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Record Ten

A Letter
A Membrane

Hairy I

Yesterday was for me like the filter paper that chemists use for filtering their solutions (all suspended and superfluous particles remain on the paper). This morning I went downstairs all purified and distilled, transparent.

Downstairs in the hall the controller sat at a small table, constantly looking at her watch and recording the Numbers who were leaving. Her name is U- . . . well, I prefer not to give her Number, for I fear I may not write kindly about her — although, as a matter of fact, she is a very respectable, mature woman. The only thing I do not like in her is that her cheeks fold down a little like the gills of a fish (although I don’t see anything wrong in this appearance). She scratched with her pen and I saw on the page “D-503” — and suddenly, splash! an ink blot. No sooner did I open my mouth to call her attention to that than she raised her head and blotted me with an inky smile. “There is a letter for you. You will receive it, dear. Yes, yes, you will.”

I knew a letter, after she had read it, must go through the Bureau of Guardians (I think it is unnecessary to explain in detail this natural order of things); I would receive it not later than twelve o’clock. But that tiny smile confused me; the drop of ink clouded the transparency of the distilled solution. At the Integral’s dock I could not concentrate; I even made a mistake in my calculations, something that had never happened to me before.

At twelve o’clock, again the rosy-brown fish gills’ smile, and at last the letter was in my hands. I cannot say why I did not read it right there; instead, I put it in my pocket and ran into my room. I opened it, scanned it quickly, and . . . sat down. It was an official notice to the effect that Number I-330 had had me assigned to her, and that today at twenty-one o’clock I was to go to her. Her address was given.

“No! After all that had happened! After I had shown her frankly my attitude toward her! Besides, how could she know that I did not go to the Bureau of Guardians? She had no way of knowing that I have been ill and could not. . . . And despite all this . . .”

A dynamo was whirling and buzzing in my head. Buddha . . . yellow . . . lilies of the valley . . . rosy crescent. . . . Besides — besides, O- wanted to come to see me today! I was sure she would not believe (how could one believe?) that I had absolutely nothing to do with the matter, that . . . I was also sure that we (O- and I) would have a difficult, foolish, and absolutely illogical conversation. No, anything but that! Let the situation solve itself mechanically; I would send her a copy of the official communication.

While I was hastily putting the paper in my pocket, I noticed my terrible ape-like hand. I remembered how that day, during our walk, she had taken my hand and looked at it. Is it possible that she really . . . that she . . .

A quarter to twenty-one. A white northern night. Everything was glass, greenish. But it was a different kind of glass, not like ours, not genuine but very breakable, a thin glass shell, and within that shell things were flying, whirling, buzzing. I wouldn’t have been surprised if suddenly the cupola of the auditorium had risen in slow, rolling clouds of smoke; or if the ripe moon had sent an inky smile, like that one at the little table this morning, or if in every house suddenly all the curtains had been lowered, and behind the curtains . . .

I felt something peculiar; my ribs were like iron bars that interfered, decidedly interfered, with my heart, giving it too little space. I stood at a glass door on which were the golden letters I-330. I-330 sat at the table with her back to me; she was writing something. I stepped in.

“Here”—I held out the pink check—“I received the notice this noon and here I am!”

“How punctual you are! Just a minute, please, may I? Sit down. I shall finish in a minute.”

She lowered her eyes to the letter. What had she there, behind her lowered curtains? What would she say? What would she do in a second? How to learn it? How to calculate it, since she comes from beyond, from the wild, ancient land of dreams? I looked at her in silence. My ribs were iron bars. The space for the heart was too small. . . . When she speaks, her face is like a swiftly revolving, glittering wheel; you cannot see the separate bars. But at that moment the wheel was motionless. I saw a strange combination: dark eyebrows running right to the temples -— a sharp, mocking triangle; and still another dark triangle with its apex upward — two deep,wrinkles from the nose to the angles of the mouth. And these two triangles somehow contradicted each other. They gave the whole face that disagreeable, irritating X, or cross — a face marked obliquely by a cross.

The wheel started to turn; its bars blurred.

“So you did not go to the Bureau of Guardians, after all?”

“I did . . . I did not feel well . . . I could not.”

”Yes? I thought so; something must have prevented you, it matters little what” — sharp teeth — a smile. “But now you are in my hands. You remember: ‘Any Number who within forty-eight hours fails to report to the Bureau is considered . . .”’ ‘

My heart banged so forcibly that the iron bars bent. If I were not sitting . . . like a little boy, how stupid! I was caught like a little boy, and stupidly I kept silent. I felt I was in a net; neither my legs nor my arms . . .

She stood up and stretched herself lazily. She pressed the button, and the curtains on all four walls fell with a slight rustle. I was cut off from the rest of the world, alone with her.

She was somewhere behind me, near the closet door. The unif was rustling, falling. I was listening, all listening. I remembered — no, it glistened in my mind for one hundredth of a second — I once had to calculate the curve of a new type of street membrane. (These membranes are handsomely decorated and are placed over all the avenues, registering all street conversations for the Bureau of Guardians.) I remembered a rosy, concave, trembling membrane, a strange being consisting of one organ only, an ear. I was at that moment such a membrane.

Now the “click” of the snap at her collar, at her breast, and . . . lower. The glassy silk rustled over her shoulders and knees, over the floor. I heard — and it was clearer than actually seeing — I heard how one foot stepped out of the grayish-blue heap of silk, then the other. . . Soon I’d hear the creak of the bed, and . . .

The tensely stretched membrane trembled and registered the silence — no, the sharp, hammerlike blows of the heart against the iron bars, and endless pauses between beats. And I heard, saw, how she, behind me, hesitated for a second, thinking. The door of the closet. . . . It slammed; again silk . . . silk . . .

“Well, all right.”

I turned around. She was dressed in a saffron-yellow dress of an ancient style. This was a thousand times worse than if she had not been dressed at all. Two sharp points glowing with rosiness through the thin tissue; two burning embers piercing through ashes; two tender, round knees . . .

She was sitting in a low armchair. In front of her on a small square table I noticed a bottle filled with something poisonously green, and two small glasses with thin stems. In the corner of her mouth she had a very thin paper tube; she was ejecting smoke formed by the burning of that ancient smoking substance whose name I do not now remember.

The membrane was still vibrating. Within, the sledge hammer was pounding the red-hot iron bars of my chest. I heard distinctly every blow of the hammer, and . . . What if she, too, heard it?

But she continued to produce smoke very calmly; calmly she looked at me; and nonchalantly she flicked ashes on the pink check!

With as much self-control as possible I asked, “If you still feel that way, why did you have me assigned to you? And why did you make me come here?”

As if she had not heard at all, she poured some of the green liquid from the bottle into one of the small glasses, and sipped it.

“Wonderful liqueur! Want some?”

Then I understood: alcohol! Like lightning there came to memory what I had seen yesterday: the stony hand of the Well-Doer, the unbearable blade of the electric ray; there on the Cube, the head thrown back, the stretched-out body! I shivered.

“Please listen,” I said. “You know, do you not, that anyone who poisons himself with nicotine, and more particularly with alcohol, is severely treated by the United State?”

Dark brows raised high to the temples, the sharp mocking triangle.

“ ‘It is more reasonable to annihilate a few than to allow many to poison themselves. . . . And degeneration,’ . . . etc. . . . This is true to the point of indecency.”

“Indecency?”

“Yes. To let out into the street such a group of bald-headed, naked little truths. Only imagine, please. Imagine, say, that persistent admirer of mine — S-, well, you know him. Then imagine: if he should discard the deception of clothes and appear in public in his true form. . . Oh!” She laughed. But I clearly saw her lower, sorrowful triangle: two deep grooves from the nose to the mouth. And for some reason these grooves made me think: that double-curved being, half-hunched, with winglike ears — he embraced her? Her, such . . . Oh!

Naturally, I try now merely to express my abnormal feelings of that moment. Now, as I write, I understand perfectly that all this is as it should be; that he, S-4711, like any other honest Number, has a perfect right to the joys of life, and that it would be unjust . . . But I think the point is quite clear.

I-330 laughed a long, strange laugh. Then she cast a look at me, into me.

“The most curious thing is that I am not in the least afraid of you. You are such a dear, I am sure of it! You would never think of going to the Bureau and reporting that I drink liqueurs and smoke. You will be sick or busy, or I don’t know what. . . . Furthermore, I am sure you will drink this charming poison with me.”

What an impertinent, mocking tone! I felt definitely that in a moment I would hate her. (Why in a moment? In fact, I hated her all the time.)

I-330 tilted the little glass of green poison straight into her mouth. Then she stood up, and all rosy through the translucent saffron-yellow tissue, she made a few steps and stopped behind my chair. . . . Suddenly her arms were about my neck . . . her lips grew into mine, no, even somewhere much deeper, much more terribly. . . . I swear all this was very unexpected for me. That is why perhaps . . . for I could not — at this moment I see clearly — I could not myself have the desire to . . .

Unbearably sweet lips. (I suppose it was the taste of the liqueur.) It was as though burning poison were being poured into me, and more, and more. . . .

I tore away from the earth and began revolving as an independent planet, down, down, following an incalculable curve. . . . ’

What happened next I am able to describe only in an approximate way, only by way of more or less suitable analogies.

It never occurred to me before but it is true: we who live on the earth, we are always walking over a seething red sea of fire which is hidden in the womb of the earth. We never think of it. But imagine the ground under our feet suddenly transformed into a thin glass shell; suddenly we should behold . . . !

I became glass-like and saw within myself. There were two selves in me. One, the former D-503, Number D-503; and the other . . . Before, that other used only to show his hairy paws from time to time, but now that whole other self left his shell. That shell was breaking, and in a moment . . .

Grasping the last straw (the arms of the chair) with all my strength, I asked loudly (so as to hear my first self), “Where, where did you get this poison?”

“Oh, this? A physician, one of my . . .”

“ ‘One of my! one of my’ what?” And my other self jumped up suddenly and yelled: “I won’t allow it! I want no one but me . . . I shall kill anyone who . . . Because I . . . You . . I saw my other self grasp her rudely with his hairy paws, tear the silk, and put his teeth in her flesh! . . . I remember exactly, his teeth! . . .

I do not remember how, but I-330 slipped away and I saw her straighten, her head raised high, her eyes overlaid by that cursed, impenetrable curtain. She stood leaning with her back against the closet door and listening to me.

I remember I was on the floor; I embraced her limbs, kissed her knees, and cried supplicatingly, “At once, right away, right away.”

Sharp teeth. . . . The sharp, mocking triangle of the brows. . . . She bent over and in silence unbuttoned my badge.

“Yes, yes, dear — dear.”

I began hastily to remove my unif. But I-330, silent as before, lifted my badge to my eyes, showing me the clock upon it. It was twenty-two-twenty-five.

I became cold. I knew what it meant to be out in the street after twenty-two-thirty. My insanity disappeared at once. I was again I. I saw clearly one thing: I hated her, hated her, hated . . . Without saying good-by, without looking back, I ran out of the room. Hurriedly trying to fasten the badge back in its place, I ran down the stairs (I was afraid lest someone notice me in the elevator), and tore out into a deserted street.

Everything was in its place; life so simple, ordinary, orderly. Glittering glass houses, pale glass sky, a greenish, motionless night. But under that cool glass something wild, something red and hairy, was silently seething. I was gasping for breath, but I continued to run so as not to be late.

Suddenly I felt that my badge which I had hurriedly pinned on was detaching itself; it came off and fell to the sidewalk. I bent over to pick it up and in the momentary silence I heard somebody’s steps. I turned. Someone small and hunched was disappearing around the corner. At least so it seemed. I started to run as fast as I could. The wind whistled in my ears. At the entrance to my house I stopped and looked at the clock; one minute to twenty-two-thirty! I listened; nobody behind. It was my foolish imagination, the effect of the poison.

The night was full of torture. My bed seemed to lift itself under me, then to fall again, then up again! I used autosuggestion: “At night all the Numbers must sleep; sleeping at night is a duty just like working during the day. To sleep at night is necessary for the next day’s work. Not to sleep at night is criminal.” Yet I could not sleep — I could not. I was perishing! I was unable to fulfill my duties to the United State! I . . .