A REPORT ON THE INCIDENT AT THE HERMITAGE
March 17th of the current year.
In the presence of the most distinguished figures of our management team, Van Dyck, Vermeer (Werner?), Bosch and our own Wyspiański— I, Gregory Senso, have allowed myself to commit the most contemptuous act. I soiled Van Dyck in the most brutal, vile and unforgivable way with the content my own stomach, which was favorably, in this case, of the highest quality and sustenance because, as you know, the Hermitage is famous for its cuisine.
I want to point out that in soiling my supervisor, Mr. Van Dyck, my behavior was prompted by an outside stimulus independent of me. It was due to a misunderstanding— I didn’t want to— It happened against my will, and though I admit it was in accordance with the will of my body, I completely disagreed with it.
But in order to explain all of this I must first describe the chain of events leading up to the embarrassing eruption of my innards, the unobstructed “vomitation” at the Hermitage as it were, ten days ago. On Thursday, as always, I was awakened by the radio. Listening to the news while brushing my teeth— I have a radio right in my bathroom— I heard about the flood in the state of Pueblo, Mexico in which two thousand people had drowned. Now, I don’t know if that was the first time this happened but I too began to show symptoms of drowning. Thankfully the news quickly moved on to the weather forecast and I managed to regain control of my body. I headed to work at Rembrandt Bank, and sitting in front of the computer in my office, as usual, out of habit— and I really I don’t know when, I turned the radio on just as they were reporting about the explosion of methane in the coal mines, describing the burned miners. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it, you hear this kind of thing all the time—but this was horrific. I started to tremble and cry, and my assistant Wanda later said that the image struck her as particularly moving: a banker in a suit, at his desk, overwhelmed by empathy —as the philosopher Scheler would have said—“for unknown but suffering miners.”
But when I began to weep Wanda grew uncomfortable since Scheler never reached that degree of empathy. And as I wept I pulled off my jacket and shirt—and stretching my arms out in front of me, I saw as my skin flushed, wrinkled and swelled with burns, “like on the Discovery Channel,” I thought, but the pain quickly knocked me down.
I was taken to the emergency room. The doctor could not comprehend how a computer could do such a thing.
“Where do you keep this computer, in a cave?” He asked, extracting a piece of coal from one of my burns.
I kept a silent dignity. I didn’t know what to say, but only asked for him to leave my fingers un-bandaged, so I could keep working on my reports. Then I headed for the store to buy a larger jacket.
Strangely enough, all the jackets were the same price.
“THIS is not a price,” the saleswoman told me, “It’s the design year.”
“1999 is not a price? Are you sure?”
“Can I help it if the year looks like a price tag? Its too bad we don’t sell years because this would have long been out of stock.”
A radio played in the background and I could hear the first notes of that forsaken jingle. I covered my ears just before the news was about to go on but the saleswoman—who had hair dark as coal and eyes as bright as medallions— stuck her finger out and with one touch, like a witch, she changed the station.
“We don’t like it when they talk.” she said and winked a wise yellow eye in my direction.
I shuddered. Of course, why didn’t I realize this sooner? MUSIC ONLY.
I went back to bank and started working on the statements again, turning the radio on that’s true, but only to deflate the pressure, to show it who’s boss without going crazy. I turned it on out of habit but decided not to listen to the news. So when the familiar jingle came on, when they reported on the various accidents, I turned the knob because people are free and have a right to choose their circumstances.
A soothing melody played as I worked and when the jingle came on, sharp as a blade, I jumped from my chair, turned the knob and changed the station. But after a moment the jingle was back. This was serious. I abandoned my calculations and facing the radio head on, pale and focused like a pilot or a bomber, I tried to escape the pursuing melody. Racing through the various frequencies of radio stations as the jingle scrapped at my heels and sometimes even lurked at the station I had just turned to, I thought— turn this off Senso— and then— just one more station left! It was like a video game— except that my fear was real and I had only one life.
I was nearing the end of the dial. Pushed up against the wall I paced like a caged lion but the knob put up resistance. So I started to run in the opposite direction, station three, two, one, until suddenly I realized that I had lost: all the stations were occupied with the jingle. I had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide and just then, Wanda walked in and said,
“Van Dyck’s on the line. He says it’s important.”
I let go of the radio knob, picked up the receiver and heard Van Dyck’s voice.
“How are you, Mr. Senso?”
The jingle played from beginning to end as the radio announced with utter satisfaction:
“Another earthquake in Taiwan.”
“I feel great, Mr. Van Dyck.” I said, because that’s what you always say in English, even if at that very moment my desk began to tremble and I saw a crack run in the wall by the window.
“According to our latest accounts, 1999 people lay buried beneath the rubble,” I heard the announcer say before a section of the ceiling fell on my head and I lost consciousness.
I was hospitalized. A neurologist came to check on me. He tapped me with a hammer and pricked me with a needle asking if I felt anything. “Yes,” I said, and especially when I hear reports on the news about the number of casualties: two thousand dead, one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine buried in the rubble.
“You feel numbers?” The neurologist looked into my face.
“When they report them…”
“But its only numbers. Numbers were invented so that we don’t have to feel.”
“But when they report that . . .”
“They report, they report!! They report about the 1999 or the six million so that they don’t have to think or see it. Numbers are a wall behind which others cry and shed blood!”
Then he calmed down and repeated in a softer tone, “Numbers were invented so that we don’t hurt, Mr. Senso.”
They hurt me . . . I began as my eyes started crying because I—Senso, never cry.
“Why is this happening to me?” I asked in tears. “Why does it have to be me, the manager of a Polish branch of Rembrandt Bank?”
“I don’t know,” The doctor replied.
And then it occurred to me. “Maybe it’s the year, like a price tag.”
“A price tag you say?” He stopped to think. “It’s possible, you see, in our times it often happens that a psyche, or should I say soul— since we’re alone,” he checked around nervously, behind the door and under the bed—“You see, the soul mistreated and neglected— becomes susceptible to assaults from the outside world, in much the same way an that an alcoholic’s liver can reach complete cirrhosis.”
“It stiffens. It loses its ability to filter the world for which it was created and it begins to die, little by little.”
“Nothing. It resurfaces occasionally but mostly it’s eliminated from the body as an expenditure.”
I gasped, “The soul eliminated?”
“Yes. In an almost undetectable manner, like a small gray pebble. You can be without a soul for years, unless . . .” —the doctor stopped and looked at me in delight—“unless the body becomes soul. And a body is not that easy to ignore, isn’t that so, Mr. Senso? It’s hard to disregard it, especially when it’s in so much pain.”
“When it hurts,” I agreed.
“Your body carries no small burden. Its mission is to alleviate what is harmful to the soul. You’ll get used to it, Mr. Senso,” the doctor reassured me. “You don’t understand it yet. And everything seems painful and pointless to you, but just think, you were chosen! You’re taking part in the process.”
“What process?” It sounded dangerous.
“Always the same process, for millions of years. And if you survive— He rubbed his hands together—you’ll be an organism more perfect than the others.”
I wanted to know if I could find my soul and make it go back in its place, but the doctor only prescribed earplugs and left the room, muttering, “What a beautiful process.”
I checked out of the hospital of my own accord. Mr. Van Dyck was on his way, my report was still unfinished, and then there was a dinner at the Hermitage with that contemptible, revolting, incident in question, whose perpetrator was my body taking momentary responsibility for my soul.
Surely you have considered the circumstances and listened to the accounts of all the parties present, still I hope that my version of the events will help clarify the complete lack of control I had over my own body (soul) whose body (actually soul) began to display an acute sensitivity, moral scruples and, I’m embarrassed to admit, symptoms of ethical fundamentalism.
After the blintzes with caviar à la Ivan Aivazovsky, veal pockets in the impressionist style garnished with gleaming Titian red trout, and an amusing piglet in the style of Picasso—the snout of which we found in his . . . well, never mind! — we were served strawberries with whipped cream, thankfully, presided over by a realist painter. And that’s when Mr. Van Dyck had a mind for some wartime stories that everyone was ready to absorb with great interest.
“My god!” exclaimed Mr. Van Dyck, “I was in Sarajevo during the blockade. We have a branch of our bank there. Everyday I saw the corpses of men, women and children lying in the street.”
At this point Mr. Van Dyck’s silver spoon reached out for a large red, cream-capped strawberry. “With my very own eyes I saw a little girl run into the street— you have to understand that it was difficult for children to sit still in bomb shelter. The lack of sun, movement and, well, all that hunger!” Mr. Van Dyck brought the strawberry to his lips.
“The little girl ran out from the shelter and was running blissfully when a sniper shot at her, and, just like that, she fell and blood poured from her mouth. I watched the entire thing from my window at the bank. It was a terrible, terrible war.”
Van Dyck must have misjudged the size of the strawberry because red juice began to dribble down his chin, and I felt everything inside me start to constrict and gurgle. Quickly, I tried to stuff a napkin down my throat but it didn’t help. My body rebelled against Van Dyck who continued feeding on strawberries while talking about the little girl. I know. We were all eating, I don’t want to put all the blame on Van Dyck—he was only telling us a story. He didn’t kill the girl, he just stood by and watched. After all it’s not wrong to stand by and watch, and his words didn’t hurt anyone but me. But it wasn’t me, you understand, but some frightening and mysterious force that expelled that exquisite meal from my body at a temperature of an even 96.7 F— and aimed it directly at Van Dyck.
That evening I came home, lay down on the bed, and longed for death. And for the first time, my body seemed to agree with me: I shuddered from the cold.
I don’t know how long I lay there like this because it was never dull. Visitors came to see me, though it’s also not entirely out of the question that I had simply forgotten to lock my door.
First came Mr. Perriera from Mexico, from the flooded areas whose waters almost drowned me.
“I’m here about that flood,” he said. “A terrible tragedy, but you know all about that yourself.” Here he stopped to wink at me, “The worst has happened. The whole world says that two thousand people died in Pueblo.”
“That’s what they said on the news,” I said.
“But that’s a lie,” Mr. Perriera raised his voice, “In actuality, only one-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine people drowned in the flood.”
“Maybe you’re talking about the year?”
“Don’t take me for a fool, Mr. Senso.” Perriera barked, “Conchita, tell the gentleman here how many people died in Pueblo.” (As it happened Mr. Perriera’s wife came with him).
“One-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine.” Announced the tiny raven-haired woman.
“Now you see the atrocious mistake they’re making in the news?”
“One person more or less, what difference does it make?” I said and saw Mr. Perriera’s rage.
“How can you say something like that? What if you were that one extra person?”
“Well. Yes, you’re right.” I said trying to appease him, “It’s a good thing it’s actually one less.”
“A good thing!?” Yelled Perriera.
“You call this a good thing, Señor Senso? I’m the one less person!”
“Well, that means you’re alive Mr. Perriera. That’s wonderful!” I said trying to scrounge up some excitement.
“But how can I be alive?” Mr. Perriera began to weep, “when in the eyes of the entire world I’m a dead man? Here no more. Drowned!”
“Its not important what others think if . . .”
“Not important?” He interrupted me, “Think of my wife! A lonely “husbandless” woman, since those Gringos reported my death on CNN. And can a poor man from the state of Pueblo contradict the biggest news network in the world? When they say, Gonzalo, you’re dead, I believe them. I’m dead.
“You know how bad my life is now? I hide like a fugitive from the people in my own village and whenever someone sees me they yell, “Ghost!” Even my own children run from me. And Conchita? Can she be faithful to a husband who everyone knows drowned in the flood? That rabid dog, Rudolfo comes under her window each night and yells, “‘Conchita, ay-yay-yay. You’re mine, your Gonzalez is dead.’”
Mr. Perriera left suddenly and in his place appeared a Blackman with a spear.
“Our shaman Wombatta says that you carry us in your body because the world’s holy ghost came to live inside you,”
“Wombatta knows because the ghost came to live inside his body too, and he howled in pain day and night, night and day… and one more day and night and night and day. And Wombatta would have died from it if he didn’t chase away the ghost with a strict diet of cow dung.”
“Cow dung?” I asked hopefully.
“Wombatta says that now you carry all of us inside you. Us and those scoundrels from the Tutu tribe.”
“If ills befell them,” I agreed.
He got angry.
“Their ills are our happiness, their death equals life to us and their sadness is our joy. Your suffering in the name of those scoundrels is an offense to us. We don’t wish for you to share your pain with them. We don’t want to share your body with them. They started the war . . . it’s them or us, you pick. If you don’t purge them from your body—here he stomped his spear—the shaman of Wombatta will pull us out of your body by force or he’ll cut off the body part we are in even if we’re in your head, legs or ass— so long as we are far from those Tatu scavengers.”
He caused a ruckus and left, though I don’t quite know how, and in came Mr. Simon. This alarmed me quite a bit because Mr. Simon died when I was very young.
“You’re here to see me?” I asked.
“I’m here about the six million.” Mr. Simon said.
“Did you have an account with us as the bank? Six million what?”
“Not what but who. I’m here about those six million Jews who were murdered by Hitler. And what does it mean that there were six million? An even six million? Not more and not less? and if more, how many more? Maybe a thousand nine hundred and ninety nine more and then what? No one mentions THEM because next to six million what is a thousand nine hundred, or lets say two thousand? It’s just a small city. But I wonder, can you forget a whole vanished city? My father, who was a cloth buyer, always said to me, “Szymcze, don’t you ever believe in round numbers, they always lie. So you tell me, Gregor, what am I supposed to do with those six million?”
“Well you know six million is just a matter of speech.”
“A matter of speech?” Mr. Simon was visibly perplexed. “Something people just say? To lock us in a ghetto like that, because a number is a ghetto that we will never get out of.”
“Mr. Simon, this is truly a lamentable case but it does not concern me.”
“Six million murdered don’t concern you?”
“I mean, please, understand me, of course it pains me terribly. In a sense…. but this was over half a century ago and I—to be more exact—my suffering, doesn’t include that number. That so called “six million” that you were kind enough to bring up.”
“It doesn’t include them?” Mr. Simon grew upset.
“Then who— who does it include?”
And he disappeared.
I was awakened by a knock at my door, from my friend Wyspianski, the manager of the credit department.
“Senso, listen to this,” he said “Our bank was officially taken over by Bosch! Completely out of the blue. And you’ll probably be happy to hear that Van Dyck was fired. He was convicted in a serious case of embezzlement.” Apparently he let himself go even in Sarajevo.
You know you, you have a good eye, nothing escapes you. You’re the first one who saw through him. And you expressed your opinion without compromise at the Hermitage dinner.
Mr. Verneer took Van Dyck’s place, truly, a good man. He regards you as a fashioned specialist. At the meeting he told us that building sensitivity to evil would be very beneficial to our bank. He said that numbers alone are not everything and that one needs to possess a moral compass, and that we should take an example from—you—Herr … Zenzo. And he told us about the upcoming workshops: “ethics as the motor of stock exchange” and “important documents/important virtues.”
So that’s how I returned to my job at the bank. And despite your complete trust in me Director Vermeer, I decided to write this explanation. It’s with certainty that I report that nothing ails me anymore. My body returned to its rightful condition. I went to see the doctor and he inferred that since I had not died, I have evidently acclimatized. I can now listen to the news in peace, like everyone else.
And after arriving at work today, I turned on the radio— I admit I trembled and shook when the jingle signaled the oncoming news broadcast— but then I listened to the latest news about people who were burned alive in a skyscraper in Tokyo.
I didn’t even feel warm.”
LIDIA AMEJKO is ranked among Poland’s most highly esteemed contemporary playwrights, and short-story writers. She is the author of radio plays, Farrago and The Transformation. Her publications also include “When the Mind’s Asleep,” “the Answering Machine Turns On” (for Dialog, 1993), and “The Passion in the Bottle”(forDialog, 1995). She has been nominated multiple times for the prestigious literary NIKE award, and is a winner of the Polish Book Editors Prize, among others, for “The Lives of the Housing Project Saints” (2008). Her next book is scheduled to appear in 2014. This story is taken from her book debut, “Stories Out Loud,”(2003).
About the Translator:
BEATRICE SMIGASIEWICZ’s work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Art Papers, Words Without Borders, and others. She’s currently pursuing a degree in Nonfiction Writing and Translation at the University of Iowa.