Last modification: 8/20/97 12:01PM
The Old Woman
. . . And between them the following conversation takes place.
In the courtyard an old woman is standing and holding a clock in her hands. I walk through, past the old woman, stop and ask her:
-- What time is it?
-- Have a look -- the old woman says to me.
I look and see that there are no hands on the clock.
-- There are no hands here -- I say.
The old woman looks at the clock face and tells me: -- It's now a quarter to three.
-- Oh, so that's what it is. Thank you very much -- I say and go on.
The old woman shouts something after me but I walk on without looking round. I go out on to the street and walk on the sunny side. The spring sun is very pleasant. I walk on, screwing up my eyes and smoking my pipe. On the corner of Sadovaya I happen to run into Sakerdon Mikhailovich. We say hello, stop and talk for a long time. I get fed up with standing on the street and I invite Sakerdon Mikhailovich into a cellar bar. We drink vodka, eat hard-boiled eggs and sprats and then say goodbye, and I walk on alone.
At this point I remember that I had forgotten to turn off the electric oven at home. This is very annoying. I turn round and walk home. The day had started so well and this was the first misfortune. I ought not to have taken to the street.
I get home, take off my jacket, take my watch out of my waistcoat pocket and hang it on a nail; then I lock the door and lie down on the couch. I shall recline and try to get to sleep.
The offensive shouting of urchins can be heard from the street. I lie there, thinking up various means of execution for them. My favourite one is to infect them all with tetanus so that they suddenly stop moving. Their parents can drag them all home. They will lie in their beds unable even to eat, because their mouths won't open. They will be fed artificially. After a week the tetanus can pass off, but the children will be so feeble that they will have to lie in their beds for a whole month. Then they will gradually start to recover but I shall infect them with a second dose of tetanus and they will all croak.
I lie on the couch with my eyes open and I can't get to sleep. I remember the old woman with the clock whom I saw today in the yard and feel pleased that there were no hands on her clock. Only the other day in the second-hand shop I saw a revolting kitchen clock and its hands were made in the form of a knife and fork.
Oh, my God! I still haven't turned off the electric oven! I jump up and turn it off, and then I lie down again on the couch and try to get to sleep. I close my eyes. I don't feel sleepy. The spring sun is shining in through the window, straight on to me. I start to feel hot. I get up and sit down in the armchair by the window.
Now I feel sleepy but I am not going to sleep. I get hold of a piece of paper and a pen and I am going to write. I feel within me a terrible power. I thought it all over as long ago as yesterday. It will be the story about a miracle worker who is living in our time and who doesn't work any miracles. He knows that he is a miracle worker and that he can perform any miracle, but he doesn't do so. He is thrown out of his flat and he knows that he only has to wave a finger and the flat will remain his, but he doesn't do this; he submissively moves out of the flat and lives out of town in a shed. He is capable of turning this shed into a fine brick house, but he doesn't do this; he carries on living in the shed and eventually dies, without having done a single miracle in the whole of his life.
I just sit and rub my hands with glee. Sakerdon Mikhailovich will burst with envy. He thinks that I am beyond writing anything of genius. Now then, now then, to work! Away with any kind of sleep and laziness! I shall write for eighteen hours straight off!
I am shaking all over with impatience. I am not able to think out what has to be done: I needed to take a pen and a piece of paper, but I grabbed various objects, not at all those that I needed. I ran about the room: from the window to the table, from the table to the oven, from the oven again to the table, then to the divan and again to the window. I was gasping from the flame which was ablaze in my breast. It's only five o'clock now. The whole day is ahead, and the evening, and all night is . . .
I stand in the middle of the room. Whatever am I thinking of? Why, it's already twenty past five. I must write. I move the table towards the window and sit down at it. A sheet of squared paper is in front of me, in my hand is a pen.
My heart is still beating too fast and my hand is shaking. I wait, so as to calm down a little. I put down my pen and fill my pipe. The sun is shining right in my eyes; I squint and light up my pipe.
And now a crow flies past the window. I look out of the window on to the street and see a man with an artificial leg walking along the pavement. He is knocking loudly with his leg and his stick.
-- So -- I say to myself, continuing to look out of the window.
The sun is hiding behind a chimney of the building opposite. The shadow of the chimney runs along the roof, flies across the street and falls on my face. I should take advantage or this shadow and write a few words about the miracle worker. I grab the pen and write: 'The miracle worker was on the tall side.'
Nothing more can I write. I sit on until I start feeling hungry. Then I get up and go over to the cupboard where I keep my provisions; I rummage there but find nothing. A lump of sugar and nothing more. Someone is knocking at the door.
-- Who's there?
No one answers me. I open the door and see before me the old woman who in the morning had been standing in the yard with the clock. I am very surprised and cannot say anything.
-- So, here I am -- says the old woman and comes into my room.
I stand by the door and don't know what to do: should I chase the old woman out or, on the contrary, suggest that she sit down? But the old woman goes of her own accord over to my armchair beside the window and sits down in it.
-- Close the door and lock it -- the old woman tells me.
I close and lock the door.
-- Kneel -- says the old woman.
And I get down on my knees.
But at this point I begin to realise the full absurdity of my position. Why am I kneeling in front of some old woman? And, indeed, why is this old woman in my room and sitting in my favourite armchair? Why hadn't I chased this old woman out?
-- Now, listen here -- I say -- what right have you to give the orders in my room, and, what's more, boss me about? I have no wish at all to be kneeling.
-- And you don't have to -- says the old woman. -- Now you must lie down on your stomach and bury your face in the floor.
I carried out her bidding straight away . . .
I see before me accurately traced squares. Discomfort in my shoulder and in my right hip forces me to change position. I had been lying face down and now, with great difficulty, I get up on to my knees. All my limbs have gone numb and will scarcely bend. I look round and see myself in my own room, kneeling in the middle of the floor. My consciousness and memory are slowly returning to me. I look round the room once more and see that it looks as though someone is sitting in the armchair by the window. It's not very light in the room, because it must be the white nights now. I peer attentively. Good Lord! Is it really that old woman, still sitting in my armchair? I crane my neck round and have a look. Yes, of course, it's the old woman sitting there and her head's drooped on to her chest. She must have fallen asleep.
I pick myself up and hobble over towards her. The old woman's head is drooping down on to her chest; her arms are hanging down the sides of the armchair. I feel like grabbing hold of this old woman and shoving her out of the door.
-- Listen -- I say -- you are in my room. I need to work. I am asking you to leave.
The old woman doesn't budge. I bend over and look the old woman in the face. Her mouth is half open and from her mouth protrudes a displaced set of dentures. And suddenly it all becomes clear to me: the old woman has died.
A terrible feeling of annoyance comes over me. What did she die in my room for? I can't stand dead people. And now, having to mess about with this carrion, having to go and talk to the caretaker and the house manager, to explain to them why this old woman was found in my place. I looked at the old woman with hatred. But perhaps she wasn't dead, after all? I feel her forehead. Her forehead is cold. Her hand also. Now what am I supposed to do?
I light up my pipe and sit down on the couch. A mindless fury is rising up in me.
-- What a swine! -- I say out loud.
The dead old woman is sitting in my armchair, like a sack. Her teeth are sticking out of her mouth. She looks like a dead horse.
-- What a revolting spectacle -- I say, but I can't cover the old woman with a newspaper, because anything might go on under the newspaper.
Movement could be heard through the wall: it's my neighbour getting up, the engine driver. I've quite enough on my plate without him getting wind that I've got a dead old woman in my room! I listen closely to my neighbour's footsteps. Why is he so slow? It's half-past five already! It's high time he went off. My God! He's making a cup of tea! I can hear the noise of the primus through the wall. Oh, I wish that blasted engine driver would hurry up and go!
I pull my legs up on to the couch and lie there. Eight minutes go by, but my neighbour's tea is still not ready and the primus is making a noise. I close my eyes and doze.
I dream that my neighbour has gone out and I, together with him, go out on to the staircase and I slam the door behind me on its spring lock. I haven't got the key and I can't get back into the flat. I shall have to knock and wake up the rest of the tenants and that is not a good thing at all. I am standing on the landing thinking what to do and suddenly I see that I have no hands. I incline my head, so as to get a better look to see whether I have any hands, and I see that on one side, instead of a hand, a knife is sticking out and, on the other side, a fork.
-- So -- I am saying to Sakerdon Mikhailovich, who for some reason is sitting there on a folding chair -- So, do you see -- I say to him -- the sort of hands I have?
But Sakerdon Mikhailovich sits there in silence and I can see that this is not the real Sakerdon Mikhailovich, but his clay semblance.
At this point I wake up and immediately realise that I am lying in my room on the couch and that by the window, in the armchair, sits a dead old woman.
I quickly turn my head in her direction. The old woman is not in the armchair. I gaze at the empty armchair and I am filled with a wild joy. So, that means all this was a dream. Except, where did it start? Did an old woman come into my room yesterday? Perhaps that was a dream as well? I came back yesterday because I had forgotten to turn off the electric oven. But perhaps that was a dream as well? In any case, it's marvelous that I don't have a dead old woman in my room and that means I won't have to go to the house manager and bother about the corpse!
But still, how long had I been asleep? I looked at my watch: half-past nine; it must be morning.
Good Lord! The things that can happen in dreams!
I lowered my legs from the couch, intending to stand up, and suddenly caught sight of the dead old woman, lying on the floor behind the table, beside the armchair. She was lying face up and her dentures, which had jumped out of her mouth, had one tooth digging into the old woman's nostril. Her arms were tucked under her torso and were not visible and from under her disordered skirt protruded bony legs in white, dirty woollen stockings.
-- What a swine! -- I shouted and, running over to the old woman, kicked her on the chin.
The set of dentures flew off into the corner. I wanted to kick the old woman again, but was afraid that marks would remain on her body and that subsequently it might be decided that it was I who had killed her.
I moved away from the old woman, sat down on the couch and lit my pipe. Thus twenty minutes went by. Now it had become clear to me that, come what may, the matter would be put in the hands of a criminal investigation and that in the bungling which would follow I would be accused of murder. The situation was turning out to be serious, and then there was that kick as well.
I went over to the old woman again, leaned over and started to examine her face. There was a small dark bruise on her chin. No, nothing much could be made of that. What of it? Perhaps the old woman had bumped into something when she was still alive? I calm down a little and begin pacing the room, smoking my pipe and ruminating over my situation.
I pace up and down the room and start feeling a greater and greater hunger. I even start shaking from hunger. Once more I rummage in the cupboard where my provisions are kept, but I find nothing, except a lump of sugar.
I pull out my wallet and count my money. Eleven roubles. That means I can buy myself some ham sausage and bread and still have enough for tobacco.
I adjust my tie, which had got disarranged in the night, pick up my watch, put on my jacket, go out into the corridor, painstakingly lock the door of my room, put the key in my pocket and go out on to the street. Before anything else I have to eat something; then my thoughts will be clearer and then I'll do something about this carrion. On the way to the shop, I keep on thinking: shouldn't I go and see Sakerdon Mikhailovich and tell him all about it and perhaps together we could soon think out what to do. But I turn this idea down on the spot, because there are some things which one has to do alone, without witnesses.
There was no ham sausage in the shop and I bought myself half a kilo of saveloys. There was no tobacco, either. From the shop I went to the bakery.
There were a lot of people in the bakery and there was a long queue waiting at the cash desk. I immediately frowned but still joined the queue. The queue moved very slowly and then stopped moving altogether, because some sort of a row had broken out at the cash desk.
I pretended not to notice anything and stared at the back of a nice young lady who was standing in the queue in front of me. The young lady was obviously very inquisitive: she was craning her neck first to the right and then to the left and she kept standing on tiptoe, so as to get a better view of what was happening at the cash desk. Eventually she turned round to me and said: -- You don't know what's going on there, do you?
-- I'm afraid I don't -- I answered as drily as possible.
The young lady twisted herself from side to side and finally again addressed me:
-- You wouldn't like to go up there and find out what's happening, would you?
-- I'm afraid it doesn't concern me in the slightest -- I said, even more drily.
-- What do you mean, it doesn't concern you? -- exclaimed the young lady -- you are being held up in the queue yourself because of it, aren't you?
I made no reply and merely bowed slightly. The young lady looked at me with great attention.
-- Of course, it's not a man's job to queue for bread -- she said. -- I'm sorry for you, having to stand here. You must be a bachelor?
-- Yes, I am a bachelor -- I replied, somewhat taken aback, but automatically continuing to answer somewhat drily, with a slight bow at the same time.
The young lady again looked me up and down and suddenly, touching me on the sleeve, she said: -- Let me get you what you need and you can wait for me outside.
This threw me completely.
-- Thank you -- I said. -- It's extremely kind of you but, really, I could do it myself.
-- No, no -- said the young lady -- you go outside. What were you intending to buy?
-- Well, then -- I said -- I was intending to buy half a kilo of black bread, only of the round sort, the cheapest one. I prefer it.
-- Right, well that's fine -- said the young lady. -- So, go on, then. I'll buy it and we can settle up afterwards.
And she even gave me a slight shove under the elbow.
I went out of the bakery and stood right by the door. The spring sun is shining right in my eyes. I light up my pipe. What a delightful young lady! It's so rare these days. I stand there, my eyes screwed up from the sun, smoking my pipe and thinking about the delightful young lady. She has bright brown eyes, too. She's simply irresistibly pretty!
-- Do you smoke a pipe? -- I hear a voice beside me. The delightful young lady hands me the bread.
-- Oh, I'm forever grateful to you -- I say, taking the bread.
-- And you smoke a pipe! I really like that -- says the delightful young lady.
And between us the following conversation takes place.
She: So, you buy bread yourself?
I: Not only bread; I buy everything for myself.
She: And where do you have lunch?
I: Usually I cook my own lunch. But sometimes I eat in the bar.
She: Do you like beer, then?
I: No, I prefer vodka.
She: I like vodka, too.
I: You like vodka? That's wonderful! I'd like to have a drink with you sometime.
She: And I'd like to drink vodka with you, too.
I: Forgive me, but may I ask you something?
She: (blushing furiously) of course, just ask.
I: All right then, I will. Do you believe in God?
She: (surprised) In God? Yes, of course.
I: And what would you say to us buying some vodka now and going to my place? I live very near here.
She: (perkily) Well, why not, it's fine by me!
I: Then let's go.
We go into a shop and I buy half a litre of vodka. I have no more money left, except a bit of change. We talk about various things all the time and suddenly I remember that in my room on the floor there is a dead old woman.
I look round at my new acquaintance: she's standing by the counter and looking at jars of jam. I gingerly make off towards the door and slide out of the shop. It just happens that a tram is stopping opposite the shop. I jump on the tram, without even looking to see what number it is. I get off at Mikhailovskaya Street and walk to Sakerdon Mikhailovich's. I am carrying a bottle of vodka, saveloys and bread.
Sakerdon Mikhailovich opened the door to me himself. He was wearing his dressing-gown, with nothing on underneath, his Russian boots with the tops cut off and his fur hat with the earflaps, but the earflaps were turned up and tied in a bow on top.
-- Jolly good -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich on seeing that it was me.
-- I'm not dragging you away from your work? -- I asked.
-- No, no -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- I wasn't doing anything, I was just sitting on the floor.
-- Well, you see -- I said to Sakerdon Mikhailovich -- I've popped round to you with vodka and a bite to eat. If you've no objection, let's have a drink.
-- Fine -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- Come in.
We sent through to his room. I opened the bottle of vodka and Sakerdon Mikhailovich put two glasses and a plate of boiled meat on the table.
-- I've got some saveloys here -- I said. -- So, how shall we eat them: raw, or shall we boil them?
-- We'll put them on to boil -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich and while they're cooking we'll drink vodka with the boiled meat. It's from a stew, it's first-class boiled meat!
Sakerdon Mikhailovich put a saucepan on to heat, on his kerosene stove, and we sat down to the vodka.
-- Drinking vodka's good for you -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich, filling the glasses. -- Mechnikov wrote that vodka's better than bread, and bread is only straw which rots in our bellies.
-- Your health! -- said I, clinking glasses with Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
We drank, taking the cold meat as a snack.
-- It's good -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
But at that moment something in the room gave out a sharp crack.
-- What's that? -- I asked.
We sat in silence and listened. Suddenly there was another crack. Sakerdon Mikhailovich jumped up from his chair and, running up to the window, tore down the curtain.
-- What are you doing? -- I exclaimed.
But Sakerdon Mikhailovich didn't answer me; he rushed over to the kerosene stove, grabbed hold or the saucepan with the curtain and placed it on the floor.
-- Devil take it! -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- I forgot to put water in the saucepan and the saucepan's an enamel one, and now the enamel's come off.
-- Oh, I see -- I said, nodding.
We sat down again at the table.
-- Oh, to the devil with it -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich -- we'll eat the saveloys raw.
-- I'm starving -- I said.
-- Help yourself -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich, pushing the saveloys over to me.
-- The last time I ate was yesterday, in the cellar bar with you, and since then I haven't eaten a thing -- I said.
-- Yeh, yeh -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- I was writing all the time -- said I.
-- Bloody hell! -- exclaimed Sakerdon Mikhailovich in an exaggerated tone. -- It's a great thing to see a genius before one.
-- I should think so! -- said I.
-- Did you get much done? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- Yes -- said I. -- I got through a mass of paper.
-- To the genius of our day -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich, lifting his glass.
We drank. Sakerdon Mikhailovich ate boiled meat and I . . . the saveloys. Having eaten four saveloys, I lit my pipe and said:
-- You know, I came to see you, to escape from persecution.
-- Who was persecuting you? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- A lady -- I said.
But as Sakerdon Mikhailovich didn't ask me anything and only poured vodka into his glass in silence, I went on: -- I met her in the bakery and immediately fell in love.
-- Is she attractive? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- Yes -- said I -- just my type.
We drank and I continued: -- She agreed to go to my place and drink vodka. We went into a shop, but I had to make a run for it out of the shop, on the quiet.
-- Didn't you have enough money? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- No, I had just enough money -- I said -- but I remembered that I couldn't let her into my room.
-- What, do you mean you had another woman in your room? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- Yes, if you like, there's another woman in my room -- I said, with a smile. -- Now I can't let anyone into my room.
-- Get married. Then you can invite me to the reception -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- No -- I said, snorting with laughter. -- I'm not going to get married to this woman.
-- Well then, marry that one from the bakery -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- Why are you so keen to marry me off? -- said I.
-- So, what then? -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich, filling the glasses. -- Here's to your conquests!
We drank. Clearly, the vodka was starting to have its effect on us. Sakerdon Mikhailovich look off his fur hat with the earflaps and slung it on to the bed. I got up and paced around the room, already experiencing a certain amount of head-spinning.
-- How do you feel about the dead? -- I asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- Completely negatively -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- I'm afraid of them.
-- Yes, I can't stand dead people either -- I said. -- Give me a dead person and, assuming he's not a relative of mine, I would be bound to boot him one.
-- You shouldn't kick corpses -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- I would give him a good booting, right in the chops -- said I. -- I can't stand dead people or children.
-- Yes, children are vile -- agreed Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- But which do you think are worse: the dead or children? -- I asked.
-- Children are perhaps worse, they get in our way more often. The dead at least don't burst into our lives -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- They do burst in! -- I shouted and immediately stopped speaking. Sakerdon Mikhailovich looked at me attentively.
-- Do you want some more vodka? -- he asked.
-- No -- I said, but, recollecting myself, I added: -- No, thank you, I don't want any more.
I came over and sat down again at the table. For a while we are silent.
-- I want to ask you -- I say finally. -- Do you believe in God?
A transverse wrinkle appears on Sakerdon Mikhailovich's brow and he says: -- There is such a thing as bad form. It's bad form to ask someone to lend you fifty roubles if you have noticed him just putting two hundred in his pocket. It's his business to give you the money or to refuse; and the most convenient and agreeable means of refusal is to lie, saying, that he hasn't got the money. But you have seen that that person does have the money and thereby you have deprived him of the possibility of simply and agreeably refusing. You have deprived him of the right of choice and that is a dirty trick. It's bad form and quite tactless and asking a person: 'Do you believe in God?' -- that also is tactless and bad form.
-- Well -- said I -- I see nothing in common there.
-- Anal I am making no comparisons -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- Well, all right, then -- I said -- let's leave it. Just excuse me for putting such an indecent and tactless question.
-- That's all right -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- I merely refused to answer you.
-- I wouldn't have answered either -- said I -- except that it would've been for a different reason.
-- And what would that be? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich limply.
-- You see -- I said -- in my view there are no believers or non-believers. There are only those who wish to believe and those who wish not to believe.
-- So, those who wish not to believe already believe in something? -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- And those who wish to believe already, in advance, don't believe in anything?
-- Perhaps that's the way it is -- I said. -- I don't know.
-- And in what do they believe or not believe? In God? -- asked Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
-- No -- I said -- in immortality.
-- Then why did you ask me whether I believe in God?
-- Simply because asking: 'Do you believe in immortality?' sounds rather stupid -- I said to Sakerdon Mikhailovich and stood up.
-- What, are you going? -- Sakerdon Mikhailovich asked me.
-- Yes -- I said -- it's time I was going.
-- And what about the vodka? -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich. -- There's a glass each left, you know.
-- Well, let's drink it, then -- I said.
We drank down the vodka and finished off the remains of the boiled meat.
-- And now I must go -- I said.
-- Goodbye -- said Sakerdon Mikhailovich, accompanying me across the kitchen and out lo the stairway. -- Thanks for bringing the refreshments.
-- Thank you -- I said. -- Goodbye.
And I left.
Remaining on his own, Sakerdon Mikhailovich cleared the tables, shoved the empty vodka bottle on top of the cupboard, put his fur cap with the earflaps on again and sat down on the floor under the window. Sakerdon Mikhailovich put his hands behind his back and they could not be seen. And from his disordered dressing-gown protruded his bare, bony legs, shod in Russian boots with the tops cut off.
I walked along Nevsky Prospect, weighed down by my own thoughts. I'll now have to go to the house manager and tell him everything. And having dealt with the old woman, I shall stand for entire days by the bakery, until I encounter that delightful young lady. Indeed, I have remained in her debt for the bread, to the tune of forty-eight kopecks. I have a fine pretext for seeking her out. The vodka I had drunk was still continuing to have its effect and it seemed as though everything was shaping up very nicely and straightforwardly.
On Fontanka I went over to a stall and, on the strength of my remaining change, I downed a big mug of kvass. The kvass was of poor quality and sour, and I walked on with a revolting taste in my mouth.
On the corner of Liteinaya some drunk or other staggered up and pushed me. It's a good thing I don't have a revolver: I would have killed him right here on the spot.
I walked all the way home, no doubt with a face distorted with malice. In any event, almost everyone I passed swung round to look at me.
I went into the house manager's office. At the table sat a short, dirty, snub-nosed, one-eyed, tow-headed female and, looking into her make-up mirror, she was daubing herself with lipstick.
-- And where's the house manager? -- I asked.
The girl remained silent, continuing to daub her lips.
-- Where's the house manager? -- I repeated in a sharp voice.
-- He'll be here tomorrow, not today -- replied the dirty, snub-nosed, one-eyed and tow-haired female.
I went out on to the street. On the opposite side, an invalid was walking along on an artificial leg and knocking loudly with his leg and his stick. Six urchins were running behind the invalid, mimicking his gait.
I turned into my main entrance and began to go up the stairway. On the first floor I stopped; a repulsive thought had entered my head: of course, the old woman must have started to decompose. I had not shut the windows, and they say that with an open window the dead decompose all the quicker. What utter stupidity! And that devil of a house manager won't be there until tomorrow! I stood in indecision for several minutes and then began to ascend further.
I stopped again beside the door to my flat. Perhaps I should go to the bakery and wait there for the delightful young lady? I could try imploring her to let me in to her place for two or three nights. But at this point I recollect that she has already bought her bread today and so she won't be coming to the bakery. And in any case nothing would have come of it.
I unlocked the door and went into the corridor. At the end of the corridor a light was on and Mar'ia Vasil'evna, holding some rag or other in her hands, was rubbing it over with another rag. Upon seeing me, Mar'ia Vasil'evna cried: -- Shome auld man was ashking for ye!
-- What old man? -- I asked.
-- I donch know -- replied Mar'ia Vasil'evna.
-- When was that? -- I asked.
-- Donch know zhat, eizher -- said Mar'ia Vasil'evna.
-- Did you talk to the old man? -- I asked Mar'ia Vasil'evna.
-- I did -- replied Mar'ia Vasil'evna.
-- So, how come you don't know when it was? -- said I.
-- Choo hourzh ago -- said Mar'ia Vasil'evna.
-- And what did this old man look like? -- I asked.
-- Donch know zhat, eizher -- said Mar'ia Vasil'evna and went off to the kitchen.
I went over to my room.
-- Suppose -- I thought -- the old woman has disappeared. I shall go into any room, and there's no old woman there. Oh my God! Do miracles really not happen?
I unlocked the door and started to open it slowly. Perhaps it only seemed that way, but the sickly smell of decomposition in progress hit me in the face. I looked in through the half-open door and, for a instant, froze on the spot. The old woman was on all fours, crawling slowly over to meet me.
I slammed the door with a yelp, turned the key and leapt across to the wall opposite.
Mar'ia Vasil'evna appeared in the corridor.
-- Were ye calling me? -- she asked.
I was so shaken that I couldn't reply and just shook my head negatively. Mar'ia Vasil'evna came a bit nearer.
-- Ye were talking to shomeone -- she said.
I again shook my head.
-- Crazhy madman -- said Mar'ia Vasil'evna and she again went off to the kitchen, looking round at me several times on the way.
-- I can't just stand here. I can't just stand here -- I repeated to myself. This phrase had formed somewhere within me. I kept reiterating it until it reached my consciousness.
-- No, I can't just stand here -- I said to myself, but carried on standing there, as though paralysed. Something horrific had happened, but there was now the prospect of dealing with something that perhaps was even more horrific than what had already occurred. My thoughts were spinning in a vortex and I could see only the malicious eyes of the dead old woman, slowly crawling towards me on all fours.
Burst into the room and smash the old woman's skull in! That's what needs to be done! I even gave the place the once-over and was relieved to see a croquet mallet which, for some unknown reason, had been standing in the corner of the corridor for nearly a year. Grab the mallet, burst into the room and bang . . . !
My shivering had not passed off. I was standing with my shoulders arched from an inner cold. My thoughts were jumping and jumbled, backtracking to their point of departure and again jumping ahead and taking over new spheres, and I stood, lending an ear to my own thoughts, and remaining as though to one side of them, as though not their controller.
-- The dead -- my own thoughts explained to me -- are a category to be reckoned with. A lot of use calling them dead; rather, they should be called the undead. They need to be watched and watched. Ask any mortuary watchman. What do you think he is put there for? Only for one thing: to keep watch, so that the dead don't crawl all over the place. There can even occur what are, in a certain sense, amusing incidents. One deceased crawled out of the mortuary while the attendant, on management's orders, was taking his bath, crawled into the disinfection room and ate up a heap of bed linen. The disinfectors dished out a damned good thrashing to the deceased in question but, as for the ruined linen, they had to settle up for that out of their own pockets. And another deceased crawled as far as the maternity ward and so frightened the inmates that one child-bearer produced a premature foetus on the spot, while the deceased pounced smartly on the fruits of the miscarriage and began to devour it, champing away vigourously. And, when a brave nurse struck the deceased on the back with a stool, he bit the said nurse on the leg and she soon died from infection by corpse poisoning. Yes, indeed, the dead are a category to be reckoned with, and with them you certainly have to be on the quick side.
-- Stop! -- said I to my own thoughts. -- You are talking nonsense. The dead are immobile.
-- All right, then -- my own thoughts said to me. -- Just you enter your room and you'll soon find what you call an immobile dead person.
An unexpected stubbornness within me began speaking.
-- All right, I will! -- I replied resolutely to my own thoughts.
-- Just you try! -- my own thoughts said to me derisively.
This derision definitively enraged me. I grabbed the croquet mallet and rushed towards the door.
-- Hold on a moment! -- my own thoughts yelled at me. But I had already turned the key and unlocked the door.
The old woman was lying in the doorway, her face pressed against the floor.
Croquet mallet raised, I stood at the ready. The old woman wasn't moving.
My trembling passed off and my thoughts were flowing clearly and logically. I was in control.
-- First of all, shut the door! -- I commanded myself.
I pulled the key from the outer side of the door and put it into the inner side. I did this with my left hand, while in my right hand I held the croquet mallet and the whole time did not take my eyes off the old woman. I turned the key in the door and, carefully stepping over the old woman, stepped out into the middle of the room.
-- Now you and I will settle things -- said I. A plan had occurred to me, one to which murderers in detective stories and reports in the newspapers usually resort; I simply wanted to hide the old woman in a suitcase, carry her off out of town and dump her in a bog. I knew one such place.
I had a suitcase under the couch. I dragged it out and opened it. There were a few assorted things in it: several books, an old felt hat and some torn underwear. I unpacked all this on the couch.
At this moment the outside door slammed loudly and it seemed to me that the old woman shuddered.
I immediately jumped up and grabbed the croquet mallet.
The old woman is lying there quietly. I am standing and listening intently. It is the engine driver who has just come back; I can hear him walking about in his room. That's him going along the corridor to the kitchen. If Mar'ia Vasil'evna tells him all about my madness it will do no good. It's a devilish nuisance. I'd better go along to the kitchen and reassure them by my appearance.
I again strode over the old woman, placed the mallet right by the door, so that on my return, without even entering the room, I could have the mallet in my hands, and went out into the corridor. Voices came towards me from the kitchen, but the words were not audible. I shut the door to my room behind me and cautiously went off to the kitchen: I wanted to find out what Mar'ia Vasil'evna and the engine driver were talking about. I passed down the corridor quickly and slowed my steps near the kitchen. The engine driver was speaking; evidently he was talking about something which had happened to him at work.
I went in. The engine driver was standing with a towel in his hands and speaking, while Mar'ia Vasil'evna was sitting on a stool listening. Upon seeing me, the engine driver waved at me.
-- Hello there, hello there, Matvei Filippovich -- I said to him and went on through to the bathroom. So far everything was safe enough. Mar'ia Vasil'evna was used to my strange ways and may even have forgotten this latest incident.
Suddenly it dawned upon me that I had not locked the door. What if the old woman should crawl out of the room?
I rushed back but recollected myself in time and, so as not to alarm the tenants, ambled through the kitchen at a leisurely step.
Mar'ia Vasil'evna was tapping her finger on the kitchen table and saying to the engine driver:
-- Quaite raight. That's quaite raight! I wud have wustled too!
With my heart sinking, I went out into the corridor and immediately breaking very nearly into a run I dashed down to my room. The old woman, as before, was lying there quietly, her face pressed to the floor. The croquet mallet was standing by the door in the same spot. I picked it up, went into the room , and locked the door behind me with the key. Yes, there was definitely a whiff of dead body in the room. I strode over the old woman, went up to the window and sat down in the armchair. So long as I don't get ill from this so far only weak, but still already unbearable, smell. I lit up my pipe. I felt a touch of nausea and my stomach was aching a bit.
So, why am I just sitting here? I need to act quickly, before this old woman rots completely. But, in any case, I need to be careful shoving her into the suitcase because, while we're at it, she could take a nip at my hand. And, as for dying from corpse poisoning -- no thank you!
-- Hey, thought -- I suddenly exclaimed. -- I'd like to see what you would bite me with! Your teeth are over there, anyway!
I leaned over in the armchair and looked into the corner on the other side of the window where, by my reckoning, the old woman's set of dentures must be. But the false teeth were not there.
I thought for a bit: perhaps the dead old woman had been crawling about my room looking for her teeth? Perhaps she had even found them and stuck them back into her mouth?
I took the product mallet and poked around in the corner with it. No, the dentures had gone. Then I pulled out of the cupboard a thick flannelette sheet and went over to the old woman. The croquet mallet I held at the ready in my right hand and in my left I held the flannelette sheet.
This dead old woman was arousing a squeamish feeling of fear. I raised her head with the mallet: her mouth was open, the eyes rolled upwards and, on the whole of her chin, where I had landed my kick, a big dark bruise was spreading. I looked into the old woman's mouth. No, she had not found her dentures. I released her head. The head dropped and knocked against the floor.
Then I spread the flannelette sheet out on the floor and pulled it over to the old woman herself. Then with my foot and the croquet mallet I turned the old woman over by way of her left side on to her back. Now she was lying on the sheet. The old woman's legs were bent at the knees and her fists clasped to her shoulders. The old woman seemed to be lying on her back, like a cat, ready to defend herself from a predatory eagle. Quickly, away with this carrion!
I rolled the old woman up in the thick sheet and picked her up in my arms. She turned out to be lighter than I had thought. I put her down into the suitcase and tried to close it. I now expected all kinds of difficulties, but the lid closed comparatively easily. I clicked down the locks on the case and straightened up.