Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 3

  —Ueda Akinari

  I woke up in the middle of the night, because someone was talking in the room. There were two voices, speaking in a barely audible whisper. The voices were very similar, but one was a little muffled and hoarse, while the other betrayed extreme irritation.

  “Don’t wheeze,” whispered the irritated voice. “Can you manage that, not wheezing?”

  “Yes,” replied the muffled voice, and started clearing its throat.

  “Keep it down,” hissed the irritated voice.

  “My throat tickles,” explained the muffled voice. “It’s a smoker’s cough.” It started clearing its throat again.

  “You get out of here,” said the irritated voice.

  “It doesn’t matter, he’s asleep.”

  “Who is he? Where did he appear from?”

  “How should I know?”

  “It’s annoying . . . It’s such incredibly bad luck.”

  The neighbors can’t sleep again, I thought, only half awake. I imagined I was at home. I shared a flat with two brothers, physicists, and they just loved working at night. Round about two o’clock in the morning they ran out of cigarettes, then they crept into my room and started groping around, clattering the furniture around and squabbling with each other.

  I grabbed the pillow and flung it into space. Something tumbled onto the floor with an almighty racket and everything went quiet.

  “Give back the pillow,” I said, “and get out. The cigarettes are on the table.”

  The sound of my own voice finally woke me completely. I sat up. The dogs were barking despondently and the old woman was snoring menacingly on the other side of the wall. I finally remembered where I was. There was no one else in the room. In the dim twilight I made out my pillow lying on the floor, with the junk that had fallen off the hooks. The old granny will have my guts for garters, I thought, and leaped out of bed. The floor felt cold and I stepped onto the mats. The old woman stopped snoring. I froze. The floorboards creaked; something crackled and rustled in the corners. The old woman gave a deafening whistle and started snoring again. I picked up the pillow and tossed it onto the sofa. The old clothes smelled of dogs. The set of hooks had slipped off one of its nails and was hanging askew. I set it straight and began picking up the junk. The moment I hung up the last shapeless old woman’s coat, the hooks came loose again and went scraping down the wallpaper to end up hanging on one nail. The old granny stopped snoring and I broke into a cold sweat. Somewhere nearby a cock started screeching. You’re for the soup, I thought vindictively. The old woman next door began tossing and turning, her bedsprings creaking and clanking. I waited, poised on one leg. Outside someone said softly, “It’s time to go to sleep, we’ve sat up late today.” It was a young voice, a woman’s.

  “I suppose it is,” a different voice responded. I heard a protracted yawn.

  “Aren’t you going to take another dip today?”

  “It’s a bit chilly. Let’s go bye-byes.”

  Everything went quiet. The old granny began snarling and muttering, and I walked carefully back to the sofa. I could get up early in the morning and fix everything properly . . .

  I lay down on my right side, pulled the blanket up over my ear, closed my eyes, and suddenly realized I didn’t feel sleepy at all—I felt hungry. Oh, hell, I thought. Urgent measures had to be taken, and I took them.

  Let’s take, for instance, a system of two integral equations, such as stellar statistics equations; both unknown functions are under the integral. Naturally, the only way to determine them is numerically—say, on a BESM. I remembered our BESM, the cream-colored control panel . . .

  Zhenya puts down a bundle wrapped in newspaper on the panel and unwraps it without hurrying. “What have you got?”

  “I’ve got cheese and sausage.” Lightly smoked Polish sausage, in round slices.

  “You ought to get married! I’ve got rissoles, with garlic, homemade. And a pickle.” No, two pickles . . . Four rissoles and, to balance the figures, four crunchy pickles. And four pieces of bread and butter . . .

  I threw off the blanket and sat up. Maybe there was something left in the car? No, I’d eaten everything. There was nothing left but the cookbook for Valka’s mother, who lived in Lezhnev. How did it go? . . . Piquant sauce. Half a glass of vinegar, two onions . . . and pepper. Serve with meat dishes . . . I can just picture it now—with small beefsteaks. The words surfaced from somewhere in the depths of my subconscious: He was served the dishes usual at inns, namely: sour cabbage soup, brains with peas, pickles . . . I gulped. And the ubiquitous sweet layered cake . . . I’ve got to distract myself, I thought, and picked up the book from the windowsill.

  It was Alexei Tolstoy’s Bleak Morning. I opened it at random. “Makhno, having broken the key off the sardine can, took a mother-of-pearl knife with fifty blades out of his pocket and carried on working with that, opening cans of pineapple”—this is not good, I thought—“French pâté, and lobster, which filled the room with a pungent smell.”

  I carefully replaced the book and sat down on the stool at the table. There was suddenly a delicious, pungent smell in the room—it must have been the smell of lobsters. I began wondering why I had never even tried lobster. Or oysters, for instance. In Dickens everybody eats oysters, working away with their folding knives, carving thick slices of bread and spreading them with butter . . . I began nervously smoothing out the tablecloth. I could see the old stains on it that hadn’t washed out. A lot of tasty food had been eaten on that tablecloth. Lobsters and brains with peas had been eaten on it. Small beefsteaks with piquant sauce had been eaten on it. Large and medium-sized beefsteaks too. People had stuffed themselves to bursting and sucked on their teeth in satisfaction . . . I had nothing to stuff myself with, but I started sucking my teeth.

  My sucking must have sounded loud and hungry, because the old woman’s bed next door began creaking, she started muttering angrily and clattering about, and suddenly she came into my room. She was wearing a long gray shirt and carrying a plate, and the room was instantly filled with a smell of food that was real, not imaginary. The old woman was smiling.

  She set the plate down right in front of me and boomed out in honeyed tones, “Eat, dear guest, Alexander Ivanovich. Eat what God has given, what he has sent with me.”

  “Oh no, Naina Kievna,” I mumbled, “you shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”

  But out of nowhere a fork with an ivory handle had already appeared in my hand and I began eating, with the old granny standing beside me, nodding and intoning, “Eat, dear guest, eat to your heart’s content.”

  I ate it all. It was hot potatoes with clarified butter . . .

  “Naina Kievna,” I said fervently, “I’d have starved to death without you.”

  “Had enough?” asked Naina Kievna, suddenly sounding rather unfriendly.

  “That was magnificent. Thank you very, very much! You have no idea—”

  “I don’t need any of your ideas,” she interrupted, seriously annoyed. “I asked if you’d had enough. Give me your plate here . . . I said, give me your plate!”

  “By . . . by all means,” I said.

  “‘By all means, by all means’ . . . And that’s all I get for feeding you . . .”

  “I can pay,” I said, beginning to get angry.

  “‘Pay, pay’ . . .” She went to the door. “And what if it’s something as can’t be paid for? And why did you have to go and lie?”

  “What do you mean, lie?”

  “Just that, lie! You said you wouldn’t go sucking on your teeth.” She stopped speaking and went out.

  What’s wrong with her? I thought. A strange sort of old granny . . . Maybe she’d noticed the clothes hooks? I could hear the springs creaking as she squirmed about on her bed, muttering irritably. Then she started singing in a low voice, a strange, barbaric kind of song: “Oh, I’ll go strolling and I’ll go rolling, when I’ve eaten young Ivan’s tasty flesh.” Suddenly I felt a cold draft from the window. I shi
vered and stood up to go back to the sofa—then it struck me that I’d locked the door before I went to sleep. Bewildered, I walked over to the door and reached out a hand to check the latch, but the moment my fingers touched the cold metal, everything went hazy and I found myself lying on the sofa with my face buried in the pillow and my fingers groping at a cold log in the wall.

  I lay there for a while in a half swoon before I realized that the old woman was snoring somewhere close at hand and there was someone talking in the room. A quiet voice was intoning solemnly and didactically, “The elephant is the largest of all animals that live on land. On the front of his face he has a large lump of flesh that is called a trunk, it being hollow and elongated like a pipe. He can extend it and flex it in all sorts of ways and use it instead of a hand . . .”

  Chilled but curious, I cautiously turned over onto my right side. The room was as empty as ever. The voice continued even more didactically: “Consumed in moderate amounts, wine is highly beneficial for the stomach, but when too much is drunk, it produces vapors that degrade man to the level of mindless cattle. You have sometimes seen drunks and still remember the just revulsion that you felt for them . . .”

  I jerked upright on the sofa and lowered my feet to the floor. The voice stopped. I got the feeling it had been speaking on the far side of the wall. Everything in the room was back the way it had been; I was surprised to see that even the set of hooks was hanging as it ought to be. And to my amazement, I felt very hungry again.

  “Ex vitro tincture of antimony,” the voice suddenly declared. I shuddered. “Magifterium antimon angeli salae. Bafilii oleum vitri antimonii alexiterium antimoniale!” I clearly heard giggling. “What a load of gibberish!” the voice said, and continued in a tone of lament, “Soon these eyes, as yet unopened, shall no longer behold the sun, but allow them not to close without the viscero-beatific message of my forgiveness and bliss . . . These are The Spirit or Ethical Thoughts of the Glorious Jung, Abstracted from His Nocturnal Meditations. On sale in Saint Petersburg and Riga in Sveshnikov’s bookshops for two rubles in pasteboard.” Someone sobbed. “More raving nonsense,” the voice said, then declaimed with feeling:

  All beauty, rank and affluence,

  All life’s delights and opulence

  E’er slacken, fade, decline, depart.

  False happiness rots swift away,

  Morbidity devours the heart,

  Bright glory yields to dark decay.

  I had realized now where the voices were. The sound was coming from the corner where the cloudy mirror hung.

  “And now,” said the voice, “next: ‘Everything is a single Self; this Self is the universal Self. The identification with ignorance that results from the eclipse of the light of the Self disappears with the development of spirituality.’”

  “And where’s that gibberish from?” I asked. I wasn’t expecting an answer. I was certain I was asleep.

  “Aphorisms from the Upanishads,” the voice promptly replied.

  “And what are the Upanishads?” I asked, no longer certain that I was asleep.

  “I don’t know,” said the voice.

  I got up and tiptoed over to the mirror. I couldn’t see my reflection. The cloudy glass reflected the curtain, the corner of the brick oven, and all sorts of other things. But I wasn’t there.

  “What’s the matter?” asked the voice. “Do you have questions?”

  “Who’s that speaking?” I asked, glancing behind the mirror. Behind the mirror there was a lot of dust and dead spiders. I pressed on my left eye with my forefinger. That was an ancient method for recognizing hallucinations that I’d read about in V. V. Bitner’s fascinating book What to Believe and What Not to Believe. All you have to do is press on your eyeball with your finger, and all the real objects—as distinct from the hallucinations—go fuzzy. The mirror went fuzzy, and my reflection appeared in it—a drowsy, anxious image. I could feel a draft on my feet. Curling up my toes, I went across to the window and looked out. There was no one outside, and there was no oak tree either. I rubbed my eyes and took another look. In front of me I could clearly see the mossy well with its windlass, the gates, and my car standing beside them. I am asleep, I thought in relief. My gaze fell on the windowsill and the tattered book. In my previous dream it had been the third volume of Alexei Tolstoy’s Road to Calvary. Now I read on the cover “P. I. Karpov. The Creative Work of the Mentally Ill and Its Influence on the Development of Science, Art, and Technology.” Shuddering, with my teeth chattering, I leafed through the book, looking at the colored inserts. Then I read poem number 2:

  Soaring through the clouds on high,

  Black wings fluttering apace,

  A solitary of the sky,

  See the fleeting sparrow race.

  Flying by the moon’s pale glow

  In the deepest dead of night,

  His spirit unoppressed by fright,

  He views the world spread out below.

  Haughty, frenzied bird of prey,

  He revels in his shady flight,

  His eyes ablaze, as bright as day.

  The floor suddenly tilted beneath my feet. There was a long, earsplitting creak and then, like the rumbling of a distant earthquake, I heard a thunderous “Cluuuck, cluuck . . .” The hut started pitching to and fro like a boat on choppy water. The yard outside the window shifted sideways and a gigantic chicken leg emerged from below the window and thrust its talons into the earth, making deep furrows in the grass before disappearing from sight again. The floor keeled over sharply, and feeling myself falling, I grabbed hold of something soft with both hands, banged my side and my head against something hard and tumbled off the sofa. I lay there on the mats, clutching the pillow that had fallen with me. It was quite light in the room. Outside the window someone cleared his throat thoroughly.

  “Very well, then . . .” said a well-trained male voice. “In a kingdom long ago, in a certain state I know, there lived a king called . . . mmmeh . . . well, it doesn’t really matter that much. Let us say . . . mmmeh . . . Polyeuctus . . . And he had three princely sons. The first . . . mmmeh . . . The third prince was a fool, but what was the first?”

  Crouching down like a soldier under fire, I crept over to the window and peeped out. The oak was back in its proper place. Standing on his hind paws with his back to the tree, lost in thought, was the cat Vasily. He had a water lily clenched between his teeth. The cat looked down at his feet and drawled: “Mmmeh-eh . . .” Then he shook his head hard, put his front paws behind his back, and, stooping slightly like the university professor Dubino-Knyazhitsky giving a lecture, strode smoothly away from the oak tree.

  “All right . . .” the cat muttered to himself. “Once upon a time there were a king and a queen. This king and this queen had one son . . . Mmmeh. A fool, of course . . .”

  The cat spat out the flower in annoyance, pulled a wry face, and rubbed his forehead.

  “This is getting desperate,” he said. “I do remember something, though! ‘Ha-ha-ha! Such tasty viands there’ll be to savor: the steed for dinner, the youth for supper . . .’ Now where would that be from? Anyway, Ivan—he’s a fool, you know—answers, ‘The more fool you, vile monster, to devour the snow-white swan before she’s caught!’ And then, of course, there’s the red-hot arrow, and off with all three heads. Ivan takes out the three hearts and brings them home to Mother, the cretin . . . What a charming present!” The cat gave a sardonic laugh, then heaved a sigh and declared, “It’s a sickness, that’s what it is—arteriosclerotic dementia.”

  He sighed again, turned back toward the oak, and started to sing: “Quack-quack my little children! Quack-quack, my little darlings! I . . . mmmeh . . . I have fattened you on my tears . . . fed you, that is . . .” he sighed for a third time and carried on walking for a while without speaking. Drawing level with the oak tree, he suddenly bellowed tunelessly, “I have left you the daintiest morsel!” Suddenly he was holding an immense psaltery in his paws—I didn’t see where he got it from. He struc
k it despairingly with one paw and, plucking at the strings with his claws, started bellowing even louder, as if he were trying to drown out the music:

  Dass im Tannwald finster ist,

  Das macht das Holz,

  Das . . . mmmeh . . . mein Schatz . . . or Katz?

  He stopped bellowing and strode about for while, banging on the strings without speaking. Then he started singing in a low, uncertain voice:

  Of my stay in that wee garden

  I’ll tell true, by your sweet pardon.

  This is how they dig and hoe

  To make the crimson poppies grow . . .

  He went back to the oak tree, leaned the psaltery against it, and scratched himself behind one ear with his back paw.

  “All work, work, work,” he said. “Nothing but work!”

  He put his front paws behind him again and walked away from the oak tree to the left, muttering, “I have heard, oh great and mighty king, that once in the glorious city of Baghdad there dwelt a tailor, by the name of . . .” He went down on all fours, arched his back and hissed viciously. “Oh, how I loathe all these repulsive names! Abu . . . Ali . . . Some Ibn somebody or other . . . All right, then, let’s call him Polyeuctus. Polyeuctus Ibn . . . mmmeh . . . Polyeuctovich . . . But anyway, I don’t remember what happened to the tailor. To hell with him, let’s start a different one . . .”

  I lay there with my belly on the windowsill, fascinated to watch the unfortunate Vasily wandering around the oak tree, first to the left and then to the right, muttering, clearing his throat, whining, groaning, dropping down on all fours when the strain was too much for him—in short, suffering quite inexpressibly. The extent of his knowledge was vast. He didn’t know a single story or song more than halfway through, but there were Russian, Ukrainian, Western Slavic, German, and even, I think, Japanese, Chinese, and African fairy tales, legends, fables, ballads, songs, romances, jingles, and rhymes. His inability to remember drove him into a fury; several times he threw himself at the trunk of the oak tree and shredded the bark with his claws, hissing and spitting, and when he did this his eyes blazed with the fires of hell and his tail, fluffed out as thick as a log, stood vertically erect or twitched convulsively or lashed at his sides. But the only song he sang right through was the Russian rhyme about the little bird, “Chizhik-Pyzhik,” and the only story he told coherently was The House That Jack Built in Marshak’s Russian translation, and even then with several abridgements. Gradually—evidently as he became exhausted—the feline accent of his speech became more and more distinct. “And in the field, the fiaowld,” he sang, “the pliaow runs of itself, and mmmeh . . . mmmeow, and following that pliaow . . . mmeow . . . Our Lord himself does walk . . . or stalk?”