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Iambics and Trochees

A Cast-Iron Hand

A bright, solemn day. On such days you forget your weaknesses, imprecisions, ailments, and everything is crystal, immutable, eternal—like our glass.

The Cube Plaza. Sixty-six great concentric circles of stands. Sixty-six rows of quiet luminous faces, eyes reflecting the glow of the sky, or perhaps the glow of the One State. Blood-red flowers—the women’s lips. Tender garlands of childish faces in the front rows, near the center of action. Absorbed, stern, Gothic silence.

According to the descriptions that have come down to us, something similar was experienced by the ancients during their “religious services.” But they worshiped their own irrational, unknown God; we serve our rational and precisely known one. Their God gave them nothing except eternal, tormenting searching; their God had not been able to think of anything more sensible than offering himself as sacrifice for some incomprehensible reason. We, on the other hand, offer a sacrifice to our God, the One State —a calm, reasoned, sensible sacrifice. Yes, this was our solemn liturgy to the One State, a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.

The one. He stood on the steps of the sun-filled Cube. A white—no, not even white, already colorless—face: a glass face, glass lips. And only the eyes—black, greedy, engulfing holes. And the dread world from which he was but minutes away. The golden badge with his number had already been removed. His arms were bound with a purple ribbon—an ancient custom. (It evidently dates back to olden times, before such things were done in the name of the One State ; in those days, the condemned understandably felt that they had the right to resist, and so their hands were usually bound in chains.)

And all the way above, upon the Cube, near the Machine—the motionless figure, as if cast in metal, of Him whom we call the Benefactor. His face could not be seen in detail from below; all you could tell was that it was defined in square, austere, majestic contours. But the hands… It sometimes happens in photographs that the hands, placed in the foreground too near the camera, come out huge; they hold the eye and shut out all the rest So with these heavy hands, still calmly reposing on the knees. And it was clear—they were stone, and the knees were barely able to support their weight.

Then suddenly one of those huge hands slowly rose—a slow, cast-iron movement. And from the stands, obeying the raised hand, a number approached the Cube. He was one of the State Poets, whose happy lot it was to crown the celebration with his verse. Divine, brass iambics thundered over the stands—about the madman with glass eyes, who stood there on the steps, awaiting the logical results of his mad ravings.

A blazing fire. In the iambics buildings swayed, went up in jets of liquid gold, collapsed. Fresh green trees withered, shriveled, sap dripping out-nothing remaining but the black crosses of their skeletons. But now Prometheus (meaning us) appeared.

“He harnessed fire in the machine, in steel, And bound chaos in the chains of Law.”

And everything was new, everything was steel—a steel sun, steel trees, steel men. But suddenly a madman “unchained the fire” and everything would perish again…

Unfortunately, I have a poor memory for verses, but I remember one thing: it would have been impossible to choose more beautiful, more instructive images.

Again the slow, heavy gesture, and a second poet appeared on the steps of the Cube. I even rose a little from my seat: it could not be! No, those were his thick lips, it was he… Why hadn’t he told me he was to have this high… His lips trembled, they were gray. I understood: to appear before the Benefactor, before the entire host of Guardians… Yet-to be so nervous…

Sharp, quick trochees—like blows of an ax. About a heinous crime, about sacrilegious verses which dared to call the Benefactor… no, my hand refuses to repeat it.

R-13 sank into his seat, pale, looking at no one (I would not have expected him to be so shy). For the smallest fraction of a second I had a glimpse of someone’s face—a dark, sharp, pointed triangle-flashing near him, then vanishing at once. My eyes, thousands of eyes, turned up to the Machine. The third castiron gesture of the nonhuman hand. And the transgressor, swayed by an unseen wind, walked slowly up one stair, another, and now—the last step in his life, and he is on his last bed, face to the sky, head thrown back.

The Benefactor, heavy, stony as fate, walked around the Machine, placed His huge hand on the lever… Not a sound, not a breath—all eyes were on that hand. What a fiery gust of exaltation one must feel to be the instrument, the resultant of a hundred thousand wills! What a great destiny!

An infinite second. The hand moved down, switching on the current A flash of the intolerably dazzling blade of the ray, sharp as a shiver; faint crackling of the tubes in the Machine. The prone body enveloped in a light, glowing mist—and melting, melting before our eyes, dissolving with appalling speed. Then nothing—only a small puddle of chemically pure water, which but a moment ago had pulsed redly, wildly in the heart…

All this was elementary and known to everyone: yes, dissociation of matter; yes, splitting of the atoms of the human body. And yet each tune it was a miracle—a token of the superhuman power of the Benefactor.

Above us, facing Him, the flushed faces of ten female numbers, lips parted with excitement, flowers swaying in the wind.[4]

According to the old custom, ten women garlanded with flowers the Benefactor’s unif, still wet with spray. With the majestic step of a high priest, He slowly descended and slowly walked between the stands. And in His wake, the delicate white branches of female hands raised high, and a million-voiced storm of cheers, shouted in unison. Then cheers in honor of the host of Guardians, invisibly present somewhere here, within our ranks. Who knows, perhaps it was precisely these Guardians who had been foreseen by the imagination of ancient man when he created his dread and gentle “archangels” assigned to each man from his birth.

Yes, there was something of the old religions, something purifying like a storm, in that solemn ceremony. You who will read this—are you familiar with such moments? I pity you if you are not…


Tenth Entry




A Letter

A Membrane

My Shaggy Self

Yesterday was to me like the paper through which chemists filter their solutions: all suspended particles, all that is superfluous remains on this paper. And this morning I went downstairs freshly distilled, transparent.

Downstairs in the vestibule, the controller sat at her table, glancing at the watch and writing down the numbers of those who entered. Her name is U… but I had better not mention her number, lest I say something unflattering about her. Although, essentially, she is quite a respectable middle-aged woman. The only thing I dislike about her is that her cheeks sag like the gills of a fish (but why should that disturb me?).

Her pen scraped, and I saw myself on the page— D-503, and next to me an inkblot.

I was just about to draw her attention to it when she raised her head and dripped an inky little smile at me. “There is a letter for you. Yes. You will get it, my dear, yes, yes, you will get it.”

I know that the letter, which she had read, still had to pass the Office of the Guardians (I believe there is no need to explain to you this natural procedure), and would reach me not later than twelve. But I was disturbed by that little smile; the ink drop muddied my transparent solution. So much, in fact, that later, at the Integral construction site, I could not concentrate and even made a mistake in my calculations, which had never happened to me before.

At twelve, again the pinkish-brown gills, and finally the letter was in my hands. I don’t know why I did not read it at once, but slipped it into my pocket and hurried to my room. I opened it, ran through it, and sat down… It was an official notification that number I-330 had registered for me and that I was to be at her room today at twenty-one. The address was given below.

No! After everything that had happened, after I had so unequivocally shown my feelings toward her! Besides, she did not even know whether I had gone to the Office of the Guardians. After all, she had no way of learning that I had been sick—well, that I generally could not… And despite all this…

A dynamo whirled, hummed in my head. Buddha, yellow silk, lilies of the valley, a rosy crescent… Oh, yes, and this too: O was to visit me today. Ought I to show her the notice concerning I-330? I didn’t know. She would not believe (indeed, how could she?) that I’ve had nothing to do with it, that I was entirely… And I was sure—there would be a difficult, senseless, absolutely illogical conversation… No, only not that Let everything be resolved automatically: I would simply send her a copy of the notice. I hurriedly stuffed the notice into my pocket— and suddenly saw this dreadful, apelike hand of mine. I recalled how I-330 had taken my hand that time, during the walk, and looked at it. Did she really…

And then it was a quarter to twenty-one. A white night Everything seemed made of greenish glass. But a very different glass from ours—fragile, unreal, a thin glass shell; and under it something whirling, rushing, humming… And I would not have been astonished if the cupolas of the auditoriums had risen up in slow, round clouds of smoke, and the elderly moon smiled inkily—like the woman at the table in the morning, and all the shades dropped suddenly in all the houses, and behind the shades…

A strange sensation: I felt as though my ribs were iron rods, constricting, definitely constricting my heart—there was not room enough for it. I stood before the glass door with the golden figures: I-330. She was sitting with her back to me, at the table, writing something. I entered.

“Here…” I held out the pink coupon. “I was notified today, and so I came.”

“How prompt you are! One moment, may I? Sit down, I’ll just finish.”

Again her eyes turned down to the letter—and what was going on within her, behind those lowered shades? What would she say? What was I to do a minute later? How could I find out, how calculate it, when all of her was—from there, from the savage, ancient land of dreams?

I looked at her silently. My ribs were iron rods; I could not breathe… When she spoke, her face was like a rapid, sparkling wheel—you could not see the individual spokes. But now the wheel was motionless. And I saw a strange combination: dark eyebrows raised high at the temples—a mocking, sharp triangle. And yet another, pointing upward— the two deep lines from the corners of her mouth to the nose. And these two triangles somehow contradicted one another, stamped the entire face with an unpleasant, irritating X, like a slanting cross. A face marked with a cross.

The wheel began to turn, the spokes ran together…

“So you did not go to the Office of the Guardians?”

“I did not… could not—I was sick.”

“Certainly. I thought so. Something had to prevent you—no matter what.” (Sharp teeth, smile.) “But now you are in my hands. You remember—‘Every number who has failed to report to the Office of the Guardians within forty-eight hours, is considered…’ ”

My heart thumped so violently that the rods bent. Caught stupidly, like a boy. And stupidly I kept silent. And I felt: I’m trapped, I cannot move a hand or a foot.

She stood up and stretched lazily. Then she pressed a button, and the shades dropped, crackling lightly. I was cut off from the world, alone with her.

I-330 was somewhere behind me, near the closet. Her unif rustled, fell. I listened, all of me listened. And I remembered… no, it flashed upon me within one hundredth of a second…

I had had occasion recently to calculate the curve for a street membrane of a new type (now these membranes, gracefully camouflaged, were installed on every street, recording all conversations for the Office of the Guardians). And I remembered the rosy, concave, quivering film, the strange creature consisting of a single organ—an ear. I was such a membrane at this moment.

A click of the fastening at the collar, on the breast still lower. The glass silk rustled down the shoulders, knees, dropped to the floor. I heard, more clearly than I could see, one foot step out of the bluish-gray silk pile, the other…

The tautly stretched membrane quivered and recorded silence. No: sharp blows of a hammer against the iron rods, with endless pauses. And I heard—I saw her behind me, thinking for a second.

And now—the closet doors, the click of an opening lid—and again silk, silk…

“Well, if you please.”

I turned. She was in a light, saffron-yellow dress of the ancient model. This was a thousand times more cruel than if she had worn nothing. Two pointed tips through the filmy silk, glowing pink-two embers through the ash. Two delicately rounded knees…

She sat in a low armchair. On the rectangular table before her, a bottle with something poi-sonously green, two tiny glasses on stems. At the corner of her lips a thread of smoke—that ancient smoking substance in the finest paper tube (I forget what it was called).

The membrane still quivered. The hammer pounded inside me against the red-hot iron rods. I clearly heard each blow, and… and suddenly: What if she heard it too?

But she puffed calmly, glancing at me calmly, and carelessly shook off the ash—on my pink coupon.

As coolly as I could, I asked, “Now, listen, if that’s the case, why did you register for me? And why did you compel me to come here?”

It was as if she did not hear. She poured the liquid from the bottle into her glass, sipped it.

“Delicious liqueur. Would you like some?”

It was only now that I understood: alcohol. Yesterday’s scene flashed like a stroke of lightning: the Benefactor’s stony hand, the blinding ray. But on the Cube above— this body, prostrate, with the head thrown back. I shuddered.

“Listen,” I said. “You know that everyone who poisons himself with nicotine, and especially alcohol, is ruthlessly destroyed by the One State…”

Dark eyebrows rose high to the temples, a sharp mocking triangle. “Quick destruction of a few is more sensible than giving many the opportunity to ruin themselves? And then, degeneration, and so on. Right—to the point of indecency.”

“Yes… to the point of indecency.”

“And if this little company of naked, bald truths were to be let out in the street… No, just imagine… Well, take the most constant admirer of mine—oh, but you know him-… Imagine that he has discarded all the falsehood of clothes and stood among the people in his true shape… Oh!”

She laughed. But I could clearly see her lower, sorrowful triangle—the two deep lines from the corners of her mouth to her nose. And for some reason these lines revealed it to me: that stooping, wing-eared, doubly curved… he embraced her—as she was now… He…

But I am trying to convey the feelings—the abnormal feelings—I had at that moment Now, as I write this, I am perfectly aware that all of this is as it should be. Like every honest number, he has an equal right to joy, and it would be unjust… Oh, well, but this is clear.

I-330 laughed very strangely and very long. Then she looked closely at me—into me. “But the main thing is that I am completely at ease with you. You are such a dear—oh, I am sure of it—you will never think of going to the Office and reporting that I drink liqueur, that I smoke. You will be sick, or you will be busy, or whatever. I am even sure that in a moment you will drink this marvelous poison with me…”

That brazen, mocking tone. I definitely felt: now I hate her again. But why the “now”? I have hated her all the time.

She tilted the whole glassful of green poison into her mouth, stood up, and, glowing pink through the transparent saffron, took several steps… and stopped behind my chair.

Suddenly, an arm around my neck, lips into lips—no, somewhere still deeper, still more terrifying. I swear, this took me completely by surprise, and perhaps that was the only reason why… After all, I could not—now I realize it clearly—I myself could not have wanted what happened after that.

Intolerably sweet lips (I suppose it must have been the taste of the “liqueur”) —and a mouthful of fiery poison flowed into me—then more, and more… I broke away from the earth and, like a separate planet, whirling madly, rushed down, down, along an unknown, uncalculated orbit…

What followed can be described only approximately, only by more or less close analogies.

It has never occurred to me before, but this is truly how it is: all of us on earth walk constantly over a seething, scarlet sea of flame, hidden below, in the belly of the earth. We never think of it. But what if the thin crust under our feet should turn into glass and we should suddenly see… I became glass. I saw—within myself. There were two of me. The former one, D-503, number D-503, and the other… Before, he had just barely shown his hairy paws from within the shell; now all of him broke out, the shell cracked; a moment, and it would fly to pieces and… And then… what?

With all my strength, as though clutching at a straw, I gripped the arms of the chair and asked— only to hear myself, the other self, the old one, “Where… where did you get this… this poison?”

“Oh, this! A certain doctor, one of my…”

“ ‘One of my…’? ‘One of my’—what?” And suddenly the other leaped out and yelled, “I won’t allow it! I want no one but me. I’ll kill anyone who… Because I… Because you… I…”

I saw—he seized her roughly with his shaggy paws, tore the silk, and sank his teeth into… I remember exactly—his teeth…

I don’t know how, but I-330 managed to slip away. And now—her eyes behind that damned impermeable shade—she stood leaning with her back against the wardrobe and listened to me.

I remember—I was on the floor, embracing her legs, kissing her knees, pleading, “Now, right this minute, right now…”

Sharp teeth, sharp mocking triangle of eyebrows. She bent down and silently unpinned my badge.

“Yes! Yes, darling, darling.” I hurriedly began to throw off my unif But I-330 just as silently showed me the watch on my badge. It was five minutes to twenty-two and a half.

I turned cold. I knew what it meant to be seen in the street after twenty-two and a half. My madness vanished as if blown away. I was myself. And one thing was clear to me: I hate her, hate her, hate her!

Without a good-by, without a backward glance, I rushed out of the room. Hurriedly pinning on the badge as I ran, skipping steps, down the stairway (afraid of meeting someone in the elevator), I burst out into the empty street.

Everything was in its usual place—so simple, ordinary, normal: the glass houses gleaming with lights, the pale glass sky, the motionless greenish night But under this cool quiet glass something violent blood-red, shaggy, rushed soundlessly. And I raced, gasping, not to be late.

Suddenly I felt the hastily pinned badge loosening—it slipped off, clicking on the glass pavement. I bent down to pick it up, and in the momentary silence heard the stamping of feet behind me. I turned—something little, bowed, slunk out from around the corner, or so it seemed to me at the time.

I rushed on at full speed, the air whistling in my ears. At the entrance I stopped: the watch showed one minute before twenty-two and a half. I listened—there was no one behind me. Obviously, it had all been a preposterous fantasy, the effect of the poison.

It was a night of torment My bed rose and sank and rose again under me, floating along a sinusoid. I argued with myself: At night numbers must sleep; it is their duty, just as it is their duty to work in the daytime. Not sleeping at night is a criminal offense… And yet, I could not and could not.

I am perishing. I am unable to fulfill my obligations to the One State… I…


Eleventh Entry