ISSUE 6 · SPRING 2011




 

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Copyright © 2011

Anton Baer





Metamorefruitis

from the novel TRASHLAND: the adventures of a potato peel in the make in a world of awful rubbish.

ANTON BAER

 

 

One morning when Samsa Peach awoke, he found himself transformed into a human being. Dazed, he sat still under the peach tree, testing the strange stiffness in his hard, as though woodified, back, and slowly—so unused was he to the sensations of articulated limbs—drawing his rather bony knees up under his chin, which, once so plump and dimpled, was now covered with a woolly growth of blue-black ringlets.

In place of the all-embracing roundness of the peach, Samsa to his great astonishment felt only the stiff and unwieldy stem that had somehow gotten inside him, and now not only allowed but encouraged him to swivel ever so slightly. Everywhere he saw peach trees, a yielding summer shade, a blaze of light beyond the furthest boughs; and finally, obeying some dire instinct, somehow propelled by this same inner stem, to get to his feet clutching a tightly-rolled morning newspaper still so soft and warm with the damp heat of the printer’s iron that the very letters, a perfect scrollwork of Cyrillic gibberish, seemed about to slide off into the grass.

Wobbling like a calf, Samsa observed that he possessed two long and slender legs, stuck like stovepipes into two fine black leather shoes, a dark suit of the best quality serge, and a flowery red silk tie whose enormous knot very nearly crushed his Adam’s apple. Gold rings weighed down all eight of his hairy fingers, whose post-natal urges seemed bound up indissolubly with a restless compulsion to explore the furthest recesses of his equally hairy nostrils. The sloping brim of a fedora comfortably shaded his face from the sunlight that came down through the leaves—all but the tip of his broad, protuberant nose, and, when he leaned over to regard his windfallen brothers in the grass, the backs of his somewhat fleshy ears.

Samsa felt terribly ill at ease, and vaguely repulsive in a way no amount of rain could ever wash off again. Bruises aside, even with the blights and fungi that had marred his complexion, his had been truly a primeval existence. Turning his gaze upwards, he beheld the bough from which he had fallen.

There, nestled among the tender leaves, his playmates of yesterday still hung from their yarmulkes, chattering and singing now in a language that had become incomprehensible to Samsa. Willy-nilly, a plaintive and inarticulate moan bubbled up his brand-new throat as, snuffling through his nose, he pawed and groped frantically at the branch. As this had no effect other than to awaken the first stirrings of an awkward self-consciousness, mixed with an odd itching on his face, Samsa desisted. Besides, something new and disturbing was crackling through his uncoiling brain.

Perplexed, he gazed round.

“Oh dear,” he muttered out loud, “I suppose I shall miss my tram connection.”

Before he could draw any conclusions from the blackening windfalls of peaches under his shoes, a metallic flashing in the ravine diverted his still somewhat feeble mind. Twisting his gangly neck, he studied it more closely—a tin roof shining above willowy poplars. Scattered around it, thatched roofs and plastered mud walls peeked through the trees. Bullocks dozed by hayricks, clay chimneys puffed smoke over wattle fences—and above the roofs rose a ruddy purple beet topped by a glittering white-painted cross.

“Perhaps there’s a station there,” Samsa mused.

Encouraged by the birth of deductive logic, he set out walking through the orchard grass with high, twitchy steps.

Advancing through a thigh-high carpet of thistles and nettles, he stumbled somewhat jerkily out onto a dirt path. Away from the shade of the mothering peach trees he felt the full heat of the sun. With violent efficiency he brought up both hands, the newspaper taut between them, to shade his smarting eyes.

Dusty and rugged, the cart-track curved down to the right through a field of sunflowers, which were easily as tall as Samsa and seemed to have the same weak, lolling necks, heads also bowed down before the fury of the sun. Down the middle of the path Samsa staggered, smiling back at the sunflowers’ shy, yellow faces, not yet able to prevent himself from detouring wildly into the ditches and under the shade trees, trampling blue rain-sprinkled plums lying in their hundreds in the grass; and, as he picked up yet more speed nearing the village, he was unable to keep himself from stumbling into rippling greenswards bright with dandelions. No sooner had he decided to befriend one little flower than another even more bewitching attracted his eye—and on he lurched. Coal-black hens fled squawking erk-keruck, erk-keruck before his outstretched arms, while a rooster whose chestnut mane shimmered like a rainbow skipped into the shade of a yellow-leafed oak, where it crowed vociferously and long. Samsa ventured a response, but found his untried vocal cords unequal to the task.

At the first rough wattle fence Samsa stopped to look around. Just behind a hedge of vine-stocks huddled a long low house. A mullioned window ran down the whole side of the house, and the green leaves and vines of the grapes reached almost to the thatches of straw that fell down over the edge of the roof. Wasps buzzed amongst the purple grapes and rattled against the window panes of the passageway. The inside walls of the passageway, painted in earthen yellows, were hung with heavy gilt frames cracking with antiquity and encasing portraits of blue-robed saints with upraised palms.

Between the vines and the house wall an earthen path led back to a cow stall. The stall formed the latter half of the house, under a down-sloping roof; then began the garden. The broad leaves of yellow pumpkins straggled over the ground, merging with rows of potato tops and more vegetables. Scattered about, blue geese lay fluffed up in the shade of fruit and nut trees.

There, just beyond the shade of the trees, Samsa spotted his first human: leaning over a stump by a back fence of crooked sticks, an old woman in a brightly patterned kerchief and black concertina skirts that billowed out around her broad hips and came down to the thick brown stockings that hid her rather bowed legs. In one hand she held a hatchet, and with the other she was standing lengths of wood on the stump, that she then split with sure and furious blows, stopping only to press two swollen fingers tight against one side of her nose, lean forward slightly over the stump, and blow hard.

The gracious lady was too far off to engage in neighbourly palaver, and furthermore the dry crack of the hatchet seemed to have deafened her; so with an optimistic and only mildly disappointed smile at the failure of his erk-keruck, erk-keruck to gain her attention, Samsa continued on his way.

The street through the village was a cart path deeply worn with ruts. Beside it ran a creek. The houses, which were all low and white and roofed with thatch, lined the creek on both sides, and wooden footbridges spanned the water. Grassy lanes led away from the creek, and along these lanes villagers stood emptying slop pails over stick fences, from behind which came the squealing and cavorting of pigs. Hammers ran out on anvils along the sleepy back lanes, and the aromas of horses and leather and straw floated out stable doors and spiderwebbed ventilation windows.

The road broadened out up ahead into a square, where a few dusty plane trees straggled like beggars round a collection of green cast-iron benches that made a perfect gazebo of coolness in the blaze of light.

To the left of the green cast-iron benches was a small white wooden building shaded by birches. Above the birches floated the beet-purple dome and white cross that Samsa had espied from the orchard. Fingering the blue-black ringlets of his beard he headed more or less straight towards it.

Since his upraised newspaper seemed to be attracting unseemly attention, Samsa dropped it to his side, and politely tipped his fedora to the villagers he was beginning to meet. Down paths beaten in the long grasses between the houses, the men strode as if they were navigating furrows, looking neither left nor right. They wore caps and white linen shirts, baggy trousers belted at the waist and soft leather boots that went up to their knees; over their shoulders they carried scythes and pitchforks, or the slung leather bridles and reins of horses. The sturdy hard-faced women, their brown feet flapping in the grass like fish, toenails broken and discoloured, carried loaves wrapped in cloth, while others lugged enormous gourds on their shoulders. Most wore stiff white embroidered blouses and layers of pleated skirts shiny from use. Their hair was pulled back into pony-tails under colourful patterned kerchiefs, and their ruddy faces glowed with health.

When they spotted Samsa every one of the villagers came to an abrupt stop in whatever they were doing, and regarded him with intense curiosity—expectations, he felt sure, of one kind or another. At first he thought it charming that the villagers should then salute with such exaggerated courtesy so complete, if dignified, a stranger. Bowing low, they doffed their caps; and standing up straight again as he passed by, they slowly rubbed their fleshy fingers against their pock-marked faces. Nonetheless their extra¬ordinary strangeness repelled Samsa, who despite his hairy face still felt every bit a peach.

“Good morning!” he shouted, discovering he was the possessor of a booming tenor; only to meet their pitiless gazes. Already a small crowd of idlers had gathered behind him. From the other side of the creek perfect strangers, and all of the village worthies who had been taking shelter from work under the lime trees, were crowding towards the footbridges, all staring at Samsa as they jostled each other and trod, with unaccustomed alacrity, their immemorial paths.

“Do you want to buy my hat?” Samsa inquired of no one in particular. “For, you see, I am a commercial traveller.”

The women crossed themselves from right to left and glanced up at the sky, as if to check for rain. Gazing back down at their brown feet the women seemed to absorb themselves in the eternally fascinating play of sunlight over the crooked and weathered wooden fences. Although their teeth were as white and strong as horses’ teeth, they hid them shyly with their plump strong hands. They began to murmur amongst themselves.

The men, less shy, glanced at each other, stroked their wheaten moustaches and began to whisper behind gnarled fingers. Some of the whispers turned into laughter; coming from the younger men, the laughter had an unpleasantly malicious edge. Patiently Samsa waited for a bid.

The ringing of hammers on anvils had ceased. From the fields around the village came the baaing of sheep, the creaking of cartwheels, the flap and whir of threshing machines. Dandelion puffs floated through the air. One brushed Samsa’s nose and made it twitch, then drifted to the ground right at Samsa’s feet.

Instantly he dropped on all fours and pressed his face to the grass to study the gossamer filament with the passion of a blossoming botanist. There was so much he had to learn, and so little time had he been on this God’s earth!

The grass was unkempt, a veritable meadow, and all sorts of insect life thrummed and busied itself with secret and hurried compulsions right under the quivering sweat drop on the tip of Samsa’s nose. Ladybugs hauled themselves along upside-down on blades of timothy, spiders raced timidly keeping to the shadows, and flies as long as Samsa’s fingernails, their shimmering rainbowing wings folded back along their miraculous bodies, sunned themselves on the tight-clustered petals of marigolds. Not a handbreadth away glittered the tar-black carapace of a dung beetle, its thin beautifully articulated legs as blue and metallic as the sky. Burrow¬ing furiously into the leaf mould, it disappeared faster than Samsa could follow with his probing finger.

“Try Dumona Raskalnova, over there by the church,” suggested a voice coarsened by phlegm. His thick hot ears brushing the cool petals of the flowers, Samsa twisted his neck to see who it was who had been so kind.

A wizened man in a greasy lambskin coat and black lambskin cap tilted sloppily over his thick-creased forehead stood rolling a cigarette between his coarse black fingers, a few of which had gone missing on a chopping stump. “For she too is a commercial agent,” he drolled, and licked the paper.

Combing the bits of grass and goose excrement out of his beard Samsa struggled back shakily to his feet, unaware of the titter that ran through the crowd.

“Up yonder.” The sturdy peasant jerked his chin in the direction of the white frame building under the dome shaped like a beet. “There you’ll find her, I reckon. Oh, she’s a grand old dame. Belle of the ball. Slobbers real ladylike over any new article of haberdashery that comes our way.”

On the lane that went past the church a woman in a red kerchief and white dress stood busying herself over her barrow, rolled up onto the verge of the lane to hug the cool shadows of the wall.

“I shall be honoured to take your wise counsel, good Squire,” Samsa bowed and tipped his hat to the peasant.

Guffaws broke out all round.

Gripping his newspaper, Samsa edged his way through the crowd, which showed much less inclination to part than seemed gracious.

The woman standing with her back to the white wall of the church was as stout as a rain barrel. Her cheeks were plump and rosy, and sunburn pinked her fleshy forearms. Furrows radiated out over her broad cheekbones from the corners of her ice-blue eyes, and under her chin rolls of fat bulged like just-stuffed sausages. As she leaned over her barrow her ample yellow breasts, freckled with chaff, surged like milk out of a pitcher, sloshing under the neckline of her clean white blouse embroidered with red and purple flowers.

In mounting horror Samsa watched her coarse hands fly tirelessly over her display, sorting and shifting into more flattering positions her wares: raspberries bleeding and pulped; dusty clumps of black currants entangled with scraps of leaves and stems and giving off an acrid mist that filled his eyes with tears; and nothing less than peaches—laid, as though sleeping, in beds of straw. Samsa choked and swayed.

“Are there any trams here?” he inquired obliquely, turning his head to stare down the crooked lane but unable to tear his bulging eyes off the peaches, dragged, still warm, out from under the gallows. “I have indeed—and not unreasonably, given the nature of this village, at least that part of it heretofore open to my—it need be admitted cursory—inspection—well-nigh reckless expectations of an airy wooden building with a pleasantly shaded platform, where I might perchance purchase ice-cream and mineral water, and stroll up and down, glancing over posters announcing sundry festivals and market days in the larger towns and perhaps a general mobilization order for the Czar’s loyal subjects. You see, I’m supposed to catch the five o’clock tram. It could have been the four-thirty-nine express tram, but I had to consider many things before making my decision. Much rests on a well-executed responsibility, especially when one considers the possibly disastrous consequences of a mistimed act. Also, the four-thirty-nine tram had only first-class compartments available, and what time I would have saved and advantages won by arriving at my destination an hour early would have been more than off-set by the increased fare, and the savings in time, which, as is well-known if not universally true, is pennies, would in truth turn out to be illusory. Had my business ventures taken off more success¬fully, so to speak, I could easily have covered the difference and hardly noticed it, but as it is, I must guard every kopeck with the tenacity of a smith shoeing a particularly strong-willed horse that is liable to bolt right through the barn doors given the slightest opportunity to liberate its will.

“Besides, in the town to which I am travelling my hosts would no doubt still be twitching their toes under the eiderdown at the earlier time of arrival, and would not have enjoyed being roused from the unconscious but far-flung liberty of the sleeper simply to gratify and thereby no doubt encourage the tendencies of an over-eager merchant to make the most of every crack of light. I can quite easily imagine the horrible scene that would ensue from my standing in the street shouting up to the windows of my customers, waking the whole town and thereby incurring no small measure of annoyance. Do you think for a single minute that I would be invited back to display my wares, as fine as they may be, as unrivalled in quality and workmanship as any? Hardly.

“So you see, catching the four-thirty-nine tram is not at all the solution to the sometimes seemingly intractable problems besetting my affairs; such precipitate haste could only damage my reputat¬ion, which I have gone to no small pains to safeguard, and thus undo the progress and stability of my at times quite—willingly I admit it—pleasant existence. On the other hand, I should be rather well off as concerns early arrivals if cafés not only existed in that town but were open at that freshening hour, and I could stop in for a cup of sweet mint tea, which I favour in the morning for sound reasons of health.

“For I have not been that robust lately: my constitution has suffered under this life into which I have been forced by circumstances; but on the other hand, I should by visiting cafés only incur more expenses which are best avoided by bringing sandwiches in a bag and nibbling at them on the tram. After all, I am not a tourist, and indeed take pains to exercise a sense of discipline and order to insure that my true holidays, which I prefer to take in autumn, will not be spoiled by having indulged to excess in window-shopping, café-hopping and sight-seeing while in the pursuit of purely business matters. It is no easy matter to tie up the complicated threads of a commercial transaction in a strange town, and one must sharpen oneself to a keen pitch if one is not to slip in the exchange, or even, God forbid, by a single blunder lose all that which one has earned over the years by unstinting hard work and loyalty to strict standards of quality which, if I may say so, has always distinguished our firm.”

The merchantess merely closed one eye, squinted up at him with menacing intensity out of the other, and slowly hefted a cast-iron weight in her callused palm.

“Are you always engaged in tending fruit?” Samsa stammered gaping at the fiend’s clusters of cherries well advanced in the murky purple hues of decomposition.

“A season for not doing business does not exist,” the woman answered cryptically.

“Has anybody asked after me?”

“And who might you be, good sir?” she wheedled.

“Umm . . . Samsa Peachoff.”

“Now, good sir, with all your fine city ways and manners, who would you be thinking of maybe asking after you?”

“Leo Filipovich Tolstoy,” Samsa stammered thrashing his newspaper at wasps and cramming great fistfuls of beard into his mouth.

“Look for the white birches,” the woman answered evasively. She raised her hefty arm and pointed at the ridge of the ravine. “Them trees mark the road to the good sir’s house.”

Foliage flashed silver in the wind off the steppe, the trunks ghostly pale in the sun that came through the canopies.

Samsa jerked back to the barrow. “So what are you going to do with those peaches?” he blurted.

The woman hesitated. Shiftily she glanced round. Behind Samsa, the crowd that had gathered shuffled their boots in the dust.

The woman leaned forward again over the barrow. Her eyes narrowed, and she ran her cruel tongue over her teeth.

“Sell them,” she whispered.

The raucous laughter behind him deafened Samsa to the pounding of his heart.

“And th-th-then wh-wh-what?” he stuttered, unaware that in his agitation he had thrust his newspaper deep into his mouth.

“What does the good gentleman mean?” the crone smirked with tilted head.

“W-w-well—w-w-what’s going to happen to them?”

The woman shrugged. Sticking out her broad lower lip as if to test the breeze, she glanced up the lane. Behind the church, another path ran off somewhere no less barbaric, while in the ankle-deep road dust lay a pair of yellow curs biting their fleas.

“As God is my witness,” the woman muttered, “it’s no affair of mine to meddle in what goes on in other folks’ doings. But I suppose—well, I suppose—”

Abruptly she stuck out her lower lip again, rapped her knuckles against the barrow and stared right at Samsa.

“Yes!” she cried with blazing eyes. “There’s no denying what shall happen: they’ll get eaten! Chopped into slices, right tasty they are! Superb quality, slaked in cream, a real treat—and inexpensive too! A dying fellow will save his last breath to crawl to the bowl in which these peaches lie snuggled up all cosy-like!”

Choking with terror Samsa struggled to maintain his footing, which required an adroit little dance.

It was some time before he managed to control his agitation, sustained as it was by the not entirely accidental pushes and shoves and kicks to the backside contributed by the village louts in the swelling crowd. Finally succeeding in feigning cosmopolitan indifference to the peaches in their straw-lined coffins he glanced around with the air of a busy man kept waiting by trivialities.

“And where is Natasha Rostova, anyway?” he barked rather too harshly. “Can she come out to play?”

“Play what?” the witch leered leaning over the barrow again and stroking the peaches with lascivious fingertips.

“The violinola, of course!” Samsa cried stumbling back in horror at the powerful stench of fruit on her breath.

“I doubt that,” she smirked, winking at the crowd.

“And whuh-whuh- why . . . why ever not?”

“Because,” the crone cackled, “she’s gone over to Uncle’s house—to paint his Easter eggs!”

The fiends!

Loud guffaws emboldened some small boys to take advantage of the general merriment by jabbing the pointed ends of sticks into the small of Samsa’s back.

Samsa shivered with revulsion.

“Now how’s about some of these here peaches?” the peddler pattered on in a voice given completely over to ridicule, as with the suave artistry of a magician playing to the gallery she swept her palms over the revolting corpses. “Maybe you’d like to bite on a few yourself? Or would the fancy gentleman,” she hissed with repellent obsequiousness, “prefer some of these—” pointing her fingers at the acrid bunches of currants—”these here Black Hundreds?”

The devils! Possessed, all of them, with hellish inventions and diabolical amuse-ments!

Wrenching about Samsa stumbled back through the crowd, which made no special effort to get out of his way, as he attempted to bring under control the violent contrary twitchings of his elbows and contorted spasms of his spindly legs with sharp blows of his by now quite ragged newspaper.

“So there, yid!” the merchantess shrieked at his receding back.

As soon as he was out of sight of the church Samsa forgot about visiting Tolstoy. Instead he settled for staggering about up and down the lanes, worried frantic.

. . .

By evening, somewhat calmed but still at a loss what to do in the absence of a tram, Samsa had idled away the whole afternoon. Plagued by horseflies, he had been trailed at a distance by the horde of stick-wielding urchins, who before being called in to supper had succeeded in knocking off his hat numerous times with stones, the less well-aimed of which had struck Samsa in the face, causing his mouth, nose and eye to bleed. The blood had soiled his serge suit, and he could no longer see clearly out his right eye.

From out of the doorways of the houses the aroma of sour cream and borscht bubbling on wood-burning stoves drifted on the mild evening air across the yards of sunflowers and parched saw-grass. Through the open doors Samsa glimpsed brass samovars, more hoary icons, and fly-blown crayon sketches of a bearded man in a uniform whose medals he could no longer make out. Stopping to rest in the freckled shade of an acacia he inserted one finger between his collar and the knot of his tie.

“If things were only slightly different, I could lead a quiet life here,” he mused.

Flapping his shirt-front back and forth, he eyed the three-story yellow ironstone house behind the white picket fence he was leaning on. Its metal roof gleamed a dull pewter through the towering balsams, and he recognized it as the first house he had seen from the orchard. He admired the trimmed lawn under the trees, showered with blue forget-me-nots. “It certainly is the most imposing manor in the village,” he thought. “It must be the hetman’s house. Well, there’s nothing I want with the hetman. I don’t even know what a hetman is.”

A rumbling in his belly gradually brought Samsa round to a new necessity. For a while he stuck out his tongue and let the sun play over it. But this nostalgic reverie served only to dry out his lips. By fits and starts it occurred to him that he had to chew something.

Reaching up he stripped a handful of leaves from the bough and stuffed them in his mouth. The faintly nutty flavour was not at all satisfying, however, and he soon spit the mangled leaves out over the front of his jacket.

Rested by his malingering, Samsa strolled on.

In the peace of the evening he began to test out his legs, raising them high and swinging them about from the hips in all directions. By now they seemed both tremendously useful inventions and yet still quite useless knick-knacks. He had been terribly happy hanging from his yarmulke, he realized sadly, and he failed to see the profit in his eventide peregrinations through this sleepy village composed of equal parts mud, straw, and porcine excrement. It was unthinkable that the villagers understood him! . . . Remembering his harrowing conversation with the merchantess, he recalled his promise to visit Tolstoy.

In five minutes he was back at the crooked lane behind the church. In another five minutes he and his quick-jerking legs had left the thatched houses behind.

The dusk grew thicker, and the cool air flowed down off the steppes, rustling the shade trees along the road and sending a shiver down Samsa’s sweat-soaked back. The sun had swollen, turned into a red torch sinking down into the millet, back-lighting gauzy pillars of midges bobbing on the air.

Where the road began to climb out of the ravine, the sunflowers he had strolled down through so insouciantly that very morning had now lowered their faces to the earth to wait out the night. The sun had sunk beneath the horizon. In their thousands, all frighteningly alike, they stood menacingly silent, cloaked in shawls of ragged cabbage leaves, their drooping bonnets of yellow petals clustered wetly round their blackened faces, from which the last of the twilight rouge had fled—a perfect congress of witches. They entirely covered the slope above him, rolled over the very rim of the ravine, were endless and hypnotic in their evil sameness. On Samsa staggered, trembling from his purple lips to his knocking knees, his frail body wracked with chills. Hunched over against the dampness of the mist flowing down into the hollow, his newspaper pressed against his chest for a little rag of extra warmth, Samsa stumbled on, frightened half to death.

Gradually becoming aware of the creak and rattle of a droshky approaching from behind, he politely stepped onto the verge, at the same time raising his limp and ragged newspaper as a token of good neighbourliness; but the driver, who for his part was already raising sixteen feet of knotted whip in a fist bulging like a calabash, had other ideas.

“Take that, you repulsive yid!” he cried; and with a ferocious curse he brought the whip down on Samsa’s back.

Slicing round his ribs in a piercing coil of flame, the lash very neatly parted the serge, the fine silk shirt, the undershirt and seven layers of skin.

“Now scram, you miserable kike!”

With the exception of the stones in his face Samsa had never before felt pain. Now it was all he was conscious of—a searing cloud of licking heat that parched his throat and blackened his mind. Knees buckling, he staggered off the road and flopped face-first into the ditch.

. . .

The tickling of grasses against his cheeks and the monotonous humming of mosquitoes in his ears brought him to.

It was dark. His right eye had swollen completely shut, and his lips tingled with an extraordinary sensitivity: gorged on by the mosquitoes, they had ballooned up until he could see them, swelling up under his nose, unbelievably tender. With two stiff fingers he opened his shirt buttons and fingered the sticky welt running up over his shoulder and down across his lacerated chest. He moaned, rolled over and stared up at the stars.

“Oh!” he groaned in his terrific tenor, “Russia! Poor, poor, unfathomable Russia! Oh, Russia—mysterious Ruushiya! I love her! I feel sorry for her! . . . Oh, to see a birch tree again! To burn my nose on a samovar! . . . Oh, oh, oh . . .”

The sky turned pink. Cranes and herons winged over the fields, rafting on the first light that had not yet come down to the earth. In the ravine below, shrouded with mist, buckets were being winched down on creaking well-shafts, cocks were crowing, and pigs were grunting each other awake. Samsa realized that he was lying exposed in the open.

On his elbows and stomach he dragged himself into the thistles, through the stinging nettles and into the brown shade of the millet. His efforts reopened his half-skinned back, and blood trickled under his fine silk shirt, warm salt water that all too rapidly cooled. Shivering uncontrollably, his chin pressed into the dirt, he listened in a stupor to the singing birds.

His once fine suit was smeared with clay. The pewter buttons of his fancy vest dangled on frayed blue threads, and his hands, raked by the thistles and rapidly puffing up from the stinging nettles, were soon impossible to close into fists. Despite its youth, his skin had nothing left on it of the bloom of the peach. A violent sneeze made his head jerk back, and with equal wilfulness crash back down hard into the dirt. It had not been prudent to lie in the ditch, he realized, for he had obviously contracted a bad chill, the perpetual malaise of travelling salesmen.

Slowly the sun warmed his chilled ears. Samsa felt no better, and could not breathe without lancing pains.

“I have been much too considerate of these humans!” he thought miserably. He felt, not unreasonably, like a pitted seed spit from the human bosom—only hours old, he reflected bitterly, and already a scabrous leper! “And yet I had such excellent intentions!”

With a wrenching effort he rolled onto his back. Once he had spit out the dirt that had gotten through his beard and onto his tongue, he found it easier to breathe. The blood on his chest had dried to a hard carapace of scabs. To fight off idleness as he gazed up through the millet stalks at the bluing sky, he began to chip the dried blood off, in dirty and sticky scabs that pulled away with a good deal of chest hair. Insects whirred fuzzily overhead; higher, a flock of cawing rooks leaving their night copse streamed towards some grain field. And above it all, titanic clouds, separated by islands of sky whose coastlines were rapidly eroding, buckled and rolled in on themselves, contorted and shaped by contrary winds. The dew had almost dried on Samsa’s beard when the muffled clip-clopping of horse’s hooves on the road roused him.

Peering through the grain, his heart began to thump so strongly that his stomach began to heave, buckling his spine and, although he was kneeling on all fours, making his head reel.

The glossy haunches of the horses were lathered with sweat, and the sky-blue coats of the horsemen flapped open in the breeze, their carefree faces tanned and burnt by the sun and the few remaining brass buttons of the fine blue coats all aglitter. Spitting out sunflower seeds plucked from the blackened seed heads lashed to the pommels of their saddles, down the slope towards the village they cantered, saddles creaking, their strong legs in red trousers straight in the stirrups, their swords jingling in their scabbards and the horses’ hooves pounding the dust. Soon the wild yelping of curs, mixed with the merry cries of children, rose up from the hollow.

Samsa dared to poke his unkempt head out of the grain.

There was the same beet-red church dome, thatched roofs, the same shade trees by the dusty square. It was the very same hamlet as on the fine morning before; but now, how infinitely far, how infinitely dangerous!

“So where are the yids?” shouted a martial voice.

“No yids here!” chorused helpful voices. “There was one, but we gave him such a thrashing he never lived to regret it.”

“Well, nobody else to persecute?”

“’Fraid not, for we’ve done a mighty fine job ourselves.”

“Well, by the love of all-seeing God, that’s a pity. Got any balalaikas to break over our knees?”

“No, we sold them for vodka.”

“Holy Mother Russia! Well, how about some samovars to bash in?”

“Well, we did that already too, with our grannies’ heads. But tell you what, you can set fire to our houses. That straw burns mighty fine, praised be the Lord!”

“Okay, then we’ll cleave you down to your belts with our swords as you try to escape our trampling horses.”

“Sounds pretty scary!”

“Sure is, so let’s hear some lamentations!”

A fearful din of tinsmithing, the metallic ringing of swords yanked violently out of their scabbards, the cracking of whips, the neighing of horses and the yelping of scurrying dogs rose up from the hollow. Samsa began to tremble violently. On his elbows and knees he turned and scuttled deeper into the grain, pursued by horrible cries. Much too frightened to look back at the pall of smoke that was obscuring the beet and its flame-licked cross he dove madly into the grain, the stalks lashing his face and his knees quaking so hard that even while ploughing an irregular furrow they managed to knock together mercilessly.

Weeping, deeper and deeper he plunged, burying his nose in the rich fragrance of chernozem. Still he could hear the dying clamour from the village in whose grassy lanes he had spent those awful moments. Now those lanes were probably writhing with bodies—those milk-fat women and their brown sturdy legs, that old two-fingered Cossack, the work-shy layabouts from the square . . . To be a human! . . . What a fate! Peeled alive! Hacked to pieces! Heaps of rotting, blue-bruised humans under the peach tree!

Exhausted, Samsa realized he could no longer hear the screams.

He stopped floundering and lay still.

The wind soughed; smoke blew on the cool air.

Stiff-necked, Samsa raised his filthy head.

There, no further than a hundred versts away, stood a solitary tree, rippling with dark green leaves—and laden with peaches.

Samsa could not believe his weeping, blurring eye.

“Oh, merciful God!” he cried, rising to his knees and thrusting his filthy fingers into his mouth. “Oh blessed mother tree! Blessed is the womb of thy fruit Samsa! I am saved!”

Scrambling to his feet he stumbled towards the tree, weeping for joy.

. . .

As evening fell and the sun rippled over the millet, unbeknownst to Samsa his long unfruitful silhouette, dancing hysterically now, was stretching out longer and longer.

For no matter how he pined and wept, butted his forehead against the silvery bark, Samsa was not taken back up.

Exhausted from dangling half-entwined from a sturdy branch, long he leaned against the tree, clinging in melancholy silence to the bark; adroitly he stood on one hopeful leg; gracefully he mimicked the wind-hammock swaying of the peaches dangling above him.

Down and across the steppe his shadow stretched, to slink into a hamlet in a hollow, creep across the threshold of a hut; and there to jig, and flap like a rag on a clothesline; until finally it caught the ice-blue eye of a stubbly-cheeked, flaxen-haired young peasant, fresh from eating a pomegranate, slowly scraping a whetstone along a scythe . . .