Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  But there were two things I still did not know, though I realized, if obscurely still, that they were the most important. I did not understand why the King had ignored me as I passed, why he had refused to look me in the eye when he neither feared my loveliness nor desired it, indeed I felt that I was truly valuable to him, but in some inexplicable way, as if he had no use for me myself, as if I were to him someone outside this glittering hall, someone not made for dancing across the mirrorlike, waxed parquet arranged in many-colored inlays between the wrought-bronze coats of arms above the lintels; yet when I swept by, not a thought surfaced in him in which I could divine the royal will, and even when he had sent after me that glance, fleeting and casual, though sighted along an invisible barrel, I understood that it was not at me that he had leveled his pale eye, an eye which ought to have been kept behind dark glasses, for its look feigned nothing, unlike the well-bred face, and stuck in the milling elegance like dirty water left at the bottom of a washbowl. No, his eyes were something long ago discarded, something requiring concealment, not enduring the light of day.

  But what could he want of me, what? I was not able to reflect on this however, for another thing claimed my attention. I knew everyone here, but no one knew me. Except possibly he, he alone: the King. At my fingertips I now had knowledge of myself as well, my feelings grew strange as I slowed my pace, three quarters of the hall already crossed, and in the midst of the multicolored crowd, faces gone numb, their side whiskers silvery with hoarfrost, and also faces blood-swollen and perspiring under clotted powder, in the midst of ribbons and medals and braided tassels there opened up a corridor, that I might walk like some queen down that path parted through humanity, escorted by watching eyes—but to where was I walking thus?

  To whom.

  And who was I? Thought followed thought with fluent skill, I grasped in an instant the particular dissonance between my state and that of this so distinguished throng, for each of them had a history, a family, decorations of one kind or another, the same nobility won from intrigues, betrayals, and each paraded his inflated bladder of sordid pride, dragged after him his personal past like the long, raised dust that trails a desert wagon, turn for turn, whereas I had come from such a great distance, it was as if I had not one past, but a multitude of pasts, for my destiny could be made understandable to those here only by piecemeal translation into their local customs, into this familiar yet foreign tongue, therefore I could only approximate myself to their comprehension, and with each chosen designation would become for them a different person. And for myself as well? No … and yet, nearly so, I possessed no knowledge beyond that which had rushed into me at the entrance of the hall, like water when it surges up and floods a barren waste, bursting through hitherto solid dikes, and beyond that knowledge I reasoned logically, was it possible to be many things at once? To derive from a plurality of abandoned pasts? My logic, extracted from the locoweed of memory, told me this was not possible, that I must have some single past, and if I was the daughter of Count Tlenix, the Duenna Zoroennay, the young Virginia, orphaned in the overseas kingdom of the Langodots by the Valandian clan, if I could not separate the fiction from the truth, then was I not dreaming after all? But now the orchestra began to play somewhere and the ball careened like an avalanche of stones—how could one make oneself believe in a reality more real, in an awakening from this awakening?

  I walked now in unpleasant confusion, watching my every step, for the dizziness had returned, which I named vertigo. But I did not give up my regal stride, not one whit, though the effort was tremendous, tremendous yet unseen, and given strength precisely for being unseen, until I felt help come from afar, it was the eyes of a man, he was seated in the low embrasure of a half-open window, its brocade curtain flung whimsically over his shoulder like a scarf and woven in red-grizzled lions, lions with crowns, frightfully old, holding orbs and scepters in their paws, the orbs like poisoned apples, apples from the Garden of Eden. This man, decked in lions, dressed in black, richly, and yet with a natural sort of carelessness which had nothing in common with artificial, lordly disarray, this stranger, no dandy or fop, not a courtier or sycophant, but not old either, looked at me from his seclusion in the general uproar—just as utterly alone as I. And all around were those who lit cigarillos with rolled-up banknotes in front of the eyes of their tarot partners, and threw gold ducats on green cloth, as if they were tossing nutmeg apples to swans in a pond, those for whom no action could be stupid or dishonorable, for the illustriousness of their persons ennobled everything they did. The man was altogether out of place in this hall, and the seemingly unintentional deference he paid to the stiff brocade in royal lions, permitting it to drape across his shoulder and bathe his face with the reflection of its imperial purple, that deference had the aspect of the most subtle mockery. No longer young, his entire youth was alive in his dark eyes, unevenly squinting, and he listened or perhaps was not listening to his interlocutor, a small, stout baldhead with the air of an overeaten, docile dog. When the seated one stood up, the curtain slid from his arm like false, cast-off trumpery, and our eyes met forcefully, but mine darted from his face in flight. I swear it. Still that face remained deep in my vision, as if I had gone suddenly blind, and my hearing dimmed, so that instead of the orchestra I heard—for a moment—only my own pulse. But I could be wrong.

  The face, I assure you, was quite ordinary. Indeed its features had that fixed asymmetry of handsome homeliness so characteristic of intelligence, but he must have grown weary of his own bright mind, as too penetrating and also somewhat self-destructive, no doubt he ate away at himself nights, it was evident this was a burden on him, and that there were moments in which he would have been glad to rid himself of that intelligence, like a crippling thing, not a privilege or gift, for continual thought must have tormented him, particularly when he was by himself, and that for him was a frequent occurrence—everywhere, therefore here also. And his body, underneath the fine clothing, fashionably cut yet not clinging, as though he had cautioned and restrained the tailor, compelled me to think of his nakedness.

  Rather pathetic it must have been, that nakedness, not magnificently male, athletic, muscular, sliding into itself in a snake’s nest of swellings, knots, thick cords of sinews, to whet the appetite of old women still unresigned, still mad with the hope of mating. But only his head had this masculine beauty, with the curve of genius in his mouth, with the angry impatience of the brows, between the brows in a crease dividing both like a slash, and the sense of his own ridiculousness in that powerful, oily-shiny nose. Oh, this was not a good-looking man, nor in fact was even his ugliness seductive, he was merely different, and if I hadn’t gone numb inside when our eyes collided, I certainly could have walked away.

  True, had I done this, had I succeeded in escaping that zone of attraction, the merciful King with a twitch of his signet ring, with the corners of his faded eyes, pupils like pins, would have attended to me soon enough, and I would have gone back. But at that time and place I could hardly have known this, I did not realize that what passed then for a chance meeting of glances, that is, the brief intercrossing of the black holes in the irises of two beings, for they are—after all—holes, tiny holes in round organs that slither nimbly in openings of the skull—I did not realize that this, precisely this was foreordained, for how could I have known?

  I was about to move on when he rose and, brushing from his sleeve the hanging fringe of the brocade, as if to indicate the comedy was over, came towards me. Two steps and he stopped, now overtaken by the awareness of how impertinent was that unequivocal action, how very scatterbrained it would appear, to go walking after an unknown beauty like some gaping idiot following a band, so he stood, and then I closed one hand and with the other let slip from my wrist the little loop of my fan. For it to fall. So he immediately…

  We looked at each other, now up close, over the mother-of-pearl handle of the fan. A glorious and dreadful moment, a mortal stab of cold caught me in the throat, transfixing
speech, therefore feeling that I would not bring forth my voice, only a croak, I nodded to him—and that gesture came out almost exactly as the one before, when I did not complete my bow to the King who wasn’t looking.

  He did not return the nod, being much too startled and amazed by what was taking place within him, for he had not expected this of himself. I know, because he told me later, but had he not, even so I would have known.

  He wanted to say something, wanted not to cut the figure of the idiot he most certainly was at that moment, and I knew this.

  “Madam,” he said, clearing his throat like a hog. “Your fan…”

  By now I had him once more in hand. And myself.

  “Sir,” I said, and my voice in timbre was a trifle husky, altered, but he could think it was my normal voice, indeed he had never heard it until now, “must I drop it again?”

  And I smiled, oh, but not enticingly, seductively, not brightly. I smiled only because I felt that I was blushing. The blush did not belong to me, it spread on my cheeks, claimed my face, pinkened my ear lobes, which I could feel perfectly, yet I was not embarrassed, nor excited, nor did I marvel at this unfamiliar man, only one of many after all, lost among the courtiers—I’ll say more: I had nothing whatever to do with that blush, it came from the same source as the knowledge that had entered me at the threshold of the hall, at my first step upon the mirror floor—the blush seemed part of the court etiquette, of that which was required, like the fan, the crinoline, the topazes and coiffures. So, to render the blush insignificant, to counteract it, to stave off any false conclusions, I smiled—not to him, but at him, exploiting the boundary between mirth and scorn, and he then broke into a quiet laugh, a voiceless laugh, as if directed inward, it was similar to the laughter of a child that knows it is absolutely forbidden to laugh and for that very reason cannot control itself. Through this he grew instantly younger.

  “If you would but give me a moment,” he said, suddenly serious, as if sobered by a new thought, “I might be able to find a reply worthy of your words, that is, something highly clever. But as a rule good ideas come to me only on the stairs.”

  “Are you so poor then in invention?” I asked, exerting my will in the direction of my face and ears, for this persistent blush had begun to anger me, it constituted an invasion of my freedom, being part—I realized—of that same purpose with which the King had consigned me to my fate.

  “Possibly I ought to add, ‘Is there no help for this?’ And you would answer no, not in the face of a beauty whose perfection seems to confirm the existence of the Absolute. Then two beats of the orchestra, and we both become dignified and with great finesse put the conversation back on a more ordinary courtly footing. However, as you appear to be somewhat ill-at-ease on that ground, perhaps it would be best if we do not engage in repartee…”

  He truly feared me now, hearing these words—and was truly at a loss for what to say. Such solemnity filled his eyes, it was as if we were standing in a storm, between church and forest—or where there was, finally, nothing.

  “Who are you?” he asked stiffly. No trace of triviality in him now, no pretense, he was only afraid of me. I was not afraid of him at all, not in the least, though in truth I should have been alarmed, for I could feel his face, with its porous skin, the unruly, bristling brows, the large curves of his ears, all linking up inside me with my hitherto hidden expectation, as though I had been carrying within myself his undeveloped negative and he had just now filled it in. Yet even if he were my sentence, I had no fear of him. Neither of myself nor of him, but I shuddered from the internal, motionless force of that connection—shuddered not as a person, but as a clock, when with its assembled hands it moves to strike the hour—though still silent. No one could observe that shudder.

  “I shall tell you by and by,” I answered very calmly. I smiled, a light, faint smile, the kind one gives to cheer the sick and feeble, and opened up my fan.

  “I would have a glass of wine. And you?”

  He nodded, trying to pull onto himself the skin of this style, so foreign to him, poorly fitting, cumbersome, and from that place in the hall we walked along the parquet, which ran with pearly streams of wax that fell in drops from the chandelier, through the smoke of the candles, shoulder to shoulder, there where by a wall pearl-white servants were pouring drinks into goblets.

  I did not tell him that night who I was, not wishing to lie to him and not knowing the truth myself. Truth cannot contradict itself, and I was a duenna, a countess and an orphan, all these genealogies revolved within me, each one could take on substance if I acknowledged it, I understood now that the truth would be determined by my choice and whim, that whichever I declared, the images unmentioned would be blown away, but I remained irresolute among these possibilities, for in them seemed to lurk some subterfuge of memory—could I have been just another unhinged amnesiac, who had escaped from the care of her duly worried relatives? While talking with him, I thought that if I were a madwoman, then everything would end well. From insanity, as from a dream, one could free one self—in both cases there was hope.

  When in the late hours—and he never left my side—we passed by His Majesty for a moment, before he was pleased to retire to his chambers, I felt that the ruler did not even bother to look in our direction, and this was a terrible discovery. For he did not make sure of my behavior at the side of Arrhodes, that was apparently unnecessary, as though he knew beyond all doubt that he could trust me completely, the way one trusts—in full—dispatched assassins, who strive as long as they have breath, for their fate lies in the hands of the dispatcher. The King’s indifference ought to have, instead, wiped away my suspicions; if he did not look in my direction, then I meant nothing to him, nevertheless my insistent sense of persecution tipped the scales in favor of insanity. So it was as a madwoman of angelic beauty that I laughed, drinking to Arrhodes, whom the King despised as no other, though he had sworn to his dying mother that if harm befell that wise man it would be of his own choosing. I do not know if someone told me this while dancing or whether I learned it from myself, for the night was long and clamorous, the huge crowd constantly separated us, yet we kept finding each other by accident, almost as if everyone there were party to the same conspiracy—an obvious illusion, we could hardly have been surrounded by a host of mechanically dancing mannequins. I spoke with old men, with young women envious of my beauty, discerning innumerable shades of stupidity, both good-natured and malicious, I cut and pierced those useless dodderers and those pouting misses with such ease, that I grew sorry for them. I was cleverness itself, keen and full of witticisms, my eyes took on fire from the dazzling quickness of my words—in my mounting anxiety I would have gladly played a featherbrain to save Arrhodes, but this alone I could not manage. My versatility did not extend that far, alas. Was then my intelligence (and intelligence signified integrity) subject to some lie? I devoted myself to such reflections in the dance, entering the turns of the minuet, while Arrhodes, who didn’t dance, watched me from afar, black and slender against the purple brocade in crowned lions. The King left, and not long afterwards we parted, I did not allow him to say anything, to ask anything, he tried and paled, hearing me repeat, first with the lips, “No,” then only with the folded fan. I went out, not having the least idea of where I lived, whence I had arrived, whither I would turn my eyes, I only knew that these things did not rest with me, I made efforts, but they were futile—how shall I explain it? Everyone knows it is impossible to turn the eyeball around, such that the pupil can peer inside the skull.

  I allowed him to escort me to the palace gate, the castle park beyond the circle of continually burning pots of tar was as if hewn from coal, in the cold air distant, inhuman laughter, a pearly imitation from the fountains of the masters of the South—or else it was the talking statues like milky ghosts suspended above the flower beds, the royal nightingales sang also, though no one listened, near the hothouse one of them stood out against the disk of the moon, large and dark on its branch??
?a perfect pose! Gravel crunched beneath our steps, and the gilded spikes of the railing jutted up through wet foliage.

  Ill-tempered and eager, he grabbed my hand, which I did not pull away immediately, the white straps on the jackets of His Majesty’s grenadiers flashed, someone called my carriage, horses beat their hoofs, the door of a coach gleamed under violet lanterns, a step dropped open. This could not be a dream.

  “When and where?” he asked.

  “Better to say: never and nowhere,” I said, speaking my simple truth, and added quickly, helplessly: “I do not toy with you, my fine philosopher, look within and you will see that I advise you well.”

  But what I wished to add I could not utter. I was able to think anything, strange as it may seem, yet in no way find my voice, I could not reach those words. A catch in my throat, a muteness, like a key turned in a lock, as if a bolt had clicked shut between us.

  “Too late,” he said softly, with his head lowered. “Truly too late.”

  “The royal gardens are open from the morning till the midday bugle call,” I said, my foot on the step. “There is a pond there, with swans, and near it a rotten oak. At exactly noon tomorrow or in the hollow of the tree you will find your answer. And now I wish that by some inconceivable miracle you could forget we ever met. If I knew how, I would pray for that.”

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