Someone tickled me behind my ears, under my arms. I curled up, becoming a full moon, and rolled on the floor. I may also have emitted a few hoarse shrieks. Then I lifted my rump to the sky and slid my head below my belly. Now I was a sickle moon, still too young to imagine any danger. Innocent, I opened my anus to the cosmos and felt it in my bowels. Everyone would have laughed if I’d used the word ‘cosmos’ in those days: I was still so small, so lacking in knowledge, so newly in the world. Without my fluffy pelt, I’d have been scarcely more than an embryo. I couldn’t walk very well yet, though my paw-hands had already developed the strength to grasp and hold. Every stumble moved me forward, but could you call that walking? Fog shrouded my field of vision, and my ears were echo chambers. Everything I saw and heard lacked contours. My life force resided, for the most part, in my claw-fingers and tongue.
My tongue could still remember the taste of my mother’s milk. I took the man’s index finger into my mouth and sucked on it, that calmed me. The hairs growing out of the backs of his fingers were like shoe brush bristles. The finger wriggled into my mouth, poking around. Then the man prodded me in the chest, challenging me to wrestle.
Exhausted from playtime, I placed both my paw-hands flat on the ground with my chin on top – my favorite position for awaiting the next meal. Half asleep, I licked my lips, and the flavor of honey returned to me even though I’d only tasted it a single time.
One day the man attached strange objects to my feet. I tried to shake them off but couldn’t. My bare paw-hands hurt, it felt as if the floor were stabbing them from below. I raised my right hand and then the left but couldn’t keep my balance and fell back down. Touching the ground made the pain return. I pushed off from the ground, my torso stretched far up and back, and for several seconds I stood upright. When I exhaled, I fell back down again, this time on my left paw-hand. It hurt, so I pushed the floor away from me again. After several more attempts, I was able to balance on two legs.
Writing: a spooky activity. Staring at the sentence I’ve just written makes me dizzy. Where am I at this moment? I’m in my story – gone. To come back, I drag my eyes away from the manuscript and let my gaze drift toward the window until finally I’m here again, in the present. But where is here, when is now? The night has already reached its point of greatest depth. I stand at the window of my hotel room, looking down at the square below that reminds me of a theater stage, maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride. A transparent silence settles over the neighborhood.
I’d taken part in a congress that day, and afterward all the participants were invited to a sumptuous feast. When I returned to my hotel room at night, I had a bear’s thirst and greedily drank water straight from the tap. But the taste of oily anchovies refused to leave me. In the mirror I saw my red-smeared lips, a masterpiece of the beets. I’d never eaten root vegetables voluntarily, but when a beet came swimming in my bowl of borscht, I immediately wanted to kiss it. Bobbing amid the lovely dots of fat floating on top – which at once awoke my appetite for meat – the beet was irresistible.
The springs creak beneath my bearish weight as I sit on the hotel sofa thinking how uninteresting the conference had been yet again, but that it had unexpectedly led me back to my childhood. The topic of today’s discussion was The Significance of Bicycles in the National Economy.
Anyone, especially an artist, can only assume it’s a trap to be invited to a conference. For this reason, most of the participants refused to say anything at all unless forced. But I willingly piped up – confidently, elegantly, unselfconsciously, unceremoniously sticking my right paw high in the air. All the other participants in the assembly hall looked over at me. I was used to attracting an audience’s attention.
My round, soft upper body is encased in sumptuous white fur. When I press my raised right arm and rib cage slightly forward, hypnotically shimmering particles of light are released into the air. Yes, I was at the center of everything, while the tables, walls and even the people in the audience gradually faded and withdrew into the background. My fur’s gleaming white hue is unlike any ordinary white. It’s translucent, permitting the sunlight to reach my skin through the fur, and the light is carefully stored beneath my skin. This is the color my ancestors acquired, allowing them to survive in the Arctic Circle.
To make your opinion known, you have to first be seen by the session leader. This doesn’t happen unless you raise your hand quickly – more quickly than all the others. Almost no one can get his hand up in the air at a conference faster than me. ‘You seem fond of sharing your opinions’ : I was once treated to this ironic bit of commentary. I parried with a simple response: ‘That’s how democracy works, isn’t it?’ But that day I discovered it wasn’t free will thrusting my paw-hand into the air like that, it was a sort of reflex. I felt this realization
like a stab in the chest. I tried to put aside the pain and get back into my groove, a four-part rhythm: The first beat was the session leader’s restrained ‘ Go ahead.’ The second was the word ‘I’ which I slammed down on the table in front of me. On the third beat, all the listeners swallowed, and on the fourth I took a daring step, clearly enunciating the word ‘think.’ To give it some swing, I naturally stressed the second and fourth beats.
I had no intention of dancing, but my hips began waggling back and forth on the chair. The chair immediately chimed in, contributing cheerful creaks. Each stressed syllable was like a tambourine underscoring the rhythms of my speech. As if bewitched, the audience listened, forgetting their duties, their vanity, themselves. The men’s lips hung limply open, their teeth gleaming a creamy white, and from the tips of their tongues dripped something like liquefied carnality in saliva form.
‘I think the bicycle is beyond all doubt the most excellent invention in the history of civilization. The bicycle is the flower of the circus stage, the hero of every environmental policy. In the near future, bicycles will conquer all the world’s major cities. And not just that: every household will have its own generator attached to a bicycle. You’ll be able to get fit and produce electricity at the same time. You can also get on your bicycle to pay your friends a spontaneous visit instead of first calling them on your cell phone or sending an e-mail. When we learn to utilize the multifunctional capacity of the bicycle, many electronic devices will eventually become superfluous.’ I saw dark clouds gathering on several of the faces. Putting even more power into my voice, I continued: ‘We will ride to the river on our bikes to do our laundry. We’ll ride our bikes to the forest to collect firewood. We won’t need washing machines anymore, and we won’t have to rely on electricity or gas to heat our apartments or cook our meals.’ Several faces were amused by these fanciful proposals, displaying unobtrusive laugh creases, while others turned gray as stone. Not a problem, I cheered myself on, don’t let them intimidate you. Pay no attention to these bores. Relax! Ignore this fake audience, imagine yourself standing before hundreds of ecstatic faces and keep talking. It’s a circus. Every conference is a circus.
The chairman coughed dismissively, as if to show he had no intention whatever of dancing to my tune. Then he exchanged a knowing glance with a bearded official seated beside him. I remembered that the two men had entered the room side by side. That official, thin as a nail, wore a matte black suit even though he wasn’t at a funeral. He began to speak without first asking permission: ‘Rejecting automobiles and worshipping bicycles: this is a sentimental, decadent cult already familiar to us from Western countries. The Netherlands is a good example. But supporting machine culture is a matter of the utmost urgency. We must provide rational connections between places of employment and residential areas. Bicycles create the illusion that one might ride anywhere one likes at any time. A bicycle culture could exert a problematic influence on our society.’ I raised my hand to contradict this line of argument. But the session leader ignored me and announced the lunch break. I left the room without a word to anyone and dashed out of the building like a schoolchild running onto the playground.
As a child, I was always the very first to run out of the classroom at recess, even when I was still in preschool. I would make a beeline for the far corner of the playground and act as if this tiny patch of earth held special significance for me. In reality, it was nothing but a shady, damp spot under a fig tree where brazen neighbors would sometimes secretly deposit their trash. No other child ever approached the spot, which was fine with me. Once one of my schoolmates hid behind the fig tree so he could sneak up on me as a joke. I threw him over my shoulder. It was an instinctual act of self-defense, I didn’t mean him any harm, but given my powerful build, he went flying through the air.
Behind my back, the other children called me ‘snout face’ and ‘snow baby’ as I later learned. Someone tattled, otherwise I would never have heard these nicknames. My informant pretended to be on my side, but perhaps it filled her childish heart with pleasure to see my feelings hurt. Until then, I’d never asked myself what I looked like in my classmates’ eyes. The shape of my nose, the color of my fur made me stand out from the majority – it took hearing these nicknames to bring this home to me.
Next to the conference center was a tranquil park with white benches. I picked a bench in the shade. There was a plashing sound behind me, presumably a brook. The willow trees, elegant, cunning, and overcome with ennui, kept poking their thin fingers into the water, perhaps hoping it would play with them. Pale green shoots punctuated their branches. The earth beneath the soles of my feet crumbled, it wasn’t a mole at work, just the crocuses. The more impudent among them were doing imitations of the Tower of Pisa. The inside of my ear itched. No digging around in there! This was a rule I never broke, at least not back when I was still working at the circus. But the itching in my ear wasn’t caused by wax, it was because of the pollen and the songs of the birds that kept pecking out sixteenth notes in the air. Rosy spring with its unannounced arrival caught me unawares. What sort of trick had it employed to reach Kiev so quickly and surreptitiously, with such a large delegation of birds and flowers? Had it secretly been preparing its invasion weeks in advance? And was I the only one who hadn’t noticed, being preoccupied with winter, which had taken charge of my consciousness? I hate making small talk about the weather, so I often miss forecasts of major changes. Even the Prague Spring came as a complete surprise to me. When the name ‘Prague’ occurred to me just now, the beating of my heart became palpable. Who knows, perhaps an even greater change in the weather is about to surprise me, and I’ll be the only one here who didn’t have the faintest idea what was coming!
The frozen earth melted and muddily wept. A slug of mucus crawled out of my itchy nasal passages, and tears pearled from the swollen membranes around my eyes. In a word: spring is the season of mourning. Some people say spring makes them young again. But a person who gets younger returns to childhood, a return not without its indignities. As long as I could feel pride at being the first to share my opinion at every conference, I was content. I didn’t waste time thinking about where this rapid hand gesture of mine had come from.
I had no particular urge to know things, but the spilled milk of knowledge refused to flow back into the glass. And as the milk’s sweet scent rose from the tablecloth, I wept for my spring. Childhood, that bitter honey, stung my tongue. It had always been Ivan who prepared my food. I had no memory of my mother. Where had she gone?
Back then I didn’t know yet what to call that part of my body. The painful tingling disappeared when I pulled away, it was really just a reflex. But it wasn’t possible for me to keep my balance long. I would fall back down again. And the moment my paw-hands came into contact with the ground again, the pain returned.
I’d hear Ivan shout ‘Ouch!’ whenever he scraped his shin or a wasp stung him. So I understood that the expression ‘ouch’ was connected with a particular feeling someone was having. I’d always thought it was the floor feeling pain – not me – so it was the floor that had to change – not me – to make the pain go away. How I struggled until finally I learned to stand upright!
After the official dinner, I came back to my hotel room and wrote up to this point. Writing wasn’t a familiar activity to me – weariness crashed down on my head, and I fell asleep at the desk. Waking up the next morning, I could feel that I’d grown old overnight. Now the second half of life is beginning. On a long-distance run, this would be the midpoint, the moment to turn around, to go back the way I’d come, the starting line my goal. The place where the pain began is where it will end.
Ivan would pluck a morsel of sardine from a can, grind it up in a mortar, add a shot of milk and place it in front of me. A custom-made repast. When I deposited a modest excretion, he’d immediately come running with his dustpan and brush to tidy up. He never scolded me; not even the faintest groan crossed his lips. For Ivan, cleanliness was always a priority. Every day he’d arrive with a dangling long hose and a special brush to clean the floor. Sometimes he’d point the hose at me. There was nothing I liked more than being sprayed down with ice-cold water.
Not often but occasionally Ivan would find himself without a task to perform. He’d sit down on the floor, put his guitar on his lap, pluck its strings with his fingers, and sing. A melancholy tune from some damp back alleyway would turn into a rhythmical dance number before finally plunging into an abyss of endless lament. All ears, I felt something awaken within me, perhaps my first longing for far-off lands. Distant places I’d never seen were drawing me to them, and I found myself torn between there and here.
Sometimes by chance our eyes met, and an instant later I would be in his arms. He would press my head into the crook of his neck, rubbing his cheek against mine. He tickled me, rolled my body back and forth on the floor, and threw himself on top of me.
Since returning from Kiev, I’d done nothing but sit in my room in Moscow, scratching away at my text without respite. My head bent over the letter paper I’d taken from the hotel without asking. I kept painting over the same period of my childhood again and again, I couldn’t seem to get beyond it. My memories came and went like waves at the beach. Each wave resembled the one before, but no two were identical. I had no choice but to portray the same scene several times, without being able to say which description was definitive.
For a long time, I didn’t know anything: I sat in my cage, always onstage, never an audience member. If I’d gone out now and then, I would’ve seen the stove that had been installed under the cage. I’d have seen Ivan putting firewood in the stove and lighting it. I might even have seen the gramophone with its giant black tulip on a stand behind the cage. When the floor of the cage got hot, Ivan would drop the needle on the record. As a fanfare split the air like a fist shattering a pane of glass, the palms of my paw-hands felt a searing pain. I stood up, and the pain disappeared.
For days and weeks, the same game would be repeated. In the end, I’d stand up automatically whenever I heard the fanfare. ‘Standing’ wasn’t yet a concept for me, but it was clear what freed me from the pain, and this knowledge was burned into my brain together with Ivan’s command ‘ Stand up!’ and the stick he would hold aloft.
I learned expressions like ‘Stand up’, ‘Good’, and ‘One more time.’ I suspect that the strange objects attached to my feet were specially made shoes impermeable to heat. As long as I was standing up on my back legs, it didn’t hurt, no matter how the floor glowed with heat.
After the fanfare had come to an end and I was standing steadily on two legs, it was time for the sugar cubes. First Ivan would carefully say the word ‘sugar cube’ and then he would put one in my snout-mouth. ‘Sugar cube’ became my first word for the sweet pleasure that would melt on my tongue after the fanfare and the standing up.
Suddenly Ivan stood beside me, looking down at my text from above. ‘Ivan! How are you? How have you fared since the old days?’ These are the questions I wanted to ask, but my voice failed me. As I breathed deeply in and out several times, Ivan’s figure silently vanished. He left behind his familiar body heat and a faint burning sensation on my skin. I found it hard to go on breathing normally. Ivan, dead within me for so many years, came back to life because I was writing about him. An invisible eagle clutched my heart in its talons, I couldn’t keep breathing, and it occurred to me that I should immediately drink some of that transparent holy water to rid myself of the unbearable pressure. At the time, it was difficult to get good vodka in the city, since most of it was exported as bait for foreign currencies. The superintendent of my shabby apartment building was proud of her connections and the occasional luxury products they netted her. I knew she sometimes had a bottle tucked away in her cupboard.
I hurried out of my apartment, rolled down the stairs, and ambushed the concierge, asking whether she happened to have any of that elixir in her apartment. A peculiar smile appeared on her face, resembling Sumerian cuneiform writing. Indecently rubbing her index finger and thumb together, she asked: ‘Have you perhaps received some . . .’ Irritated, I replied: ‘No! I don’t have any foreign currency on me!’ Now that I’d exposed her sweet, titillating secret, which she’d wanted to share with me surreptitiously, with my use of the loveless, insipid designation ‘foreign currency’ , she felt insulted and turned her back on me. Quick, get her in a chatty mood!
‘You have a new hairstyle. It looks great on you.’
‘Oh, do you mean this disgusting mop? I slept on it wrong last night.’
‘And your new shoes? They’re marvelous’
‘What, these shoes? You noticed them? I didn’t buy them new. A gift from my relatives – I like them.’
Although my compliments were obviously just awkward attempts at flattery, the superintendent was willing to acknowledge my good intentions. Like a fat, hairy worm, her gaze crept back toward me.
‘You hardly ever drink. Why are you suddenly so interested in my vodka?’
‘I was remembering my childhood – even though honestly I’d forgotten all about it for years – and now I find it oppressive. I’m having trouble breathing.’
‘Did you remember something unpleasant?’
‘No. I mean, I don’t know yet whether it will be unpleasant or not. For the moment it’s just a breathing problem.’
‘You shouldn’t drink to forget. Otherwise you’ll end up like that poor district magistrate who used to live above you.’
I remembered the day when something heavy crashed down on the cobblestones in front of the building, sounding much heavier than a man’s body. I heard the sound once more and was covered in goosebumps.
‘You ought to keep a journal if you’re interested in stockpiling your experiences.’
Her suggestion surprised me – it was so intellectual, it didn’t sound like her. I prodded a bit, and she admitted that last week she’d read Sarashina Nikki, a masterpiece of Japanese diary literature from the Middle Ages, in Russian translation. Her good connections had made it possible for her – despite the modest edition of fifty thousand copies that had sold out in advance via subscription – to get her hands on a copy. The pride she took in being socially so well connected was no doubt the only reason she’d read the book.
‘You must have the courage to write, like the author of this diary!’
‘But I thought a diary was for recording the day’s events. I want to write to call back to mind something I can no longer remember.’
The superintendent listened to me and then casually made one more suggestion: ‘So write an autobiography!’
There were reasons why I had given up my stage career to spend my valuable time at paralyzingly boring conferences. Back when I was still the shining star of our circus, we were asked to put together an evening’s program with a dance company from Cuba. Originally the idea had been for us to take turns performing without truly producing a synthesis. But our collaboration developed in an unforeseen direction. I fell in love with the South American style of dancing and wanted to master it and incorporate it into my repertoire. I had them give me a crash course in Latin American dances and rehearsed assiduously. Too assiduously. After hours and days spent vigorously shaking my hips, my knees were in such bad shape that I was incapable of performing acrobatics of any sort. I was unfit for circus work. Ordinarily they would have just shot me, but I got lucky and was assigned a desk job in the circus’s administrative offices.
I never dreamed I had a gift for office work. But the personnel office left no talents of their workers unexplored if they could be employed and exploited to the circus’s advantage. I would even go so far as to say I was a born office manager. My nose could sniff out the difference between important and unimportant bills. My inner clock was always right on schedule – I could be punctual without so much as glancing at a watch. When it was time to calculate a paycheck, I never had to wrestle with numbers, for I could read in people’s faces what wages they should receive. If I wanted, I could get my boss to approve any project at all, regardless of how utopian it sounded. My mouth mastered the art of premasticating difficult-to-digest material and then communicating a persuasive plan.
There was plenty for me to look after in the service of our circus and the ballet: the preparations for foreign tours, publicity, advertisements for job openings, all the usual administrative paperwork – and, chiefly, attending conferences.
I was perfectly content with my new life until I began to write my autobiography. Suddenly I lost all desire for conferencegoing. When I sat in my room licking the tip of my pencil, I wanted to go on licking it all winter long, not seeing anyone, just working on my autobiography. Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation. Perhaps I made a drowsy impression, but in the bear’s den of my brain, I was giving birth to my own childhood and secretly attending to its upbringing.
I was sucking absentmindedly on my pencil when a telegram arrived with the news that I was to participate in a panel discussion the next day. The topic would be Working Conditions Among Artists.
Panel discussions are like rabbits – usually what happens during such a session is that further sessions are declared necessary – and if nothing is done to prevent this, they multiply so quickly and become so numerous that it is no longer possible to provide a sufficient number of participants, even if we all devote most of each day to these sessions. We’ve got to think of a way to end this proliferation of panel discussions. Otherwise our bottoms will be squashed flat from all the sitting, and all our organizations and institutions will collapse beneath the weight of our derrieres. There are ever larger contingents of people who use their heads primarily to think up plausible excuses for why they can’t possibly show up for the next panel discussion. The excuse virus has been spreading faster than a dangerous flu. And then everyone’s real and fictitious relatives are all having to die several times over, so that their funerals can serve to excuse absences. I have no relatives I can condemn to fictional death. My physical makeup makes me immune to influenzas of every sort, and so I’m left without excuses. Time passed, and I kept getting lost in the pages of my appointment book, which had been attacked by a mildew of obligations.
Besides the sessions and conferences, I had to attend formal receptions, look after the official guests of the circus, and take part in business luncheons and dinners. These duties made me ever plumper, and this was the only positive development in my new life. Instead of dancing on the stage, I sat in comfortable chairs in conference rooms, and afterward soiled my fingers with oily pierogi, ate heavy borscht, shoveled glistening black caviar into my mouth, and accumulated a fortune in body fat.
I might have gone on living like that if spring hadn’t caught me unawares and shaken me to my core. Now I lay there like a person who’s fallen from a tall ladder. When I climb up to the roof to check the tiles in early spring, I’m not thinking that the house might suddenly cave in beneath me; a flawlessly structured republic, a heroic self-portrait in bronze, a stable mood, without ups and downs, a regular life rhythm: suddenly it was all on the brink of collapse, and I hadn’t suspected anything. There’s no point sitting patiently in a sinking ship, it’s better to jump in the ocean and make use of your limbs. It was the first time I’d ever turned down a conference invitation. I was afraid of being annihilated on account of saying no: those who refuse to fulfill their duties lose their right to exist. But my desire to go on writing my autobiography was by that point already three times the size of my fear of having my existence destroyed.
It felt strange to be writing an autobiography. In the past, I’d used language primarily for exporting an opinion. Now language remained at my side, touching soft spots within me. It felt as if I were doing something forbidden. I was ashamed of what I was doing and didn’t want anyone to read the story of my life. But when I saw the pages swarming with letters, I felt an urge to show them to someone. Perhaps the pride I felt was like that of a toddler eager to show off a stinky masterpiece. Once I dropped in on the superintendent just as her granddaughter was showing the grown-ups her freshly produced brown dumpling. It was still steaming. At the time I was shocked, but now I can understand the little girl’s pride. That excrement was the first thing the child had ever produced without outside help, and there was no reason to take offense at the pride she displayed.
But to whom should I show my work? There was something shady about the superintendent. Admittedly the friendship she showed me was to a considerable extent sincere, but it was her job to spy on the building’s inhabitants. I had no parents, and my colleagues were out of the question, since they all avoided me whenever possible. I had no friends.
Then I remembered a man they called ‘Sea Lion.’ He was the editor of a literary journal. When my stage career was still in full bloom, he had been one of my fans and would often visit me backstage with a lavish bouquet of flowers.
Sea Lion looked more like a seal than a sea lion, but his nickname was Sea Lion, so that’s what I’ll have to call him, since over the years I’ve lost track of his real name. Supposedly he came down with a raging fever the first time he saw me onstage. He claimed to be hopelessly in love with me. After he’d visited me backstage who knows how many times, he confessed his desire to share my pillow. But he already knew that nature had made our bodies incompatible.
I, too, was convinced on first glance that our bodies could never conjoin in sexual union: his was moist and slippery, while mine was dry and rough. Everything in the region surrounding his beard was splendidly built, while the tips of his four limbs looked pathetically weak. By contrast, my own life force was concentrated in my fingertips. He had been bald since birth, while I was thickly furred everywhere from my head to my most intimate zone. We would never have made a good couple. Nevertheless we once wound up kissing. It felt as if a tiny fish were wriggling around in my mouth. Sea Lion had an ungainly row of teeth, but that bothered me least of all, since I instantly recognized his true masculinity in the fact that he had no cavities. This I truly appreciated. When I asked why he didn’t have any rotten teeth, he replied that he never ate sweets. I, on the other hand, found them irresistible. What would I use as a metaphor for the best part of my life if there were no longer any sweets?
I hadn’t seen him in quite some time, though he kept in touch: now and then he would send me his latest catalog, in which his office address was printed. I plucked up my courage and decided to pay him a surprise visit without contacting him in advance.
The offices of his firm, which was called North Star Publishing, were located at the southern edge of town. From the outside there was no indication that anything like a publishing house might be located here in this building. A young man stood in the lobby, smoking a cigarette. Sternly, he asked what business I had there. I had scarcely gotten out the words ‘Sea Lion’ before he told me to follow him, walking ahead of me like a robot down the hall. To either side, peeling wallpaper hung down like burned skin. We penetrated ever deeper into the building’s interior, and at the end of the hallway reached a green door behind which was a room with no windows. The ceiling was low, and the manuscripts piled up in enormous stacks were yellowed.
Sea Lion looked at me and flinched as if I’d slapped him in the face. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked coldly. Only at that moment did it occur to me that there is nothing in the world more dangerous than a former fan. Too late. I – a miserable former circus star – stood there defenseless before the bloodthirsty publisher, clasping my virginal work. Many times in the past I had danced atop a gigantic ball, ridden a stunt tricycle and a circus motorcycle. But publishing an autobiography was a far more dangerous acrobatic feat.
Carefully I opened my bag, took out the sheets of letter paper covered with writing, and placed them on the desk without a word. His gaze lingered quizzically upon my nose. When he glimpsed the written characters in my manuscript, he adjusted his glasses and began to read. His glasses had round lenses, and he read with his back bent over the manuscript. He read the first page, then the second. The more he read, the more delightedly his eyes gleamed, or maybe I just imagined that. After he had read through several pages, he stroked his beard and opened his nostrils very wide. ‘You wrote this?’ he asked, his voice trembling. I nodded. He knit his brows, then set an expression of weariness on his face like a mask. ‘I’ll keep the manuscript here. Honestly I’m somewhat disappointed that it’s so short. Perhaps you’d like to keep writing and bring me more next week.’
I said nothing, and my silence appeared to make him cocky. ‘And can I say one more thing? Don’t you have any better paper to use? Did you steal this from a hotel? Poor thing! Take mine, if you like.’ He presented me with a stack of Swiss letter paper with the Alps as a watermark, adding a notepad and a Mont Blanc fountain pen.
I hurried home and wrote on a sheet of this freshly acquired fancy paper: ‘When I stood on two legs, I already came up to Ivan’s navel.’ I scraped the metal point of the fountain pen across the paper’s delicate plant fiber structure. It felt just as good as scratching my itchy back.
One day Ivan appeared riding a strange contraption. He rode in a circle a few times, got off, and then pressed the object, which he called a ‘tricycle’ between my legs. I bit at the handle of this new vehicle, made of a material that was even harder than the grayish bread Ivan sometimes threw me, fell off, and sat down on the floor to inspect the tricycle. Ivan let me play for a while, then placed the thing between my legs again. This time I remained sitting in the saddle and was given a sugar cube as a reward. The next day, Ivan placed my feet on the pedals. I pressed into them as he indicated with his hand, and the tricycle rolled forward a little way. Then I was given a sugar cube. I pedaled and got sugar. More pedaling, more sugar. I didn’t want to stop, but after a while Ivan took the tricycle away from me and went home. The next day, our game was repeated, and on the days after that, until one day I began to climb onto the tricycle of my own free will. The riding lessons didn’t seem hard once I’d grasped the basic principles.
I did also have one awful tricycle experience. One morning Ivan showed up reeking – a nauseating mixture of perfume and vodka. Feeling crushed and betrayed, I hurled the tricycle at him, but he skillfully ducked out of the way and started shouting at me, his arms whirling through the air like a pair of wheels. This time there was no sugar for me; he pulled out his whip. Even after this, it was a long time before I understood that there were three sorts of actions. Performing actions in the first category got me sugar. The second category got me nothing: neither sugar nor a whipping. For thirdcategory actions, I was copiously rewarded with lashes. I would sort new actions into these three categories the way a postal clerk sorts letters.
With this, I concluded the new section of my autobiography and brought my manuscript to Sea Lion. Outside a brisk wind was blowing, but inside his publishing house the air was stuffy, it smelled like the cold smoke of Soviet cigarettes. On his desk I saw plates filled with bones, probably the bones of chicken wings, and behind them sat Sea Lion, skillfully operating his toothpick like the beak of a little bird. As dessert, I served him my manuscript with its thickly clustered letters.
He gobbled it right up, gave a hoarse cough, yawned, and said: ‘This is much too short. Write more.’
His arrogance set my teeth on edge. ‘How much I write is my business – not yours. What’s in it for me if I write more?’ My erstwhile circus star pride had suddenly returned. Sea Lion was nonplussed, apparently he hadn’t reckoned with my making any demands. With nervous fingers he opened one of the drawers, pulled out a bar of chocolate, handed it to me and added a bit of commentary: ‘This is an excellent product of the G D R . I don’t eat sweets, so you can have it.’
I didn’t believe a word he was saying, since the color of the packaging that sheathed the chocolate like metallic armor gleamed in a way that didn’t look East German. No doubt Sea Lion had gotten hold of the chocolate through his West German connections. I could report you! But I gave no sign of having seen through him and instead broke the chocolate bar in half, wrapper and all. An attractive, pearly black cocoa skin was revealed. But unfortunately I found the taste rather too bitter. ‘You’ll get more if you keep writing. Though to be honest, I’m not even sure you have anything more to say.’ Sea Lion put the Busy Publisher mask back on his face and let his mind crawl into his paperwork.
Irritated by his cheap provocation, I rushed home and hurled myself at my desk. Annoyance is an easily combustible power source that can be extremely useful in the production of a text. It gives you energy you’d have to generate elsewhere. Rage is a sort of fuel that can’t be found in the forest. For this reason I’m grateful to anyone who enrages me. Apparently I was writing with too much force in my fingers. The point of my fountain pen gave out under the pressure and bent. The mountain-blue Mont Blanc blood spilled out, staining my white belly. It was a mistake to have taken off all my clothes because of the heat. An author should never sit down at her desk naked. I washed, but the ink stain remained.
Illustration © Ping Zhu/Cover design © Clare Skeats