The Benumbed Waves
Everything Is Improving
I Am a Microbe
Please imagine that you stand at the seashore. The waves go rhythmically up, down, up. . . . Suddenly, when they have risen, they remain in that position, benumbed, torpid! It was just as weird and unnatural when everything became confused and our regular walk, which is prescribed by the Tables, suddenly came to an end. The last time such a thing happened was one hundred and nineteen years ago, when, according to our historians a meteorite fell hissing and fuming into the very midst of the marchers. We were walking yesterday as usual, that is like warriors on the Assyrian monuments, a thousand heads and two composite, integrated legs and two swinging, integrated arms. At the end of the avenue, where the Accumulating Tower was formidably resounding, a quadrangle appeared: on the sides, in front, and behind — guards; in the center — three Numbers. Their units were already stripped of the golden State badge; everything was painfully clear. The enormous dial on the top of the Tower looked like a face; it bent down from the clouds and, spitting down its seconds, it waited with indifference. It showed six minutes past thirteen exactly. There was some confusion in the quadrangle. I was very close, and I saw the most minute details. I clearly remember a thin, long neck and on the temple a confused net of small blue veins like rivers on the map of a small unfamiliar world, and that unknown world was apparently still a very young man. He evidently noticed someone in our ranks; he stopped, rose upon his tiptoes, and stretched his neck. One of the guards snapped his back with the bluish spark of the electric whip — he squealed in a thin voice like a puppy. The distinct snaps followed each other at intervals of approximately two seconds; a snap and a squeal, a snap and a squeal. . . . We continued to walk as usual, rhythmically, in our Assyrian manner. I watched the graceful zigzags of the electric sparks and thought: “Human society is constantly improving, as it should. How ugly a tool was the ancient whip and how much beauty there is —”
At that moment, like a nut flying from a wheel revolving at full speed, a female Number, thin, ﬂexible, and tense, tore herself from our rows, and with a cry, “Enough! Don’t you dare!” she threw herself straight into the quadrangle. It was like the meteorite of one hundred and nineteen years ago; our march came to a standstill and our rows appeared like the gray crests of waves frozen by sudden cold. For a second I looked at that woman’s ﬁgure with the eye of a stranger, as all the others did. She was no Number any longer; she was only a human being, and she existed for us only as a substantiation of the insult which she cast upon the United State. But a motion of hers, her bending while twisting to the left upon her hips, revealed to me clearly who she was. I knew, I knew that body, ﬂexible as a whip! My eyes, my lips, my hands knew it; at that moment I was absolutely certain. . . . Two of the guards dashed to catch her. One more moment, and that limpid, mirror-like point on the pavement would have become the point of meeting of their trajectories, and she would have been caught! My heart fell, stopped. Without thinking whether it was permissible or not, whether it was reasonable or absurd, I threw myself straight to that point.
I felt thousands of eyes bulging with horror ﬁxed upon me, but that only added a sort of desperately joyful power to that wild being with hairy paws which arose in me and ran faster and faster. Two more steps— she turned around -—
I saw a quivering face covered with freckles, red eyebrows. . . . It was not she! Not I-330!
A rabid, quivering joy took hold of me. I wanted to shout something like: “Catch her! Get her, that —” But I heard only my whisper. A heavy hand was already upon my shoulder; I was caught and led away. I tried to explain to them:
“But listen, you must understand that I thought that. . .”
But could I explain even to myself all the sickness which I have described in these pages? My light went out; I waited obediently. As a leaf that is torn from its branch by a sudden gust of wind falls humbly, but on its way down turns and tries to catch every little branch, every fork, every knot, so I tried to catch every one of the silent, globe-like heads, or the transparent ice of the walls, or the blue needle of the Accumulating Tower which seemed to pierce the clouds.
At that moment, when a heavy curtain was about to separate me from this beautiful world, I noticed not far away a familiar, enormous head gliding over the mirror surface of the pavement and wagging its winglike ears. I heard a familiar, ﬂat voice:
“I deem it my duty to testify that Number D-503 is ill and is unable to regulate his emotions. Moreover, I am sure that he was led by natural indignation —”
“Yes! Yes!” I exclaimed. “I even shouted, ‘Catch her!’ ”
From behind me: “You did not shout anything.”
“No, but I wanted to. I swear by the Well-Doer I wanted to!” ‘
For a second I was bored through by the gray, cold, drill eyes. I don’t know whether he believed that what I said was the truth (almost!), or whether he had some secret reason for sparing me for a while, but he wrote a short note, handed it to one of those who had held me, and again I was free. That is, I was again included in the orderly, endless Assyrian rows of Numbers.
The quadrangle, the freckled face, and the temple with the map of blue veinlets disappeared forever around the corner. We walked again — a million-headed body; and in each one of us resided that humble joyfulness with which in all probability molecules, atoms, and phagocytes live.
In the ancient days the Christians understood this feeling; they are our only, though very imperfect, direct forerunners. The greatness of the “Church of the United Flock” was known to them. They knew that resignation is virtue, and pride a vice; that “We” is from “God,” “I,” from the devil.
I was walking, keeping step with the others yet separated from them. I was still trembling from the emotion just felt, like a bridge over which a thundering ancient steel train has passed a moment before. I felt myself. To feel one’s self, to be conscious of one’s personality, is the lot of an eye inﬂamed by a cinder, or an infected ﬁnger, or a bad tooth. A healthy eye, or ﬁnger, or tooth is not felt; it is nonexistent, as it were. Is it not clear, then, that consciousness of oneself is a sickness?
Apparently I am no longer a phagocyte which quietly, in a businesslike way, devours microbes (microbes with freckled faces and blue temples); apparently I am myself a microbe, and she, too, I-330, is a microbe, a wonderful, diabolic microbe! It is quite possible that there are already thousands of such microbes among us, still pretending to be phagocytes, as I pretend. What if today’s accident, although in itself not important, is only a beginning, only the ﬁrst meteorite of a shower of burning and thundering stones which the inﬁnite may have poured out upon our glass paradise?