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The Tomb by H.P. LOVECRAFT

by H. P. Lovecraft

“Sedibus ut saltem placidis in morte quiescam.”

In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.

My name is Jervas Dudley, and from earliest childhood I have been a dreamer and a visionary. Wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life, and temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreations of my acquaintances, I have dwelt ever in realms apart from the visible world; spending my youth and adolescence in ancient and little-known books, and in roaming the fields and groves of the region near my ancestral home. I do not think that what I read in these books or saw in these fields and groves was exactly what other boys read and saw there; but of this I must say little, since detailed speech would but confirm those cruel slanders upon my intellect which I sometimes overhear from the whispers of the stealthy attendants around me. It is sufficient for me to relate events without analysing causes.

I have said that I dwelt apart from the visible world, but I have not said that I dwelt alone. This no human creature may do; for lacking the fellowship of the living, he inevitably draws upon the companionship of things that are not, or are no longer, living. Close by my home there lies a singular wooded hollow, in whose twilight deeps I spent most of my time; reading, thinking, and dreaming. Down its moss-covered slopes my first steps of infancy were taken, and around its grotesquely gnarled oak trees my first fancies of boyhood were woven. Well did I come to know the presiding dryads of those trees, and often have I watched their wild dances in the struggling beams of a waning moon—but of these things I must not now speak. I will tell only of the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets; the deserted tomb of the Hydes, an old and exalted family whose last direct descendant had been laid within its black recesses many decades before my birth.

The vault to which I refer is of ancient granite, weathered and discoloured by the mists and dampness of generations. Excavated back into the hillside, the structure is visible only at the entrance. The door, a ponderous and forbidding slab of stone, hangs upon rusted iron hinges, and is fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago. The abode of the race whose scions are here inurned had once crowned the declivity which holds the tomb, but had long since fallen victim to the flames which sprang up from a disastrous stroke of lightning. Of the midnight storm which destroyed this gloomy mansion, the older inhabitants of the region sometimes speak in hushed and uneasy voices; alluding to what they call “divine wrath” in a manner that in later years vaguely increased the always strong fascination which I felt for the forest-darkened sepulchre. One man only had perished in the fire. When the last of the Hydes was buried in this place of shade and stillness, the sad urnful of ashes had come from a distant land; to which the family had repaired when the mansion burned down. No one remains to lay flowers before the granite portal, and few care to brave the depressing shadows which seem to linger strangely about the water-worn stones.

I shall never forget the afternoon when first I stumbled upon the half-hidden house of death. It was in mid-summer, when the alchemy of Nature transmutes the sylvan landscape to one vivid and almost homogeneous mass of green; when the senses are well-nigh intoxicated with the surging seas of moist verdure and the subtly indefinable odours of the soil and the vegetation. In such surroundings the mind loses its perspective; time and space become trivial and unreal, and echoes of a forgotten prehistoric past beat insistently upon the enthralled consciousness. All day I had been wandering through the mystic groves of the hollow; thinking thoughts I need not discuss, and conversing with things I need not name. In years a child of ten, I had seen and heard many wonders unknown to the throng; and was oddly aged in certain respects. When, upon forcing my way between two savage clumps of briers, I suddenly encountered the entrance of the vault, I had no knowledge of what I had discovered. The dark blocks of granite, the door so curiously ajar, and the funereal carvings above the arch, aroused in me no associations of mournful or terrible character. Of graves and tombs I knew and imagined much, but had on account of my peculiar temperament been kept from all personal contact with churchyards and cemeteries. The strange stone house on the woodland slope was to me only a source of interest and speculation; and its cold, damp interior, into which I vainly peered through the aperture so tantalisingly left, contained for me no hint of death or decay. But in that instant of curiosity was born the madly unreasoning desire which has brought me to this hell of confinement. Spurred on by a voice which must have come from the hideous soul of the forest, I resolved to enter the beckoning gloom in spite of the ponderous chains which barred my passage. In the waning light of day I alternately rattled the rusty impediments with a view to throwing wide the stone door, and essayed to squeeze my slight form through the space already provided; but neither plan met with success. At first curious, I was now frantic; and when in the thickening twilight I returned to my home, I had sworn to the hundred gods of the grove that at any cost I would some day force an entrance to the black, chilly depths that seemed calling out to me. The physician with the iron-grey beard who comes each day to my room once told a visitor that this decision marked the beginning of a pitiful monomania; but I will leave final judgment to my readers when they shall have learnt all.

The months following my discovery were spent in futile attempts to force the complicated padlock of the slightly open vault, and in carefully guarded inquiries regarding the nature and history of the structure. With the traditionally receptive ears of the small boy, I learned much; though an habitual secretiveness caused me to tell no one of my information or my resolve. It is perhaps worth mentioning that I was not at all surprised or terrified on learning of the nature of the vault. My rather original ideas regarding life and death had caused me to associate the cold clay with the breathing body in a vague fashion; and I felt that the great and sinister family of the burned-down mansion was in some way represented within the stone space I sought to explore. Mumbled tales of the weird rites and godless revels of bygone years in the ancient hall gave to me a new and potent interest in the tomb, before whose door I would sit for hours at a time each day. Once I thrust a candle within the nearly closed entrance, but could see nothing save a flight of damp stone steps leading downward. The odour of the place repelled yet bewitched me. I felt I had known it before, in a past remote beyond all recollection; beyond even my tenancy of the body I now possess.

The year after I first beheld the tomb, I stumbled upon a worm-eaten translation of Plutarch’s Lives in the book-filled attic of my home. Reading the life of Theseus, I was much impressed by that passage telling of the great stone beneath which the boyish hero was to find his tokens of destiny whenever he should become old enough to lift its enormous weight. This legend had the effect of dispelling my keenest impatience to enter the vault, for it made me feel that the time was not yet ripe. Later, I told myself, I should grow to a strength and ingenuity which might enable me to unfasten the heavily chained door with ease; but until then I would do better by conforming to what seemed the will of Fate.
Accordingly my watches by the dank portal became less persistent, and much of my time was spent in other though equally strange pursuits. I would sometimes rise very quietly in the night, stealing out to walk in those churchyards and places of burial from which I had been kept by my parents. What I did there I may not say, for I am not now sure of the reality of certain things; but I know that on the day after such a nocturnal ramble I would often astonish those about me with my knowledge of topics almost forgotten for many generations. It was after a night like this that I shocked the community with a queer conceit about the burial of the rich and celebrated Squire Brewster, a maker of local history who was interred in 1711, and whose slate headstone, bearing a graven skull and crossbones, was slowly crumbling to powder. In a moment of childish imagination I vowed not only that the undertaker, Goodman Simpson, had stolen the silver-buckled shoes, silken hose, and satin small-clothes of the deceased before burial; but that the Squire himself, not fully inanimate, had turned twice in his mound-covered coffin on the day after interment.

But the idea of entering the tomb never left my thoughts; being indeed stimulated by the unexpected genealogical discovery that my own maternal ancestry possessed at least a slight link with the supposedly extinct family of the Hydes. Last of my paternal race, I was likewise the last of this older and more mysterious line. I began to feel that the tomb was mine, and to look forward with hot eagerness to the time when I might pass within that stone door and down those slimy stone steps in the dark. I now formed the habit of listening very intently at the slightly open portal, choosing my favourite hours of midnight stillness for the odd vigil. By the time I came of age, I had made a small clearing in the thicket before the mould-stained facade of the hillside, allowing the surrounding vegetation to encircle and overhang the space like the walls and roof of a sylvan bower. This bower was my temple, the fastened door my shrine, and here I would lie outstretched on the mossy ground, thinking strange thoughts and dreaming strange dreams.

The night of the first revelation was a sultry one. I must have fallen asleep from fatigue, for it was with a distinct sense of awakening that I heard the voices. Of those tones and accents I hesitate to speak; of their quality I will not speak; but I may say that they presented certain uncanny differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and mode of utterance. Every shade of New England dialect, from the uncouth syllables of the Puritan colonists to the precise rhetoric of fifty years ago, seemed represented in that shadowy colloquy, though it was only later that I noticed the fact. At the time, indeed, my attention was distracted from this matter by another phenomenon; a phenomenon so fleeting that I could not take oath upon its reality. I barely fancied that as I awoke, a light had been hurriedly extinguished within the sunken sepulchre. I do not think I was either astounded or panic-stricken, but I know that I was greatly and permanently changed that night. Upon returning home I went with much directness to a rotting chest in the attic, wherein I found the key which next day unlocked with ease the barrier I had so long stormed in vain.

It was in the soft glow of late afternoon that I first entered the vault on the abandoned slope. A spell was upon me, and my heart leaped with an exultation I can but ill describe. As I closed the door behind me and descended the dripping steps by the light of my lone candle, I seemed to know the way; and though the candle sputtered with the stifling reek of the place, I felt singularly at home in the musty, charnel-house air. Looking about me, I beheld many marble slabs bearing coffins, or the remains of coffins. Some of these were sealed and intact, but others had nearly vanished, leaving the silver handles and plates isolated amidst certain curious heaps of whitish dust. Upon one plate I read the name of Sir Geoffrey Hyde, who had come from Sussex in 1640 and died here a few years later. In a conspicuous alcove was one fairly well-preserved and untenanted casket, adorned with a single name which brought to me both a smile and a shudder. An odd impulse caused me to climb upon the broad slab, extinguish my candle, and lie down within the vacant box.

In the grey light of dawn I staggered from the vault and locked the chain of the door behind me. I was no longer a young man, though but twenty-one winters had chilled my bodily frame. Early-rising villagers who observed my homeward progress looked at me strangely, and marvelled at the signs of ribald revelry which they saw in one whose life was known to be sober and solitary. I did not appear before my parents till after a long and refreshing sleep.

Henceforward I haunted the tomb each night; seeing, hearing, and doing things I must never reveal. My speech, always susceptible to environmental influences, was the first thing to succumb to the change; and my suddenly acquired archaism of diction was soon remarked upon. Later a queer boldness and recklessness came into my demeanour, till I unconsciously grew to possess the bearing of a man of the world despite my lifelong seclusion. My formerly silent tongue waxed voluble with the easy grace of a Chesterfield or the godless cynicism of a Rochester. I displayed a peculiar erudition utterly unlike the fantastic, monkish lore over which I had pored in youth; and covered the flyleaves of my books with facile impromptu epigrams which brought up suggestions of Gay, Prior, and the sprightliest of the Augustan wits and rimesters. One morning at breakfast I came close to disaster by declaiming in palpably liquorish accents an effusion of eighteenth-century Bacchanalian mirth; a bit of Georgian playfulness never recorded in a book, which ran something like this:

Come hither, my lads, with your tankards of ale,
And drink to the present before it shall fail;
Pile each on your platter a mountain of beef,
For ’tis eating and drinking that bring us relief:
So fill up your glass,
For life will soon pass;
When you’re dead ye’ll ne’er drink to your king or your lass!

Anacreon had a red nose, so they say;
But what’s a red nose if ye’re happy and gay?
Gad split me! I’d rather be red whilst I’m here,
Than white as a lily—and dead half a year!
So Betty, my miss,
Come give me a kiss;
In hell there’s no innkeeper’s daughter like this!

Young Harry, propp’d up just as straight as he’s able,
Will soon lose his wig and slip under the table;
But fill up your goblets and pass ’em around—
Better under the table than under the ground!
So revel and chaff
As ye thirstily quaff:
Under six feet of dirt ’tis less easy to laugh!

The fiend strike me blue! I’m scarce able to walk,
And damn me if I can stand upright or talk!
Here, landlord, bid Betty to summon a chair;
I’ll try home for a while, for my wife is not there!
So lend me a hand;
I’m not able to stand,
But I’m gay whilst I linger on top of the land!

About this time I conceived my present fear of fire and thunderstorms. Previously indifferent to such things, I had now an unspeakable horror of them; and would retire to the innermost recesses of the house whenever the heavens threatened an electrical display. A favourite haunt of mine during the day was the ruined cellar of the mansion that had burned down, and in fancy I would picture the structure as it had been in its prime. On one occasion I startled a villager by leading him confidently to a shallow sub-cellar, of whose existence I seemed to know in spite of the fact that it had been unseen and forgotten for many generations.

At last came that which I had long feared. My parents, alarmed at the altered manner and appearance of their only son, commenced to exert over my movements a kindly espionage which threatened to result in disaster. I had told no one of my visits to the tomb, having guarded my secret purpose with religious zeal since childhood; but now I was forced to exercise care in threading the mazes of the wooded hollow, that I might throw off a possible pursuer. My key to the vault I kept suspended from a cord about my neck, its presence known only to me. I never carried out of the sepulchre any of the things I came upon whilst within its walls.

One morning as I emerged from the damp tomb and fastened the chain of the portal with none too steady hand, I beheld in an adjacent thicket the dreaded face of a watcher. Surely the end was near; for my bower was discovered, and the objective of my nocturnal journeys revealed. The man did not accost me, so I hastened home in an effort to overhear what he might report to my careworn father. Were my sojourns beyond the chained door about to be proclaimed to the world? Imagine my delighted astonishment on hearing the spy inform my parent in a cautious whisper that I had spent the night in the bower outside the tomb; my sleep-filmed eyes fixed upon the crevice where the padlocked portal stood ajar! By what miracle had the watcher been thus deluded? I was now convinced that a supernatural agency protected me. Made bold by this heaven-sent circumstance, I began to resume perfect openness in going to the vault; confident that no one could witness my entrance. For a week I tasted to the full the joys of that charnel conviviality which I must not describe, when the thing happened, and I was borne away to this accursed abode of sorrow and monotony.

I should not have ventured out that night; for the taint of thunder was in the clouds, and a hellish phosphorescence rose from the rank swamp at the bottom of the hollow. The call of the dead, too, was different. Instead of the hillside tomb, it was the charred cellar on the crest of the slope whose presiding daemon beckoned to me with unseen fingers. As I emerged from an intervening grove upon the plain before the ruin, I beheld in the misty moonlight a thing I had always vaguely expected. The mansion, gone for a century, once more reared its stately height to the raptured vision; every window ablaze with the splendour of many candles. Up the long drive rolled the coaches of the Boston gentry, whilst on foot came a numerous assemblage of powdered exquisites from the neighbouring mansions. With this throng I mingled, though I knew I belonged with the hosts rather than with the guests. Inside the hall were music, laughter, and wine on every hand. Several faces I recognised; though I should have known them better had they been shrivelled or eaten away by death and decomposition. Amidst a wild and reckless throng I was the wildest and most abandoned. Gay blasphemy poured in torrents from my lips, and in my shocking sallies I heeded no law of God, Man, or Nature. Suddenly a peal of thunder, resonant even above the din of the swinish revelry, clave the very roof and laid a hush of fear upon the boisterous company. Red tongues of flame and searing gusts of heat engulfed the house; and the roysterers, struck with terror at the descent of a calamity which seemed to transcend the bounds of unguided Nature, fled shrieking into the night. I alone remained, riveted to my seat by a grovelling fear which I had never felt before. And then a second horror took possession of my soul. Burnt alive to ashes, my body dispersed by the four winds, I might never lie in the tomb of the Hydes! Was not my coffin prepared for me? Had I not a right to rest till eternity amongst the descendants of Sir Geoffrey Hyde? Aye! I would claim my heritage of death, even though my soul go seeking through the ages for another corporeal tenement to represent it on that vacant slab in the alcove of the vault. Jervas Hyde should never share the sad fate of Palinurus!

As the phantom of the burning house faded, I found myself screaming and struggling madly in the arms of two men, one of whom was the spy who had followed me to the tomb. Rain was pouring down in torrents, and upon the southern horizon were flashes of the lightning that had so lately passed over our heads. My father, his face lined with sorrow, stood by as I shouted my demands to be laid within the tomb; frequently admonishing my captors to treat me as gently as they could. A blackened circle on the floor of the ruined cellar told of a violent stroke from the heavens; and from this spot a group of curious villagers with lanterns were prying a small box of antique workmanship which the thunderbolt had brought to light. Ceasing my futile and now objectless writhing, I watched the spectators as they viewed the treasure-trove, and was permitted to share in their discoveries. The box, whose fastenings were broken by the stroke which had unearthed it, contained many papers and objects of value; but I had eyes for one thing alone. It was the porcelain miniature of a young man in a smartly curled bag-wig, and bore the initials “J. H.” The face was such that as I gazed, I might well have been studying my mirror.

On the following day I was brought to this room with the barred windows, but I have been kept informed of certain things through an aged and simple-minded servitor, for whom I bore a fondness in infancy, and who like me loves the churchyard. What I have dared relate of my experiences within the vault has brought me only pitying smiles. My father, who visits me frequently, declares that at no time did I pass the chained portal, and swears that the rusted padlock had not been touched for fifty years when he examined it. He even says that all the village knew of my journeys to the tomb, and that I was often watched as I slept in the bower outside the grim facade, my half-open eyes fixed on the crevice that leads to the interior. Against these assertions I have no tangible proof to offer, since my key to the padlock was lost in the struggle on that night of horrors. The strange things of the past which I learnt during those nocturnal meetings with the dead he dismisses as the fruits of my lifelong and omnivorous browsing amongst the ancient volumes of the family library. Had it not been for my old servant Hiram, I should have by this time become quite convinced of my madness.

But Hiram, loyal to the last, has held faith in me, and has done that which impels me to make public at least a part of my story. A week ago he burst open the lock which chains the door of the tomb perpetually ajar, and descended with a lantern into the murky depths. On a slab in an alcove he found an old but empty coffin whose tarnished plate bears the single word “Jervas”. In that coffin and in that vault they have promised me I shall be buried.

The Tomb (1917)
by H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) magazine

More in: Archive K-L, Lovecraft, H.P., Tales of Mystery & Imagination


LOVECRAFT_HP12Sweet Ermengarde
Or, The Heart of a Country Girl
By Percy Simple [H. P. Lovecraft]

Chapter I
A Simple Rustic Maid

Ermengarde Stubbs was the beauteous blonde daughter of Hiram Stubbs, a poor but honest farmer-bootlegger of Hogton, Vt. Her name was originally Ethyl Ermengarde, but her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH. His own products contained mostly methyl or wood alcohol, CH3OH. Ermengarde confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty. She had large black eyes, a prominent Roman nose, light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies, and a beautiful but inexpensive complexion. She was about 5ft 5.33…in tall, weighed 115.47 lbs. on her father’s copy scales—also off them—and was adjudged most lovely by all the village swains who admired her father’s farm and liked his liquid crops.

Ermengarde’s hand was sought in matrimony by two ardent lovers. ’Squire Hardman, who had a mortgage on the old home, was very rich and elderly. He was dark and cruelly handsome, and always rode horseback and carried a riding-crop. Long had he sought the radiant Ermengarde, and now his ardour was fanned to fever heat by a secret known to him alone—for upon the humble acres of Farmer Stubbs he had discovered a vein of rich GOLD!! “Aha!” said he, “I will win the maiden ere her parent knows of his unsuspected wealth, and join to my fortune a greater fortune still!” And so he began to call twice a week instead of once as before.

But alas for the sinister designs of a villain—’Squire Hardman was not the only suitor for the fair one. Close by the village dwelt another—the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s affection when both were toddling youngsters at the village school. Jack had long been too bashful to declare his passion, but one day while strolling along a shady lane by the old mill with Ermengarde, he had found courage to utter that which was within his heart.

“O light of my life,” said he, “my soul is so overburdened that I must speak! Ermengarde, my ideal [he pronounced it i-deel!], life has become an empty thing without you. Beloved of my spirit, behold a suppliant kneeling in the dust before thee. Ermengarde—oh, Ermengarde, raise me to an heaven of joy and say that you will some day be mine! It is true that I am poor, but have I not youth and strength to fight my way to fame? This I can do only for you, dear Ethyl—pardon me, Ermengarde—my only, my most precious—” but here he paused to wipe his eyes and mop his brow, and the fair responded:
“Jack—my angel—at last—I mean, this is so unexpected and quite unprecedented! I had never dreamed that you entertained sentiments of affection in connexion with one so lowly as Farmer Stubbs’ child—for I am still but a child! Such is your natural nobility that I had feared—I mean thought—you would be blind to such slight charms as I possess, and that you would seek your fortune in the great city; there meeting and wedding one of those more comely damsels whose splendour we observe in fashion books.

“But, Jack, since it is really I whom you adore, let us waive all needless circumlocution. Jack—my darling—my heart has long been susceptible to your manly graces. I cherish an affection for thee—consider me thine own and be sure to buy the ring at Perkins’ hardware store where they have such nice imitation diamonds in the window.”
“Ermengarde, me love!”
“Jack—my precious!”
“My darling!”
“My own!”
“My Gawd!”

Chapter II
And the Villain Still Pursued Her

But these tender passages, sacred though their fervour, did not pass unobserved by profane eyes; for crouched in the bushes and gritting his teeth was the dastardly ’Squire Hardman! When the lovers had finally strolled away he leapt out into the lane, viciously twirling his moustache and riding-crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was also out strolling.

“Curses!” he cried—Hardman, not the cat—“I am foiled in my plot to get the farm and the girl! But Jack Manly shall never succeed! I am a man of power—and we shall see!”

Thereupon he repaired to the humble Stubbs’ cottage, where he found the fond father in the still-cellar washing bottles under the supervision of the gentle wife and mother, Hannah Stubbs. Coming directly to the point, the villain spoke:
“Farmer Stubbs, I cherish a tender affection of long standing for your lovely offspring, Ethyl Ermengarde. I am consumed with love, and wish her hand in matrimony. Always a man of few words, I will not descend to euphemism. Give me the girl or I will foreclose the mortgage and take the old home!”
“But, Sir,” pleaded the distracted Stubbs while his stricken spouse merely glowered, “I am sure the child’s affections are elsewhere placed.”

“She must be mine!” sternly snapped the sinister ’squire. “I will make her love me—none shall resist my will! Either she becomes muh wife or the old homestead goes!”

And with a sneer and flick of his riding-crop ’Squire Hardman strode out into the night.
Scarce had he departed, when there entered by the back door the radiant lovers, eager to tell the senior Stubbses of their new-found happiness. Imagine the universal consternation which reigned when all was known! Tears flowed like white ale, till suddenly Jack remembered he was the hero and raised his head, declaiming in appropriately virile accents:
“Never shall the fair Ermengarde be offered up to this beast as a sacrifice while I live! I shall protect her—she is mine, mine, mine—and then some! Fear not, dear father and mother to be—I will defend you all! You shall have the old home still [adverb, not noun—although Jack was by no means out of sympathy with Stubbs’ kind of farm produce] and I shall lead to the altar the beauteous Ermengarde, loveliest of her sex! To perdition with the crool ’squire and his ill-gotten gold—the right shall always win, and a hero is always in the right! I will go to the great city and there make a fortune to save you all ere the mortgage fall due! Farewell, my love—I leave you now in tears, but I shall return to pay off the mortgage and claim you as my bride!”

“Jack, my protector!”
“Ermie, my sweet roll!”
“Darling!—and don’t forget that ring at Perkins’.”

Chapter III
A Dastardly Act

But the resourceful ’Squire Hardman was not so easily to be foiled. Close by the village lay a disreputable settlement of unkempt shacks, populated by a shiftless scum who lived by thieving and other odd jobs. Here the devilish villain secured two accomplices—ill-favoured fellows who were very clearly no gentlemen. And in the night the evil three broke into the Stubbs cottage and abducted the fair Ermengarde, taking her to a wretched hovel in the settlement and placing her under the charge of Mother Maria, a hideous old hag. Farmer Stubbs was quite distracted, and would have advertised in the papers if the cost had been less than a cent a word for each insertion. Ermengarde was firm, and never wavered in her refusal to wed the villain.

“Aha, my proud beauty,” quoth he, “I have ye in me power, and sooner or later I will break that will of thine! Meanwhile think of your poor old father and mother as turned out of hearth and home and wandering helpless through the meadows!”
“Oh, spare them, spare them!” said the maiden.
“Neverr . . . ha ha ha ha!” leered the brute.

And so the cruel days sped on, while all in ignorance young Jack Manly was seeking fame and fortune in the great city.

Chapter IV
Subtle Villainy

One day as ’Squire Hardman sat in the front parlour of his expensive and palatial home, indulging in his favourite pastime of gnashing his teeth and swishing his riding-crop, a great thought came to him; and he cursed aloud at the statue of Satan on the onyx mantelpiece.

“Fool that I am!” he cried. “Why did I ever waste all this trouble on the girl when I can get the farm by simply foreclosing? I never thought of that! I will let the girl go, take the farm, and be free to wed some fair city maid like the leading lady of that burlesque troupe which played last week at the Town Hall!”
And so he went down to the settlement, apologised to Ermengarde, let her go home, and went home himself to plot new crimes and invent new modes of villainy.

The days wore on, and the Stubbses grew very sad over the coming loss of their home and still but nobody seemed able to do anything about it. One day a party of hunters from the city chanced to stray over the old farm, and one of them found the gold!! Hiding his discovery from his companions, he feigned rattlesnake-bite and went to the Stubbs’ cottage for aid of the usual kind. Ermengarde opened the door and saw him. He also saw her, and in that moment resolved to win her and the gold. “For my old mother’s sake I must”—he cried loudly to himself. “No sacrifice is too great!”

Chapter V
The City Chap

Algernon Reginald Jones was a polished man of the world from the great city, and in his sophisticated hands our poor little Ermengarde was as a mere child. One could almost believe that sixteen-year-old stuff. Algy was a fast worker, but never crude. He could have taught Hardman a thing or two about finesse in sheiking. Thus only a week after his advent to the Stubbs family circle, where he lurked like the vile serpent that he was, he had persuaded the heroine to elope! It was in the night that she went leaving a note for her parents, sniffing the familiar mash for the last time, and kissing the cat goodbye—touching stuff! On the train Algernon became sleepy and slumped down in his seat, allowing a paper to fall out of his pocket by accident. Ermengarde, taking advantage of her supposed position as a bride-elect, picked up the folded sheet and read its perfumed expanse—when lo! she almost fainted! It was a love letter from another woman!!

“Perfidious deceiver!” she whispered at the sleeping Algernon, “so this is all that your boasted fidelity amounts to! I am done with you for all eternity!”
So saying, she pushed him out the window and settled down for a much needed rest.

Chapter VI
Alone in the Great City

When the noisy train pulled into the dark station at the city, poor helpless Ermengarde was all alone without the money to get back to Hogton. “Oh why,” she sighed in innocent regret, “didn’t I take his pocketbook before I pushed him out? Oh well, I should worry! He told me all about the city so I can easily earn enough to get home if not to pay off the mortgage!”

But alas for our little heroine—work is not easy for a greenhorn to secure, so for a week she was forced to sleep on park benches and obtain food from the bread-line. Once a wily and wicked person, perceiving her helplessness, offered her a position as dish-washer in a fashionable and depraved cabaret; but our heroine was true to her rustic ideals and refused to work in such a gilded and glittering palace of frivolity—especially since she was offered only $3.00 per week with meals but no board. She tried to look up Jack Manly, her one-time lover, but he was nowhere to be found. Perchance, too, he would not have known her; for in her poverty she had perforce become a brunette again, and Jack had not beheld her in that state since school days. One day she found a neat but costly purse in the park; and after seeing that there was not much in it, took it to the rich lady whose card proclaimed her ownership. Delighted beyond words at the honesty of this forlorn waif, the aristocratic Mrs. Van Itty adopted Ermengarde to replace the little one who had been stolen from her so many years ago. “How like my precious Maude,” she sighed, as she watched the fair brunette return to blondeness. And so several weeks passed, with the old folks at home tearing their hair and the wicked ’Squire Hardman chuckling devilishly.

Chapter VII
Happy Ever Afterward

One day the wealthy heiress Ermengarde S. Van Itty hired a new second assistant chauffeur. Struck by something familiar in his face, she looked again and gasped. Lo! it was none other than the perfidious Algernon Reginald Jones, whom she had pushed from a car window on that fateful day! He had survived—this much was almost immediately evident. Also, he had wed the other woman, who had run away with the milkman and all the money in the house. Now wholly humbled, he asked forgiveness of our heroine, and confided to her the whole tale of the gold on her father’s farm. Moved beyond words, she raised his salary a dollar a month and resolved to gratify at last that always unquenchable anxiety to relieve the worry of the old folks. So one bright day Ermengarde motored back to Hogton and arrived at the farm just as ’Squire Hardman was foreclosing the mortgage and ordering the old folks out.

“Stay, villain!” she cried, flashing a colossal roll of bills. “You are foiled at last! Here is your money—now go, and never darken our humble door again!”
Then followed a joyous reunion, whilst the ’squire twisted his moustache and riding-crop in bafflement and dismay. But hark! What is this? Footsteps sound on the old gravel walk, and who should appear but our hero, Jack Manly—worn and seedy, but radiant of face. Seeking at once the downcast villain, he said:
“’Squire—lend me a ten-spot, will you? I have just come back from the city with my beauteous bride, the fair Bridget Goldstein, and need something to start things on the old farm.” Then turning to the Stubbses, he apologised for his inability to pay off the mortgage as agreed.
“Don’t mention it,” said Ermengarde, “prosperity has come to us, and I will consider it sufficient payment if you will forget forever the foolish fancies of our childhood.”

All this time Mrs. Van Itty had been sitting in the motor waiting for Ermengarde; but as she lazily eyed the sharp-faced Hannah Stubbs a vague memory started from the back of her brain. Then it all came to her, and she shrieked accusingly at the agrestic matron.

“You—you—Hannah Smith—I know you now! Twenty-eight years ago you were my baby Maude’s nurse and stole her from the cradle!! Where, oh, where is my child?” Then a thought came as the lightning in a murky sky. “Ermengarde—you say she is your daughter. . . . She is mine! Fate has restored to me my old chee-ild—my tiny Maudie!—Ermengarde—Maude—come to your mother’s loving arms!!!”
But Ermengarde was doing some tall thinking. How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago? And if she was not Stubbs’ daughter the gold would never be hers. Mrs. Van Itty was rich, but ’Squire Hardman was richer. So, approaching the dejected villain, she inflicted upon him the last terrible punishment.

“’Squire, dear,” she murmured, “I have reconsidered all. I love you and your naive strength. Marry me at once or I will have you prosecuted for that kidnapping last year. Foreclose your mortgage and enjoy with me the gold your cleverness discovered. Come, dear!” And the poor dub did.


Sweet Ermengarde
Or, The Heart of a Country Girl (1917)
By Percy Simple [H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937)] magazine

More in: Archive K-L, Lovecraft, H.P., Tales of Mystery & Imagination


LOVECRAFT_HP12The Terrible Old Man
by H. P. Lovecraft

It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man. This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble; which forms a situation very attractive to men of the profession of Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, for that profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man which generally keep him safe from the attention of gentlemen like Mr. Ricci and his colleagues, despite the almost certain fact that he hides a fortune of indefinite magnitude somewhere about his musty and venerable abode. He is, in truth, a very strange person, believed to have been a captain of East India clipper ships in his day; so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name. Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple. This collection frightens away most of the small boys who love to taunt the Terrible Old Man about his long white hair and beard, or to break the small-paned windows of his dwelling with wicked missiles; but there are other things which frighten the older and more curious folk who sometimes steal up to the house to peer in through the dusty panes. These folk say that on a table in a bare room on the ground floor are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. And they say that the Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, addressing them by such names as Jack, Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Peters, and Mate Ellis, and that whenever he speaks to a bottle the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer. Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.

Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva selected the night of April 11th for their call. Mr. Ricci and Mr. Silva were to interview the poor old gentleman, whilst Mr. Czanek waited for them and their presumable metallic burden with a covered motor-car in Ship Street, by the gate in the tall rear wall of their host’s grounds. Desire to avoid needless explanations in case of unexpected police intrusions prompted these plans for a quiet and unostentatious departure.

As prearranged, the three adventurers started out separately in order to prevent any evil-minded suspicions afterward. Messrs. Ricci and Silva met in Water Street by the old man’s front gate, and although they did not like the way the moon shone down upon the painted stones through the budding branches of the gnarled trees, they had more important things to think about than mere idle superstition. They feared it might be unpleasant work making the Terrible Old Man loquacious concerning his hoarded gold and silver, for aged sea-captains are notably stubborn and perverse. Still, he was very old and very feeble, and there were two visitors. Messrs. Ricci and Silva were experienced in the art of making unwilling persons voluble, and the screams of a weak and exceptionally venerable man can be easily muffled. So they moved up to the one lighted window and heard the Terrible Old Man talking childishly to his bottles with pendulums. Then they donned masks and knocked politely at the weather-stained oaken door.

Waiting seemed very long to Mr. Czanek as he fidgeted restlessly in the covered motor-car by the Terrible Old Man’s back gate in Ship Street. He was more than ordinarily tender-hearted, and he did not like the hideous screams he had heard in the ancient house just after the hour appointed for the deed. Had he not told his colleagues to be as gentle as possible with the pathetic old sea-captain? Very nervously he watched that narrow oaken gate in the high and ivy-clad stone wall. Frequently he consulted his watch, and wondered at the delay. Had the old man died before revealing where his treasure was hidden, and had a thorough search become necessary? Mr. Czanek did not like to wait so long in the dark in such a place. Then he sensed a soft tread or tapping on the walk inside the gate, heard a gentle fumbling at the rusty latch, and saw the narrow, heavy door swing inward. And in the pallid glow of the single dim street-lamp he strained his eyes to see what his colleagues had brought out of that sinister house which loomed so close behind. But when he looked, he did not see what he had expected; for his colleagues were not there at all, but only the Terrible Old Man leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously. Mr. Czanek had never before noticed the colour of that man’s eyes; now he saw that they were yellow.

Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about the three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels, which the tide washed in. And some people even spoke of things as trivial as the deserted motor-car found in Ship Street, or certain especially inhuman cries, probably of a stray animal or migratory bird, heard in the night by wakeful citizens. But in this idle village gossip the Terrible Old Man took no interest at all. He was by nature reserved, and when one is aged and feeble one’s reserve is doubly strong. Besides, so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.

The Terrible Old Man (1920)
by H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) magazine

More in: Archive K-L, Lovecraft, H.P., Tales of Mystery & Imagination


by H. P. Lovecraft

My memories are very confused. There is even much doubt as to where they begin; for at times I feel appalling vistas of years stretching behind me, while at other times it seems as if the present moment were an isolated point in a grey, formless infinity. I am not even certain how I am communicating this message. While I know I am speaking, I have a vague impression that some strange and perhaps terrible mediation will be needed to bear what I say to the points where I wish to be heard. My identity, too, is bewilderingly cloudy. I seem to have suffered a great shock—perhaps from some utterly monstrous outgrowth of my cycles of unique, incredible experience.

These cycles of experience, of course, all stem from that worm-riddled book. I remember when I found it—in a dimly lighted place near the black, oily river where the mists always swirl. That place was very old, and the ceiling-high shelves full of rotting volumes reached back endlessly through windowless inner rooms and alcoves. There were, besides, great formless heaps of books on the floor and in crude bins; and it was in one of these heaps that I found the thing. I never learned its title, for the early pages were missing; but it fell open toward the end and gave me a glimpse of something which sent my senses reeling.

There was a formula—a sort of list of things to say and do—which I recognised as something black and forbidden; something which I had read of before in furtive paragraphs of mixed abhorrence and fascination penned by those strange ancient delvers into the universe’s guarded secrets whose decaying texts I loved to absorb. It was a key—a guide—to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond the three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know. Not for centuries had any man recalled its vital substance or known where to find it, but this book was very old indeed. No printing-press, but the hand of some half-crazed monk, had traced these ominous Latin phrases in uncials of awesome antiquity.

I remember how the old man leered and tittered, and made a curious sign with his hand when I bore it away. He had refused to take pay for it, and only long afterward did I guess why. As I hurried home through those narrow, winding, mist-choked waterfront streets I had a frightful impression of being stealthily followed by softly padding feet. The centuried, tottering houses on both sides seemed alive with a fresh and morbid malignity—as if some hitherto closed channel of evil understanding had abruptly been opened. I felt that those walls and overhanging gables of mildewed brick and fungous plaster and timber—with fishy, eye-like, diamond-paned windows that leered—could hardly desist from advancing and crushing me . . . yet I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.

I remember how I read the book at last—white-faced, and locked in the attic room that I had long devoted to strange searchings. The great house was very still, for I had not gone up till after midnight. I think I had a family then—though the details are very uncertain—and I know there were many servants. Just what the year was, I cannot say; for since then I have known many ages and dimensions, and have had all my notions of time dissolved and refashioned. It was by the light of candles that I read—I recall the relentless dripping of the wax—and there were chimes that came every now and then from distant belfries. I seemed to keep track of those chimes with a peculiar intentness, as if I feared to hear some very remote, intruding note among them.

Then came the first scratching and fumbling at the dormer window that looked out high above the other roofs of the city. It came as I droned aloud the ninth verse of that primal lay, and I knew amidst my shudders what it meant. For he who passes the gateways always wins a shadow, and never again can he be alone. I had evoked—and the book was indeed all I had suspected. That night I passed the gateway to a vortex of twisted time and vision, and when morning found me in the attic room I saw in the walls and shelves and fittings that which I had never seen before.

Nor could I ever after see the world as I had known it. Mixed with the present scene was always a little of the past and a little of the future, and every once-familiar object loomed alien in the new perspective brought by my widened sight. From then on I walked in a fantastic dream of unknown and half-known shapes; and with each new gateway crossed, the less plainly could I recognise the things of the narrow sphere to which I had so long been bound. What I saw about me none else saw; and I grew doubly silent and aloof lest I be thought mad. Dogs had a fear of me, for they felt the outside shadow which never left my side. But still I read more—in hidden, forgotten books and scrolls to which my new vision led me—and pushed through fresh gateways of space and being and life-patterns toward the core of the unknown cosmos.

I remember the night I made the five concentric circles of fire on the floor, and stood in the innermost one chanting that monstrous litany the messenger from Tartary had brought. The walls melted away, and I was swept by a black wind through gulfs of fathomless grey with the needle-like pinnacles of unknown mountains miles below me. After a while there was utter blackness, and then the light of myriad stars forming strange, alien constellations. Finally I saw a green-litten plain far below me, and discerned on it the twisted towers of a city built in no fashion I had ever known or read of or dreamed of. As I floated closer to that city I saw a great square building of stone in an open space, and felt a hideous fear clutching at me. I screamed and struggled, and after a blankness was again in my attic room, sprawled flat over the five phosphorescent circles on the floor. In that night’s wandering there was no more of strangeness than in many a former night’s wandering; but there was more of terror because I knew I was closer to those outside gulfs and worlds than I had ever been before. Thereafter I was more cautious with my incantations, for I had no wish to be cut off from my body and from the earth in unknown abysses whence I could never return.

The Book (1933?)
by H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) magazine

More in: - Book Stories, Archive K-L, Lovecraft, H.P., Tales of Mystery & Imagination


LOVECRAFT_HP12The Alchemist
by H. P. Lovecraft

High up, crowning the grassy summit of a swelling mound whose sides are wooded near the base with the gnarled trees of the primeval forest, stands the old chateau of my ancestors. For centuries its lofty battlements have frowned down upon the wild and rugged countryside about, serving as a home and stronghold for the proud house whose honoured line is older even than the moss-grown castle walls. These ancient turrets, stained by the storms of generations and crumbling under the slow yet mighty pressure of time, formed in the ages of feudalism one of the most dreaded and formidable fortresses in all France. From its machicolated parapets and mounted battlements Barons, Counts, and even Kings had been defied, yet never had its spacious halls resounded to the footsteps of the invader.

But since those glorious years all is changed. A poverty but little above the level of dire want, together with a pride of name that forbids its alleviation by the pursuits of commercial life, have prevented the scions of our line from maintaining their estates in pristine splendour; and the falling stones of the walls, the overgrown vegetation in the parks, the dry and dusty moat, the ill-paved courtyards, and toppling towers without, as well as the sagging floors, the worm-eaten wainscots, and the faded tapestries within, all tell a gloomy tale of fallen grandeur. As the ages passed, first one, then another of the four great turrets were left to ruin, until at last but a single tower housed the sadly reduced descendants of the once mighty lords of the estate.

It was in one of the vast and gloomy chambers of this remaining tower that I, Antoine, last of the unhappy and accursed Comtes de C——, first saw the light of day, ninety long years ago. Within these walls, and amongst the dark and shadowy forests, the wild ravines and grottoes of the hillside below, were spent the first years of my troubled life. My parents I never knew. My father had been killed at the age of thirty-two, a month before I was born, by the fall of a stone somehow dislodged from one of the deserted parapets of the castle; and my mother having died at my birth, my care and education devolved solely upon one remaining servitor, an old and trusted man of considerable intelligence, whose name I remember as Pierre. I was an only child, and the lack of companionship which this fact entailed upon me was augmented by the strange care exercised by my aged guardian in excluding me from the society of the peasant children whose abodes were scattered here and there upon the plains that surround the base of the hill. At the time, Pierre said that this restriction was imposed upon me because my noble birth placed me above association with such plebeian company. Now I know that its real object was to keep from my ears the idle tales of the dread curse upon our line, that were nightly told and magnified by the simple tenantry as they conversed in hushed accents in the glow of their cottage hearths.

Thus isolated, and thrown upon my own resources, I spent the hours of my childhood in poring over the ancient tomes that filled the shadow-haunted library of the chateau, and in roaming without aim or purpose through the perpetual dusk of the spectral wood that clothes the side of the hill near its foot. It was perhaps an effect of such surroundings that my mind early acquired a shade of melancholy. Those studies and pursuits which partake of the dark and occult in Nature most strongly claimed my attention.

Of my own race I was permitted to learn singularly little, yet what small knowledge of it I was able to gain, seemed to depress me much. Perhaps it was at first only the manifest reluctance of my old preceptor to discuss with me my paternal ancestry that gave rise to the terror which I ever felt at the mention of my great house; yet as I grew out of childhood, I was able to piece together disconnected fragments of discourse, let slip from the unwilling tongue which had begun to falter in approaching senility, that had a sort of relation to a certain circumstance which I had always deemed strange, but which now became dimly terrible. The circumstance to which I allude is the early age at which all the Comtes of my line had met their end. Whilst I had hitherto considered this but a natural attribute of a family of short-lived men, I afterward pondered long upon these premature deaths, and began to connect them with the wanderings of the old man, who often spoke of a curse which for centuries had prevented the lives of the holders of my title from much exceeding the span of thirty-two years. Upon my twenty-first birthday, the aged Pierre gave to me a family document which he said had for many generations been handed down from father to son, and continued by each possessor. Its contents were of the most startling nature, and its perusal confirmed the gravest of my apprehensions. At this time, my belief in the supernatural was firm and deep-seated, else I should have dismissed with scorn the incredible narrative unfolded before my eyes.

The paper carried me back to the days of the thirteenth century, when the old castle in which I sat had been a feared and impregnable fortress. It told of a certain ancient man who had once dwelt on our estates, a person of no small accomplishments, though little above the rank of peasant; by name, Michel, usually designated by the surname of Mauvais, the Evil, on account of his sinister reputation. He had studied beyond the custom of his kind, seeking such things as the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Elixir of Eternal Life, and was reputed wise in the terrible secrets of Black Magic and Alchemy. Michel Mauvais had one son, named Charles, a youth as proficient as himself in the hidden arts, and who had therefore been called Le Sorcier, or the Wizard. This pair, shunned by all honest folk, were suspected of the most hideous practices. Old Michel was said to have burnt his wife alive as a sacrifice to the Devil, and the unaccountable disappearances of many small peasant children were laid at the dreaded door of these two. Yet through the dark natures of the father and the son ran one redeeming ray of humanity; the evil old man loved his offspring with fierce intensity, whilst the youth had for his parent a more than filial affection.

One night the castle on the hill was thrown into the wildest confusion by the vanishment of young Godfrey, son to Henri the Comte. A searching party, headed by the frantic father, invaded the cottage of the sorcerers and there came upon old Michel Mauvais, busy over a huge and violently boiling cauldron. Without certain cause, in the ungoverned madness of fury and despair, the Comte laid hands on the aged wizard, and ere he released his murderous hold his victim was no more. Meanwhile joyful servants were proclaiming the finding of young Godfrey in a distant and unused chamber of the great edifice, telling too late that poor Michel had been killed in vain. As the Comte and his associates turned away from the lowly abode of the alchemists, the form of Charles Le Sorcier appeared through the trees. The excited chatter of the menials standing about told him what had occurred, yet he seemed at first unmoved at his father’s fate. Then, slowly advancing to meet the Comte, he pronounced in dull yet terrible accents the curse that ever afterward haunted the house of C——.

“May ne’er a noble of thy murd’rous line
Survive to reach a greater age than thine!”

spake he, when, suddenly leaping backwards into the black wood, he drew from his tunic a phial of colourless liquid which he threw into the face of his father’s slayer as he disappeared behind the inky curtain of the night. The Comte died without utterance, and was buried the next day, but little more than two and thirty years from the hour of his birth. No trace of the assassin could be found, though relentless bands of peasants scoured the neighbouring woods and the meadow-land around the hill.

Thus time and the want of a reminder dulled the memory of the curse in the minds of the late Comte’s family, so that when Godfrey, innocent cause of the whole tragedy and now bearing the title, was killed by an arrow whilst hunting, at the age of thirty-two, there were no thoughts save those of grief at his demise. But when, years afterward, the next young Comte, Robert by name, was found dead in a nearby field from no apparent cause, the peasants told in whispers that their seigneur had but lately passed his thirty-second birthday when surprised by early death. Louis, son to Robert, was found drowned in the moat at the same fateful age, and thus down through the centuries ran the ominous chronicle; Henris, Roberts, Antoines, and Armands snatched from happy and virtuous lives when little below the age of their unfortunate ancestor at his murder.

That I had left at most but eleven years of further existence was made certain to me by the words which I read. My life, previously held at small value, now became dearer to me each day, as I delved deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the hidden world of black magic. Isolated as I was, modern science had produced no impression upon me, and I laboured as in the Middle Ages, as wrapt as had been old Michel and young Charles themselves in the acquisition of daemonological and alchemical learning. Yet read as I might, in no manner could I account for the strange curse upon my line. In unusually rational moments, I would even go so far as to seek a natural explanation, attributing the early deaths of my ancestors to the sinister Charles Le Sorcier and his heirs; yet having found upon careful inquiry that there were no known descendants of the alchemist, I would fall back to occult studies, and once more endeavour to find a spell that would release my house from its terrible burden. Upon one thing I was absolutely resolved. I should never wed, for since no other branches of my family were in existence, I might thus end the curse with myself.

As I drew near the age of thirty, old Pierre was called to the land beyond. Alone I buried him beneath the stones of the courtyard about which he had loved to wander in life. Thus was I left to ponder on myself as the only human creature within the great fortress, and in my utter solitude my mind began to cease its vain protest against the impending doom, to become almost reconciled to the fate which so many of my ancestors had met. Much of my time was now occupied in the exploration of the ruined and abandoned halls and towers of the old chateau, which in youth fear had caused me to shun, and some of which, old Pierre had once told me, had not been trodden by human foot for over four centuries. Strange and awesome were many of the objects I encountered. Furniture, covered by the dust of ages and crumbling with the rot of long dampness, met my eyes. Cobwebs in a profusion never before seen by me were spun everywhere, and huge bats flapped their bony and uncanny wings on all sides of the otherwise untenanted gloom.

Of my exact age, even down to days and hours, I kept a most careful record, for each movement of the pendulum of the massive clock in the library told off so much more of my doomed existence. At length I approached that time which I had so long viewed with apprehension. Since most of my ancestors had been seized some little while before they reached the exact age of Comte Henri at his end, I was every moment on the watch for the coming of the unknown death. In what strange form the curse should overtake me, I knew not; but I was resolved, at least, that it should not find me a cowardly or a passive victim. With new vigour I applied myself to my examination of the old chateau and its contents.

It was upon one of the longest of all my excursions of discovery in the deserted portion of the castle, less than a week before that fatal hour which I felt must mark the utmost limit of my stay on earth, beyond which I could have not even the slightest hope of continuing to draw breath, that I came upon the culminating event of my whole life. I had spent the better part of the morning in climbing up and down half-ruined staircases in one of the most dilapidated of the ancient turrets. As the afternoon progressed, I sought the lower levels, descending into what appeared to be either a mediaeval place of confinement, or a more recently excavated storehouse for gunpowder. As I slowly traversed the nitre-encrusted passageway at the foot of the last staircase, the paving became very damp, and soon I saw by the light of my flickering torch that a blank, water-stained wall impeded my journey. Turning to retrace my steps, my eye fell upon a small trap-door with a ring, which lay directly beneath my feet. Pausing, I succeeded with difficulty in raising it, whereupon there was revealed a black aperture, exhaling noxious fumes which caused my torch to sputter, and disclosing in the unsteady glare the top of a flight of stone steps. As soon as the torch, which I lowered into the repellent depths, burned freely and steadily, I commenced my descent. The steps were many, and led to a narrow stone-flagged passage which I knew must be far underground. The passage proved of great length, and terminated in a massive oaken door, dripping with the moisture of the place, and stoutly resisting all my attempts to open it. Ceasing after a time my efforts in this direction, I had proceeded back some distance toward the steps, when there suddenly fell to my experience one of the most profound and maddening shocks capable of reception by the human mind. Without warning, I heard the heavy door behind me creak slowly open upon its rusted hinges. My immediate sensations are incapable of analysis. To be confronted in a place as thoroughly deserted as I had deemed the old castle with evidence of the presence of man or spirit, produced in my brain a horror of the most acute description. When at last I turned and faced the seat of the sound, my eyes must have started from their orbits at the sight that they beheld. There in the ancient Gothic doorway stood a human figure. It was that of a man clad in a skull-cap and long mediaeval tunic of dark colour. His long hair and flowing beard were of a terrible and intense black hue, and of incredible profusion. His forehead, high beyond the usual dimensions; his cheeks, deep-sunken and heavily lined with wrinkles; and his hands, long, claw-like, and gnarled, were of such a deathly, marble-like whiteness as I have never elsewhere seen in man. His figure, lean to the proportions of a skeleton, was strangely bent and almost lost within the voluminous folds of his peculiar garment. But strangest of all were his eyes; twin caves of abysmal blackness, profound in expression of understanding, yet inhuman in degree of wickedness. These were now fixed upon me, piercing my soul with their hatred, and rooting me to the spot whereon I stood. At last the figure spoke in a rumbling voice that chilled me through with its dull hollowness and latent malevolence. The language in which the discourse was clothed was that debased form of Latin in use amongst the more learned men of the Middle Ages, and made familiar to me by my prolonged researches into the works of the old alchemists and daemonologists. The apparition spoke of the curse which had hovered over my house, told me of my coming end, dwelt on the wrong perpetrated by my ancestor against old Michel Mauvais, and gloated over the revenge of Charles Le Sorcier. He told how the young Charles had escaped into the night, returning in after years to kill Godfrey the heir with an arrow just as he approached the age which had been his father’s at his assassination; how he had secretly returned to the estate and established himself, unknown, in the even then deserted subterranean chamber whose doorway now framed the hideous narrator; how he had seized Robert, son of Godfrey, in a field, forced poison down his throat, and left him to die at the age of thirty-two, thus maintaining the foul provisions of his vengeful curse. At this point I was left to imagine the solution of the greatest mystery of all, how the curse had been fulfilled since that time when Charles Le Sorcier must in the course of Nature have died, for the man digressed into an account of the deep alchemical studies of the two wizards, father and son, speaking most particularly of the researches of Charles Le Sorcier concerning the elixir which should grant to him who partook of it eternal life and youth.

His enthusiasm had seemed for the moment to remove from his terrible eyes the hatred that had at first so haunted them, but suddenly the fiendish glare returned, and with a shocking sound like the hissing of a serpent, the stranger raised a glass phial with the evident intent of ending my life as had Charles Le Sorcier, six hundred years before, ended that of my ancestor. Prompted by some preserving instinct of self-defence, I broke through the spell that had hitherto held me immovable, and flung my now dying torch at the creature who menaced my existence. I heard the phial break harmlessly against the stones of the passage as the tunic of the strange man caught fire and lit the horrid scene with a ghastly radiance. The shriek of fright and impotent malice emitted by the would-be assassin proved too much for my already shaken nerves, and I fell prone upon the slimy floor in a total faint.

When at last my senses returned, all was frightfully dark, and my mind remembering what had occurred, shrank from the idea of beholding more; yet curiosity overmastered all. Who, I asked myself, was this man of evil, and how came he within the castle walls? Why should he seek to avenge the death of poor Michel Mauvais, and how had the curse been carried on through all the long centuries since the time of Charles Le Sorcier? The dread of years was lifted from my shoulders, for I knew that he whom I had felled was the source of all my danger from the curse; and now that I was free, I burned with the desire to learn more of the sinister thing which had haunted my line for centuries, and made of my own youth one long-continued nightmare. Determined upon further exploration, I felt in my pockets for flint and steel, and lit the unused torch which I had with me. First of all, the new light revealed the distorted and blackened form of the mysterious stranger. The hideous eyes were now closed. Disliking the sight, I turned away and entered the chamber beyond the Gothic door. Here I found what seemed much like an alchemist’s laboratory. In one corner was an immense pile of a shining yellow metal that sparkled gorgeously in the light of the torch. It may have been gold, but I did not pause to examine it, for I was strangely affected by that which I had undergone. At the farther end of the apartment was an opening leading out into one of the many wild ravines of the dark hillside forest. Filled with wonder, yet now realising how the man had obtained access to the chateau, I proceeded to return. I had intended to pass by the remains of the stranger with averted face, but as I approached the body, I seemed to hear emanating from it a faint sound, as though life were not yet wholly extinct. Aghast, I turned to examine the charred and shrivelled figure on the floor. Then all at once the horrible eyes, blacker even than the seared face in which they were set, opened wide with an expression which I was unable to interpret. The cracked lips tried to frame words which I could not well understand. Once I caught the name of Charles Le Sorcier, and again I fancied that the words “years” and “curse” issued from the twisted mouth. Still I was at a loss to gather the purport of his disconnected speech. At my evident ignorance of his meaning, the pitchy eyes once more flashed malevolently at me, until, helpless as I saw my opponent to be, I trembled as I watched him.

Suddenly the wretch, animated with his last burst of strength, raised his hideous head from the damp and sunken pavement. Then, as I remained, paralysed with fear, he found his voice and in his dying breath screamed forth those words which have ever afterward haunted my days and my nights. “Fool,” he shrieked, “can you not guess my secret? Have you no brain whereby you may recognise the will which has through six long centuries fulfilled the dreadful curse upon your house? Have I not told you of the great elixir of eternal life? Know you not how the secret of Alchemy was solved? I tell you, it is I! I! I! that have lived for six hundred years to maintain my revenge, FOR I AM CHARLES LE SORCIER!”

The Alchemist (1908)
by H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) magazine

More in: Archive K-L, Lovecraft, H.P., Tales of Mystery & Imagination


by H. P. Lovecraft

“Fata viam invenient.”

On a verdant slope of Mount Maenalus, in Arcadia, there stands an olive grove about the ruins of a villa. Close by is a tomb, once beautiful with the sublimest sculptures, but now fallen into as great decay as the house. At one end of that tomb, its curious roots displacing the time-stained blocks of Pentelic marble, grows an unnaturally large olive tree of oddly repellent shape; so like to some grotesque man, or death-distorted body of a man, that the country folk fear to pass it at night when the moon shines faintly through the crooked boughs. Mount Maenalus is a chosen haunt of dreaded Pan, whose queer companions are many, and simple swains believe that the tree must have some hideous kinship to these weird Panisci; but an old bee-keeper who lives in the neighbouring cottage told me a different story.

Many years ago, when the hillside villa was new and resplendent, there dwelt within it the two sculptors Kalos and Musides. From Lydia to Neapolis the beauty of their work was praised, and none dared say that the one excelled the other in skill. The Hermes of Kalos stood in a marble shrine in Corinth, and the Pallas of Musides surmounted a pillar in Athens, near the Parthenon. All men paid homage to Kalos and Musides, and marvelled that no shadow of artistic jealousy cooled the warmth of their brotherly friendship.

But though Kalos and Musides dwelt in unbroken harmony, their natures were not alike. Whilst Musides revelled by night amidst the urban gaieties of Tegea, Kalos would remain at home; stealing away from the sight of his slaves into the cool recesses of the olive grove. There he would meditate upon the visions that filled his mind, and there devise the forms of beauty which later became immortal in breathing marble. Idle folk, indeed, said that Kalos conversed with the spirits of the grove, and that his statues were but images of the fauns and dryads he met there—for he patterned his work after no living model.

So famous were Kalos and Musides, that none wondered when the Tyrant of Syracuse sent to them deputies to speak of the costly statue of Tyché which he had planned for his city. Of great size and cunning workmanship must the statue be, for it was to form a wonder of nations and a goal of travellers. Exalted beyond thought would be he whose work should gain acceptance, and for this honour Kalos and Musides were invited to compete. Their brotherly love was well known, and the crafty Tyrant surmised that each, instead of concealing his work from the other, would offer aid and advice; this charity producing two images of unheard-of beauty, the lovelier of which would eclipse even the dreams of poets.

With joy the sculptors hailed the Tyrant’s offer, so that in the days that followed their slaves heard the ceaseless blows of chisels. Not from each other did Kalos and Musides conceal their work, but the sight was for them alone. Saving theirs, no eyes beheld the two divine figures released by skilful blows from the rough blocks that had imprisoned them since the world began.

At night, as of yore, Musides sought the banquet halls of Tegea whilst Kalos wandered alone in the olive grove. But as time passed, men observed a want of gaiety in the once sparkling Musides. It was strange, they said amongst themselves, that depression should thus seize one with so great a chance to win art’s loftiest reward. Many months passed, yet in the sour face of Musides came nothing of the sharp expectancy which the situation should arouse.

Then one day Musides spoke of the illness of Kalos, after which none marvelled again at his sadness, since the sculptors’ attachment was known to be deep and sacred. Subsequently many went to visit Kalos, and indeed noticed the pallor of his face; but there was about him a happy serenity which made his glance more magical than the glance of Musides—who was clearly distracted with anxiety, and who pushed aside all the slaves in his eagerness to feed and wait upon his friend with his own hands. Hidden behind heavy curtains stood the two unfinished figures of Tyché, little touched of late by the sick man and his faithful attendant.

As Kalos grew inexplicably weaker and weaker despite the ministrations of puzzled physicians and of his assiduous friend, he desired to be carried often to the grove which he so loved. There he would ask to be left alone, as if wishing to speak with unseen things. Musides ever granted his requests, though his eyes filled with visible tears at the thought that Kalos should care more for the fauns and the dryads than for him. At last the end drew near, and Kalos discoursed of things beyond this life. Musides, weeping, promised him a sepulchre more lovely than the tomb of Mausolus; but Kalos bade him speak no more of marble glories. Only one wish now haunted the mind of the dying man; that twigs from certain olive trees in the grove be buried by his resting-place—close to his head. And one night, sitting alone in the darkness of the olive grove, Kalos died.

Beautiful beyond words was the marble sepulchre which stricken Musides carved for his beloved friend. None but Kalos himself could have fashioned such bas-reliefs, wherein were displayed all the splendours of Elysium. Nor did Musides fail to bury close to Kalos’ head the olive twigs from the grove.
As the first violence of Musides’ grief gave place to resignation, he laboured with diligence upon his figure of Tyché. All honour was now his, since the Tyrant of Syracuse would have the work of none save him or Kalos. His task proved a vent for his emotion, and he toiled more steadily each day, shunning the gaieties he once had relished. Meanwhile his evenings were spent beside the tomb of his friend, where a young olive tree had sprung up near the sleeper’s head. So swift was the growth of this tree, and so strange was its form, that all who beheld it exclaimed in surprise; and Musides seemed at once fascinated and repelled.

Three years after the death of Kalos, Musides despatched a messenger to the Tyrant, and it was whispered in the agora at Tegea that the mighty statue was finished. By this time the tree by the tomb had attained amazing proportions, exceeding all other trees of its kind, and sending out a singularly heavy branch above the apartment in which Musides laboured. As many visitors came to view the prodigious tree, as to admire the art of the sculptor, so that Musides was seldom alone. But he did not mind his multitude of guests; indeed, he seemed to dread being alone now that his absorbing work was done. The bleak mountain wind, sighing through the olive grove and the tomb-tree, had an uncanny way of forming vaguely articulate sounds.

The sky was dark on the evening that the Tyrant’s emissaries came to Tegea. It was definitely known that they had come to bear away the great image of Tyché and bring eternal honour to Musides, so their reception by the proxenoi was of great warmth. As the night wore on, a violent storm of wind broke over the crest of Maenalus, and the men from far Syracuse were glad that they rested snugly in the town. They talked of their illustrious Tyrant, and of the splendour of his capital; and exulted in the glory of the statue which Musides had wrought for him. And then the men of Tegea spoke of the goodness of Musides, and of his heavy grief for his friend; and how not even the coming laurels of art could console him in the absence of Kalos, who might have worn those laurels instead. Of the tree which grew by the tomb, near the head of Kalos, they also spoke. The wind shrieked more horribly, and both the Syracusans and the Arcadians prayed to Aiolos.

In the sunshine of the morning the proxenoi led the Tyrant’s messengers up the slope to the abode of the sculptor, but the night-wind had done strange things. Slaves’ cries ascended from a scene of desolation, and no more amidst the olive grove rose the gleaming colonnades of that vast hall wherein Musides had dreamed and toiled. Lone and shaken mourned the humble courts and the lower walls, for upon the sumptuous greater peristyle had fallen squarely the heavy overhanging bough of the strange new tree, reducing the stately poem in marble with odd completeness to a mound of unsightly ruins. Strangers and Tegeans stood aghast, looking from the wreckage to the great, sinister tree whose aspect was so weirdly human and whose roots reached so queerly into the sculptured sepulchre of Kalos. And their fear and dismay increased when they searched the fallen apartment; for of the gentle Musides, and of the marvellously fashioned image of Tyché, no trace could be discovered. Amidst such stupendous ruin only chaos dwelt, and the representatives of two cities left disappointed; Syracusans that they had no statue to bear home, Tegeans that they had no artist to crown. However, the Syracusans obtained after a while a very splendid statue in Athens, and the Tegeans consoled themselves by erecting in the agora a marble temple commemorating the gifts, virtues, and brotherly piety of Musides.

But the olive grove still stands, as does the tree growing out of the tomb of Kalos, and the old bee-keeper told me that sometimes the boughs whisper to one another in the night-wind, saying over and over again, “Οἶδα! Οἶδα!—I know! I know!”

The Tree (1920)
by H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) magazine

More in: Archive K-L, Lovecraft, H.P., Tales of Mystery & Imagination


Amalgaam101Amalgaam is een duobundel van twee dichters, Willy Martin en Carina van der Walt. Martin was in een vorig leven een avontuurlijke hoogleraar lexicologie die zich vooral richtte op nieuwe technologie en systematiek om taal te kunnen voorzien van het juiste frame. Van der Walt begon in het reguliere onderwijs als docente Afrikaans, Nederlands en Setswana en legde zich later toe op het academisch onderzoek naar kinder- en jeugdliteratuur. In het grootste deel van de bundel worden Zuid-Afrikaans en Nederlands afgewisseld, waarbij ieder zijn eigen moedertaal voor zijn rekening neemt: Martin het Nederlands (en Vlaams), Van der Walt het Afrikaans.

De bundel heet Amalgaam, en dat woord wordt – zoals het een uitgave van een lexicograaf betaamt – netjes in een voetnoot toegelicht. In de figuurlijke zin betekent ‘amalgaam’ in zowel het Afrikaans als in het Nederlands hetzelfde: een mengsel, mengelmoes. Die beschrijving is behoorlijk van toepassing op dit gezamenlijke werk: het gaat om twee verschillende dichters uit verschillende generaties die niet alleen duidelijk hun eigen thematiek en stijl hebben, maar die ook nog eens in een aparte taal schrijven. Het probleem daarbij is wel dat die talen ‘valse vrienden’ zijn – ze hebben een gezamenlijk verleden, maar de schijnbare overlap bestaat voor een deel uit goed afgedekte valkuilen. Al in het voorwoord wordt de wordingsgeschiedenis vanuit het Groot Woordenboek Afrikaans en Nederlands (de culminatie van Martin’s werk als hoogleraar) uit de doeken gedaan, en daarmee is al meteen duidelijk dat de lezer het nodige te wachten staat.

De normale lezer moge het op dit moment misschien duizelen, maar het valt wel mee. Amalgaam is een eerste voorzichtig experiment, en blijft volledig in het nette. Het is geen verraderlijke of dubbelzinnige smeltkroes geworden van talen en dichters, die de lezer de hele tijd op het verkeerde been zet – dat hebben de dichters overgelaten voor een volgend deel. De bundel is in zijn huidige vorm een gedegen bloemlezing waarin gedichten op elkaar gestapeld zijn die samen een mooi beeld geven van twee nogal verschillende dichters. Twee voor de prijs van een, zogezegd. Beiden hebben een prettige stijl die de ander niet in de weg zit. Martin is wat serieuzer en plechtstatiger, en Van der Walt wat levendiger en politieker – bijvoorbeeld over de betekenis van Lampedusa voor het zelfbeeld van Europa. Met name de gedichten van Van der Walt geven de indruk dat ze geschreven zijn voor een bezielende voordracht.

De bundel bevat naast oorspronkelijke gedichten ook een aantal vertalingen van gedichten van anderen, van uiteenlopende dichters zoals Paul van Ostaijen, Adam Small, Tsjebbe Hettinga, Hans du Plessis en Peter Snyders. Die buitenboordmotor had de bundel niet nodig: met name in hun eigen woorden is het eigen geluid al duidelijk genoeg te horen.

Vraag is natuurlijk hoe het vervolg van dit experiment eruit zal zien. Het is duidelijk dat er nog veel meer potentiële poëtische energie zit in het grensgebied tussen de twee zustertalen en tussen andere verwante talen. Door hun unieke professionele en persoonlijke achtergrond zijn Van der Walt en Martin ideale mentale experimentele opstellingen om als woordjesversneller tussen deze talen te fungeren. Het samenwerkingsproces zal om de energiedichtheid omhoog te krijgen waarschijnlijk nog intensiever moeten zijn. Door de dichters niet enkel per heel gedicht om en om te laten werken in of de ene taal of de andere, maar per regel aan zet te laten – of zelfs nog vaker, desnoods per woord of zelfs lettergreep, en in een taal naar keuze – kunnen de talen tegen elkaar in gaan draaien en met zeer hoge snelheid tegen elkaar aanbotsen. Het gedroomde resultaat is dan niet meer te duiden als het een of het ander, maar zou in het ideale geval leiden tot een spannende fusie van kernen uit beide talen en culturen. Dat is misschien minder toegankelijk dan Amalgaam – hoe intensiever de opeenstapeling van frames uit beide talen, hoe dieper de benodigde kennis – maar zelfs als dat benodigde dubbele taalgevoel maar voor een zeer klein deel van de mensheid zal zijn weggelegd, is er voor de rest vast al veel plezier te beleven door het spectaculaire uiteenspatten van elementaire talige deeltjes. Amalgaam is de eerste speelse stap op een veelbelovende pad, en hopelijk zetten Van der Walt en Martin aangemoedigd door het succes van hun geslaagde dubbelbundel door met dit experiment – alleen of met hulp van anderen.

Michiel Leenaars


Willy Martin & Carina van der Walt
Prijs € 15,-
95 pag.
ISBN 978 90 8684 117 2

Uitgeverij IJzer
Postbus 628
3500 AP Utrecht
Tel: 030 – 2521798 magazine

More in: - Book News, Archive K-L, Art & Literature News, Carina van der Walt, Walt, Carina van der, Willy Martin


luyendijk_ditkannietJoris Luyendijk (1971) is te gast in VPRO BOEKEN over zijn nieuwste boek ‘Dit kan niet waar zijn’. Twee jaar geleden ging Luyendijk met zijn gezin in Londen wonen. Hij ging werken voor The Guardian, die hem de opdracht gaf om vanuit antropologisch perspectief te schrijven over The City, het financiële hart van Groot-Brittannië. De conclusie van het boek is even stevig als pijnlijk: de instellingen die ervoor moeten zorgen dat de economie functioneert, kunnen de wereld in de afgrond doen storten.

 Joris Luyendijk
VPRO Boeken
zondag 22 februari 2015
NPO 1, 11.20 uur magazine

More in: - Book News, Archive K-L, Art & Literature News, FDM in London, MONTAIGNE

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Das Mädchen

fleursdumal 502

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Das Mädchen

Zum Mädchen wünscht’ ich mir – und wollt’ es, ha! recht lieben –
Ein junges, nettes, tolles Ding,
Leicht zu erfreun, schwer zu betrüben,
Am Wuchse schlank, im Gange flink,
Von Aug’ ein Falk,
Von Mien’ ein Schalk;
Das fleißig, fleißig liest:
Weil alles, was es liest,
Sein einzig Buch – der Spiegel ist;
Das immer gaukelt, immer spricht,
Und spricht und spricht von tausend Sachen,
Versteht es gleich das Zehnte nicht
Von allen diesen tausend Sachen:
Genug, es spricht mit Lachen,
Und kann sehr reizend lachen.
Solch Mädchen wünscht’ ich mir! – Du, Freund, magst deine Zeit
Nur immerhin bei schöner Sittsamkeit,
Nicht ohne seraphin’sche Tränen,
Bei Tugend und Verstand vergähnen.
Solch einen Engel
Ohn’ alle Mängel
Zum Mädchen haben:
Das hieß’ ein Mädchen haben? –
Heißt eingesegnet sein, und Weib und Hausstand haben.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing poetry magazine

More in: Archive K-L, CLASSIC POETRY

Babelmatrix Translation Project: Imre Kertész

Babelmatrix Translation Project

Imre Kertész

Imre Kertész was born in Budapest on November 9, 1929. Of Jewish descent, in 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. On his return to Hungary he worked for a Budapest newspaper, Világosság, but was dismissed in 1951 when it adopted the Communist party line. After two years of military service he began supporting himself as an independent writer and translator of German-language authors such as Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Roth, Wittgenstein, and Canetti, who have all had a significant influence on his own writing.

Kertész’s first novel, Sorstalanság (Eng. Fateless, 1992; see WLT 67:4, p. 863), a work based on his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was published in 1975. “When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz,” he has said. This does not mean, however, that Sorstalanság is autobiographical in any simple sense: Kertész says himself that he has used the form of the autobiographical novel but that it is not autobiography. Sorstalanság was initially rejected for publication. When published eventually in 1975, it was received with compact silence. Kertész has written about this experience in A kudarc (1988; Fiasco). This novel is normally regarded as the second volume in a trilogy that begins with Sorstalanság and concludes with Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (1990; Eng. Kaddish for a Child Not Born, 1997; see WLT 74:1, p. 205), in a title that refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead. In Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért, the protagonist of Sorstalanság and A kudarc, György Köves, reappears. His Kaddish is said for the child he refuses to beget in a world that permitted the existence of Auschwitz. Other prose works are A nyomkereso” (1977; The pathfinder) and Az angol labogó (1991; The English flag; see WLT 67:2, p. 412)

Gályanapló (Részletek) (Hungarian)

Ahhoz, hogy valaki – dehogy az „emberiség!” – csupán a saját élete megváltója, föloldozója lehessen, egy teljes, hihetetlenül intenzív és állandó belsö munkával eltöltött élet szükséges. Az embernek van egy förtelmes élete – a történelem-, és van egy nála sokkal bölcsebb, hatalmas világmeséje, amelyben istenséggé, mágussá válik; és ez a mese éppoly csoda, mint amilyen hihetetlen a történelmi, a „reális” élete.

Augusztus 11. Minden véget ért, és minden újrakezdödött; de máshol kezdödött, és talán máshová visz. Tegnapelött éjszaka az erkélyen, hüvösödo” szélfutamok, a Pasaréti úti fák nagy, felhöforma, sötét lombozata, alatta az aranyló világítás – egy pillanatig mintha nem is ez a jól ismert lidércváros lenne. Mély, mély melankólia, emlékek, mintha az elmúlás környékezne, csupa közhely, csupa valóság, csupa unalmas igazság, akár a halál.
L., az író, aki viszonylagosnak fogja fel az irodalmat. Szemben Schönberg nézetével, miszerint a mu”vészethez elég az igazság, L. szerint a müvészetnek a túlélést kell szolgálnia: hiszen, mondja, ha meglátjuk a puszta igazságot, akkor nem marad hátra más, mint hogy felkössük magunkat – vagy netalán azt, aki az igazságot nekünk megmutatta. Nem éppen szokatlan magatartás; nem csodálkoznék, ha L.-ról kiderülne, hogy családapa, s csupán a gyermekei jövo”jéért teszi, amit tennie kell. Csakhogy a viszonylagos irodalom mindig rossz irodalom, és a nem radikális müvészet mindig középszeru” müvészet: jó müvésznek nincs más esélye, mint hogy igazat mondjon, és az igazat radikálisan mondja. Etto”l még életben lehet maradni, hiszen a hazugság nem az egyetlen és kizárólagos föltétele az életnek, ha sokan nem is látnak egyéb lehetöséget.

Mostanában gyakran elképzelek valakit, homályos alak, egy emberi lény, kortalan, persze inkább ido”s vagy legalábbis idösödo” férfi. Jön-megy, végzi a dolgát, éli az életét, szenved, szeret, elutazik, hazatér, olykor beteg, máskor úszni, társaságba, kártyázni jár; mindeközben azonban, amint akad egy szabad perce, tüstént benyit egy eldugott fülkébe, gyorsan – és mintegy szórakozottan – leül valami ócska hangszer elé, leüt néhány akkordot, majd félhalkan improvizálni kezd, évtizedeken keresztül játssza ugyanegy téma immár számtalanadik variációját. Nemsoká felugrik, mennie kell – de amint újabb szabadideje adódik, ismét ott látjuk öt a hangszernél, mintha az élete csak amolyan két játék közötti, kényszer közbevetés lenne. Ha ezek a hangok, amiket a hangszerböl kicsal, mondjuk, megállnának, és egymásba su”ru”södve mintegy megfagynának a levego”ben, talán valami görcsös kataton mozdulatra emlékeztetö jégkristályképzödményt látnánk, amelyben, jobban is megnézve, kétségkívül felismerheto” lenne valamilyen kifejezö szándé makacssága, ha csupán a monotóniáé is; ha meg netán lekottáznák, végül alighanem ki lehetne venni egy mindegyre sürüödo” fúga bontakozó körvonalait, mely mind határozottabban tör célja felé, csakhogy e célt mind távolabbra tolja, taszigálja magától, s így mégis mind bizonytalanabbá válik. – Kinek játszik? Miért játszik? Maga sem tudja. Söt – és azért mégiscsak ez a legfurcsább – nem is hallja, hogy mit játszik. Mintha a kísérteties erö, amely újra meg újra odaparancsolja a hangszerhez, megfosztotta volna a hallásától, hogy egyedül neki játsszon. -De ó legalább hallja-e? (A kérdés azonban, lássuk be, értelmetlen: a játékost természetesen boldognak kell elképzelnünk.)

Galeerentagebuch (Auszüge) (German)

Um Erlöser – keineswegs der »Menschheit«! – lediglich seines eigenen Lebens sein zu können, um sich für das eigene Leben Absolution erteilen zu können, ist ein volles, unsagbar intensives und von ständiger innerer Arbeit erfülltes Leben notwendig. Der Mensch hat ein grauenhaftes Leben – die Geschichte –, und er hat die Erzählung von der Welt, mächtig und viel weiser als er, in der er zur Gottheit, zum Magier wird; und diese Erzählung ist genauso ein Wunder, wie sein geschichtliches, «reales» Leben etwas Unglaubliches ist.

11. August Alles hat ein Ende, und alles begann von vorn; doch es begann anderswo und führt vielleicht anderswohin. Vorgestern nacht auf dem Balkon, ein kühler Wind, das große, wolkenförmige, dunkle Laubdach der Bäume in der Pasareti-Straße, darunter die schummrige Beleuchtung – für einen Moment war mir, als sei es nicht die vertraute Alptraumstadt. Tiefe, tiefe Melancholie, Erinnerungen, als umgebe mich dei Vergänglichkeit, voll Banalität, voll Wirklichkeit, voll langweiliger Wahrheit, wie der Tod.

L., der Schriftsteller, der die Literatur relativ auffaßt. Im Gegensatz zu Schönberg, nach dessen Ansicht Wahrheit für die Kunst genügt, muß die Kunst L. zufolge dem Überleben dienen, denn, sagt er, wenn wir die nackte Wahrheit erblicken, bleibt uns nichts anderes übrig, als uns aufzuhängen – oder vielleicht den, der uns die Wahrheit gezeigt hat. Keine ganz ungewöhnliche Haltung; es würde mich nicht wundern, wenn sich herausstellte, daß L. Familienvater ist und das, was er tut, nur für die Zukunft seiner Kinder tut. Nur daß relative Literatur immer schlechte Literatur und nichtradikale Kunst immer mittelmäßige Kunst ist: Der wirkliche Künstler hat keine andere Chance, als die Wahrheit zu sagen und die Wahrheit radikal zu sagen. Deswegen kann er trotzdem am Leben bleiben, denn die Lüge ist nicht einzige und ausschließliche Bedingung des Lebens, selbst wenn viele keine sonstigen Möglichkeiten sehen.
In letzter Zeit stelle ich mir häufig etwas vor, eine unklare Gestalt, ein menschliche; Wesen, einen alterslosen, freilich eher alten oder doch älteren Mann. Er kommt und geht, erledigt seine Dinge, lebt sein Leben, leidet, liebt, verreist, kehrt heim, manchmal ist er krank, manchmal geht er schwimmen, zu Bekannten oder Karten spielen; zwischendurch jedoch, sobald sich eine freie Minute findet, öffnet er die Tür einer versteckten Zelle, stetzt sich rasch – und gleichsam zerstreut – vor ein schäbiges Instrument, schlägt einige Akkorde an und beginnt dann halblaut zu improvisieren, eine weitere von inzwischen zahllosen Variationen des seit Jahrzehnten gespielten, immer gleichen Themas. Kurz darauf springt er auf, muß gehendoch sobald sich wieder freie Zeit findet, sehen wir ihn abermals vor dem Instrument, als sei sein Leben nur die notgedrungene Unterbrechung zwischen zwei Spielen. Würden die Töne, die er dem Instrument entlockt, aufstehen und, gleichsam ineinander verdichtet, in der Luft gefrieren, würden wir vielleicht ein Eiskristallgebilde erblicken, an eine verkrampfte katatonische Bewegung erinnernd, worin, bei genauerer Betrachtung, zweifellos die Hartnäckigkeit einer Ausdrucksabsicht zu erkennen wäre, wenn auch nur die der Monotonie; setzten wir sie gar in Noten, könnten wir vermutlich die Umrisse einer sich mehr und mehr verdichtenden Fuge herauslösen, die immer entschlossener zu ihrem Ziel durchbricht, dabei aber dieses Ziel immer weiter fortschiebt, fortstößt von sich, und so wird es dennoch immer ungewisser. – Für wen spielt er? Warum spielt er? Er weiß es selbst nicht. Zudem – und das ist das Merkwürdigste daran – kann er nicht einmal hören, was er spielt. Als habe ihm die gespenstische Kraft, die ihn wieder und wieder an sein Instrument zwingt, das Gehör geraubt, damit er allein für sie spiele. – Ob jedoch sie ihn wenigstens hört? (Die Frage, sehen wir es ein, ist sinnlos, aber den Spieler müssen wir uns natürlich glücklich vorstellen.)
Schwamm, Kristin



More in: Archive K-L, Kertész, Imre

Babelmatrix Translation Project: Imre Kertész (Fateless)

Babelmatrix Translation Project

Imre Kertész

Imre Kertész was born in Budapest on November 9, 1929. Of Jewish descent, in 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. On his return to Hungary he worked for a Budapest newspaper, Világosság, but was dismissed in 1951 when it adopted the Communist party line. After two years of military service he began supporting himself as an independent writer and translator of German-language authors such as Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Roth, Wittgenstein, and Canetti, who have all had a significant influence on his own writing.

Kertész’s first novel, Sorstalanság (Eng. Fateless, 1992; see WLT 67:4, p. 863), a work based on his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was published in 1975. “When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz,” he has said. This does not mean, however, that Sorstalanság is autobiographical in any simple sense: Kertész says himself that he has used the form of the autobiographical novel but that it is not autobiography. Sorstalanság was initially rejected for publication. When published eventually in 1975, it was received with compact silence. Kertész has written about this experience in A kudarc (1988; Fiasco). This novel is normally regarded as the second volume in a trilogy that begins with Sorstalanság and concludes with Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (1990; Eng. Kaddish for a Child Not Born, 1997; see WLT 74:1, p. 205), in a title that refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead. In Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért, the protagonist of Sorstalanság and A kudarc, György Köves, reappears. His Kaddish is said for the child he refuses to beget in a world that permitted the existence of Auschwitz. Other prose works are A nyomkereso” (1977; The pathfinder) and Az angol labogó (1991; The English flag; see WLT 67:2, p. 412)

Sorstalanság  (Hungarian)

A pályaudvarhoz érve, mivel kezdtem igen érezni a lábom, no meg mivel a sok többi közt a régröl ismert számmal is épp elibém kanyarodott egy, villamosra szálltam. Szikár öregasszony húzódott a nyitott peronon egy kissé félrébb, fura, ódivatú csipkegallérban. Hamarosan egy ember jött, sapkában, egyenruhában, és a jegyemet kérte. Mondtam néki: nincsen. Indítványozta: váltsak. Mondtam: idegenböl jövök, nincsen pénzem. Akkor megnézte a kabátomat, engem, s azután meg az öregasszonyt is, majd értésemre adta, hogy az utazásnak törvényei vannak, s ezeket a törvényeket nem ö, hanem az o” fölötte állók hozták. – Ha nem vált jegyet, le kell szállnia – volt a véleménye. Mondtam neki: de hisz fáj a lábam, s erre, észrevettem, az öregasszony ki, a tájék felé fordult, de oly sértödötten valahogyan, mintha csak néki hánytam volna a szemére netán, nem tudnám, mért. De a kocsi nyitott ajtaján, már messziroö nagy lármával, termetes, fekete, csapzott ember csörtetett ki. Nyitott inget, világos vászonöltönyt, a válláról szíjon függö fekete dobozt, kezében meg irattáskát hordott. Miféle dolog ez, kiáltotta, és: – Adjon egy jegyet! – intézkedett, pénzdarabot nyújtva, lökve inkább a kalauznak oda. Próbáltam köszönetet mondani, de félbeszakított, indulatosan tekintve körbe: – Inkább némelyeknek szégyenkezniük kellene – szólt, de a kalauz már a kocsiban járt, az öregasszony meg továbbra is kinézett. Akkor, megenyhült arccal, énfelém fordult. Kérdezte: – Németországból jössz, fiam? – Igen. – Koncentrációs táborból-e? – Természetesen. – Melyikbo”l? – A buchenwaldiból. – Igen, hallotta már hírét, tudja, az is „a náci pokolnak volt egyik bugyra” – így mondta. – Honnan hurcoltak ki? – Budapestro”l. – Meddig voltál oda? – Egy évig, egészében. – Sok mindent láthattál, fiacskám, sok borzalmat – mondta arra, s nem feleltem semmit. No de – így folytatta – foöhogy vége, elmúlt, s földerülö arccal a házakra mutatva, melyek közt épp csörömpöltünk, érdeklödött: mit érzek vajon most, újra itthon, s a város láttán, melyet elhagytam? Mondtam neki: – Gyülöletet. – Elhallgatott, de hamarosan azt az észrevételt tette, hogy meg kell, sajnos, értenie az érzelmeimet. Egyébként öszerinte „adott helyzetben” a gyülöletnek is megvan a maga helye, szerepe, „so haszna”, és föltételezi, tette hozzá, egyetértünk és jól tudja, hogy kit gyu”lölök. Mondtam neki: – Mindenkit. – Megint elhallgatott, ezúttal már hosszabb ido”re, utána meg újra kezdte: – Sok borzalmon kellett-e keresztülmenned? –, s azt feleltem, attól függ, mit tart borzalomnak. Bizonyára – mondta erre, némiképpen feszélyezettnek látszó arccal – sokat kellett nélkülöznöm, éheznem, és valószínu”leg vertek is talán, s mondtam neki: természetesen. – Miért mondod, édes fiam – kiáltott arra fel, de már-már úgy néztem, a türelmét vesztve –, mindenre azt, hogy „természetesen”, és mindig olyasmire, ami pedig egyáltalán nem az?! – Mondtam: koncentrációs táborban ez természetes. – Igen, igen – így o” –, ott igen, de… – s itt elakadt, habozott kissé – de… nohát, de maga a koncentrációs tábor nem természetes! – bukkant végre a megfelelo” szóra mintegy, s nem is feleltem néki semmit, mivel kezdtem lassan belátni: egy s más dologról sosem vitázhatunk, úgy látszik, idegenekkel, tudatlanokkal, bizonyos értelemben véve gyerekekkel, hogy így mondjam. Különben is – kaptam magam a változatlanul ott levo”, s éppen csak egy kissé kopárabbá és gondozatlanabbá vált térröl rajta –, ideje leszállanom, és ezt be is jelentettem neki. De velem tartott, s egy árnyas, támlája vesztett padot mutatva arrébb, indítványozta: telepednénk oda egy percre.
Elöször némelyest bizonytalankodni látszott. Valójában – jegyezte meg – most kezdenek még csak „igazán feltárulni a rémségek”, és hozzátette, „a világ egyelo”re értetlenül áll a kérdés elött: hogyan, miként is történhetett mindez egyáltalán meg”? Nem szóltam semmit, és akkor egész felém fordulva, egyszerre csak azt mondta: – Nem akarnál fiacskám, beszámolni az élményeidro”l? – Elcsodálkoztam kissé, és azt feleltem, hogy roppant sok érdekeset nemigen tudnék mondani neki. Akkor mosolygott kicsikét, és azt mondta: – Nem nekem: a világnak. – Amire, míg jobban csodálkozva, tudakoltam to”le: – De hát miröl? – A lágerek pokláról – válaszolta ö, melyre én azt jegyeztem meg, hogy meg egyáltalában semmit se mondhatok, mivel a pokolt nem ismerem, és még csak elképzelni se tudnám. De  kijelentette, ez csak afféle hasonlat: – Nem pokolnak kell-e – kérdezte – elképzelnünk a koncentrációs tábort? – és azt feleltem, sarkammal közben néhány karikát írva lábam alá a porba, hogy ezt mindenki a maga módja és kedve szerint képzelheti el, hogy az én részemro”l azonban mindenesetre csak a koncentrációs tábort tudom elképzelni, mivel ezt valamennyire ismerem, a pokolt viszont nem. – De ha, mondjuk, mégis? – ero”sködött, s pár újabb karika után azt feleltem: – Akkor olyan helynek képzelném, ahol nem lehet unatkozni –; márpedig, tettem hozzá, koncentrációs táborban lehetett, meg Auschwitzban is – már bizonyos föltételek közt, persze. Arra hallgatott egy kicsit, majd meg azt kérdezte, de némiképp valahogy már-már a kedve ellenére szinte, úgy éreztem: – És ezt mivel magyarázod? –, s kis gondolkodás után azt találtam: – Az ido”vel. – Hogyhogy az ido”vel? – Úgy, hogy az ido” segít. – Segít…? miben? – Mindenben –, s próbáltam neki elmagyarázni, mennyire más dolog például megérkezni egy, ha nem is éppen fényu”zo”, de egészében elfogadható, tiszta, takaros állomásra, ahol csak lassacskán, ido”rendben, fokonként világosodik meg elo”ttünk minden. Mire egy fokozaton túl vagyunk, magunk mögött tudjuk, máris jön a következo”. Mire aztán mindent megtudunk, már meg is értettünk mindent. S mialatt mindent megért, ezenközben nem marad tétlen az ember: máris végzi az új dolgát, él, cselekszik, mozog, teljesíti minden újabb fok minden újabb követelményét. Ha viszont nem volna ez az ido”rend, s az egész ismeret mindjárt egyszerre, ott a helyszínen zúdulna ránk, meglehet, azt el sem bírná tán se koponyánk, sem a szívünk – próbáltam valamennyire megvilágítani néki, amire ö zsebéböl közben szakadozott papirosú dobozt halászva elö, melynek gyu”rött cigarettáit énfelém is idetartotta, de elhárítottam, majd két nagy szippantás után két könyékkel a térdére támaszkodva, így elo”redöntött felso”testtel és rám se nézve, kissé valahogy érctelen, tompa hangon ezt mondta: – Értem. – Másrészt, folytattam, az ebben a hiba, mondhatnám hátrány, hogy az ido”t viszont ki is kell tölteni. Láttam például – mondtam neki – foglyokat, akik négy, hat vagy éppen tizenkét esztendeje voltak már – pontosabban: voltak még mindig meg – koncentrációs táborban. Mármost ezeknek az embereknek mindezt a négy, hat vagy tizenkét esztendo”t, vagyis utóbbi esetben tizenkétszer háromszázhatvanöt napot, azaz tizenkétszer, háromszázhatvanötször huszonnégy órát, továbbá tizenkétszer, háromszázhatvanötször, huszonnégyszer… s mindezt vissza, pillanatonként, percenként, óránként, naponként: vagyis végig az egészet el kellett valahogy tölteniök. Megint másrészt viszont – fu”ztem tovább – épp ez segíthetett o”nekik is, mert ha mindez a tizenkétszer, háromszázhatvanötször, huszonnégyszer, hatvanszor és újra hatvanszornyi ido” mind egyszerre, egyetlen csapással szakadt volna a nyakukba, úgy bizonyára ök se állták volna – mint ahogy így állani bírták – se testtel, sem aggyal. S mivel hallgatott, hozzátettem még: – Így kell hát körülbelül elképzelni. – Ö meg erre, ugyanúgy, mint elöbb, csak cigaretta helyett, amit idöközben eldobott már, ezúttal az arcát tartva mind a két kezében, s talán etto”l még tompább, még fojtottabb hangon azt mondta: – Nem, nem lehet elképzelni –, s részemröl ezt be is láttam. Gondoltam is: akkor hát, úgy látszik, ezért mondanak helyette inkább poklot, bizonyára.

Imre Kertész
Onbepaald door het lot  (Dutch)

Bij het station aangekomen, stapte ik op de tram omdat ik last kreeg van mijn voeten, bovendien was het een lijn die ik van vroeger kende. Op het open balkon ging een magere, oude vrouw met een eigenaardige, ouderwetse kanten kraag haastig opzij toen ze me zag. Weldra verscheen er een man met een pet en een uniform, die mijn kaartje wilde zien. Ik zei dat ik uit het buitenland kwam en geen geld bij me had. Hij monsterde mijn jas, keek eerst mij aan en vervolgens de oude vrouw en zei toen dat er bepaalde voorschriften golden voor het passagiersvervoer, die overigens niet door hem, maar ‘door de lui boven hem’ waren gemaakt. Als ik geen geld had voor een kaartje, moest ik de tram verlaten. Ik antwoordde dat ik pijn in mijn voeten had, waarop de oude vrouw haar blik afwendde en naar de straat keek, alsof ze beledigd was door mijn woorden, ja alsof ik haar een verwijt had gemaakt. Op dat ogenblik ging de tussendeur van het rijtuig open en kwam er een zwaar gebouwde, donkerharige man met een verwaarloosd uiterlijk het balkon op gestommeld die iets onverstaanbaars riep. Hij droeg een overhemd zonder stropdas en een lichtgekleurd linnen pak en had een aktentas in zijn hand. Aan een riem om zijn schouder hing iets wat eruitzag als een zwarte doos. ‘Wat heeft dat te betekenen?’ riep hij, en tegen de conducteur snauwde hij: ‘Geef die jongen oumiddellijk een kaartje!’ terwijl hij hem met een nogal bruusk gebaar een geldstuk overhandigde, of liever gezegd: toestopte. Ik wilde hem bedanken, maar hij onderbrak mij nog steeds boos om zich heen kijkend, en zei: ‘Bepaalde mensen hier zouden zich moeten schamen.’ De conducteur was echter al doorgelopen en de oude vrouw staarde nog steeds aandachtig naar de straat. Toen hij dit zag, wendde hij zich met een veel vriendelijker gezicht naar mij en vroeg: ‘Kom je net terug uit Duitsland, mijn jongen?’ ‘Ja’, zei ik. ‘Uit een concentratiekamp?’ ‘Natuurlijk.’ ‘Welk kamp?’ ‘Buchenwald.’ Hij zei dat hij daarvan had gehoord en noemde het een der meest beruchte krochten van de nazi-hel. ‘Waar ben je opgepakt?’ ‘In Boedapest.’ ‘Hoe lang heb je in het kamp gezeten?’ ‘Alles bij elkaar één jaar.’ ‘Die ogen van je zullen heel wat gezien hebben, jongen, veel gruwelijks’, zei hij toen hij dit hoorde, waarop ik niets terugzei. ‘Gelukkig is het nu allemaal voorbij’, vervolgde hij, en met een opgewekt gezicht naar de huizen wijzend waar de tram tussendoor ratelde, vroeg hij wat fik voelde nu ik weer thuis was en de stad terugzag. Ik zei: ‘Haat.’ Even zweeg hij, maar toen zei hij dat hij vreesde mijn gevoelens te moeten begrijpen. Overigens waren haatgevoelens volgens hem ‘in bepaalde situaties’ zeer functioneel en zelfs ‘nuttig’, wat ik waarschijnlijk uit eigen ervaring wel wist. Hij zei ook nog: ‘Ik weet heel goed wie je haat.’ Ik antwoordde: ‘Iedereen.’ Na dit antwoord zweeg hij opnieuw en nu duurde het veel langer voordat hij weer begon te spreken. Hij vroeg: ‘Heb je veel gruwelijke dingen meegemaakt?’ Ik zei hem dat ik die vraag moeilijk kon beantwoorden omdat ik niet wist wat hij met ‘gruwelijk’ bedoelde. ‘Je hebt ongetwijfeld veel ontberingen moeten doorstaan en honger geleden en misschien hebben ze je in het kamp ook geslagen’, zei hij met een enigszins gespannen gelaatsuitdrukking.’ Ik antwoordde: ’Natuurlijk.’ Daarop riep hij luid: ‘Waarom antwoord je op alles wat ik zeg „natuurlijk”, beste jongen, terwijl we het over zaken hebben die helemaal niet natuurlijk zijn?’ Ik had de indruk dat hij op het punt stond zijn geduld te verliezen en zei: ‘In een concentratiekamp zijn ze wel natuurlijk.’ ‘Nu ja, goed, daar misschien wel, maar…’ – op dat punt aangeland bleef hij even steken en aarzelde hij – ‘maar een concentratiekamp is op zichzelf niet natuurlijk.’ Dit laatste zei hij op opgeluchte toon, alsof hij eindelijk het juiste woord had gevonden. Ik gaf geen antwoord omdat ik langzamerhand begon in te zien dat je over sommige zaken eenvoudig niet kon discussiëren met buitenstaanders, die wat de kampen betreft totaal onwetend waren en als kleine kinderen konden worden beschouwd. Toen ik uit het raam keek, zag ik dat we het plein naderden waar ik moest uitstappen. Het lag er nog net zo bij als vroeger, maar de huizen waren wat grauwer en vervelozer dan bij mijn vertrek uit Boedapest en zagen er enigszins verwaarloosd uit. Ik zei tegen de onbekende dat ik mijn bestemming had bereikt en dus afscheid van hem moest nemen, maar hij wilde me kennelijk nog wat langer gezelschap houden en stapte eveneens uit. Buiten wees hij op een overschaduwd bankje waar de rugleuning van was verdwenen en hij stelde voor om daar even te gaan zitten.
Aanvankelijk wist hij niet goed hoe hij van wal moest steken. ‘Eigenlijk’, merkte hij op, ‘komen al die gruwelen nu pas aan het licht’, en hij voegde eraan toe ‘dat de wereld zich verbijsterd afvroeg hoe dit alles had kunnen gebeuren.’ Ik zei niets, waarop hij zich geheel naar mij toekeerde en onverwachts vroeg: ‘Zou je de mensen niet willen vertellen wat je allemaal hebt meegemaakt, mijn jongen?’ Ik was nogal verbaasd door deze vraag en antwoordde dat ik hem niet veel interessants te vertellen had, maar hij glimlachte flauwtjes en zei: ‘Niet mij, maar de wereld.’ Nog meer verbaasd dan eerst vroeg ik: ‘Maar wát zou ik dan moeten vertellen?’ ‘Wat een hel het concentratiekamp was’, antwoordde hij, waarop ik opmerkte dat ik daar niets over wist te zeggen omdat ik de hel niet kende en me die ook absoluut niet kon voorstellen. Hij zei daarop dat dit ook maar een vergelijking was. ‘Is een concentratiekamp dan geen hel?’ vroeg hij, en ik antwoordde met mijn hak kringetjes in het stof trekkend dat iedereen natuurlijk vrij was om zich bepaalde voorstellingen te maken, maar dat ik alleen wist wat een concentratiekamp was, althans ertigszins, doordat ik daar zelf in had gezeten, maar dat ik me bij het woord ‘hel’ niets kon voorstellen. ‘Maar als je je de hel toch probeert voor te stellen, hoe ziet die er dan uit?’ hield hij aan en ik antwoordde na nog wat nieuwe kringetjes te hebben getrokken: ‘Als een plaats waar je je niet kunt vervelen, en dat kon je in de kampen wel, zelfs in Auschwitz in bepaalde omstandigheden.’ Daarop zweeg hij enige tijd en vervolgens vroeg hij, bijna met tegenzin naar het scheen: ‘Heb je daar een verklaring voor?’ Na even nagedacht te hebben antwoordde ik: ‘Dat komt door de tijd.’ ‘Door de tijd? Wat bedoel je daarmee?’ ‘Ik bedoel dat de tijd helpt.’ ‘Helpt? Waarmee dan?’ ‘Met alles.’ Ik probeerde hem uit te leggen wat het was om op een misschien niet luxueus maar in elk geval acceptabel, goed onderhouden en schoon station aan te komen, waar de werkelijkheid pas langzaam en geleidelijk, als het ware stukje bij beetje, tot je doordrong. Zodra je een brokstukje van het geheel aan de weet was gekomen, diende zich alweer het volgende aan en tegen de tijd dat je alles wist, begreep je ook alles. Intussen keek je niet werkeloos toe, je deed wat je te doen stond, leefde, handelde, spande je in en trachtte aan de eisen te voldoen die bij elke nieuwe graad van inzicht hoorden. Als dit niet zo was geweest, als je niet geleidelijk met de werkelijkheid was geconfronteerd, maar door al die kennis onmiddellijk bij aankomst was overspoeld, hadden je hersenen en je hart dat waarschijnlijk niet kunnen verdragen. In dergelijke bewoordingen trachtte ik hem duidelijk te maken wat het is om in een concentratiekamp te zitten, waarop hij een rafelig kartonnen doosje uit zijn zak opdiepte en me een verfomfaaide sigaret aanbood, die ik niet accepteerde. Hij stak zelf wel op, maar na de rook tweemaal diep geïnhaleerd te hebben boog hij zijn bovenlichaam voorover, legde zijn ellebogen op zijn knieën en zei zonder me aan te kijken, op enigszins doffe, moedeloze toon: ‘Ik begrijp het.’ ‘Aan de andere kant’, vervolgde ik, ‘werkte de tijd ook tegen je, of laat ik zeggen in je nadeel, want je moest hem zien door te komen. Ik heb gevangenen gezien die al vier, zes of meer jaren in het kamp zaten, beter gezegd nog in het kamp zaten, en sommigen zelfs twaalf jaar. Deze mensen moesten vier, zes of twaalf lange jaren doorkomen, in het laatste geval dus twaalfmaal driehonderdvijfenzestig dagen, oftewel twaalfmaal driehonderdvijfenzestig maal vierentwintig uren, dat wil zeggen twaalfmaal driehonderdvijfenzestig maal vierentwintig… enzovoort. Al die seconden, minuten, uren, dagen, die hele lange tijd, moesten ze het op de een of andere manier zien vol te houden. En toch… toch was dit juist hun geluk, want als ze die onmetelijke hoeveelheid van twaalfmaal driehonderdvijfenzestig maal vierentwintig maal zestig maal nog eens zestig seconden in één keer over zich uitgestort hadden gekregen, waren ze daar vast niet tegen bestand geweest, lichamelijk noch geestelijk, terwijl ze dat nu wel waren.’ ‘Toen de man bleef zwijgen, voegde ik er nog aan toe: ’Zo moet u zich dat ongeveer voorstellen.’ Hiecrop gooide hij zijn sigaret weg en zei, nog steeds in dezelfde gebogen houding gezeten maar met zijn handen zijn gezicht bedekkend: ‘Nee, ik kán me dat niet voorstellen!’ Zijn stem klonk nog doffer dan daarstraks, bijna verstikt, zodat ik begreep dat hij daar werkelijk niet toe in staat was. Ik dacht: daarom noemen buitenstaanders de kampen natuurlijk graag een hel.

Henry Kammer
Publisher    Van Gennep, Amsterdam
Source of the quotation    p. 226-231.

Imre Kertész
Fateless  (English)
On reaching the train station, I climbed aboard a streetcar because my leg was hurting and because I recognized one out of many with a familiar number. A thin old woman wearing a strange, old-fashioned lace collar moved away from me. Soon a man came by with a hat and a uniform and asked to see my ticket. I told him I had none. He insisted that I should buy one. I said I had just come back from abroad and was penniless. He looked at my coat, then at me, then at the old woman, and then he informed me that there were rules governing public transportation that not he but people above him had made. He said that if I didn’t buy a ticket, I’d have to get off. I told him my leg ached, and I noticed that the old woman responded to this by turning to look outside the window, in an insulted way, as if I were somehow accusing her of who knows what. Then through the car’s open door a large, black-haired man noisily galloped in. He wore a shirt without a tie and a light canvas suit. From his shoulder a black box hung, and an attaché case was in his hand. „What a shame!” he shouted. „Give him a ticket,” he ordered, and he gave or rather pushed a coin toward the conductor. I tried to thank him, but he interrupted me, looking around, annoyed: „Some people ought to be ashamed of themselves!” he said, but the conductor was already gone. The old woman continued to stare outside.
Then with a softened voice he said to me: „Are you coming from Germany, son?” „Yes,” I said. „From a concentration camp?” „Yes, of course.” „Which one?” „Buchenwald.” „Yes,” he answered, he had heard of it-one of the „pits of Nazi hell.” „Where did they carry you away from?” „Budapest.” „How long were you there?” „One year.” „You must have seen a lot, son, a lot of terrible things,” he said, but I didn’t reply. „Anyway,” he went on, „what’s important is that it’s over, it’s finished,” and with a cheerful face pointing to the buildings that we were passing, he asked me to tell him what I now felt, being home again, seeing the city I had left. I answered, „Hatred.” He fell silent, but soon he observed that, unfortunately, he had to say that he understood how I felt. He also felt that „under certain circumstances” there is a place and a role for hatred, „even a benefit,” and, he added, he assumed that we understood each other, and he knew full well the people I hated. I told him, „Everyone.” Then he fell silent again, this time for a longer period, and then he asked: „Did you have to go through many horrors?” I answered, „That depends on what you call a horror.” Surely, he replied with a tense face, I had been deprived of a lot, had gone hungry, and had probably been beaten. I said, „Naturally.” „Why do you keep saying ‘naturally,’ son,” he exclaimed, seeming to lose his temper, „when you are referring to things that are not natural at all?” „In a concentration camp,” I said, „they are very natural.” „Yes, yes,” he gasped, „it’s true there, but … well … but the concentration camp itself is not natural.” He seemed to have found the appropriate expression, but I didn’t even answer him, because I began to understand that there are certain subjects you can’t discuss, it seems, with strangers, ignorant people, and children, one might say. Besides – I suddenly noticed an unchanged, only slightly more bare and uncared-for square – it was time for me to get off, and I told him so. But he came after me, and pointing to a backless bench over in the shade, he suggested, „Let’s sit down for a minute.”
First he seemed somewhat insecure. „To tell the truth,” he observed, „it’s only now that the horrors are beginning to surface, and the world is still standing speechless and without understanding before the question How could all this have happened?” I was quiet, but he turned toward me and said: „Son, wouldn’t you like to tell me about your experiences?” I was a little surprised and told him that I couldn’t tell him very many interesting things. Then he smiled a little and said, „Not to me, to the world.” Even more astonished, I replied, „What should I talk about?” „The hell of the camps,” he replied, but I answered that I couldn’t say anything about that because I didn’t know anything about hell and couldn’t even imagine what it was like. He assured me that this was simply a metaphor. „Shouldn’t we picture the concentration camp like hell?” he asked. I answered, while drawing circles in the dust with my heels, that people were free to ignore it according to their means and pleasure but that, as far as I was concerned, I was only able to picture the concentration camp because I knew it a bit, but I didn’t know hell at all. „But, still, if you tried,” he insisted. After a few more circles, I answered, „In that case I’d imagine it as a place where you can’t be bored. But,” I added, „you can be bored in a concentration camp, even in Auschwitz – given, of course, certain circumstances.” Then he fell silent and asked, almost as if it was against his will: „How do you explain that?” After giving it some thought, I said, „By the time.” „What do you mean `by the time’?” „Because time helps.” „Helps? How?” „It helps in every way.”
I tried to explain how fundamentally different it is, for instance, to be arriving at a station that is spectacularly white, clean, and neat, where everything becomes clear only gradually, step by step, on schedule. As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us. By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it. And while you come to understand everything gradually, you don’t remain idle at any moment: you are already attending to your new business; you live, you act, you move, you fulfill the new requirements of every new step of development. If, on the other hand, there were no schedule, no gradual enlightenment, if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it’s possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it. I tried to explain this to him as he fished out a torn package from his pocket and offered me a wrinkled cigarette, which I declined. Then, after two large inhalations, supporting his elbows on his knees with his upper body leaning forward, he said, without looking at me, in a colorless, dull voice: „I understand.”
„On the other hand,” I continued, „there is the unfortunate disadvantage that you somehow have to pass away the time. I’ve seen prisoners who were there for 4, 6, or even 12 years or more who were still hanging on in the camp. And these people had to spend these 4, 6, or 12 years times 365 days-that is, 12 times 365 times 24 hours – in other words, they had to somehow occupy the time by the second, the minute, the day. But then again,” I added, „that may have been precisely what helped them too, because if the whole time period had descended on them in one fell swoop, they probably wouldn’t have been able to bear it, either physically or mentally, the way they did.” Because he was silent, I added: „You have to imagine it this way.” He answered the same as before, except now he covered his face with his hands, threw the cigarette away, and then said in a somewhat more subdued, duller voice: „No, you can’t imagine it.” I, for my part, thought to myself. „That’s probably why they say `hell’ instead.”

Christopher C. Wilson, Katharina M. Wilson
Wilson, Katharina M.; Wilson, Christopher C.

Imre Kertész
Los utracony (Polish)

Dochodza;c do dworca, poniewaz. noga zaczyna?a juz. porza;dnie dawac’ mi sie; we znaki, a takz.e dlatego, z.e w?as’nie zatrzyma? sie; przede mna; jeden ze znanych mi z dawna numerów, wsiad?em do tramwaju. Na otwartym pomos’cie sta?a nieco z boku chuda, stara kobieta w dziwacznym, staromodnym koronkowym ko?nierzu. Wkrótce przyszed? jakis’ cz?owiek, w czapce, w mundurze, i poprosi? o bilet. Powiedzia?em mu: – Nie mam. – Zaproponowa?, z.ebym kupi?. Rzek?em: – Nie mam pienie;dzy. – Wtedy przyjrza? sie; mojej kurtce, mnie, potem równiez. starej kobiecie, i poinformowa? mnie, z.e jazda tramwajem ma swoje prawa i te prawa wymys’li? nie on, lecz ci, którzy stoja; nad nirn. – Jes’li pan nie wykupi biletu, musi pan wysia;s’c’ – orzek?. Powiedzia?em mu: – Ale przeciez. boli mnie noga – i wtedy zauwaz.y?em, z.e stara kobieta odwróci?a sie; i patrzy?a na ulice; z obraz.ona; mina;, jakbym mia? do niej pretensje, nie wiadomo dlaczego. Ale przez otwarte drzwi wagonu wpad?, czynia;c juz. z daleka wielki ha?as, postawny, czarnow?osy, rozczochrany me;z.czyzna. Nosi? rozpie;ta; koszule; i jasny p?ócienny garnitur, na ramieniu zawieszone na pasku czarne pude?ko i teczce; w re;ku. – Co tu sie; dzieje? – wykrzykna;? i zarza;dzi?: – Niech mu pan da bilet – wycia;gaja;c, raczej wpychaja;c konduktorowi pienia;dze. Próbowa?em podzie;kowac’, ale mi przerwa?, rozgla;daja;c sie; ze z?os’cia; dooko?a: – Raczej niektórzy powinni sie; wstydzic’ – oznajmi?, ale konduktor by? juz. w s’rodku, a stara kobieta nadal patrzy?a na ulice;. Wtedy ze z?agodnia?a; twarza; zwróci? sie; do mnie. Zapyta?: – Wracasz z Niemiec, synu? – Talc.- Zobozu?- Oczywis’cie.- Zktórego?- Z Buchenwaldu. – Tak, juz. o nim s?ysza?, wie, to takz.e „by?o dno nazistowskiego piek?a”, powiedzia?. – Ska;d cie; wiez’li? – Z Budapesztu. – Jak d?ugo tam by?es’? – Rok, ca?y rok. – Musia?es’ duz.o widziec’, synku, duz.o okrucien’stw -rzek?, a ja nic nie odpowiedzia?em. – No, ale – cia;gna;? – najwaz.niejsze, z.e to juz. koniec, mine;?o – i wskazuja;c z pojas’nia?a; twarza; domy, obok których w?as’nie’my, zainteresowa? sie;: co teraz czuje;, znów w domu i na widok miasta, które opus’ci?em? Odpar?em mu: – Nienawis’c’. – Zamilk?, ale wkrótce zauwaz.y?, z.e niestety rozumie moje uczucia. Nawiasem mówia;c, wed?ug niego „w danej sytuacji” nienawis’c’ takz.e ma swoje miejsce i role;, „jest nawet poz.yteczna”, i przypuszcza, doda?, z.e sie; zgadzamy i on dobrze wie, kogo nienawidze;. Powiedzia?em mu: – Wszystkich. – Znów zamilk?, tym razem na d?uz.ej, a potem zacza;? na nowo: – Przeszed?es’ wiele potwornos’ci? – a ja odpar?em, z.e zalez.y, co uwaz.a za potwornos’c’. Na pewno, powiedzia? na to z troche; zaz.enowana; mina;, musia?em duz.o biedowac’, g?odowac’, i prawdopodobnie mnie takz.e bita, a ja mu powiedzia?em: – Oczywis’cie. – Dlaczego, synu – wykrzykna;? i widzia?em, z.e juz. traci cierpliwos’c’ – mówisz na wszystko „oczywis’cie”, i to zawsze wtedy, kiedy cos’ w ogóle nie jest oczywiste?! – Rzek?em: – W obozie koncentracyjnym jest oczywiste. – Tak, tak – on -tam tak, ale… – i utkna;?, zawaha? sie; troche;- ale… przeciez. sam obóz koncentracyjny nie jest oczywisty! – jakby wreszcie znalaz? w?as’ciwe s?owa, i nic mu nie odpowiedzia?em, poniewaz. z wolna zaczyna?em pojmowac’: o takich czy innych rzeczach nie dyskutuje sie; z obcymi, nies’wiadomymi, w pewnym sensie dziec’mi, z.e tak powiem. Zreszta; dostrzeg?em niezmiennie be;da;cy na swoim miejscu i tylko troche; bardziej pusty, bardziej zaniedbany plac: pora wysiadac’, i powiedzia?em mu o tym. AIe wysiad? ze mna; i wskazuja;c nieco dalsza;, zacieniona; ?awke;, która straci?a oparcie, zaproponowa?: – Moz.e usiedlibys’my na minutke;.
Najpierw mia? troche; niepewna; mine;. W istocie, zauwaz.y?, dopiero teraz zaczynaja; sie; „naprawde; ujawniac’ koszmary”, i doda?, z.e „s’wiat stoi na razie bezrozumnie przed pytaniem: jak, w jaki sposób mog?o sie; to wszystko w ogóle zdarzyc'”. Nic nie powiedzia?em, wtedy odwróci? sie; do mnie i nagle zapyta?: – Nie zechcia?bys’, synku, zrelacjonowac’ swoich przez.yc’? – Troche; sie; zdziwi?em i odpar?em, z.e w?as’ciwie nie mia?bym mu nic szczególnie ciekawego do powiedzenia. Na to sie; lekko us’miechna;? i powiedzia?: – Nie mnie, s’wiatu – na co jeszcze bardziej zdziwiony zapyta?em: – Ale o czym? – O piekle obozów – odpar?, na co zauwaz.y?em, z.e o tym to juz. w ogóle nic nie móg?bym powiedziec’, poniewaz. nie znam piek?a i nawet nie potrafi?bym go sobie wyobrazic’. Ale on oznajmi?, z.e to tylko taka przenos’nia: – Czyz. nie jako piek?o- spyta?- wyobraz.amy sobie obóz koncentracyjny? – a ja mu na to, zakres’laja;c przy tym obcasem kilka kó?ek w kurzu, z.e piek?o kaz.dy moz.e sobie’ na swój sposób i jes’li o mnie chodzi, to potrafie; sobie wyobrazic’ tylko obóz koncentracyjny, bo obóz troche; znam, piek?a natomiast nie. – Ale, gdyby, powiedzmy, jednak? – upiera? sie; i po kilku nowych kó?kach odpar?em: – To wyobraz.a?bym sobie, z.e jest to takie miejsce, gdzie nie sie; nudzic’, w obozie zas’ – doda?em -by?o, nawet w Os’wie;cimiu, rzecz jasna w pewnych warunkach. – Troche; milcza?, a potem jeszcze zapyta?, ale wyczu?em, z’e juz. jakos’ niemal wbrew woli: – Czym to t?umaczysz? – i po krótkim namys’le oznajmi?em: – Czasem. – Dlaczego czasem? – Bo czas pomaga. – Pomaga?… W czym?- We wszystkim – i próbowa?em mu wyt?umaczyc’, jaka to ca?kiem inna sprawa przyjechac’, na przyk?ad, na jes’li nawet nie wspania?a;, to ca?kiem do przyje;cia, czysta;, schludna; stacje;, gdzie powolutku, w porza;dku chronologicznym, stopniowo zaczyna sie; nam wszystko klarowac’. Kiedy mamy za soba; jeden etap, juz. przychodzi naste;pny. Kiedy sie; wszystkiego dowiemy, to rozumiemy tez. wszystko. A kiedy sie; cz?owiek wszystkiego dowiaduje, nie pozostaje bezczynny: wykonuje nowe zadanie, z.yje, dzia?a, porusza sie;, spe?nia wszystkie nowe wymagania wszystkich nowych etapów. Gdyby natomiast nie by?o tej chronologii i gdyby ca?a wiedza rune;?a nam na g?owe; od razu tam na stacji, to moz.e nie wytrzyma?aby tego ani g?owa, ani serce, próbowa?em mu jakos’ wyjas’nic’, na co wycia;gna;wszy z kieszeni poszarpana; paczke;, podsuna;? mi pogniecione papierosy, ale odmówi?em, patem zacia;gna;? sie; mocno dwa razy i opieraja;c ?okcie na kolanach, pochylony, nawet na mnie nie patrza;c, powiedzia? jakims’ troche; matowym, g?uchym g?osem: – Rozumiem. – Z drugiej strony – cia;gna;?em – wada;, powiedzia?bym, b?e;dem, jest to, z.e trzeba wype?nic’ czas. Widzia?em na przyk?ad – powiedzia?em mu – wie;z’niów, którzy cztery, szes’c’, a nawet dwanas’cie lat byli juz., a dok?adniej, wcia;z. jeszcze byli, w obozie. Otóz. ci ludzie musieli jakos’ wype?nic’ te cztery, szes’c’ czy dwanas’cie lat, czyli w ostatnim przypadku dwanas’cie razy po trzysta szes’c’dziesia;t pie;c’ dni, to jest dwanas’cie razy trzysta szes’c’dziesia;t pie;c’ razy dwadzies’cia cztery godziny, dalej: dwanas’cie razy trzysta szes’c’dziesia;t pie;c’ razy dwadzies’cia cztery razy… i wszystko od nowa, co chwile;, minute;, godzine;, dzien’, czyli z.e musza; ca?y ten czas jakos’ wype?nic’. Z drugiej natomiast strony- cia;gna;?em dalej – w?as’nie to mog?o im pomóc, bo gdyby ten ca?y czas, to znaczy dwanas’cie razy trzysta szes’c’dziesia;t pie;c’, razy dwadzies’cia cztery razy szes’c’dziesia;t i znów razy szes’c’dziesia;t, zlecia? im jednoczes’nie i za jednym zamachem na kark, to na pewno nie byliby tacy, jak sa;, ani jes’li idzie o g?owe;, ani o cia?o. – A poniewaz. milcza?, doda?em jeszcze: – A wie;c tak to mniej wie;cej trzeba sobie’. – A on na to tak samo jak przedtem, tylko zamiast papierosa, którego juz. tymczasem wyrzuci?, tym razem trzymaja;c w obu d?oniach twarz i moz.e przez to jeszcze bardziej g?uchym i jeszcze bardziej st?umionym g?osem powiedzia?: – Nie, nie sobie wyobrazic’ – i ja ze swojej strony zrozumia?em go. Pomys’la?em tez.: zatem, jak widac’, dlatego zamiast „obóz” mówia; „piek?o”, na pewno.

Pisarska, Krystyna
Source of the quotation : Los utracony, p. 250-255., WAB, Varsó, 2001



More in: Archive K-L, Kertész, Imre

Jack London: The Water Baby

londonjack 04

Jack London



The Water Baby

I lent a weary ear to old Kohokumu’s interminable chanting of the

deeds and adventures of Maui, the Promethean demi-god of Polynesia

who fished up dry land from ocean depths with hooks made fast to

heaven, who lifted up the sky whereunder previously men had gone on

all-fours, not having space to stand erect, and who made the sun

with its sixteen snared legs stand still and agree thereafter to

traverse the sky more slowly–the sun being evidently a trade

unionist and believing in the six-hour day, while Maui stood for

the open shop and the twelve-hour day.


“Now this,” said Kohokumu, “is from Queen Lililuokalani’s own

family mele:


“Maui became restless and fought the sun

With a noose that he laid.

And winter won the sun,

And summer was won by Maui . . . “


Born in the Islands myself, I knew the Hawaiian myths better than

this old fisherman, although I possessed not his memorization that

enabled him to recite them endless hours.


“And you believe all this?” I demanded in the sweet Hawaiian



“It was a long time ago,” he pondered. “I never saw Maui with my

own eyes. But all our old men from all the way back tell us these

things, as I, an old man, tell them to my sons and grandsons, who

will tell them to their sons and grandsons all the way ahead to



“You believe,” I persisted, “that whopper of Maui roping the sun

like a wild steer, and that other whopper of heaving up the sky

from off the earth?”


“I am of little worth, and am not wise, O Lakana,” my fisherman

made answer. “Yet have I read the Hawaiian Bible the missionaries

translated to us, and there have I read that your Big Man of the

Beginning made the earth, and sky, and sun, and moon, and stars,

and all manner of animals from horses to cockroaches and from

centipedes and mosquitoes to sea lice and jellyfish, and man and

woman, and everything, and all in six days. Why, Maui didn’t do

anything like that much. He didn’t make anything. He just put

things in order, that was all, and it took him a long, long time to

make the improvements. And anyway, it is much easier and more

reasonable to believe the little whopper than the big whopper.”


And what could I reply? He had me on the matter of reasonableness.

Besides, my head ached. And the funny thing, as I admitted it to

myself, was that evolution teaches in no uncertain voice that man

did run on all-fours ere he came to walk upright, that astronomy

states flatly that the speed of the revolution of the earth on its

axis has diminished steadily, thus increasing the length of day,

and that the seismologists accept that all the islands of Hawaii

were elevated from the ocean floor by volcanic action.


Fortunately, I saw a bamboo pole, floating on the surface several

hundred feet away, suddenly up-end and start a very devil’s dance.

This was a diversion from the profitless discussion, and Kohokumu

and I dipped our paddles and raced the little outrigger canoe to

the dancing pole. Kohokumu caught the line that was fast to the

butt of the pole and under-handed it in until a two-foot ukikiki,

battling fiercely to the end, flashed its wet silver in the sun and

began beating a tattoo on the inside bottom of the canoe. Kohokumu

picked up a squirming, slimy squid, with his teeth bit a chunk of

live bait out of it, attached the bait to the hook, and dropped

line and sinker overside. The stick floated flat on the surface of

the water, and the canoe drifted slowly away. With a survey of the

crescent composed of a score of such sticks all lying flat,

Kohokumu wiped his hands on his naked sides and lifted the

wearisome and centuries-old chant of Kuali:


“Oh, the great fish-hook of Maui!

Manai-i-ka-lani–“made fast to the heavens”!

An earth-twisted cord ties the hook,

Engulfed from lofty Kauiki!

Its bait the red-billed Alae,

The bird to Hina sacred!

It sinks far down to Hawaii,

Struggling and in pain dying!

Caught is the land beneath the water,

Floated up, up to the surface,

But Hina hid a wing of the bird

And broke the land beneath the water!

Below was the bait snatched away

And eaten at once by the fishes,

The Ulua of the deep muddy places!


His aged voice was hoarse and scratchy from the drinking of too

much swipes at a funeral the night before, nothing of which

contributed to make me less irritable. My head ached. The sun-

glare on the water made my eyes ache, while I was suffering more

than half a touch of mal de mer from the antic conduct of the

outrigger on the blobby sea. The air was stagnant. In the lee of

Waihee, between the white beach and the roof, no whisper of breeze

eased the still sultriness. I really think I was too miserable to

summon the resolution to give up the fishing and go in to shore.


Lying back with closed eyes, I lost count of time. I even forgot

that Kohokumu was chanting till reminded of it by his ceasing. An

exclamation made me bare my eyes to the stab of the sun. He was

gazing down through the water-glass.


“It’s a big one,” he said, passing me the device and slipping over-

side feet-first into the water.


He went under without splash and ripple, turned over and swam down.

I followed his progress through the water-glass, which is merely an

oblong box a couple of feet long, open at the top, the bottom

sealed water-tight with a sheet of ordinary glass.


Now Kohokumu was a bore, and I was squeamishly out of sorts with

him for his volubleness, but I could not help admiring him as I

watched him go down. Past seventy years of age, lean as a

toothpick, and shrivelled like a mummy, he was doing what few young

athletes of my race would do or could do. It was forty feet to

bottom. There, partly exposed, but mostly hidden under the bulge

of a coral lump, I could discern his objective. His keen eyes had

caught the projecting tentacle of a squid. Even as he swam, the

tentacle was lazily withdrawn, so that there was no sign of the

creature. But the brief exposure of the portion of one tentacle

had advertised its owner as a squid of size.


The pressure at a depth of forty feet is no joke for a young man,

yet it did not seem to inconvenience this oldster. I am certain it

never crossed his mind to be inconvenienced. Unarmed, bare of body

save for a brief malo or loin cloth, he was undeterred by the

formidable creature that constituted his prey. I saw him steady

himself with his right hand on the coral lump, and thrust his left

arm into the hole to the shoulder. Half a minute elapsed, during

which time he seemed to be groping and rooting around with his left

hand. Then tentacle after tentacle, myriad-suckered and wildly

waving, emerged. Laying hold of his arm, they writhed and coiled

about his flesh like so many snakes. With a heave and a jerk

appeared the entire squid, a proper devil-fish or octopus.


But the old man was in no hurry for his natural element, the air

above the water. There, forty feet beneath, wrapped about by an

octopus that measured nine feet across from tentacle-tip to

tentacle-tip and that could well drown the stoutest swimmer, he

coolly and casually did the one thing that gave to him and his

empery over the monster. He shoved his lean, hawk-like face into

the very centre of the slimy, squirming mass, and with his several

ancient fangs bit into the heart and the life of the matter. This

accomplished, he came upward, slowly, as a swimmer should who is

changing atmospheres from the depths. Alongside the canoe, still

in the water and peeling off the grisly clinging thing, the

incorrigible old sinner burst into the pule of triumph which had

been chanted by the countless squid-catching generations before



“O Kanaloa of the taboo nights!

Stand upright on the solid floor!

Stand upon the floor where lies the squid!

Stand up to take the squid of the deep sea!

Rise up, O Kanaloa!

Stir up! Stir up! Let the squid awake!

Let the squid that lies flat awake! Let the squid that lies spread

out . . . “


I closed my eyes and ears, not offering to lend him a hand, secure

in the knowledge that he could climb back unaided into the unstable

craft without the slightest risk of upsetting it.


“A very fine squid,” he crooned. “It is a wahine” (female) “squid.

I shall now sing to you the song of the cowrie shell, the red

cowrie shell that we used as a bait for the squid–“


“You were disgraceful last night at the funeral,” I headed him off.

“I heard all about it. You made much noise. You sang till

everybody was deaf. You insulted the son of the widow. You drank

swipes like a pig. Swipes are not good for your extreme age. Some

day you will wake up dead. You ought to be a wreck to-day–“


“Ha!” he chuckled. “And you, who drank no swipes, who was a babe

unborn when I was already an old man, who went to bed last night

with the sun and the chickens–this day are you a wreck. Explain

me that. My ears are as thirsty to listen as was my throat thirsty

last night. And here to-day, behold, I am, as that Englishman who

came here in his yacht used to say, I am in fine form, in devilish

fine form.”


“I give you up,” I retorted, shrugging my shoulders. “Only one

thing is clear, and that is that the devil doesn’t want you.

Report of your singing has gone before you.”


“No,” he pondered the idea carefully. “It is not that. The devil

will be glad for my coming, for I have some very fine songs for

him, and scandals and old gossips of the high aliis that will make

him scratch his sides. So, let me explain to you the secret of my

birth. The Sea is my mother. I was born in a double-canoe, during

a Kona gale, in the channel of Kahoolawe. From her, the Sea, my

mother, I received my strength. Whenever I return to her arms, as

for a breast-clasp, as I have returned this day, I grow strong

again and immediately. She, to me, is the milk-giver, the life-



“Shades of Antaeus!” thought I.


“Some day,” old Kohokumu rambled on, “when I am really old, I shall

be reported of men as drowned in the sea. This will be an idle

thought of men. In truth, I shall have returned into the arms of

my mother, there to rest under the heart of her breast until the

second birth of me, when I shall emerge into the sun a flashing

youth of splendour like Maui himself when he was golden young.”


“A queer religion,” I commented.


“When I was younger I muddled my poor head over queerer religions,”

old Kohokumu retorted. “But listen, O Young Wise One, to my

elderly wisdom. This I know: as I grow old I seek less for the

truth from without me, and find more of the truth from within me.

Why have I thought this thought of my return to my mother and of my

rebirth from my mother into the sun? You do not know. I do not

know, save that, without whisper of man’s voice or printed word,

without prompting from otherwhere, this thought has arisen from

within me, from the deeps of me that are as deep as the sea. I am

not a god. I do not make things. Therefore I have not made this

thought. I do not know its father or its mother. It is of old

time before me, and therefore it is true. Man does not make truth.

Man, if he be not blind, only recognizes truth when he sees it. Is

this thought that I have thought a dream?”


“Perhaps it is you that are a dream,” I laughed. “And that I, and

sky, and sea, and the iron-hard land, are dreams, all dreams.”


“I have often thought that,” he assured me soberly. “It may well

be so. Last night I dreamed I was a lark bird, a beautiful singing

lark of the sky like the larks on the upland pastures of Haleakala.

And I flew up, up, toward the sun, singing, singing, as old

Kohokumu never sang. I tell you now that I dreamed I was a lark

bird singing in the sky. But may not I, the real I, be the lark

bird? And may not the telling of it be the dream that I, the lark

bird, am dreaming now? Who are you to tell me ay or no? Dare you

tell me I am not a lark bird asleep and dreaming that I am old



I shrugged my shoulders, and he continued triumphantly:


“And how do you know but what you are old Maui himself asleep and

dreaming that you are John Lakana talking with me in a canoe? And

may you not awake old Maui yourself, and scratch your sides and say

that you had a funny dream in which you dreamed you were a haole?”


“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe me.”


“There is much more in dreams than we know,” he assured me with

great solemnity. “Dreams go deep, all the way down, maybe to

before the beginning. May not old Maui have only dreamed he pulled

Hawaii up from the bottom of the sea? Then would this Hawaii land

be a dream, and you, and I, and the squid there, only parts of

Maui’s dream? And the lark bird too?”


He sighed and let his head sink on his breast.


“And I worry my old head about the secrets undiscoverable,” he

resumed, “until I grow tired and want to forget, and so I drink

swipes, and go fishing, and sing old songs, and dream I am a lark

bird singing in the sky. I like that best of all, and often I

dream it when I have drunk much swipes . . . “


In great dejection of mood he peered down into the lagoon through

the water-glass.


“There will be no more bites for a while,” he announced. “The

fish-sharks are prowling around, and we shall have to wait until

they are gone. And so that the time shall not be heavy, I will

sing you the canoe-hauling song to Lono. You remember:


“Give to me the trunk of the tree, O Lono!

Give me the tree’s main root, O Lono!

Give me the ear of the tree, O Lono!–“


“For the love of mercy, don’t sing!” I cut him short. “I’ve got a

headache, and your singing hurts. You may be in devilish fine form

to-day, but your throat is rotten. I’d rather you talked about

dreams, or told me whoppers.”


“It is too bad that you are sick, and you so young,” he conceded

cheerily. “And I shall not sing any more. I shall tell you

something you do not know and have never heard; something that is

no dream and no whopper, but is what I know to have happened. Not

very long ago there lived here, on the beach beside this very

lagoon, a young boy whose name was Keikiwai, which, as you know,

means Water Baby. He was truly a water baby. His gods were the

sea and fish gods, and he was born with knowledge of the language

of fishes, which the fishes did not know until the sharks found it

out one day when they heard him talk it.


“It happened this way. The word had been brought, and the

commands, by swift runners, that the king was making a progress

around the island, and that on the next day a luau” (feast) “was to

be served him by the dwellers here of Waihee. It was always a

hardship, when the king made a progress, for the few dwellers in

small places to fill his many stomachs with food. For he came

always with his wife and her women, with his priests and sorcerers,

his dancers and flute-players, and hula-singers, and fighting men

and servants, and his high chiefs with their wives, and sorcerers,

and fighting men, and servants.


“Sometimes, in small places like Waihee, the path of his journey

was marked afterward by leanness and famine. But a king must be

fed, and it is not good to anger a king. So, like warning in

advance of disaster, Waihee heard of his coming, and all food-

getters of field and pond and mountain and sea were busied with

getting food for the feast. And behold, everything was got, from

the choicest of royal taro to sugar-cane joints for the roasting,

from opihis to limu, from fowl to wild pig and poi-fed puppies–

everything save one thing. The fishermen failed to get lobsters.


“Now be it known that the king’s favourite food was lobster. He

esteemed it above all kai-kai” (food), “and his runners had made

special mention of it. And there were no lobsters, and it is not

good to anger a king in the belly of him. Too many sharks had come

inside the reef. That was the trouble. A young girl and an old

man had been eaten by them. And of the young men who dared dive

for lobsters, one was eaten, and one lost an arm, and another lost

one hand and one foot.


“But there was Keikiwai, the Water Baby, only eleven years old, but

half fish himself and talking the language of fishes. To his

father the head men came, begging him to send the Water Baby to get

lobsters to fill the king’s belly and divert his anger.


“Now this what happened was known and observed. For the fishermen,

and their women, and the taro-growers and the bird-catchers, and

the head men, and all Waihee, came down and stood back from the

edge of the rock where the Water Baby stood and looked down at the

lobsters far beneath on the bottom.


“And a shark, looking up with its cat’s eyes, observed him, and

sent out the shark-call of ‘fresh meat’ to assemble all the sharks

in the lagoon. For the sharks work thus together, which is why

they are strong. And the sharks answered the call till there were

forty of them, long ones and short ones and lean ones and round

ones, forty of them by count; and they talked to one another,

saying: ‘Look at that titbit of a child, that morsel delicious of

human-flesh sweetness without the salt of the sea in it, of which

salt we have too much, savoury and good to eat, melting to delight

under our hearts as our bellies embrace it and extract from it its



“Much more they said, saying: ‘He has come for the lobsters. When

he dives in he is for one of us. Not like the old man we ate

yesterday, tough to dryness with age, nor like the young men whose

members were too hard-muscled, but tender, so tender that he will

melt in our gullets ere our bellies receive him. When he dives in,

we will all rush for him, and the lucky one of us will get him,

and, gulp, he will be gone, one bite and one swallow, into the

belly of the luckiest one of us.’


“And Keikiwai, the Water Baby, heard the conspiracy, knowing the

shark language; and he addressed a prayer, in the shark language,

to the shark god Moku-halii, and the sharks heard and waved their

tails to one another and winked their cat’s eyes in token that they

understood his talk. And then he said: ‘I shall now dive for a

lobster for the king. And no hurt shall befall me, because the

shark with the shortest tail is my friend and will protect me.


“And, so saying, he picked up a chunk of lava-rock and tossed it

into the water, with a big splash, twenty feet to one side. The

forty sharks rushed for the splash, while he dived, and by the time

they discovered they had missed him, he had gone to bottom and come

back and climbed out, within his hand a fat lobster, a wahine

lobster, full of eggs, for the king.


“‘Ha!’ said the sharks, very angry. ‘There is among us a traitor.

The titbit of a child, the morsel of sweetness, has spoken, and has

exposed the one among us who has saved him. Let us now measure the

lengths of our tails!


“Which they did, in a long row, side by side, the shorter-tailed

ones cheating and stretching to gain length on themselves, the

longer-tailed ones cheating and stretching in order not to be out-

cheated and out-stretched. They were very angry with the one with

the shortest tail, and him they rushed upon from every side and

devoured till nothing was left of him.


“Again they listened while they waited for the Water Baby to dive

in. And again the Water Baby made his prayer in the shark language

to Moku-halii, and said: ‘The shark with the shortest tail is my

friend and will protect me.’ And again the Water Baby tossed in a

chunk of lava, this time twenty feet away off to the other side.

The sharks rushed for the splash, and in their haste ran into one

another, and splashed with their tails till the water was all foam,

and they could see nothing, each thinking some other was swallowing

the titbit. And the Water Baby came up and climbed out with

another fat lobster for the king.


“And the thirty-nine sharks measured tails, devoting the one with

the shortest tail, so that there were only thirty-eight sharks.

And the Water Baby continued to do what I have said, and the sharks

to do what I have told you, while for each shark that was eaten by

his brothers there was another fat lobster laid on the rock for the

king. Of course, there was much quarrelling and argument among the

sharks when it came to measuring tails; but in the end it worked

out in rightness and justice, for, when only two sharks were left,

they were the two biggest of the original forty.


“And the Water Baby again claimed the shark with the shortest tail

was his friend, fooled the two sharks with another lava-chunk, and

brought up another lobster. The two sharks each claimed the other

had the shorter tail, and each fought to eat the other, and the one

with the longer tail won–“


“Hold, O Kohokumu!” I interrupted. “Remember that that shark had



“I know just what you are going to say,” he snatched his recital

back from me. “And you are right. It took him so long to eat the

thirty-ninth shark, for inside the thirty-ninth shark were already

the nineteen other sharks he had eaten, and inside the fortieth

shark were already the nineteen other sharks he had eaten, and he

did not have the appetite he had started with. But do not forget

he was a very big shark to begin with.


“It took him so long to eat the other shark, and the nineteen

sharks inside the other shark, that he was still eating when

darkness fell, and the people of Waihee went away home with all the

lobsters for the king. And didn’t they find the last shark on the

beach next morning dead, and burst wide open with all he had



Kohokumu fetched a full stop and held my eyes with his own shrewd



“Hold, O Lakana!” he checked the speech that rushed to my tongue.

“I know what next you would say. You would say that with my own

eyes I did not see this, and therefore that I do not know what I

have been telling you. But I do know, and I can prove it. My

father’s father knew the grandson of the Water Baby’s father’s

uncle. Also, there, on the rocky point to which I point my finger

now, is where the Water Baby stood and dived. I have dived for

lobsters there myself. It is a great place for lobsters. Also,

and often, have I seen sharks there. And there, on the bottom, as

I should know, for I have seen and counted them, are the thirty-

nine lava-rocks thrown in by the Water Baby as I have described.”


“But–” I began.


“Ha!” he baffled me. “Look! While we have talked the fish have

begun again to bite.”


He pointed to three of the bamboo poles erect and devil-dancing in

token that fish were hooked and struggling on the lines beneath.

As he bent to his paddle, he muttered, for my benefit:


“Of course I know. The thirty-nine lava rocks are still there.

You can count them any day for yourself. Of course I know, and I

know for a fact.”



October 2, 1916.


From Jack London: ON THE MAKALOA MAT/ISLAND TALES  magazine

More in: Archive K-L, London, Jack

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