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38. He was alone for the first two days and then he shared the constricted space with an old man, a bookkeeper by the name of Postružnik, a thin, humped and sleazy man, with spectacles set at a slant over his big, crooked nose. His obnoxious silence, which made breathing hard, was irritating, but even more sickening was his telling of ambiguous, ugly stories in which he denigrated whatever is beautiful and pure in the world. When he was telling them, you did not know where to sit or where to look. The young man guarded himself as best he could — with patience, total withdrawal into his inner self, and with his own thoughts. He found comfort in the feeble reflection of the invisible sun that fell into the cell in the afternoon. This lasted just a short while, but during this time he sat entranced and, singing almost inaudibly, watched on his hands this pale, indirect gleam of the lost sun, and poured it from palm to palm, this precious fluid and magic with which he created a golden, unscalable wall between himself and Postružnik and Postružnik's world. And now he was there again, on the sunny side, in the big cell 115, with about a dozen inmates, most of whom he knew, where there was sunshine and brightness in abundance. This was a true orgy of light. From six in the morning until noon, the sun shone, first directly and then at an angle, on the three large windows. Even though there were not only bars on the windows but a thick wire mesh, the room was filled with sunlight, which, subdued by the latticework, fell on the floor and the straw mats in three wide strips. Even when the sun had left the cell, some time after lunch, the young man could still see its glow on the roofs of distant houses, on the tops of poplars and the spires of several church towers. And he would watch it, with his forehead pressed against the metal mesh, oblivious to the cell behind him and the men in it. (They thought him a taciturn eccentric, even teased him at times, but he disarmed all of them with his smile.) Only at dusk did the sunshine disappear everywhere and entirely. Then the young man would retire to his straw mat and there he "lived off reserves." When he fell asleep, still awake in him, even in his deepest sleep, was a tiny bit of his awareness of the sun and the coming day and a little fear that the day might be overcast. Even when it did happen that the sun did not shine, the young man did not leave his window. He would watch the distant gardens and poplars, whose colors autumn changed quickly and their shapes slowly. When he got tired of the distant view, he would lower his gaze to look below the window, where, from an oblique perspective, a part of the prison yard could be seen, with its gray, washed-out and trodden down slabs, like a rug, in the center. Busy prisoners often passed over the slabs when they carried their loads to an invisible storeroom. They looked furtively up, where, behind the meshed windows, they could make out the silhouettes of the inmates they did not know. Further on he could see the left half of a big gate, which was rarely open, because a small doorway, hardly visible from his cell, had been cut
out in its right door, through which the prison employees and visitors from the town entered and exited. Above this old-fashioned gate, with its heavy iron bar and locks, rose a transparent turret of white stone, built like a belfry, with three arches. A small bell was hung in its middle, higher opening. Exposed to air, wind and rain, turned green and dark, probably motionless for a long time, it had not tolled for decades now, as there was at the gate a small electric bell, which rang whenever someone was allowed to go in or out and whose sharp sound reached even the cell on the second floor. It was no longer used to sound an alarm, either, as there was, for this purpose, a network of extremely loud electric bells. It, like the tiny, three-arched stone turret, was only a relic from past times and old architecture in this, incidentally, much extended and modernized prison. When he watched this old, abandoned bell, which had outlived its purpose, a misty veil often fluttered before his eyes, thinned out by sunlight, and, instead of the motionless bell, characters and events from his imagination or from his past appeared before him. In early March of this year, at the Albion boarding house in Florence, he met brother and sister Kartanen. They were from Finland. Alissa and Edgar. She was twenty-five, twenty-six at most; he was just over twenty. Their father came to Italy about ten years ago, with all the family. First, the mother died there and then, two years ago, the father, too. Two of them now lived in this modest boarding house. They lived modestly but well and merrily. They were both at university. The young man first made friends with Edgar, his peer, who studied law as himself, and then also with the sister, a slim, blue-eyed girl of the northern type. She was working on her doctoral thesis at the school of philosophy and at the same time supporting both herself and her brother doing translation for some foreign newspapers and news agencies, because, besides Finnish, she also spoke Russian, German, Italian, English and who knows how many other languages. Her doctoral thesis was: "The History of Bells, from their invention and in all the countries of the world." Of all bells, from the one worn by Swiss cows to the glass bells in Chinese pagodas. She was to complete her thesis in autumn and pass her doctoral exam. They lived as good friends. Even though she was just a few years older than they, Alissa kept a maternal, patronizing stance towards both of them. They called her "the governess." The young man was attracted to this thin girl with an athletic handshake, who led an independent life and knew what she wanted from life but could also blush over a trifle. In the evenings they often sat in the garden of their boarding house and on Sundays they went for "historic walks" round Florence, with Alissa acting as their indefatigable and perfectly informed guide. From her huge knowledge she selected only the most illustrative details and recounted them to the two young men like to astounded children. On a sunny Sunday morning outside the Convent of San Marco, where the somber and tragic monk Savonarola used to live, she told them the history of the big convent bell.
When Savonarola came into conflict with the spiritual and secular authorities, he and his followers shut themselves up inside this convent. After a short fight, soldiers broke into the convent and arrested Savonarola and the disobedient monks. Before they were overpowered, the monks used the biggest bell, called Piagnona, to sound the alarm and call their men to help them. When Savonarola, together with two of his lieutenants, was convicted and burned as a heretic and a rebel, other Dominican monks and his devotees from among the citizenry were persecuted and put on trial. However incredible this may sound, there was also a long and veritable trial of the big bell Savonarola had used to sound the alarm. The court's decision was to banish the bell from the city. And, indeed, it was mounted on a cart and driven out of Florence. The city executioner walked behind the cart through the whole city and kept whipping the treacherous bell that had taken part in the rebellion. Many hardened Dominican monks are said to have wept like little children because of the blows their bell was being dealt. This, however, did not make this city particularly exceptional. In the sixteenth century, a Russian prince exiled to Siberia the bell of the town of Uglich because it had called the citizens to arms during a rebellion against the authorities. When the rebels had been overpowered and killed or exiled, the bell was punished as well. And, same as the most serious criminals, it had its "ears" cut off and its "tongue," the clapper, plucked out. Bells shared the fate of people everywhere in the world, because they were partakers of the most important moments in their lives, both happy and tragic. "Everywhere!" — In that instant the entire Florence in the spring went dark inside the young man like a light bulb that dies, and the awareness of his reality and position returned with frightening force. The prison gate with the bell at the top was once again before his eyes. The link to the past had been cut off. But only for a moment. The gate bell started to melt and diminish in his tearful eyes, turning into mist, and, through the mist, the sun was shining brighter and brighter. In the sunshine, he again saw the flagstoned square outside the Convent of San Marco. Walking there was a laughing girl, thin but strong, dressed in black and talking about Savonarola and bells. He thundered, she said, against the licentiousness of Florentine citizenry and the immorality among the Roman clergy. "Ogni cosa fanno per danaro, e le campane loro suonano ad avarizia, e non chiamano che pane, danari, candele."1 Shaking her rosy, tiny fist animatedly, Alissa imitated the sound of a bell and declaimed the initial syllables of the last three words: "Pan! Dan! Can!" Thus they went through Florence, stopping in front of churches and public buildings, and the girl recounted the history of these edifices, and particularly of the bells that hung in their spires and towers. Outside the building where the Florentine Signoria used to convene, she explained the role and importance of the bell that sounded the alarm for the people of Florence. The key to this bell tower was kept by government members, who took
Whatever they do, they do for money, and their bells only toll out of avarice and keep shouting one and the same thing: bread, money, candles!
turns every two or three days and, at certain times, even every single day. This precluded any treason or abuse. But if the bell did clang and peal, all the men fit for war would grab their weapons and rush outside, while women would get boilinghot oil ready to pour it on the enemy from the windows. The girl's knowledge about bells was huge and the anecdotes she would tell at opportune moments were countless. It was not always easy to follow her accounts. But the young man did not care so much about the bells as he did about Alissa Kartanen, who the people in the boarding house called Signorina Carta (Miss Paper). For, when he was listening to her, he could also look at her, and that was a great joy, which increased with every passing day. And it did not matter what the girl was talking about, because she was the source of the charm and true significance of her stories. Having returned from Paris, where she had spent several days, she talked with great elation about the Chinese bells she had seen in a museum; and she had not only seen them but, by courtesy of a curator, heard how they sounded. She claimed that all the bells in Europe were interrelated, as if through a kinship, while the Chinese ones were not related to anything we know, being strange and different, speaking in another tongue, shouting something different to a person and asking something different of them. And you did not know what it was. Their sound is like a random noise in the wild that is heard only once, in only one place, and never again and nowhere else. Therefore, later, when you hear another Chinese bell, it is an entirely new event, something without a precedent. At that point, with her rich voice, which ranged from a crystalline trill to a muffled thunder, she imitated the sound of a bell using the verses of a Chinese poet. Tsiang — tsiang! Dhia — dhia! Ghang — ghang! Xiung — xiung! The young man listened to her in amazement, thinking that for this strange girl, to whom no language in the world seemed to be totally foreign, not even the souls of bells held any secrets. But she did not just talk; she also wanted to hear something about bells from everyone. She kept asking the young man questions, too, pressing him to tell her about the bells in his native land, what purpose they served and on what occasions they were used, where they were cast and what they were called. The young man was bewildered and a little ashamed of not being able to tell her anything about it. To hide his bewilderment, he kept pointing out that he had never liked either bells or their tolling, because he was not interested in "sacred" things, which were related to superstition. And she would reproach him by saying that his way of thinking was superficial and too rigid. Things in themselves, she said, are neither sacred nor cursed. It all depends on their use, and the use depends on people. — And there would be the look of simple solemnity in her eyes. However, when she kept pressing him — although it was more because of those eyes — he remembered a story about bells that he had heard a long time before. An image from his early childhood sprung to his mind.
A summer twilight, still glowing red from the scorching day. He is sitting in a sloping yard. All of the yard is paved with grayish pebbles from the Drina and bordered all around with bricks painted shiny white and with a narrow belt of various small flowers that bloom successively. He is sitting next to his maternal grandfather, Zamfo Selaković. He is gazing in amazement at the man's brown, wrinkled face, at his strong, knotty hand, which always holds a cigarette holder of silver filigree with a thick cigarette in it, and warily and reverently passing his little hand over the rough brown cloth of his grandpa's roomy breeches. (Throughout his life the notion of a man's hand and garments will, for some reason, remain tied to the memory of that hand and that cloth, which he watched when he was five or six.) Zamfo is puffing forth slow, bluish smoke and telling a story to those around him, not paying any attention to the little boy sitting at his feet, a story that his father, Sofren, told him about the first, small bell of the Višegrad church. About a dozen years before the arrival of the Austrians, the citizens of Višegrad bought a bell somewhere in Serbia. They carried it over secretly, in a bag of salt, on an ox cart, and built a small, almost unnoticeable wooden belfry next to the church. But the bell did not stay in it long. War broke out and there was revolt at the border. Turkish soldiers arrived in Višegrad in great numbers and just would not leave it. And they were evil and idle soldiers; they meddled in everything and ferreted around everywhere. There was no priest; the church was closed down. Then Mujaga Mezildžić, a respectable and kindhearted man, sent for Zamfa's father, Sofren, and said to him, "You see what kind of times these are, unfavorable to any of the faiths. The imperial soldiers have heard rumors that you have a bell and they want to take it down. And a bell is like this, so to speak: it stands high, it is heard far and it can't be hidden. Now, listen to me, Sofren — you're a smart man: there may be trouble; why should you get yourselves killed because of a bell? Take it down yourselves and hide it until this uproar is over." Sofren thanked him, and that very night he and two parishioners, serious and trustworthy people, took the bell down and hid it in the grain in his barn. Later, they smeared it with oil, coated it with wax, wrapped it in oilcloth, buried it, and swore not to tell a soul about it. Four years the bell lay buried. In the meantime Sofren had died, having passed the secret on to his son Zamfa, still a young man. When the times changed, they dug up the bell and hung it in its original place. Later they obtained two bigger bells. These that still toll on holidays and during funerals. It was both scary and sweet to listen to grandpa's stories at these strange hours between day and night — which have nothing in common with ordinary human time but seem to be made for storytelling — to listen about injustice and persecutions, the trouble with bells and all kinds of other things, or, for that matter, about any important and big thing that only happened to adults, contained something superhumanly hard and was so enchanting that it moved one to tears. This was his only memory of bells. He wished to relate it to Alissa, as a present for her. But it is one thing to remember something and quite another to recount the memory. Now it suddenly seemed to him that this Višegrad of his was somehow tiny
and insignificant, so distant from everything here that its life could not be explained to these foreigners. Nevertheless, he decided to recount it, but, as he was doing it, he kept wondering if his story about this provincial town's bell could at all stand next to those histories of bells from the big world, which he had so often heard from Alissa. At times it seemed to him that it could and at other times that it could not. He did, however, muster the strength to recount it to the end, but with a lot of pauses, hesitation and abridgments. Then, perplexed, he went silent. Alissa was delighted with the story, which, as a real-life example, only reconfirmed what she had learned from books on bells in the lands under Islamic rule. She urged him to tell her more stories if he could. At the same time she reproached him for being so downhearted and unappreciative of himself and his own. Patting him on the shoulder, she would tell him that science did not discriminate between small and big towns and lands. There was no bell too tiny that its history would be unimportant or that it would fail to have a place among the histories of other bells in the world. This was the case with bells, because it was also the case with everything else. The young man was content now. He only regretted not knowing anything else about the subject. It even crossed his mind to invent a story and recount it, but he was incapable of it. Even so, he communicated with Alissa with ease when it came to bells, but with great difficulty when it came to what was most important to him. Already after the first several days of their acquaintance she completely overshadowed his world, standing before him as the only woman for him and as his only goal. In the look of her eyes he found room for all his hopes, even the boldest ones, but as soon as he made even the smallest and most innocent move to materialize them, the girl would repulse him with a steely motion of her hand, coldly and unequivocally. She would put him back in his place as if he were a spoiled brat. A minute or two later he would again dive into her bright eyes, which offered him more than he could grasp and bear. She seemed to love him only with her eyes, and to love only his eyes. It was not easy for him, so young, eager and inexperienced, to constantly rise and fall on this vertiginous seesaw of highest pleasure and deepest disappointment. His position seemed hopeless and endlessly miserable. But the end came with the parting, which, like all the partings at the time, did not seem definite or final. A summer break does not last for ever. "See you!" she said to him earnestly, giving him that long, penetrating look that, despite everything and regardless of everything, promises everything. "See you," she wrote in their correspondence that followed their parting and consisted of two postcards. When he arrived in Trieste, he wrote her a postcard. Deeply unhappy because of their parting, as only a young man can be, he wanted to write something light and joyful but a bit spiteful, to hide his enormous, unrecognized and unsatisfied love behind a few intentionally plain words. The result was clumsy. From a little German book of Goethe's quotes, which he had been reading on the train, he
randomly picked up the sentence: "Die Welt ist eine Glocke, die einen Riss hat, sie klappert, aber klingt nicht."2 Under that he added: "See you in that world!" She replied immediately. As so many times during their conversations, she reproached him for not thinking right and for being totally rash in his judgments, but she, too, ended the postcard with those two words, which were burning him now like two embers: "See you!" And that was also the end of their correspondence, because he was arrested the next day and brought to this unusual house with a bell above the gate. Since he had been in prison, the memory of these friends of his had not left him, but only changed its shape and strength. During the first few days, he was so distressed, confused and frightened that he could only think about his new life. The memories of Alissa did keep coming at the time, but he suppressed them and sent them back to the free world from which they were coming. They seemed too painful and he thought that he could not bear them, that he could not afford such a luxury in his position. He forbade himself to remember. Not even Edgar, with his serious-looking but serene face and pure, simple thoughts, could easily find room in the cell, where the less one remembered, the less one suffered. But after the first week, when his shock abated and habit began its quiet and unseen work, he started letting Alissa in, bathing in her gaze and breathing in the atmosphere of her chaste body, clean and odorless like northern air. And she came to him more often and more intimately, without the merciless resistance and sternness that she had shown in Florence. Admittedly, every awakening and return to the reality of the prison was still very painful, but he accepted it as the inevitable price to be paid for great joys. Since he had been in this cell on the sunny side, among good people, with a distant view and the antiquated bell before his eyes, he had indulged in thinking for a long time and vividly about the girl from the Albion boarding house and she was now to him, often for hours on end, what she could have been in Florence if he had been luckier, if human relationships were simpler and closer to our personal dreams and desires. Days passed and grew shorter and shorter, without sunshine and without the view, which was now more often than not covered in fog at daybreak, but the young man kept to his window. Propped on his elbow, with his forehead pressed against the hard mesh, he could watch for hours on end the little bell that now blocked out the world and became his only goal, not averting his eyes from its motionless, greenish metal, as if he was reading an endless book whose pages turned of their own accord. And he would read — what he read did not depend on him — a different thing every day, something else every hour. He read about the life of people, such as at his age could be intuited from this place and from such a window. He read about the sun, freedom and free movement, about anything a man in his position could think about and desire and dream about. He also read about the obverse to all that,
The world is a bell with a crack in it; it rattles, but does not ring.
about the constricted prison space, the intricate, mutual effect of inevitable social habits and institutions, written and unwritten laws, all that brings bold or simply careless individuals to these rooms, about the dark, tragic side of a man's life, which is entirely made of suspicions, distrust, deception, force, fear and suffering. He read about the history of the world as it appears to amazed and eager eyes through a web of steel wires against the green metal backdrop of the motionless prison bell. Seen from his present position, his history of the world, which encompassed centuries of great, grave and glorious events, seemed tiny, pitiful, full of misunderstandings, pointless pain and meaningless disasters, insane and horrible. However, his small and nameless life appeared to him as the radiant, big anticipation found in the books he had read and the truths he had sensed, in the sounds of music, in the images of the sandy banks of the Drina river on sweltering summer days, or on the Lungarno, where, on a sunny morning, walking peacefully and freely towards him was Alissa Kartanen, a girl from the North, who did not know vice or misfortune or the fear of life; rather, pure and intelligent, she was walking straight-backed, faithful to the laws she carried in herself. She was walking and walking but not approaching him, nor could he approach her; they were ceaselessly walking towards each other, but in a ghostly walk that does not cover any distance but only wearies and tortures one like a mad and lying dream. They were going and going, but could not call each other or communicate and would never meet, because she was on some light side of life and he on a dark one. (Since he had been in prison, this Florence in his memory had not been a real city but a magical landscape of eternal, unchanging springtime, just as his friends there were no ordinary people but exceptional, happy beings that did not get ill, did not get old, did not die, but they could not get to him, nor he to them.) In such moments, when the torment reached its peak, he eagerly wanted a miracle to happen and the rusty bell above the gate, condemned to immobility, to move. It seemed to him that the bell, so tiny and unpretentious, exactly because it was like that and in such a place, could produce a mighty and extraordinary sound that would suddenly move all the frontiers, all human dreams and waking hours, and that afterwards a man could live in peace and freedom, even if he had nothing else under the heavens. But as the miracle failed to happen and the bell remained motionless, as if it had been created to be just like that and could only exist as such, after sunset the young man would turn away from his window and, blinded, wobble to his straw mat to dip into his darkness and thus at least relieve himself of the unbearable nightmare. The following day's dawn would again find him at the window. What else could he do? The surface of the motionless bell had to be "read" and deciphered (just as one had to live, eat, drink and breathe), even though you did not know what you would learn, what images you would see on it and what messages you would read. For there was no other view. Thus it went on until the end of October, when the number of the hours of sunshine was substantially lower. There were more and more foggy and rainy days, darkness fell earlier and earlier, and the cell was cold and damp. Even the sunny
Florence, which had seemed eternal and immutable, was further and further away, grayer and colder. And the girl from the North, Alissa Kartanen, crossed the small stone-paved piazzas quicker and quicker as if running away from someone, and less and less frequently appeared on the banks of the Arno. Now she was tense and smaller, enveloped in her raincoat, squeezing her leather bag, full of the latest data for her doctoral thesis on bells, under her right armpit, and had no words or smile for anyone. It was obvious that everything was getting dark and being extinguished in her world as well; only her scholarly work was growing and nearing completion. And afterwards, when this had happened, she would probably no longer appear; she, too, would fade away like an apparition that fed on sunshine and imagination. Then she would completely disappear. And here, the fall would usher in winter, and life, devoid of any beauty, grace and comfort, would be reduced to just — imprisonment and uncertainty. Obviously, this was where everything that was going on in the cell and outside, in the foggy landscape and the patch of gray sky above it, was headed. And this would fully have come true, had it not happened one day after all ... The impossible happened, the unexpected came along. It was the last day of October, or the first day of November. (Dates in this cell always got a little mixed up.) The day was wet and overcast. The last of the leaves were falling on the distant gardens, not lightly and flutteringly as dry leaves fall, but, soaked and heavy, they were plummeting suicidally to the ground. The young man was watching the bell at the gate below, which the dampness and the cloudy day turned brown and gave it a gloomy appearance. The bells of some churches tolled monotonously and persistently, as if vying among themselves, trying to enthrall everybody's hearing. The stench of smoke and rotting garden waste was coming from outside; the bars were cold and sticky like some disgusting, wet fingers. Bitterness was building up in the mouth, the skin was breaking out in frosty goose bumps. The prison was reigning over all the senses. It was one of those moments when, in the middle of the day, darkness closed around the imprisoned man and everything was trying to convince him that there was no other way out but — to die. Then the forever motionless prison bell stirred and accomplished what all the bells of all the temples in the world and all the little bells in all the entrance halls, courtrooms, parliaments and offices could never accomplish — it developed a sound that corresponded to the arc of the heavenly firmament above us and through an explosion of sound of an incomprehensible range that both destroys and sets free, carrying away all and resolving everything, moved that which was generally considered immovable and announced the coming era of motion and change. At one moment, seemingly still motionless, the "dead" bell above the gate, as if inspired by the all-pervasive pealing of the bells in the town, let out a dull, hardly audible sound. It was a ghostly silent stroke of the clapper, like when, in the silence of a forest, a big drop of water hits the wet leaf litter. Then came another, a little louder one, followed by a fast-paced procession of sounds that were still muted and coarse but each louder than the preceding one. They were joined by more and more new bells from somewhere, which, with each stroke of the clapper, opened up new and until then blocked wells of unknown sounds.
The tolling increased, rising to greater and greater heights, each of them seeming to be the peak, but none was, as it was immediately exceeded by a new one. It seemed as if all the elements of the human world, one after another, rapidly turned into sound and immediately, colliding and crashing, set off on their thunderous journey through the universe. All the existing sounds and noises were now flowing into this gigantic river of sound that flooded and carried away everything: the tectonic fissures and quaking of the earth, which was splitting, breaking and settling in the deeps, the clapping of thunders, the echoing of chasms, the howling of typhoons, the crashing of landslides, the cracking of trees and rocks. This hubbub also contained the sounds of all bells, all those the young man had ever heard and those countless ones he had not, which he had only read about or heard about from wise Alissa. (From those vanquished, condemned and punished ones in Russia or Florence, to those pulled down and broken during fires and religious wars, to the one his grandfather Sofren buried, but which later came out of the ground, to this little electric bell that woke him up every morning at daybreak .) There was also the sound of all trumpets, all horns, fiddles, drums, gongs, sirens, clapsticks, cymbals and mortars, of everything man has ever used to express through sound his might, struggles and courage, his troubles, anxiety and defense, or his victorious joy. The world went mute. The very last tone had been squeezed from it. For this forceful and lightning-quick avalanche of sounds carried away even the tiniest germ of sound, including the twittering of birds and human whispers and laughter, both good and evil. To the deafened man, lost in it was everything that had ever touched his eardrums, from the snarling of the plainclothes policeman who, in the last moments of his life as a free man, leveled an ugly curse at him, to the stuttering of the short grayish-haired tobacco vendor who was arrested with him and who, at the prison entrance, stepped out of the line, spread his arms as if set to perform some great feat, and said quietly, miserably and tearfully, "Why me, sir? I'm ... I'm a nobody!" — and he was saying this to a policeman in uniform, who was perplexed, tired and frightened at least as much as he was. All the rest that sounded and resounded, even the quietest and humblest human sounds, sank into this rumble and went with it: The soft clanking of the cutlery with which he ate his last lunch as a free man, with knife and fork, at a laid table, just as it should be. The splashing of the water with which he washed up on the morning of the day he was arrested. His amazed and provocative "wow!" directed in a low voice at an unknown girl on the Bank, the last woman that passed by him. Even her smiling silence, which could not contain any sound anyway, contained a sort of a sweet reply. Yes, all the sounds of the world had been drowned and silenced. For, whoever hears this bell, goes deaf forever to everything else, even to the sound of the bell itself. For he no longer has the sense of hearing, but rather, turned into the echo of the bell, travels with it, himself being a sound in a torrent of sounds that grows ever bigger and faster. It seemed to be gushing out of the ground. He felt how underneath him a carpet of sounds started flowing, strong and lightning-fast, and instantly knocked him off his feet. He thought of resisting it, of keeping his balance, but he never got to act on the thought. He raised his hands to his ears in a feeble attempt to defend himself; he straightened up from head to toe, let out a dull, almost
inaudible sound and fell flat on his back in the same instant. Falling, he hit one of those small stools with his right arm and overturned it. His body filled all of the free space in the room. Everyone jumped to their feet. Some remained standing still, paralyzed, while those braver and more in control of their senses among them ran to the young man, who was lying motionless but taut, as if he might suddenly leap to his feet. The muscles on his neck were twitching spasmodically and there was white froth at his mouth like thick lather. Voices started rising, colliding and overlapping. "Prop his head!" "Don't touch him!" "Not with water. Get a key! Anything made of iron," someone said, even though it was obvious there were no iron objects there. The voices mingled with the sharp and quivering tinkling of the alarm bell, which someone remembered to press. A long time passed before the guard on duty arrived and even a longer time before they were able to carry the young man, who was now twitching and jolting, to the prison infirmary. The men in his cell were silent for several more minutes as if petrified, frightened and perplexed, and then they all suddenly started talking about everything that had happened. What was it that had so unexpectedly struck this strong, quiet man down? Was it epilepsy? What should and what should not have been done? What else might happen to him? — A long and futile debate went on without end or meaning. For several more days their conversations centered on the fit that had so unexpectedly struck down the tall, good-natured student. One week passed and then another, but the young man did not return. They talked about him less and less and eventually stopped talking about him. One day, during a walk in the yard, one of them learned that the young man had been taken out of prison because he was seriously ill, but no-one knew where they had taken him. Once again they started talking about him and his illness, but the conversation quickly died down, because it had nothing to feed on. Time closed over the young man like murky water and carried him far and irreversibly away from cell 115.
Translated from Serbian by Ivan Delač, May 2012
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