A Two-dimensional Shadow
An Incurable Soul
I have not written for several days; I don’t know how many. All my days are alike. All are of one color, yellow, like dry, overheated sand. Not a patch of shade, not a drop of water, only an inﬁnity of yellow sand. I cannot live without her, but she, since she disappeared that day so mysteriously in the Ancient House . . .
Since that time I have seen her only once, during the hour for the Walk, two, three, four days ago, I do not remember exactly. All my days are alike. She only passed swiftly by and for a second ﬁlled up my yellow, empty world. With her, arm in arm, reaching not higher than her shoulder, were the double-curved S- and the thin papery doctor, and a fourth person whose ﬁngers only I remember well; they streamed out, those ﬁngers, from the sleeve of the unif like a bundle of rays, uncommonly thin, white, long. I-330 raised her hand and waved to me, then she bent toward the one with the raylike fingers, over the head of S-. I overheard the word Integral. All four turned around to look at me, and then they disappeared in the bluish-gray sea, and my road was once more dry and yellow.
That same evening she had a pink check on me. I stood before the switchboard and with hatred and tenderness I implored it to click and soon show the number I-330. I would rush out into the hall at every sound of the elevator. The door of the latter would open heavily. Pale, tall, blond, and dark they would come out of the elevator, and here and there curtains were falling. . . . But she was not there. She did not come. And it is quite possible that now, at this minute, as I write these lines, at twenty-two o’clock exactly, with her eyes closed she is pressing her shoulder against somebody else in the same way, and in the same way she may be asking someone: “Do you love me?” Whom? Who is he? That one with raylike ﬁngers, or that thick-lipped, sprinkling R-? Or S-? S-! Why is it that I have heard his steps splashing behind me as though in a ditch all these days? Why has he been following me all these days like a shadow? Ahead of me, to my side, behind me, a grayish-blue, two-dimensional shadow; people cross it, people step on it, but it remains nearby, attached , to me by unseen ties. Perhaps that tie is I-330. I do not know. Or perhaps they, the Guardians I mean, already know that I . . .
If someone should tell you your shadow sees you, sees you all the time, would you understand? All at once peculiar sensations arise in you; your arms seem to belong to someone else; they are in the way. That is how I feel; very frequently now I notice how absurdly I wave my hands without any rhythm. I have an irresistible desire to glance behind me, but I am unable to do so; my neck might as well be forged of iron. I ﬂee, I run faster and faster, and even with my back I feel that shadow following me as fast as I can run; and there is no place to hide myself — no place!
At length I reach my room. Alone at last! But here I ﬁnd another thing, the telephone. I pick up the receiver. “Yes, I-330, please.” And again I hear a light noise through the receiver; someone’s step in the hall there, passing the door of her room, and — silence. . . . I drop the receiver. I cannot, cannot hear it any longer, and I run to see her!
This happened yesterday. I ran there and for a whole hour from sixteen to seventeen I wandered near the house in which she lives. Numbers were passing by in rows. Thousands of feet were beating the time like a behemoth with a million legs passing by. I was alone, thrown out by a storm on an uninhabited island, and my eyes were seeking and seeking among the grayish-blue waves. . “There, soon,” I thought, “will appear from somewhere the sharp mocking angles of the brows lifted to the temples, and the dark window eyes, and there behind them a ﬂaming ﬁreplace and someone’s shadow. . . . And I will rush straight in behind those windows and say to her, “Thou” — yes, “thou” without fail. “Thou knowest I cannot live without thee any longer, then why . . .?” But silence reigned.
Suddenly I heard the silence; suddenly I heard the Musical Tower silenced, and I understood! It was after seventeen already; everyone had already left. I was alone. It was too late to return home. Around me— a desert made of glass and bathed with yellow sunshine. I saw, as if in water, the reﬂection of the walls in the glass smoothness of the street, sparkling walls, hanging upside down. Myself also upside down, hanging absurdly in the glass.
“I must go at once, this very second, to the Medical Bureau, or else . . . Or perhaps this would be best: to remain here, to wait quietly until they see me and come and take me into the Operation Department and put an end to everything at once, redeem everything. . . .” A slight rustle — and the double-curved S- was before me. Without looking I felt his two gray steel-drill eyes bore quickly into me. I plucked up all my strength to show a smile and to say (I had to say something), “I . . . I must go to the Medical Bureau.” »
“Who is detaining you? What are you standing here for?”
I was silent, absurdly hanging upside down.
“Follow me,” said S- austerely.
I followed obediently, waving my unnecessary foreign arms. I could not raise my eyes. I walked through a strange world turned upside down, where people had their feet pasted to the ceilings, and where engines stood with their bases upward, and where, still lower, the sky merged in the heavy glass of the pavement. I remember what pained me most was the fact that looking at the world for the last time in my life I should see it upside down rather than in its natural state; but I could not raise my eyes.
We stopped. Steps. One step . . . and I should see the ﬁgures of the doctors in their white aprons, and the enormous, dumb Bell.
With force, with some sort of an inner twist, I succeeded at last in tearing my eyes away from the glass beneath my feet, and I noticed the golden letters, “Medical Bureau.” Why did he bring me here rather than to the Operation Department? Why did he spare me? About this I did not even think at the moment. I made all the steps in one jump, ﬁrmly closed the door behind me, and took a very deep breath — as if I had not breathed since morning, as if my heart had not beaten for the same length of time, as if only now I started to breathe and only now a sluice opened in my chest. . . .
Inside there were two of them, one a short specimen with heavy legs, his eyes like the horns of a bull tossing the patients up, the other extremely thin with lips like sparkling scissors, a nose like a blade — it was the same man who. . . I ran to him as to a dear friend, straight over close to the blade, and muttered something about insomnia, dreams, shadows, yellow sand. The scissors lips sparkled and smiled.
“Yes, it is too bad. Apparently a soul has formed in you.”
A soul? That strange, ancient word that was forgotten long ago. . . .
“Is it . . . v-very dangerous?” I stuttered.
“Incurable,” was the cut of the scissors.
“But more speciﬁcally, what is it? Somehow I cannot imagine—”
“You see . . . how shall I put it? Are you a mathematician?”
“Then you see . . . imagine a plane, let us say this mirror. You and I are on its surface. You see? There we are, squinting our eyes to protect ourselves from the sunlight, or here is the bluish electric spark in that tube, there the shadow of that aero that just passed. All this is on the surface, is momentary only. Now imagine this very same surface softened by a ﬂame so that nothing can glide over it any longer, so everything will instead penetrate into that mirror world which excites such curiosity in children. I assure you, children are not so foolish as we think they are! The surface becomes a volume, a body, a world. And inside the mirror — within you — there is the sunshine, and the whirlwind caused by the aero propeller, and your trembling lips and someone else’s lips also. You see, the cold mirror reﬂects, throws out, while this one absorbs; it keeps forever a trace of everything that touches it. Once you saw an imperceptible wrinkle on someone’s face, and this wrinkle is forever preserved within you. You may happen to hear in the silence a drop of water falling—and you will hear it forever!”
“Yes, yes, that is it!” I grasped his hand. I could hear drops of water dripping in the silence from the faucet of a washstand, and I knew at once it was forever.
“But tell me please, why suddenly . . . suddenly, a soul? There was none, yet suddenly . . . Why is it that no one has it, yet I . . .” I pressed the thin hand; I was afraid to loosen the safety belt.
“Why? Well, why don’t we grow feathers or wings, but have only shoulder blades, bases for wings? We have aeros; wings would only be in the way. Wings are needed in order to ﬂy, but we don’t need to fly anywhere. We have arrived at the terminus. We have found what we wanted. Is that not so?”
I nodded vaguely. He glanced at me and laughed a scalpel-like, metallic laugh. The other doctor overheard us and stamped out of his room on his heavy legs. He picked up the thin doctor with his horn eyes, then picked me up.
“What is the matter — a soul? You say a soul? Oh, damn it! We may soon retrogress even to the cholera epidemics. I told you” — he tossed the thin one on the horns — “I told you the only thing to do is to operate on them all, wholesale! Simply extirpate the center for fancy. Only surgery can help here, only surgery.” He put on a pair of enormous X-ray spectacles and remained thus for a long while, looking into my skull, through the bones into my brain, and making notes.
“Very, very curious! Listen.” He looked ﬁrmly into my eyes. “Wouldn’t you consent to have me perform an extirpation on you? It would be invaluable to the United State; it might help us prevent an epidemic. If you have no special reasons, of course . .
Some time ago I should probably have said without hesitation, “I am willing,” but now — I was silent. I caught the proﬁle of the thin doctor; I implored him!
“You see,” he said at last, “Number D-503 is building the Integral, and I am sure the operation would interfere. . . .”
“Ah-h!” grumbled the other, and stamped back into his room.
We remained alone. The paper-like hand was put lightly and caressingly upon mine, the proﬁle-like face came nearer, and he said in a very low voice: “I shall tell you a secret. You are not the only one. My colleague is right when he speaks of an epidemic. Try to remember, haven’t you noticed yourself, someone with something similar, very similar, identical?”
He looked at me closely. What was he alluding to? To whom? . . . Is it possible? . . .
“Listen.” I jumped up from my seat. But he had already changed the subject. In a loud, metallic tone:
“.. . As for the insomnia and the dreams you complain of, I advise you to walk a great deal. Tomorrow morning you must begin taking long walks . . . say, as far as the Ancient House.”
Again he pierced me with his eyes and he smiled thinly. It seemed to me that I saw enveloped in the tender tissue of that smile a word, a letter, a name, the only name . . . Or was it only my imagination? I waited impatiently while he wrote a certiﬁcate of illness for today and tomorrow. Once more I gently and ﬁrmly pressed his hand; then I ran out.
My heart now feels light and swift like an aero; it carries me higher and higher. . . . I know joy will come tomorrow. What joy? . . .