Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem


  Most unsuitable words, banal in these surroundings, but there was now no way for me to break free of this deadly banality, I realized that as the carriage began to move, he could—after all—interpret what I had said to mean that I feared the emotions he aroused in me. That was true enough: I did fear the emotions he aroused in me, however it had nothing to do with love, I had only said what I had been able to say, as when in the darkness, in a swamp, one extends a careful foot, lest the next step plunge one into deep water. So did I feel my way in words, testing with my breath what I would be able—and what I would not be permitted—to say.

  But he could not know this. We parted breathlessly, in dismay, in a panic similar to passion, for thus had begun our undoing. But I, willowy and sweet, girl-like, understood more clearly that I was his fate, fate in that terrible sense of unavoidable doom.

  The body of the carriage was empty—I looked for the sash that would be sewn to the sleeve of the coachman, but it was not there. The windows also were missing—black glass, perhaps? The darkness of the interior was complete, as if partaking not of night, but of nonexistence itself. This was no absence of light, it was a void. I ran my hands along the curved walls upholstered in plush, but found neither window frame nor handle, found nothing but those soft, padded surfaces before me and above me, the ceiling remarkably low, as though I had been shut up not inside a carriage, but in a quivering, slanted container; no sound of hoofs reached me, nor the usual clatter of wheels in motion. Blackness, silence, nothing. Then I turned to myself, for that self was to me a darker and more ominous enigma than anything that had taken place so far. My memory was intact. I think it had to be that way, that it would have been impossible to arrange things otherwise, therefore I recollected my first awakening, as yet deprived of gender, so completely alien, it was like remembering a dream of an evil metamorphosis. I recollected waking at the door of the palace hall, already in this present reality, I could even recall the faint creak with which those carved portals opened, and the mask of the servant’s face, the servant who in his zeal to serve resembled a puppet filled with civilities—a living corpse of wax. All of this was a coherent whole now in my mind, and still I could reach back, there where I did not yet know what portals were, what a ball was and what—this thing that was I, was. And in particular I remembered—and it made me shiver, it was so perversely mysterious—that my first thoughts, already half-gathered into words, I had formulated in an impersonal, neuter mode. The it that was myself had stood, the I that was it had seen, I, it had entered—these were the forms used by me before the blaze of the hall, streaming through the open door, had struck my pupils and unlocked—it must have been the blaze, for what else?—and opened within me, I say, the bolts and latches from behind which there burst into my being, with the painful suddenness of a visitation, the humanity of words, courtly movements, the charm of the fair sex, and also the memory of faces, among which the face of that man was foremost—and not the royal grimace—and though no one would ever be able to explain this to me, I knew with unswerving certainty that I had stopped before the King by mistake—it had been an error, a confusion between what was destined for me and the instrument of that destiny. An error—but what sort of fate was it, that could make mistakes? No genuine fate. Then might I still save myself?

  And now in this perfect isolation, which did not frighten me, on the contrary, I found it convenient, for in it I could think, could concentrate, when I made the wish to know myself, searching among my memories, now so accessible and neatly arranged, that I had them all in easy reach like long-familiar furniture in an old room, and when I put forth questions, I saw everything that had transpired that night—but it was sharp and clear only as far as the threshold of the court hall. Before that—yes, exactly. Where was I—was it!?—before that? Where did I come from? The reassuring, simplest thought said that I was not quite well, that I was recovering from an illness, like someone returning from an exotic voyage filled with the most incredible adventures, that, as a highly refined maiden, much given to books and romances, reveries and strange whims, a young thing too delicate for this savage world, I had suffered visions, perhaps in a hysterical delirium I imagined that passage through metallic hells, no doubt while on a bed with a canopy, on sheets trimmed with lace, yes, brain fever would even be somewhat becoming in the light of the candle illuminating the chamber enough so that, upon waking, I would not take fright again, and in the figures leaning over me recognize at once my loving guardians. What a pleasant lie! I had had hallucinations, had I not? And they, sinking into the clear stream of my single memory, had split it in two. A split memory…? Because with that question I heard within me a chorus of answers, ready, waiting: Duenna, Tlenix, Angelita. Now what was this? I had all these phrases prepared, they were given to me and with each came corresponding images; if only there had been a single chain of them! But they coexisted the way the spreading roots of a tree coexist, so then I, by necessity one, by nature unique, could I once have been a plurality of branchings, which then merged in me as rivulets merge into the current of a river? But such a thing was impossible, I told myself. Impossible. I was certain of that. And I beheld my life to the present divided thus: until the threshold of the palace hall it seemed to be made up of different threads, while from the threshold on it was already one. Scenes from the first part of my life ran parallel and belied each other. The Duenna: a tower, dark granite boulders, a drawbridge, shouts in the night, blood on a copper dish, knights with the aspect of butchers, the rusted ax heads of halberds and my pale little face in the oval, half-blind looking glass between the frame of the window, misty, filmy, and the carven headboard—was that where I came from?

  But as Angelita I had been raised in the sweltering heat of the South and, looking back in that direction, I saw white walls with their chalky backs to the sun, withered palms, wild dogs with scraggly fur by those palms, releasing frothy urine on the scaled roots, and baskets full of dates, dried up and with a sticky sweetness, and physicians in green robes, and steps, stone steps descending to the bay of the town, all the walls turned away from the heat, bunches of grapes strewn in piles, yellowing into raisins, resembling heaps of dung, and again my face in the water, not in the looking glass, and the water pouring from a silver jug—silver but dark with age. I even remembered how I used to carry that jug and how the water, moving heavily inside it, would pull at my hand.

  And what of my neuter self and its journey on its back, and the kisses planted on my hands and feet, and forehead, by the flitting serpents of metal? That horror had faded now completely and even with the greatest effort I could scarce recall it, exactly like a bad dream one cannot put into words. No, it was impossible for me to have experienced, either all at once or in succession, lives so opposed to one another! What then was certain? I was beautiful. As much despair as triumph had welled up within me when I saw myself reflected in his face as in a living mirror, for so absolute was the perfection of my features, that no matter what madness I were to commit, whether I howled with the foam of frenzy at my mouth, or gnawed red meat, the beauty would not leave my face—but why did I think “my face,” and not simply “me”? Was I a person at odds with, out of harmony with, her own face and body? A sorceress ready to cast spells, a Medea? To me that was utter nonsense, ridiculous. And even the fact that my mind worked like a well-worn blade in the hand of a rogue knight shorn of his nobility, that I cut asunder every subject without trying, this self-determined thinking of mine seemed in its correctness just a bit too cold, unduly calm, for fear remained beyond it—like a thing transcendent, omnipresent, yet separate—therefore my own thoughts too I held in suspicion. But if I could trust neither my face nor my mind, against what precisely could I harbor fear and suspicion, when outside of the soul and the body one had nothing? This was puzzling.

  The scattered roots of my various pasts told me nothing of importance, inspection led to a sifting of bright-colored images, now as the Duenna of the North, now Angelita of the broiling sun,
now Mignonne, I was each time another person with another name, station, descent, from under another sky, nothing had precedence here—the landscape of the South kept returning to my vision as if strained by a surfeit of sweetness and contrast, a color infused with azures too ostentatious, and if not for those mangy dogs, and the half-blind children with suppurating eyes and swollen bellies, silently expiring on the bony knees of their veiled mothers, I would have found that palmy coast overly facile, as slick as a lie. And the North of the Duenna, with her snow-capped towers, a sky churning leaden, the winters with tortuous shapes of snow invented by the wind, shapes which crept into the moat along the battlements and buttresses, emerged from the castle crenels with their white tongues across the stone, and the chains of the drawbridge as if in yellow tears, but it was only the rust coloring the icicles on the links, while in summer the water of the moat was covered by a sheepskin coat of mold: and all this, how well I remembered it!

  But then my third existence; gardens, vast, cool, trimmed, gardeners with clippers, packs of greyhounds and the Great Dane of the harlequin that lay on the steps of the throne—a world-weary sculpture possessing the unerring grace of lethargy stirred only by breathing ribs—and in its yellowish, indifferent eyes gleamed, one might have thought, the reduced figures of the catabanks and grudgies. And these words, grudgies, catabanks, I did not know now what they meant, but surely I knew once, and when I delved thus into that past so well-remembered, remembered to the taste of chewed blades of grass, I felt that I should not go back to the bootees I outgrew, nor to my first long dress embroidered all in silver, as if even the child that I had been concealed treason. Therefore I summoned a memory inhumanly cruel—that of the lifeless journey face-up, of the numbing kisses of metal which, touching my naked body, produced a clanking sound, as if my nakedness had been a voiceless bell, a bell unable to ring out because it had not yet its heart, its tongue. Yes, it was to this implausibility that I appealed, no longer surprised that that raving nightmare held on in me with such tenacity, for it must have been a nightmare. To assure myself of this certainty I took my fingers and with the very tips of them touched my soft forearms, my breasts; an intrusion, without a doubt, and I submitted to it trembling, as if with my head thrown back I had stepped beneath an icy torrent of reviving rain.

  Nowhere an answer to my questions, so I retreated from the abyss that was myself and not myself. And now back to that which was one, only one. The King, the evening ball, the court and that man. I had been made for him, he for me, I knew this, but again with fear, no, it was not fear, rather the iron presence of destiny, inevitable, impenetrable, and it was precisely that inevitability, like tidings of death, the knowledge that one would now no longer be able to refuse, evade, withdraw, escape, and one might perish, but perish in no other way—I sank into that chilling presence breathlessly. Unable to endure it, I mouthed the words “father, mother, brother and sister, girl friends, kith and kin”—how well I understood those words, willing figures appeared, figures known to me, I had to admit to them before myself, yes but one couldn’t possibly have four mothers and as many fathers, so then this insanity again? So stupid and so stubborn?

  I resorted to arithmetic: one and one are two, from a father and a mother comes a child, you were that child, you have a child’s memories…

  Either I had been mad, I told myself, or I was mad still, and being a mind, was a mind in total eclipse. There was no ball, no castle, no King, no emergence into a state of being stringently subject to the laws of everlasting harmony. I felt a stab of regret, a resistance at the thought that I must part with my beauty as well. Out of discrepant elements I could construct nothing of my own, unless I were to find in the design already existing some lopsidedness, chinks I might penetrate, thereby to rend open the structure and get to the core of it. Had everything truly happened in the way it was supposed to? If I was the property of the King, then how was I able to know this? Even to reflect on it at night ought to have been forbidden me. If he was behind everything, then why had I wished to make obeisance to him but had not done so at first? If the preparations had been flawless, then why did I recall things I should not have recalled? For, surely, with only the past of a girl and child to turn to, I would not have fallen into that agony of indecision which brought on despair, a prelude to rebellion against one’s fate. And certainly they should at least have wiped out that sequence on my back, the animation of my nakedness, inert and mute, by the sparking kisses, but that too had taken place and now was with me. Could it be that some flaw lay in the design and execution? Careless errors, an oversight, hidden leaks, taken for riddles or a bad dream? But in that case I had reason to hope again. To wait. To wait, as things progressed, for further inconsistencies to accumulate, and make of them a sword to turn against the King, against myself, it did not matter against whom, as long as it ran counter to the fate imposed. So then, submit to the spell, endure it, go to the assignation the very first thing in the morning, and I knew, knew without knowing how or why, that nothing would hinder me from doing that, on the contrary, everything would steer me precisely in that direction. And my immediately surrounding here and now was so primitive, yes, walls, pliant upholstery, yielding softly at first to the fingers, and underneath that a barrier of steel or masonry, I didn’t know, but could have pulled apart the cozy softness with my fingernails, I stood up, my head touched the concave curve of the ceiling. This, around me and above me, but inside—I, I alone?

  I continued to examine and expose this villainous inability of mine to understand myself, and since levels upon levels of ideas sprang up at once, one on top of the other, I began to wonder if I ought to trust my own judgment, when, drowning madwoman that I was, like an insect in clear amber, imprisoned in my obnubilatio lucida, it was only natural that I would—

  One moment. Where did it come from, my so elegantly parsed vocabulary, these learned terms, in Latin, logical phrases, syllogisms, this fluency out of place in a sweet young thing, the sight of whom was a flaming pyre for masculine hearts? And whence this feeling of terrible tedium in matters of sex, the cold contempt, the distance, oh yes, he probably loved me already, was maybe even mad about me, he had to see me, to hear my voice, touch my fingers, while I regarded his passion as one might regard a specimen on a slide. Was not this surprising, contradictory, asyncategorematic? Could it be that I was imagining everything, that the ultimate reality here was an old, unemotional brain, entangled in the experiences of countless years? Perhaps a sharpened intellect was my only true past, perhaps I had arisen from logic, and that logic constituted my one authentic genealogy…

  I did not believe it. I was guiltless, yes, and at the same time full of guilt. Guiltless in all the tracks of time past-perfect merging towards my present, as the little girl, as the adolescent somber and silent through the gray-white winters and in the stifling must of the palaces, and guiltless too in that which had occurred today, with the King, for I could not be other than I was; my guilt—my hideous guilt—lay only in this, that I knew it all so well and considered it a sham, a lie, a bubble, and that wanting to get to the bottom of my mystery, I feared to make the descent and felt a shameful gratitude for the unseen walls that barred my way. So then I had a soul tainted and honest, what else did I have, what else was left, ah yes, there was something still, my body, and I began to touch it, I examined it in that black enclosure as a masterful detective might examine the scene of a crime. A curious investigation—for in searching by touch this naked body, I felt a faintly prickling numbness in my fingers, could this have been fear of my own self? Yet I was beautiful and my muscles were resilient, limber, and clasping the thighs in a way no one would hold them oneself, as though they had been foreign objects, I could feel in my tightening hands, beneath the smooth and fragrant skin, long bones, but the wrists and the inside of my forearms at the elbow for some reason I was afraid to touch.

  I tried to overcome this reluctance, what could be there after all, my arms were swathed in lace, somewhat rough
, being stiff, it was awkward going, so on to the neck. What they called a swan-neck—the head set on it with a stateliness not assumed but natural, inspiring respect, the ears below the braided hair—small, the lobes firm, without jewelry, unpierced—why?—I felt my forehead, cheeks, lips. Their expression, detected with the tips of my thin fingers, again disturbed me. A different expression from the one I had expected. Strange. But how could I have been strange to myself other than through sickness, madness?

  With a furtive movement befitting the innocence of a small child prey to old wives’ tales, I reached for my wrists after all, and for my elbows, there where the arm met the forearm, something incomprehensible was there. I lost all feeling in my fingertips, as if something had pressed against the nerves, the blood vessels, and once again my mind leaped from suspicion to suspicion: how did such information come to me, why did I study myself like some anatomist, this was hardly in the style of a maiden, neither Angelita nor the fair Duenna, nor the lyric Tlenix. But at the same time I felt a soothing compulsion: this is quite normal, don’t be surprised at yourself, you eccentric, fanciful featherbrain, if you’ve been a bit unwell, don’t return to that, think healthy thoughts, think of your rendezvous… But the elbows, the wrists? Beneath the skin—like a hard lump, was it swollen glands? Calcium deposits? Impossible, not in keeping with my beauty, with its absoluteness. And yet there was a hardening there, a tiny one, I could feel it only with a strong squeeze, above the hand, where the pulse left off, and also in the bend of the elbow.

  And so my body had secrets too, its otherness corresponded to the otherness of my soul, to its fear in my self-musings, there was in this a pattern, a congruency, a symmetry: if here, then there too. If the mind, then the limbs also. If I, then you as well. I, you, riddles, I was tired, an overpowering weariness entered my blood, I was supposed to submit to it. To fall asleep, to drop into the oblivion of another, liberating darkness. And then spitefully the sudden decision not to give in to that urge, to resist the confining box of this stylish carriage (but not so stylish on the inside!), and this soul of a maid too wise, too quick of understanding! Defiance to the physical self-beauty with its hidden stigmata! Who was I? My opposition was now a rage, which made my soul burn in the darkness, so that it seemed actually to shine. Sed tamen potest esse totaliter aliter, where was that from? My soul? Gratia? Dominus meus?

 
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