In 1930, in September, on a boat trip to Cairo, I fell into the Mediterranean Sea; I fell with a mighty splash, since at the time the sea was smooth, unruffled by any wave. Nevertheless, my fall was noticed only a minute later, after the ship had already sailed a kilometer and a half on-and when it was finally turned around and sent back in my direction, the agitated captain gave it too much speed and the immense vessel’s momentum carried it past the place where I was choking on salt water. One more time they turned and set course toward me-but this time too the ship sped past me like a freight train and stopped much too far away. This maneuver was repeated perhaps ten times, with uncommon persistence. In the meantime a private steam yacht sailed up and took me on board; on seeing this, my ship, the Orient, sailed away.
The owner and captain of the yacht had me bound and thrown into a compartment below deck; this was because when he was changing his shoes in my presence I foolishly betrayed my surprise at the sight of his white foot. Though his face was white, I would have wagered good money that his foot would be black as pitch-and yet it was absolutely white! As a result of which he conceived an undying hatred for me. He realized that I had seen through his physiological secret, which no one in the entire world besides me had guessed-that is, that he was a white black man. (In fact, if the truth be told, that whole affair was merely a pretext.) For the following eight months he sailed without a break, always forward, ahead, across numerous seas, stopping only to take on fuel-and all the while he reveled in the boundless freedom of his will with regard to me, locked up as I was in the windowless compartment-and always at his disposition.
Of course, all hatred soon had to vanish in the vastness of that freedom; and if despite this fact he condemned me to a cruel death, it was not so much for my suffering as for his own gratification. He thought for a long time about how, with me as an intermediary, he could enjoy experiences that he would never have dared to try on his own-just like the Englishwoman who placed a bug in a matchbox and threw it over Niagara Falls. And when I was finally brought up on deck, besides fear I also experienced the emotions of nostalgia, sorrow, and gratitude-for I had to confess the kind of death he had contrived for me was almost the same kind that I had once imagined, or dreamed about, once before, in my early childhood.-With the aid of specially procured devices which I shall refrain from describing, an extraordinarily difficult task was accomplished-as a result of which I found myself inside a glass bubble in the shape of a large egg, large enough that I could move my arms and legs freely, and too small for me to shift from a lying position.
The glass was about three centimeters thick. On its entire surface there was not a single blemish or seam-in one place only a small opening had been drilled to let in air. Take a huge egg and prick it with a pin-that was the egg in which I found myself, and I had as much room as a chicken embryo has.
Then the black man showed me a chart of the Atlantic Ocean and indicated the position of our boat; we were more or less in the middle of the ocean, between Spain and northern Mexico. In this place there flows the powerful Gulf Stream from America toward the English Channel and the northern shores of Britain and Scandinavia. Yet the map clearly indicated how at a distance of a thousand miles from Europe the Gulf Stream splits, and its southern branch turns south, to the right, and becomes the Canary Current. After which, somewhere around Senegambia the Canary Current turns right once again (or rather, left on the map) as the Equatorial Current; and the Equatorial Current then swings right-or upward-to become the Antilles Channel, named for the islands-and the Antilles Channel, once more turning right, joins with the Gulf Stream to begin everything all over again. In this manner the currents form a closed circle with a diameter of between fifteen hundred and two thousand kilometers. If you had thrown a piece of wood from the deck of our boat into the ocean-you could be sure that in half a year or one year, or perhaps three years, the frothing waters would bring it from the west back to the same place whence it had floated eastward.
“We’ll throw you into the water in the glass bubble”-the black man’s words could be summarized thus. “No storm will drown you-you have with you a packet of three thousand bouillon cubes, in other words, if you suck one cube a day, you have provisions for ten years; you also have a small but reliable device for filtering water . . . Besides, you’ll never run short of water; you’ll have quite enough of it as you bob constantly on the waves and below the waves, involuntarily, round and round, for a decade; and later, when you die from the lack of bouillon cubes, your corpse will continue to circulate on its designated route, around and around and around.”
They threw me into the ocean. At first the egg sank down deep-after which it floated up . . . An approaching wave (and the day was windy and sunless, the surface of the water deeply furrowed, in constant, intense movement) seized me on its olive-colored crest and for a moment bore me heavily along-then, having lifted me before it, with a roar and a splash it cast me down into the swirling waters. Below the surface things were calm and green. But I had barely managed to notice once again the murky and blurred sky when, like the finger of God above me, a vertical column of water thrust me into a whirling chasm, this time for at least a minute. A third wave bore the bubble along gently for some time-it ran before me, I slipped down its retreating slope and found some peace in a dip. Then there came a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth wave. And what happened during a storm was something else again! Stooping giants, hunchbacked monsters lifted me up to raging heights, only to hurl me down to the very bottom of the precipice!-while naturally, there could be no question that they might drown me. The black man’s boat followed behind me for two weeks or so-in the end, apparently tired and sated, he sailed away.
In accordance with the instructions I had received, I sucked on one bouillon cube a day, washing it down with filtered water which I drew in through a rubber pipe. In this way I had the privilege of satisfying the longing felt by all those who have looked upon the sea from the several-storied heights of steamships, unable to participate in it. And I was never able to determine any sequence whatsoever in my perpetual motion; I was never able to predict whether the water would carry me, or thrust me down, or merely jostle me and toss me aside, whether it would turn me face up or face down to the sky; nor could I ever discern any forward movement-though I knew I was going in an easterly direction. Nothing else was there but peaks and valleys, roaring and plashing, little geysers, chance gurglings, rushing, billowing, vertical walls, inclined slopes, masses that disappeared-goodness knows how-beneath me, great swells, sudden drops, retreating crests that loomed up, the view from the top and the view from below, peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys, the work of the Ocean. And in the end I gave up. Only once did I observe a solitary log, which for many days had accompanied me at a distance of a few kilometers, gradually moving farther away and vanishing in the murky space steeped in salt and mist. At that time I wanted to shout out in my egg, because I realized that the log was being carried toward the shores of Europe, while I was turning with the southern branch of the current toward the Canary Islands, in order to remain forever in a closed circuit-around and around and around-the black man had calculated it well! But instead of shouting I began to sing, because the element of the sea disposed me to singing.
A ship of the French Chargeurs Réunis Society collided with me, breaking the glass, and fished me out of the water. In such a way these wanderings of mine came to an end. But this happened only after a few years. Set down in the port of Valparaiso, I immediately began to flee from the black man, because I knew he would pursue me.
That the black man would pursue me was as obvious as the stars in the sky, for this reason: that anyone who has once experienced someone the way he had experienced me-or to put it even more plainly: anyone who has once experienced the fun that he experienced with me-can never let go again, like a tiger who has had a taste of human flesh. In human flesh there is without a doubt an element that you cannot find anywhere else. And so I fled across the entire continent of America and farther to the west-and of all the places on earth it seemed to me that the safest would be Iceland. But as bad luck would have it, I lacked the strength to withstand the stare of the customs officer in Reykjavik, and I confessed. I have never smuggled anything in my life, and I have always looked customs officers right in the eye and opened my suitcases of my own accord. Every time I would walk away having earned their praise. Consequently, this time my unclean conscience did not endure the mute reproach in the official gaze and I confessed-that though my luggage contained nothing in contravention of the regulations, nevertheless not all was in order with me, for I was smuggling myself. The officer did not make any difficulties-but he must have informed the appropriate person, for less than two days later the black man appeared and imprisoned me on his boat.
And once again I found myself in the compartment below deck, appeasing through my captivity the black man’s domineering unboundedness; he steered the ship forward at full speed, sparing neither coal nor steam, while he himself was constantly scheming and debating with himself-which fate of the infinite number of fates, and which point of the infinite number of points on the map, should he make mine. As for me, I accepted this completely naturally, as if I had been destined for precisely this since birth. Besides, I knew how it would end-certainly not with something that was entirely new and unknown to me, but with something I was familiar with, something I knew, for which perhaps I had long been yearning. When finally, after long months of stifling confinement, I felt the refreshing sea air, I saw that the deck in the stern was sagging under the weight of a steel sphere (or rather, a steel cone) whose shape was somewhat reminiscent of an artillery shell.
For this pleasure he must have laid out a good few million. I realized at once that the sphere must be hollow inside, for otherwise-where was I supposed to go? And indeed, when a hatch on the side was unscrewed and I looked inside, I saw a little room the size of an ordinary little room. This steel room without ornaments or additions I greeted as my room. Yet-despite the fact that the walls of the sphere were extraordinarily thick-I still did not entirely understand the black man’s intentions, and it was only when he told me that we were located on the Pacific Ocean at the point where the deepest trench in the world is found, dropping to a depth of seventeen thousand meters, that I got it . . . and though I felt terror in my neck and in my fingertips, I still gave an enigmatic smile with the corners of my mouth, greeting what was long known, long familiar, long mine.
And so I was to be the only living creature who would experience the gentle thud of the sphere against the ocean bed beneath us, the only being who would squirm in the place where there are not even any crustaceans. The only one who would know absolute darkness, deadness, and despair. In a word, it was a thoroughly unique fate. And as for the black man, it was clear he was burning with curiosity (nor was he alone in this) to know what was down there-and he was tormented by the thought that that realm was forever inaccessible to him, that the cold, rocky region was foreign to his embraces, and while he sailed on the surface, it was there in the depths-thoroughly there. So it was not at all surprising that he wanted to find out, and that tomorrow at this time . . . tomorrow he really would know, through seventeen kilometers of water, that I was squirming on the ocean bed, and without showing it outwardly, he would possess the secret of the depths-having lowered me as a probe to the very bottom.
And yet, just as I was about to enter my tomb, it emerged that an error had been committed in the calculations and that despite the thickness of the walls the specific gravity of the sphere was insufficient-it would not sink beneath the water. In light of this the black man gave the order to fasten a huge hook to the sphere, to attach a chain to the hook, and on the chain to hang ballast that was to pull me after itself-ballast so calculated as not to unduly shorten the time of the descent.
For the last time the black man showed me the map-it was very important to him that, as I perished, I should have before my eyes the point with which I was to be united for all time. I was screwed into the sphere. The final darkness came; I felt a rough jolt-I had been thrown into the sea and had begun to drop down. But I must say that what I experienced then was quite different from what I had expected. Namely, I had expected a certain relation to reality at this moment-yet in fact the darkness and the thickness of the sphere’s walls meant that I lost all mental sense of what was happening, and I knew only that I was descending, that I was falling, being submerged, that I was moving downward. Curled up on the steel floor, I breathed shallowly. On the other hand, there was only a slight bump at the conclusion of my two-hour journey! A bump that announced I had already come to rest! I saw with my penetrating brain how first the ballast touched down on the ocean floor, and then the sphere’s impetus caused it to knock against the ballast and then how in turn it rose upward slightly, stretching the chain. And so here I was finally-I was at the very bottom, in the most secret place of the Atlantic-I was here-and I was alive!-leg touching leg! And up above, directly over me, at a distance of seventeen kilometers was the black man, the black man reveling in the thought that he now knew what happens down on that unattainable ocean floor, that he had imposed his will on it, that he had sent down a probe, that he had warmed and possessed that cold and alien floor by means of my torture.
But the torture gradually intensified to the point that I began to worry it might render suffering and possession impossible, turning everything, including myself, into nothing but a dance of madmen. I began to fear that the torture would end up becoming something insufficiently human for the black man to draw any benefit from it. I will spare you the details. I will mention only that immediately after the sphere settled for good, the darkness, which, as I already indicated, was from the very beginning at its greatest, increased even more, to the point that I had to hide my face in my hands and, having done so, was quite unable to tear them away again even for a second-they stuck to my face. Furthermore, my consciousness could not tolerate the terrible pressure, the fearful crushing and pushing, and I began to choke-since the air was still relatively good, I was choking imaginarily-I was choking prematurely, as I was still breathing, which is possibly the most dreadful form of asphyxiation. And what was worse, my convulsive movements, the movements of an insect, seemed to me here, in seclusion, to be so monstrous in their subjectlessness that I was overcome by fear of myself and could not stand the fact that I was moving. My individuality peeped out from that awful underwater abyss so differently from what it had been like in the light of day, or even (I may use this term here) by the light of night up there, above-how monstrous it had become! My pallor, which the perfect darkness seemed to have deprived of hue and expression-my pallor, crammed inside, blinded, mute, gagged-was something that in its essence was different from any pallor, even the most ghostly, but which could be seen-and also my hair standing on end, here, in the steel, under the water, was almost as terrible as a terrible cry would have been in this situation-a cry from which I forcibly restrained myself, since immediately after it I would have had to go mad-and that was something I did not wish.
Oh, I simply cannot convey how terrifying our Self becomes when it is displaced to a domain in which it is alien-nor how inhuman a person can become when he is used as a probe, nor the extent to which inhumanity surpasses any evil a person may encounter. Yet this was not what I meant to speak about, in fact-rather I wish to describe the manner in which I managed to escape from my plight. Well then: All of a sudden, unable to stand it any longer, I began to thrash and toss myself about, to jump up as high as I could and knock against the walls with all my strength (and this certainly figured into the plans of the black man, who was waiting patiently up above)-I began with all my power to push, to smash, to attack the steel, crashing into it, to clench my fists, strain, and thrust until I produced some result. This futile frenzy evidently produced some movement, some friction outside. I don’t know if the chain broke, perhaps rusted through, or if the loop of the chain slipped off the hook, or if the ballast had been poorly constructed and had fallen apart at the slightest jolt; suffice it to say that suddenly there came liberation, deliverance, relief . . . The sphere moved upward with increasing speed and a few minutes later, driven by massive pressure, I shot into space like a cork, to a height of one kilometer or more.
I was soon unscrewed by the crew of the merchant ship Halifax. I do not know what became of the black man. Perhaps the sphere smashed his yacht as it fell; or perhaps, entirely satisfied with what had happened, he had sailed away to reminisce. In any case, for the longest time I lost sight of him. The Halifax put into Pernambuco, from where I returned to Poland to take a rest.
At this same time a gigantic flaming meteor fell into the Caspian Sea, which evaporated in its entirety in a single moment. Bulging, swollen layers of cloud encircled the earth and hovered just above it, threatening a second great flood; and sometimes the sun burst out from between them with a cluster of hot rays. A great despondency reigned. No one knew how to drag the huge sluggish bodies safely back to the seabed they had come from. Finally someone began to tickle one of the clouds-just as it happened to be approaching the empty sea-at the darkest purple place on its drooping, distended torso. It opened its sluices. Then, when it was completely emptied, into the blue vacuum created by its disappearance there began to float other clouds and one after another, mechanically and automatically now, they poured out their waters and formed the lake once again.
Returning to my home in the country, in Sandomierz province, I rested, hunted a little, played some bridge, rode out to visit the neighbors . . . and on one of these visits there was a young person whom I would gladly have clothed in a veil and wedding gown. Everything had quieted down. The black man, as I said, had vanished somewhere, or perhaps he did not exist at all; moreover, fall was coming, leaves were falling, and the air, crisper every day, inclined a person to exhortations, speed, longing, and playfulness. Just for fun I started thinking about constructing an excursion balloon of the Montgolfier type. And soon this balloon of mine was ready. It was covered with a special impermeable canvas that was extremely light yet strong, and its lifting power was heated air. That is to say, at the bottom the canvas was pulled tight around an iron band in such a way as to leave a sizable opening-into the opening was put an ordinary kerosene lamp fixed on two iron prongs attached to the band. One had only to light the lamp and turn the wick up a little for the balloon to inflate and stretch the cords linking it to the basket. I was easily able to store the rolled-up material of the balloon in a barn-and when I filled it with air (which always took about an hour) its diameter was between thirty and forty meters.
Such a simple solution to something of the greatest difficulty-that is, the use of a tiny lamp with a balloon of such dimensions-I attribute less to my own technical abilities than to a certain sluggish unrestrainedness which at that time had swept over nature. But I do not deny that the first time I sat in the basket, I took fright at the sight of the immensity that was becoming reality above me-but it was an immensity that was light and empty inside, and gentle as a child.
The very process of heating the balloon, of the swelling of that huge sphere, the tautening of the ropes, the growing elasticity, the hissing of the lamp-this alone provided great satisfaction. I had to wait a considerable time for the air to expand sufficiently. At last the balloon unexpectedly and quickly began to rise. I hurriedly turned down the wick; nevertheless, it stopped ascending only above the highest trees in my garden. A mild breeze carried it over the fields in the direction of that familiar neighbor’s house. I floated across the woods and the river, then the village, from which the delighted populace sent me shouts and greetings-and I found myself at a height of fifty meters over the familiar courtyard, before the columned entranceway familiar and so dear to me. I turned down the wick, and the balloon landed softly on the lawn; next to it the house looked like a child’s toy. What astonishment there was! How much laughter and applause, how many compliments for me and for the balloon! Nothing like it had ever been seen! Supper was interrupted to come and marvel-then I was invited to have coffee with cheese and preserves, after which I took one single passenger into the basket and turned up the wick.
The physical delight of this ride above all came from the fact that the balloon was huge and inflated, and also from the following: 1) that one could float right over people’s heads, yet out of reach of their outstretched hands; 2) that on encountering a house or a tree, one could rise up higher and then return to just above the earth; 3) that the balloon, though immense, was extraordinarily sensitive, quiet, and responsive to the slightest caprice of the air, while we in the basket were exactly the same as the balloon, and took on its mild, childlike soul; 4) that a gust of air, which would do no more than graze the cheeks of other people, would in our case lift us up, and it was never possible to predict our movements in space; 5) that there was no machinery at all except for a single kerosene lamp, not even any gas, but only canvas, ropes, a basket, and us in the air, canvas, ropes, a basket, and us in the air; 6) and lastly-the magnificent spherical shadow passing over the lawn. But to me personally the balloon’s passenger brought more joy than the balloon itself. Over the meadows, fields, and groves I grew acquainted for the first time in my life, I grew acquainted without a break and ever more closely, and she listened to me so willingly that I would have kissed her small, attentive, comprehending ear a thousand times over. But despite the fact that women are supposed to love romanticism, I said nothing to her about the black man or about my other adventures-on account of a puzzling yet burning sense of shame that warned me not to say too much.
The day came for us to exchange rings-then the wedding day began to approach. During all this time I had not once had any bad thoughts; I had driven away all my memories, and lived only for her and the balloon; I lived from today, from yesterday-unless I hastened into the future, on a calm, level road of happiness-and even bad dreams forsook me. Never . . . not one deviation . . . not one glance toward what had after all once truly existed . . . but had vanished . . . -and a birch tree was a birch tree, a pine-a pine, a willow-a willow.-And here is what happened.-One day, a week before our wedding ceremony in the local church, when a mysterious, joyful prenuptial shiver was running through me, and everyone was congratulating and sending good wishes, I suddenly got the urge to try a balloon ride on a stormy night. I just wanted to experience swinging in a violent gale-I swear I had no other intentions, no bad desires. However, the gale swept me away with furious force (and in fact it was probably not the gale, but the black man himself), and when after many hours the curtain of dawn rose with alarming rapidity, I could not believe my eyes-beneath me lay the Yellow Sea.
I realized at once that the other thing was over, and once again . . . it had started . . . and . . . and . . . some fearful Oriental things awaited me-I bid farewell forever to the birches, pines, and willows, and the familiar countenance and eyes, and I opened myself submissively to the crooked pagodas, bonzes, idols, mandarins, and dragons. As the last drop of kerosene was burning down in the lamp, the basket dropped into the water off the shore of a small islet. From a nearby thicket a Chinaman emerged-he shouted when he noticed me and ran up, but I began to wave at him to stop, because (of course) he was a leper. He stood undecided, looked at me watchfully, gave a nondescript grunt, as if in surprise, touched his hideous, lumpy exterior-and led me to a dozen or so wretched reed shacks that could be seen in the distance. He went on staring at me attentively, and I could not figure out what that stare meant. I already sensed something . . . yet despite this, I continued to follow him.
When, however, we reached the settlement, my skin began to cry for help-it contracted, it crawled, it tightened, it went mad from terror! The entire village without exception was composed of lepers: the old folk, and the men, and the women, and the young girls, and the young boys, apart from a few small children who were set glaringly apart by their smoothness. This particular form of the illness was called, to the best of my knowledge, lepra anaesthetica, or perhaps lepra elephantiasis; everything was rough, lumpy, carbuncular, tumid, and excrescent, in dull white, brown, or dirty red blotches, in pustules, scales, calluses, hardenings, in chronic ulcers. But they were not humble or modest like their brothers in the cities of Asia who warn of their revolting presence from far off with a cry. Oh no, not at all; it must be acknowledged at once that they had nothing in common with modesty or humility! Quite the reverse-they formed a circle around me and crowded in on me so inquisitively and shamelessly, and they reached toward me so with horny and twisted fingernails, that I threw myself at them, screaming and waving my fists. They instantly disappeared into their shacks. I left the village at once-but when I turned my head a few hundred paces on, I saw that the mob had come back out and was following me at a distance. I stamped my foot. They disappeared, but a moment later they reemerged.
The island was no more than fifteen square kilometers in area, and it could be said that it was entirely uninhabited; the greater part of its surface was covered by a dense forest. I walked along not particularly quickly and yet without a pause, not particularly nervously and yet stiffly, not particularly fearfully, and yet with a slightly quickened pace-for the whole time I could sense the blotchy monsters behind my back. I didn’t want to turn around; I wanted to pretend that I knew nothing, that I could see nothing, and that only my back warned me of their slow approach. I walked and walked . . . I walked in various directions like a traveler, like a tourist, like a searcher, first here, then there, more and more hurriedly, like a person with urgent business, but in the end I ran out of space and, having exhausted all the unwooded places, I started down a path into the tangled depths of the forest. They drew significantly nearer-they were already right behind, and I could hear their whispers and the rustle of the branches. Spotting someone’s lumpy skin creeping along behind a bush, I turned sharply to the left, jumped to the side as I caught sight amid the lianas of something like a hand in an advanced state of elephantiasis-and came out onto a little clearing. They followed me. Again I stamped my foot-they retreated into the jungle. I walked on; they thronged forward again, persistent as rats, and their whispers, prods, and nudges were becoming ever bolder. Every hair of mine was stiff as a wire-what had these carbuncle-people seen in me? What were they after? Women know this-when all at once they’re accosted from behind with filthy jokes by an unruly band of good-for-nothings, while they scurry along with lowered head-and that is just how it was with me, exactly the same, point for point . . .
What did they want? I did not yet understand, I did not immediately grasp the new idea, but I already mentioned the resemblance point for point . . . and if one went deeper into the essence of the situation from which I had been torn and suddenly transported onto this island-into that premarital anxiety, the church and the veil-then things could not have been any different . . . In a word-it had become clear that I excited them, that I excited them in a particular way-and though I could not fathom the source of this excitement, nor the meaning of their exclamations, their laughs, their revolting jokes, nevertheless the filthiness, the licentiousness, the lasciviousness were palpable-and in the voices of the men-monsters I sensed the lustful brutality, and in the voices of the women-monsters the spiteful amusement, which tended without exception to be brought out in human beings of all races and latitudes in only two cases-innocence or immaturity . . . Oh, I would have accepted the leprosy alone; but not leprosy and eroticism together, oh no, for the love of God, erotic leprosy? I took flight like a madman. Seeing this, they rushed after me with a shout. But their plodding elephantine shanks were no match for my mad panic! I hid in the spreading crown of a tree, armed myself with a stout cudgel and swore to myself I’d crack the skull of the first one who came near.
And there gradually was revealed to me the infernal combination-the infernal substance of this torture . . . I discovered the entire complex mechanism of probabilities that made this fantasy real. No ship had visited the island for two or three centuries; it had been forgotten, as sometimes happens with such small and infertile little islands. Its inhabitants had never seen a stranger here either in their own lifetime or that of their parents.
Very well-but how should one understand the bawdiness, the lascivious jibes, the fearful pursuit, and the desire to accost? Oh, it was easy! It was easy-one had only to enter into the psychology of the black man’s Spirit, which had arranged all this (and in this respect I had already notched up certain experiences). Since time immemorial, perhaps several generations, perhaps four, leprosy had afflicted them-and over the years they had assimilated it, accepted it as a natural quality of humankind . . . Blotchiness was, in their eyes, as natural to human beings as colorfulness is to butterflies; lumps were as natural as a rooster’s comb; and it would have been no easier for them to comprehend a person without carbuncles and pustules than it would have been for us to comprehend a person without a single hair on his skin. And since they had not renounced love-since their children were born healthy, smooth, and pure-since it was only after a few years that they yielded to the pestilence, and the time when the skin began to thicken and form scales coincided with puberty . . . coming at the time of the first kiss . . . the first charms of love . . . accordingly, seeing me ridiculously smooth, utterly uncarbuncled, amusingly thin, just some hopping creature with a little pink face (oh yes, for them carbuncles, blotches, calluses, star-shaped and spindle-shaped pustules were what colors are for a butterfly, and what for us is the hair that turns a child into a man)-they had to think what they thought. They had to nudge one another, taunt, mock, and torment, and when they realized that I was afraid of them, that, embarrassed and disgraced, I was running away-they had to send their monstrous maturity in delighted pursuit of my timid innocence, by the same infernal law that governs boys in school!
On that island I survived two months of a monkey’s existence, hiding in the hollows of trees, in dense bushes and the tops of palms. The monsters organized formal hunts for me. Nothing could have amused them better than the embarrassment with which I rushed from their touch-they hid in the undergrowth, jumped out unexpectedly, ran along with a merry and lascivious roar-and had it not been for the characteristic odor hircinus, had it not been for the decrepitude of their degenerated limbs, and the desperate fear that augmented my strength, I would have fallen into their clutches a hundred times over. And above all, if it had not been for my skin-my skin, contracting without a moment’s rest, susceptible, chapped, terrified, exhausted, in eternal perturbation. I ceased to be anything else but skin-with it I would fall asleep and wake up, it was my only, it was my all.
In the end I discovered by chance a few bottles of kerosene that had probably come from a shipwreck. I managed to patch up the balloon-and I sailed away . . . But when I saw once again the beeches and pines, et cetera, and the familiar eyes, what on earth was I to do? What was I to do, I, who was after all smooth, without lumps, without blotches, without calluses, without scales or ulcers, thoroughly uncarbuncled? . . . What was I to do; could I now, pink and childlike, look into those eyes?
But since I could not-then I could not-and I parted from that which parted from me . . . Besides, soon afterward I was swept up by other adventures; oh yes, I never lacked for adventures. I remember that in 1918 it was I and no one else who broke through the German line. As was common knowledge, the trenches reached all the way to the seashore-it was a true system of deep, dry channels that stretched unbroken for five hundred kilometers or so. And I was the only one who conceived the idea of irrigating those channels. In the night I crept up, dug a ditch, and linked the trenches with the sea. The water, surging uncontrollably, flooded them along the entire front, and the astonished Coalition armies saw the Germans soaked to the skin and jumping up in panic in the faint light of a misty morning.
From Bacacay, forthcoming from Archipelago Books. By arrangement with the publisher.