoralization in our household was increasing. Genya
slept all day long, her slim body bonelessly undulating with her deep breaths.
We often found in the soup reels of cotton, which she had thrown in unthinkingly
with the vegetables. Our shop was open non-stop, day and night. A continuous
sale took place amid complicated bargainings and discussions. To crown
it all, Uncle Charles came to stay.
He was strangely depressed and silent. He declared with a sigh that
after his recent unfortunate experiences he had decided to change his way
of life and devote himself to the study of languages. He never went out
but locked himself in the most remote room - from which Genya had removed
all the carpets and curtains as she did not approve of our visitor. There
he spent his time, reading old price lists. Several time he tried viciously
to step on Father. Screaming with horror we told him to stop it. Afterwards
he only smiled wryly to himself, while Father, not realizing the danger
he had been in, hung around and studied some spots on the floor.
My father, quick and mobile as long as he was on his feet, shared with
all crustaceans the characteristic that when turned on his back he became
largely immobile. It was sad and pitiful to see him desperately moving
all his limbs and rotating helplessly around his own axis. We could hardly
force ourselves to look at the conspicuous, almost shameless mechanism
of his anatomy, completely exposed under the bare articulated belly. At
such moments, Uncle Charles could barely restrain himself from stamping
on Father. We ran to his rescue with some object at hand, which he caught
tightly with his pincers, quickly regaining his normal position; then at
once he started a lightning, zigzag run at double speed, as if wanting
to obliterate the memory of his unsightly fall.
I must force myself to report truthfully the unbelievable deed, from
which my memory recoils even now. To this day I cannot understand how we
became the conscious perpetrators of it. A strange fatality must have been
driving us to it; for fate does not evade consciousness or will but engulfs
them in its mechanism, so that we are able to admit and accept, as in a
hypnotic trance, things that under normal circumstances would fill us with
Shaken badly, I asked my mother in despair, again and again, "How could
you have done it? If it were Genya who had done it - but you yourself?"
Mother cried, wrung her hands and could find no answer. Had she thought
that Father would be better off? Had she seen in the act the only solution
to a hopeless situation, or did she do it out of inconceivable thoughtlessness
and frivolity? Fate has a thousand wiles when it chooses to impose on us
its incomprehensible whims. A temporary blackout, a moment of inattention
or blindness, is enough to insinuate an act between the Scylla and Charybdis
of decision. Afterwards, with hindsight, we may endlessly ponder that act,
explain our motives, try to discover our true intentions; but the act remains
When Father was brought in on a dish, we came to our senses and understood
fully what happened. He lay large and swollen from the boiling, pale grey
and jellified. We sat in silence, dumbfounded. Only Uncle Charles lifted
his fork towards the dish, but at once he put it down uncertainly, looking
at us askance. Mother ordered it to be taken to the sitting-room. It stood
there afterwards on a table covered with a velvet cloth, next to the album
of family photographs and a musical cigarette box. Avoided by us all, it
just stood there.
But my father's earthly wanderings were not yet at an end, and the next
instalment - the extension of the story beyond permissible limits - is
the most painful of all. Why didn't he give up, why didn't he admit that
he was beaten when there was every reason to do so and when even Fate could
go no farther in utterly confounding him? After several weeks of immobility
in the sitting room, he somehow rallied and seemed to be slowly in recovering.
One morning, we found the plate empty. On leg lay on the edge of the dish,
in some congealed tomato sauce and aspic that bore the traces of his escape.
Although boiled and shedding his legs on the way, with his remaining strength
he had dragged himself somewhere to begin a homeless wandering, and we
never saw him again.
Translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska
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