from jerzy kosinski’s steps

 

 

Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the former with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spat at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.

This spitting game became very popular in the village. I was a target for everyone—little boys and girls, farmers and their wives, sober men and drunkards.

One day I attended the funeral of a child who had died of mushroom poisoning, the son of one of the richest farmers in the village. Everybody who came to the funeral was dressed in his Sunday best, looking meek and humble.

I watched the mourning father as he stood at the open grave. His face was yellow as the newly turned earth, his eyes red and swollen. He leaned on his wife, his legs unsteady, barely able to bear his weight. When the coffin was brought to the graveside he threw himself on the polished lid, babbling and kissing it as though it were his child. His cries and those of his wife broke the silence, like a chorus on an empty stage.

It became clear to me that the peasants’ love for their children was just as uncontrollable as an outbreak of fever among the cattle. Often I saw a mother touching her child’s soft hair, a father’s hands flinging the child into the air and catching it safely again. Frequently I watched the small children wobbling on their plump legs, stumbling, falling, getting up again, as though borne up by the same force that steadies sunflowers buffeted by the wind.

Then one day I saw a sheep writhing convulsively in a slow death, its desperate bleating bringing terror to the entire flock. The peasants claimed that the animal must have swallowed a fishhook or a shard of glass in its feed.

Months passed. One morning a cow from the herd in my charge strayed onto a neighbor’s property, damaging the crops. This was reported to my master. Upon my return from the fields, the farmer was waiting for me. He pushed me into the barn and whipped me until the blood oozed from my legs. Bellowing with rage he finally hurled the leather thong into my face.

I began to collect discarded fishhooks and bury them behind the barn. After the farmer and his wife left for church I slipped into my hiding place and kneaded a couple of fishhooks and crushed glass into balls of fresh bread which I had torn out of the day’s newly baked loaves.

I liked to play with the youngest of the farmer’s three children. We often met in the farmyard, and she would laugh uproariously while I imitated a frog or a stork.

One evening the little girl hugged me. I dampened a ball of bread with my saliva and asked her to swallow it in one piece. When she hesitated, I took a piece of apple, put it into the back of my mouth, and pushing it with my forefinger, instantly swallowed it The girl imitated me, swallowing the balls, one after another. I looked away from her face, forcing myself to think only of the burning of her father’s whip.

From then on I gazed boldly into my persecutors’ eyes, provoking their assault and maltreatment. I felt no pain. For each lash I received my tormentors were condemned to pain a hundred times greater than mine. Now I was no longer their victim; I had become their judge and executioner.

There were no doctors or hospitals in the area—the nearest railway only carried an occasional freight train. At dawn crying parents carried their gasping children to the church so the priest could purify them with holy water. But at dusk, in a more desperate mood, they took the dying to the distant huts of the local witches who practiced sorcery and healing.

But death continued to levy its toll, and children went on dying. Some of the peasants blasphemed God, whispering it was He Himself who had dispatched His only son, Jesus, to inevitable crucifixion, in order to redeem His own sin of creating so cruel a world. Others insisted that Death had come to dwell in the villages to avoid the bombed cities, and the war, and the camps where the furnaces smoked day and night.

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more from jerzy kosinski’s steps (parts six to 11)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was in the army, many of the soldiers used to play a game in which about twenty or twenty-five men would sit around a table, each of them with a long string tied to his organ. The players were known as the "Knights of the Round Table.” One man,

 

At intervals King Arthur would select a string and pull it, inch by inch, over the notched markings on the table top. The soldiers scanned each other’s faces, aware that one of them was suffering. The victim would do all he could to conceal his pain and maintain his normal posture. It was said that the few men who were circumcised could not play the game as well as those who were not circumcised, whose shaft was protected by a foreskin. Bets would be made to see how many notches the string would pass over before the torture victim would cry out. Some soldiers ruined themselves for life by sitting out the game just to win the prize money.

 

I remember the occasion when the soldiers discovered that King Arthur had conspired with one of the men by tying the string around his leg. Naturally, this soldier was able to endure more pain than the others, and thus King Arthur and he succeeded in pocketing large sums of money. The cheated knights secretly selected the punishment they thought fitting. The guilty men were grabbed from behind, blindfolded, and taken into the forest There they were stripped and tied to trees. The knights, one after another, slowly crushed each of the victim’s parts between two rocks until the flesh became an unrecognizable pulp.

 

 

 

 

Later, in the army, there was a group of twelve of us, and at night in our tent we used to talk about women. One of the men griped that he could never really do all he wanted to do—or at least, never for long enough—while making love to his woman. Some of the others seemed to have similar problems. I wasn’t sure I understood, but it struck me that they might all be suffering from something curable, so I advised them to see a doctor. They assured me that no doctor could help—it was nature’s verdict, they believed. All that could be done, they maintained, was to hold oneself in while making love, to avoid thinking about the woman, to avoid concentrating on what one was doing, feeling or wanting to feel.

 

They complained that a woman seldom if ever tells a man how he compares with other men with whom she has been intimate; she fears revealing herself. This is a barrier, they argued. A man is condemned never to know himself as a lover.

 

I recalled the girl friend I had when I was in high school. We used to make love when my parents were out. One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our lovemaking and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again.

 

It upset her, she said, that I could have an erection purely through an act of willas though I had only to stretch my leg or bend a finger. She stressed the idea of spontaneity, claiming I should have a sense of wanting, of sudden desire. I told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erec­tion, it would reduce the act of making love to some­thing very mechanical and ordinary.

 

 

 

 

In the first days of the month the regiment started its preparations for the National Day parade, and several hundred of us, chosen for our uniform height and familiarity with parade-ground drill, began our daily rehearsals.

 

We used to muster at dawn on the packed, sun-baked earth of the parade ground, surrounded by forest. Despite the summer heat the drills lasted all day, and we marched up and down in a single column four abreast, goose-stepping along the whole length of the parade ground, all six units wheeling and turning, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks like so many shunting railroad cars.

 

After a month of this arduous training we had become a single entity, marching as one man. We breathed in unison and saluted with a single gesture; we swung our rifles that had become an extension of our bones and muscles. All that we could think of during those exhausting days was the pain of our swollen, burning feet, and our warm, coarse uniforms rubbing against our sweaty skins. It seemed we were forever marching toward the motionless forest, but invariably the column would turn about before reaching the shadow of the trees.

 

On National Day reveille came earlier than usual. The parade was to be held some distance from the camp. It was then I realized that I could miss the entire tedious day. If four of us, the three men who marched abreast of me andI, should quietly disappear and spend the rest of the day in the forest, it would be extremely unlikely that our overanxious officers would detect our absence. In the evening we could easily reenter the camp and lose ourselves among the returning soldiers.

 

I spoke to my fellow soldiers; they agreed to the plan and we decided to leave the camp before the first muster was called. Instead of going to breakfast in the canteen we marched over to the dumping ground, as though we were the men attached the sanitation detail. Then it was merely a matter of affecting the confidence to stand about at the loading platform and signal the trucks in and out, until a suitable moment would present itself to walk off into the forest. We were not challenged, and as soon as we had burst through the first bushes, we began to run, dragging our rifles. The jays screamed as we plunged ahead, and occasional squirrels leaped from bough to bough ahead of us. We were deep in the forest before stopping. We stripped and lay down.

 

As the sun climbed higher, the forest floor steamed. A single distant bugle call broke into the myriad sounds of chirping and buzzing that drifted into the clearing. We fell asleep.

 

When I awoke I felt heavy, my throat burned; I grew more alert and stood up. The sun touched the treetops, the light in the clearing was dim. My fellow absentees were still asleep, their uniforms hanging on the nearby bushes. A sound was approaching from the depths of the forest: it was getting louder and closer every second. Suddenly I realized that it was the band. I peered in the direction of the sound. What I saw shocked me: less than two hundred yards away our regimental band was marching through the trees toward us, the bandleader’s gilded staff flashing as it caught the light, the white leather aprons of the drummers standing out clearly against the green of the foliage.

 

I sprang to my uniform, for a moment thinking only of making a run for cover. Then I jumped over to my lazily stretched-out companions and shook them from their sleep as they mumbled abuse at me. When they finally grasped what was about to happen, the same panic hit them. They grabbed their uniforms, boots and rifles, and plunged into the tangle of bushes and trees.

 

Impulsively I threw myself forward, and was instantly gripped by an immobilizing tremor. Within seconds the seizure passed, but I still could not flee. I simply stood in the clearing, naked, my rifle and uniform at my feet, as though I had consciously decided to hold my ground and wait for the column to arrive.

 

The leading ranks were only yards away. They had now perceived me, for the band stopped playing and several mounted officers detached themselves from the body of the troops and galloped toward the clearing.

 

There was pandemonium in the column; some men had broken ranks and others were shouting and gesturing at me. The regimentalstandard swung into sight and I was possessed by the reflex to salute. I reached for my cap, drew myself to attention, and raised my hand to my brow. A derisive cry went up from the nearest soldiers, a single bugler raised his instrument and gave a hunting call, breaking the sequence of my movements. I stared down in horror at myself: there was nothing I could do—I was aroused.

 

Commands rang out: the column halted, and though the sergeants ordered the men to hold their ranks, they could not prevent them from laughing. Two soldiers advanced toward me, followed by a mounted officer. A second officer dismounted and bellowed that I was under arrest. Other commands were given: the column re-formed and marched off, continuing on its short cut through the glade to the camp. I dressed and was led away by the guards.

 

I was charged with absenting myself without leave and with deserting my place of duty. I was called upon to name my companions; but I stated I had acted entirely alone, maintaining they must have arrived in the clearing independently while I was asleep. I insisted that I was guilty only of the minor charge of not signing out of the camp, claiming that 1 had been released from the parade during a drill by one of the officers; and though he no longer chose to recall it, my absence should not be held against me. To the charge that my salute, when naked, was a studied, insult to the flag, I pointed out that there had been many occasions when soldiers who were caught naked by surprise attack had been compelled to fight in such a state.

 

 

 

 

Are you circumcised? I’ve always wondered. Not that I’m sure I would know the difference anyway.

 

Why didn’t you ask me before?

 

It’s really not that it’s important, and I was afraid to ask the question. You might have interpreted it as some sort of expectation on my part, even as disapproval. Aren’t men very sensitive about things like this?

 

I don’t know; men vary.

 

Is circumcision really necessary? Like having your appendix out, for instance?

 

No, it isn’t.

 

Today it seems so cruel and unnecessary; a part of an infant’s body is removed without his consent! Isn’t it possible that as a result of mutilating him, the man becomes less sensitive and responsive? After all, a delicate organ that nature intended to be covered and kept tender becomes exposed, and almost like one’s knees and elbows, is constantly chafed by the linen, wool, and cotton one wears . . .

 

 

 

 

I was ordered to camouflage myself in a forest several miles from any settlement. I selected a full-branched tree and prepared a comfortable perch, remaining there for several hours during the maneuvers. Scanning the surroundings with my field glasses, I noticed another camouflaged soldier from my regiment, positioned about half a mile away: Since I had been ordered not to reveal my position, I remained hidden, looking at him occasionally through my binoculars. Suddenly I was alerted by his movement and followed the arc of his rifle barrel: on the border of a distant field, just outside the boundaries of the regiment’s territory, two people were walking slowly. The soldier’s rifle kicked twice and muffled shots cut into the silence. When I looked at the couple again, they lay in the swaying grass like two surfers abruptly swept off their boards by an unpredictable wave.

 

I watched the sniper closely now. Though I could not see his face, it occurred to me that he might have seen and recognized me, and I felt my heart contract; but his rifle lay across his knees and he lolled peacefully against the boughs that gave with the drowsy sway of the forest. I peered at him cautiously until the bluish air drooped over the scraggly trees, and darkness rose as though born from the dew which covered the ground.

 

The next day the adjutant announced that two civilians had been killed by stray gunfire. The investigation did not produce any results, since we were all able to account for our allotted ammunition.

 

Later two truckloads of regimental soccer players took a short cut through a field reserved for artillery practice. The field was supposed to be marked as a danger area, but either the drivers did not see the warning signs or someone in the regiment had removed the signs; in any case, the soccer players never arrived. The trucks must have traveled halfway across the field when the artillery opened fire: all that was left was a pair of surprisingly clean white tennis shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

SUPPOSE HE WOULD BECOME my lover? To kill that thought you’d have to destroy him, wouldn’t you?

 

I don’t know. I’m not sure.

 

Once, when we were buying a coat for me, the salesman came over to help me try it on. When he put his hand on my neck to adjust the collar, you came up to him and without a word took his hand and removed it—just as though it were an object. You must have squeezed his hand terribly hard: he froze. His face was almost purple and his mouth opened as if he were going to cry out.

 

I took his hand off your neck because I didn’t want him to touch you.

 

He certainly didn’t mean to be personal.

 

I don’t know what he meant and you don’t either. I was thinking about what you might be feeling when he touched you.

 

To kill your thought you actually had to remove his hand from my neck?

 

Yes.

 

Could you kill a man? I mean: for some important reason?

 

I don’t know.

 

whom we called King Arthur, held in his hand all the ends of the strings without knowing who was at the other end of each.

“nature’s verdict” on the self and the other in jerzy kosinski’s steps: step number 6

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"One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our love-making and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again."


Later, in the army, there was a group of twelve
of us, and at night in our tent we used to talk about women. One of the men griped that he could never really do all he wanted to do—or at least, never for long enough—while making love to his woman. Some of the others seemed to have similar problems. I wasn’t sure I understood, but it struck me that they might all be suffering from something curable, so I advised them to see a doctor. They assured me that no doctor could help—it was nature’s verdict, they believed. All that could be done, they maintained, was to hold oneself in while making love, to avoid thinking about the woman, to avoid concentrating on what one was doing, feeling or wanting to feel.

They complained that a woman seldom if ever tells a man how he compares with other men with whom she has been intimate; she fears revealing herself. This is a barrier, they argued. A man is condemned never to know himself as a lover.

I recalled the girl friend I had when I was in high school. We used to make love when my parents were out. One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our love-making and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again.

It upset her, she said, that I could have an erection purely through an act of will—as though I had only to stretch my leg or bend a finger. She stressed the idea of spontaneity, claiming I should have a sense of wanting, of sudden desire. I told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erection, it would reduce the act of making love to something very mechanical and ordinary.

 

See also: 
 

"I perceive, said the Countess, "Philosophy is now become very Mechanical." "So mechanical, said I, "that I fear we shall quickly be ashamed of it they will have the World to be in great what a watch is in little; which is very regular, and depends only upon the just disposing of the several parts of the movement. But pray tell me, Madam, had you not formerly a more sublime Idea of the Universe?"

from Bernard de Fontenelle, Plurality of Worlds (1686)

Illustration from Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds
(Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes

 

jerzy kosinski’s steps: a sartrean turn in step number five

"I felt the longing for pleasure and abandonment inside me, but I also sensed that I had been accepted too readily, that everything had suddenly become very predictable. All we could do was to exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self."

Bookseller Photo 

I went to the zoo to see an octopus I had read about. It was housed in an aquarium and fed on live crabs, fish, mussels — and on itself. It nibbled at its own tentacles, consuming them one after another.

Obviously the octopus was slowly killing itself. One attendant explained that in the part of the world where it had been caught, an octopus was believed to be a god of war, prophesying defeat when it looked landward and victory when it loooked seaward; this particular specimen, the natives had claimed, had only looked landward when captured. A man jokingly remarked that by eating itself it was presumably acknowledging its own defeat.

Each time the octopus bit into itself, some of the spectators shuddered as if they felt it eating their own flesh. Others were impassive. Just as I was about to leave, I noticed a young woman staring at the octopus without any apparent reaction, her lips relaxed. There was a serenity about her that went beyond unconcern.

I approached and engaged her in conversation. She turned out to be the wife of a well-known public official whose family lived in the city. Before the afternoon was over she invited me to a dinner party she was giving at her home.

It was an imposing household, and the dinner party flawless. The hostess behaved very naturally, attending equally to her family and guests, and yet somehow she seemed quite remote. I thought she had glanced at me with a suggestion of intimate interest, and I wanted proof of this. I planned to leave the city the next day. This would be my only opportunity.

She had just turned away from a departing couple, and stood, drink in hand, near one of the library bookcases. With an assumed casualness I told her I wished to see her alone, for I couldn’t freemyself from the images she excited in me.

I proposed a meeting. I suggested the capital of the neighboring country to which I was going the next day. She was just about to answer when several guests approached us. She turned toward them but first handed me her glass as though it had been mine, quietly stating the name of the hotel where she would join me.

During the next few days I thought of her constantly, recalling every moment I had spent near her. I speculated about the other men at the party, about which of them might have been her lovers, and about various situations in which she had made love. The more I meditated about her, the more concerned I became about our first encounter.

. . . . We were both naked. There was nothing I wanted so much as to be at ease with her. But the very thought of what she might expect from me made me less aroused. It was almost as though my thinking had to subside before my body could perform.

Yet I could not conceal my inadequacy, for in her mind, it seemed, my desire was reflected only in one part of me, a part suddenly grown very small. She blamed herself for what she insisted was her lack of finesse in gratifying me. She became increasingly frustrated and upset. I dressed and left her, walking the streets and trying to understand what had happened. I tried to decide how, in the future, I would explain my predicament to her; I was afraid she might reject any discussion as merely an excuse for a second futile attempt at physical intimacy.

On the street I approached a woman: her face was thickly painted and the shape of her figure lost in an ill-fitting dress. After some talk, she agreed to accompany me.

In the room she helped me to undress and then, still clothed herself, she began to caress me. There was a familiarity to her touch, as though her hands were guided over my skin by the current she felt pulsing underneath it; had I desired to use my own hands on my body, I would have guided them along the same path.

I looked again at her dress and suddenly realized my partner was a man. My mood altered abruptly. I felt the longing for pleasure and abandonment inside me, but I also sensed that I had been accepted too readily, that everything had suddenly become very predictable. All we could do was to exist for each other solely as a reminder of the self.

from steps, by jerzy kosinski: step number four

"The chosen girl now sat alone in the circle. I scrutinized the men’s faces; they seemed curious whether the girl would prove too frail and weak to survive her ordeal."

 

 

I got off the train at a small station. As it pulled out I was the only one eating in the station restaurant. I stopped the waiter and asked if there was anything of interest happening locally. He looked at me and said there was to be a private show that afternoon in a nearby village.

He intimated that the performance would be rather unusual and that if I were willing to pay the price, he could arrange for me to see it. I agreed, and we left the station. Half an hour later we reached a paddock with a large carriage house at one end. About fifty middle-aged peasants had gathered under the trees near the building, where they sauntered about, smoking and jesting.

A man dressed in city clothes came out of the carriage house and began collecting money from all of us. The price represented about two weeks of a peasant’s income, yet they all seemed willing to pay.

Then the organizer disappeared into the house, and we formed a circle screened by the trees. The peasants waited, whispering and laughing. A few minutes passed; the door of the carriage house opened and four women in colorful dresses walked into the circle. The organizer followed behind them leading a large animal. The peasants suddenly stopped talking. The women now stood next to each other, turning around so the men could see them, while the organizer paraded the animal.

The women seemed to represent particular types: one was very tall and powerfully built, another was a slender, fragile young girl whose appearance suggested she came from the city. All the women wore heavy makeup and tight short-skirted dresses. The peasants began discussing the women aloud, arguing excitedly. After a few minutes the organizer asked for quiet and explained that a vote would be taken to determine which woman would be chosen. As the women strolled around the arena, stretching, bending, and caressing their bodies, the crowd grew even more animated. The organizer called on them to vote for each woman in turn.

From the final count it became clear that the majority had elected the young girl. The three other women joined the audience, giggling and whispering with the men.

The chosen girl now sat alone in the circle. I scrutinized the men’s faces; they seemed curious whether the girl would prove too frail and weak to survive her ordeal.

The organizer led the animal into the center of the arena, prodding its slack parts with a stick. Two peasants ran up and grabbed at the animal to keep it still. The girl then stepped forward and began playing with the creature, embracing and hugging it, fondling its genitals. She slowly began to undress. The animal was now aroused and restless. It seemed inconceivable that the girl could accommodate it.

The men became frantic, urging her to undress completely and couple with the animal. The organizer tied several ribbons on the animal’s organ, each colored bow an inch apart. The girl approached the animal, rubbing oil into her thighs and abdomen and coaxing the animal to lick her body. Then, to shouts of encouragement, she lay down beneath the animal, clasping it with her legs. Raising up her belly and thrusting it forward, she forced an insertion up to the first bow. The organizer took control again, asking the audience to pay extra for each additional inch of the animal’s involvement. The price was raised for each consecutive bow removed. The peasants, still refusing to believe that the girl could survive her violation, eagerly paid again and again. Finally the girl began to scream. But I was not sure if she was actually suffering or was only playing up to the audience.

a homage to thomas mann in jerzy kosinski’s steps: step number three

"One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon the woman, I hastened her death."

Bookseller Photo  

I was employed as a skiing instructor and lived in a mountain resort where tubercular patients were sent for care. I occupied an apartment from which I could see the sanatorium and distinguish the pale faces of the new arrivals from the tanned faces of the long-term patients who sunned themselves on the terraces.

 

At the end of each afternoon my tired skiers would return to their hostels, and I to my solitary dinner. I spent most of my time alone. After supper the muffled sounds of the gong from the sanatorium would announce the night routine, and a few minutes later the lights would be extinguished, as if snatched from one window after the next.

 

A dog howled from a hut far up on the slopes. Then I caught sight of human figures struggling through the deep snow of a nearby field: the skiing instructors from neighboring hostels were moving in stealthily for their nocturnal encounters. From the massive blackness surrounding the sanatorium several figures hurried toward the men waiting below: female patients were sneaking out to meet their lovers. The silhouettes touched and merged as if they were the fragments of a shadow being mended. Each couple left separately. In the moonlight they looked like dwarfed mountain pines which had stepped down from the slopes to venture among the windless fields. Soon they were all gone. 

 

In the weeks that followed I became aware that some of the stronger patients were permitted to spend part of each day outdoors. They met at the café at the foot of the slopes, and many of them formed alliances with the tourists and members of the staff. Quite often, from the shelter provided by a copse of firs, I would watch them pairing off, noticing every now and then a change in partners and committing to memory those who wereespecially sought after and those who were neglected. Then, as the last vestiges of light faded and it suddenly grew chilly even in my sheltered lookout, I would turn and make my way back to my lodgings.

 

There was one woman I observed in particular. She had not been a serious case, and it was said that her recovery was excellent: she was to be discharged at the end of the month. Two men were competing for her—a young skiing instructor from a neighboring hotel, and a tourist who had often spoken of staying at the resort until the woman was discharged.

 

The woman divided her attention equally between the two men. Every afternoon the tourist hurried over from his hotel, while the instructor skied in after dismissing his class. The woman would sit in the café at the foot of the slopes. She could watch both her suitors making their various approaches. The instructor played upon his skills, skiing over at the highest possible speed and, when it seemed almost too late, turning violently away from the terrace rail and skidding in a spray of snow alongside the woman’s table. His rival, only a fair skier, would wander around at the foot of the slopes, forcing the instructor to slow up or pull away and usually disrupting the speed and deftness of his descent.

 

One afternoon I arrived at the café before the skiing classes were over. The tourist was already there, apparently unwilling to continue his clumsy maneuvers on the slopes. The instructor had taken his pupils to the nursery slopes above and to one side of the café. As the sun began to sink, he dismissed the class, but did not push off from the top of the slope as was his habit when skiing down to the café. Instead, he began moving up along a snow-covered ridge. The ridge was always marked with danger flags, and was forbidden to all but the national medalists. People left their tables and crowded against the terrace rail to watch his slow ascent. The woman jumped up and ran out of the restaurant to the foot of the slope to wait for him. The tourist followed.

 

The instructor launched himself, at first swooping down in long, graceful curves, avoiding the shoulders of raw rock that broke through the snow and gave the trail its reputation for danger. He picked up speed continuously, skiing with the suppleness and precision of a master. I wondered whether he would stop at the post that marked the foot of the trail or end with a spectacular turn at the feet of the girl. Everyone was silent. The long, almost horizontal rays of the sun caught the woman and the tourist as they stood at the foot of the run.

 

The instructor swung into the last hundred yards, moving fast and straight. The girl shook off the tourist’s hand, which was resting on hers, and stepped forward, raising her arms and calling out the instructor’s name. The tourist lurched after her, grabbing her by the shoulder. In a second the instructor soared into the end of the run and gathered himself up as he might at the start of a jump, but instead of throwing himself forward and up, he seemed to thrust to the left in an unnaturally abrupt twist. No longer able either to turn or slow down, his skis lifted and he soared on, with the entire force and impetus that the long run had built up within him crashing suddenly with his shoulder into the man’s unprotected chest. Both bodies slid for some distance down the slope, finally coming to rest at the edge of the terrace. The crowd rushed to them; blood dripped from the tourist’s mouth and he was carried unconscious into the café. The instructor sat on the terrace steps for a few minutes, with his head in his hands, while the woman loosened his parka. Then the ambulance drove up, and the tourist, still unconscious, was strapped onto the stretcher. As the bearers picked him up I glanced toward the terrace steps. The instructor and the woman were no longer in sight.

 

 

 

I did not see the instructor again until much later. Then I saw him one evening with a woman.

 

They were sheltered in a recess in the stonework of the hotel wall. All around a storm raged, and the snow in the fields churned like water in a frenzied bay. Foaming drifts roared and formed, only to collapse like mounds of goose feathers into unfathomable clefts. Leaning against the wall and touched occasionally by the wavering light of the lantern that dangled above a footpath, the man stood below the woman and drew her close to him. The woman bent toward him, clinging to his chest, yielding and tender. Her arms clasped his shoulders. The whirlwind tugged at her coat, pulling it open. For a moment they looked as if they had both suddenly grown wings which would carry them away from that niche, from those powdery fields and out of my sight. I made up my mind.

 

The next afternoon I found a pretext to visit the sanatorium. Patients in brightly patterned pullovers and tight pants strolled about the corridors. Others slept huddled in blankets. Filmy shadows cut across the deserted deck chairs on the sunny terrace, and the canvas snapped in the sharp breezes that scattered down from the peaks.

 

I saw a woman reclining in a chair. Her shawl, casually thrown around her shoulders, exposed her long, suntanned neck. As I lingered, gazing, she glanced at me thoughtfully, and then smiled. My shadow fell across her when I introduced myself.

 

The visiting rules were very strict, and I was permitted to spend only two hours a day in her room. I couldn’t get too close to her: she would not let me. She was very ill and coughed continually. Often she brought up blood. She shivered, became feverish; her cheeks flushed. Her hands and feet would sweat.

 

During one of my visits she asked me to make love to her. I locked the door. After I had undressed she told me to look into the large mirror in the corner of the room. I saw her in the mirror and our eyes met. Then she got up from the bed, took off her robe, and stepped over to the mirror. She stood very close to it, touching my reflection with one hand and pressing her body with the other. I could see her breasts and her flanks. She waited for me while I concentrated more and more on the thought that it was I who stood there within the mirror and that it was my flesh her hands and lips were touching.

 

But in a low yet urgent voice, she would stop me whenever I took a step toward her. We would make love again: she standing as before in front of the mirror, and I, a pace away, my sight riveted upon her.

 

Her life was measured and constantly checked by various instruments, recorded on negatives, charted and filed away by a succession of doctors and nurses, reinforced by needles piercing her chest and veins, breathed in from oxygen bottles and breathed out into tubes. My brief visits were interrupted more and more frequently by the intrusion of doctors, nurses, or attendants who came to change the oxygen cylinders or give new medicines.

 

One day an older nun stopped me in the corridor. She asked me whether I knew what I was doing, and when I said I didn’t understand, she said the staff had a name for people like myself: hyaenidae. As I still failed to understand, she said: hyenas. Men of my kind, she said, lurked around bodies that were dying; each time I fed upon the woman, I hastened her death.

 

As time went on her condition visibly deteriorated. I sat in her room, staring at her pale face lit only by an occasional flush. The hands on the bedspread were thin, with a delicate network of bluish veins. Her frail shoulders heaving with every breath, she surreptitiously wiped off the perspiration which rose steadily on her forehead. I sat quietly and stared at the mirror while she slept; it reflected the cold, white rectangles of the walls and ceiling.

 

The nuns glided silently in and out of the room, but I succeeded in never meeting their eyes. They bent over the patient, wiping her forehead, moistening her lips with wads of cotton, whispering some secret language into her ears. Their clumsy dresses flapped like the wings of restless birds.

 

I would step out onto the terrace, quickly closing the door behind me. The wind was ceaselessly driving the snow over the crusted fields, filling the deep footprints and diagonal tracks left from the previous day. I held the soft plump cushion of fresh snow from the frozen railings. For a moment it shimmered in my warm palm before turning into dripping slush.

 

More and more often I was denied access to her room, and I spent those hours alone in my apartment. Later, before going to sleep, I would pull out from the desk drawer several albums filled with my photographs of her, carefully enlarged and painstakingly pasted onto stiff cardboard. I would place these enlargements in a corner of my bedroom and sit in front of them, recalling the events of the hospital room and the images within the mirror. In some of the photographs she was naked; now I had them before me, for myself alone. I looked at these pictures as if they were mirrors in which I could see at any moment my own face floating ghostlike on her flesh.

 

Then I would step out on my balcony. Around the sanatorium the lights from the windows touched the snow, which no longer seemed fresh. I would gaze at the faint lights until they began to disappear. From beyond the breadth and width of the valleys and hills, streaked by wooded slopes, the moonlight lit up frozen peaks and streams of vaporous clouds being lured from the shadows of narrow defiles.

 

A door clanged shut; a car horn sounded in the distance. Suddenly figures appeared between the snowdrifts. They scrambled through the fields toward the sanatorium, now and then lost, as if straining against the stifling dust storm of a drought-stricken plain.

step two from jerzy kosinski’s steps

"It was an advanced civilization, the professor claimed, but at some point a massive catastrophe had wiped it out . . ."

Bookseller Photo 

There were several of us, all archeological assistants, working on one of the islands with a professor who for years had been excavating remnants of an ancient civilization that had flourished fifteen centuries before our era.

 

It was an advanced civilization, the professor claimed, but at some point a massive catastrophe had wiped it out. He had challenged the prevailing theory that a disastrous earthquake, followed by a tidal wave, had struck the island. We were collecting fragments of pottery, sifting through ashes for the remains of artifacts, and unearthing building materials, all of which the professor catalogued as evidence to support his as yet unpublished work.

 

After a month I decided to leave the excavations and visit a neighboring island. In my haste to catch the ferry I left without my paycheck, but I obtained the promise that it would be forwarded on the next mail skiff. I could live for one day on the money I had with me.

 

After arriving I spent the entire day sightseeing. The island was dominated by a dormant volcano, its broad slopes covered with porous lava rock, weathered to form a poor but arable soil.

 

I walked down to the harbor; an hour before sunset, when the air was cooling, the fishing boats put out for the night. I watched them slide over the calm, almost waveless water until their long, low forms vanished from sight. The islands suddenly lost the light reflected from their rocky spines and grew stark and black. And then, as though drawn silently beneath the surface, they disappeared one by one.

 

On the morning of the second day I went down to the quay to meet the mail skiff. To my consternation my paycheck had not arrived. I stood on the dock, wondering how I was going to live and whether I would even be able to leave the island. A few fishermen sat by their nets, watching me; they sensed that something was wrong. Three of them approached and spoke to me. Not understanding, I replied in the two languages I knew: their faces became sullen and hostile, and they abruptly turned away. That evening I took my sleeping bag down to the beach and slept on the sand.

 

In the morning I spent the last of my money on a cup of coffee. After strolling up the winding streets behind the port, I walked through the scrubby fields to the nearest village. The villagers sat in the shade, covertly watching me. Hungry and thirsty, I returned to the beach again, walking beneath a blazing sun. I had nothing to barter for food or money: no watch, no fountain pen, no cuff links, no camera, no wallet. At noon, when the sun stood high and the villagers sheltered in their cottages, I went to the police station. I found the island’s solitary policeman dozing by the telephone. I woke him, but he seemed reluctant to understand even my simplest gesture. I pointed to his phone, pulling out my empty pockets; I made signs and drew pictures, even miming thirst and hunger. All this had no effect: the policeman showed neither interest nor understanding, and the phone remained locked. It was the only one on the island; the guidebook I had read had even bothered to mention the fact.

 

In the afternoon I strolled around the village, smiling at the inhabitants, hoping to be offered a drink or to be invited to a meal. No one returned my greeting; the villagers turned away and the storekeepers simply ignored me. The church was on the largest island of the group and I had no means of getting there to ask for food and shelter. I returned to the beach as if expecting help to rise up from the sea. I was famished and exhausted. The sun had brought on a pounding headache, I felt waves of vertigo. Unexpectedly I caught the sound of people talking in an alien language. Turning, I saw two women sitting close to the water. Folds of gray, heavily veined fat hung fiom their thighs and upper arms; their full, pendulous breasts were squashed in outsize brassieres.

 

They sunbathed sprawling on their beach towels surrounded by picnic equipment: food baskets, thermos flasks, parasols, and nets full of fruit. A pile of books, heaped up alongside, conspicuously displayed library numbers. They were evidently tourists staying with a local family. I approached them slowly but directly, anxious not to alarm them. They stopped talking, and I greeted them smilingly, using my languages in turn. They replied in another one. We had no common language, but I was very They stopped talking, and I greeted them smilingly, using my languages in turn. They replied in another one. We had no common language, but I was very conscious of the proximity of food. I sat down beside them as though I had understood I had been invited. When they began to eat I eyed the food; they either did not notice this or ignored my intense stare. After a few minutes the woman I judged to be the older offered me an apple. I ate it slowly, trying to conceal my hunger and hoping for something more solid. They watched me intently.

 

It was hot on the beach and I dozed off. But I woke when the two women pulled themselves to their feet, their shoulders and back red from the sun. Rivulets of perspiration streaked the sand that clung to their flabby thighs, the fat slid over their hips as they braced themselves to stoop and collect their belongings. I helped them. With flirtatious nods they set off along the inner rim of the beach; I followed.

 

We reached the house they occupied. On entering I was hit by another wave of vertigo; I stumbled on a step and collapsed. Laughing and chattering, the women undressed me and maneuvered me onto a large, low bed. Still dazed, I pointed to my stomach. There was no delay: they rushed to bring me meat, fruit, and milk. Before I could finish the meal, they had drawn the curtains and tom off their bathing suits. Naked, they fell upon me. I was buried beneath their heavy bellies and broad backs; my arms were pinioned; my body was manipulated, squeezed, pressed, and thumped.

 

I was at the dock at dawn. The mail skiff came in, but there was neither a check nor a letter for me. I stood there watching the boat recede into the hot sun that dissolved the morning mist, revealing one by one the distant islands.