Costumier

Fiction Alexander Kan
Translated from the Russian by Natasha Randall

Kan found it hard to understand why his father had suddenly begun to act like a train, or, more precisely, to become a train, several times a day, whenever he managed to tear himself away from the woman in his room. His father came out of his room and moved along the corridor with small steps, issuing lingering horn sounds, presumably to signal a departure, forcibly parting the space with his elbows, and at the end of the corridor he turned around and returned, without stopping, strictly following a designated path. Perhaps he should have expected it, Kan reflected painfully, since the whole of the old man’s life had been spent on trains, in search of an unfaithful wife. A person had to become something at some time—according to the strange logic of things—and Kan would at some point become clothing, since he worked as a costumier in the theater. A costume. But whose? Nobody, not even the costumier, could answer that. Before he became a train, his father had been, quite simply… a cuckold. Yes, it was written in those damned telegrams that arrived from one place and another: “Hey—cuckold! I am here with your faithful wife… and she sends you an ardent kiss…” His father would grow furious, tear the paper to shreds, run to the closet, pull clothes from it, tear them and scatter them around our rooms, and the next day leave on the train for the address specified in the telegram.

Nobody knew how many lovers there had been—a whole army or just one, one mad one, madly sending his mad telegrams. Perhaps the addresses given didn’t even exist. His father would come back each time without a word and fall to his knees from exhaustion. Kan would then approach him, encompass him in an embrace, press his father to himself so that it seemed they were together, one, and that he, the son, had clothed his father with himself, leaving not a gap or a crack between their bodies. It should have been the reverse: Kan on his knees and his father clothing him in an embrace. This never happened. But when his father finally brought his mother home, a gray-haired zombie, or more precisely, when he dragged her, since she could no longer move by herself, “Oh my God!” escaped from the costumier’s breast. “Father, is it her?” When his father dragged that woman into the house, he immediately fastened himself to her, overflowing, with either happiness or madness, and embraced her more completely than he had ever embraced anything.

His father forgot about everything right then—about his son, about their long awaiting, about the telegrams that had pursued them all those years. All Kan could do now was spy on the ancient pair through a tiny chink in the door—it’s strange, they didn’t talk , but then whatever could they talk about? Their faces were planted upon each other’s shoulders. They didn’t even look into each other’s eyes, as if they were afraid of some terrible secret known only to them, which would flash through from beneath their gaze and melt their eyes with an impetuous and furious fire. Then came the train. The old man needed to go somewhere sometimes, not just sit always in his room, but it was best to stay close, near enough to her so that, God willing, she wouldn’t run away again—although, where could she run away to?

Kan often waited for his father at twilight, leaning against the wall: “Father, you…” he addressed him, “Father, are you sure…”

“Toot toot!” his father signaled to him—to him or to some invisible person in the twilight.

“Father, are you certain that it’s her?” Kan whispered in the dark and was frightened by his own question.

“Chug chug chug,” the father muttered, passing him by: unscheduled stops weren’t permitted on his route.

Then, in the midst of the reigning peace of their home, there came a knock at the door sounded: knock knock knock. Oh, why didn’t he manage to get there first! His father stood at the door, clutching a piece of paper with his shaking hands. He wasn’t actually clutching the paper but trying to throw it back, to reject it, but it wouldn’t come loose from his hands.

“What is it?” the costumier approached him earnestly. “Go on, give it here,” and his father threw it into his hands with pleasure. “It turns out…” Kan turned away and hunched over from the unexpected burden. “Papa, this is a misunderstanding,” he could only manage a whisper. “It’s not to us, it’s for someone else, for a different address, perhaps, it’s come here late. I mean, it’s something to do with time if not with the address. The problem is with time, it’s because of the mail, they always confuse everything, they send last year’s mail today, and send yesterday what was meant to arrive in several years. I will sort it out with them, it’s an organizational disgrace—what kind of time are they living by anyway? Where do they get these things? There are probably three idlers sitting there in boredom—one composes these things, another writes them down, and the third sends them to any old address—it's postal roulette. My God, Papa, I will sort this out…”

While Kan said all this, his father slowly sank to his knees as he used to, from exhaustion. Kan did the same, also slowly, leaning his cold forehead against his father’s. It’s happened, it’s his turn now. Yes, they are on their knees, and it’s not as he had wished it would be—he had hoped there would be a third being, greater and stronger than they, which could cover them or at least part of them, but not leave them in such a helpless pose. And this third being wasn’t slow to appear—whether it was the sky, or the ceiling, or a hurricane, it swept them away as soon as the door opened and the mail carrier entered with yet another piece of paper.

At the post office they wanted to have nothing to do with Kan and looked at him as if at an idiot. “You are not a mail service, you are torturers,” Kan muttered with tears in his eyes, the white pieces of paper in his hands shuddering. “Why are you teasing him?” He was led out of the offices by an ordinary woman, tender, warm, with a thick bag on her belt, full of new letters for people, who told him, “Don’t worry, everything is okay, maybe, really, it was done by hooligans—or perhaps in another post office, this piece of mail got lost, then someone found it and was frightened, so hastily sent it accidentally to your address—that happens sometimes.”

Yes, exactly, the costumier cheered up, he knew there was something wrong with the timing. Like a bullet, he shot home. “Father, I told you, there was a problem with timing.” His father nodded, and continued moving along his route, lengthways down the corridor, with his own thoughts, with his timing, which, alas, did not coincide with his son's. Kan understood when he glanced into his father’s room: he didn’t enfold that woman in embraces anymore; he slowly and carefully inspected her from all aspects. Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice this at all—first her face, her hands, her shoulders, then he stood back and examined her from the side, then came closer again… he wanted to wave a hand before her eyes—but she was not a patient, and he wasn’t a doctor or neuropathologist. Now Kan knew that his father had a plan, because after each journey along the corridor, he entered the room in a proprietary way and efficiently rubbed his hands like a surgeon before an operation, then he closed the door firmly, and there was complete silence.


II.
The main thing was that his father didn’t become despondent, Kan reflected painfully, sitting in the wardrobe department, that he didn’t wave off all those years of painful waiting, and that he wouldn’t start again to look for her, she who had left them many years ago. What a load of nonsense, the costumier placated himself, his father was already of an advanced age, and truth be told, both health and persistence had been removed from him during these years, and so too his memory, and instead of a memory, there is a black hole into which his father could disappear in search of some other woman. Then Kan could shout after him as much as he wanted, into the hole, as if to say What am I supposed to do with this extraneous woman who waits for you in the next room? What am I supposed to do with the next one you bring in? And: Who will give me a guarantee that more of these damned telegrams won’t fall down on our poor heads?

Costumier, what are you doing? The imperious voice of the stage manager brought him back from the black hole, and Kan seemed to wake up (though he couldn’t sleep much anymore). Now I’ll remember—what am I doing? Yes, he was standing there and considering a dress that had been brought to him, covered with holes, corroded by a moth. To restore it! It will be done. The costumier joyfully switched to his work. Whatever he had, he had his work. Yes, it was his work, not his house, with its two old people who were convulsively hugging each other: who was hugging whom? Really, who was hugging whom? Was he hugging this dress or was this dress hugging him? Stitch by stitch, Kan was an excellent costumier, he performed his work accurately, and when he tried a costume on himself, it was clear who turned into whom. Yes yes, in essence, that’s all people did, dressed up and undressed as each other. Kan had understood this long ago—ever since the time his father brought the gray-haired woman into their house, clothed her with himself—and everything would have been fine if not for those damned telegrams. The truth was that costumes brought him chagrin as well. More precisely, it was not the costumes, but the actors acting in them. Sometimes, after a premiere, there’s a banquet—and what would it cost just to change clothes? But instead actor so-and-so gets directly into a car, in his royal clothes, goes around the city, to a restaurant. I am not so-and-so, I am King Oedipus, ooh the widespread admiration, here is Oedipus! And for Oedipus there is champagne. Bottoms up, Oedipus, but where’s your Jocasta? The next day, or even later, upon the return of the costume, Kan reprimands the actor. Kan is strict and relentless though he secretly feels sorry for the violators, really, who they are in real life, and as the prophets of Tiresias. Surveying the costume in front of him now, Kan returned to the horror of it, these ordinary jaunts did them no good—a thread with a needle, patches, and if there wasn’t enough time, he would take the work back home. On one such sleepless night some time ago, he sat over a costume, the nocturnal horn-sounding behavior in the corridor had started already, the telegrams still came in the mornings—and suddenly Kan figured it out: in effect, he and his father were doing just the same all their lives—sewing some strange dress that was supposed to suit that one lady, the desired one, the only one, the unique one, sitting on the other side of the wall, as she was now, but it was not her, but—oh answer me!—who is she, and who is not she? And if he wanted the real one and not this one, then he shouldn’t have let her go from the very beginning, maybe for a moment or two, but not for so many years. Just as the costumier didn’t let his costumes go out, and he was right there in pursuit of the violator, step by step, stitch by stitch—late into the night.

But this couldn’t be explained to his father even when Kan waited for him in the corridor in the twilight, when a lump rolled and rose to his throat, and tears welled up in his eyes suddenly: “Oh, if only you understood, Father, that all this is senseless, that you can find a second wife—a third wife—a fourth, and fill the house with them, fill the whole world with them.” He blocked his father’s path, heard a quiet skidding in his father’s breast, he was nearly crying, this tired train. “But you will never find her, the one and only, because you, too, are him and yet not him—and furthermore, you are not a train, I’m sorry, Father, and not even a costumier, nor a costume—I don’t even know who you are…”

So yes, of course, he had work, work saved him, there was always too much work, and once, as he was leaving the wardrobe department, the assistant and the seamstress whispered to him: Listen, Costumier, it’s a disgrace—that actress from the The Idiot, her costume hasn’t come back to us for weeks, not even for a minute, what does it mean? Yes, we know her, and we don’t know her, she’s been invited from another theater, and yes, they’ve experienced some success, but you see…” The assistant inserted spitefully as she sewed: “But her success is beside the point, her costume, it’s just awful! I examined it closely when I came to the dressing room, made as if to greet her, ask her if she needed anything, how everything was in the capital, and I bend toward her like I’m correcting her collar, but I’m actually examining the dress—the horror! She has no accommodations, and how is it possible that such a rag goes onstage, it’s obvious she both sleeps in it and eats in it and so on. The boss took pity on her, permitted her to live in her dressing room until housing was found.” The costumier was taken aback, it really was a disgrace! Where was her dressing room? “Sh—over there!” the assistant and the seamstress hissed, and then they beat it, pathetic, helpless people. Kan beat a path down the corridor—with the steps of a commander—directly up to her door, brought up a hand, stood still for a moment—with women everything was always done differently, a woman either didn’t carry off a dress entirely, or she grew together with it into one being. Knock knock knock. “May I enter?” He entered, twilight all around, contours visible, the shine of hair. “Forgive me,” the costumier said, becoming puzzled, “A-are you playing the part of Nastasya Filippovna?… Right, I am playing the part of the costumier—um, more precisely, I am the costumier. I’m actually here concerning your dress, which…not sure whether you know, but there have been complaints, the dress should be kept in the costume department,” he blurted out and started sweating.

“Yes, all my admirers…they carry me right away by the hand, the wild people of your city…”

“But aren’t you afraid,” the costumier said suddenly and for some reason very much wanting to switch on the light so as not to talk to a darkness in the dark. “Afraid that among these wild people you will come across Rogozhin? … Just joking.”

“My God,” she moaned, “don’t touch the light switch, the light rips at my eyes, everybody needs something from me: for you, it’s my clothes, for my admirers, as it happens, my clothes aren’t needed—so perhaps you could peaceably share me between yourselves.” Boom! The dress went right into his face.

“There you go, have it, what disrespect…”

For a second time, the costumier turned to the door. “I won’t come to you again. You can come to me. It is not my responsibility…”

And he dashed out of the dressing room, though he could hear her saying something to him in response, requesting, begging, perhaps, asking him that he make an exception, that women will be women, after all. Might he become, for example, her personal costumier…?

It was a strange conversation, a conversation in the dark, and he hadn’t been able to make out her face, just the ghost of it. He didn’t love this whole spectacle, to be honest, maybe because actresses for the main role changed constantly, and it made hard work for him—to take in, cut out, let out—and all the capricious caprices with all the admirers. Another matter altogether was Savelyich, in the role of the Idiot, a constant member, a strong one, a thorough man without admirers and fans—he had a dacha, a wife, a car—it’s a strange business—whose idea was it to give him the role of the Idiot? Okay, the Idiot is an idiot, it’s not up to us, but Savelyich’s costume was always perfect, always came back on time.

When Kan straightened out the dress, he found nothing strange, yes, two or three seams were unstitched, but for him that didn’t matter. The seamstress had told him something from that source of female hatred so unclear to men. Kan got to work, a needle and thread, this needed hand stitching, stitch by stitch. But something strange was happening: the seams were unstitching before his eyes, he tried this way and that, from the outside and from within, but it was useless. Kan began to worry, this had never happened to him, maybe the dress remembered her body, the body remembered its dress, maybe…and again, he forgot himself, again he saw the black hole into which the father might fall. Maybe his father remembers his mother, and it is actually clearer to him who is whom, whether that woman is her or not? Yes, he regained a certain consciousness again, probably the dress longed for the actress’s body, the thread longed for the needle, a needle on a thread, and there was this hole that couldn’t be sewn up in any way. That devil’s hole, directing its black-as-black pupil toward him, longed for him too. Then he bent, and with all his force, he began quickly to gather up the stitches, to pull them right together, to squeeze the seams so that his fingers stiffened. But he wasn’t quick enough, and it was as if this strange dress was rapidly filling with some impetuously growing body. He blinked and leaned back, worn out, onto the back of his chair, and suddenly, hearing someone’s voice, he opened eyes.

“It is useless. I already tried.” She impatiently paced about the room, putting the dress up to herself and, passing by, looked at him, the costumier, as if in a mirror.


III.
So, she had achieved what she wanted: she persuaded him to bring her the dress at the most convenient time for her, at night. It was at night that everyone left her alone—in the dressing room where she did actually live, since there was no place else to live, and if not at night, then, when would it be convenient for you? In the afternoon, in the morning, it was unclear why he agreed at once, maybe because he didn’t want her to remain a moment longer there with him, because she looked so fixedly in his eyes, in which she would see that very fear and those two old people locked together like two wrestlers on a carpet, in each other’s embrace. She persuaded him and disappeared—click clack click—the only thing that remained of her were her footsteps—what else? —up the stairs, leading nowhere, along the corridors, to a dressing room, perhaps to the stage, if you like, to an exit, to the open air, into the kingdom of night festivals—of hot admirers—of nonsensical declarations—click clack click—where will you take me, footsteps of hers? Into the dark night, where people at last remain alone with one another, in winding corridors and small rooms, on communal beds and in the tight cabins of elevators—where, ending up alone, they close themselves in embraces—gong—puffing and snuffling, tormenting each other and if there’s no one else there then tormenting the emptiness—gong—to stiffen, to freeze, and to live until morning—ooh! —to disintegrate, to separate, not to see, not to dress. Everything is spoken in those footsteps—where else? Removing you from your rival, up and down the stairs leading nowhere, click clack click—where will you lead me, footsteps? Where else?

Kan also didn’t remember why he decided to go to her—to a woman at night? Yes there was the dress, she said it was because in the evenings she wasn’t self-controlled, it was a strange request, the nights were strange, he too had for several days and nights lived among the costumes, and during the day, during their breaks, he ran home. But the same was going on there, worse even—his father was extremely suspicious and didn’t recognize his son for a long while, didn’t let him in the house, confused him with the mail carrier, squealed and splashed his saliva at him: where’s your bag, you swine and villain, where are you holding those dirty libels? How you dare to enter here? Kan managed to slip in a bit further and for a moment looked into the room where his mother but not mother sat facing a window—perhaps confirming the fears of his father, who had always said that there, outside the window, there is nothing and shouldn’t be anything. But she looked out all the same, what were his words to her? In any case, her husband but not husband, with his words but not words, was confusing everyone and everything with the mail carrier, and so, ultimately, what was this window to her, which either was or wasn’t actually a window?

And so back to the theater, what else could he do, it was necessary to spend the night there, the theater was a theater, the costumes were costumes, and he was a costumier. And on one of those nights, he woke up and climbed the stairs with the ironed dress held across his arms horizontally, approaching a chink in the door from which a weak light fell, and he entered and…with held breath, he slowly sank into a chair.

The first thing he wanted to do was to leave, no, it wasn’t—why are you lying to yourself, Costumier? He had a desire to cover her with a blanket, she was nude, and after that to leave. In effect, this was what he had done his whole life—he covered people, he clothed them and left. Kan rose at last from the chair, feeling a leaden heaviness to his legs, and approached her, stood over her bed. Oh, if he had known in advance, if she had warned him—but again, you are lying to yourself, Costumier! Nobody ever warns anybody, and even if she had warned him, then he would have entered the room in an absolutely different way: walking on his heels, drawing his unseeing eyes around the room and loudly announcing: “The dress is delivered.”

The dress is delivered, Costumier, regain consciousness and carry out your duties, take up the blanket and put it up to her chin with a smooth movement, blinking and remembering that it was the night, those latter and deceptive hours, that brought this person’s nudity closer to your eyes, which shouldn’t be seen and shouldn’t be shown to anybody, because all the people in this world should be dressed in something. The costumier moved, and right then, something unimaginable happened: one two three, the blanket pushed him away with force, emitting a shriek, and Kan slipped and fell to the floor.

When he raised his head, he saw her pulling the blanket up to her chin, having picked up her knees; she looked at him with horror: her gaze froze for a moment then warmed: “Oh, you frightened me…Do get up.”

Kan rose, sat down on the edge of the chair opposite her, ready to rise and leave at any moment: it was strange to think of it, but his task had been completed.

“I wanted to cover you up. It’s cold,” he said suddenly, as if remembering something.

“Might have been a nightmare or a reflex,” she said distractedly and began to look for cigarettes. “Ask me who it was about.”

“Who was it about?” the costumier hastily repeated.

“About everyone,” she answered, but not immediately. “Yeah, I’m interesting to everyone only to the point just after undressing. Whatever happens to me after that, nobody…”

“I should probably go now,” the costumier stood up, feeling that everything that was happening to him now went beyond the limits of his official duties.

“Not yet,” she interjected. “Since you’ve woken me up, so you’ll have to stay. Or do you too have limited interest?”

“I don’t understand,” the costumier said, barely audibly, but obediently falling into the chair. “And why aren’t you at home? Don’t just stay here for my sake,” she shuffled around in place, appearing to want to rise, to walk about the room, perhaps again to glance at him as if into a mirror, but something bothered her.

“Home is a disaster,” he said without knowing what to answer, and looked through the window, suddenly imagining his father, who would have made another circuit by now, sending his signals of arrivals and departures into the boundless night, the dark sky outside the window choking the stars in the twilight.

“Ooooooo.” A stolen echo suddenly reached him.

“Do you not find it frightening,” she said thoughtfully, looking beyond him at the night window, “that right now, at your home, there is maybe something very important happening that you have no power to change or stop?”

“Frightening,” the costumier whispered and suddenly felt some ease in their strange nighttime interaction.

“Not for me anymore.” She rose at last and, having wrapped herself up in a blanket, she began to stroll about the room, slapping her bare feet on the floor, as the costumier, somehow enchanted, watched the white flashes of her soles hopping from place to place—the only thing that remained of her in this darkness. “But it was once frightening, when I had just started to appear on the stage, when there was a home, when there was my mama…”

“Mama?” the costumier asked with astonishment.

“Yes, mama, such a quiet little mother.” She suddenly turned around and looked at him—it was so unexpected that he didn’t manage to look away in time. “You’re also quiet. It’s rare.

“Mama,” she continued, “Mama had a serious illness when everything had only just begun for me. I spent all hours at the theater. Lots of tours. When I came back, I sat down next to her and I said, Now, Mama, you wait just a little bit longer, everything will be set up soon, I will be taken into the main cast, I will begin to dictate my own terms, we will go on tour together—though she didn’t believe this—that sort of thing doesn’t happen—but she, of course, trusted me... Oh, how many years passed? And then I began to notice my mother’s eyes were showing a weakening. Yes, there were cousins, relatives, of course, they visited, but I was never there at her side. Then I began to plan a really long holiday, even the management had been persuaded, they said You will go on one last tour, and then you will have some time off, to sort out your affairs… Mama, don’t you see, I remember telling her then, as she sat by the window as she always did...”

“At the window,” the costumier echoed.

“Yes, at the window, she waited for me, I told her, Mama, see here, just a bit longer, one more trip, and then I’m finished, Mama, we will be together, for a long endless holiday as I promised you—just one trip, oh, if you knew how tired I am, Mama, how I want to be with you, how we will begin to live together... She didn’t say a word, I saw that she trusted me. Can you imagine, Costumier, what a horror it was?” She turned to face him again, so abruptly that the blanket fell from her shoulders. “What horror when a silent little person so trusts you... My God, people shouldn’t be so trusting!”

“You’re cold,” the costumier said, slowly standing up from his chair.

“And this little person trusts you, waits for you as you play others’ lives on various stages, in effect performing a big lie, not understanding that your real life is contained in that little person who so awaits you. And then you finally return home, not rushing, exchanging several farewells with friends, they see you off at the station, carry your suitcases, Please be careful here, shall we have one more cigarette? A couple of kisses, some embraces and promises, and that’s enough, that’s all for today, then you get on the train, go down a long corridor, you walk and walk, apparently, for the whole of eternity, and at last you open a door and speak: Hello, Mama, here I am. You’re so surprised that she is still sitting in her chair at this late hour, sitting at the window and waiting for you... My God! What did I do at that first moment? I left the room, yes, and I closed the door, I turned back, to the threshold, to the suitcases, and again I went down this long corridor, and again entered the room and said: Hello, Mama... And I did this again many, many times already not saying the words hello, Mama. And I walked and roared, and shouted, I was proving something to someone, but obviously, it was so loud that all neighbors ran in together, took me away to another room, removed me from the corridor... My God, of course, I told lies, it’s frightening to me even now, that something very important, concerning only me, had been happening right then, and without me... Then, after everything, I was afraid to go into her room, in the evening, in twilight, and I sat in my own room and shivered, and it seemed, from there, from Mama’s room, from the depths of the corridor, something floated, ineffable, such a dense, sweaty emptiness, and I could even hear it... like this: Ooooooo. Like wind in a pipe.

The costumier was following at her heels like a shadow, involuntarily repeating all her movements, but she didn’t notice, didn’t take in what he was doing.

“And the stage,” she continued, “it seemed there were friends, acquaintances, actors, but nothing could be salvaged. You see, it is like an empty hall. You understand, you’re in the theater, Costumier, right? It is like an empty theater hall, enveloping you with such an intolerable and terrible rumble. Yes, there are people in the hall, it’s a full house, there are applause, flowers, shouts, but actually there is nobody there, actually there is nothing there, and you bow to it, to this hall, you smile and pretend that you don’t notice that the hall is empty, and you keep on performing without admitting to yourself that you have already seen it, met the terrible gaze of the empty hall, that you aren’t actually acting but, in effect, you are running away from it—from performance to performance—from this eternally empty hall. And then at home, in your empty apartment, when there is nobody to act for, when there is no place to run, this begins: ooooooo. And it drives you into the wall, envelops you, presses you into a corner, paws at you, turns you inside out—whatever it wants, it rapes you, more and more, until you fall, begin to howl and creep along that endless corridor... My God!” She suddenly stopped, addressing him directly: “But don’t I have the right to take refuge in someone, just for a minute, for an hour or so until the rumble begins again—in the admirers, the members, the workers, the electricians, the firemen—my God even the safety engineers—in any of those who loaf around this deserted night theater?”


IV.
Kan didn’t remember whether she touched him at that moment or whether she seized him by the jacket and if so, then perhaps it was for only a fraction of a moment, he remembered, he took a step back, a small step backward because he had never dared to be so close to anyone, perhaps only to his father when his father came back from those hopeless searches, but that was so long ago that he couldn’t remember if it had happened or even if he had wanted it to happen. In facing someone, embracing or pressing them to himself—suddenly, without fail, a third being would appear at his side—blocking his path just in time. And now, she totally understood this, she stood still, a sigh.

“Ah, sorry that I’ve laid all this on you... nothing happened, nothing at all, forgive me, it’s already late, it is time for me to sleep, farewell.”

The costumier obediently turned and left. Ah! The empty corridor, again the empty corridor and this third being, already holding him by a hand—shall we go? Let’s go, what cold hands you have, where are we? In the corridor, what for? In the corridor. Oh, my God, as if I haven’t had enough corridors—that gloomy one, at home, with my mad father? When I go to my father, you, you are already there, you don’t say a word, and what do you do with the pair of us in the damned fog? When we suddenly meet at night, and you are there between us—like a film of air, a looking glass. And when I meet someone with whom I want to unite, what will you tell me, my mad torturer, what will you tell me, my mute guard?

Kan went down to his costume department, wearily sat down at a table, looked around, came back to himself, and the third being disappeared, hidden somewhere among the costumes hanging on coat hangers, it was always the same, when it wasn’t needed, this third entity appeared, and when it was needed, it disappeared—what use was it? Kan felt absolutely laid bare now. Only the room, his costume department, already weighing on his shoulders, flowed round him, it seemed, finding his form—the form of the costumier sitting at a table. Perhaps there was not a room but just the night, the black leaden night filling the whole world with blackness, except him, a small light speck that it will also fill, in a minute. Another minute, and the costumier is gone. There is the night, like a mold, a heavy viscous mass of night chaining him in a vice. Then someone will remove his body, and there will be an imprint: here was a costumier—a memorial for the descendants who, looking at this cavity, will think, there was once a costumier who removed clothes molds from people, and while everyone went their separate ways, here were their traces, their hollow forms, which this leaden night, every night, smothered with its deaf and blind caress.

But he suddenly began to understand it all differently. Something had dashed up between them, a spark flash, up there in the dressing room, for a fraction of a second while she touched him, while that constant third being, following close at heel, pushed itself between them with the everlasting blockade of its icy hand. He suddenly understood that it was possible after all to win against this night; he suddenly felt that some new movement had arisen from deep within him, which, with its beatings had already destroyed the leaden mass of night that was leaning on him.

Kan didn’t know how many days and nights passed after this discovery, but in one of those nights, he went up to her in her dressing room, the door quietly creaked, he entered, and for some reason he knew that this time she wouldn’t wake up, and he began to examine her, curled up like a doughnut, sleeping a deep sleep. Then he came up and carefully lay down on the edge of her bed and began to look at her and, without realizing it, he repeated her bends and outlines with his body.

He thought about the abyss that divided them now, the width of a bed and all the nights he would devote to getting closer to her—one centimeter per night, repeating her lines, her outlines, and if previously he hadn’t known what this new movement was, then now it was simple and clear to him. But, my God, how difficult it was to do! To continue the calm of the days and to move in the quiet suffering of night—so that with each centimeter he won, she wouldn’t move or stir or be woken. Now the costumier had a deep secret: every night he went up to her and quietly lay down on her bed. He knew that he was now deceiving the night and the constant third being, who wasn’t between them anymore, and that the whole world could calmly consider him to be a real costumier. He knew that during those quiet hours when, it seems, not one earthly creature dared to break the universe’s rest, it was necessary that he keep safe this most sensitive silence. But whether for the joy of movement or from the flashes of his happiness that lit up the nighttime twilight, he quietly sang, sending a strange nocturnal song to her in her deep sleep, and there was nothing he could do about it.

What did he sing about? Perhaps it was that the costumier had never in his whole life dreamed of meeting a person whom he could cover not with a costume but with himself. Darling—can you hear me? With himself. He’d never dreamed that he would be able to repeat the outlines, the feelings and thoughts of another person: “If you, darling, were sleeping now, curled up like a doughnut, I, the Costumier, would do the same, repeating your bends and outlines. And if you, beloved, were dreaming a fine fantastic dream, then I would dream it too, at your side, just as the guardian of your dreams can share your dreams. And if you, in this still night, dreamed of something, then I, too, believe me, would dream about the same, just as one can dream with an intimate who has become one’s flesh and soul. But forgive me, sweet one, I have got a little ahead of things”—the costumier sang—“just like children who run along full of impetuous happiness, indulging in wishful thinking, I have run ahead, my love, because you and I are still divided by crazy distances, which I still need to overcome. I try, by any means, to quietly move toward you with every night, so silently that not a shadow of alarm will run across your face, not one rustle will issue from your silence, so no thought will sadden your mind—oh, yes!” And so the costumier sang, pouring and overflowing with song, and he couldn’t do anything about it—neither constrain it nor manipulate it. “I am just a vessel from which this feeling bursts forth, perhaps, not just mine but also… Oh, be not afraid of these words! All the people who are sleeping now who are feelingless and loveless, oh, maybe I am a well in this uncomfortable world that is buried under a dream lava, alone in the universe through which a mighty and uncontrollable stream of love beats—and—I am sure, darling!—the whole world of night is just about to wake up from this unrestrained beating!”

Sometimes the costumier calmed down and stretched his hands out to her—to close them around her once and for all—when just then his body was seized by a spasm of overflowing feeling. Then he gasped and tears fell onto his face, and he cried so hard and choked so hard that he couldn’t see anything around himself, couldn’t understand where he was and how he had appeared there, and he didn’t notice that already for several nights she hadn’t been sleeping, she didn’t have the strength to, like him, and she didn’t sigh, speak, or stir.


V.
Kan could never explain to himself why at that moment he didn’t do it—stretching his hands out to her, why he didn’t embrace her, why suddenly between two people there was such a bottomless abyss. Just like he could never admit to himself that, stretching his hands to her, he suddenly saw not her face but the black sky, the mad laughter of the raging stars, and from there, someone emerged, coming toward him, stretching their arms out to him containing the sky and the laughter of stars. He jumped up from the bed and ran out of the dressing room, away, along the corridor, suddenly understanding that his fright had brought about some terrible trouble, which had tumbled out of his empty arms, or was it her arms, and it had already slid along, overtaking him like a snowball along the corridor.

As it turned out, when he entered his room, he noticed the absence of several rare and expensive costumes that had been hanging in open view, and in their place some dirty quilted jackets and dressing gowns hung, and it was as if their sleeves, hardened with dirt, were a jeer directed at him. In the following days, other costume absences were discovered, and, looking at what was left in exchange, Kan suddenly began to understand that inside their theater there might be some secret underground theater whose existence nobody suspected except him. And someone from this underground theater, perhaps, stole his costumes for some mad and awful performance—of what? If that was the case, the costumier thought, this theater might well be located in some other incommensurably bigger theater about whose existence Kan would learn if he went beyond the limits of his theater.

His fears immediately began to come true: as soon as he went out into the city, pretending he had an errand (of course, he had reported to nobody the real purpose of his trip), he suddenly began to observe strange things: at first he saw a corpulent woman selling sausages in the street, and nothing could deceive the costumier or divert his gaze, there she stood in a quilted jacket, and under that quilted jacket… oh, the horror! There was the golden dress of Queen Cleopatra from an old performance that hadn’t been put on at the theater for several years. The woman regally wafted long sausages as though they were staffs, and the people, in a never-ending stream, obsequiously bowed to her to the beat of her movements, resignedly moving one behind the next. The main thing was not to panic, the costumier calmed himself, and walked on, very clearly showing that nothing special was occurring, when suddenly a porter jumped out of a gate with a shovel and broom in his hands, just a regular porter, except that he was dressed in bright satin trousers worthy of Hong Gildong. Kan stopped in confusion, following the thief with his gaze. He could not put up with this anymore, these impostors who walked about the city absolutely free. He took several steps forward without knowing where he would go, turned a corner, and right there saw a policeman directing a stream of cars with his police baton. Kan rushed to him, directly in the middle of the street: “Sergeant... or how should I address you…” The patrolman turned around, the costumier came nearer and burst forth, he began to shout hysterically, to hit the patrolman’s breast with his fists, beating out the snow-white cambric shirt from under the policeman’s overcoat. Luckily, the sergeant was puzzled, didn’t have a clue, and left his weapon in its holster. Kan then rushed to the sidewalk, to the gate, like a drunk, swaying side to side—trying to disappear from possible pursuit though it should have been the reverse—that patrol policeman was the criminal.

For some time Kan sat in a dark, crude entranceway. For some reason he felt that he was Raskolnikov—before he hacked his sausage dealer to death. He roamed, trailing around, trying to retrace the footsteps of that terrible porter in colorful silk trousers. Then, he passed through another gateway, directly onto the central avenue, gnashing, with noise and din all around and an explosion of color in his eyes, people and windows like rags, a gloomy sky derisively dressed up by someone in fragmentary clouds, everywhere he looked, on streets, in windows, in machines, his costumes flashed—their collars, cuffs, whole hems—diligently hidden under the gray unremarkable clothes of passengers and pedestrians. He didn’t doubt it now at all.

If the whole city has suddenly decided to wear his costumes, the costumier painfully reflected, walking in the direction of the theater, then why had none of the theater management informed him of it, and why (and this seemed to him the most unbelievable) didn’t they appoint a senior and highly important costumier who would so responsibly be responsible for clothes for all these people. This senior and highly important costumier would without fail let him, a junior costumier, know that he shouldn’t be surprised at all or upset if he should suddenly meet some Don Quixote moonlighting as a porter or the other way around. Then, unsurprised by anything anymore, he could approach a person and take an interest in him, in his costume, ask whether his fine costume fit properly, my dear porter, and whether he had, dear Don Quixote, any complaints for the costumiers… But then Kan came across the sausage seller in the quilted jacket, in all her dignity, with Cleopatra’s dress under her quilted jacket, and Kan couldn’t hold himself back and approached her closely, and before asking her whether it was too tight on her, my dear, this fine dress, he bent directly toward her breast to make sure, for certain, that she was indeed wearing the dress. The seller, a large pink-cheeked woman, at first didn’t notice, or perhaps she was amused and had entered into her role—to divide and conquer!—but someone from her bowing queue suspiciously looked at the costumier and hissed. So the seller addressed Kan with a question: “What do you want?”

Kan didn’t hear her, so keen was he on his task.

“What do you want?” she hooted repeatedly, and then he led his eyes away, full of surprise, in which, perhaps, the dress he had at last fully recognized was still reflected.

A spark—she had realized something suddenly—a spark of realization… “Thief!” And suddenly, after a pause, she cried out, and with all her might she knocked him on the head with a sausage baton. Kan caved in from the extreme weight of it and fell aside, but before that he just managed to grasp her by her quilted jacket, a deadly grasp, and began to tear the clothes off, crying out feverishly, in a tongue twister: “Give! Give it! Give!”

“Thief!” she began to roar again, untiringly thrashing him with a sausage baton on the head, and at the sound of her shouting those same porters, in the same dirty clothes as she, the quilted jackets—dazed and half-drunk—jumped out. But the costumier didn’t manage to make out anything more as he grasped Cleopatra’s dress and tore it—in his hands remained a golden rag. Then such a squeal and a roar rose up that the costumier rushed off, dodging the blows of the porters, and ran down the street in the direction of the theater. The two, in their quilted jackets, rushed upon him from the left and the right, hissed at him in pursuit, swearing bluntly and beating him on the head with something heavy. He turned aside from the blows, there was no blood, apparently, and when he accelerated his running, the blows started landing directly on his back. And thus they ran halfway to the theater, and then Kan realized that the two of them had actually no intention of catching up with him. Perhaps the sausage woman had already disappeared from view, and they then weren’t invested with such rage and speed anymore, so they ran behind him, dutifully breathing down his back, halfheartedly beating him on the back. For some reason the costumier had a strange feeling that these two were trying to beat something out of him, something that—according to the logic of that which had gone before—must be contained within him. But there was nothing inside him, he contained nothing—at the end of the day, I am just a costumier, and if there is anything within me, then it is the torn piece of golden shiny silk in my fist and that’s it. And perhaps the two of them soon understood this, because as he approached the theater, they lagged behind and stopped at a beer hall.

“What’s happened to you?” the ticket collector uttered, turning pale, having caught sight of the costumier as he flew into the theater, and he guffawed strangely. Rushing past her, the costumier ran directly to the director’s office, pressing to his breast the golden piece of shiny silk pulsing in his hand like a real heart, and suddenly he bumped right into the director in the corridor—who was dressed in Rogozhin’s vast sheepskin coat, oddly, with a huge sword in his hands—more drunk than Kan had ever seen him.

“I’ve been to the prop room,” the director said with effort, unsteadily standing on his feet, “and he gave this to me…” He showed Kan the sword.

“Even though Nastasya Filippovna,” the director staggered toward the costumier, continuing to speak into his ear in a whisper. “I should, if you remember, kill her with a small letter opener...under her left breast, so that a half teaspoon of blood comes and no more…”

He staggered again, now in the opposite direction, nearly falling, and suddenly plaintively said, nearly crying: “The opener went bye-bye, so the silly propman told me, and he gave me this.” And he drew the sword, which was, it seems, made of real steel. “What now am I to do with it?”

“A real one?” The costumier asked in fright, his hand stretched out to the director and suddenly drawn back with horror. What if he actually…

But the director didn’t hear or see Kan anymore and carried on along the corridor, swaying from side to side, muttering something to himself, dragging the terrible sword, while Kan persisted in shuddering as he watched him. The show wouldn’t be performed for several days yet, and with any luck, during that time the director would manage to sleep it off.

It had already been several days that Kan had not seen her, he didn’t make his way up to her in her dressing room in the night. Something strange really had happened in the theater—this was what the costumier had finally and completely understood when he discovered that not only had his costumes disappeared, but the actors for whom these costumes were intended had disappeared too. This is how it happened: if a costume piece vanished, then after it went the actor who had been wearing it, and this occured with ominous regularity, even though the other actors, those who still remained in the theater, always gave various ordinary reasons for their colleagues’ mysterious disappearances. “How do you all not understand?” the costumier raged. Perhaps he was alone in knowing the true reason for the actors’ disappearances. But nobody listened to him, and they continued to step onto the stage without having sorted out who would act the parts of the absent actors, and no one was interested, because some other strange people, whom Kan had never seen before in the theater, took part in the performances.

These other strange people didn’t even really participate in the performances but just tumbled onto the stage—some from the hallways, some from portals—in various crumpled black-gray costumes, half-drunk, in dirty footwear, walking up and down between the actors, chewing something, guffawing, peering at the others in the face, clowning around—and in general delivering all sorts of obscenities. The others, the real actors—the costumier was surprised—didn’t react to all this in any way and even guiltily smiled at them in reply, as if they were apologizing for the fact that they couldn’t pay them more attention.

Kan could barely wait for the day of her performance. He came to the very curtain, because the whole day and evening he had been patching the costumes left to him by actors, all stained, with holes and tears (no one was surprised, not even the costumier himself, considering the conditions onstage). Thank God, she was on the stage, he watched her from the side: she was very pale, perhaps excessively excited, with a mad gloss to her eyes—the most vivid Nastasya Filippovna. The only thing that saddened the audience about the performance was the absence of Rogozhin, but it was exactly that which secretly gave joy to the costumier—who knows what the actor could have got up to, wandering like a sleepwalker about the theater, with that huge and not fake weapon.

The actors performed the finale, improvising—contrary to the grand design of the author and director. Nastasya Filippovna lay down on a bed, submissively covered her eyes, and appeared to fall asleep. Savelyich, in the role of the prince, at first ran circles around her bed, portraying despair, then he too lay down on the bed next to her, but he turned about, shuddered, looked around to all sides—distinctly without knowing what else to do, the poor man, and suddenly, perhaps, from overstrain, turning into a real idiot—he smothered her under the rough squall of spectator applause. Then, a crowd of people ran out onto the stage in their gray-black costumes, and without allowing the actors to recover and stand up, to bow before the audience, they carried her away from the stage, still dead, it seemed, past him, and farther along the corridor to her dressing room.

Kan meekly hung his head and froze, hiding his anxiety. Savelyich had acted very convincingly onstage and stood still for several minutes, full of despair, then suddenly came to himself and rushed after them. When Kan approached her dressing room, he found that all those people, the crowd of her admirers, were somehow grandly assembled along the wall down to the end of the corridor.

“What is this?” The words escaped the costumier’s mouth. He took a step forward, and two huge figures loomed with faces impossible to make out in the half light.

“Who do you want?” one of them asked rather impudently and pushed him away with his chest so that Kan staggered aside. He had never come to her directly after a performance, it not being his allotted nocturnal time but rather a time of noise and vanity. But he hadn’t heard from colleagues that after her performances you couldn’t breathe freely in the corridor, crowded as it was at her dressing room with the assembled crowd along the wall.

“I’m going to her…in her dressing room,” the costumier said in embarrassment, at which the stranger pointed him to somewhere deep at the end of the corridor. “Then get in line.”

“What line?” the costumier exhorted and suddenly felt his head beginning to spin. “Ooooooo!” Again the terrible sound drifted to him: a black sky and the laughter of raging stars and someone’s footsteps in the depths of a corridor—existing perhaps only to traverse its length, to stop and to adjoin the line.

“What do you mean, what line?” the second one asked in a mocking tone. “Excuse me, are you here in an official capacity?”

“Yes,” replied the costumier, already not understanding anything anymore about the conversation. “I am the costumier.”

“Do you have identification?” the man asked courteously.

“Yes!” the costumier vigorously blurted out, assuming a dignified air and feeling as though he had started to lose his mind.

“Well, that’s another matter,” the two men said, calming down, and turned to the line. “Report, the costumier has come…”

The costumier... the costumier... a whisper was passed down the line—a line of identical men with two-meter-broad shoulders. The door creaked, a whisper dived inside—there was a pause—and everyone standing in the corridor at once became silent. How steely was their discipline. “One two three,” the costumier was counting in order not to fall into that bad dream, and he suddenly heard: “What? The costumier?” It was a female voice, but it was obviously not her, but perhaps another actress who had appeared instead of her, strangled on the stage—the voice was cracked, hoarse, full of either fright or horror. “The costumier? Never! Here... here, give him this!”

“No access… no access.” The words came down the line.

“But why not?” the costumier asked, full of despair, addressing all those standing in the corridor.

“No access,” the two men thundered, closing ranks, blocking his way conclusively, and throwing her dress at him.


VI.
Kan went down the corridor, and, lacking the strength to restrain himself, he cried, tears fell down his face, his two hands squeezed her dress even though what was her dress to him now? The personal belongings of the dead, of those who were once close to you and intimate. Maybe it was a keepsake, and whether it had all happened—his nights, their nighttime conversation—she herself had worn that dress, and maybe when he unfurls the dress, then he will understand whether this had all really happened or not, and whether someone—who?—had made it so it wouldn’t happen—and if it hadn’t happened, who made it so it would seem it had happened?

When Kan went into his wardrobe department, he sat down at the table. The night lamp and the black night and the room cloaked his crooked figure again—the figure of a costumier sitting at a table. The night, a lamp, and a dress, which he had already mended and ironed—even if she didn’t exist, such was his work. He wasn’t even surprised at the awful vision before him: a dress covered in holes, tears, really. What was there to be surprised about here if… time itself, time, where he sat, was in holes, in tears—a time sieve, a time hole—bluish-black, like this dress that was blackened by those same holes. His dresses were repaired, actors acted, fell in love, people lived and separated. In fact, no world existed, just as there was no surface to the table, and as much as he examined what was inside those holes, and as much as he drew his eyes closer to this emptiness—nothing at all was visible through the holes. Well, back to the threads, to the needles, there was manual work even if there was no world, and it was necessary to make it so nobody noticed his disappearances—he needed to patch and only to patch. But it was strange—the dress was strange, for as soon as Kan dealt with one tear, the fabric would creep apart in another place, and as he undertook the next one, the dress would be torn in another place. There was something familiar about this, and the costumier endeavored to remember what it was that had happened before, looking at the material that was creeping apart before his eyes. He stood up suddenly, growing cold with horror, stood there a minute—at home, there was a knock on the door, and in came the mail carrier, but he was now here, in the wardrobe department—the night, the dress, and the table, where each hole was that very same telegram: “Hey, Costumier,” one hole gapes at him, “we are here, with your darling, and she sends you…” “No, listen to me!” gapes another hole, “she is here—and only here!”

Kan blinked, still holding the dress in his hands, maybe with as much force as that with which his father—at the very same time—was torturing and shouting at that woman in the face: “Admit it! Is it you, or is it not you?” He attacked her just as the costumier attacked the hole. What is it you need so much—in your nonexistence, how long will you torment me, Kan the costumier?

He lowered his head to the table and covered his eyes, touching the darkness that lived under his eyelids, to the other darkness, breathing on him from under the folds of the dress. Someone was already walking along this unstable border, at the edge of his eyelids, balancing like a tightrope walker—darkness to the left, darkness to the right, don’t fall, God forbid you fall—and darkness will merge with darkness, and there will be cold, and a draft, and ghosts, and telegrams, and—nothing more. But meanwhile, you walk, a tightrope walker, but where to? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter—on an edge of light, between darkness and darkness, like a valorous sleepwalker without reproach, without a fear of falling, a sleepwalker is a tightrope walker, the best in the world—to go, having blinked, having fallen asleep, without opening his eyes. Ghosts are knocking on the doors of your eyelids, don’t trust them, Costumier, just sleep, and whatever you do, don’t let them in…

“Wake up! Wake up!” these ghosts shouted, shaking him by the shoulders, shouting with the voice of a woman who actually didn’t exist.

Kan leaned back on his chair and saw her directly above him, above his table, above the dress that was disappearing literally before his eyes.

“What is happening with you?” She put her hands into a sort of begging gesture, as if she was afraid that he would close his eyes again, wouldn’t believe her, would fall asleep, would start again on his lunar way with his tightrope walking gait. “I couldn’t wake you up!”

Kan looked at her and didn’t trust his eyes, she should be over there, with the others who were occupying the corridor, standing in a line, one by one.

“I couldn’t let you in then! There were so many people, bad people, and you would have felt bad to be there with them! My God!” She paced about the room, having linked hands in the same begging gesture. “What can we do now? How shall we be? It is impossible like this—to see each other at night! And even at night to pretend that we don’t see each other!”

“So you know everything?” Kan exclaimed, stricken.

“Well, of course,” she stopped, sadly smiling, “it’s like playing that children’s game where you enter and someone says to me: ‘Freeze!’ You look for me, and I’m not even allowed to stir! Oh, if I was able not to hear that command! Or not to understand it! If I was only allowed to move somehow!”

“Wait!” the costumier suddenly interrupted her, some uncontrollable force capturing him, and he rose and threw himself directly at her feet. “I ask you, I beg you... let’s leave, we can escape from here right now!”

“Oh, my dear costumier,” she gently clasped his head within her hands and kneeled down, now face to face, nestling, and, apparently, already crying, or maybe they were his, his tears—his and hers, flowing onto their cheeks. “I have been running my whole life. When will it end? When can I stop? Hold me…”

“I never,” moaned the costumier, quietly touching his hands to her hands, “I have never done this…. Never.”

“Do it now,” she whispered, squeezing his palms.

“I won’t be able to,” the costumier uttered and suddenly began to sob, already without the hesitation of men’s tears—and he cried until he was cried out, to make up for his whole tearless past. “I can’t,” he said. “And even if I could do it, then tomorrow, in an hour, in a minute, you won’t get near to me again—you don’t even belong to yourself…”

“Oh, my poor costumier,” she moaned, slightly pulling him to her, “now I will become your costumier, but first, first,” she stood still for a moment, cast back her head, looking somewhere above, through a window, into the starry sky. “First, I have to say good-bye to them. And then not escape but leave. Myself. Do you understand? Without anyone’s help. So that nobody dares again to tell me: ‘Freeze!’ ”

For all the days remaining before her next performance Kan sat out in the wardrobe department, and if it happened that sometimes he had to leave his shelter, then by any means he returned quickly to be there, in place, at the very place from which he would begin his new direction. Already neither his work nor those few remaining costumes in the wardrobe department concerned him as had before, just as those disturbing events that had taken place on the stage didn’t concern him. In those days, one of those who remained in the theater told him that the performances were falling apart one after the other, there was nobody left to perform, and if anyone did perform, it was those terrible and dirty people who were already conquering the stage with an impetuous rage.

All this, he noticed by the ever-disappearing costumes. All around him were only quilted jackets, dirty jackets, dressing gowns—and it wasn’t clear how the costumes had disappeared, the costumier spent all his time in the wardrobe department, and yes, actors sometimes came, took away their costumes before a performance, but they returned them less and less often. Perhaps someone was invisibly present in the wardrobe department, watching him, waiting for when he left, and then they would take a costume from a hanger and make off with it, perhaps changing into it first. It had become a real cloakroom, and the genuine drama really did begin at the cloakroom now, where black clothes hung like corpses, charred, it seemed, by a furious fire that had engulfed the whole theater.

At last the long-desired day came, the day of their departure. At the end of the performance, he was supposed to go up to her—and by any means he was to take her by the hand and lead her out of the theater. When the performance had begun—on time—the costumier began to pace his room in order somehow to occupy himself, anxiety had already captured him, especially in those last few hours of waiting. He began to consider the terrible clothes that had so perfidiously forced out his costumes—where were the costumes now?—and he fastidiously touched the clothes, trying to understand what it all actually could mean. The dirty clothes hung the length of the room, and when he passed along their ranks, he noticed a silent, restless rumble threateningly amassing behind his back. When he looked back, he found nothing strange, if you didn’t count the light but persistent rocking of the costumes on their hangers. Then he heard a whistle, either a whisper or a whistle, from the depths of the clothing ranks, and he sat down on a stool and moved his head, touching the clothes hanging over him with disgust, pushing into the jacket folds—to peer into the sepulchral twilight. Suddenly a furious, deafening blow knocked him down to the ground. He tried to rise, uncomprehending, but then there were more blows—one after another—crashing onto his head, onto his back. He struggled to accept that someone really had been hiding there, waiting for the right moment, and he had discovered their secret plans, and they thrashed madly at him. It was probably not just one person, there were lots of them—swinging their legs and arms wildly, beating something out of him—again there was that strange feeling—now he understood there was something they wanted out of him, apparently—all those who fell upon him with blows, and—what is more—who stole and spoiled his costumes, who tore them to pieces, who sent the telegrams to his father. And now he knew for sure that they were beating her out of him, she who would be performing that very moment on the stage, not suspecting how firm he was about her, right now, in spite of all those blows, as he tried to rise, was thrown back to the ground, like a child who cannot walk—again and again! And while he kept her in his mind, he was able to carry on even when he lay back, spread on the floor when, it seemed, they had beaten everything from him, when there was nothing between him and the floor, he still knew that she was there, somewhere nearby, and he was about to be filled with her, to recover, to get up, and to go up to her upstairs.


VII.
The first thing he wanted to do was immediately peel himself from the floor, to continue his interrupted flight. He was going to go upstairs, and then there were these blows, one after another—he looked around and all those awful clothes were scattered around the floor now, so it had really happened. He tried to rise but his hand was sprained, so he crept several paces forward—toward someone lying at the very end of the clothes rack. When he came nearer, he saw Rogozhin lying on the floor in a black-covered sheepskin coat—either sleeping or unconscious—it was unclear how he had come to be there. When the costumier bent over him, he understood that the man was still drunk—lying there fixed and unhearing, unmoving, but, strangely, his eyes shone brightly in the dark and were absolutely open and fixed.

Several minutes passed, and suddenly Rogozhin loudly and abruptly cried out, as if continuing a conversation that had been interrupted by someone: “The propman... that devil propman... he gave me this piece of crap instead of a knife!” He suddenly shifted and roared, and Kan saw that Rogozhin lay directly on the sword’s edge, and he was trying to draw it out from under himself, working his hand loose. “I told him,” he screamed, “you mustn’t... how will I perform, got no knives, he says, no small ones, or big ones, or blunt ones, or sharp ones. What was I supposed to do?... Take it away!” he screamed, and he suddenly drew forward, looking at the costumier with horror. “Take it away from me!”

Kan jumped with fright and remembered: she is waiting for me up there, upstairs—and he rushed from the wardrobe department, stumbling and confused, with jackets and dressing gowns scattered around the room. There was nobody in the corridor, strangely, but he was ready for anything—to fight with an enemy to the last, though he didn’t know how long he had lain unconscious. Maybe nobody thought that he would be able to rise again, and he passed by one door, a second, swaying from side to side, and at last stopped at her dressing room. The door was locked, and he pushed at it with a shoulder. Behind the door there was neither a sound, nor a rustle—was there really nobody there? He began to knock at it with something heavy, it seemed his hands were in fact empty. “Open up, it is I, the costumier!” He fought at the door, begged the door—still some hope glimmered in him. Then there was a rustle after all—thank God, she was there, and he began to knock more loudly, until at last the door opened. Oh yes, it seems it was her.

“Are you okay?” Kan entered the room but somehow nervously receded to the side.

“What have you got in your hand?”

Kan regained consciousness clearly and saw that he held a sword in his hand, that terrible sword that Rogozhin had so furiously tried to give him—things were seizing him themselves—while the costumier was losing and being lost by everything.

“It’s me! The costumier!”

“I can see that, I can see that,” she said, frightened. “Close the door, someone’s constantly walking past, snuffling in the keyhole—what an awful night!”

Kan lowered the sword, took a breath, looked around, and suddenly, as if he had remembered something: “Oh, quick! What are we doing here? Are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” she said submissively, nodding at a small little suitcase—everything that she possessed.

Kan seized her firmly by the hand and ran out into the corridor, the floor shaking under his feet. The costumier continually swung the sword in front of him and heard how behind him she was begging him not to do it, frightened, but—listen!—to run without swinging the sword would be extremely dangerously because someone might jump out of the walls and the corners and snatch them, could seize her and carry her away, and then he would never be able to find her. Thank God, the corridors ended, with a crash the door slapped open, booted them out, and they escaped into the night—the air, the stars in the sky, the moon, the black branches of trees at its edges, building their own infinite corridor. “Get rid of it—get rid of it at last!” she kept begging him, frightened, but he still continued to swing the sword—battling with an enemy visible to him alone, trying to explain to her on the run that there was someone with them nearby, very nearby, there always was, don’t you see, even if you couldn’t see anybody it was because he had frightened them off with the sword. And if there was nobody and nothing around them, not these trees, or these streets, nor even he himself—oh, forgive me, my dear!—he still needed to swing his sword, it was the only real thing that protected her from this elusive world. And so they ran through several neighborhoods, stopping, convulsively dashing forward—it was an odd image: he would threateningly cry out something to the streets, to the houses and the trees, and his wavings were indeed terrible and dangerous, and if anyone had met them tonight, then for certain, they would jump out of their path—they would hide in a corner of street darkness, in the shadow of trees, together with another person—sh, who’s here?—even he who is writing now these lines: “Oh, don’t swing your sword, Costumier! Stars overhead, the sky in rags, there is really nobody, except me but not me, Costumier, who must go together with you to the end of this deserted street.”


The costumier only calmed down once they reached an entrance, perhaps he trusted the walls, the short flights of stairs and the ceilings, still holding her firmly by the hand, from floor to floor, he unlocked a door at last and led her into a room. He entered after her and wearily flopped onto a chair, and after a street full of invisible enemies, the weight of it all at last overtook him. “Try to fall asleep,” he uttered this as a phrase password before the night would accept them in its embrace, and he suddenly froze, feeling a joy, a strange joy already encompassing him.

“Everything that happened to us actually didn’t happen to us,” he smiled at her, and she, in reply, pulled a blanket up to her chin. He looked through the window and saw how the night, all cut into pieces by his terrible sword, grabbed and found its former form, flowing like a unit behind the windowpane, sliding by them, continuing with the current of time—the recent days, sorrows, fears, experiences. Then—a weak noise, either a groan, or a rumble, tore him from his reverie, and he looked at her—to make sure, out of habit, that she hadn’t disappeared, that she was still there, then silently, so as not to wake her, he went into the corridor and saw the figure of his father making his morning tour. It seemed he had absolutely forgotten about his father, especially tonight, which hadn’t left him any time for excess thoughts and doubts, and he moved after him and nestled as usual against the wall: then the old man at the end of a corridor will turn and start back toward him, and then he would be able to tell his father something very important that, perhaps, he had never told him before.

“Father,” the costumier whispered, nestling very closely to the wall in order not to scare him, not to disturb his movement. “Father, I…”

“Choo choo!” hooted the old man, passing along the wall that was so short that Kan couldn’t manage to say anything of importance.

“Father, I…”

“Choo choo!” hooted the old man again, along the wall that was so short that Kan couldn’t manage to say anything of importance.

Then Kan rushed forward, violating the rules of this strange game, overtaking the train and going directly into his room—he turned and suddenly felt that he was still squeezing the sword in his hand—drop it!—perhaps it had been placed in his hand by someone for the sake of this moment. “Choo choo,” the old man approached him, nearer and nearer—and with a wave, with a force from his shoulder—one, two, a terrible whistle, he blinked—ooooooo! “Choo choo” the world moaned and was caught at last in the straitjacket of the corridor. He opened his eyes: the old man passed through him, instantly—like the night outside the window—gathered from its parts. Without glue and blood. A lingering horn sound of arrival. The door creaked, Kan was frightened—by the door, by the sword, by the old man shuffling in place: he rested against some woman, crooked, and was stuck directly onto her stomach, looking—through a lens—directly at him, the costumier. “Ah, it’s your son? Ah, what’s that you have in your hand?” Haughty, with an easy nod of greeting and full of the dignity, she was the new stepmother and the hostess of the house.

He did not answer her, he could only make his careful, small steps, and having suddenly stooped, like an old sick old man, he went into his room—dropped the sword from his hand, on all fours, crawling to the bed—to lie down next to her who was sleeping deeply, and, perhaps, having a happy dream.

When he regained consciousness, the first desire that seized him was to get up for work—but oh, what is he doing here?—to the theater, to the wardrobe department, and to her alone who was waiting for him in her dressing room. But it wasn’t necessary to run anywhere, she was next to him, closer to him than she’d ever been—than she could be. He thought to get up onto his knees, and began to crawl slowly to her, stretching his arms toward the sleeping woman—extending to her an inexpressibly fine dress, perhaps, with the best handiwork. When he approached her, he froze for a moment without understanding what to do next, and—quietly he touched her—her shoulders, her face, eyelids, and lips. And then he drew back his hands, the night thief, all in fever, in horror, in misunderstanding, and stretched them out again, afraid that she would suddenly disappear, would dissolve in the twilight forever. And he held his breath and—embraced her, for the first time in all his life, and, embracing, remembered that the performance was about to begin, and he needed to hurry and dress her in the dress, which he had been sewing for her during all those disturbing, chaotic days. When he squeezed her, she fought his embrace, then he asked, begged her to wait a little. But strangely, she didn’t listen to his words at all, the whimsical sleepy girl, and tried to free herself from his hands. Then—having lost patience—he squeezed her with all his force, without leaving any parts of her unsqueezed, and, looking into her eyes, he believed he saw, imagined that, after shuddering, she would suddenly freeze, in a fantastic moment of transformation, but not anymore before a packed house but before him alone.


Natasha Randall is a writer and translator. Her translations include Evgeny Zamyatin's We (Modern Library), Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time (Penguin), and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (Canongate). She lives in London and Tbilisi.

“Each new issue feels like a public report from many individual private spheres.” —Antoine Wilson

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Issue 25

ISSUE

25

Winter 2017

Author

Alexander Kan is a Russian-speaking fiction writer of Korean origin. He has published nine books of fiction and nonfiction. This is his first fiction to appear in English.

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