The Wall

Leonid Andreyev (1901), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2016)

I

I and the other leper, we crawled carefully right up to the wall and looked up. From here the top of the wall could not be seen; it ascended upwards, straight and smooth, slicing the sky sharply into two halves. And our half of the sky was brown-black, and towards the horizon it was dark blue, which made it impossible to make out where it was that the black earth ended and the sky began. And the black night, crushed by the sky and the earth, was suffocating with a dull and painful groan, and with every breath it spit out from its depths sharp and burning sand that torturously burned our ulcers.

“Let’s try to climb over,” the leper said to me, and his voice was nasal and fetid, just like mine.

And he presented his shoulder, and I stood on it, but the wall was just as tall. Like the sky, it split the earth, it lay atop it like a fat sated snake, it fell into chasms and climbed over mountains but it kept its head and tail hidden over the horizon.

“Well, then we’ll break her!” suggested the leper.

“We’ll break her!” I agreed.

We hit the wall with our chests, painting it with the blood of our wounds, but it remained mute and motionless. And we fell into despair.

“Kill us! Kill us!” we groaned and crawled, but all the faces turned away from us with disgust, and we saw only their backs, shuddering from a deep revulsion.

This is how we crawled up to the starving one. He was sitting, leaning against a rock, and it seemed like the very granite was in pain from his sharp, prickly shoulder blades. He had no flesh at all, and his bones clacked as he moved, and the dry skin rustled. His lower jaw was hanging, and from the dark opening of his mouth came out a dry, rough voice:

“I am star-ving.”

And we laughed and began to crawl faster, until we bumped into the four who were dancing. They came together and drew apart, they hugged each other and circled round, and their faces were pale, tortured, without a smile. One of them began to cry because he was tired of the never-ending dance, and was asking to stop, but another hugged him in silence and started to spin him, and once again he began to come together and draw apart, and with every one of his steps there dropped a large, murky tear.

“I want to dance,” drawled my comrade, but I drew him onwards.

The wall was once again in front of us, and right by it two others sat squatting. At even intervals, one of them was smashing his forehead against the wall and falling, losing his consciousness. The other was looking at him seriously, feeling his head with his hand, then the wall, and then, when the other regained consciousness, was saying:

“More is needed; not long to go now.”

And the leper laughed.

“These are fools,” he said, joyfully inflating his cheeks. “These are fools. They think it’s light on the other side. But it’s also dark there, and the lepers also crawl there and plead: kill us.”

“And the old man?” I asked.

“Well, what about the old man?” countered the leper. “The old man is stupid, blind and can’t hear a thing. Who has seen the little hole that he made in the wall? Have you seen it? Have I seen it?”

And I became enraged and hit my comrade painfully on one of the swollen bubbles on his skull and shouted:

“Then why did you yourself try to climb?”

He began to cry, and we both cried and crawled onwards, all the while pleading:

“Kill us! Kill us!”

But the faces turned away with a shudder, and nobody wanted to kill us. They killed the strong and the beautiful, but us they were afraid to touch. Such cowards!

II

Time did not exist for us, and for us there was no yesterday, no today, and no tomorrow. The night never left us, never left to take a rest behind the mountains so it could return strong, jet-black and calm. That’s why she was always so weary, exhausted and sullen. She was vicious. It sometimes happened that she could no longer bear the listen to our screams and wails, could no longer look at our sores, grief and hatred, and in those moments her black, muffled chest would boil up in a ferocious fury. She roared at us like a caged beast whose reason was blotted out, and she would fiercely blink her terrible, burning eyes, which she cast over black, bottomless pits, over the dreary, sangfroid wall, and over the pitiful cluster of trembling people. They would press onto the wall as if it was a friend, pleading for its protection, but it was always an enemy to us, always. And the night would become irritated at our timidity and cowardice and would break out into a terrible laughter, shaking her spotted gray belly, and the old, bald mountains would themselves join into that satanic laughter. The wall, plunged into a dark mirth, would echo this by playfully dropping stones on our heads, crushing them and flattening our bodies. This is how they had their fun, these giants, and they echoed each other, and the wind would whistle for them a savage melody, and we lay face down, listening with horror as something massive was stirring and faintly grumbling deep within the depths of the earth, beating and trying to escape. At that moment we all pleaded:

“Kill us!”

But, in dying every second, we were immortal, like the gods.

A burst of wrath and gaiety passed us by, and the night weeped with tears of contrition and breathed heavily, coughing onto us wet sand, as if she was sick. With joy we forgave her, laughed at her, exhausted and weak, and became happy, like children. The yells of the starving one seemed to us a sweet song, and with cheerful envy we looked upon those four, the ones coming together, drawing apart, and gently circling in a never-ending dance.

And one by one we too began to circle round, and I, a leper, found myself a temporary girlfriend. And this was so fun, so pleasant! I hugged her, and she laughed, and her little teeth were white, and her little cheeks so very pink. It was so pleasant.

And it’s not possible to say how this happened, but those joyfully bared teeth began to click, the kisses turned into bites, and with squeals that still retained their joy we began to gnaw and kill each other. And she, white teeth, she too was hitting me on my painful, weak head, digging into my chest with her sharp nails, making her way right to the very heart—she beat me, a leper, a poor man, such a poor man. And this—this was more terrifying than the wrath of the very night and the soulless laughter of the wall, and I, a leper, cried and shivered from fear, and, secretly from all the others, kissed the abominable legs of the wall and pleaded with her to let me, only me alone, pass into that world where there were no insane people killing each other. But the wall, so despicable, did not let me through, and so I spit at her, beat her with my fists and shouted:

“Look at this murderess! She is laughing at you!”

But my voice was vile and my breath foul, and nobody wanted to listen to me, a leper.

III

And again we crawled, I and the other leper, and again it became noisy around us, and again without a word those four circled round us, shaking the dirt off their dresses and licking their bloody wounds. But we were tired, we were in pain, and life was weighing us down. My satellite sat down and, periodically hitting the ground with his swollen hand, uttered in a quick nasal patter:

“Kill us. Kill us.”

In a quick move we leapt to our feet and threw ourselves into the crowd, but it moved apart, and we saw only their backs. And we bowed towards their backs and pleaded:

“Kill us.”

But the backs were motionless and deaf, like a second wall. It was so frightening, when you cannot see the faces of the people, only their backs, motionless and deaf.

But now my satellite has left me. He saw a face, the first face, and it was just like his, ulcerated and awful. But it was the face of a woman. And he began to smile and walk around her, straightening his neck and spreading his stink, and she too smiled at him with a sunken mouth and lowered her eyes, devoid of lashes.

And they got married. And for a moment all the faces turned to them, and healthy bodies were shaken by a broad, reverberating laughter: so funny were they, flirting with each other. And I, a leper, laughed too, since it is stupid to get married when you are ugly and sick.

“Fool”, I said mockingly. “What are you going to do with her?”

“We’re going to trade stones that fall from the wall.”

“And children?”

“And the children we will kill.”

How stupid: giving birth to children just so they can be killed. And anyhow, soon she will cheat on him—she has such sly eyes.

IV

They finished their job—the one smashing his forehead, and the other, the one helping him, and when I crawled near one of them was hanging on a nail that was driven into the wall, and he was still warm, while the other was quietly singing a joyful song.

“Go tell the starving one,” I ordered him, and he set off obediently, singing as he went.

And I saw how the starving one swung away from his rock. He wavered, stumbled, caught everyone with his prickly elbows, now on all fours, now crawling, he made his way towards the wall where the hanged one was swaying, and he was clicking his teeth and laughing, joyfully like a child. Just a piece of the leg will do! But he was too late, and the others, the strong ones, overtook him. Pressing one onto another, scratching and biting, they covered the corpse of the hanged one, ripped into his legs, and were chomping with appetite and the gnawed bones were crackling. And he was let through. And he crouched down, looked at how the others were eating and licked his lips with his rough tongue, and an continuous wail came out of his large empty mouth:

“I am star-ving.”

Well, that was funny; that one died for the starving one, and the starving one didn’t even get a piece of a leg. And I laughed, and the other leper laughed, and his wife was also cheerfully opening and closing her sly eyes: she couldn’t squint because she had no eyelashes.

Meanwhile his wail became louder and more furious:

“I am star-ving.”

And the wheezing disappeared from his voice, and with a clear metallic sound, piercing and pure, it ascended upwards, collided with the wall, and, rebounding off it, flew over dark chasms and gray mountaintops.

And soon, everyone near the wall began to wail, and there were so many of them, like locusts, and they were greedy and hungry, like the locust, and it seemed that in its unbearable agony the scorched earth itself began to wail, its rock mouth wide open. It was like a forest of dried trees, which was made to bow to one side by the raging wind, was rising and stretching out its convulsing arms towards the wall, thin, pitiful, pleading, and there was in them so much despair that the rocks shuddered and the gray and blue clouds cowardly fled. But the wall was motionless and tall and with indifference did she reflect the wail that cut and pierced the layers of thick, malodorous air.

And all eyes were fixed on the wall, and fiery rays flowed from them. They had faith and waited for the wall to fall and open a new world, and in the blinding of the faith they already saw how the stones were shaking, how from the base to the top the stone snake was trembling, nourished by blood and brains of man. It may be that tears trembled in our eyes, and we thought that it was the wall itself, and our wail became more piercing.

The wrath and jubilation of the coming victory resounded in it.

V

And so then this is what happened. A thin old woman with sunken cheeks and long, uncombed hair, which looked like the gray mane of an old starving wolf, stood up high upon a rock. Her clothes were torn, revealing yellow bony shoulders and skinny, saggy breasts that gave life to many, now exhausted by motherhood. She stretched her arms towards the wall—and all eyes were fixed on them; she spoke, and there was so much torment in her voice that the starving one’s desperate wail was frozen in shame.

“Give me back my child!” she said.

And all of us were silent and we smiled violently, waiting for the wall’s answer. The brains of the one this woman called “her child” protruded from the wall as a bloody gray spot, and we waited impatiently, threateningly, for the answer this vile murderess would give. And it was so quiet that we could hear the rustle of the clouds moving above our heads, and the very black night herself has restrained the groans within her breast, spitting out with only a light whistle the burning fine sand eating at our wounds. And once again that ringing, severe, and bitter demand:

“Cruel one, give me back my child!”

Our smiles became more menacing and violent, but the vile wall was silent. And then from the speechless crowd came forward a handsome, stern old man and stood next to the woman.

“Give me back my son!” he said.

It was so terrifying and exciting! My back shivered from the cold, and my muscles contracted from the flow of an unknown, fierce power, and my satellite pushed at my side, clicked his teeth, and from his rotting mouth a stinking breath flowed out like a hissing broad wave.

And now another man came forward from the crowd and said:

“Give me back my brother!”

And still another man came forward and said:

“Give me back my daughter!”

And now men and women, old and young, began to come forward, and they stretched out their hands, and relentlessly sounded their bitter demand:

“Give me back my child!”

Then I too, a leper, felt in myself strength and courage, and I came forward and shouted loudly and fiercely:

“Murderess! Give me back my self!”

And she,—she was silent. She was so false and vile, she pretended that she didn’t hear, and a vicious laughter shook my ulcerated cheeks, and a mindless rage filled our tortured hearts. And she was still silent, indifferent and blank, and then the woman furiously shook her skinny yellow hands and pitilessly uttered:

“Then be damned you, the murderer of my child!”

The handsome, stern old man repeated:

“Be damned!”

And with ringing wail of a thousand voices the whole of the earth repeated:

“Be damned! Damned! Damned!”

VI

And the black night took a deep breath, and, just like the sea, seized by a hurricane, is thrown onto rocks with all of its laden, roaring immensity, the whole world surged up and hit the wall with a thousand charged and furious chests. Bloody foam sprayed up high, to the very clouds heavily rolling by, and it colored them, and they became fiery and terrible, and they cast red light below, where something thundered and rumbled, something small yet monstrously numerous, black and ferocious. With a paralyzing groan, full of unspeakable pain, it recoiled—and the wall stood motionless and silent. But it was not shy or timid in its silence—the gaze from her formless eyes was gloomy and menacingly calm, and, with pride, like a queen, she lowered from her shoulders the purple mantle of quick flowing blood, and the ends of her were lost among mangled corpses.

But, in dying every second, we were immortal, like the gods. And once more the powerful flow of human bodies roared and hit the wall with all its strength. And once again it recoiled, and this was repeated many, many times, until fatigue set in, and dead sleep, and silence. And I, a leper, was right at the very wall and I saw that she began to sway, the proud queen, and the horror of falling convulsed through her stones.

“She is falling!” I shouted. “Brothers, she is falling!”

“You’re mistaken, leper,” my brothers answered me.

And then I pleaded with them:

“Let her stand, but is it not that every corpse is a step towards the summit? There are many of us, and our life is full of burden. Let’s pave the earth with our corpses, pile corpses upon corpses, and this way make it to the top. And if only one of us remains,—he alone will see the new world.”

And with a cheerful hope I looked around—and I saw only their backs, indifferent, fat, tired. In a never-ending dance the four circled round, came together and drew apart, and the black night spit out wet sand as if she was sick, and the wall stood massive and unbreakable.

“Brothers!” I pleaded. “Brothers!”

But my voice was nasal and my breath stank, and nobody wanted to listen to me, a leper.

Woe!.. Woe!.. Woe!..

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“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

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