The man interlaced his fingers as if he were going to pray.
“Can you describe your voices?” I asked him. “Are they malicious or aggressive?”
There was a slight abnormality in the man’s look, in his words, gestures, a touch of affectation seen through his otherwise gentle and open manner. It wasn’t mental disorder yet, but a tightrope walking over the emptiness of it.
“No, no, it’s not like that at all,” he said. “When I hear the voice, I grab my pencil, which is always sharp, and start writing. My pencil is always with me. Here it is, in my pocket, see? I write sixteen or twenty lines without stop. And then I have to wait for weeks or even months before I hear the voice again. Once I started to write a poem in a dentist’s chair. Because my tooth could wait. The voice couldn’t.”
This was serious; those of the modern era who heard voices, unlike Jesus, Mary, or Francis of Assisi, were usually locked in the ward where they had to do anything they were told, had to never complain, never disagree with their psychiatrist. Sometimes they were never discharged unless turned into absolutely ordinary ninnies. I still hoped he could cope with his problem without psychiatric intervention.
“Excuse my interrupting you,” I asked. “How often do you drink alcohol?”
The patient tossed back his hair, too long and wavy for a man, but something a man like me would be proud of. I started going bald in my twenties.
“I understand your question,” he said. “It’s not delirium tremens. I don’t feel spiders crawling over my body. I’m not one to seek a genie in a bottle of champagne. But I drink. And smoke. And I’ve tried better things than that: mescaline, amphetaminse, barbiturates, psilocybin, cannabis. I’m a poet, I have to experience things. A poet looks inside, so I shoot inside with fireworks. But I know what I do. My brain is my instrument. I protect my instrument like a tenor protects his vocal chords.”
“May I record our session?” I asked. The late evening stared at us through a tall window, making the softly-lit room warm and yellow like a dollop of amber.
He nodded and I switched on a recorder.
“It happened a year ago,” the poet said, “two days before my thirty-fifth birthday. I was working, finishing the lyric for the song that became a hit later. I couldn’t write the refrain. I’d been working for hours, and I didn’t hear the voice. There was no inspiration, nothing but nerves and stubbornness. I mean, some whispering thing crouched in the tunnels of my mind but it sounded as if speaking through a mouthful of pebbles. That drove me mad. There was a moment when I crossed a clear-cut line, as if I started going down a mountain pass. I felt tired of my life. I reached that hyper-tired condition when my brain puckered like a washerwoman’s fingertips. My mind pleaded for peace and calm, even for the eternal peace and calm. If a painless one existed and I’d had one, I would have shot myself. Many poets shoot themselves. Vladimir Mayakovsky, for example, or Kostas Karyotakis. Many don’t have the courage. Or a handgun. Or they’re afraid of pain, like I’ve always been.
“The moment I felt that, the voice inside me woke up. But it didn’t reveal the next line to me. It proposed an exchange.”
“What kind of exchange?” I asked.
The poet stood up and went to the window.
“Do you have a cigarette? No?” he said. “A line in exchange for my life. There’s something infinite in these crazy chessboards of sleepy buildings placed edgeways don’t you think? I like walking at night, waiting for a moment between today and the new today, when time stops. Every moment telescopes when I understand that the world’s just a jigsaw puzzle and I’m an oddly shaped piece of it. Excuse me…
“The voice promised to kill me on my birthday, but said that the line, four lines to be exact, would be great. The song would be a fantastic success. I still had two days of life before my birthday.”
He turned to me. “Wouldn’t you take it?”
So his voice could be malicious or aggressive, I thought, as it often happened with this product of a deluded mind or divine spiritual gift.
“Never,” I said. “Not for the world.”
“Because you’re not a poet. For any poet — if he isn’t a complete drudge — his work is worth more than his life. It’s a very dangerous profession.”
“Hart Crane jumped from a boat, Sylvia Plath gassed herself, Jozsef Attila threw himself under a train; Alfonsina Storni drowned, Marina Tsvetaeva killed herself after arguing with her son. Sergei Yesenin cut his veins, because he didn’t have enough ink to write his last lines. He wrote those lines in his own blood and died a cool death hanging himself on the heating pipe under the ceiling of his room. He was going to bleed to death, but changed his mind and did it quicker. Perhaps he heard the voice too, and the voice proposed him the same, huh?”
“Perhaps,” I said. “I read about Yesenin.” There was an earnest logic in his words, or just the logic of earnestness, strong enough to mesmerize me for a moment, as if I looked at the flame of a candle in a dark room, imagining an orange dragon eye — and suddenly the eye winked.
“I think,” the poet said, “Yesenin was the best of the old Russian poets. We are all to perish, hoping for some favour, Golden leaves flow down turning grey. May you be redeemed and blessed for ever, You who came to bloom and pass away. He heard the voice, I’m sure.”
“Shouldn’t we spend our time talking about you?” I said. “Did you agree to the proposition?”
“Yes. And, you know, I’m proud of it. Because poetry is immensely important: it’s a nightmare of universal intelligence that slumbers under the disturbing hum of insolent humanity. So I finished the song. Then the morning of my birthday came. I was in excellent health and in excellent mood. I didn’t want to die one bit. I decided to fight for my life. I didn’t believe that the voice would keep its promise.”
“Voices wield power over words, over emotions, but not over reality. They can’t pull a trigger or come from behind and hit my head with a stone. At most they can infuriate some idiot. I wasn’t going to surrender. I had to hold out for just about sixteen hours. Just survive. I had a fried sazan for breakfast. I had already finished it, when I heard the voice.
“It said that someone had already approached me. I felt cold when I heard this. There was something sepulchral in these words. ‘Go to hell,’ I answered and went on washing my hands.”
“My housemaid, Martha, came in after a couple of minutes and said in her usual careful manner that some kid was waiting for me in the hall. She said it was a pimply-faced boy of about ten wearing a cheap overcoat. I looked at him through the iridescent panes of glass in the door; a side door that led to the library. The light was off behind my back, and I was sure he couldn’t see me. In the air was the soothing smell of books, my favorite childhood smell.
“I regarded the boy’s side-view, pondering over the situation. I wasn’t going to let him in. But as soon as I decided to tell Martha to shoo him away, he turned to me, looked at me gently, and the voice whispered in my head, ‘I’ll find you all the same. I can wait.’ His cheeks and forehead were covered with pimples. I thought he was a little young for zits.
“I almost froze in my tracks. I had been a moderate realist before, but now I felt that the reality was in fact Lewis Carroll raised to the fourth power. An ordinary morning turned into an incalculable dream. The boy stood still for a while, then waved his hand to me and walked away to the stairs. It was the moment when I realized that the voice hadn’t specified on which of my birthdays I had to die.
“If I was careful just one day a year, my odds of living to retirement were not so bleak.
“After thinking of it for some time, I calmed down. I even went shopping that day. But the moment I entered the shop I saw the same boy. Now he was a little beggar who stood looking down at a hat with a few coins in front of him. I walked by, pretending not to notice him. Unfortunately, there wasn’t another entrance or exit in the shop. I bought what I wanted, a set of guitar strings and the first string of a banjo, and now I had to pass by the little murderer again. I summoned up my courage, wedged myself into the crowd and was about to get away.
“There was some holdup at the doors, and I was pushed towards the killer. I felt his soft small palm in my hand; yes, he took my hand, and I was surprised at the gentleness of his fingers. I think all the time I had expected to see something brutal, fierce. But he couldn’t have claws, after all. So we walked out, hand in hand.
‘Let me do it now,’ he said. ‘If later, it may be more painful than you think.’
‘No, not now,’ I answered. I didn’t panic yet, but that yucky feeling of cold emptiness we seem to be hard-wired to widened in my guts.
‘If you want, I can kill someone else instead.’
‘Is it possible?’ I asked immediately. I was just a big lump of self-preservation at the moment. I was too scared to think of the abstract things like conscience, sin, or karma, or other hidden things that are part of us. My ethics were paralyzed.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Who do you want me to kill?’
‘Could you choose?’
‘Okay, then. This one.’ He pointed to a man who stood at the front steps. The man looked strong.
‘He’s five times heavier than you are,’ I said. ‘You can’t kill him.’
‘You’re right. It’s going to be difficult.’ His soft hand slipped into my pocket and took the banjo string.
‘This will do,’ he said.
“He walked slowly to the man in a brown overcoat. I watched him, spellbound. Were the four lines the voice had given me worth killing this innocent man, who probably had a family, kids who loved him? Would the boy strangle this big man with a banjo string? Here, where all could see him?
“The man went in through the big doorway. The killer followed him. I was staring at the door, thinking that now an innocent person was being killed behind it. I sentenced this man to death. The door was dark blue, with horizontal stripes, with a white oval number and a withered strand of creeper hanging from above it. I think I’ll remember this sight forever.
“But then I thought about something really morbid. No, I didn’t want to save the innocent, but it occurred to me that I could’ve used this chance better. I had a few enemies, and the death of some of them would be convenient.
“You think I’m a monster, don’t you? I’m just a creative person, I see the world differently. Look at this scar. When I was a boy, I stabbed my own arm with a sharp stone shard, only to know what real pain was like. I live in different dimensions, both emotional and moral. At eighteen, I even fought a duel for a woman I didn’t like at all — bobbed women look as ridiculous to me as tailless cats. It was a rhyme duel. We were aboard a ship. The one who couldn’t make up a rhyme had to put on a light-weight gas mask and jump overboard at midnight. I jumped, but I was saved. I’ve hated the night sea since then. The leaden, merciless greatness unaware of your existence. But I need emotions. Passions are my tool-kit.
“At that moment, I thought I’d chosen a wrong victim. I ran to the door and pushed it open. The little murderer was sitting on the lying man; he tried to strangle the man with the string. The man was still alive and kicked vigorously. I hit the attacker on the head as hard as I could. He dropped the string, rolled to the stairs and sprang to his feet. For a while, the man in the brown coat stirred on the floor like a crushed bug. Then he got up. His face was purple and bloody, but all in all he was okay. He gulped for air.
‘Stop him!’ I shouted, and we both rushed to chase the small fiend.
“The boy ran upstairs with the agility of a mountain goat, broke a window, and jumped onto the sidewalk from there. I noticed blood on the protruding shards of glass, and red drops spotted the asphalt. The boy must have cut himself when breaking the pane. That meant he was mortal. All the better.
“The street was rather crowded, and I didn’t see him at first. But he couldn’t have gone far; the next moment I noticed him plunging into the door of a derelict building. A minute later we were there. I yanked the door open, but he was gone. I saw the old coat, his hat, and a few coins scattered on the concrete. A handkerchief soaked with blood. Dried spittle. Cigarette butts. But that was all. He had disappeared.
‘Thank you,’ said the man whom I’d saved.
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘You saved my life! I feel so grateful!’
‘No, no. You should see a doctor, the sooner the better.’
“I walked out and went quickly down the street. Would he feel grateful if he had known what had really happened?
“I wasn’t going home. The killer might have been waiting for me there. I was scared. The fear was like an approaching wave, and I didn’t know how I could escape it. I took a bus to the railway station, and bought a ticket. It didn’t matter to me where I was going. The only thing that mattered was that a train would be leaving for Kirov in ten minutes. I didn’t have a clue where this Kirov was, but hoped it was far away.
“I was looking out of the window to check if any suspicious fellow got on. There were just a few people on the platform. No one even remotely resembled the little murderer. I calmed down and ordered tea.
“Two hours after the train started, I sat in an empty compartment watching the deepening twilight. Shaggy old pines floated by to the muzzy expanse of my past, to the half darkness of memory; two small boats slept in a distant stretch of a lake; the wind, oblivious of a few clouds, which hung motionless like my thoughts, fell on the high grass and wallowed there. Slow, stiff-legged time practically stood still. I remembered my first Christmas, the moment when the first blind bird of a poetic line hit the inside of my skull, and felt myself old and dusty like an aged potted cactus. My pain was dissipating.
“The door opened, some people entered, and I felt cold sweat on my forehead.
“The first one was a huge bumpkin with large crumbs of white bread in his beard. His head looked as big and stupid as a gumball machine. He smelled of old sweat and good salami. Two smaller individuals squeezed themselves in after him. They were fat, dirty, and with Tatar faces.
‘I’m back,’ said the first one and scratched his belly.
“The fourth one was an enormous white pig. It appeared from nowhere like Venus from sea-foam. The animal, oddly enough, looked clean. It put its huge head on my lap and went on chewing and moving its humorous snout. Its ears were hairy and pink inside. Its neck was hot.
‘Does it bite?’ I asked the most stupid question. My heart was beating like dragonfly wings.
‘Like a wolfhound,’ one of them said. ‘It can bite your arm off. I’ve warned you that the sooner you’d die the better. Now Marsha will hurt you badly. She can’t eat you instantly. She’s not a shark, though she’s a great white too.’ His laughter was soundless, the lips constantly moving inside the beard.
“The sow gave an innocent yawn.
‘But what if you kill someone else?’ I said while the sow methodically smelled my stomach.
‘No. I’ve already made that offer. You chose to rescind.’
“One of them started unpacking his suitcase. Some metal things glittered and jangled there. They looked like instruments of torture. He looked at me and smiled.
‘But if I, I mean, myself…’ I said staring at his bulbous nose.
‘If I kill someone else myself?’ I said and heard the thin needles of fear trembling in my voice. ‘I’ll do the whole work.’
‘Okay,’ the biggest of them said, picking at his zits. ‘Actually, there’s no difference for us. Go to the next compartment, to the left. There’s a young woman there. She is reading a book and writing in a journal. Take a big suitcase from the upper berth. It’s your suitcase: your papers are inside. So are four dumbbells; that’s why your suitcase is very heavy. You’ll just drop it on the woman’s head. She’ll be killed immediately. Everyone will see it was an accident. Stop, stop! Don’t jerk, you’ll make Marsha nervous. I’m going to hold her.’
“The sow pricked up her ears.
“He gripped the sow’s jaws — the skin of his hands looked like dried pomegranate — and I managed to get out while she waggled her head, trying to break loose. The door of the next compartment was open. A young woman was writing at the small table. An old wife who looked like the Grim Reaper sat in the opposite corner. She smiled at me with a toothless mouth. Her eyes were full of stagnant slime.
“There was a most beautiful sight outside the window: bluish evening trees, the darkening sky decorated with a triangle of early stars, and a white cottage dropped thoughtfully into the beauty. A river full of silvered sunset lay under the slanted chessboard of distant fields. A big black suitcase sat on the upper berth.
“I stopped at the door.
“I watched the woman who wrote, bending over the sanctuary of a white page. She was young and rather plump, with thick black hair. I saw she was one of those who tried to be good in their childhood, had all A’s at school, and, on starting their life, didn’t know what to do with this priceless gift: a shy gargoyle of a poetic soul. All this was written on her face. I understood everything, immediately, seeing the slight tension of her posture, the way she held her pencil or how she held her left hand: she seemingly didn’t know either to cover the paper from the boiling nothingness of this empty world or not. I saw her distinct microscopic writing, the form of the lines, the words she struck out. That was as familiar to me as my own navel. She was a poet.
“She glanced up and saw me. She’d waited for me to come, but she wasn’t going to resist. In her eyes I saw a compressed thought, which moved like fingers trying to grope for a shadow: she wanted to finish her last poem. She looked at me, at her murderer, without any hatred or fear, because her brain was busy doing a much more important thing: she was listening to the rhythmic sentences this damned voice dictated. A breath of fresh air coming through the window played with a lock of her hair, which glinted brown in the fading light. There was such a dense — yes, this is the word I was looking for — dense understanding of the situation in her eyes that her gaze stretched between us like a rope-ladder.
“For all my life, I’d been certain that I was unique; that I was the one who heard the real voice; that the choice — a line for a life — was only given to me. The truth was open to me at that moment: it happened to any real poet. That was why the death-rate among poets was higher than among professional stuntmen or extreme sportsmen.
“I saw that my life was just lots of idiotic kinks lit by a constant light of egotism; I just pretended to have complicity in some greatness, which in fact was almost closed to me. I’d never be able to look into my death’s eyes the way this woman looked. I was dwarfed by this gaze like an arctic tree dwarfed by frost. I felt as if the meaning of my life were a fancy inflatable castle, and she had just punctured it.
“I bolted along the corridor. The train was making a wide turn at the moment; I skidded and banged against a door at full speed, cut my lip. The edge of my mind felt that there was no chase. They didn’t follow me. They waited for me ahead. I pulled down the emergency brake cord without paying attention to the two young and pretty conductors who were busy chattering there. The train slowed immediately, and they fell on the floor, showing their sexy knees, with the grace of penguins dancing Hip Hop.
“I don’t remember what I shouted, but blood dripped from my nose and lips, and I must have looked terrible because they opened the door for me right away. They didn’t ask me any questions, let alone try to stop me. And I jumped into the cold evening forest as if into an ice-hole and rolled down the slope tearing to pieces everything that could be torn. Everything that was near to the surface of my body. At last, when I turned into one moaning bruise, lying doubled up in the blue cave of the evening, the train sang out a prolonged bass note, and the creaking procession of railroad cars slowly started again.
“Now I was alone, in the forest; the darkness approached, creeping among huge eroded trunks. There were no signs of civilization around, except the railway embankment and the warm smell of black oil. The perfect place to kill somebody. Of course, I could walk at most a few miles along the railway and find the station. There would be a road to some village or town there. But was there any use going anywhere?
“I climbed up the embankment. A man was walking far away, along the tender curve of the railroad. I couldn’t see him clearly because of the darkness. He was walking in my direction. And he had a dog. The dog was big. This dog could run me down in a minute. I had enough time to climb a tree. So what? The dog’s master would be under the tree very soon. It was about seven o’clock. Five hours till midnight. I couldn’t hold out that long.
“Luckily, my pencil and the note pad with my best poems were with me. By best poems I mean those ones, which won’t be published in the foreseeable future: poetry is subjective; it’s regal nakedness of the soul, and poetry for sale is a mental parasite.
“I broke my pencil in two.
“Then I started to tear pages out of my note pad, which was torn but still useable. I had a cigarette lighter. I had to burn everything before they came near.”
The poet sat down on the edge of the arm-chair to my left. I watched his fingers rolling his pencil; he probably didn’t know he was doing it.
I think the truth lies in the no man’s land between realism and surrealism, that’s why realists always see one side of it, and surrealists see the other: the optical illusion, which guarantees an unbridgeable disagreement between them. A staunch realist reminds me of a man who tries to chew only using his upper jaw, despising his lower one, or estimates a distance after closing his left eye. I can be wrong in my opinion, prediction, or interpretation, but I never dismiss people’s stories, no matter how nightmarish they seem.
“Why did you want to burn your poems?” I asked.
“I understood that creating poetry is the most dangerous profession on earth,” the poet said. “Sooner or later each of us faces a choice: line or life. That’s why so many good poets don’t live to be forty. Do you know any other profession which could boast such statistics? Apollinaire died at 28, Lorca at 38, Catullus at 30, Sirano at 36, Keats at 26, Lermontov at 27, Pushkin at 38. Do you remember Arthur Rimbaud?”
“Frankly, I don’t,” I said. “What about him?”
“One of the first symbolists. He survived, but he stopped writing poetry when he was nineteen, after his friend shot at him twice. Arthur Rimbaud survived! He slipped out! He made the reverse trade-off: he exchanged his poetry for his life. He flung his poems into this demon’s jaws. I made the same. I burned my best poems.
“It was the only copy. Eighty-eight poems. Of course, I remember them by heart, but I’ll never write them down again. That’s why I’m going to live long enough to outlive all my enemies. Those were great poems. Do you want me to recite something?”
And he recited, without waiting for an answer.
“Did you like it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I especially liked the line about two blind sculptors carving each other’s faces. But, to tell the truth, I can’t tell good poetry from bad. You didn’t finish your story.”
“I burned everything before the man with the dog approached. They took no notice of me. I think the man’s face was covered with zits, but I can’t say that for sure: it was already rather dark.”
“You returned home?”
“Two days later. I sat for hours on that moonlight washed slope, under the sky that seemed soaring, under the tender web of stars. The night was like lips that don’t respond to a kiss: I knew I wouldn’t write poetry anymore. This rattling box of my body has a chance to reach the age of seventy and the weight of two hundred if I don’t break the contract, that is, if I don’t write down my destroyed poems again or publish them. I still have them here, in my memory. They burn my skull from the inside. My brain is a pool teeming with tadpoles of ideas I can’t realize. I walk, eat, try to hide myself in the Diogenes’ tub of business, sleep with anything female that loves money, and read, read, read — my favorite amusement is to spend nights and days in my private library; I get rid of any clocks and telephones and lock the door from the inside — but actually I’m dead. That’s why I’m here. I want to have both: my poetry and my life. There’s no use having only one. Help me. Help me!”
“First, I’m going to write a prescription,” I said. “And you’ll come to me next Thursday, after taking these pills.”
In five minutes the consultation was over.
“Perhaps it was a hallucination,” said the poet before he left the office. “Because my maid doesn’t remember any fried sazan that day. She can’t be mistaken about such things. You know what? I want to write my last poem on a white page, put it on the table, and die quietly, without pain. It wouldn’t be a long voyage: poets already live between this world and another one, where we are ascending one by one, becoming words and consonances. Death would take my hand and shepherd me to the door to eternity and let me look back, just once, and watch the passed life calmly as if it were a sleeping child. It’s my birthday today; I’m thirty-six; the voice might give me such a present, what do you think?”
“I think you can try to write prose,” I said.
“Prose? Thousands of empty words mixed into homogenous mass? Thanks, no. It’s no fun to write about Alice in Wonderland if you can write about the Wonderland in Alice.”
But the next Thursday the poet didn’t come. I phoned his home and learned he had died in his bed; he didn’t wake up the day after his birthday.
“And a poem?” I asked. “He had to leave a page with his last poem on it!”
“There was a page on the table,” a woman’s voice answered.
“And what was written on it?”
“Just a few words. ‘I made up my mind. I’ll never write again.'”
“Are you sure?”
“How could I not be sure? He hadn’t written anything for over a year. All his last poems are destroyed.”
“Sorry,” I said and put the receiver down.
It was just a coincidence, I thought. Or auto-suggestion. He knew he was going to die on his birthday, and poetic imagination is a powerful thing. Especially if it’s a pre-psychotic imagination. There was one thing I couldn’t understand: why had this man died if he didn’t break the contract?
This man could have lived in a complete inner rave, but any rave has its laws. He was sure he’d live long if he didn’t rewrite his old poems, or write a new one. The auto-suggestion shouldn’t have allowed him to die on his birthday. To solve this mystery I decided to listen to the recorded conversation again. And then I understood.
My life and I are two blind sculptors,
Eternally we carve each other’s faces
With liquid fingers of misunderstanding…
The contract actually had been broken. One of the eighty-eight poems survived, recorded on the tape. The poet’s voice recited the lines very distinctly, and I could hear every word of the poem.
Was it my fault or not? I don’t know. Perhaps I did something wrong, perhaps not, but I’ll never forget this man, his story, his nervous fingers, his eyes seeking understanding or just a drop of belief, which I didn’t give him. It’s one of the worst things that could happen to us when we can’t — at any moment of our lives — just stop, pause for a short while, look back, and meet calmly the unblinking gaze of our past.