Weekends – especially Sundays – are exceptions in the general grind of our weekly lives. For this reason, I’ve decided to make an exception today and feature a story by a male author, one of the most unusual writers I have come across in a long time. I can’t think of another author who had the nuanced ability of making me both laugh and cry on the same page, which is why I can’t read his novels in public! Born in 1968, Andreas Izquierdo is an accomplished author and screenplay writer. He has published various works, including the novel Koenig von Albanien (2007), for which he received the Sir Walter Scott Prize for the best historical novel of the year, and Apocalypsia (2010), which was honored with the Lovelybooks Readers’ Award in Silver for the best book of 2010 and was selected as the Book of the Year by Vorab-lesen.de. As for his other novels, here’s hoping you can someday read them in my translations. 🙂
No one even knows that we exist, and this is the only thing that assures our survival. If you knew about us, if we were anything more than an amusing thought flitting across your minds, then you would hunt us down until we were completely wiped out. Each of us lives mutely in your shadows, and it troubles me to think about moving beyond their limits. Not because I’m afraid to do it, since after tonight I won’t exist any more, but because I swore to protect my brothers and sisters. I’m breaking this vow today because I’m no longer who I once was. And what I’m now revealing to you is only a glimpse into one part of the whole, but perhaps it will suffice for you to understand, to understand me.
We adore the big cities and avoid rural retreats. The wealthy neighborhoods don’t appeal to us in the least, since we prefer anonymity. A dilapidated high-rise, a prefab building, a concrete hardscape – these make our hearts flutter faster, because these are our homes, the places where the stairs climb forever and the corridors stretch to the right and left of the elevators like the arms of someone crucified, vanishing into the darkness.
This is where we live.
At least, this is where we sleep. During the day, we live among you: where it’s nice, where the heat works, where the television is new, where coasters guard glass-topped tables from unsightly water marks. After all, we appreciate the comforts of life just as much as you do. In the mornings, you go to work and lock your homes, making sure that nobody except yourselves can use them or any of the luxuries contained in them – the ones you don’t have time for anyway because you’re constantly striving to acquire even more luxuries, none of which you ever really need. And it’s while you are toiling away out there that we slip in. We live in your houses and your apartments, using all of the things you think only belong to you.
We wear your shirts, use your toothbrushes, drink from your glasses, write on your computers, scuff through your homes in your slippers. We read your mail, your diaries. We know all of your photos, your families, your desires and your secrets. We know everything about you, and you have no idea that we exist, because by the time you get home, we’re long gone. Your shirts lie in the same piles they had before, your toothbrushes are dry, your computers have been cut off, your mail, your photos, your videos… everything is just the way it was before. You resume the use of your homes, which, until a short while ago, had been ours, as well.
Sometimes, when we can no longer resist the urge, we leave behind little clues. The pencil on your desk whose point is oriented south instead of north. The book that is now tilted the other way on the shelf. The corner of your coverlet that has been turned back. Things like that. Someone told me once that you superstitiously blame washing machines for eating your socks… Have three centuries of Enlightenment and Science really passed you by without a single trace? Sock-eating washing machines? But that’s just your nature, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
We live among you, in your shadows, but we’re not participants in your fate. We’re like wolves, ruthless and ravenous, retaining the instincts of our ancestors. Their genes are our genes, and yet we’re not like them because some fickle whim of evolution has robbed us for eternity of our freedom. The path to happiness is closed to us forever since we cannot exist without you: you are the keepers of our existence. And regardless of how exhilarating or insipid your life may be, we extract our portion from it in order to live. After all, only that which you fill with life can actually live. We are strictly forbidden to intervene in anything or to reveal ourselves, since the survival of our species trumps the survival of the individual. That’s our nature, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
She changed everything the very moment I entered her shadow. We’ll call her Sofia and say that she worked as a secretary in a large office. However, she could also just as easily have been a dental hygienist or an employee in a motor vehicle safety office. Her actual identity is inconsequential. Sofia was not especially pretty or shapely. She was a little shy, and she lost her will to live relatively quickly, because she no longer believed that she could be successful at anything. She could have used your help, but she was too timid to ask for it. Or perhaps she was smart enough not to, sparing herself at least this one humiliation. She was alone, as she always had been, and as she settled a few more of her affairs with each passing day, she drew me closer to her, from where I was standing in her shadow. Toward the essence of who she was. And that which she was soon found its way to me, infusing my very blood until every fiber of my being pulsed with my awareness that this was what I desired. I began to set aside the cold curiosity with which I extracted my part of life and to fear what would inevitably follow. I sensed it like an animal anticipates an earthquake, and I felt it on that evening when she ran a bath and lit candles, contrary to her normal routine. On the evening that she took a blade with her into the water.
I lingered close to her, waging an internal battle, because her brave fight for your favor had taught me something long ago, something that none of us has ever experienced: compassion. What is strong enough to make you resist your own nature? What shreds you into so many pieces that you can no longer withstand the pain? What besides your own heart can drive you to your doom? And before I was even aware of the boundary I was crossing, I entered her apartment, catching the scent of her blood as it tinged the tub crimson and hearing her breath grow shallow. I made up my mind and stepped out of her shadow. From my perch on the edge of the tub, I reached for her hand and cradled it in mine. Shortly before the end, she opened her eyes, saw me, and smiled. Then she died.
This was the same night I was forced to turn down the path that I had freely chosen, to follow it to its end. To my end. It began with a dream, a warning. This, in and of itself, was unusual since we never have our own dreams. We dream what you dream, since we experience what you experience. In contrast, this dream tumbled through my sleep, until I woke up with a demon on my chest. Chortling, it squeezed my throat harder and harder until I gouged my fingers into its eyes, cracking open its ugly skull and smashing its brain in fury.
Only then did the pressure on my throat and the weight on my chest abate. As I slowly caught my breath again, I slumped to the floor, disturbed and uncertain about what this was supposed to mean. I didn’t go back to sleep that night, and as I crept stealthily from my quarters the next morning, I suddenly knew what had happened: a wolf had moved onto my floor. And whoever or whatever he was, his presence was so terrifying that the pressure around my throat returned. My breath came in short gasps, and I wondered if I would ever be able to escape this constriction. I sank to my knees and struggled to breathe, staring in horror down the hall to the door at the end of it. It was if he could see me, as if he had the ability to pin me down for as long as he wished. Then, in a flash, he released me, and I flew down to the elevator and out of the high-rise.
I was totally baffled because a wolf never occupies another wolf’s home. Our instincts are such that we never cross each other’s paths, not even inadvertently. It’s the same instinct that tells us when it’s time to leave your homes, and even if you come home at a strange time of day, you’ll never meet a wolf. And now one was living in my home.
I returned that evening, full of dread. Glancing furtively down the corridor, I reached my quarters and searched for my keys. He didn’t seem to be home, at least I didn’t sense him there. I stole quietly over to his door, closer, closer. Carefully, I placed my hands on the door.
A bolt of lightning surged through my arm, hurling me back into the passage where I landed on my back. I gasped for air as I tried to flee – away from the door, just away from this door! He was at home and had been there the whole time, but I hadn’t sensed him until he revealed himself to me. I crawled back to my quarters, panic-stricken. After fumbling with the door, I tore it open, locked it, and crept behind the couch, shivering.
The outside hall light flared on, the light slinking under the crack of the door as a narrow strip. I stared, mesmerized by the glowing rift into another world. I didn’t even dare to blink until the shadows shifted, two sets of footsteps that came to a stop in front of my door. They waited there for countless seconds before receding back to where they had come from. Finally, the light went out. The crack under the door lost its magic, and I nervously blinked my rigid eyelids.
I was now dreaming every night, and each of these dreams had something to do with the door at the end of the hall. Time and time again, the fear wrapped itself around my throat, which is why I stopped going to sleep and started staying awake all night. I crept into your beds during the day – I had no other choice – as I searched in anxious silence for some degree of respite.
My time was running out, but I wasn’t aware of it doing so. Everything was part of a puzzle, and I could see its separate pieces, although I couldn’t make out the entire picture. Perhaps I didn’t really want to, existing as I did in a state of numbness and fear. Everything I did fell within the parameters of my daily routine, but my thoughts were overshadowed by what might be coming next. I realize today how insidiously, how seamlessly, one thing flowed into the other. The very moment I began to regain my composure was the one in which the next phase began.
That evening, I returned to my quarters, and for the first time since his arrival, I did not cast even a fleeting glance at the door at the end of the hall. I unlocked my door, stepped inside… All of my instincts went off like warning sirens, my hair bristling in rage, fear, and aggression. He had been in my lodgings, in my space. Before my thoughts had even a chance of settling down, I lunged down the hall and pounded on his door, ready for a fight, ready to abandon my fear and kill him or be killed. He had been in my den, and now I was punching and kicking against his. Yet he refused to open the door, which weathered my outrage and remained bolted.
There was nothing left for me to do but to turn back, exhausted and breathless, to slink away and drown myself in bitter tears of impotence. No wolf ever enters another wolf’s lair. That is the law, just like the law that forbids us from revealing ourselves to you. I howled in rage because there was nothing I could do about it or anyone I could turn to. We live alone, we die alone. That is our law, our nature, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
It was pointless to wait for him to leave his room in the hope of being able to retaliate and invade his space. His instincts would have tipped him off before I could have even settled on a plan. I left the house the next morning, returning by evening, and the pangs I felt because he was using my life for his own ends, the way I use yours, lessened a little with each passing day, until I reached the point when I couldn’t condone it but I could at least live with it. But this too was only a phase, since on the day that I fully accepted this state of affairs, he left behind a clue that I couldn’t fail to see. And now it was finally clear where everything was heading, now I understood.
He had moved my computer mouse a few centimeters, just enough so that a single glance could register that it had been used. I immediately booted up the machine, and what I saw was so hopeless, so conclusive, that fear began to thread its cold fingers around my pounding heart. There was nothing I could do but click dazedly through the windows. Everything I had ever written, everything that related to my anonymous, ordinary life in your world, had been deleted: the automatic bill payment contracts for the rent, TV and internet; my chatroom aliases; letters to the insurance and gas companies. It was all just gone! As if I had never existed.
The final phase had started, and it was as if I was plummeting down a deep, black hole. Day after day, something new of mine went missing: a sweater, a toothbrush, a pot, a glass. Since moving beyond your shadow, all of these insignificant things had imperceptibly become elements of identification, elements of an individual life. I owned so very little, but now I was losing everything. I couldn’t stop it. All I could do was watch as my apartment dissolved in front of my eyes, in order to be set up again somewhere else: at the end of the hall, behind the door. It was reinventing itself with everything that had once belonged to me.
This morning a pencil vanished, my last possession, and with it the last misguided hope that my dissolution could somehow be prevented. Yet now that everything that once belonged to me is gone and only I remain, I feel better, because they gave me the time to free myself from everything I had once been.
This is how it all ends. Take what I’ve written to you as the final words of a wolf who stepped out of your shadow to vanish forever. Remember that I had my own place in your life and that I once existed. I don’t regret a single thing. I’m going in your stead because I made good on something you should have done. However, I’m leaving with my head held high, and I’m proud of that.
I open my door, pull it shut behind me, and gaze down the hall. Light shimmers softly under the crack in the door, and for the first time in a long while, I’m not afraid. I walk to the door, reach for the knob, turn it. It is unlocked.
I step in.
Translated by Rachel Hildebrandt
Image: By Dmitry G (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons