I am certain that each of you has been left alone in the presence of a completely unknown person not once nor twice. You go, let’s say, to visit a friend of yours and you find there someone else; the host or the hostess leaves the room and you are left alone with this person; you sit in the dentist’s waiting room and someone else enters the room as well; or at last, you travel with an unknown person for several hours in the same compartment. But it can also happen another thing: for instance, you walk with your friend A., who goes to visit his friend B. due to some important matter, on the way you catch up with an acquaintance of your friend A., a person whose name is C.; your friend introduces you to each other, you continue to walk, you speak, but after ten steps your friend meets his friend B., the one he has looked for, they go, and you are left alone with the completely unknown gentleman C.
That was exactly what happened to me.
On one late summer evening I decided to take a walk uphill to the Seminary. I had not left the oppressive city for a long time and on that night I wanted to breathe in the open fresh pine air. I felt very well - unusual joy spread through all my veins, happy thoughts excited me and it seemed to me that on that night the people, and the streets, and the buildings - all were bathed in a joyful light. As If over the city was frozen a light moment of festive tranquility that shone on all faces, in all hearts. Or probably the world was still the same - impersonal and dead - and the happiness came not from outside, but within, straight from my freed from the daily grind and thirsty for life body.
I had almost reached the ruins of the Black mosque, when I felt that someone came close to me and tapped me friendly on the shoulder. I turned around; it was my friend A., a joyful young man, with him was another person as well, who, I must admit, I did not notice well from the very beginning, I did not even remember his name. I started walking - I was from the left, my friend was in the middle, the gentleman - from the right. But we had not exchanged even several words yet - when ten steps further - my friend said goodbye and walked into one courtyard.
Only I and the unknown gentleman remained on the street. All of that happened so quickly, that just then I looked carefully at my fellow-traveller, and I remember that I instantly felt a shiver of dread to spread through my veins.
He was a well-built man, a little taller from what is considered to be an average height, with rounded shoulders, with a wide neck of a healthy and opulent person. However, his face was different: pale, puffy, it carried obvious traits of sickliness and sorrow. But not only the face was pale: his blue eyes had the same whitish colour and maybe that is why his glance was so heavy, motionless, as If it belonged to a death man.
I thought at first that after a few steps we were going to head in different directions, but we passed silently the first and the second cross street, yet my fellow-traveller did not show any sign that he was going to turn aside. I was getting excited already.
"But who is this man? What kind of person is he? Why is he with me?" I was wondering bored; at that time I heard that he asked me something; his voice was calm, smooth, but unusually toneless.
"You probably live somewhere here?" he asked me.
"No, I live in another neighborhood."
"Then you are probably going to visit someone?"
"Oh, no: just like that, I am taking a walk - I am going uphill to the forest."
"Alright, I am going with you then" he said with the same calm voice, firmly and somehow thoughtfully, as If he was speaking to himself.
"You are welcome."
And what else I could say to him, even though in my soul already burned anger against that man, who stuck with me so uninvited.
We crossed the boulevard silently and almost reached the bridge when my fellow-traveller unexpectedly burst into dry, wicked laughter. Startled, I turned my head towards him. He looked at me with his deadly eyes, and on his lips played a scarcely perceptible angry smile.
"Look" he said, as he pointed forward.
Before us was walking a couple - a man and a woman.
"Do you see it?"
"I see a couple, young people..." I uttered in bewilderment. But the gentleman interrupted me with the same wicked laughter.
"No, it is not a couple: before us is the great illusion, the eternal great illusion that people call love in such a banal manner."
"Yes, you are right" I agreed with him, however, I failed to understand what he meant to say with those words.
"So? You agree with me. Then, please tell me, why they seek each other’s company?"
"Who?" I asked him surprised.
"These two before us."
He fixed his cold eyes on me, he looked at me with wicked rage for several moments, then as If he was brought to his senses, turned his head forward and pulled hungrily on his cigarette. We walked silently like that for several minutes. I looked at him stealthily; strange: he was shaking from head to toe of excitement. His face was motionless and bloodless as If it was a white mask, his lips - ashy-purple, and the shivering hand supported with difficulty the cigarette. Apparently he made unbelievable efforts to stay calm. In the end he spoke again with his toneless smooth voice.
"Do you know what" he started, "whenever I see a couple in love, I feel infinite sadness, as If before me stand two people who are sentenced to death. Into my mind immediately flashes a string of dark thoughts; I see all their betrayals, disappointments and dissatisfactions with each other; I hear all of their mutual, of course, wrong reproaches and then - this yellow desert of sorrow and desperate hopelessness, imagine - these who with such thirst, with such joy have sought each other, desired each other - is this not awful... no, no... imagine two lost people who walk with closed eyes on the edge of a dark abyss, without suspecting the danger which awaits them. You are on the other side - in between is the abyss, you look at them, you sympathize with them, you pity them, but you are unable to help them. Oh, they will not hear you. You can shout, you can try to warn them: "Do not do it, come back, you will perish!" And yet, there is no use - they will not hear you - between you and them is wide open the abyss. "
The gentleman stopped and looked at me again, but now over his whole face was visible humiliated helplessness.
"Oh, If the man could reject - he continued with his strange thoughts, If he could win, If he could overcome his impure thrill of physical unity with the woman, he would be saved eternally..."
"Yes, but what else would be left for him then" I laughed.
"What else? Oh, much, so much: his dream about the woman. He could live with this image within his soul without fear that he is going to lose it when he comes close to it. And there is no more supreme happiness than the happiness to carry the beloved image of a woman in your heart. Some people all their life wear around their neck a triangular talisman with mystery words written inside it... But there is no talisman more magical than the image of the woman who you have created by yourself and keep carefully in your soul."
I could not bear it anymore and I interrupted him:
"Yes, but after all, she is only a dream" I said.
"So what?" he said surprised. "A dream - you say. Well, let it remain as it is - is there any difference between reality and dream? No, there is no precious reality: the joyful excitement, which we call happiness, is nothing more than the illusion that we have found for a moment in reality a material embodiment of our dream. But even then, we, actually, rejoice again to our dream and we suffer because at this very moment of embodiment, our dream dies...
Do you know what - we, men, are like little children towards the woman. Sometimes our destiny gives us a beautiful and rare toy. But instead to admire it from a distance, we sit, just like curious children and with effort take apart all screws of the toy in order to learn what it is consisted of and at the end we find on the inside - an empty space, shavings and a ball of oakum and, of course, we blame destiny that it has deceived us..."
"Strange. Alright, let’s assume this, but one can live with such thoughts."
"And you believe this?" I laughed for a second time. But the gentleman did not say anything. Maybe my laughter insulted him. He turned his face towards me, but passed his eyes over and looked aside, towards the forest. We had already climbed all the way up.
"Oh, look how big has grown the forest!" he shouted, being joyful as a child.
"Yes, from the autumn to the spring there are six months - the young twigs have germinated..."
"No, no, I do not say this about them" he uttered slowly and thoughtfully. His face instantly had regained his heavy mask again... "I have not seen this forest for a long time."
"Probably you have been away from the capital?" I asked with curiosity.
"Not even a day."
"And you have lived here for a long time?"
I wanted to be completely apologetic, and also some kind of unexplainable sorrow towards that man pierced my heart.
"You have been busy with work" I started, "it happens."
"No, not even work: I just did not want to come here" he said stubbornly.
"But strange, you..."
"Wait, I will tell you - here, in this forest, one night, years ago, something truly unbelievable happened to me, unexplainable."
I looked at him. He took a few steps, his head was bent, and his cold eyes were fixed distantly forward. We walked that way for several minutes, but suddenly he stopped again and stubbornly looked at me.
"Do you remember", he said, "the assault at the casino years ago?"
"The assault at the carnival? I remember, yes."
"You were there?"
"No, I was not there" I said and immediately felt that some kind of excitement overwhelmed me. Maybe the reason for it was the lie. I lied that I had not been there, I lied completely unconsciously, without any reason and because of that, in me arose a deadly fear that my actions are controlled with the power of someone else’s will. And he continued to look at me with a suppressed wicked smile in the corner of his lips.
"So you were not there, but I was. Let’s go; I will tell you."
We started walking.
"Before to confess everything to you" he started with his toneless smooth voice, "I have to admit that I do not like groups of noisy people and crowds. I have always felt lonelier than ever amidst noisiness and majority than anywhere else. However, on that night we decided, with a group of acquaintances of mine, to go to the amusement. Until then I had not seen a carnival - so I wanted to see it. And a whole week before that, If you remember, on the streets and in the newspapers was talked and written only about those artists’ carnival.
We went; we took a distant table, we ordered beer, in general, we prepared to take our part of the mutual revelry.
Indeed, the illuminated and decorated hall, the music, the wildly dancing pairs of masked men and women in the most capricious and queer dresses from all periods and nations (the artists’ whole wardrobes were present) and that mad looseness, towards which the certainty that we would not be recognized encouraged us - it seemed that they introduced us to another world more exciting and intoxicating than the alcohol. I do not know If it ever happened to you, mister, to see the bare man, freed from all conventions and prejudices to which he is obliged to obey in his daily grind, free like an element. That is: free like an element. That is how I saw the woman for the first time or more accurately - the irresistible element of the flesh, of the freed female flesh.
We sat sidewards and drank; I felt already dizzy, but I did not stop drinking. From time to time I rose up and mixed with the crowd. Before my hazy eyes moved the dancing pairs, appeared naked shoulders and bosoms of women, a perfume intoxicated me, and the sprinkled by some playful female hand confetti encouraged my boldness to perform heroic acts. But more than anything else my eyes were enchanted by one couple: a made-up jester with a paper hood on the head and a young woman with a tight silk mask on the eyes, who wore a short ballerina dress. They flew over the hall on and on, from a group to group, like two restless butterflies: the first - all in white, with two black cuts on the wings, the other - he - the quicker one, the more flexible one with his blown wide sleeves and the folded gaily-coloured collar of a jester. Both of them beautiful, both of them intoxicated from the youth and the delight they awoke in everybody, it seemed, however, that they did not see anyone, and lived lost in reverie with each other, enchanted in some magical dream.
The music started playing; I remember - one-step; over the hall rang the graceful tinklers of a triangle and the colourful costumes drifted as If they were swept away by a whirlwind. But at that very moment a thunderous crash shook the whole building. Suddenly everything became silent: the music stopped, crowds of frightened people rushed aside and outside, pieces of window glass were sprinkled somewhere. No one knew what had happened, everyone looked in astonishment. One person, who was braver than the others, got on one chair and shouted: "Stay where you are, gentlemen, be calm, nothing has happened."
Indeed, those words brought the frightened people to their senses. I went forward to the place of the crash, passed through the thick mass of bodies and wanted to see what happened there. But at the same time the crowd swiftly took aback and before me, face to face, stood up the same joyful jester, who carried in his hands his half dead bloodstained female companion.
No, I shall never forget that frightful image: the widened with horror eyes of the funny made-up young man and the blood of the young woman, which soaked through her snow white dress, flowed through his fingers and dripped in wide black spots on the floor.
I turned back and went outside as If I was being chased. By the way, on all faces was visible fright and concern; a police came as well, people ran here and there. I found my coat and went away, without even to think about my group. I went on the street and started walking randomly in the darkness. I was very tired and dizzy; I said to myself: "I have drunk a lot." I could not find even one clear thought in my mind, I could not fix my attention on anything specific. I did not want to go home. And I continued walking randomly; silent shadows appeared and disappeared from the darkness; somewhere a clock struck midnight. Then suddenly a strange desire took me over: to go forward, to go to the end of the city, to wake up in the open country. I started walking. In the beginning I did not know where exactly I was going; I do not remember for how long I had walked. Suddenly two low parallel walls stood in my way, I peered into the darkness (I must say to you that my vision is quite weak, I wear glasses with five dioptres - here, see). (He took a black case for glasses from the pocket of his vest, opened it and showed me the glasses: they were gold with handles for the ears.) Yes, I peered into the darkness and distinguished the cement bridge parapets. This one, over there." He turned around and pointed the bridge behind us. "I had found myself here, on this highway - and I continued walking. The night was cloudy and very dark; I walked and thought: "Is it not wiser to return and rest at home instead to wander in this impenetrable darkness?" But exactly at that moment behind me a car lumbered; before to turn around the car caught up with me and in the muddy illumination of the lanterns it seemed to me that I saw a high closed carriage. The carriage went forward at a distance of ten steps, stopped and after a little while I noticed that from there towards me was quickly approaching one figure and before to come to my senses, before me, at a distance of just two steps stood - a woman. I just could not believe my eyes.
"Good evening!" she greeted me in somewhat careless-playful and provoking manner.
I replied to her as I added: "What can I do for you, missis?"
"Missis? Are you sure about this?" followed again the same teasing tone.
"Actually, whatever... excuse me."
"Since is whatever - you are excused. Let’s go then."
And I instantly felt that one hand skillfully passed through my arm from the left and a lissome female body pressed itself close against my elbow.
"But listen to me" I almost shouted, "I do not understand what all this means."
"Oh, you do not understand! You cannot even realize that tonight you are my victim!"
"Your victim! How come!"
"Just like that - I have been looking for you; come, you will learn everything."
And she took me to the right alley. We jumped over the gutter and continued forward. Everything was so unexpected, that I, dizzy, had no more time, nor desire to consider my words and my actions. No, she said it straightforwardly: I was her victim. Most likely the alcohol helped with that. But that crazy woman suddenly submitted my will, even my thoughts. I listened to her in astonishment and I felt that because of her voice, because of her laughter, because of her gestures and the skilful touches of her body close to mine, it seemed to me as If thin invisible nets flied off, they entangled my mind and I unwillingly believed everything she said to me.
But who was she? What kind of person was she? Some adventurous woman, some insane woman or just one of those modest, humbled and dependent creatures, who in a moment of inspired self-confidence had decided at least once to tear the chain of the conventions and give full swing to her thirsty flesh. In that way consecutively she transformed herself every moment before me in a newer image of a woman, of the woman. At times she was a young woman, a coquette, an infant girl; at times she was a lover of adventures, a spinster, a nervous wife, an old woman, a prostitute. Sometimes the roles changed so quickly and so successfully, that I, dizzy because of her words, intoxicated from the caresses of her freed flesh, in those moments it seemed to me that I saw one mystical enlightenment, the essence itself of the enigmatic creature - woman, who we love or hate, we destroy or we perish from its hand and yet we do not know and we never understand.
"But I am an acquaintance of yours" she laughed, "is it possible that you do not remember that you have already heard somewhere this voice. Try to remember - you came home; you looked for my husband due to some work, you rang and one woman who wore light home clothes opened the door, you shot such a thirsty glance at her... Do you remember, ha?"
Indeed, I had visited many homes; I own an agency of one foreign trade house for years: my office is on Positano Square (he said the number and the street) and it would not have been a surprise If I had met that woman somewhere. But before to think about it, a new game started.
"Oh, my friend, you are extremely slow-witted - an hour ago, at the carnival, you undressed every inch of me with your eyes, I strewed confetti on you, two times I touched you with my fan and I uttered ambiguous words in your ear itself - is it possible that even now you do not remember me?! Here, take my hand." Her hand was long, with thin, nervous fingers that I felt even underneath her glove. She wore long fur gloves. Her fingers plunged into my hands, they sprang forward and the naked flesh between the glove and her elbow was pressed on my lips, laughter of lust rang and suddenly ceased. We took a few steps in silence; I was shivering whole; what else she planned to do? And suddenly she started speaking again - completely changed, with a toneless, faint voice in which rang tears.
"Ah, mister" she whispered to me, "I am a too respectable, a too respectable woman, but I have been insulted and I want to take revenge tonight. An hour ago you looked at one couple, I saw in what ecstasy you looked at them - the jester and the ballerina. Indeed, they were lovely and I shall not forgive them that. Tonight he was in my arms, he swore to me that he loves only me, yet only an hour later I saw the insane terror in his eyes when he carried in his arms bloodstained another woman... Do you understand now? The silk mask helped me to reveal the treachery... Here, this mask."
Her face came close to mine and in the darkness I faintly distinguished the two black ellipses of the mask on her white face, and underneath was visible the pleasurable cut of her lips, which were slowly coming closer to my lips, they burned me with their scent, they were pressed with a predatorious manner on my lips and the wicked sinister laughter resonated again.
"Oh, how funny are you, men! You never learn anything from us. One thin eye mask is enough to hide all our secrets - is it possible that you have not understood that I am an old ugly spinster, with a withered bosom and fake teeth in my mouth? Or not? No this - I am a fallen loose woman who anyone can have and after that leaves behind... Try to remember - which day of the week you came to me."
She crossed my way, came face to face with me and burst into laughter once again:
"Ah, do remember now?"
But her laughter suddenly ceased and I saw - no, I saw nothing, but I felt, I was sure that she is already a completely different person. Indeed, she took my two hands, held them for a moment silently and then she started speaking with excitement - her voice was again changed, now in it rang a wild childish triumph.
"Listen" she said, "I am already pleased with myself and I will reveal you the truth itself: I am a little girl. Everyone thinks of me this way: my mother, my father, my relatives. Whenever I say something, they laugh at me and say: "Hush, you are still a child, you know nothing yet..." And yet, tonight when mom and dad went there, I put on mom’s black gloves, then I put on her long fur coat and became an important lady... Oh, I looked myself in the mirror of mom’s wardrobe and said: "This night is mine!" Do you understand now? And I want you to remember me always, always. Here, take this flower!"
She reached for her bodice and she handed me something.
"This is a white carnation" she said with a note of triumph in her voice, "pure and tender, a memory of the little girl... wait, I will put it over here."
And she put her fingers in the lower left pocket of my vest. Then she made a second gesture and started speaking again.
"Here is a pink carnation" she said, "a memory of a jester’s cheated lady. Put it there."
She pushed her fingers in the upper right pocket of my vest and giggled, then she stopped and reached again for a third time.
"The third and the last memory" she said, "a blood red carnation - from the mature lady, who you once desired with eyes - its place is here, close to the heart."
And her thin fingers reached the upper left pocket of my vest... Ah, mister, since then have passed years, but I still have not forgotten my strange adventure. It seems to me that on that night I understood the bottomless abyss that has always stood and still stands between us and the woman... no, not this - I cannot express my feeling - I do not have words, I do not have thoughts, but even today in every woman I meet I look for and see only that lady... In the timid gaze of the child, in the eyes of the virgin, in the dark glance of the mature woman, in their every smile, gesture or word - it seems to me that I perceive a hint to our secret, that I listen to their whisper: "Do you not know me, I am that lady"..."
He became silent, took off his hat and wiped off his bare pate with a piece of cloth: he had an extremely wide pate with perfectly outlined bones of the skull. We walked silently that way for several minutes. I waited and I hoped that he would speak again, but he kept silence in a stubborn manner, he was thoughtful and it seemed that he did not notice my presence. My curiosity started eating me up inside, I could not control myself and I asked:
"And how did all that end" I said, "you did not finish your story."
He stopped and looked at me in amazement. Probably my question had interrupted the flow of his thoughts and he needed a few moments in order to come to his senses. He rubbed his pate again - slowly and with difficulty - a guilty smile played on his lips and only after that he came to his senses: his cold eyes were fixed on me and he continued:
"Ah, yes, you are right..." he said, "we turned back with her and when we were at a distance of ten steps from the carriage, she stopped me with an energetic gesture, started running, jumped inside and disappeared into the darkness... Only then I came to my senses and I wanted to scream, to run after her, to catch up with her and to learn who she was and what kind of person she was. And I do not know, probably I had truly run, because after several minutes I found myself in the city. It seemed to me that I was near my home: then I used to live in that neighborhood, around the river. I thought that the sun was coming up, by the way, it was difficult to guess what time it was: a thick mist had come from the mountain - as often happens at springtime in the capital - and I, with my short-sightedness distinguished with difficulty the objects at a distance of a few steps from me. I set out for home; I was on a right way: I was going to walk through two boulevard cross streets and to turn to the left. That is what I did. Three streets above and on the right the fourth house was my place. After a little while I reached the well-known corner and almost gropingly started counting the houses: one, two, three, four... However, there, where our house should have been, turned out to be a wide empty yard space. Probably I had made a mistake. I turned back and started counting again, but that time I found a high fence with iron bars behind which appeared black completely unknown buildings. No, it was obvious that I had lost myself in the mist. I did not know anymore where should I go - forwards or backwards - and started walking randomly. And then it began one endless, exhausting and boring wandering, in which I gradually lost idea about both direction and time. I did not meet any people, I did not recognize any places. It seemed to me that I found myself in a completely different town, in a foreign unknown land. At last, tormented, desperate and worn out, I found a shelter near one wall and I sat down on some high, carved stone, as it seemed to me then. I closed my eyes and waited like that for several minutes, but when I opened them - I noticed that across the way, through the narrow street, something high and thin, that I had not noticed before, stood out black towards the sky. I thought it was a poplar, which had been hidden before that in the mist. But not - it was not a poplar: now I clearly distinguished a high thin minaret of a mosque. After a little while through the dark was outlined as well the dark balcony of the minaret that was decorated with three rows antique Bairyam float lights! No, that was too much - I jumped and crossed the street fast, but there was no poplar nor mosque - I came upon only to some low sun-dried brick wall; I touched with my hand - dry crumbly dust was sprinkled in my hand and from above reached me suspended vine branches... Without a doubt with me happened strange things; I was afraid that could faint and fall down there; with my reminded will and strength I returned again to the stone and sat down, but when I tried to lean against it with a hand - my hand fell into something deep; just then I realized that I had been sitting on the edge of a wide stone trough. I leaned forward and I looked - a fountain trough; I stared at the wall - there was visible a prominent shiny object - I touched: a bronze spout of a dried fountain. However, at that moment my head grew heavier and I put it slowly on the stone recess in the wall.
How long I stayed there, what happened - I do not remember. When I opened my eyes - I caught the sight of the painted ceiling patterns in my room: I was in my bed..."
"You see! So you had dreamed" I shouted relieved, but the gentleman looked at me silently with his petrified face.
"Yes, I thought the same and I was glad" he started slowly, "but after several moments in my mind arose a terrible suspicion: I rolled around in my bed and I started trembling with my whole body, I almost jumped and stood up in the middle of the room. There, on one of the chairs, lay my clothes. I came near and been unable to breathe because of excitement, I pulled out the vest.
Mister, can you imagine my horror, when from the lower left pocket of my vest I pulled out the white carnation! I reached above - the pink carnation, from the right - the dark red carnation... That meant that I had not dreamed.
So what are you going to say about that?"
I shrugged my shoulders in guilty bewilderment and he put his hand in the inner pocket of his coat, pulled out from there a thick leather wallet, opened it and showed it to me. Indeed, in one of the folds, in a business card envelope, lay three old colourful carnations.
I looked at the gentleman: he followed me with his deadly-ashy eyes, and on his lips played a scarcely perceptible wicked smile, then he slowly put his wallet back and said:
"I have to go this way, goodbye..."
He turned around the near corner and disappeared.
Several days passed, but the thought of that strange person did not leave me even for a minute. As If that was not enough: on the third day to my horror I noticed that his thoughts were not at all his, but mine. It seemed to me that more and more I realized that all that had happened once - do not know when - to me. In order to calm down, I contacted my friend as I hoped to learn more about that peculiar person, but you can imagine my amazement when my friend said with certainty that he did not remember meeting me those days or introducing me to such person!
It was not left anything else, except to go and to look for him in his very own office. I remembered well the name and the number of the street. I went there but I came back in even bigger bewilderment. There was no office at the indicated place - a bakery stood there for many years. I asked the people around me, but they all said that such person had never lived there.
Even now I do not know who has dreamed this - me or him.
© Georgi Raichev
Преводът е направен по: Игра на сенките. Пловдив, 1983.