Two Lines Journal
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by Balla
Translated from Slovak by
Julia Sherwood

One day, when I began to feel troubled by the furniture in the old house I inherited from my parents, I asked some people to help me clear out all the rooms, load the furniture onto a truck and drive it out to the outskirts of the city where we tossed all the trash into a ditch and covered it with big sheets of fabric. Back at home I treated my helpers to several bottles of delicious, robust wine and before too long everyone was singing at the top of their voices and stumbling around the house. . . . As their voices echoed about the place I was suddenly filled with dread at the prospect of spending the night alone in the house after everyone was gone. The immense silence was sure to have a devastating effect on me, I realized, as I paced to and fro fearfully, my eyes darting around like those of a small animal, looking for any sign of understanding in the increasingly clouded, unsympathetic eyes of these people. My helpers were rolling around the rugs on the floor, singing exuberantly.

And then a stroke of luck: a friend, who was passing by, looked in through the window. I asked him to come in at once and stay the night as the others were about to leave and it was now dark outside.

They left but hung around in front of the house for a good while, hooting with laughter and shouting loudly; some of them even tried to dance but gradually, one by one, they turned up their coat collars against the cold, and disappeared around the corner even if their steps were slow and unsteady.

I offered my friend a slice of buttered bread with onions. He sat on a rug chewing intently: first one cheek bulging out, then the other and he licked a finger from time to time. His dark eyes gleamed in the light of the bare bulb. His thin lips, pressed together, resembled a scar from an appalling wound inflicted by a knife or a razor.

Ours was a weird friendship. In fact, we hated each other, but come to think of it, is it really so strange for friends to hate one another? We knew each other very well, having been friends for many years: time had rendered everything that had been good and useful about our friendship incredibly dull and boring, depriving it of any value or else turning it into its opposite, until eventually all we did was watch out for each other’s mistakes and blunders as an excuse for an argument. Even worse, there was an odd quality to our arguments, disguised as they were by smiles, magnanimous gestures and feigned understanding, and embellished with cunning compromises, behind which there lurked the next assault, to be launched cautiously and circumspectly, by innuendo rather than by direct accusation, of course, to prevent the adversary from mounting an effective defense, as he could never be sure just how and why he had come under attack.

My friend swallowed mouthfuls of the buttered bread, apparently expecting a night filled with discussions of the kind where you have to weigh your words damn well, or, at least, as carefully as if making a move in a chess game with a grandmaster. But I kept quiet, leaning my back against the wall. I sensed a growing horror taking hold of me. Responding to my friend’s unspoken question about the removal of the furniture I blurted out that it had begun to trouble me of late, adding that what really troubled me was myself, the part of me which, through my long-term presence in this apartment, had invaded the old, cozy and otherwise quite blameless pieces of furniture. My words made my friend jump immediately to the conclusion that he possessed much greater, and rather more valuable, experience in this field. He compared the mystery of my furniture to that of Gothic cathedrals. I didn’t really understand this comparison and it struck me as ridiculous. I lost track of the rest of my friend’s explanation and couldn’t wait for him to finish so that I could announce that now the rugs, too, had suddenly begun to trouble me, and I didn’t hesitate to ask him to help me carry them into the yard.

It was a chilly night but we didn’t feel the cold; quite the opposite, we got rather hot and sweaty as we lugged the heavy rugs, some of which were really very large. Now and then we couldn’t help swearing, especially when our load jammed in the narrow doorway and we couldn’t get it in or out, clumsily twisting and jerking it between the panels of the door. When all the rugs were finally in the yard I realized it wasn’t enough: they still felt too close. My friend concurred, which I found surprising and encouraging at the same time, although I was also somewhat disconcerted by the potential hidden meaning of his unexpected agreement. So we discussed the matter for a while, yet I could not discern any evil intent on his part, nor any sign of a trap being laid, for my friend now confessed to having got rid of his own furniture and rugs some time ago, only he had been too embarrassed to tell me, assuming I would mock him for being a histrionic poseur. I readily admitted that his concern had been justified. Then we took hold of the rugs and set about carrying them into a nearby grove where we piled them up and camouflaged them with various branches, twigs, soil and stones.

Having returned to the house we lay down next to a wall, snuggling up to one another to keep warm, sipping the wine left over from earlier.

Then we slept until dawn.

A few weeks went by. My friend moved in with me, which naturally started the rumor mill in the neighborhood; the women in our street were particularly outraged and some of them would cross over to the other side of the road rather than run into me on the sidewalk, while others even turned around and walked in the opposite direction. Far from being bothered by the reaction of the outside world we found it inspiring and bragged to each other about our burgeoning “negative” experiences.

People who had known us casually and learned we were now living together must have become suspicious about our sex lives although, in fact, any suspicion of this kind was absurdly misplaced: at first we even continued our relationships with our respective lovers and life went on as before until, eventually, we ceased to meet our lovers’ expectations or, to be more precise, were no longer capable of satisfying their sexual demands—not necessarily because these had increased but rather because our potency had rapidly diminished until it virtually disappeared altogether; this change, however, was not the result of having relations with each other, as this never occurred and in actual fact, these—admittedly rather unpleasant—changes were the result of increasing exhaustion. This came about because after a few days of cohabitation we had both, quite spontaneously, reached the conclusion that we now felt troubled by the wallpaper and the wall paint, as well as the parquet flooring and the linoleum; indeed, even the stone floor of the entrance hall and corridor had begun to affect us in the same way. And so every night after work we felt compelled to launch into grueling physical labor in an attempt to purge our dwelling of the above-mentioned shortcomings. We would toil late into the night, and the apartment filled with dust and dirt; we would lie down to rest around midnight, only to be back on our feet an hour later and continue slaving away to ensure the house should feel like a genuine home. We spared no effort. We would load all the stuff stripped off the walls and taken up from the floor onto a wheelbarrow and bury it in the forest. This way of life so thoroughly drained us of energy that the thought of sexual gratification never even crossed our minds. Yet many people couldn’t get our “bedroom” mystery out of their heads, especially when they saw our haggard, exhausted faces, the bags under our eyes, and our emaciated bodies; on noticing our calloused hands the more malicious among them fantasized that we were engaging in incredibly strenuous and perverted sexual practices.

Weeks and months went by. We bought new furniture and rugs. A short while later we booked a removals company and had them take the furniture away as it had started to trouble us inordinately, eating us up from the inside, and we began to perceive its presence in the house as some kind of saboteur or an intruder who assaulted us with our own weapons, that is to say, our own character traits, which we had passed on to these objects, making them come to life.

Before long it was the turn of the rugs, those scheming serpents coiling around our feet and whispering to each other at night. We dragged them out into the yard and set them alight. Even as we looked into the flames we remained concerned that we might never be completely purged of this terrible contagion.

Soon we bought new rugs and new furniture. The furniture was modern and stylish and, later on, as we hauled it all to the dump behind the city, a large crowd of citizens gathered around with handcarts and barrows to snatch up the odd piece. We didn’t care. We then hurried home for the rugs, rolled them up hurriedly, piled them onto the truck and returned to the dump where people literally snatched them out of our hands, loaded them onto various means of transport and left, laughing joyfully; they thought we were crazy but, of course, fearing we might change our minds, no-one ever asked why we were doing all this. For us it was no laughing matter. We began to wonder if our behavior might be pathological. At this time we wept often, usually over a glass of wine, lying on the floor of the empty house; then we would again explode in bursts of virtually feverish activity, scraping further and further layers off the walls of the apartment as by now they, too, had been contaminated with our presence and our existence. Every now and then we would reinforce the walls again and give them a new coat of paint, applying similar treatment to the floor, but, nevertheless, the fits of destructive stripping of layers that we had contaminated were growing increasingly intense and frequent, preventing us from renovating our dwelling at a matching pace.

But there was worse to come.

What soon became even more unpleasant was the gap that opened up between how my friend and I perceived the process of contamination of our immediate environment. To cut a long story short, there came a point when the contagion engulfing the furniture and the walls began to affect my friend much earlier and with greater intensity than it affected me, his fresh fits manifesting themselves almost as soon as, say, new furniture had been delivered, the apartment walls had been repainted or the floor had been refurbished. One morning he came up to me, and giving me a bear hug declared firmly that he was leaving since he could no longer live in the contaminated apartment. He went off to China and even though I have never heard from him again, my own predicament offers a clue as to his fate. Following his departure I threw out the furniture a few more times but eventually I stopped actively fitting the place out and continued to live in a house that was completely bare. It was, however, a terrible life. I was constantly haunted by a variety of visions and hallucinations, my sleep disturbed by shadows that kept crawling from the walls toward me, shadows that resembled me so much that I sometimes felt it was really my own self emerging from the plaster while the thing lying in the middle of the room on a pile of old rags was just a delusion that was bound to dissipate any moment. I could clearly see all my bad qualities emanating from the floor, peeling off from the wall paint, solidifying, and beginning to permeate me as they returned to their original source. The severely contaminated house made the evil inside me expand continuously. I would strip the wallpaper off the walls with my bare hands, hack at the floor with a pickax, and rush to the forest carrying the debris in my arms, no longer bothering to bury it. Soon the walls of the house were paper-thin. It did not take long before the first holes appeared and they grew bigger by the day. Eventually some of the walls caved in. The contagion grew daily more intense. I hired contractors, whose sole job was to dispose of the debris in the forest, covering it up with soil. I no longer had the time or energy to keep repairing and remodeling the house. In the end mechanical diggers tore down the remaining walls, digging deep trenches where the foundations had been; these were filled in with lead. The lot was now unusable. During this period I lived in a tent, a new one every night; each morning the contractors would drag it into the forest and destroy it.

I realized I couldn’t possibly stay at home any longer. Only now did I reach the point my friend must have arrived at long ago. Now I understood how he had felt. . . . The visions emanating from the contaminated objects, from the walls, the furniture—indeed, probably also from myself—must have had a horrifying impact on him! The sight of his own emanation from me would have presented him with an insurmountable, deadly problem, for while objects could be disposed of in one way or another, the evil in his own shape, emanating from me, threatened to endure forever. . . . And even if I had vanished, the contagion had by now begun to spread from my friend at such a pace that it was almost physically impossible to keep up with it, to replace the furniture, renovate the walls, repair the flooring, and so on. He had only one option left, the same one I was facing now: to leave. Now I faced a life on the road, in permanent flight. I left my native city. This wasn’t too hard as I was no longer emotionally attached to it: I wasn’t close to anyone since nobody would acknowledge me, my former friends pretended not to know me, the women I had loved had no use for an impotent, exhausted lunatic; my co-workers had signed a petition demanding I be fired claiming I had a drink problem—and who wouldn’t, in my shoes? But I’m not complaining. In any case, staying was out of the question. The contamination of my environment with my character traits was accelerating at a breathtaking pace: I couldn’t stay anywhere for more than half an hour before my surroundings started to feel literally toxic, permeated by everything I represented and was most terrified of. . . . It felt like being forced to look into a mirror all the time and made to confront the worst aspects of oneself. . . . Even going for a beer was no longer safe because after about a half hour or so I felt a terrible compulsion to scrape off the plaster from the wall nearest to my table to stop seeing my self in it; a little later I started to wonder if it wasn’t the person holding the glass that I should be digging my fingernails into because the figures on the walls and in the furniture seemed more real, more plausible, more alive.

I hit the road. It wasn’t a comfortable life but I had no choice. At first I would spend the nights at railway stations and in barns, but later I found it impossible to rest, since after a few minutes an unspeakable sound, a chorus of whispering phantoms would rouse me from my sleep and I would find myself surrounded by multitudes of exact copies of myself and couldn’t stay there any longer, not even for a moment, and felt compelled to press my hands to my ears and stagger out into the night.

Some time later I was no longer able to just walk one step at a time, and felt a compulsion to run, as my surroundings were now being contaminated by me at a dizzying speed. Once, as I was running, I saw a totally exhausted man collapse into a ditch by the road; he was obviously at the end of his tether. Running past him I noticed he was being inexorably deformed by some pressure whose source was invisible to my eyes although clearly discernible to him as the expression on his face and his horror-struck eyes made clear . . . and within a few seconds he vanished, crushed by pressures that bore down on him from every direction. The poor man was simply sucked into the void. I moved on from the place where he disappeared and ever since have done nothing but plod, plod along the dusty road, fleeing a similar fate, although my strength is beginning to fail me.

This morning I crossed the state border.

Balla has been referred to as the Slovak Kafka and the “alchemist of Slovak literature.” He is the recipient of several literary awards, most recently Slovakia’s most prestigious Anasoft Litera prize, which he won in 2012 for his novella In the Name of the Father. Contagion originally appeared in 1996 in Leptokaria, the first of seven short story collections he has published so far.
Slovak-born Julia Sherwood was educated in Germany and England and settled in London where she worked for Amnesty International and Save the Children. Since moving to the U.S. in 2008, she has worked as a freelance translator. She has translated Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová (Garnett Press, London, 2011) from the Slovak and is currently translating the novel Freshta by Petra Procházková from the Czech.