The sound of the steps, drawn-out and slow, as if somebody was dragging his heels, drove him crazy. Every time they started above his head he moved into a different room – from the living room to the kitchen, then, through the horribly creaky glass door into the small bedroom, and back. The steps would reach him again, with that infallible predictability he had started to accept as part of his punishment. If this had been Berlin, he would probably have started a quarrel long ago – teasing the krauts, giving it good to them, by all means possible, was one of the things which, till a month ago, had helped him survive in the icy sterility of the German aquarium. But here, in the refuge he had chosen for himself, he had the distinct feeling this was not something he could afford. Not in this provincial dump where everybody knew each other. That was all he needed, to let them know some stranger lived in the apartment. The thought of it filled his mind with pictures of curious neighbors, their noses deep in the gap of the half-opened door; the fastidiously benevolent questions of spying neighbors resounded in his ears. His stomach cramped and twitched like a wounded animal. No, thank you. Anything but people. Not now, after…Yes, after the defeat.
The days dragged on, one after the other like the blind men from the painting by Brueghel – slowly but unerringly walking into the emptiness, evilly and senselessly grinning in the face of darkness, being themselves a part of it. He had spent just a week here, in Nick’s hometown, but only the impartial stubbornness of the calendar protected him from the certainness that he had fallen in the grip of some silicon-like timelessness. In and of itself this didn’t astonish him much – after all, he had come from a place like this, and those feelings didn’t catch him unprepared; what surprised him was the intensity with which they chased him, especially at night, in his dreams. Berlin, so hated and so secretly cherished, came to him in dozens of different images, from the cold geometry of Potsdamer Square to the ruin of Tacheles, and on to Oranienburger Street with its long-legged, sinfully expensive whores. Berlin, du bist so wunderbar, Berlin. The refrain of some German Schlager – stupid but impossible to chase away, like any Schlager – pounded in his head. In the hope of getting away from the emptiness he worked from dawn till dusk, burying himself in work till oblivion, so that only his eyes and nostrils stuck out of it, like a hippopotamus in water. But it was only seldom that something sensible came out of the work. Single felicitous passages, to and fro a page, which he could possibly use as filling for a future novel – but the feeling that he was trying to outsmart himself was too strong. One of the things one gets from defeat is a sense of reality. A defeat – that is two plus two makes four.
* * *
Herr Samsa rubbed two of his hairy paws, giggled discreetly in a third and, waving with all the rest in a way he probably found very artistic, started to recite:
The roe – she is so dear, so sweet –
If such a thing I might surprise
In my embrace, my teeth would meet,
What else is there beneath the skies?
“Stop it, Gregor,” said Milena with a bored air. “We already did it yesterday. I’m tired today. I want to sleep. Leave me alone.”
The spider took a sulky air but nevertheless stopped showing off and squatted in his corner, doing as if he were busy. Milena yawned and tried to fall asleep again, but her tiredness had gone away and, chased by boredom, she saw herself forced to get up. She put on the old slippers with the flattened heels, went into the kitchen and made herself a coffee, following exactly the instructions on how to use the gas hotplate Mum had left at a prominent place (although she had long ago proven her ability to use the kitchen utensils). At first the coffee was too hot and she left it to cool, but then it became cold and unpleasant, so she poured it down the drain and repeated the algorithm, this time setting the alarm clock to remind her when exactly the coffee would reach a perfect drinking temperature. The procedure worked like a charm and Milena drank the bitter fluid with the pride of an inventor. However, her peace was soon spoiled by the rattle from below. The Woodpecker had obviously started to work, as he did every day. She imagined how some day Herr Samsa would go downstairs and start a fight with that crazy Woodpecker, would beat him and force him to finally be silent, to leave her in peace. She chased away the useless phantasies and went to the corridor where the bookcase stood and searched the shelves in furtive hope of finding a volume, per chance put out of place, but as always, the books were in perfect order – first by country, then genre and name, so she soon gave it up. Today was not a day of good charms.
Herr Samsa feigned offence and didn’t laugh at her jokes. There were only boring shows on the tube, same thing on the radio. There remained nothing but the daily routine. She tried to spend as much time as possible preparing the exact mixture of water and detergent, but, of course, you cannot play games with yourself the whole day long, and finally the mixture did get ready, and Milena started washing the windows on which, she knew better than anyone, there was not the slightest spot. The work went unpleasantly fast – since Mum had bought that new brush, washing windows had turned from a serious occupation into child’s play – but after all, nobody can defy progress. She took up to the bathroom, looked thoroughly at the toilet seat for some tiny spot, found none of course, scrubbed it nevertheless, dusted all the rooms and finally took up the most important thing – cleaning the carpets. The vacuum, though nearly as old as she, still did a good job, despite its nerve-racking howling. She had just finished with the bedroom and was wondering whether to start in the living room, when the door’s furious bell frightened her. Milena flinched, then tried, in the course of several endless moments, to ignore the menacing sound. But the one on the outside didn’t give up and kept pushing the button brutally. His nail must be blue by now she thought while tiptoeing through the dark corridor. She cautiously put her eye on the peephole, hoping to discover one of the neighbors, but her hope didn’t realize. On the contrary. By the sight of the unshaved face, from which, under a bald head and bushy eyebrows, two threatening gray eyes stared at her, she flinched as if hit by something. Her heart started pounding idiotically, its beats surely audible on the other side of the door. “Don’t panic, just don’t panic,” she repeated to herself. The one outside doesn’t even have a glimpse of whom he is dealing with. An amateur, most probably. They are all amateurs, almost all of them.
“Shall we go on skulking like this?” She heard a strangely high, nearly adolescent voice. “I know you are in there, no sense in hiding. I just wanted to ask you to switch off that siren for a few minutes, if possible. I am trying to work a floor below you.”
“I know who you are,” she heard, to her utmost dismay, her own voice, obviously trying to play her a dirty trick. “You are the Woodpecker. Me, I am also trying to do some work, if you care to know.”
“What? What?” The one on the outside started coughing in astonishment, giving Milena short, but well-deserved satisfaction. “What’s with that nonsense? Listen, how old are you?”
“And if you don’t stop bothering me, I’ll call Herr Gregor Samsa to help.” She put to work the weapon she reserved as her last, used only in extreme cases.
He started laughing, who knows why, and replied:
“It would probably be better if you called Mr. Nilsson. What are you, some young genius? Or does your Mum feed you Kafka, so you don’t waste time growing up?”
His reaction was not amateur, which baffled her for a while, but she gathered herself fast and replied in her turn, this time much more calmly:
“Your assumption is completely wrong. It’s been three years since I became of age. Much longer, actually, but this is none of your business.”
The smile disappeared from his face, as quickly as if somebody had pulled the blinds. He looked around nervously, cleared his throat in an embarrassed way and said:
“All right, I didn’t want to disturb. All I’m asking is that you turn off the vacuum cleaner from time to time, that’s all.”
Still an amateur, thought Milena. Thank God. Otherwise I would have probably had to cook him something tasty, with mushrooms.
Though he had disappeared from the peephole Milena’s heart didn’t want to calm down. It went on, pounding madly and prevented her from going on with her work. She applied all the techniques she knew, but they didn’t help today. On the contrary – suddenly there appeared the voice. “Come here, sit down on my knee. Do you hear what I’m telling you, you little imbecile? I said sit down on my knee!” The words which she hadn’t heard for months hammered in her ears. The panic, a chicken with a red comb and huge, bulging eyes, started thrashing in her breast, spreading its wings and readying to fly. She started desperately looking for rescue in some kind of reasonable occupation, breathed slowly, counted to one hundred, even started thinking about phoning Mum, but, fortunately, came to the rescuing idea before having done something irresponsible. With her hands trembling, she feverishly searched the big drawers below her bed. Once or twice she almost growled for fear, because the requested object simply didn’t want to appear, but finally, she triumphantly raised above her head the small cloth puppet. Tattered and dirty, but still her old, irreplaceable puppet. Without wasting time, she ran into Mum’s room, fetched the big scissors from the hiding place – as always very easy to find – then put a piece of thick cardboard on the kitchen table, in order not to damage it, and, having laid the puppet on it, started stabbing it with the heavy blade, steady and systematically, repeating punch after punch:
“Bad girl! Bad girl! Bad girl!”
The feeling of relief didn’t come easily; it made her work until she was sweating before finally arriving from behind the corners of her mind, but even after that it didn’t want to stay put and turned around her like the tail of a young kitten, making her feel seasick. Only after she diligently hung the puppet on the small chandelier was the torment ready to stop and allow her a bit of peace. Only till Mum comes back. Just that much. Longer would hardly be necessary.
* * *
“Well, I told you already, you can stay as long as you wish. The apartment is empty anyway since my mother died. Is this the only reason you’re calling? Come on, spit it out. We’ve got a general assembly in a few minutes.”
Nick smelled there was something behind the harmless call right away and, in his typical manner, he didn’t beat around the bush.
Martin tried a few more general phrases but, urged by his friend’s impatience, finally came to the point.
“O, the neighbors? You didn’t do something stupid, did you? All right, all right, I believe you. Miserable people, I don’t know what to say. The father was a famous mushroom-gatherer, he even wrote several books on that. Then, seven or eight years ago he suddenly died from mushroom poisoning – a stupid story. The mother and daughter live on their own, I believe…Not quite sure, was never very interested. Listen, seriously – did you really decide to leave Germany forever? Can’t get it, honestly. The whole world is trying to get in. Only you want out, and then right in our small paradise. You endured it for ten years, and it was always OK, wasn’t it? What now?
Martin grit his teeth, mumbled some lame excuse and hurried to lay down the earpiece before Nick went on with his questions. He tried working then, but it didn’t go well. He felt plagued by remorse, mixed together with the uneasy feeling that tomorrow everybody would know about his presence here, on their territory. He stood about awhile, fought with the temptation a bit more, but finally went upstairs again, his heart pounding stupidly, his head full of ridiculous excuses.
The obituary on the door caught his attention, but only briefly. “Seven years without our beloved husband and father,” below that, the round, fleshy face of a middle-aged man with good-hearted – maybe a little too good-hearted – eyes. He hesitated a minute or two in front of the door, fighting with the absurd feeling he was doing something totally childish, but the itch was already planted somewhere between his ribs. Still the last step wasn’t easy, so he spent another minute, tensely eavesdropping from the staircase, ready to pull back at the slightest sign of somebody’s presence. But the house remained quiet and sleepy in the afternoon’s haze, just like everything else in the small town, silently enduring the heat – gray, wordless and despondent.
Nothing happened for a long time after he pressed the button and he was ready to return downstairs, both relieved and disappointed, when the door flew open and there appeared a young girl – not quite a woman, but not a child anymore…He didn’t have time for long assessments anyway, because the expression on her face, a strange mixture of fear and cold-blooded menace, made him shiver downright.
“Get off! Get off immediately, before something bad happens!”
He started stammering, then saw the huge scissors in her fist. He flinched but, whether from offended pride or from sheer obstinacy, made himself talk a few more moments. The girl turned inside and started shouting furiously: “Get him, Gregor! Tear him down, eat him, Gregor!”
Martin jumped back and winced, expecting some mad dog, but from the darkness there came nothing. He stared at her, confused, secretly hoping the whole scene would reveal itself as some kind of stupid fabrication, but to no avail – she was staring at him with deadly seriousness, as if trying to push him away with her gaze, until finally, vexed even more by his stubbornness, she raised her hand and threw at him something white and round. He roared for fright, then raised his hands instinctively and ran terrified down the stairs, taking three at a time.
It was only later, behind the safety of the locked door, that he realized he was clutching in his hand the thing she had thrown at him. It turned out to be a sheet of paper, ruffled together into a ball. The next lunacy in a day which threatened to turn into a full fiasco, one of the many in the last months. Martin unfolded it with trembling hands, went to the window and started examining it carefully.
“Lunacy, absolute lunacy,” he growled by the view of the repulsive picture.
It was of a spider, his jaws sunk deep somewhere below the belly of a young girl. A spider with a fat hairy body and a somehow human face which was strangely familiar – round, fleshy with good-hearted, maybe a little too good-hearted eyes…