The Cursed “It’s Clear”
I must repeat, I have made it my duty to write concealing nothing. Therefore I must point out now that, sad as it may be, the process of the hardening and crystallization of life has evidently not been completed even here in our State. A few steps more and we will be within reach of our ideal. The ideal (it’s clear) is to be found where nothing happens, but here. . . . I will give you an example: in the State paper I read that in two days the holiday of Justice will be celebrated on the Plaza of the Cube. This means that again some Number has impeded the smooth running of the great State machine. Again something that was not foreseen, or forecalculated, happened.
Besides, something happened to me. True, it occurred during the personal hour, that is during the time speciﬁcally assigned to unforeseen circumstances, yet . . .
At about sixteen (to be exact, .ten minutes to sixteen), I was at home. Suddenly the telephone:
“D-503?” — a woman’s voice.
“Are you free?”
“It is I, I-330. I shall run over to you immediately. We shall go together to the Ancient House. Agreed?”
I-330! . . . This I- irritates me, repels me. She almost frightens me; but just because of that I answered, “Yes.”
In ﬁve minutes we were in an aero. Blue sky of May. The bright sun in its own golden aero buzzed behind us without catching up and without lagging behind. Ahead of us a white cataract of a cloud. Yes, a white cataract of a cloud, nonsensically ﬂuffy like the cheeks of an ancient cupid. That cloud was disturbing. The front window was open; it was windy; lips were dry. Against one’s will one passed the tongue constantly over them and thought about lips.
Already we saw in the distance the hazy green spots on the other side of the Wall. Then a slight involuntary sinking of the heart, down—down-down, as if from a steep mountain, and we were at the Ancient House.
That strange, delicate, blind establishment is covered all around with a glass shell, otherwise it would undoubtedly have fallen to pieces long ago. At the glass door we found an old woman all wrinkles, especially her mouth, which was all made up of folds and pleats. Her lips had disappeared, having folded inward; her mouth seemed grown together. It seemed incredible that she should be able to talk, and yet she did.
“Well, dear, come again to see my little house?”
Her wrinkles shone, that is, her wrinkles diverged like rays, which created the impression of shining.
“Yes, Grandmother,” answered I-330.
The wrinkles continued to shine.
“And the sun, eh, do you see it, you rogue, you! I know, I know. It’s all right. Go all by yourselves — I shall remain here in the sunshine.”
Hmm. . . . Apparently my companion was a frequent guest here. Something disturbed me; probably that unpleasant optical impression, the cloud on the smooth blue surface of the sky.
While we were ascending the wide, dark stairs, I-330 said, “I love her, that old woman.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps for her mouth — or perhaps for nothing, just so.”
I shrugged my shoulders. She continued walking upstairs with a faint smile, or perhaps without a smile at all.
I felt very guilty. It is clear that there must not be “love, just so,” but “love because of.” For all elements of nature should be . . .
“It’s clear . . .” I began, but I stopped at that word and cast a furtive look at I-330. Did she notice it or not? She looked somewhere, down; her eyes were closed like curtains.
It struck me suddenly: evening about twenty-two; you walk on the avenue and among the brightly lighted, transparent,,cubic cells are dark spaces, lowered curtains, and there behind the curtains . . . What has she behind her curtains? Why did she phone me today? Why did she bring me here? and all this. . . .
She opened a heavy, squeaking, opaque door and we found ourselves in a somber disorderly space (they called it an “apartment”). The same strange “royal” musical instrument and a wild, unorganized, crazy loudness of colors and forms like their ancient music. A white plane above, dark blue walls, red, green, orange bindings of ancient books, yellow bronze candelabra, a statue of Buddha, furniture with lines distorted by epilepsy, impossible to reduce to any clear equation.
I could hardly bear that chaos. But my companion apparently possessed a stronger constitution.
“This is my most beloved —” she suddenly caught herself (again a smile, bite, and white sharp teeth) — “to be more exact, the most nonsensical of all ‘apartments.’ ”
“Or, to be most exact, of all the States. Thousands of microscopic States, ﬁghting eternal wars, pitiless like —”
“Oh, yes, it’s clear,” said I-330 with apparent sincerity.
We passed through a room where we found a few small children’s beds (children in those days were also private property). Then more rooms, glimmering mirrors, somber closets, unbearably loud-colored divans, an enormous “ﬁreplace,” a large mahogany bed. Our contemporary beautiful, transparent, eternal glass was represented here only by pitiful, delicate, tiny squares of windows.
“And to think; here there was love ‘just so’; they burned and tortured themselves.” (Again the curtain of the eyes was lowered.) “What a stupid, uneconomical spending of human energy. Am I not right?”
She spoke as though reading my thoughts, but in her smile there remained always that irritating X. There behind the curtains something was going on, I don’t know what, but something that made me lose my patience. I wanted to quarrel with her, to scream at her (exactly, to scream), but I had to agree. It was impossible not to agree.
We stopped in front of a mirror. At that moment I saw only her eyes. An idea came to me: human beings are built as nonsensically as these stupid “apartments,” human heads are opaque, and there are only two very small windows that lead inside, the eyes. She seemed to have guessed my thoughts; she turned around: “Well, here they are, my eyes. . . . Well” (this suddenly, then silence).
There in front of me were two gloomy, dark windows and behind them, inside, such strange hidden life. I saw there only ﬁre, burning like a peculiar “ﬁreplace,” and unknown figures resembling . . .
All this was certainly very natural; I saw in her eyes the reﬂection of my own face. But my feelings were unnatural and not like me. Evidently the depressing influence of the surroundings was beginning to tell on me. I deﬁnitely felt fear. I felt as if I were trapped in a strange cage. I felt that I was caught in the wild hurricane of ancient life.
“Do you know . . .” said I-330. “Step for a moment into the next room.” Her voice came from there, from inside, from behind the dark window eyes, where the ﬁreplace was blazing.
I went in, sat down. From a shelf on the wall there looked straight into my face, somewhat smiling, the snub-nosed, asymmetrical physiognomy of one of the ancient poets; I think it was Pushkin.
“Why do I sit here enduring this smile with such resignation, and what is this all about? Why am I here? And why all these strange sensations, this irritating, repellent female, this strange game?”
The door of the closet slammed; there was the rustle of silk. I felt it difficult to restrain myself from getting up and, and . . . I don’t remember exactly; probably I wanted to tell her a number of disagreeable things. But she had already appeared.
She was dressed in a short, bright-yellowish dress, black hat, black stockings. The dress was of light silk. I saw clearly very long black stockings above the knees, an uncovered neck, and the shadow between. . . .
“It’s clear that you want to seem original. But is it possible that you — ?”
“It is clear,” interrupted I-330, “that to be original means to stand out among others; consequently, to be original means to violate the law of equality. What was called in the language of the ancients ‘to be common’ is with us only the fulﬁlling of one’s duty. For —”
“Yes, yes, exactly; I interrupted impatiently, “and there is no use, no use . . .
She came near the bust of the snub-nosed poet, lowered the curtain on the wild ﬁre of her eyes, and said (this time I think she was really in earnest, or perhaps she merely wanted to soften my impatience with her, but she said a very reasonable thing):
“Don’t you think it surprising that once people could stand types like this? Not only stand them, but worship them? What a slavish spirit, don’t you think so?”
“It’s clear . . . that is . . .!” I wanted . . . (damn that cursed “it’s clear!”).
“Oh, yes, I understand. But in fact these poets were stronger rulers than the crowned ones. Why were they not isolated and exterminated? In our State —”
“Oh, yes, in our State —” I began.
But suddenly she laughed. I saw the laughter in her eyes. I saw the resounding sharp curve of that laughter, ﬂexible, tense like a whip. I remember my whole body shivered. I thought of grasping her . . . and I don’t know what. . . . I had to do something, it mattered little what; automatically I looked at my golden badge, glanced at my watch — ten minutes to seventeen!
“Don’t you think it is time to go?” I said in as polite a tone as possible.
“And if I should ask you to stay here with me?”
“What? Do you realize what you are saying? In ten minutes I must be in the auditorium.”
“And all the Numbers must take the prescribed courses in art and science,’ ” said I-330 with my voice.
Then she lifted the curtain, opened her eyes — through the dark windows the ﬁre was blazing.
“I have a physician in the Medical Bureau; he is registered to me; if I ask him, he will give you a certiﬁcate declaring that you are ill. All right?”
Understood! At last I understood where this game was leading.
“Ah, so! But you know that every honest Number as a matter of course must immediately go to the office of the Guardians and —”
“And as a matter not of course?” (Sharp smile-bite.) “I am very curious to know: will you or will you not go to the Guardians?”
“Are you going to remain here?”
I grasped the knob of the door. It was a brass knob, a cold, brass knob, and I heard, cold like brass, her voice:
“Just a minute, may I?” .
She went to the telephone, called a Number (I was so upset it escaped me), and spoke loudly: “I shall be waiting for you in the Ancient House. Yes, yes, alone.”
I turned the cold brass knob.
“May I take the aero?”
“Oh, yes, certainly, please!”
In the sunshine at the gate the old woman was dozing like a plant. Again I was surprised to see her grown-together mouth open, and to hear her say:
“And your lady, did she remain alone?”
The mouth of the old woman grew together again; she shook her head; apparently even her weakening brain understood the stupidity and the danger of that woman’s ‘ behavior.
At seventeen o’clock exactly I was at the lecture. There I suddenly realized that I did not tell the whole truth to the old woman. I-330 was not there alone now. Possibly this fact, that I involuntarily told the old woman a lie, was torturing me now and distracting my attention. Yes, not alone — that was the point.
After twenty-one-thirty o’clock I had a free hour; I could therefore have gone to the ofﬁce of the Guardians to make my report. But after that stupid adventure I was so tired; besides, the law provides two days. I shall have time tomorrow; I have another twenty-four hours.