utorak, 27. prosinca 2011.

As the Distant Bells Toll

Here is another one of my stories translated into English. I think it fits nicely for these Holidays. It' one of my older ones - for one thing, back in those days (mid-1990s) you could actually expect snow for Christmas. I've received angry phone calls about it.


Winter night embraces me like a skillful lover. It wraps around me, seducing me into its game. It knows exactly where to touch with icy fingers, where to blow with chilly breath, where to lick with cold tongue. Cursing the winter, I rise the collar of my thin jacket. Won’t help me one bit, I have but a T-shirt beneath and nothing more.
If I knew, I would have put something warmer on before I died.
Blizzard whirls across the broad street, cutting through my jeans. Chill licks across my skin, ice clinging to my wet hair. Snow enters my sneakers and melts, wetting my socks. I can barely feel my feet. I rub my palms against each other and blow warm breath at my wooden fingers, trying to bring some life back into them. In vain. Damn, it’s cold!
I try flapping my wings, maybe that’d make me warm. I try, with all my strength. Nope. I try harder. Nothing, they won’t even spread. Useless decoration, as if I don’t have them. And I realize this power is not yet given to me. I still haven’t passed the Exam.
A car passes me by, lights penetrate the blizzard. The driver drives slowly, carefully, afraid to step on it on the snow-covered street. He has no chains, the snowstorm must have surprised him like so many others. I measure the car up as it leaves me behind. An Opel, one of the better models. Hey, if only the driver would stop! And make me warm, give me at least a bit of warmth ... I would be very grateful to him, I would be glad to make him warm. Oh, I would make him warm all right, the night is just right to make each other warm and ...
But he doesn’t stop, he doesn’t see me, doesn’t want to see me, doesn’t care. There’s celebration going on around me and nobody cares about the frozen apprentice in the street.
I’m back in the snowstorm, alone. Soon, it will be midnight. People in the distant apartment buildings celebrate His birth, looking forward to the feast. Gunshots and petards echo across the suburbs, mixing with shouts and drunken songs. The chill stabs me and penetrates deep into me, filling me completely, throwing me into icy shackles. I wonder if all this is just the Teacher’s twisted sense of humor.
Because, if I don’t pass tonight, I’m afraid I could soon become very, very warm ...
And I would sell my soul to the Devil himself ... Enough, I cut myself. Stop! Quiet! Don’t you even think about it! They are everywhere, just waiting. I know, I convinced myself, on many examples did I convince myself. The Teacher was very descriptive. They are waiting, all they need is a small slip and they catch you in their net and you’re cursed, cursed for all eternity, without salvation, without escape, the more you resist, the more you’re theirs.
And I don’t want to become that warm ...
The wind slaps me back into the night, snowflakes dance in beams of yellow light above the street. I should pass tonight, I don’t dare think what would happen if I don’t. Patience is almost exhausted. The Teacher let me know clearly that time finally came to correct the administrative error, one way or another.

I know very well that the wings on my back are an error. They reminded me of it, not once. They let it hang above my head, like a sword on a thin thread, ready to judge me at any moment. And opportunities were plenty, I was stubborn, foul-mouthed, spiteful, a girl from the street. And the Teacher, too, wasn’t exactly around when patience was being distributed.
If all had turned out the way it should have, I would be hot now. Very hot, hell-hot. But the day I died in screech of brakes - my body swept over the hood, thrown aside like a rag doll, hitting the tarmac - that day Death was everywhere. Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, she reaped mercilessly left and right, without questions, innocents and sinners alike, children and old men. The avalanche buried the Reception in cries and screams, and in all that confusion one condemned soul ended up on the wrong list.
Sometimes, at night, when I’m alone and it’s quiet around me, I dream of the confused apprentice. He barely finds his bearings in the general mess, shouting, crying, howling all over the place. Our eyes meet for an instant and he puts me on the list for Heaven, not even thinking about it. The notion that I was cursed doesn’t even occur to him, his hand writes down my name by itself. And angels in white come for me and take me, and I dream of finding him and thanking him, the way only I know ... But, these are the dreams of a lonely girl in long nights. I never met him again, they never let me search for him. Maybe once I pass the Exam ...
Of course, those down there saw the error sooner than those up there. So the phoning started. Frothy and impudent enough for the Reception to get obstinate. But, at the same time, they had a problem: according to the Laws, my place was down there, and everybody knew it. And then somebody at the Reception, perhaps Peter himself, came to a brilliant idea. So, without even asking me anything, they enrolled me in the School, claiming I was chosen before they were warned of the error. Once earmarked for the School, I couldn’t have been returned. And it stood at that.
When I think about it better, I was lucky. Because, I offered pleasure in my life. To be more honest, I sold it, several minutes of ephemeral joy, hundred marks in a dark doorway. A girl has to make a living. And sometimes I was bold enough to enjoy it myself.
And someone, sometime, somewhere, hypocritically decided it was sin.

A hospital, almost on the edge of the city, new, big, green concrete block thrown on the meadow opposite the forest. An ambulance hurries from afar, blue light and siren howl. I cross the broad street. The blizzard doesn’t abate, it still isn’t tired, a long night is before it. Warm, it must be warm in the hospital ...
I cross the parking lot. It’s almost empty, only a few cars. The snow merges vehicles into whiteness, covering bodies, erasing shapes. I pass the concrete jardinières, snow-covered conifers and cotoneasters (Gardening is the Teacher’s passion. In his words: Eden was a garden. And he always needs some help, whether I want to help him or not.) are white fingers, reaching to stop me from entering. But I hurry on, barely feeling my feet, fingers, nose. Warm, it’s warm inside ...
I hurry through the snow to the entrance. The ambulance is already here, it stops and the siren dies. The building breaks the wind, snowflakes dance, illuminated by the blue that keeps on turning. The doctor and the medic are already out of the vehicle, orange windbreakers in the white of the blizzard. Two medics from the hospital open the rear doors and pull the stretcher out. Somebody drunk too much. They rush through the entrance, nobody paying attention to me. Warm ...
I use the commotion and follow the stretcher through the entrance doors, past the night watchman in his booth. He doesn’t ask anything, probably thinking I accompanied the sick man in the ambulance. The doctor on duty arrives while I retreat behind a pillar and slip through the doors into the nearest lobby. I hurry, not looking back. Nobody shouts after me as I disappear in a labyrinth of waiting-rooms, leaving the chill behind me.
I dive into the warmth with all my senses. I begin shaking, my legs barely hold me and I almost collapse on the floor. A radiator! I snuggle next to it, soaking up heat. It creeps through my fingers, thaws my hands, crawls up my arms and into my body. Life pours back into me, driving away the freezing night howling behind thick walls. I don’t know how much time passed before I came to my senses. Finally, I rise and sit on a plastic chair next to the radiator, looking around.
A long waiting-room, plastic chairs against both walls. Regularly spaced doors, numbers, name-plates. A fire-hose, a glass-covered announcement board. More announcements stuck on the doors.
I probe with my senses. Tremors of daily rush still vibrate in the waiting-room, echoing, throbbing through my mind. Nervousness, tension, disease. Disease is all around me, people brought it with them, people bring it in every day, like sin, like punishment. I feel disease as it wants to enter and overwhelm me, strangle me and drown me in a flashflood of pain. New cascades of suffering pour from upper floors. The rooms are up there. Patients are up there, alone in this night when His birth is celebrated, alone with their diseases, alone with their pains, alone, without anybody.
I wish to shut myself before the tide of disease that washes me. I know I shouldn’t, I’m not here by accident. This is my chance to do something good, to pass the Exam. But I must shut myself: I never felt something like this, never before did pain posses me this way, completely and thoroughly.
And for the first time I realize how hard it is to be an angel.
Then it cuts me, suddenly, without a slightest warning! Something else breaks through pain and suffering and solitude, something I felt only several times before, always just for a moment, on my lessons, under a strict Teacher’s watch. Something cold, mean, truly evil, capable of destroying me in an eye-blink. I know I should run away while there’s still time. I should run out before it feels me, back into the winter, through the snow, as far as possible, before it discovers me and lurches at me.
A demon arrived to the hospital. Searching ...

One thing I’m certain of: the demon didn’t come for me.
I climb the stairs silently, feeling him all the time. With every step I’m closer to him and I know he’s searching. He is looking, probing, hunting. He wants something special, something hard to get. I wonder if he feels me, too, or if I evaded him, cloaked in whirls of pain all around me. Maybe I did, I hide the best I can, the way Teacher taught me. It’s possible he really didn’t discover me, certain of his power, convinced nobody can touch him.
I stop at the floor, glass doors lead into a corridor. He’s here somewhere ... Pediatric ward, black letters on the glass. I enter the corridor. Suddenly, as if a firehall door blew open, hot gust of his trail almost slams me against the opposite wall. A moment of unspeakable horror, but the demon is further away. The trail comes from behind the door in front of me.
Hesitating, I come to the door, waiting, listening, trying to find him. Silence, just silence everywhere ... I grab the door-handle, his fingers held it mere ten minutes ago. I feel the clench of his power in my palm, dark, merciless, cold in all its heat. I open the door. It’s a closet. Filled with brooms, brushes, rags and pails, sponges, rubber gloves, detergents and disinfectants, their sharp smells assaulting my nose. And through them all, I catch the unmistakable whiff of sulfur. A pentagram the height of man burns on the wall, I can still feel its heat. The gate through which he came here, uninvited into this night. The gate of Hell, he opened them himself.
Hunting ...
I follow the demon through the corridor. I clearly see his trail in the darkness, visible just to me. It leads from room to room, the demon was quietly opening door after door, entering, looking around in search and, not finding, continuing on.
The corridor turns left. I stop, he must be here somewhere. I feel him. I feel him so clearly and I’m afraid he feels me, too. It’s impossible he doesn’t know I’m on his trail, but he’s not in the corridor. He must be in one of the rooms. I go after him, following hot prints on the door-handles and then, suddenly, I stop, holding my breath. The next door-handle is not marked by his hand. He is here, in the room right before me ...
I see his print on the handle, and fingers on the door as he pushed them silently to enter, and I stand there, hesitant. The horror in me grows, rises and spills over. I should turn back and run away before he jumps me and grabs me, but my legs won’t listen and I wonder what is he waiting for, why doesn’t he strike? Is he playing games with me, now that I’m caught in the net from which there’s no way out?
“Come in, little one, it’s unlocked.” Mocking voice echoes in my head, filled with arrogant superiority and disdain to everything below him.
“Come in, don’t be afraid. You don’t interest me tonight.”

I close the door quietly behind me, looking around a single-bed room, just for the rare ones who can afford it. A bathroom is adjacent to the room, light from it illuminates tiny child’s body on a bed, connected to life-support. The little girl lies in coma, almost finished by disease. Her life is hanging just on plastic tubes and needles stuck under her tender pale skin and fastened by band-aid.
Her father sits on a chair next to her. He doesn’t see the demon and me, his head in his palms. He’s been crying, and now he’s just sitting as time slowly drips away, drop by drop, like a solution in the plastic bag hanging on the white iron stand.
I pass him by. His life unfolds before me, and in a moment I know all about him, as if reading an opened book, written in blood. He is rich, powerful, influential, many people in the town fear him. If only they could see him now ... His soul is already cursed, condemned, he judged himself by his deeds. And his hands, grabbing mercilessly throughout his entire life, are now clasped helplessly.
The demon stands next to the bed, looking at the girl. His dark grey business suit fits him like a glove. Clothes appropriate for a customer ... Dark hair. Deep, piercing eyes under dense brows, there’s nothing they will miss. Lips, just for a moment drawn in a cynical smile. And horns, massive, strong, spiraling, like a crown on his head. He’s old, regardless of appearance of a man in his late thirties. And experienced, oh, how experienced, he could eliminate me in a moment.
As I watch him, I find something in him. Something unexplainable, deep, outside of the moulds into which the Teacher stubbornly casts everything around him, demons included. Is it only me or is there a trace of sadness in his pupils, sadness carried only by eyes that have seen everything? I feel him attracting me: somebody did comment that opposites attract each other. Who knows, if he was someone else, and if I wasn’t what I was, and if we were someplace far away from here, alone, without the girl and her father ...
“What do you want?”, I whisper.
“And what do you think?” Cold, with disdain, the sadness is gone. Perhaps it was never there, perhaps it was all just an illusion, a trick, a game.
“Him?” I show at the father with my head. And I don’t really understand, he’s already theirs. As soon as his time runs out, they’ll come for him, eternally cursed, only he doesn’t know that yet. None of them knows until it’s too late.
The demon grins, comes to me and faces me, fire in his eyes piercing me.
“Listen and learn, little one, they don’t teach you things like this up there. And they’ll come handy, if you ever pass.”
The father doesn’t see us or hear us, alone in his pain. He rises, his eyes red from tears, brokenly pushing the chair back. He passes us by and disappears in the bathroom. Water murmurs as he washes his face.
The demon straightens himself up and winks at me as he touches up his tie, like a magician about to show me a new trick, reveal the secret of the trade or the masterly, unstoppable sleigh of hand in a game he plays with mortals from time immemorial.
Water keeps on murmuring in the bathroom. The demon goes after the father, leaving me alone with the girl. I wish to follow him, but his look stops me cold.
“Listen”, he commands.
The demon pulls the door behind him, but he doesn’t shut it completely. I approach the girl on the bed, her lifeless body is covered by a sheet, her head resting on a pillow. She’s six. Her pale face is emaciated by disease. I can feel it mercilessly eating the body from inside, gnawing, tearing, devouring, certain of another victory. I remove a lock of blonde hair from her forehead. The girl doesn’t feel me, she cannot feel me. Her body surrendered a long time ago. She will not live to see the morning.
A muted cry of surprise from the bathroom, the father bolts from the sink, water dripping from his face. Several moments of silence as they measure each other up. The father doesn’t see the horns and hoofs, and questions multiply in his head frantically. He left behind a lot of those who have reasons to hate him ...
“Who are you?” The father’s voice tries to dominate, but in vain, he cannot hide the anxiety of nights kept vigil. “How the devil did you get in here?”
“We don’t have much time.” The demon’s voice is quiet now, calming, bewitching, like a snake about to hypnotize a mouse. “She’ll die by the morning, won’t she?”
“What do you want of me?”
“She’ll die by the morning.” A bare statement pushes all questions aside, they’re so unimportant, disappearing before its finality. The father measures up the stranger before him, a slight dash of hope awakens in him. Oh, yes, the Teacher warned me of this game, the demon works strictly by the book. Hope is one of the most dangerous weapons in desperation, like a fire, it bursts and blurs the reason. It just has to be started and fed skillfully.
“Tell me finally what do you want!?”
The demon remains silent for several moments, letting the hope grow, blaze up, warm comfortably, the first trace of light after months of darkness and despair, pain and relentlessness. “I have an offer for you”, he replies finally. Silence again, flames flaring even higher, obscuring everything. “Your daughter will survive. She will recover completely. Not immediately, but she will recover in a week. And she will live a long and happy life. Rich ... And healthy ... That’s what I’m offering you.”
The fire burns in the father. The girl was everything he ever really loved, she’s the only thing he ever had, no matter how much he’d amassed and stolen.
“In return ...”
“What do you want? Name it, say the price, money is no issue”, desperately, the father still doesn’t understand completely. The stranger before him may be a miracle worker. A miracle is the only thing that can still save his little girl. And the demon just grins, knowing that the bait is taken and that the catch is almost certain.
“I want a soul.”
The father stops dead, speechless, it is only now that he realizes whom he has before him. This is the most critical moment in any bargaining. Fear and disbelief flood the hope like a torrent, almost extinguishing the warm fire. This is the last chance to refuse, but the demon is experienced, he’s already in the father, calming him down and convincing him without words. His lies become father’s thoughts, the offer becomes so attractive, irresistible, the last straw he can still hold on.
“Mine?” In a low, shaky voice. He’d give it. Even the way he is, he’d give it. He loves her so much, his precious ...
“You pitiful fool. We already have yours”, the demon looks him in the eyes, his voice becomes quiet, almost inaudible. “Hers ...”
And it is only now that I understand! Stupid, stupid, stupid how I didn’t get it from the start! The father’s soul is condemned a long time ago, not even a demon apprentice would bother about it. But the girl in bed before me is still pure, unblemished by crimes of her father. Down there, in the heat, a soul like hers is a true jewel, the best gift to the Lord of Darkness in this night. Oh, yes, it takes someone old and experienced to play something like this.
The father remains silent, not answering as the demon takes the contract out. Something is breaking in him, he knows what he’s condemning his precious to if he signs. But, on the other hand, the entire life ... It’s a lot of time, maybe enough to get around the contract. And a new hope stirs, a new flame. The demon sets it on himself. You can get around every contract, including the one with the Devil. Enough prayers and paid masses, perhaps even an endowment, anything it takes. Money is no issue, God must see that and have mercy on her soul, if it’s already too late for his.
The demon grins as he stirs false hopes. His master is a prince of lies, a lie is omnipotent, a lie conquers everything. In his claws, a lie is a reverse of hope. The demon reaches for a golden fountain-pen in his pocket while the father looks up slowly, agreement in his eyes. And the demon takes the pen out, unscrews the cap in silence and passes it to the father, showing where to sign with his finger.
I stand above the girl, helpless to help her as her father prepares to sign the eternal damnation for her. I know there will be no forgiveness, no matter what she or her father do, because a signature is a signature, and when time comes, when the demon fulfills his part of the bargain, he will come for her to take her into the deepest heat of Hell.
The father stops suddenly, wondering if he should, if he has the right to sign in her name. The demon, grinning, drives the clouds of doubt away. It’s all right, he persuades, the girl would sign herself if she could. The father remains uncertain, he knows what is it that he signs, he knows what is it that he condemns his precious to. But the lies fan the flames anew, the fire burns with all its might and warms, warms untrue, but warms. Every sin can be redeemed, and every contract can be cancelled, even the one with the Devil ...
And I can do nothing. A few more seconds, and her destiny is sealed. If only I could heal her, but I cannot, not on time, not before the father signs. The disease is deep in her, in her marrow, it overwhelmed her body completely. Even darkness needs a week.
The shaking hand brings the pen to the parchment, while my brain works feverishly, running in circles, caught in the trap of my own helplessness. The tip of the pen touches the parchment, the first stroke, slow, uncertain, as in trance, condemning his own daughter.
And then I realize, in a flash! I don’t even manage to feel all the horror before the relentlessness of what I have to do, the only thing still left to do. There’s no time for horror as the pen signs the verdict for the innocent.
I grab the pillow under the girl’s head and cover her with it, holding with both hands and pressing down with all my weight. Her body resists feebly, arching in bed, thrashing about and breaking, but I don’t let go, I won’t let go. I don’t know how long it lasts, I loose every sense of time as I strangle the little girl. Behind the door, the demon triumphs in his victory. It’s over, an innocent soul is his, it’s just being signed over to him. He admires his own genius, so certain of himself. He had it all worked out, he roars with laughter, completely forgetting about me. The pen writes down the verdict, just a little bit more, shakily, just a few more strokes, while the body beneath me gives up. I feel the last spasm of feeble muscles passing through my arms, like a spasm of a clothes-moth that I squeezed between my fingers a long time ago, while I was still alive. It shakes me from within, filling me with cold and terror. And I know when it’s over, her soul becomes free and rises, up, high up, as the pen makes the last stroke. Too late! The body is dead, the soul is free, the demon cannot fulfill his part of the bargain any more and the contract is void.
Numb, I lift the pillow. The eyes, wide opened in the spasm of dying muscles, stare at me as I return the pillow under the small head. I close the eyelids with my fingers, closing the dead eyes so they won’t see me. I don’t want them to see me, I’m afraid of them as I silently remove the locks of blonde hair from her cold forehead.
I feel nothing as I cast the last glance at the empty shell in the bed, and I feel nothing, complete emptiness, as I exit into the corridor, and I’m empty as I leave the ward. I just hear the demon entering the room and stopping, shocked. It takes him time to understand what happened, to realize that the signed contract in his hand is just a worthless piece of parchment. And I hear the father as he enters and stares at the dead body in disbelief. He jumps to the bed and takes the body in his hands and falls down to his knees, in grief, and I’m empty, completely empty, just chill, as I hear his broken moan. The demon simply walks away, before the father rises an accusing stare. No explanation, no words, in anger. The father’s nightmare, fuzzy, buried in grief, is all that will remain.
I run down the stairs, and on, down the corridor, through the waiting-rooms and into the lobby, passing the watchman, his face lightened blue by a small TV in the booth. He doesn’t see me as I pass the heavy glass doors, out, into the blizzard, into the cold, into the Christmas night.

The hospital remains behind me, lost in the whirls of pain and solitude. Lights are on in the distant apartment buildings. The midnight is long past, His birth is celebrated, drunkenly, in warm, at tables filled with food.
Around me, cold. The blizzard rages, wind licks my cheeks. The winter night like a skillful lover, I don’t even feel it. What is its chill against the ice that encased me, that I carry deep within me?
Suddenly, something grabs my shoulder, a hand like a claw, and turns me savagely to face it. I stagger in the snow, barely staying on my feet. The demon stands before me, fire in his eyes wants to fry me. There’s not a trace of charm in him any more, not a bit of sadness: it was all just a deceit. Only unhidden hatred rages in his eyes.
The demon rises his clenched fist and opens it. Ashes scatter from it, carried by the wind, whirled around, thrown into the snowflakes. The contract. Worthless, a fistful of ashes is all that remained of it.
“Well played, little one”, he hisses through clenched teeth. “Well played, indeed.”
And the demon turns and leaves into the night without a further word, leaving me alone, as the blizzard covers prints of his hooves in the snow.
I remain standing under the yellow floodlight, the game is over and it is only now that fear grabs me. I struggle to inhale the freezing air. The demon’s hatred burns in me, but I’m still here, he didn’t destroy me. And he wanted to, oh, how he wanted to. But he couldn’t, he was not permitted to, and I know why.
I try my wings. I spread them in all their magnificence, I flap them, again, once more, and again, harder, stronger. I rise from the ground. My white wings take me up, high, above the buildings in which His birth is celebrated drunkenly, and higher up, above the blizzard, and above the highest clouds and upward ... Bells reach me through the night. Only I hear them, they toll just for me. They toll grudgingly, they never fully accepted me, they never will, but they toll, they must toll, announcing my arrival to the place I belong after all, now that I passed the Exam.
And when I get there, I’ll look for the girl. And I will be hers, and she will be mine, and I know that she’ll need me. Because, Heaven can be a cold place ...

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