At what moment does the hero become part of the story? Will yet another schoolmate be found to have vanished in the bowels of a comic? In this collection of eight short stories by the experienced yarn-maker Tomáš Horváth the author plays a sophisticated game with genre boundaries and traditional readers’ habits.
It Is my intention to write a short story in which I am a psychiatrist who observes, examines and treats a patient suffering from paranoid delusions and neurotic syndromes. He will be prone to hallucinations but aware of the fact that they are hallucinations. He will use a private language and I will have some difficulty deciphering it and reaching out to him; he will resist letting me into his world. I will have a study furnished in a medically austere and functional way, with a sterile white cover over my desk and the examination bed. It is a study with a view of white-capped sea waves breaking on the rocky coast where the sanatorium I am working in is located. The nearest town is thirty kilometres away. Whenever I need something small or some personal item I get into my Mini minor: I drive down a road carved out of the deep greenery of cool conifers, I am tossed to and fro by the sharp turns on the gradually descending road. My patient will be a man aged about, in fact precisely (I have to know after all, being his doctor) thirty-seven, of slender build, sunken into himself, not very tall. The few distinguished features his face has retained are not remnants of his past mental strength but, ironically, have been subsequently generated by his illness. In his face they suggest the suffering that he has endured.
I will create a nurse. She will be in her early fifties, with features that are somewhat rough, yet with a hint of the maternal. She will have a stout, brawny figure. I don’t know anything about her past or present private life; this sanatorium is her private life. Once a month she takes four days' leave (to which she is fully entitled) and leaves for parts unknown. I make no effort to find out where. Sometimes, as I mentioned, I go to the nearby town. I can neither drive nor do I hold a driver’s licence, one of our schizoid patients (no longer alive) taught me enough to enable me to drive along this road from the sanatorium to town, which is not used by any other vehicles because there isn’t anywhere to go. I wouldn’t dare to venture on any other road. This one I can manage with my eyes closed; I know exactly when to change gear and in what sequence, when to turn the wheel and at what angle, so I often close my eyes and drive the whole way blindly, seeing only dark green and rich red circles flash before my eyes. Circles, hoops... I always park the car just before reaching the sign bearing the name of the town.
I will also have a male hospital attendant, a gorilla in his late fifties, with thick, bulbous fingers covered in reddish hairs. His nearly bald head will sprout tightly shorn grey hairs fine as a newly hatched chick’s down. Mist settles on the coast. The cool Baltic. I am the only doctor at the sanatorium, nobody pokes their nose into my methods of treatment.
I see a white hoop, or rather a cogwheel with an endless number of teeth. It is wedged into another, gap-toothed cogwheel...
“Can you count them?” I asked him.
“No, I can’t. The number of teeth is endless.”
“What about the other cogwheel?”
“I don’t know which other cogwheel you mean. There’s an endless number of cogwheels here. The gap hurts terribly. I keep seeing the gap on the cogwheel all the time. I want to turn away from it, close my eyes, but that is precisely why I see it.”
“Open your eyes,” I said, “I’m here.”
He looked at me as if pleading for something. “In that case, one endlessness is greater than another endlessness, and that's what the dispute is about.”
His eyes began to blink with greater intensity.
“You see an endless number of cogwheels, each of them with an endless number of teeth. That means there has to be an endless number of teeth, and this number of teeth thus has to be an endless multiple of the number of cogwheels, the number of which is also endless.”
He pressed his hands to his ears. He yelled: “Stop it! Enough! Are some of the cogwheels situated horizontally? Or are we dealing a mechanism that is exclusively vertical? Aren’t the cogwheels actually spheres,” - Enough! Enough! – “spheres with an endless number of grooves, similar to the cylinders in encoding machines, meaning that not only the cogwheel's perimeter but the entire surface of the sphere is set with an endless number of teeth?”
He threw himself on the floor and started to writhe about. His thin black hair got matted from a drop of foam from his mouth that landed on it.
“Is it just a potential or an actual endlessness?” I asked.
He pricked up his ears. The writhing stopped and he looked at me from the floor.
“Are you counting all the teeth and can’t come to the end, or are you able to take in all at once the endlessly many cogwheels with all their teeth, whose number is endlessly greater than the endless number of cogwheels?”
He began to howl. In his straitjacket he dashed towards the white leatherette-covered wall. He collided violently with the cushioned, foam-filled wall. The door opened and the nurse came in. The patient was lying on the floor in a daze. The nurse handed me his temperature chart: over the past week the patient had run a mild fever and had a slight cough.
“Were you able to stabilize his temperature?” I asked the nurse about the effect of applying black leeches to the patient’s temples. They always gave him nausea, making him throw up, and the attendant had to clamp him in a vice and twist his left arm back towards his neck so that the treatment could be applied.
“Their blood circulation is merging with mine,” the patient screamed, “they are becoming me!”
“His temperature has gone down,” the nurse said in a strange voice. I reached for the temperature chart. It took my breath away. The patient’s temperature was 27 degrees centigrade, which meant that he was clinically dead.
As I came up to him, he gave a jerk and tried to kick me. I walked around him and put my hand on his forehead. My hand went numb with cold.
Today I went into the forest and suddenly lost my bearings. This was not the same landscape as around here, where the ground is carpeted with dried needles, where you enter the trees like a stage set, and in the depths of the forest it is dark even in daytime. On the contrary, the sun was beating down from the sky, a mild breeze ruffled the leaves (oh, so these were deciduous trees, unlike here) and I heard gentle rustling. I squatted down and touched the black muddy earth, black like the leeches. A spring gurgled under my hand. When I raised my hand I saw blood bubbling up from beneath the earth. Black blood, like the deoxygenated blood in our veins, flowing towards the bushes. The minute it touched the leaves it burned them like acid. I stood up and at that moment someone ran past me inaudibly. I couldn’t see his face. I turned over the palm of my hand to look at it, it was slightly muddy and a tiny leaf was stuck to it. That is when I realised that the gentle noise I had taken for the rustling of leaves was the roar of an approaching crowd.
This is a dream, I thought to myself but I didn’t wake up. I wanted to shake the leaf off my hand as it had got stuck to it and but I failed, so I took it between my fingers and pulled. Ouch! I felt that the leaf was not stuck to my hand but rather growing out of it: I felt my blood throbbing in it. It was a thick, tuberous leaf, I could feel my pulse in it, it felt alien. I punched the nearest tree with my fist, badly hurting my knuckles. The bark came off where I hit the tree. Thousands of white worms were teeming there, a world I had disturbed. Right now I am running, the noise of the crowd is coming closer. They are livid. Right now I am running, my feet sink into the carpet of moss and at the same time as I’m running barefoot on the moss, I am sitting here in front of you with my feet tied up. They will catch me. They will catch me. Any moment.
“Can you see the cogwheels when I’m here?” I asked. “When I see you, the world vanishes. You cancel out the world, and suddenly you’re here. I know that right know I’m running in my forest, in my private forest. Right now I’m falling into a camouflaged pit, it’s padded with soft leaves, I am sinking into the soft soil that is me. I am doing breaststroke in the loose soil. I am breathing in the space I am ploughing through but I can’t crawl, the earth is too dense for that.”
I watch the breakwater redirect the bulk of the rushing water to the nearby bay. A boat is rocking on the horizon. Its coat of blue paint is peeling off, its sails are lowered, I watch it slowly sink. Raindrops are breaking up on the window of my study, I’m holding a copy of Krafft-Ebing open in my hand. I install gas heating in the study, I turn the switch, it’s chilly outside. A knock.
Now I’m sitting at my desk. “What is it, nurse?” “The patients are calm.” I swung round on my swivel chair. She was walking towards me. Before my face I suddenly saw her work-worn, strong, rough and ruddy hands. As if she’d been washing her dirty knickers in the icy sea on a chilly morning. “What are you doing, nurse?” I try to give my voice the severe quality it normally has. And usually it makes her say humbly: Yes, doctor. “Nurse…”
One of her strong work-worn hands clasped my flaccid penis. It was completely lost inside it. The nurse. I wanted to get up but she gently pushed me into the seat, toppling the mobile anatomic chair. Only now did I realise how strong the stout nurse was, although she was shorter than me: she was incomparably stronger than I am. She could easily have killed me! I screamed. Perhaps the attendant would take my side, not hers, perhaps he would overpower her. Something flashed before my eyes and the next thing I felt was a dull pain. A fiery flash flared through the darkness in my eyes.
“If you scream it will hurt,” she whispered hoarsely, pulling away the hand with which she had slapped me across the face. She gave my organ a squeeze. I sagged into the chair. She loosened her grip somewhat. A tiny warm stream slithered out of the corner of my mouth, I felt the metallic taste of another, bigger stream spurting out of my nose. Although the coarse ends of her fingers aroused me immensely my organ remained utterly flaccid. It stayed soft even as I ejaculated into her hand. She pulled away. A hint of mockery suddenly flickered in the eyes of the primitive country crone.
She wiped the semen off her hand into my hair. She slammed the door shut as if she were angry. Clutching my head in my hands, my hair wet with my semen, I collapsed on the desk. Medical reports fell to the floor with a dark rumble. I wept.
The world I escape into is very austere. It contains only things I have created myself. The only things I find in it are the ones I have placed there. The cogwheels have exactly as many teeth as I give them. When I look more closely at the perforated surface of the sphere, all I see are the bulges I already knew I would find there. My patient is a prisoner of his own world, and I am a prisoner of my own text: as a narrator I am its product.
Today I hypnotized the patient again.
“The sea. The calm sea.”
He was lying on the couch with his feet tied up, his hands fastened to the side rail. “He’s coming. He’s coming to get me.”
His voice was a monotone, dead. His eyes were as empty as the sea. I stood above him, putting myself in the line of his sight. “He is coming closer,” he said. “Here any moment!” He wiggled about, his pupils reeling. He was waking up. He would regularly wake up from hypnosis. He was resistant to my hypnotist's skills. He said, now back with me: “I’m terrified of statues with unknown faces.”
“Do you know any faces?” I asked. I blinked in surprise as he suddenly gave me a sharp look. He saw me, registered me.
He gave a rational response. “Of course. Yours, for example, doctor. Or the fat old chap’s in a white coat. Is he a doctor, too?” He was referring to the attendant. However, he resolutely refused to acknowledge the existence of the nurse.
“She takes your temperature every day,” I said. “She’s the one who applies the nasty black leeches that suck your blood.” I summoned her by ringing the bell by his bed that he never used. I thought his mental capacity wasn’t up to it: devising a plan (: I want to ring the bell) and implementing it (: ringing the bell).
I looked out of the barred window. The sea was surprisingly calm. A man in a trenchcoat was walking along the coast. He was leaning into the wind as it blew against him. Although I couldn’t hear it I imagined the squeaking of the gravel under his lacquered shoes. Wind and calm sea…
“That’s him,” said my patient.
I glanced at him. He was lying there, strapped to the bed. “Who?” I asked. He had no way of knowing what I had seen from the window. “Who is… him? Who is supposed to be coming?”
“They will come again…” he said in a monotone. “The statues will come. They were here last night. They flew about the room. They crashed into the walls. They smashed against the walls. A statue would shatter but the shards never fell to the ground. They dissolved.”
The door opened. I looked into her dull, frozen face. As if nothing had happened. I walked with her to the bed and placed her within the line of his sight. “Do you recognize her?” I asked. “Lee-ches.” I said.
“You’re on your own here, doctor,” he insisted.
“You can go,” I said to the nurse. She opened the door and was almost outside, but before closing it behind her she suddenly said: “Tonight.” My knees trembled.
“They’re coming tonight,” he said. “If you’re not here. If you are here, you disturb them. As soon as you leave the room, a flower grows from the floor.”
I went back to the window. I stated in surprise that the boat apparently hadn’t sunk the day before. I think it was the same one, although this time it wasn’t below the horizon, attached to the side of the globe, but just before the horizon. It was closer. I looked at the patient again. I froze. I saw in him something I’d never seen before. A hint of irony in his distinguished features.
I wish everyone would die. Everyone bothers me.
I want to write a story in which I am a nurse in an isolated sanatorium on the sea shore. When my shift is over and I lock the door of my service flat, I strip naked, nobody would ever guess I don’t wear knickers at work. As a writer I can’t stand those self-assured young bitches who don’t even know how to blush, so I prefer to be an older woman, with arms as strong as posts, with hardened skin, riddled with fat bulges. I pull black nylon tights over the calloused skin on my feet, a long cracked nail (there is always one on my foot, and not only on the nurse’s foot, I, the writer, add) sets off a ladder on the tights. Once a month I leave the sanatorium to top up my supplies. I also go somewhere else on my days out, but I won’t divulge where I go even to my own thoughts. This is my private life. My private life is this sanatorium. I am not writing this text, this text is just evolving inside my head. How to record it if it’s moving at such breakneck speed, how to record it so that it can be reproduced anytime by anyone?
Next I put on a black ball-gown, let my hair down and brush it. The stitches on the back and shoulders of the dress are undone so I can slip into it easily. The back of the dwess (I forgot to mention: I have a speech defect and can’t roll my ‘r’s) isn’t actually there, I just see my front in the mirror. I light some candles but before I do so, I draw all the curtains, of course. I don’t have a shower until the morning, I like the smell of the day shift on me as I wear my ball-gown. I have to get up early in the morning, take a shower and then start shoving enemas into old bums. I rouse them from their sleep at seven in the morning and give them the Scotch hose. They’re funny, these old bald men, the way they snuggle up to the cold wet wall, holding their hands over their shrivelled genitals for fear they might get torn apart by the sharp jet of water. Sometimes in the changing room I give them a thrashing with the wet hose. Their squeals bounce off the wet tiles. Dressed in my ball-gown I lie down in a coffin placed next to my small fridge.
I watched the furrowed, cracked surface of the earth. In the field the soil had been washed away and at the end of a furrow the earth was slowly flowing onto the road. Only then did I realise I was looking at a map. The cracks in the soil were symbols. Mist appeared to rise from the cracks. Gently, it brushed against the yellowed clumps of hard grass. The white rockery marked the spot. I followed the muddy river stream, the road spluttering as it sucked in my feet. The cold stream of water rocked the flimsily anchored boat. It was knocking against a half-broken little pontoon to which it was chained. I reached for my pocket-watch chain: there was still time. The river was seeping into the ground. I turned to walk along some parched, stunted growth, just as the map instructed.
In a clearing there stood a villa, its windows boarded up. It was two storeys high, wider than IT WAS TALL: a series of farm buildings was attached to its side. The mist was carving off bits of their outline. Parts of the villa were gradually disappearing into the forest. A mighty oak grew directly out of a window. On the left a faux turret jutted out of the villa.
I am approaching the cracked door. Something about it seems familiar. The wood is chipped. The boards have parted in one place: through the gap the inside of the villa is seeping out. Yes. The door's texture: its cracks and splinters. The cracks in the wood of the door form the same map as the soil in the field. My hand is on the doorhandle. As I ease the door open, the bedding is suffused with light. The patient is lying strangely twisted, on top of the bedding. I know that he’s been strapped to the bed, and the straps are under the bedding, so how could… Only then do I click. He winces in the piercing beam of my torch. “What are you doing, doctor?” I exclaimed.
I started to notice that the doctor and one of his patients – the one who spends most of the day tied to his bed – have formed a powerful, almost magnetic bond. The doctor has a strongly developed sense of time: the ward round has to begin by the first patient’s side at eight o’clock sharp. Throughout the ward round the doctor keeps meticulous track of time with his watch. In every room, even those accommodating the most gravely ill patients, there is a clock on the wall behind a grille, and in the course of each visit the doctor keeps checking the time to the second and adjusts it if necessary. He applies the same meticulous approach to his dinner. A patient has died because the doctor has to eat his dinner at six-thirty on the dot. The patient had an epileptic fit at six-thirty-three but the doctor refused to leave the dining room where he sat over his omelette, his watch in hand. I have noticed that this particular patient always casts anxious glances at the clock on the wall facing his bed as the doctor is due to come to his room on the ward round. Some twenty minutes before the doctor’s visit he starts showing severe signs of agitation. He only calms down once the doctor has entered his room, absolutely on the dot. “He is coming,” the patient jabbers, “he is coming.” Other patients pay no attention to the clock on their wall. This patient and the doctor are communicating vessels. The sanatorium is run meticulously to order with everything planned out in advance. At half past midnight I was woken by severe restlessness.
I took off my ball-gown and squeezed myself into the uniform. I unlocked the door to my flat. The corridor was empty, illuminated by strip lights, silence reigned except for the wolf-man howling in No. 6. My steps thundered down the corridors. The doctor heard me approaching his flat, he huddled under his duvet, hoping the door lock would hold. I’d been giving him the cold shoulder during working hours and he was no longer sure it had really happened. I walked towards his door and stopped there. I could hear the doctor’s muffled sobbing through the door. I kept him in suspense for a moment. Then I walked on.
The door was ajar, the light was on. I saw a white T-shirt bulging under the trapezius muscle, now gone rather flabby and enveloped in a thick layer of fat. His hands were moving purposefully, as if engaged in an activity they knew intimately, one performed every day. I wonder which way to take the narrative of this story: the patient’s emaciated yellowish bum appeared briefly, only to be given a mighty smack by the attendant’s hand that covered it completely. There was no slapping sound because the attendant’s hand crashed into the patient’s bony rear, like two stones colliding. There was just the sound of the coccyx being thwacked. The patient howled with pain. “Is this the way to treat your working mummy?” the old attendant wheezed. “Mummy will give her little rascal a thrashing! Have we been a naughty boy?” The old attendant’s voice took on a touch of falsetto. He was putting away something white. A nappy, I realised, as an extraordinarily large, hard, yellow stool came tumbling out.
Feeling my gaze on the back of his neck he turned around. There was fear in his eyes. He looked at me with a dull expression, his ex-boxer’s nose showing multiple fractures; I could swear that the remnants of his white hair that reminded me of newly hatched chick’s down stood on end. He held out a pair of white continence briefs with a mustardy yellow trace of stool like a peace offering. He muttered: “It’s what he wants ... It’s what he wants, nurse….” The patient sat bolt upright in his bed, he wasn’t strapped down. “The sea is rough,” he said. “White-capped waves are breaking on the cliffs. The boat is about to crack but the shore is now close.” I leaned over him.
“You’re not here, nurse,” he said.
The clock in the room is spying on me. I subtract my time from the minutes and arrive at a figure. I multiply this time interval by the number of cogwheels minus the number of teeth on the cogwheels, and get a minus. The empty white wooden chair is carved sharply out of space. My room, my bed and the window, are all muted. The strip light hums. The room that I’m in is far away. It is misty and blurry under a deposit of me. I scramble out of the pit. There is a gentle breeze, I rest for a while on the soil warmed by the sun and softly padded with autumn leaves. There is a cliff there and it takes me up a steep escarpment to a natural plateau protected by bushes. As I emerge from the bushes a vast field of rye opens up in front of me. It resembles a sea rippled by the wind. The white caps are breaking on the cliffs. Further off there is a scarecrow but the birds pay it no attention, they sit right on top of it, chirping away. A sparrow hops down the scarecrow’s arm all the way to the branched stick forming its fingers. At first it chirrups on a finger, then it slips into the tree’s hand.
Suddenly the hand closes at lightning speed, the sparrow chirruping mournfully. Black liquid bubbles out of the hand. The scarecrow throws away his hat and straw hair: now I see that he is my patient. He’d been working in the field. He is walking towards me, the only way he can cut a path through the field is by mowing it down. I am in his world, I have penetrated it, I’m finally on the inside.
I have noticed that the doctor and the patient watched one another for a long time, as if not seeing each other. Suddenly he leapt up, I write, a knife flashing in his hand. “The attendant!” the desperate thought flashed through my mind. He raised his arm, I felt a stinging pain. The movement made him bleed, blood trickled onto the floor. Only then did I realise that it was my blood. He threw himself to the floor and started licking and slurping the blood. I was nauseated. Sudden queasiness made me stagger. He raised his blood-smeared head towards me and squawked through reddened teeth: “Brother… my master….” I pressed the artery on my left forearm with my right hand and staggered out of the room.
“You will come!” he yelled at my back, “you will come…. Any moment! In fire, in mystery!”
I slammed the door shut. I managed to bolt it at the last minute, just as it was shaken by a superhuman onslaught. “He is coming! I’m expecting him any moment!” it clamoured from behind the closed door. “It must have been the attendant…” I whispered, sliding limply to the floor. It must have been the attendant who had untied him. When I expected him to be strapped down. A desperate, muted, hoarse voice flowed out from behind the door: “What are you supposed to do when it is others that tell you your name?”
“The objects that I see don’t last,” the patient told me. “I see a statue in my room. At the same time I know that it doesn’t exist.” I see some hairs attached to a ripped off piece of scalp. The pattern on the kelim rug runs away like a lane on a motorway. A vase falls onto the rug, I see a lacquered black shoe lying in the corner. All this is accompanied by the sound of an industrial press. A questioning look: I see clearly the expression on the face but I can’t identify it with any particular face. A map of the hand. I place my index finger between my teeth and bite down. I look at my hand. A slow-motion scream. I see all this. My patient sees all this. I see into the patient.
One of the images in my patient’s head is a solitary signpost. It bears a place-name but it’s written in letters belonging to an alphabet unknown to us (myself and my patient). “You will come with me,” the patient told me. He brought me into his world. “He is coming close. I can feel the gravel squeaking on the shore, the gravel under his lacquer shoes.” The patient’s signpost stands next to a Jugendstil villa with a faux turret. The villa I saw in my dream.
“Yesterday you dreamt of walking through a sea that was a field,” he told me. “A boat, mud, cracks. A gate.” I nodded. With satisfaction he said: “I was waiting for you there.” Our dreams intersected.
The patient sat up in his bed. Suddenly, as if questioningly, he informed me: “My name is Boris Varissa.”
“Look. This is what I found under his pillow,” she reached out her hand with a photograph but I was more aware of her hand. The ruddy hand. The one that had slapped one half of my face with such force. The one that had held…
“But we have searched him,” I objected, when my gaze finally fell on the photograph. “How could he have hidden it… And how could it have got under his pillow if he was strapped down?”
She shrugged her shoulders. And exactly in that moment I got a whiff of fish… The fish smell of her disgusting pussy. Actually, he hadn’t been strapped down his morning, when he attacked me. I looked at her face. The dull simple countenance was expressionless, as if she didn’t even remember last night. Was it her way of suggesting she was the one who had untied him? An assassination attempt.
In the photo he is wearing a suit and looks slightly to one side: his expression could be one of bottomless sorrow. Or a dumb not-thinking-anything. The photo is totally out of context: he is skinny but the suit does fit him, the fashion is that of about five years ago. Most likely profession: bank manager, engineer. I can’t imagine that there ever was a time – maybe even not so long ago – when he, now so disoriented that he can’t find his way to the toilet by his room and is completely incontinent, could ever have worn a suit, find his way around, travel, meet his obligations, hold down a job. Maybe he’d been dragged out of bed, had his measurements taken, a suit tailor-made and he was then squeezed into it. Maybe he’s wearing a nappy under the suit. I can’t imagine him ever being able to do anything for himself.
The nurse informed me that the patient had fallen into a catatonic state from which he is not waking. He had been in this state for two days now. Sometimes he sits up bolt upright on his bed with his eyes closed. The straps holding him to the bed tighten. His face bears an expression of total abandonment. Pleasure. He screams inarticulately. It could also mean: “Now! Now!”
Then his wailing gradually turns into a tune. He lifts himself up in his bed in a trance. It is a tune I don’t know. The words are: “I walk with you in my dreams.”
An icy wind penetrates my trenchcoat. My hand is squeezing something. Everything strikes me as a montage of images: my lacquered shoes squeak on the gravel. I pass a dead fish, a gift of the sea to the shore. White worms like white gravel, a black lacquer shoe, a breakwater. A little further down ripped up planks of wood: the shipwrecked fishing boat. A net thrown over the broken mast. My fingers, salty from the ship's ropes. I raise my head towards the sanatorium. That is the window. The one on the third floor. A pallid hospital light glows dimly in his little room. The sanatorium is getting closer. I open the hand that is gripping something firmly. A knife. The one that has sealed our blood brotherhood. I was wrong: he didn’t attack me. He just handed it to me. It was me who cut myself, by gripping it in the wrong way. I wasn’t ready yet. I raise my head: irresistibly drawn to the window, I clutch the knife more tightly. I will enter from the outside, through the window. At that moment, it opens against the night, the curtain blowing in the draught. Invited. And I can hear him all along the shore: “Now!”
I turn around. I face the left wing of the building and locate another window on the second floor. The light is on there, too. A head turns to face me. I see wispy grey hair blowing in the breeze, A massive boxer’s neck. The clacking of an old mechanical Remington typewriter. He is writing. And he sees me all the time. He’s looking at me through his letters. No, no: I am the author.
Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood