Metamorphosis and other.., p.19
Metamorphosis and Other Stories,
Lately the butcher thought he might at least save himself the trouble of slaughtering and chopping, and one morning he brought in a live ox. He mustn’t ever do that again. I must have spent an hour lying flat on the floor at the very back of my workshop, with my clothes and all my blankets and pillows piled on top of me, so as not to hear the roaring of that ox, as the nomads threw themselves upon it from every side, to tear pieces of warm flesh away with their teeth. It had been quiet for some time before I dared to go out; like drinkers around a barrel of wine, they were lying sprawled around the remains of the ox.
Just at that time I thought I had a glimpse of the Emperor at one of the windows of his palace; he never usually sets foot in the outer suites, preferring to stay in one of the gardens at the centre of the building; but this time he was standing, or so I thought, at one of the windows, surveying with lowered head the activity in front of his residence.
‘What will happen?’ we all ask ourselves. ‘How long will we be able to stand this burden and torment? The Imperial Palace has lured the nomads to itself, but isn’t able to drive them away from there again. The gate remains locked; the guards, who always used to march ceremonially in and out, remain behind barred windows. The salvation of the fatherland has been entrusted to workers and business people like us; we are not equal to such a task; never claimed we were. It’s a misunderstanding, and it will be the end of us.’
Before the Law
Before the law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country walks up to the doorkeeper, and asks to be admitted to the law. But the doorkeeper says he can’t admit him just now. The man considers, and then asks whether that means he will be admitted at some future time. ‘That’s possible,’ says the doorkeeper, but not now.’ As the gate to the law remains open as ever, and as the doorkeeper steps aside, the man stoops to get a view of the inside through the gate. When the doorkeeper realizes what the man is doing, he laughs and says: ‘If you’re so tempted, why don’t you try and get in, in spite of my refusal to admit you. But remember: I am mighty. And I am just the lowest doorkeeper. From room to room there are doorkeepers, each one mightier than the one before. Even the sight of the third is more than I can bear.’ The man from the country has not expected such trouble; the law is supposed to be open to anyone at any time, he thinks, but taking a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, his big pointed nose, and his long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides he’d better wait for permission to step inside. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down beside the door. And there he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to gain admission, and tires the doorkeeper out with his pleas. The doorkeeper often conducts little interrogations, quizzing him about his home and much else, but they are neutral questions of the kind that great men ask, and, when they are finished, he always says he can’t yet offer him admission. The man, who has kitted himself out with many things for his trip, uses everything, irrespective of its value, in an effort to bribe the doorkeeper. He in turn accepts everything that’s offered to him, while always saying: ‘The only reason I’m accepting this is so that you don’t think there’s something you’ve omitted to do.’ Over many years, the man observes the doorkeeper almost continuously. He forgets all about the existence of the other doorkeepers, this one now seems to him to be the only obstacle in his path to the law. He curses his ill luck, loudly and recklessly in his early years, then later, as he gets old, merely chuntering under his breath. He becomes a little childish, and since in the many years of his scrutiny of the doorkeeper he has also made out the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him change the doorkeeper’s mind. Finally, his eyesight begins to fail, and he is left unsure whether things around him are getting dark, or whether it is his eyes deceiving him. But in the dark, he discerns a glory that bursts unquenchably from the gates to the law. He has not much longer to live. Before his death, he assembles all the experiences of many years into one question, which he has never yet put to the doorkeeper. He beckons him over, as he is unable to haul his creaking body upright. The doorkeeper has to bend way down, because the difference in their respective heights has shifted a lot to the man’s disadvantage. ‘What is it you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper, You are insatiable.’ ‘Everyone wants to go to law,’ says the man, ‘How is it then that over so many years no one but me has tried to gain admission?’ The doorkeeper sees that the man is nearing the end of his life, and, to reach his failing ears, he bellows to him at the top of his voice: ‘No one else could gain admission here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now I am going to shut it.’
Jackals and Arabs
We were camped in the oasis. My companions were asleep. An Arab, tall and clad in white, passed me; he had fed and watered the camels, and was on his way to his tent.
I threw myself down on my back in the grass; I didn’t want to sleep: I couldn’t; the howling of a jackal in the distance; I sat up again. And what had been so far away was suddenly close at hand. A seething mob of jackals was around me; eyes flaring and dulling in matt gold; slender bodies, agitated as though by a whip, moving nimbly and systematically.
One of them came up behind me, burrowed right under my arm, as though he needed my warmth, and then emerged in front of me and, almost level with me, eye to eye, addressed me:
‘I am the oldest jackal far and wide. I am happy to be able to welcome you here. I had almost given up hope, because we have been waiting for you for such an endless long time; my mother waited for you, and her mother, and so on, all the way back to the mother of all jackals. Believe me!’
‘You surprise me,’ I said, forgetting to light the pile of wood that lay ready to keep off jackals with its smoke, ‘you surprise me very much. I have come down from the far north, by chance, and I am only here on a short visit. What can I do for you, jackals?’
And, as though emboldened by my perhaps unduly friendly address, they drew their ring around me a little tighter; all took short, rasping breaths.
‘We know,’ the eldest resumed, ‘we know you have come down from the north, and that’s what gives us our grounds for hope. There, there is reason which may not be found here among the Arabs. You know, it’s not possible to strike a single spark of reason from their chill arrogance. They kill animals to eat them, and they have no respect for carrion.’
‘Not so loud,’ I said, ‘there are Arabs sleeping on all sides.’
‘You really are a stranger,’ said the jackal, ‘otherwise you would know that never in history has a jackal feared an Arab. You think we should be afraid of them? Isn’t it bad enough to be sent to live among such people?’
‘Maybe, maybe,’ I said, ‘I don’t really care to judge things that are so distant from me; it seems to be a very ancient quarrel you have with each other; probably it’s a feud, and probably it will take blood to wash it clean.’
‘You are very clever,’ said the old jackal, and the breathing of all the jackals came even faster; with panting lungs, even though they were standing still; a bitter aroma, sometimes only bearable through clenched teeth, streamed from their open mouths, ‘you are very clever; what you say accords with an old teaching of ours. We take their blood, and our quarrel will be ended.’
‘Oh!’ I exclaimed, more excitably than I had meant, ‘but they will fight back; they will shoot you down by the pack with their muskets.’
‘You misunderstand,’ he said, ‘in the manner characteristic of humans, which seems to obtain even in the far north. We don’t mean to kill them. The Nile itself wouldn’t have enough water to wash us clean. At the very sight of their live bodies, we run away to the purer air of the desert, which has become our home.’
And all the jackals on all sides, their numbers augmented by many others who had joined them, lowered their heads between their forelegs, and polished them with their paws; it was as though they were trying to mask an aversion that was so powerful, it made me wish I could leap up and disappear out of their circle.
‘Sir,’ he cried, and all the jackals wailed; it struck me as being very distantly related to some sort of melody. ‘Sir, we want you to end the quarrel that has riven the world. The one the ancients told us would come is just such a one as you are. We must have peace from the Arabs; breathable air; no bleating from sheep having their throats cut by Arabs; animals are to die quietly; we should be allowed to drain their blood and pick their bones clean, without fear of molestation. Purity is what we require, nothing but purity’ – and now all of them were crying and sobbing – ‘how can you stand to be in this world, you with your pure heart and sweet bowels? Filth is their white; filth is their black; their beards are a foulness; the corners of their eyes make us sick to the stomach; and if they raise their arms, in their armpit is the pit of hell. Therefore, Sir, O dearest Sir, with the help of your all-capable hands, with the help of your all-capable hands, cut their throats with these scissors here!’ And at a jerk of his head a jackal trotted up, holding on one canine a small rusty pair of sewing scissors.
‘So let’s have the scissors and there’s an end of it!’ called the leader of the Arabs in our caravan, having crept up to us against the wind, and now cracking his enormous whip.
All scurried away, but remained huddled together in the distance, the many animals packed together and unmoving, so that they looked like a small hurdle, wreathed by flickering will-o-the-wisps.
‘Now, Sir, you have seen and heard this spectacle for yourself,’ said the Arab, and laughed as heartily as the natural reserve of his tribe would permit. ‘So you know what the animals want?’ I asked. ‘Indeed. Sir,’ he said, ‘everyone knows; as long as there are Arabs, so long that pair of scissors will wander through the desert, and will wander till the end of time. It is offered to every European for a great task; every European is the special one who has been ordained to perform it. These animals have a crazy hope; they are fools, absolute fools. That is why we love them; they are our dogs; more beautiful to us than yours. See, a camel has died in the night, I have had it brought here.’
Four bearers came up and threw the heavy carcass at our feet. Straightaway, the jackals raised their voices. As though each was pulled by an invisible tether, they approached, haltingly, with their bellies brushing the ground. They had forgotten the Arabs, forgotten their feud, the all-eclipsing presence of the strongly smelling carcass had charmed them. Already one had clasped the throat of the camel, and with his first bite found the artery. Each one of its muscles pulled and jerked in place, like a tiny frenzied pump, endeavouring tenaciously and hopelessly to extinguish a huge fire burning out of control. And in no time all of them were piled on to the cadaver on a similar mission.
Then the leader slashed his whip over them this way and that. They raised their heads; between delirium and unconsciousness; saw the Arabs standing in front of them; felt the whip across their muzzles; leapt off and ran back a ways. Already the blood of the camel lay in steaming pools, the body showed gaping wounds in several places. They were unable to resist; they were back; once again the Arab raised his whip; I touched his arm.
‘You’re right, Sir,’ he said, ‘let’s leave them to their work; it’s time to set out. Anyway, you’ve seen them. Wonderful creatures, are they not? And how they hate us!’
A Visit to the Mine
Today the senior engineers came down and paid us a visit. The management has decided that a new face is to be opened, and along came the engineers to undertake a preliminary survey. How young these people are, and at the same time how different one from another! They have all been allowed to develop freely, and their distinct and uncompromised natures may be seen even in their early years.
One of them, dark-haired and lively, sends his glances in all directions.
Another, with a notebook, jots things down as he walks, looks about him, makes comparisons, writes some more.
A third, keeping his hands in his jacket pockets, which makes everything about him taut and stretched, has a particularly upright walk; he looks very dignified; only the way he gnaws his lips betrays his impatient and irrepressible youthfulness.
A fourth offers explanations to the third – unsolicited explanations. Shorter than him, trotting along at his side like an apprentice, he holds his index finger aloft, and seems to be delivering a lecture on everything that is to be seen here.
A fifth, who might be the highest-ranking member of the delegation, permits of no companion; now he’s at the front, now at the back; the group adjust their tempo to him; he is pale and slight; responsibility seems to have hollowed out his eyes; he often presses his hand to his forehead in reflection.
The sixth and seventh both walk with a little stoop, heads close together, arm in arm, in intimate conversation; if this weren’t our coal-pit, our place of work in the deepest mine, one might have supposed these bony, beardless, lumpy-nosed gentlemen were young priests. One of them laughs regularly to himself, with a cat-like purr; the other, also smiling, does most of the talking, and emphasizes his words with his free hand. How assured of their job these two men must be, yes, what proof they must already have given of their importance to our mine, for them, on such an important inspection, and under the eyes of their boss, to be allowed to occupy themselves so confidently with their own private matters, or at least with something that has no bearing on the task in hand. Or is it possible that, for all their laughter and their inattentiveness, they really do have an eye for the needful here? One hardly dares risk coming to any definite conclusion about such gentlemen.
On the other hand it does seem to be beyond doubt that the eighth, for instance, is incomparably more on the case, more indeed than all the other gentlemen. He feels the need to take everything in his hand and tap it with a little hammer that he keeps producing from his pocket and putting back again. Sometimes he kneels down in the dirt, in spite of his elegant clothes, and taps at the ground, and then again he taps the walls and ceiling above his head en passant. On one occasion he lay down full length, and was perfectly still; we were already thinking some accident had befallen him; but then he leapt up again with a little quiver of his slender body. It seemed once again he had only been investigating something. We think we know our mine and its stones, but the things this engineer keeps investigating in his peculiar way are a riddle to us.
A ninth man pushes a sort of pram ahead of him that contains measuring equipment. Very expensive equipment, bedded in softest cotton-wool. The porter ought really to be pushing this little wagonet, but it has not been entrusted to him; one of the engineers had to do it, and, as you can tell, this one likes to do it. He is probably the youngest of them, perhaps he does not yet understand how all the equipment functions, but he doesn’t take his eye off it, which means that again and again he almost collides with the wall.
But then there is another engineer who walks along beside the cart, and prevents such a thing from happening. This man evidently understands the equipment thoroughly, and he is the one who is really in charge of it. From time to time, without stopping the cart, he picks up some item of equipment, loo
Behind these two gentlemen walks the unoccupied servant. The gentlemen, as befits gentlemen of such profound knowledge, have long since cast off all arrogance they might have had, but the servant seems to have picked it up. With one hand at his back and the other at the front stroking his gilt buttons or the fine cloth of his livery coat, he regularly nods to left and right, as if in acknowledgement of our greetings, or as if assuming we must have greeted him, but was unable at his lofty altitude to be quite certain of the fact. Of course we didn’t greet him at all, but even so we are tempted at the sight of him to suppose that it must be quite something to be an office attendant for the board of directors of a mining company. Once his back is turned we laugh, but since even a thunderbolt could not induce him to turn round, we are left with some sort of battled respect for him.
We are almost finished working for the day; it was a substantial interruption; a visit like this tends to dispel any thoughts of further work. It’s all too tempting to gaze at the gentlemen disappearing into the darkness of the pilot tunnel, into which they have all vanished. Also, our shift will be over soon; we won’t be around to see the gentlemen emerge.
The Neighbouring Village
My grandfather was in the habit of saying: ‘Life is astonishingly brief. By now it is all so condensed in my memory that I can hardly understand, for instance, how a young man can undertake to ride to the neighbouring village without wondering whether – even if everything goes right – the span of a normal happy life will be enough for such a ride.’
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes