Ernst Spengler was alone in his attic apartment, ready to throw himself out the already open window when, suddenly, the telephone rang. Once, twice, three times, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, Ernst answered.
Mylia lived on the first floor of 77 Moltke Street. Seated in an uncomfortable chair, she was thinking about the basic words of her life. Pain, she thought, pain was an essential word.
She had undergone one operation, then another, four operations in all. And now this. This sound in the middle of her body, deep in the marrow. To be ill was a way of practicing pain resistance or the desire to approach any god. Mylia muttered: the church is closed at night.
Four in the morning on May 29th and Mylia can’t sleep. The constant pain comes from her stomach, or maybe lower, where exactly is this long pain coming from, that belongs to no specific point? Maybe from below her stomach, her womb. The only thing she knew for sure was that it was four in the morning and she still hadn’t rested one bit. How to close her eyes when she was afraid of dying?
She got up. Mylia was a thin, but strong, woman. She didn’t use her hands for nonsense. (She often repeated that phrase: don’t use your hands for nonsense.) She concentrated; she knew she had few years left to live; the illness had already come: we’ll be together for a few years, then it will remain and I’ll go. So, she had to concentrate her existing energy on the days in which she existed in her body, and direct it on the days, focus it—the energy—like a meat roller, ready to act. Do away with nonsense. Fingers should only touch that which is thick, necessary; what was urgent had to coincide with what was essential, with what changes one from head to toe. Like a strong blow in the moment it is received: all of the day’s most insignificant things should approximate that moment in which one receives a strong blow. Mylia looked at herself in the mirror: I’m alive and I already made a bad move. To be ill was to have made a bad move, a diabolical move, Mylia muttered. An illness that changes you from head to toe.
But on that day, at four in the morning, she decided to leave her house. At night, the pain descended on her body in a different way. Like a chemical substance that slowly slips down a minimal slope barely perceptible to the naked eye. Between day and night, the surface isn’t flat. It slopes slightly.
Focused on the pain in that long place that wasn’t a specific point—between her lower belly and her womb—Mylia was outside, looking for a church.
Surprised, a bum says he doesn’t know. A church? he asks.
It’s nighttime, the man says, you could be robbed. You shouldn’t be looking for a church, you should be looking for a policeman to protect you. Where do you want to go at this hour? I could rob you, ma’m.
Mylia smiled and walked on. The pain wouldn’t let her focus on the conversation.
I don’t want the police, I want a church. Do you know if they are closed at this hour?
Her feet felt distant in her shoes. It was clear that the shoes Mylia wore, flat shoes, men’s shoes, obeyed the movement of her feet. Bones and muscles have their own willpower; the material that shoes are made from does not. The material that shoes are made from is trained to obey, there was no doubt about it. Obey, shoes, Mylia muttered with ingenious perversion. All matter could be separated at the start into those which moved with their own will and those which obeyed with static obedience (and some men could be divided this way as well)! Shoes were pure obedience, despicable slavery, they disgusted her right then: the subservience of these materials in relation to man. No dog was as subservient as this matter.
There’s no possibility of dialogue between matter born in opposite camps, not enemy camps because this brings to mind the possibility of combat, the calling of energy, the possibility of man rising up in arms to fight; no, on the contrary, the distance isn’t between enemy matter or between two predators prepared to fight over limited territory; it was simply about the absolute passivity on one side, and on the other, strong energy, that builds or destroys, but that always changes. We aren’t something that just waits, Mylia mutters, while she walks decidedly toward the church.
“The church is closed. Do you know what time it is? Almost five in the morning. And you shouldn’t be here. This area is bad at night, it’s a dangerous area.”
Mylia felt like laughing in the good man’s face. Bad area because it’s dangerous! She who carries her illness, an illness already deep inside that will kill her in no more than one or two years. She who death has already closed in on with no escape: she wants danger precisely, that which still excites her, that still wakes extra energy within her. She was about to say to the man, who was surely a lower-rung church worker; she was tempted to say, If this area is dangerous, it’s not a bad area. Things can be made here.
Because danger was a question to which an answer had to be found quickly. And what I need is a good question, an exact question, a question which forces me to find a great response, something that gives it meaning. The illness is no longer a wolf that I can scare with something stronger. It’s not an easily frightened wolf, it can’t be taken away from me.
Mylia says, “I’m not afraid of danger, I just wanted to enter the church, now.”
“It’s five in the morning. Everyone is sleeping. This area is dangerous. You should go back home. In the morning we’ll all be rested, then you’ll find what you’re looking for. This is no hour to receive good advice. People are tired.”
Mylia remained silent for a while, she contorted with the strange pain that shot out, laterally, from the great constant pain coming from her stomach. This other pain came from somewhere higher.
“Excuse me, I felt a pain.”
“You should go back home; it’s very late.”
Mylia composed herself. She asked,
“Is there a church that is still open?”
The man said good night, or it was Mylia who walked away. The small side door closed; everything was closed up, even the small side door. A prisonlike building. Mylia started circling around it.
There was construction up high, men had to scale the building to work on the church. On tiptoes to place the bricks, thought Mylia, amused. Rising to place a brick a few centimeters higher, what a fine job for someone.
A thought passed through Mylia’s head that made her smile even more and then blush. She felt pressure in her bladder.
It was after five in the morning. All the doors were closed, the nicest man (or at least the most sensitive to noises around the church) had spoken with her, an insignificant man who apologized for the church being closed.
Mylia knew how the world was: a man who apologizes to a stranger at five in the morning is a lowly being. He must be the one who cleans up all the filth, she thought, but then regretted that image.
However, this wasn’t the thought that made her blush. Mylia’s bladder was full, and there was no one there, around the church, to be seen. What she thought was this: a proud man with little respect for the world around him would, if his bladder were full, just lean toward the wall, take out his penis and begin to urinate. Mylia’s desire at that moment was to do the same thing: urinate on the church’s exterior wall.
It wasn’t so much the desire to mark her territory like a dog, in a place where she wasn’t allowed to enter; it wasn’t about any instinct of provocation or rejection in response to the church’s hours that, unfortunately, had not coincided with her needs and wants that day, no, none of that: Mylia was about to turn forty, she didn’t do anything merely to be provocative. And she was ill: she wanted to conserve her remaining energy: any action was solely for herself. I act for myself, I act as if I existed in front of a mirror. Egoism, or, in the end, sound administration of her impulses.
The desire to urinate on the church wall was not a matter of exhibitionism. It was the vertical image, human in its most biological meaning, of a man standing erect with his penis in hand and urinating against the church wall, this was the image that pursued Mylia and, in a way, at that moment, made her jealous. Never before then had she regretted being a woman (or tried to do something “masculine”), but at that moment—in a strange, unnecessary, and even irrational, way—she felt angry about not being a man. As if she had failed from the start.
It was obvious to her that if she decided to urinate, at that time of night, against the church wall, she couldn’t avoid ridicule. How would she even position herself to complete the act? Facing the wall or turning her buttocks to it, leaning them against the wall, bending over and urinating? Any of the options would force her to bow slightly forward and it was this “slightly” which irritated her. A living being either bent over completely, throwing oneself on the ground, if necessary, assuming a cowardly position, or stood up straight, without any hesitation. And she couldn’t do that. Either of the options would result her in soiling her socks. So, her next step, moving away from the wall, made her feel humiliated, as if to say “I can’t do it.”
Another image popped into her head. If someone were to see her urinating on the church wall, he would think he was before a crazy person. Mylia had lesser fears, domestic fears; she was frightened, like so many people she knew, by mice, she was overwhelmed by a useless hysteria anytime one of these small grey animals crossed her path; she was also afraid of physical violence. This one was a great fear: that of physical violent contact with other human beings. And from early on, she protected herself. They could break me apart, she remembers thinking. And with that, she would remove herself. She approached people only when she was certain that she would be treated well. Touched by a good hand. It was with surprise, then, that Mylia observed men and women who relished body-to-body confrontations, the aggression between any matters, conflict.
She didn’t want to appear crazy again. It was obvious that after an erroneous assumption (here’s a crazy woman!), people would see that she wasn’t crazy, and that after all she was doing what normal people did; however, all it took was one look that considered her out of her mind, it was enough for Mylia to think of it to feel terrified. No one else will ever say that I’m crazy, Mylia muttered.
Mylia stepped back for a few minutes. She would not allow herself to be ridiculed as someone with no control over her own body just to urinate against the church wall. She stepped back about ten meters toward the small garden and after leaning her buttocks against a tree, she urinated.
There was no one around and the pain in her stomach persisted. She couldn’t find any paper, so she bent over, grabbed some grass in her hand and wiped herself with it. She let go of it, pulled up her underwear and socks and regained her composure.
The church was still in front of her, silent. In less than three hours, the day would break and the brightness of it was an obvious threat, a material threat. She didn’t find the church open, because it was nighttime, but now she wouldn’t make the mistake of letting anyone see her around there in the morning, everyone would realize that she was looking for something and coming up empty-handed. She hated to be exposed in her weakest moment and after the brief humiliation with the lowly man who opened the church’s side door, after that weakness: in search of something that was closed, Mylia was starting to recover the animal instinct only to show herself when she was strong. She knew that instinct well, you could even say she knew every inch of it, since her illness forced her to constantly postpone the possibility of run-ins: she would never run into someone on a day on which she felt too much pain. That would be to give up being human, she was already aware of that. And Mylia, even conscious that she wouldn’t last more than a few more months, wouldn’t give up being human. Pride, she often repeated. Never lose your pride.
In the meantime, Mylia started feeling something in her stomach. At first, this sensation confused her: it wasn’t her pain, it was something else, equally sharp, even sharper.
How ridiculous, she wanted to laugh. I’m hungry, she muttered, I haven’t eaten for hours. I’m here alone, at night, but my stomach came; it’s keeping me company.
The reason for the shift was, almost immediately, reason for reflection and a certain, inexplicable fear. That pain in her stomach, which manifested her desire to eat, that pain that was stronger now than the other pain: the constant pain of her illness, the pain that would quickly bring her that which was stoked by all of the greater and lesser fears. How is it possible, Mylia asked herself, that the pain brought on by wanting to eat could be stronger? Because the doctors guarantee it, I’m going to die as a result of the pain that is drowned out now.
She understood, clearly, that there, next to the church, both pains were in competition: the pain that would kill her, the bad pain, as she called it, and, on the other hand, the good pain, the hunger pain, the pain of wanting to eat, a pain which signified being alive, the pain of existence, she would say, as if her stomach were, at that moment, even in the dead of night, the obvious sign of her humanity, but also of her ambiguous relationship with unknown mysteries. She was alive, and that circumstance hurt even more at that moment, in an objective and material way, than the pain she was going to die from, now secondary. As if at that instant it was more important to eat bread than to be immortal.
Mylia looked all around: where can I eat something at this hour? Not a single light around, no one.
Mylia circled around the church again. There wasn’t a single light around it, proving that the world was either dead or hadn’t been born yet.
Her empty bladder brought her unexpected comfort. She had dealt with one pain already, she said to herself, as if on that night Mylia was in some kind of game, without having realized it, a game which kept placing before her—rather, within her—problems to overcome that were no more than physical, material pains, concrete things coming from her own body. She had already solved one riddle: she emptied her bladder next to the tree and her bladder calmed down, one less pain. The urine came out; the more urine, the more pain in the body.
But she still had other bodily pains to reckon with, and she knew that at least one couldn’t be solved. Furthermore, one word alone was important; doctors, many of them, had used it in front of her: there’s nothing to be done for this, save for a miracle.
The initial shock: she presented a problem to doctors: a pain, she was ill; that was the problem, an organic riddle. And doctors responded, shrugging their shoulders, with a certain sadness that was more or less professional, but lacking any action, any proposal: there’s no cure for this. Your illness cannot be treated. She brought a problem to doctors and they gave it back to her, in the same condition, without interference: the question remained intact. Why do I have to die?
Mylia is behind the church now, she sticks her hand in her bag and takes out a small object which releases dust. A piece of white chalk. Chalk to write on the slate. She had forgotten it was in her purse. That morning she had drawn a house on the slate that she kept in the living room. She drew the house where she would live if she didn’t die in the meantime. For Mylia, not to die in the coming months would be akin to entering her own immortality. If I don’t die, she said, I’ll become an immortal being. Two years.
Nonetheless, she had the chalk in hand: she liked to draw with it. A great drawing, as she called it.
Holding the chalk in her right hand, she approached the back of the church. By night, the wall looked like it was yellow, but Mylia couldn’t be sure. Nighttime distorted colors, when it didn’t eliminate them completely. But her piece of chalk, luckily, was white, obscenely white, she felt it and smiled.
Suddenly, without thinking about what she was doing, she wrote on the wall with the chalk, making letters so small they were barely visible; she wrote: hunger.
Mylia looked at the rest of the wall and thought: what else should I write, here, on the back of a church, at five in the morning?
She tried to remember the books she had read and quotes for that moment and that wall.
However, she felt a strong pulse in her stomach again, the second pain. She lowered her hand, dropping the chalk, and slowly started walking toward the other street. She was hungry, the pain was becoming unbearable.
Quickening her pace, Mylia was thinking, almost amusedly, I’m so hungry, I’m not going to die anymore! It’s impossible to die when one is so hungry!
Mylia, as a matter of fact, felt strangely safe: the hunger pain was a guarantee, a guarantee of immortality, at least momentarily. The other pain can’t kill me, just like that, all of a sudden, if this pain is so strong! Now that she felt safe, she tried to take her mind off of the desire to eat. If I eat, this pain will pass and then the other pain will come and that one can kill me.
There in the distance was a light, maybe a café that was already open, and to its right, a telephone booth. The pain in her stomach continued; I need to eat something soon or I’ll die, Mylia muttered; then she laughed. She took out a few coins and put one in the slot, dialed a number and heard it start ringing. No one answered. Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen: someone answered. Ernst, Mylia said, I’m next to the church. Is it you?
Then Mylia passed out.
From Jerusalém. Copyright Gonçalo M. Tavares. Translation copyright 2008 by Anna Kushner. All rights reserved.