That winter afternoon, just before the flyover and exit for the city of S—, E. suddenly saw a broad, dark shadow cross the beam of his headlights. The back-end of a truck! Such was his perception. There must have been an accident and the truck’s trailer had overturned to sprawl diagonally across both lanes of the motorway. E. saw no alternative but to slam on the brakes or swerve off the road. Before fully deciding what action to take—not so much by deliberation as by unconscious reflex—E. hit the brakes so hard that chips of ice flew out from under the screeching tires. The car had not even come to a proper halt before he realized his mistake: the road was clear, there was nothing there except, indeed, for a shadow falling across the road.
Was there a rational explanation for his hallucination?
At that particular point in the motorway, the road curved and sloped in such a way that oncoming traffic was only visible once the vehicle had advanced beyond the bend. A hill planted with fir trees on the other side of the motorway, illuminated by headlights approaching from the north, had cast this dark mass in his path. The optical illusion was created not only by the unusual lighting conditions but also, perhaps, by the fact that an earlier cataract operation on E’s left eye had not been entirely successful. Particularly in the evenings, the rim of the intraocular lens, slightly off-center, caused reflections and rainbows to form around lights, and at its worst, it could hinder accurate vision.
The car behind E. was also forced to brake suddenly, and when it overtook him, the driver gave him the finger. Deeply mortified as he took the next exit, E. noticed he was trembling. He was also shaken by the realization that he couldn’t quite trust his eyesight, and by the suspicion that similar incidents were likely to recur. They might come to plague his advancing years with increasing frequency.
Chastened by his phantom vision, he continued on toward his destination, a town which was new to him. He was due at a local branch of the city library, where he was to read extracts from his books and possibly answer questions from the public. The evening was billed as ‘The Realms of Truth and Fable.”
When he arrived at the library, unerringly prompted by the navigation system’s gentle female voice (now merge with the exit lane!), he still had about half an hour. The librarian, an older woman, was sitting behind the counter deeply engrossed in her computer.
“I’m your visiting author,” said E., giving his name. “For the literary evening?”
“You? I’d never have guessed!” the librarian quipped, looking him over from head to foot.
E. found this to be a slightly unorthodox welcome, rather lacking in enthusiasm, but he did not ask the librarian what she meant by her remark. E. did, however, become very conscious of the puffiness around his eyes, the wrinkles on his neck and the roundness that had set into his shoulders of late.
“Any chance of a cup of coffee?” he asked. He felt in need of a pick-me-up after his long drive and strange experience.
“The café’s already closed I’m afraid,” said the librarian. “There’s a kitchen alcove for the staff over there. There’s water. I still have to finish up over here.”
“Which way is the lecture hall?” E. made so bold as to enquire further.
“The auditorium is at the end of the corridor on the left. I’ll be introducing you. We start at a quarter past.”
The librarian appeared to lose all interest in her visitor and began tapping on her keyboard. This frosty reception further disheartened E. After a few wrong turns he located the kitchen alcove where he noticed an empty coffee pot by the sink. He briefly considered brewing a pot of coffee himself, but decided to settle for a glass of water.
The auditorium was not particularly vast but E. was surprised to see there was quite a turnout, the room was almost half full. This was gratifying. E. recalled a similar event in another town, where his public had comprised three assistant librarians and the aunt of one.
As soon as the librarian had finished enumerating, in a monotone and without pause, the titles of all E’s twenty books, E. began unceremoniously reading extracts from his work: one early short story, one essay, and the first chapter of his new novel. As he read he became increasingly aware that he was not doing it well. Not well at all. He was not on form this evening. On more than one occasion he was forced to clear his throat, and at one point someone in the back row called out: “We can’t hear!”
It didn’t help that, in various parts of the room, several people were chatting in low voices. As he paused between the essay and the novel, he even caught the tail-end of a phrase recollecting a holiday in Thailand. Moreover, some members of the audience were fiddling with their phones or tablets without ever lifting their gazes. Text messages, e-mails, and smiley faces flew indiscernibly across the room, but the author could almost feel their electric breeze in his thinning hair. By contrast, among the otherwise indifferent audience sat two individuals whose gaze was relentlessly fixed on E. Could it be they were admirers of his books? If they were, they gave no indication other than the obdurate stare, for neither displayed the slightest reaction to the words he read, no trace of a smile or nod. And E. felt he had chosen passages which were, after all, both amusing and moving.
E. felt there was something vaguely familiar about the two individuals, but he couldn’t place them. One was an older man, the other a woman of about the same age as E. Their imperviousness caused E. some degree of discomfort.
No one clapped when he finished reading. After a brief silence, the librarian grabbed the microphone and announced: “The floor is open.”
“I’m interested in that so-called thriller you wrote, your first book I think. The Dead Never Repent, or Regret or something,” a young man opened the discussion.
“The Dead Never Redial,” E. corrected the speaker.
“Yeah that one. Because it was just so unbelievably dreadful it had me stumped,” continued the young man.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said E. “Many critics at the time expressed a slightly different opinion. In fact that book received quite a number of positive reviews in the press. But of course every reader has the right to their own opinion. An author can’t please everyone unfortunately. Did you have a question about the book?”
“Not really. I was just wondering how such a poorly written book managed to win such a lot of praise. Were you friends with the critics?”
The author began to see red. He could feel a sudden flush spreading from his neck to his cheeks, and he knew it did nothing to improve his appearance.
“What exactly are you saying? Surely you’re not suggesting I bribed the critics?”
At this point the librarian saw fit to intervene.
“Perhaps the speaker could specify what he feels is so dreadful about the work?” she proposed.
“Well the plot for one,” the young man eagerly explained. “It wasn’t the least bit believable! I mean that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in real life. It made no sense at all. The characters were flat, and as for the language it was—how can I put it—pretentiously poetic I suppose. That’s for starters anyway.”
The audience stirred slightly from its torpor, and someone giggled audibly in the back of the hall. It was the same older woman who had been tormenting E. with her stare as he read. The woman’s mouth and hair, wispy strands drawn back into a ponytail, reminded E. of a girl he once knew. The memory in question was not entirely pleasant.
“Thank you for your feedback,” said the author. The librarian coughed and took the microphone: “Are there any other questions. Or comments. The floor is open.”
The same older man who had been staring at him blankly from the beginning of the session, and who seemed vaguely familiar to E., raised his hand.
“I would like to discuss Solzhenitsyn’s short story collection entitled For the Good of the Cause,” he said.
The author was taken aback.
“I see, Solzhenitsyn’s short stories. Hmm. I do recall reading them once, but it was very long ago. Why would you like to talk about that specific work?”
“Because thirty-five years ago, you stole that very book from a bookstore. In April. Didn’t you?”
“What are you talking about?” E. almost choked. This was totally uncalled for. He felt like he’d had the wind knocked out of him.
“You remember the occasion, don’t try and play dumb. Your left hand didn’t know what your right was up to, is that it?”
Now E. recognized the man making the unexpected accusation. They used to sit next to each other in Advanced Latin. And the worst part was, the man was right. E. had, indeed, around that time, stolen the book, absentmindedly as it were (or can he even be sure of that?), but stolen it in any case, from the main bookstore in town. He had started reading the book as he stood between the shelves, and then walked out with the book still in his hands. And he’d even laughed as he mentioned the incident—his deed—to this very same fellow student.
The room fell silent, even the electric breeze died down. Finally, the author had the room’s undivided, if malevolent, attention.
“When you’re young you make all kinds of mistakes,” E. said, first swallowing, then clearing his throat, and finally accompanying the end of his sentence with a little laugh.
“Is that all you have to say for yourself?” the man asked.
“It was a mistake, as I just said,” E. repeated, “a stupid mistake.”
“Not just a mistake. A crime!” the man pointed out drily.
E. did not know what to say to that, true, shoplifting is a crime, albeit past its statute of limitations in this case. Now it was a crime confessed, if not forgiven. A youngish woman came to his rescue by raising her hand. E. thought he could perceive sincerity in her eyes, as well as hint of sympathy, and this helped him retain his composure.
“I have an eight-year-old daughter who dreams of becoming a writer. What can I do, as a mother, to help her fulfill her dream?” the woman asked.
E. bit his lip, bit it till it hurt. He did so want to answer: “Kill yourself!” But he restrained himself from saying something so horrific aloud to such a kindly-looking mother. E.’s own mother had died when he was young, and he had read that it was a statistical fact that many an author had lost one or both parents in childhood. No other misfortune provided better impetus to a budding writer.
He couldn’t possibly give such an answer, but he should at least have urged her: “My dear young lady with the gentle, sparkling eyes, look at me! Look at me and think again. You see before you a decrepit individual who has dedicated decades to the construction of main and subordinate clauses, the study of word order and punctuation, the quest for the perfect adjective. Is there any occupation more foolish? Why wish such a future on your innocent child?”
Instead he said tamely: “Should a mother or father hold such ambitions for their child’s future, they should ensure the child has as wide a range of reading material available as possible, both fact and fiction. And it is important to read to your child aloud every evening,” came his tame answer. “It develops language skills.”
“Are there any other questions?” asked the librarian. “If not, those who so wish now have an opportunity to obtain the author’s autograph. Don’t forget it can increase in value once the author is dead.”
“Was that remark absolutely necessary?” the author muttered to the librarian. The audience was already vacating the hall, talking and laughing loudly. No one brought him a copy to sign despite the likelihood that before long—and E. felt, in his anguish, maybe very soon indeed—the value of his scrawl might rise to untold heights. That no one wanted his autograph did not actually dismay E.; he was only too eager to escape the hall and get out beneath the black winter sky. But this was out of the question, as through the crowd of exiting backs, approached that same woman, smiling and slinking strangely forward, the one he had observed earlier, with the stare and the giggle. The author picked up his pen in readiness, but was surprised to see that she handed him not a book, but a scrap of paper.
“What is this?” E. asked, baffled. He noticed that the soft, off-white paper looked like it had been ripped from a toilet roll. Or, rather, it had. When E. lifted his gaze to the woman’s face, her smile had turned into a mocking, evil smirk. That is when he recognized her. They had almost dated forty years ago, but only almost. They had met up on a couple of weekends, but the woman had clung to him like a leech, phoned him day and night, and talked, talked, talked incessantly. And always about herself! Now E. remembered those phone calls. This person had bent his ear with the whole detailed misery of her life, and not just once but over and over again: workplace bullying, diets, bulimia, dermatosis, menstrual pains, miscarriage, and a graphic account of having her uterus scraped. He had brutally, rapidly nipped the relationship in the bud, it had seemed like the only solution at the time.
“No, this is too much,” said E. “I refuse.”
“Too much? How so? You’re here to sign your autograph,” said the librarian. “All the authors do it. It’s part of the agreement.”
“I won’t do it!” E. persisted.
“Well, I never!” said the librarian, and she stared at him with her eyebrows raised, as if addressing an unruly child, tapping insistently on the chit of paper in front of him. Both women watched him expectantly. Furious and humiliated, E. dutifully scribbled his name on the paper, but he was so incensed that the pen made holes and cuts in the fragile texture. He had barely finished when the woman snatched the paper from under his pen, glanced at it with displeasure and said: “Now it’s useless!”
She scrunched the paper up and flung it past the author’s ear into the waste basket. She turned away angrily and left, but instead of slinking as she did when she approached, now she stormed out. Her heels rang out along the stone corridor, long after her figure was no longer visible.
Exhausted in the deserted auditorium, E. faltered as he rose to his feet and asked the librarian: “Was this all planned in advance?”
“What do you mean?” The librarian looked at him blankly. “Of course these events are always planned in advance. The auditorium was booked three weeks ago and there was an announcement in the local paper last week,” the woman explained.
“And as for your fee,” the librarian continued, ignoring the author’s distress and the appalling incident which had just taken place. “I’m assuming you were told that we no longer remunerate our guest speakers other than travel costs, in line with the cheapest method of transport. After all, these occasions are like free publicity for you people. And there was quite a turnout, I was rather surprised. We’ve had authors with bigger names who’ve had smaller audiences. Perhaps there wasn’t much on offer in town tonight. So anyway, if you came by car, we do refund fuel costs. Against a receipt of course.”
There was nothing E. could say to this so, without so much as a good-bye, he strode into the lobby and grabbed his coat off the rack. In the parking lot, an icy drizzle thawed on his bald spot and rapidly cooled his forehead’s crimson vexation. He had stepped out into the winter night without his hat and gloves. He had forgotten them on the hat shelf, but even the whiplashing slush could not induce him to return to the building. A different, barely suppressed, and warmer moisture stung his eyes: the bitter tears of self-pity.
The engine cut out twice before he got it going, but driving through the narrow streets piled high with snow on either side forced him to turn his attention away from his recent ignominy.
“That was my final appearance,” E. swore to himself. “Never again.”
Only once he was on the motorway did the loss of his gloves really begin to annoy him. They were a Christmas present from his only daughter, the finest kid leather and a perfect fit. E. had told his daughter she shouldn’t have bought such an expensive gift, but the gloves had given him real pleasure. Perhaps he could ring the library tomorrow and ask to have them sent on by post, if he paid the postage and if they had not already been stolen . . .
His thoughts turned to his daughter’s loneliness and how his small granddaughter had once asked him, in tears: “Granddad, why don’t I know how to live like other children?”
As he tried to recover and calm down, E. began to reflect on time and death and oblivion. The passage of time is merciful, oblivion is forgiving. One hundred years pass, and then another hundred, and shame, honor, what are they, no one remembers. Our names are forgotten and all our deeds are as inconsequential as fallen leaves. Just as honor fades, so too does guilt, and our thoughts, our aspirations, our errors vanish as though they never were. No one remembers that we once existed, no one knows why we were so unhappy, so ridiculously unhappy.
He also recalled why he first began writing. There had been an experience, so grand and beyond words, that he had wanted to lend it words. He had hoped to articulate the silence. He had tried to depict the unseen. Why go to all that trouble? Now his ambitions were almost forgotten, but E. still retained some small particle of faith. He wanted to believe that even though he had never attained that which he sought, it did exist nonetheless, it was there for the finding, at any time.
Calmer now, the line of a poem came to mind, he had read it in the Spoon River Anthology: “The inner kernel is freedom, it is light, purity.“
These thoughts helped E. regain his ruffled composure and he began to plan his itinerary for the following day, including a hospital visit to his aging aunt.
It was almost nighttime, and there was little traffic heading to the capital. Weather conditions had worsened and a slurry of slush slid down the windscreen. Almost at the same spot as on his outward journey, a mountainous shadow loomed ahead. “This time I’m not falling for it,” thought E. and without reducing speed he drove on into the heart of the night, failing to see or grasp that minutes beforehand, an accident had taken place, and both lanes were blocked by the trailer of a timber truck, the size of a train carriage.
Long after the vehicle had stopped, mangled into a pile of serrated wreckage against the trailer, and as glass and flesh, metal and bone, urine and petrol, blood and oil all mixed together in the chaos and obscurity, E. himself continued to soar onward. An explosion of agony had plucked him from all that had gone before.
“That was another illusion,” E. thought. “Indeed, it was all an illusion.” Suddenly the world stood still and only he was moving. Freedom, light, purity! In the expansive void, he was propelled toward the wordlessness he’d been unable to express, toward the unseen he’d been unable to depict.
“Viimeinen esiintyminen” @ Leena Krohn. By arrangement with Teos. Translation @ 2014 by Eva Buchwald. All rights reserved.