Six letters

Issue 1/1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Tainaron (1985). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

The whirr of the wheel
Letter II

I awoke in the night to sounds of rattling and tinkling from my kitchen alcove. Tainaron, as you probably know, lies within a volcanic zone. The experts say that we have now entered a period in which a great upheaval can be expected, one so devastating that it may destroy the city entirely.

But what of that? You need not imagine that it makes any difference to the Tainaronians’ way of living. The tremors during the night are forgotten, and in the dazzle of the morning, as I take my customary short cut across the market square, the open fruit-baskets glow with their honeyed haze, and the pavement underfoot is eternal again.

And in the evening I gaze at the huge Wheel of Earth, set on its hill and backed by thundercloud, with circumference, poles and axis pricked out in thousands of starry lights. The Wheel of Earth, the Wheel of Fortune… Sometimes its turning holds me fascinated, and even in my sleep I seem to hear the wheel’s unceasing hum, the voice of Tainaron itself.

Nowhere, I think, have I ever seen simultaneously so many periods, so many gods, as I see in Tainaron. Where else can the eye take in, at a single sweeping glance, the vanishing pinnacles of cathedrals, the golden cupolas of a mosque, the austere capitals of a Doric temple? Here they soar side by side, yet not in rivalry, each itself alone.

But about many of the buildings here there is something incongruous, something almost comical, suggestive of stage scenery. What gives them this effect? The decorative friezes on the Palace of Justice are ludicrously elaborate, and from the Chamber of Commerce building large sections of roofing and balustrades are missing. Sometimes, beginning to tire after one of my long walks through the deep-cut, intersecting streets, I am overcome by dizziness as the houses seem to lean over and sway in the wind…

Yesterday I passed beneath a graceful colonnade, light and airy, its pavement laid by the hand of a master, and my eyes were charmed by the sight of those leaping columns, those window-recesses with their glowing mosaics. At the end of the arcade I came to an open square – and received a slap in the face. Before me, on elephantine feet, stretched an eyeless wall of concrete: offensive, heavy, overpowering, a dismal variation on the arched gallery I had just left. But that is Tainaron too: and so are the remains of that ancient stone wall at the eastern edge of the city, with swifts nesting in its crevices.

You know, I am sometimes quite startled when out of the crowd there emerges, swaying towards me, a muzzle-like face, surmounted by antennae as pliant as whips; or when I am served in a cafe by a waiter whose mouth protrudes from his face like that of a dragonfly grub. And yesterday in the tram, the seat next to me was occupied by a creature who was shaped exactly like a leaf, and looked so light that I could have blown him into the air like a dry wisp of straw.

I have an acquaintance who supplies the whole of Tainaron with a special kind of thread which he manufactures himself. It is so fine, so durable and so pliable that no industrially produced thread can bear comparison with it. He extrudes this from the rear of his body at the rate of 150 metres every 24 hours. This glittering filament, far finer than a hair, is less than one denier in thickness. When I held it up to the window to look at it, the sunlight flashed from it in all the colours of the rainbow.

I would love to have a dress made solely of this thread. I cannot imagine any attire that would be lighter, more striking or more beautiful. But this is a childish fantasy: I shall never possess such a garment. The thread is so sticky that it would cling to my body like a corrosive film.

What, then, is this thread used for? Don’t ask me: I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

The seventeenth spring
Letter VI

In Tainaron lots of things are different from what we are used to at home. Take eyes, for instance. Many of the inhabitants have eyes so big that they take up as much as a third of the face. Whether this makes their sight any sharper I don’t know, but presumably they see their surroundings differently from the way we do. Then again, their organs of sight consist of innumerable tube-like receptors, with lenses that flash in the sunlight like rainbows. At first I felt uncomfortable when conversing with such individuals: I could never be sure whether they were looking at me or past me. Now it no longer worries me. Mind you, there are some whose eyes are no bigger than tiny dots, but then they have lots and lots of them – in the forehead, or at the ends of their antennae, or even in their backs.

Similarly one can meet Tainaronians with several pairs of legs or arms, though I don’t get the impression that this enables them to run any faster than we do, or to achieve more in their lives. Admittedly some of them have a special sort of prong protruding from their bellies, which they can use to catapult themselves forward, sometimes for distances of a dozen metres or more at a time.

To a stranger, the forest of fluttering antennae and hanging palps that fills the streets in the rush-hour is an extraordinary sight, but even harder to get used to is the weird phenomenon that affects the lives of most of the citizens here, the phenomenon of metamorphosis. To me, at any rate, it remains so utterly strange, so alien to anything in my own nature, that the mere thought of it makes me uneasy. The plain fact is that these people live two, or even several, successive lives, which can differ from one another entirely, even though – in some way which I cannot begin to understand – each derives its origin from the preceding one.

We too are subject to change, but in our case the changes are only very gradual. We are accustomed to at least some degree of continuity, and most of us have an individuality which is preserved more or less unaltered. But here it is different. I am still perplexed as to what exactly it is that constitutes the link between two successive lives. When an individual has changed so completely, ‘how can he claim to be, in any sense, the same II individual as before? How can he be said to continue? How can he remember?

It is possible here to bump into a complete stranger, who will come home with you like an old acquaintance and start reminiscing about the good times you have had together. When you ask ‘When was that?’ he laughs and says ‘When I was other.’

You may never find out who it is that you have had the honour of talking to, for very often these people have changed completely, not only in size and appearance, but in their whole way of life.

We also have here some of those individuals who retire into complete solitude for no less than seventeen years. During this period they live in a tiny room, hardly more than a shell, they never meet anyone, never go out, and seldom even take a meal. Whether they spend their time there sleeping or waking, they change all the time, and completely abandon the form they originally had.

Seventeen years! And when the seventeenth spring at last arrives, they step out of their hermits’ cells into the full light of day. And thus begins their one and only summer, for in the autumn they die: but throughout that summer they feast and rejoice. What do you make of that?

Sometimes, though, I do feel a touch of envy. How good to be able to curl up like that, cradled in my own cocoon, hoping for no dreams, and knowing that one spring day I shall step forth and show myself to the world, a new being, refreshed and free of the past…

Well, good-bye once more, my head is heavy and I think we shall have thunder. I have been wondering why you never reply. There could be many possible reasons. Have you died? Have you moved? Perhaps the town where you used to live has been wiped off the face of the earth? And can I trust the Tainaron postal service? For all I know, my letters to you may be rotting on a dunghill in somebody’s back yard. Or do you stand on the mat by your front-door, turning my letter over in your hand, before putting it aside unopened, or adding it to the pile of circulars and free newspapers that gathers dust in the corner?

The Mimic
Letter XVI

In Tainaron I have a balcony on which I sometimes sit and bask in the sun, if I have nothing special to do in town. For you it is autumn already, but here we are still in the middle of summer.

Yesterday the dazzling light sealed my eyelids, and fiery landscapes slid past beneath them. There was a book on my lap, but I did not turn the page. In the yard stands a big tree, I don’t know its name. At length the sun’s rays were caught in its branches, and the glare was blotted out.

I looked down, and my eye was caught by a pattern of stones. They were largish cobblestones, pinkish-grey and speckled- granite, probably, or some kind of gneiss. The centre of the yard was paved with these, and they were beautiful stones, but that was not why I looked at them now. It appeared that fresh stones had been brought into the yard and built up into a sort of mound, which had certainly not been there before.

Just as I was puzzling over this little mystery, the Longhorn Beetle came out on the balcony.

‘Look over there, under the tree’, I said to him. ‘Why do you think they have made that little hill there?’

He took a look, and then began to smile, if smile is the right word for that slow sideways extension of the jaws to the two sides of his head – I can never get used to it.

‘It may seem amusing to you’, I said rather crossly, ‘that obstacles to free passage should be set up all over the place, but personally I can see no sense in it.’

When I glanced again at the hillock of stones I was disconcerted to find that it now looked more like a small depression.

‘Never mind’, said the Longhorn consolingly, patting my shoulder with a slender foreleg. ‘It seems you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of the Mimic. I’ll introduce you if you like.’

‘Who’s he?’ I asked, and I was filled with sadness, although the sun was still bright and autumn still far off.

‘You’re looking straight at him now’, said the Longhorn kindly.

I swear I didn’t blink for a single second, but certainly my eyes were playing tricks on me, for what I now saw in the yard, in the shadow of the trees, was not a pile of stones but a living being – motionless, I grant you – with its back encased in a knobbly pinkish-grey shell.

I was going to ask a question, but the Longhorn held up his hand. His movements are always amazingly graceful and easy, and this gesture of his was sufficient to silence me.

‘Look again’, he commanded, and in the tree’s shadow there was no longer anything or anybody, but on the strip of grass by the wall a round hummock had appeared, as green as the fresh grass around it.

‘Is that…?’ I asked.

‘Yes, he’s a quick worker’, the Longhorn agreed.

‘I don’t understand’, I grumbled. ‘Is he actually… somebody? If so, who?’

‘My dear friend’, said the Longhorn, waving his long antennae as he looked at me, ‘do you imagine that the Mimic could possibly have an identity? Today he is one thing, tomorrow another. Where he is is what he is – stone a moment ago, now summer grass. Who knows what form he will assume tomorrow? But come along and I’ll introduce you.’

‘No!’ I said, filled with a strange fury. ‘I don’t wish it. I have no desire at all to know such a – person. One must draw the line somewhere.’

‘Well, well’, said the Longhorn in an unsympathetic, rather mocking tone.

‘So you want everybody to be somebody, do you? You think that what a person begins as, he ought to end as, is that it?’

‘Well, I mean to say!’ I shouted. ‘There has to be some continuity, surely? Development, fine, but there must be truth to oneself too.’

I tried to go on, but felt my anger dissolving into the summer day that held Tainaron in its embrace, its power converging from every point of the compass. Before long I was beginning to make excuses for the stranger.

‘Actually I can understand him,’ I said magnanimously. ‘He is searching for a shape of his own.’

‘You think so?’ said the Longhorn, and we both leaned over the balcony and looked down. In the yard there was no longer a mound of any kind, either of stones or of grass. But beside the big tree stood another tree, only it was much smaller and stockier.

‘Does he know we are here?’ I asked. ‘Is he doing it for our benefit, or simply for his own amusement?’

‘It’s his job,’ the Longhorn said, but I don’t know whether he was speaking seriously or not.

‘Why are you laughing?’ asked the Longhorn in his turn.

‘I’m laughing at myself for loving this city’, I said. ‘Maybe I’ll stay here for good.’ (Whatever made me say that?) ‘Yes, do that. Stay here for good’, the Longhorn said, but his voice had become so dark and deep that I forgot the Mimic and turned in surprise to look at him.

The Measurer
Letter XVIII

From my window today I have been watching the City Measurer at work. I have seen him before, carrying out his duties in other parts of the city, and this morning he reached our street. He measures the length and width of the streets, the diagonals of the squares and the heights of the houses. I don’t know for what purpose he does all this measuring, but doubtless the information he obtains is deposited in a record office somewhere and can be consulted by anyone who wants to know about such things.

His area of operations is quite large and he is a very hard worker, but he has only one measuring-instrument – his own body. It is a long green body and he uses it very cleverly, and with an agility equal to that of a professional acrobat. Sometimes his body takes the form of a great loop, a moment later it is stretched out straight and he has moved a considerable distance up the street. He can also climb a vertical wall, right up to the eaves of a building, without any difficulty and without, apparently, any fear of heights.

Cutting across the park on my way home from the shops, I saw the Measurer on one of the benches, having his lunch. He was wearing the white cap of a city official, with its pattern of spirals. I asked if I might sit down beside him for a minute, and he readily made room for me.

‘Have one of these’, he said, opening his box of sandwiches. But I had already eaten, and declined the offer with thanks. There was something I rather wanted to ask him about.

‘Do you find that job of yours interesting?’ I asked, to get a conversation going.

‘Extremely so’, he replied, munching at his sandwich. On a sanded playground behind us the Tainaron children, shouting and squealing, were playing the game that children play all over the world: running away, getting caught, and the prisoner becoming the pursuer.

‘Have you been doing it long?’

‘Ever since I reached my full length’, the Measurer replied, pouring a cupful of some steaming, sweet-smelling drink from his thermos flask.

There was a clangour of bells from the cathedral, the children abandoned the playground and vanished into the shade of the trees. It was nearly midday, and the siesta was about to begin. I could see no movement anywhere, and the only sound came from those jangling bells. It was as if life, like the Measurer, had stopped for rest and refreshment.

Through the reverberations I heard his level voice: ‘My father had the same job, and his father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him. In each generation one of our family is chosen as the Measurer, and now I’m the one.’ He added something that I couldn’t catch, because the booming of the bells had now become deafening. I bent closer to him till his flat face was right up against my mouth. Now I could hear what he was saying: ‘I am the measure of all things.’

He did not say it boastfully, merely stated it as a fact, as he brushed the crumbs from his chest.

‘But this part of the city is old’, I mused aloud. ‘Surely it must have been measured generations ago? What is there left to measure?’

He looked at me incredulously. ‘What is there to measure? But, good heavens! Don’t you understand? That was then, and this is now. Different times, different measures. You could hardly expect my grandfather and me to be exactly the same size, could you?’

With this he dug into his satchel and brought out a large fruit, which he proceeded to attack with row upon row of perfect teeth.

I could think of no more to say, and felt a complete fool.

When the Measurer had sucked the rind clean and dropped it into a litter-bin bearing the municipal crest, he rose purposefully and took his leave of me with a perfunctory ‘Ah, well, duty calls.’

And the Measure of All Things hurried briskly away to get on with his job, at once beginning to diminish in size as he receded from me along the path, leaving a clear, straight trail behind him in the smooth-raked sand. His gait was that of one who holds a position of trust, who knows that everything has its measure, who knows who and what he himself is.

And, following the Measurer’s example, time itself now began to move on again. A dry leaf fluttered down on to the path in front of me, the autumn’s first. A new season had begun.

The bells had ceased their pealing, but the city buzzed with a sound of its own, like an energetic bee. And in Tainaron’s pleasure park the gaily coloured Wheel, which had been motionless during the midday pause, began again to revolve. I could see it from the bench where I now sat alone: it is visible from the harbour below and from all the city squares – perched so high up, where the wind blows ceaselessly.

The Dangler
Letter XXII

I must say, some of the people here do have the most extraordinary habits, or at least so it seems to one who comes from so far away. Quite close to me, in the same block, lives a long, thin gentleman who spends several hours every day hanging head downwards from his balcony. The passers-by seem to pay no attention whatever to this curious behaviour, but the first time I walked under him I was so taken aback that my immediate impulse was to run off and summon help. I thought that there had been an accident, and that this fellow must have got one of his feet caught in the ornamental ironwork of the balcony. The Longhorn Beetle, who happened to be walking with me at the time, remarked coldly that since the gentleman had clearly chosen, for reasons of his own, to adopt this particular posture, I would do well to mind my own business and not be so eager to interfere in other people’s lives. I confess I was rather riled at the time by his comments, but latterly I have tried to learn more humility and to profit by his advice.

I see this gentleman almost every day, and always greet him politely when I pass beneath his balcony, but he never replies. I suppose he must be either asleep or meditating. Flapping limply in the breeze, he looks like a garment that has been hung out to dry. He maintains an incomparable calm as his head dangles above the busy street, never flinching for a second even when the fire engines hurtle past with all their sirens screaming.

He is always the same colour, a bright, almost garish green, so that one can see him clearly from the broad steps of the Bank at the far end of the street, standing out like a living leaf against the red bricks of the wall.

Does he dream as he hangs there, often by a single leg, yet to all appearances perfectly relaxed? That, I believe, is exactly what he does do. I can tell, from my own experience, when immobility is a symptom of fear and when it is the ploy of a predator, but this is different from either. It is my belief that he is dreaming, ceaselessly, copiously, passionately, dreaming with the intensity of one who despises death, one without a smidgeon of consciousness to spare for the exertions of ordinary waking life. I think he must long ago have reached the conviction that activity of any kind is useless and possibly even harmful.

There are times when I consider that this neighbour of mine deserves admiration, and that his method of spending life’s moments is wholly to be envied. On such days I feel that I too would love to abandon myself, in perfect tranquillity of mind, to blissful contemplation of my private visions. But, believe me, it is impossible. In the evening, even though I close the windows tightly, put out the light and stuff my ears with cotton wool, this city streams before me even more restlessly, more colourfully than it does in broad daylight. I am tempted to go out and walk up the street, to see whether my green neighbour is still hanging upside-down from his balcony. I would like to climb up there myself and arrange my limbs in exactly the same posture as his. Then, as the blood surged to my head, the whole of Tainaron would begin to melt into the mists and I would begin my endless, leaf-green dream.

But if in the morning I recall these night-time experiences, the baffling labyrinths in which I have wandered, I know that I would not like to spend my life in a city of dreams. On such a morning, when I pass below the Dangler’s balcony, I feel more inclined to pity than to admire him.

And then I know that in my dreams the sunshine will never be as bright as this, the air I breathe will never be so fresh, and I never shall see so clearly or so far; and once more I believe that what is real can be seen by anyone, anyone at all.

My cocoon home
Letter XXVIII

What a lot of time I had to spend, in those earlier days, searching for a home! Vistas of cold, furnished rooms, showers of lapsed rent-agreements, the rubble of demolished houses, the estate agents’ offices with their endless queues, winding into the distance like long blind alleys.

Now all that is a thing of the past. In the room where I live now, I have everything I need and even more. If I step out on to my balcony, I can see Tainaron’s white streamers and golden domes, the clouds girdling the mountains, the blue depths of Okeanos.

But I have now begun to prepare for a move, just in case. Yes, it is almost ready for occupation, my little cocoon home: nothing can go wrong now. It has the fresh smell of mud and algae and reeds, for I have collected all the materials myself from the seashore, where I once very nearly met my death. I have done all the work with my own hands, and when I look inside I am pleased with the result. It is just the right size for me, like a closely fitting garment but not too tight anywhere. It is small outside but roomy inside, which is just how a dwelling should be.

It is dark in there. When I peep in through the only opening, which can be closed from the inside when the need arises, I am overcome by drowsiness. I don’t think the lack of space will trouble me: by the time I am inside it will be as boundless as night.

The postal service will continue to operate for a while, I am told, but the city already seems dead. More and more people are withdrawing for their winter rest, and some, like the Longhorn, and myself too perhaps, will be away for much longer. I spoke just now of sleeping, but of course we shan’t merely be resting, we’ll be changing too. Shall I be able to do it? Is it very hard work? Will it be painful or pleasant, and will everything be obliterated, even regret?

Some change imperceptibly, by slow degrees, others rapidly and all at once; but since everybody does change, it is pointless to ask which are the more fortunate.

My room smells like an estuary! There was something I wanted to tell you, but the smell of silt is muddling my thoughts. Never mind, I shall remember it again when the spring comes, and it will come, soon, the seventeenth, and all around me there will be the glitter of – droplets! – and I shall arise, and we shall meet again…

Translated by David Barrett

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