I can picture myself as a small child wearing a nightshirt that comes down to my heels. I am weeping desperately, sitting on a doorstep that leads into a sun-drenched courtyard with an open gate and an empty square beyond, a hot, sad, noonday square with dogs sleeping on their stomachs and men stretched out in the shade of their vegetable stalls. The air is rife with the stench of rotten produce, and large purple flies are buzzing loudly in my vicinity, lighting on my hands to sip the tears that have fallen there, then circling frenetically in the dense, scorching light of the courtyard. I stand and urinate in the dust. I watch the earth avidly drink up the liquid. It leaves a dark spot, like the shadow of a non-existent object. I wipe my face with the nightshirt and lick the tears from the corner of my lips, savouring their salty flavour. I resume my seat on the threshold, feeling very unhappy: I have been spanked.
My father had just given me a few slaps on my bare backside in my room. I don’t quite know why. I am thinking it through. I was lying in bed next to a girl my own age. We were supposed to be taking a nap while our parents were out walking. I didn’t hear them come in and don’t know what I was doing to the girl under the quilt. All I know is that when my father suddenly tore off the quilt the girl was beginning to acquiesce. My father turned red, lost his temper, and spanked me. End of story.
So I sat on the doorstep in the sun and had a good cry and now I am drawing circles and lines in the dust. I have moved over to the shade and am sitting cross-legged on a rock. I feel better. A girl has come for water in the courtyard. She is cranking the rusty pump wheel. I listen to the old iron grating away and watch the water gush into her bucket like the magnificent tail of a silver horse. I look at the girl’s big, dirty feet – yawning because I didn’t sleep a wink that night – and try to catch a fly now and then. Life is returning to normal after the tears. The sun is still pouring its oppressive heat onto the courtyard.
Such was my first sexual adventure and my earliest childhood memory.
Thereafter I began feeling vague instincts that now burgeoned, now buckled, and eventually found their natural limits. What should have been an ever-increasing fascination, however, was for me a series of renunciations and cruel reductions to an absurd banality. My evolution from boyhood to adolescence was attended by a continuous diminution of the world: as things took their place around me, they – like a shiny surface that has misted over – lost their ineffable features. Only the miraculous, the ecstatic figure of Walter retained its fascinating brilliance and does so to this day.
The day we met he was sitting in the shade of a locust tree reading an instalment of Buffalo Bill. A luminescent morning sun was filtering through the dense green foliage to the swish of refreshing shadows. His attire was most unusual: he wore suede trousers, a deep-purple jacket with ivory buttons, and a pair of sandals made of fine strips of white leather. Whenever I feel like reliving the extraordinary sensation of our first meeting, I gaze upon the yellowed cover of a Buffalo Bill instalment.
The first thing he did was to leap to his feet as gracefully as an animal. We immediately made friends. We had barely exchanged a few words before he made a sudden, stupefying proposal: that we should eat the blossoms on the tree. It was the first time I had met someone who ate flowers. Before I knew it, Walter was up in the tree gathering an enormous bunch of blossoms. Then he climbed down and demonstrated the delicate operation of removing the corolla and sucking its tip. I tried it. The flower burst between my teeth with a pleasant little pop, and a sweet, refreshing flavour I had never tasted before spread through my mouth.
We had been standing there for a while, silently eating locust blossoms, when all at once he grabbed my hand and said, ‘Want to see where our tribe holds its meetings?’
His eyes were sparkling. It frightened me a bit.
‘Well, do you or don’t you?’ he asked again.
I hesitated a second, then answered ‘I do’ with a voice no longer mine and a sudden willingness to take a risk quite alien to me.
Still holding my hand, Walter led me through the little gate at the end of the courtyard. We came out on a vacant lot teeming with weeds. The nettles burnt my legs, and we had to pull the thick hemlock and burdock stems apart to pass through. At the far end there was a dilapidated wall with a deep pit just before it. Walter jumped into the pit and called up to me to follow. The pit tunnelled under the wall, and we climbed out of it into an abandoned cellar. The steps were in ruins and overgrown with grass, the wall oozed water; the darkness ahead of us was complete. Walter squeezed my hand hard and drew me after him. We made our slow, cautious way down ten or so steps and came to a halt.
‘This is where we stay,’ he told me. ‘You can’t go any farther. If you do, you come to these iron men, men with hands and heads of iron, who grew out of the earth. You can’t see them in the darkness, but they’ll wring our necks if they catch us.’
I threw a desperate glance back at the hole leading into the cellar and the light coming from a clear and simple world where there were no men of iron and where there were plants and houses and ordinary people as far as the eye could see. Walter had found a board somewhere and the two of us sat on it for several moments in silence. It was pleasant in the cellar, cool, and there was a heavy aroma of moisture in the air. I wouldn’t have minded spending hours there alone, away from the steamy streets and sad, boring town. The cold walls felt good beneath an earth sweltering in the sun. The futile afternoon hum coming through the hole in the cellar was no more than a distant echo.
‘This is where we bring the girls we catch,’ said Walter.
I vaguely understood what he was referring to, and the cellar took on a new attraction.
‘What do you do with them?’
‘You mean you don’t know?’ Walter said, laughing. ‘We do what all men do with women. We lie down next to them . . . and then we take our feather . . .’
‘Your feather? What sort of feather? What do you do with it?’
Walter laughed again.
‘How old are you anyway? Don’t you know what men do with women? Here, have a look at mine.’ He took a small black feather from his jacket pocket.
Just then I felt my usual crisis coming on. If Walter had not taken the feather from his pocket, I might have been able to endure the atmosphere of complete and utter isolation to the end, but all of a sudden my isolation there in the cellar was deeply painful to me. Only now did I realise how cut off I was from the town and its dusty thoroughfares. It was as if I had cut myself off from myself, alone as I was deep down under the ordinary summer day. The shiny black feather Walter had shown me meant that nothing more existed in the world as I knew it: everything had fallen into a swoon, while the feather gave off an anomalous brilliance in the middle of this odd room with its moist grass and cold-mouthed darkness avidly drinking up what little light there was.
‘Hey, what’s the matter?’ Walter asked. ‘Don’t you want me to tell you what we do with the feather?’
The sky visible through the hole grew whiter and whiter, hazier and hazier. The words ricocheted against the walls, flowing down me as if I were a fluid. Walter went on talking, but he was so far from me and so ethereal that he seemed no more than a pool of light in the dark, a patch of mist in the murk.
‘First you stroke the girl with the feather,’ I heard him say, as if in a dream. ‘Then you stroke yourself . . . You’ve got to know these things . . .’
He came up to me and started shaking me, waking me up, and slowly, ever so slowly, I came to. When my eyes were fully open, I saw Walter leaning over my pubis, his mouth pressing against my member. I could not for the life of me comprehend what was going on.
He stood and said, ‘There, you see? That felt good, didn’t it . . . That’s the way Indians woke their wounded on the battlefield. Our tribe knows all the Indian spells and cures.’
I felt drunk and exhausted. Walter took flight, disappeared. Then I trudged cautiously up the stairs.
For a few days I sought him everywhere. In vain. There was nothing for it: I would have to go back to the cellar. But the vacant lot looked totally different when I got there: there were piles of rubbish everywhere and dead animals putrefying in the sun; the stench was horrible. I hadn’t noticed anything of the sort with Walter. I decided not to go to the cellar anymore. I never saw Walter again.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Michael Henry Heim was a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Los Angeles. His complete bibliography includes sixty-three books and staged plays.