Authors: Vitezslav Nezval
“It’s a wedding,” said the old lady, not deeming the performance that had so surprised her granddaughter worthy of her attention. “It’s the wedding of a miserly old landowner from R., and his farmhands hope to soften him up by putting on this party with masks and all.”
“Who’s he marrying?”
“The daughter of our former neighbor, the one with the corn chandler husband.”
“Not the little girl I sometimes played with in the yard?”
“But you say the landowner is old and miserly.”
“He is indeed.”
“Neither one nor the other makes sense with this wedding.”
“How do you mean?”
“If he’s old, why is he marrying a bride so young?”
“Few young girls would spurn the chance of becoming a landowner’s wife.”
“So why’s he marrying a poor girl, if he’s so greedy?”
“She’s young. That explains everything.”
Valerie continued looking out the window, every now and then bursting into laughter.
“One of them has draped himself in a flag. This wedding’s a regular carnival.”
“I expect they’re making fun of their master.”
“One’s on stilts and he’s twitching his ears like a little donkey,” said her granddaughter.
“Don’t let them see you. The devil’s gotten into them and they might start making a commotion outside our windows. That would hardly befit the house a missionary is due to enter tomorrow or the day after.”
Valerie realized she was the daughter of a bishop. Because she relished words that struck her as in any way odd, she said to herself: “I’m the daughter of a bishop and a nun.” But the gravity that these words should have produced dissipated against the backdrop of the ludicrous wedding procession.
“I wonder what old hat shop they plundered. I’m amazed at the number of funny-shaped top hats that a good third of the wedding party have got on. But where are the bride and groom?”
“What you see,” Grandmother said, still sitting with her back to the window, “are just the young men making the rounds of the town with an earthenware jug of wine and drinking to the couple’s health.”
Valerie suddenly stepped back from the window. Whether her eyes were deceiving her or not, she felt she was looking straight into the ugly face of the Polecat. Rather than a real human face, it reminded her of some horrid maggot for frightening children.
“Grandma, look, Grandma, I’ve just seen a real monster.”
The old woman turned. She even stood up and took two steps towards the window. The blood drained from her features.
“Step back from the window. Don’t be seen ...”
“Who by?” the girl asked.
“Oh, any of them,” her grandmother gestured in resignation.
“How can it be?” she said, sitting back down at the table.
“It’s the very image of the constable. Yet he died long ago. No one can live for a hundred years, and more, and not change. Run along, Valerie, and practice the fingering of your flat scales.”
The nun’s daughter has still not recovered from all the horrendous news of the last two days when she is delivered a large letter written in a tiny hand. Valerie does not know whether she should dare open it, or whether to entrust its secrets to her grandmother. Lost in thought, she paces down one side of the jumbled room two maids are converting into a missionary’s cell. In the corridor there is a draft. Inside the apartment there is practically no escaping Grandmother’s quizzical looks. The carriage is risky, as it is laden with memories. The garden is too vast. So Valerie opts for the cellar as the place to investigate her secret. She breaks the seal. One last time she closes her eyes as if making up her mind. Then she reads:
Fair maiden, who overwhelms the Prince of Darkness with her grace, please accept these few words of mine in total trust. Who am I? Before I answer that question, permit me a few digressions. First I wish to tell you what my poor father confided to me on his deathbed. It was five years ago in a certain small town in Italy. To this day I can see the blanket beneath which the old man lay shivering as he recounted the dreadful hardships he had to endure on account of his uncle, the constable, who, incidentally, is my guardian to this day. My father was dying, his conscience burdened with the numerous crimes he had had to commit at the behest of that one-hundred-twenty-year-old monster who had known every oak tree in its infancy. But that is not all. This good man had to watch as his spouse, my mother, faded away, just to provide that fiend with all that he required for his vile spells. Neither my father nor I ever learned what was happening to that beautiful creature, why some days she was as pale as chalk and why, for all the gnashing of my father’s teeth, she would obediently take herself off to see my uncle, whence she would return as insubstantial as a shadow. No, I do not have the courage to contemplate what befell her there, at his seat in Italy, which he sold shortly after my mother’s death. No one ever discovered the secret of his house, and it was not just one house – God only knows how many times he has moved in the course of his squalid life, which even now is evidently far from reaching its end.
And now comes the most distressing part. One of the houses to have witnessed his secret is the one where you now live. Oh yes, he knows its every stone, and better than any of its current inhabitants. He knows everything, from how the door locks work right down to your earrings. But that’s not all. You have probably gathered from what I have said that I am as subject to the constable’s will as my poor father was. I am as young as fish milt and though several times I have been ready to commit a crime, some stroke of fortune has kept my hands clean. And two days ago, by his agency, I saw something so entrancing that I cannot view the days to come but with fear and trepidation. By the light of the moon I saw you sleeping close by the open window; it was from here you would have been able to see a ladder the following morning, had it not slid to the ground under a sudden gust of wind. Thus were you robbed of your earrings, and I had the good fortune, as the monster’s accomplice, to know you. Was not my father similarly granted the same good fortune, which in the fullness of time was to become twisted into misfortune? I am fearful of the future, and this fear guides my hand as I write to you. I know not why the monster seized the earrings, but I am afraid it was not just from greed. No matter what the case, the jewels are back in your hands. From the fact that my uncle’s favorite food is fresh chicken blood, you may deduce how his mind works. I do not wish to frighten you with the assurance that he is an extraordinary man who has, so it would seem, thoroughly covered the learning of several centuries. I suspect he is equally schooled as a doctor and as a priest, and I have personally witnessed his remarkable skills as a veterinarian. But let me not overestimate the role of the earrings; what concerns me far more is the immediate fate of their wearer. Maybe he wanted to sniff them as he might the last wind-torn petal of a rose he hankers for. Once I was witness to how he ran a hind through with a massive knife, and only because he wanted to sniff its blood. And yet the worst of it is that at that moment my eyes gleamed, although my heart had nearly stopped beating in disgust at the heinous stroke of fate which I was powerless to avert. I suspect the constable of having many unwitting allies, but I’ve never been able to determine in advance which of those who affect more innocence than little vetch flowers belong to his gang. Then again, do they even realize it themselves? I’m afraid they do not. And so for many a long year, with never a twinge of conscience and no suspicion of following in the worst possible footsteps, I have carried out his errands with a measure of glee. Once you have read this letter, destroy it without delay. The man with the polecat face would exact terrible vengeance on me if the letter were to fall into his hands one day, even years later. But what if I were only acting as his instrument even now? What if I were just the snare that was to entrap you? Although in writing these words I am plunging a knife into my very heart, I cannot but warn you against myself, since I truly do not know what I am. You have my promise that I shall be on guard against my own deeds – and that I would rather break my own neck than become the cause of your misfortune.
So finally I come to the entreaty that I would wish from the bottom of my soul not to go unheeded.
Tomorrow, as I expect you know, the missionaries who are at this very moment entering the town will give their first divine service. I do not doubt that you, like all the daughters of reputable families, will also be attending the service. Everything, as I see it, is going our way. I doubt your aged relative will accompany you to church, since the first service of the missionaries is intended for maiden girls. I do not know if I have told you, but I am barely seventeen and no razor has yet touched my chin. So then, if you were to leave a set of your clothes for me in the garden arbor, I might be able to escape the town’s notice and attend the service by your side. This I urgently beseech you, since by whispering between the prayers I will be able to reveal more to you than can be committed to paper. Believe me when I say that I have few opportunities to be alone. That I am able to put these few lines on paper I owe to the constable’s attendance at some crazy wedding, the noise from which shows no sign of abating as I write. My constable enjoys a party every now and then, since at any sort of masquerade his scarred face blends in better than at other times, so he has no need to conceal it by sundry devices of his own making. As the old saying goes, the Devil always makes a good companion.
I have not been granted the gift of writing poetically, but how could I have been when I am doomed to spend my days at the side of such an unsavory character as my dubious uncle. And yet I do not know whether I should suspect him so totally of a lack of decent conduct. He remembers times when gallantry was not in such absolutely short supply as today, and who can tell what this revolting polecat, this chicken-sucker, might be capable of? I can feel my face beginning to burn, and several beads of sweat have appeared on my brow. My blood boils at the thought that I must make you witness things which would make even the most hardened blush, while I would prefer to speak to you, without witnesses, of things not so utterly devoid of grace as these lines of mine. So, once more, even if it may sound like an order: Before dusk falls, you shall find a way to lend me some of your clothes. At least this will give you the sensation of standing next to yourself. Let the missionary thunder, our whispers shall be loud enough to drown out not just the prayers, but his fulminations as well.
In eschewing all the usual courtesies, I do not mean to banish courtesy from the discourse of men and women. The paper runs out here, barely permitting me to sign, as legibly as possible, my hapless name
Having read for the tenth or twentieth time the words which made her completely forget about her grandmother, Valerie sensed the onset of dusk. This was because the sun no longer cast its rays directly into the cellar through two openings the size of two bricks. Exposed so long to the cold, Valerie felt like a stalactite illuminated by the twilight. She stared at the winding potato haulms that crawled over the floor and up the walls of the cellar. Standing there, she felt as if the cellar floor were shaking with the monotonous blows of a battering ram.
But then she hurled herself back on the trail, marked out with lines now running straight, now meandering, and read, she lost count of how many times, the tale of someone who had already lived through more than the heroes of the stories she enjoyed reading at the end of the day.
Then she repeated the whole letter from memory, and only after making sure she would not forget a single word of it in the future, she went and burned it bit by bit in the flame of a candle.
No sooner had she completed this act of piety than her grandmother came to tell her it was time to dress for the service, which was to be dedicated to the instruction and exhortation of virgins. Running into the garden to gather some rosemary, Valerie placed her most beautiful clothes in the arbor.
That evening, there were so many young girls in the church that it looked like a congress of angels. Valerie was standing opposite the pulpit. She gazed downwards and listened tensely to the background noise in the church. Her cheeks blazed and she was so on edge she did not notice the missionary mounting the pulpit steps. It took the silence that spread throughout the church to make her look up.
In the pulpit stood the missionary with the head of a polecat and he stared her straight in the eye. She withstood his stare, but the longer it lasted, the more she felt herself paling. Her head drooped and she fixed her eyes on the ground. And then the missionary’s voice rang out:
“I, a servant of the Lord and missionary of Christ, have come among you, virgins all, to afford you vital instruction and fortification. All that I shall say to you is strictly confidential and will be heard by neither your fathers nor your mothers, by neither your married sisters nor your grandparents. Forget, virgin, that you are one of many and take this act of worship as if I were coming to you alone, to your own virginal little room in order to speak to you in God’s place about things that are your secret. Oh virgin, do you know who you are? You are an alabaster hand extended in a house of plague, infested with flies. You are a vessel whose neck I bless with my thumb. You are an as yet uncleft pomegranate. You are a shell in which the future ages will ring. You are a bud which will burst when the time is ripe. You are a little rose-petal boat floating on the tempestuous ocean. You are a peach oozing red blood ...”
At these words something impelled Valerie to glance up. The missionary with the head of a polecat was accompanying his words with grand gestures and flash after flash fell from his eyes onto the field of virginal flowers. Valerie trembled. The ode to virginity, which the preacher sought to embellish with ever new images, touched the girl’s very body. Having completed his litany on virginity, he continued his sermon in a different tone: