11. 25. 2008. 09:54

Something Is Burning Outside (short story)

"...the most peculiar thing of all, they established, was what they hadn’t even noticed until now, yet it was the very strangest of all: that this illustrious creative figure of the present day, always active, was here, where everyone was at work, perfectly and totally idle."

Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.
It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp’s focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.
The use of a generalized subject for this narrative proved delusive, however, as the fact slowly but surely became manifest – it had appeared as such to the keenest eyes on the first working day; for most, however, it was largely considered a settled matter by the third morning – that truly there was one among the number, one out of the twelve, who was absolutely unlike all the rest. His mere arrival itself had been excessively mysterious, or at least had proceeded very differently from that of the others, for he had not come by train and then by bus; for however unbelievable it seemed, the afternoon of the day of his arrival, perhaps around six o’clock or half-past six, he simply turned into the campground gates, like a person who had just arrived on foot, with nothing more than a curt nod; and when the organizers politely and with a particular deference inquired as to his name, and then began to question him more pressingly as to how he had arrived, he replied only that someone had brought him to a bend in the road in a car; but as in the all-enfolding silence no one had heard the sound of any car at all that could have let him out at any “bend in the road”, the entire thought that he had come in a car but not all the way, only up to a certain bend in the road and only to be put out there, sounded fairly incredible, so that no one really quite believed him, or more accurately, no one knew how to interpret his words, so that there remained, already on that very first day, the only possible, the only rational – if all the same, the most absurd  - variation: that he had travelled entirely on foot; that he had picked himself up in Bucharest and set himself to the journey: instead of boarding a train and subsequently the bus that came here, he had simply made on foot – and who knew for how many weeks now! – the long long trip to Saint Anna Lake, turning in through the campground gates at six or six-thirty in the evening, and when the question was put to him as to whether the organizing committee had the honor of greeting Ion Grigorescu, he dispensed his reply with one curt nod.
If the credibility of his tale were to rest upon the state of his shoes, then no one could have any doubts at all: perhaps originally brown in colour, they were light summer loafers of artificial leather, with a little ornament stitched in at the toe, and now completely disintegrating around his feet. Both of the soles had separated from the uppers, the heels were trodden entirely flat, and by the right toe, something had diagonally ripped the leather open, rendering visible the sock underneath. But it wasn’t just his shoes, and thus it was all to remain a mystery until the very end: in any event, more than a few of the garments he was wearing stood out from the Western or Westernized dress of the others in that these items of apparel seemed to belong to an individual who had just stepped directly out of the late 80s of the Ceausescu era, from its deepest misery right into the present moment. The roomy trousers were made out of thick flannel-like material of nondescript hue, flapping limply at the ankles, yet even more painful was the cardigan, hopelessly swamp-green and loosely woven, worn over the plaid shirt that, despite the summer heat, was buttoned right up to his chin.
He was thin, like a water bird, his shoulders stooped; bald-headed, in his frighteningly gaunt face two pure dark-brown eyes burned – two pure burning eyes, yet eyes not burning from an inner fire but merely reflecting back, like two still mirrors that something is burning outside.
By the third day they all understood that for him the camp was not a camp, work was not work, summer was not summer, that for him there was neither swimming nor any of the pleasant restful joy of holiday-time, which tends to predominate at such gatherings. He asked for and received new footwear from the organizers (they found a pair of boots for him, hanging from a nail in the shed), which he wore the whole day long, going up and down the camp but never once leaving its confines, never ascending the peak, never descending the peak, never strolling around the lake, never even going for a walk on the wooden planks across the Moss Lake; he remained inside, and when he happened to appear here or there, he walked about this way and that, looking to see what the others were doing, passing through all of the rooms in the main building, stopping to pause behind the backs of the painters, the printmakers, the sculptors, and deeply engrossed, observing how a given work was changing from day to day; he climbed up into the attic, went into the shed and the wooden hut, but never spoke to anyone, and never replied with the slightest word to any questions, as if he were deaf and mute, or as if he didn’t understand what was wanted of him; perfectly wordless, indifferent, insensate, like a spectre; and when they, all eleven of them, began to watch him, as Grigorescu was watching them – they came to a realization, which they discussed among themselves that evening around the fire (where Grigorescu was never seen to follow his companions, as he always went to sleep early) – a realization that yes, perhaps his arrival was strange, his shoes were odd and his cardigan, his sunken face, his gauntness, his eyes, all of it was completely so – but the most peculiar thing of all, they established, was what they hadn’t even noticed until now, yet it was the very strangest of all: that this illustrious creative figure of the present day, always active, was here, where everyone was at work, perfectly and totally idle.
He wasn’t doing anything: they were astonished at their realization, but even more at the fact that they hadn’t noticed it right at the beginning of the camp; already, if you cared to count, it was getting on to the sixth, the seventh, the eighth day; indeed some were preparing to put the finishing touches on their artworks already, and yet only now did the thing in its entirety appear to them.
What was he actually doing.
Nothing, nothing at all.
From that point on, they began to watch him involuntarily, and on one occasion, perhaps the tenth day, they realized that at daybreak and throughout the mornings, when most of the others were asleep, there was a relatively long stretch of time during which Grigorescu, although commonly known to be an early riser, did not appear anywhere; a period of time when Grigorescu went nowhere; he was not by the log hut, not by the shed, neither inside nor out: he simply wasn’t to be seen, as if he had become lost for a certain period of time.
Propelled by curiosity, on the evening of the twelfth day a few of the participants decided to rise at dawn on the day following, and try to investigate the matter. One of the painters, a Hungarian, took the responsibility of waking the others.
It was still dark when, having confirmed Grigorescu not to be in his room, they circled the main building, then went out through the main gate, came back again, went back to the wooden hut and the shed, only to find no trace of him anywhere. Puzzled, they looked at each other. From the lake, a gentle breeze arose, dawn was beginning to break, slowly they were able to make out each other; the silence was total.
And then they became aware of a sound, barely audible and impossible to identify from where they stood. It came from a distance, from the most outlying part of the camp, or more precisely from the other side of that invisible border where the two outhouses stood, and which itself marked the boundaries of the camp. Because, from that point on, although it was not marked, the terrain ceased to be an open courtyard; nature, from whose grasp it had been seized, still had yet to take it back, yet no one expressed any interest in it: a kind of uncivilized, rather ghastly no-man’s land, upon which the campsite’s owners made no visible claim beyond its use as a dumping-ground for waste matter from dilapidated refrigerators to everyday kitchen garbage, everything imaginable, so that with the passage of time the entire area had become covered with tenacious, nearly impenetrable weed-growth, nearly human in its proportions; thorny, thick and hostile vegetation, without use and indestructible.
From somewhere beyond, from a point in this undergrowth, they heard the sound filtering towards them.
They did not hesitate for long regarding the task that lay ahead: uttering not one word, they simply looked at each other, nodded silently, threw themselves into the thicket, breaking forwards through it, towards something.
They were already in very deep, a good distance from the buildings of the campsite, when they were able to identify the sound and establish that someone was digging.
They went around, for it was already clearly audible to them as the tool was pressed into the earth, the soil thrown up, hitting the horsetail grass with a thud, spreading out.
They had to turn to the right, and then make ten or fifteen steps forward, but they got there so quickly that, losing their balance, they almost went plunging downwards: they were standing at the edge of an enormous pit, approximately three meters wide and five long, at the bottom of which they glimpsed Grigorescu as he worked, deliberately. The entire hole was so deep that his head was hardly visible, and in the course of his steady work he had not at all heard their approach as they just stood, at the edge of the giant pit looking at what was there below.
There below, in the middle of the pit, they saw a horse – life-sized, sculpted from earth – and first they only saw that, a horse made from earth; then that this life-size earth-hewn horse was holding its head up, sideways, baring its teeth and foaming at the mouth; it was galloping with horrific strength, racing, escaping somewhere; so that only at the very end did they take in that Grigorescu had eradicated the weeds from a large area and had dug out this tremendous ditch, but in such a way that in the middle part he had stripped the earth away from the horse, running with its frothing ghastly fear; as if he had dug it out, freed it, made this life-sized animal visible as it ran in dreadful terror, running from something beneath the earth.
Aghast, they stood and watched Grigorescu, who continued to work completely unaware of their presence.
He has been digging for ten days, they thought to themselves by the side of the pit.
He has been digging at dawn and in the morning, all this time.
Below someone’s feet, the earth slipped, and Grigorescu looked up. He stopped for a moment, bowed his head, and continued to work.
The artists felt ill at ease. Someone has to say something, they thought.
It’s superb, Ion, said the French painter, in low tones.
Grigorescu stopped again, climbed up a ladder out of the pit, cleaned the spade of the earth clinging to it with a hoe lying ready for that purpose, wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief, and then came towards them; with a slow, broad movement of his arm, he indicated the entire landscape.
There are still so many of them, he said in a faint voice.
He then lifted his spade, went down the ladder to the bottom of the pit, and continued to dig.
The rest of the artists stood there nodding for a bit, then finally headed back to the main building in silence.
Only the farewells remained now. The directors organized a large feast, and then it was the last evening; the next morning the camp gates were locked; there was a chartered bus and some of those who had come from Bucharest or from Hungary by car also left the camp.
Grigorescu gave the boots back to the organizers, put on his own shoes again, and was with them for a while. Then a few kilometers on from the camp, at a bend in the road near a village, he suddenly asked the bus driver to stop, saying something to the effect that from here it would be better for him to go on alone. But no one understood clearly what he had said, as his voice was so inaudible.
The bus was swallowed up by the bend, Grigorescu turned to cross the road, and suddenly disappeared from the serpentine route downwards. Only the land remained, the silent order of the mountains, the ground covered in fallen dead leaves in the enormous space, a boundless expanse – disguising, concealing, secreting, covering all that lies below the burning earth. 

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

Tags: László Krasznahorkai