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Twenty-four Hours



I repeat: I have made it my duty to write without concealing anything. Therefore, sad as it is, I must note here that even among us the process of the hardening, the crystallization of life has evidently not yet been completed; there are still some steps to be ascended before we reach the ideal. The ideal (clearly) is the condition where nothing happens any more. But now… Well, today’s One State Gazette announces that the day after tomorrow there will be a celebration of Justice at the Plaza of the Cube. This means that once again some number has disturbed the operation of the great State Machine; again something has happened that was unforeseen, unforecalculated.

Besides, something has happened to me as well. True, this was during the Personal Hour, that is, at a time especially set aside for unforeseen circumstances. Nevertheless…

At about the hour of sixteen (or, to be exact, ten to sixteen) I was at home. Suddenly the telephone rang. A female voice: “D-503?”

“Yes.”

“Are you free?”

“Yes.”

“This is 1, I-330.1 shall call for you in a moment —we’ll go to the Ancient House. Agreed?”

I-330… She irritates and repels me, she almost frightens me. But this is exactly why I said, “Yes.”

Five minutes later we were already in the aero. The blue majolica of the Maytime sky; the light sun in its own golden aero buzzing after us, neither falling behind nor overtaking us. And ahead of us— a cloud, white as a cataract, preposterous and puffed out like the cheeks of an ancient cupid, and somehow disturbing. Our front window is up. Wind, drying the lips. Involuntarily, you lick them all the time, and all the time you think of lips.

Then, in the distance, blurred green spots—out there, behind the Wall. A slight, quick sinking of the heart—down, down, down—as from a steep mountain, and we are at the Ancient House.

The whole strange, fragile, blind structure is completely enclosed in a glass shell. Otherwise, of course, it would have fallen apart a long time ago. At the glass door, an old woman, all wrinkled, especially her mouth—nothing but folds and pleats, the lips sunk inward, as if the mouth had grown together somehow. It seemed incredible that she would still be able to speak. And yet, she spoke.

“Well, darlings, so you’ve come to see my little house?” And the wrinkles beamed (they must have arranged themselves radially, creating the impression of “beaming”).

“Yes, Grandmother, I felt like seeing it again,” said I-330.

The wrinkles beamed. “What sunshine, eh? Well, well, now? You little pixy! I know, I know! All right, go in by yourselves, I’ll stay here, in the sun…”

Hm… My companion must be a frequent guest here. I had a strong desire to shake something off, something annoying: probably the same persistent visual image—the cloud on the smooth blue majolica.

As we ascended the broad, dark staircase, I-330 said, “I love her, that old woman.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps for her mouth. Or perhaps for no reason. Just like that.”

I shrugged. She went on, smiling faintly, or perhaps not smiling at all, “I feel terribly guilty. Obviously, there should be no love ‘just like that,’ but only ‘love because.’ All elemental phenomena should…”

“It’s clear…” I began, but immediately caught myself at the word and cast a stealthy glance at I-330: had she noticed it or not?

She was looking down somewhere; her eyes were lowered, like shades.

I thought of the evening hour, at about twenty-two. You walk along the avenue and there, among the bright, transparent cells—the dark ones, with lowered shades. And behind the shades… What was behind the shades within her? Why had she called me today, and what was all this for?

I opened a heavy, creaking, opaque door, and we stepped into a gloomy, disorderly place (they called it an “apartment”). The same strange “royal” musical instrument—and again the wild, disorganized, mad music, like the other time—a jumble of colors and forms. A white flat area above; dark blue walls; red, green, and orange bindings of ancient books; yellow bronze—chandeliers, a statue of Buddha; furniture built along lines convulsed in epilepsy, incapable of being fitted into an equation.

I could barely endure all that chaos. But my companion evidently had a stronger organism.

“This is my favorite…” and suddenly she seemed to catch herself. A bite-smile, white sharp teeth. “I mean, to be exact, the most absurd of all these ‘apartments.’ ”

“Or, to be even more exact,” I corrected her, “their states. Thousands of microscopic, eternally warring states, as ruthless as…”

“Of course, that’s clear…” she said, apparently with utmost seriousness.

We crossed a room with small children’s beds (the children at that time were also private property). Then more rooms, glimmering mirrors, somber wardrobes, intolerably gaudy sofas, a huge “fireplace,” a large mahogany bed. Our modern-beautiful, transparent, eternal—glass was there only in the pathetic, fragile little window squares.

“And then, imagine! Here they all loved ‘just like that,’ burning, suffering…” (Again the dropped shades of the eyes.) “What stupid, reckless waste of human energy—don’t you think?”

She seemed to speak somehow out of myself; she spoke my thoughts. But in her smile there was that constant, irritating X. Behind the shades, something was going on within her—I don’t know what— that made me lose my patience. I wanted to argue with her, to shout at her (yes, shout), but I had to agree—it was not possible to disagree.

She stopped before a mirror. At that moment I saw only her eyes. I thought: A human being is made as absurdly as these preposterous “apartments”; human heads are opaque, with only tiny windows in them—the eyes. As though guessing, she turned. “Well, here are my eyes. Well?” (Silently, of course.)

Before me, two eerily dark windows, and within, such a mysterious, alien life. I saw only flame-some fireplace of her own was blazing there—and shapes resembling…

This, of course was natural: I saw myself reflected in her eyes. But what I was feeling was unnatural and unlike me (it must have been the opressive effect of the surroundings). I felt definitely frightened. I felt trapped, imprisoned in that primitive cage, caught by the savage whirlwind of the ancient life.

“You know what,” said 1-380. “Step out for a moment to the next room.” Her voice came from there, from within, from behind the dark windows of her eyes, where the fireplace was blazing.

I went out and sat down. From a shelf on the wall, the snubnosed, asymmetrical physiognomy of some ancient poet (Pushkin, I think) smiled faintly right into my face. Why was I sitting there, meekly enduring that smile? Why all of this? Why was I there—why these ridiculous feelings? That irritating, repellent woman, her strange game…

A closet door was shut behind the wall, the rustle of silk. I barely restrained myself from going in and… I don’t remember exactly—I must have wanted to say very sharp words to her.

But she had already come out She wore a short, old, vivid yellow dress, a black hat, black stockings. The dress was of light silk. I could see the stockings, very long, much higher than the knees. And the bare throat, and the shadow between…

“Look, you are clearly trying to be original, but don’t you…”

“Clearly,” she interrupted me, “to be original is to be in some way distinct from others. Hence, to be original is to violate equality. And that which in the language of the ancients was called ‘being banal’ is with us merely the fulfillment of our duty. Because…”

“Yes, yes! Precisely.” I could not restrain myself. “And there is no reason for you to… to…”

She went over to the statue of the snub-nosed poet and, drawing down the blinds over the wild flame of her eyes, blaring within her, behind her windows, she said a very sensible thing (this time, it seems to me, entirely in earnest, perhaps to mollify me). “Don’t you find it astonishing that once upon a time people tolerated such characters? And not only tolerated, but worshiped them? What a slavish spirit! Don’t you think?”

“It’s clear… I mean…” (That damned “It’s clear” again!)

“Oh, yes, I understand. But actually, these poets were masters far more powerful than their crowned kings. Why weren’t they isolated, exterminated? With us…”

’Yes, with us…” I began, and suddenly she burst out laughing. I could see that laughter with my eyes: the resonant sharp curve of it, as pliantly resistant as a whip.

I remember, I trembled all over. Just to seize her, and… I cannot recall what I wanted to do. But I had to do something, anything. Mechanically I opened my golden badge, glanced at the watch. Ten to seventeen.

“Don’t you think it’s time?” I said as politely as I could.

“And if I asked you to remain here with me?”

“Look, do you… do you know what you are saying? In ten minutes I must be in the auditorium…”

“… and all numbers must attend the prescribed courses in art and sciences,” she said in my voice. Then she raised the blinds, looked up; the fireplace blazed through the dark windows. “I know a doctor at the Medical Office, he is registered with me. If I ask him, he will give you a certificate that you were sick. Well?”

Now I understood. At last, I understood where that whole game of hers was leading.

“So that’s it! And do you know that, like any honest number, I must, in fact, immediately go to the Office of the Guardians and…”

“And not ‘in fact’?”—sharp smile-bite. “I am terribly curious—will you go to the Office, or won’t you?”

“Are you staying?” I put my hand on the doorknob. It was brass, and I heard my voice—it was also brass.

“One moment… May I?”

She went to the telephone, asked for some number—I was too upset to remember it—and cried out, “I shall wait for you in the Ancient House. Yes, yes, alone…”

I turned the cold brass knob.

’You will permit me to take the aero?”

“Yes, certainly! Of course…”

Outside, in the sunshine, at the entrance, the old woman was dozing like a vegetable. Again it was astonishing that her closegrown mouth opened and she spoke.

“And your… did she remain there by herself?”

“By herself.”

The old woman’s mouth grew together again. She shook her head. Evidently, even her failing brain understood the full absurdity and danger of the woman’s conduct.

Exactly at seventeen I was at the lecture. And it was only here that I suddenly realized I had said an untruth to the old woman: I-330 was not there by herself now. Perhaps it was this—that I had unwittingly lied to the old woman—that tormented me and interfered with my listening. Yes, she was not by herself: that was the trouble.

After half past twenty-one I had a free hour. I could go to the Office of the Guardians right there and then and turn in my report. But I felt extremely tired after that stupid incident And then— the legal time limit for reporting was two days. I would do it tomorrow; I still had twenty-four hours.

 

Seventh Entry

 

 

TOPICS:

An Eyelash

Taylor