The snake

31 March 1998 | Fiction, Prose

In this horror story by the Finland-Swedish author Kjell Lindblad (born 1951), a man believes he is wandering among art installations in an apartment block – but the reality he is experiencing turns out to be much more sinister. From the collection of short stories Oktober-mars (‘October-March’, Schildts, 1997)

I only noticed the poster on the notice board in the vegetarian restaurant because it was so obviously different from the rest of the colourful items there, with their large headlines offering everything from Atlantic meditation to Zen ping-pong, together with promises of a new and fulfilled life in harmony with the soul and the cosmos. Poster is perhaps an overstatement ­ it was a white sheet of paper with an egg-shaped oval in the middle. Inside the oval there was a horizontal row of seven numbers. For some reason, perhaps because the row of numbers was the only information on the piece of paper, it stuck in my memory and when I got home I had a compulsive desire to find out if it was a phone number. So I dialled the number and a tape-recorded voice that could have belonged to a man but equally well to a woman, said:

‘We bid you welcome. Please don’t write down the address ­ just memorise it….’

That was all. Even so, this meagre information aroused my curiosity, and as it was Friday and I had no plans for the weekend, I briskly set off. I took the tram to the centre, changed on to the metro, stayed on it for a few stations and arrived in a part of town I didn’t know very well. It was just after two, the January sky was high and bright, the exhausts of cars and buses were vomiting white smoke, trams were rattling by. I wandered around for a while until I found the right street, which turned out to be a cul-de-sac.

The house had seven storeys and the entry door was locked. I pressed my forehead to the glass of the door and looked into the dark stairwell. I was already on the point of going home when I caught sight of the code lock. Without further reflection, I tried the seven numbers. After the first four there was a beep, the door opened and I stepped inside. A peculiar odour, which I was unable to identify, wafted towards me. The light wasn’t working and the black name board on the wall had no names on it, which puzzled me.

The sound of cascading water must have reached my ears as soon as I came in. I went up three grey stairs that were worn by age and feet and determined that the sound was coming from the sole ground floor flat, the door of which was open. Between the lift shaft and the flat there was a yellow door which I assumed led to the basement.

The door was locked and had no handle. A picture had been painted on the door, but it took a while until my eyes got used to the semi-twilight and I was able to make out with any clarity a red triangle standing on its head. In the middle of it there was something that was reminiscent of an egg, around which coiled a snake. I knocked on the open flat door, stepped inside and found myself in a large, high room painted black from floor to ceiling. There was no furniture but in the middle of the floor there was a fountain in the shape of a gleaming, two-metre high black phallus from which a jet of water shot up towards the ceiling and then fell back into the water of the fountain bowl. The only window in the room occupied almost an entire wall, and only a faint glint of daylight filtered in between the black iron bars that covered the grey and opaque windowpanes. In spite of the fact that the room put me in mind of something like a Satanists’ temple, I didn’t actually feel uncomfortable. Having walked round the fountain a couple of times, I came to a halt. The odour was not only in my nose but also in my mouth, where it had turned into a taste, the taste of something I had eaten but of which I had forgotten the name. The odour was like gruel in my mouth, a good, thick nourishing gruel that filled me up. The sense of being full became so strong that I put my mouth to the jet of water and drank in deep, greedy gulps. When I had drunk enough not to be thirsty any more, I opened my eyes and saw my face like a dark shadow in the bubbling water. For a few giddy seconds my memory stopped functioning, and it took me a while until I knew who and where I was.

I left the room with the perpetually ejaculating phallus, went out to the staircase again, past the yellow door with the triangle, the snake and the egg, and walked down the three worn steps with a single idea in my head: to go home.

The door was locked and could not be opened from the inside.

‘Hello? Is there anyone here?’ I called, but the only answer I got was my own question, echoing between the staircase walls. I suddenly realised that many of the spiritual special offers on the vegetarian restaurant notice-board usually remained there for months, and it was very possible that the tape-recorded voice’s information was no longer valid and the house really was as empty and uninhabited as it seemed.

I went back up the three steps and tried the yellow door, which was just as locked as before. It was then that my ears detected something I had not heard earlier, on account of the fountain’s water orgies. The sound was coming from the floor above.

It was a sound like footsteps.

There is still some sort of activity going on here, I thought and, being lazy, pressed the lift button.

Nothing happened.

I assumed that someone had left the lift door open or that the lift was broken, and lumbered up the stairs to the next floor.

Here too there was only one flat, and its door was wide open, just like the one on the ground floor. There was no doubt that the sound of footsteps was coming from here. I knocked on the door and went in.

In its layout, the room was a copy of the flat downstairs. But there was also one difference.

In the middle of the room a fire burned, with flames that licked the ceiling which was painted the same golden yellow tint as the floor and the walls. The room’s large and only window was shaped like a huge golden eye that seemed to be staring at me from behind the tongues of flame gleamed in its black pupil, which was as large as the head of a grown man.

Otherwise the room was empty.

But the sound of footsteps was everywhere. Footsteps passing to and fro across the floor, feet walking round the blazing fire, which strangely did not seem to give off any smoke. I could hear heavy steps and light steps, steps approaching and steps receding, then returning again. It was as though the room were full of people in constant and uninterrupted motion.

I stood in the doorway for a while, simply taking it all in, when something suddenly dawned on me: this must be an art installation! The phallus downstairs, and the fire and the eye up here! There was no doubt about it. The artist or group of artists had managed to borrow or rent a condemned house for this purpose. That also explained the empty name board on the ground floor, and the lift and the staircase light that didn’t work.

I stepped into the room, stood next to the burning fire, and allowed myself to be filled with the sound of the footsteps around me. It was like being surrounded by an army of invisible ghosts. I was surprised I had not read about this ‘happening’ in the papers, it surely deserved a better fate than to be witnessed only by myself ­ at this hour, at least, the only visitor. What a pity, I thought, for an installation of this kind to be exhibited so far from the city’s cultural centre in a neighbourhood that was probably better known for its local bars, where the cloakroom attendants wore bullet-and-knife-proof waistcoats.

I looked round, trying to see the loudspeakers that were creating such a perfect stereophonic and lifelike impression of constantly moving feet, but I couldn’t see any, which made me even more convinced that the people behind this production were certainly no amateurs.

The large eye blinked.

I was even more impressed. How did they do this? Was there perhaps a light inside the giant eye that went off and on at regular intervals, creating the illusion of a real eye that could see? After humbly accepting that I was not technically proficient enough to understand how the installation worked (and what happened to the smoke), I concentrated instead on trying to understand what it was all about. The spouting, coal-black, giant penis downstairs was really quite provocative and it would probably be a while until fountains of that kind were deemed suitable for display in public parks. It might also perhaps be seen as a symbol for the struggle of black people for their human rights, at the same time serving as a reminder of their strength, and the indisputable fact that the birth-rate among white people was falling, and the day was close at hand when people with my pale skin colouring would no longer exist. But nowadays, when to sleep with someone might be quite a bit more risky than Russian roulette, the phallus on the ground floor stood not only for life but also for death. The black room also made one think of night, and extinction: might not the room simply be seen as a symbol of the dark era of Indian tantrism, Kali Yuga, which was now in the process of attaining its zenith? An era of violence and hostility and deficient morality, an era when the young had no respect for the old, and the old were not even worthy of respect?

And what of the fire and the eye? And the footsteps? Fire represented so many things, after all. It seemed to be alive, it consumed, gave warmth and light, caused both pain and death. The fire symbolised the Holy Spirit, it was a purifying flame that annihilated evil: this was why, down the ages, people had taken the lives of ‘witches’ by burning them at the stake. The eye, too, might be associated with light and spiritual perception. Both Indian and Lamaist art contained references to a third eye, the mark of supernatural vision and enlightened insight. But the footsteps? The invisible wanderers ceaselessly walking and walking, without getting anywhere? Was this the sound of the footsteps of the dead, those who had walked here before us, or was it the future generations, as yet unborn, but impatiently waiting to take over?

Suddenly, I realised that I had fallen into a typical intellectual and very Western trap. All speculation on these objects and phenomena was merely the more or less convincing attempt of the constantly prattling pink-and-grey head fungus to interpret the grossly defective information received from their surroundings by the organs of sense. And the brain’s explanations were directly predetermined by the kind of information it happened upon. In any case, I did not even believe it was possible to give an objective description of what beings on a small pile of dust in a corner of a very ordinary galaxy ­ beings that, from a cosmic perspective, did not even exist, and relying on tools and instruments that were, to put it mildly, absurd ­ had the self-important cheek to call ‘reality’. Beings on another pile of dust in another corner of the Milky Way, who filtered their impressions through organs and instruments different from our own, must also have a different idea of the world and themselves. There was no such thing as objective truth, and the brain’s agonised prattle and constant need for stimulus and activity ended in a panic fear of silence and of being switched off like a lamp in the night.

At this point I decided to abandon these thoughts (something to which, typically, they did not consent), and continued up to the next floor.

A whistling wind greeted me as I stepped inside. The room was painted dark blue and the floor was occupied by probably a hundred or so small oil lamps whose flickering flames lit up the windowless space. I could detect neither a fan nor any other machinery that might have explained the wind, which was not only audible, but was also detectable against my face. For long time I stood there in the room, which radiated peace and harmony.

In a cheerful mood and with almost childish anticipation I ran up the stairs to the next floor, where I was met by whispering voices. The whole room was painted purple, and I could spot no loudspeakers here, either. In the middle of the room, on a small orange-coloured pedestal, stood a sculpture shaped like a human-sized ear. Going over to this most lifelike representation, I could not resist touching the lobe, which in an almost uncanny way resembled real skin. I closed my eyes and listened to the whispering voices everywhere. It was impossible to make out the words; just as I thought I recognised a syllable or the beginning of a word, the whispering voice suddenly seemed to change from an almost recognisable language to one that, to my ears at least, was totally foreign. It was as though the whisperers had undergone an auditory metamorphosis: from initially being obviously human, although incomprehensible and impossible to identify by sex, the sound altered and the rhythm and voices increasingly came to resemble non-human sounds, produced by animals or creatures that had become extinct aeons ago, and had no place on this earth.

It felt cold in the room, in spite of the fact that I was wearing my thick winter coat. Something chilly and wet struck my head, making me emit an involuntary cry. I hastily stepped to one side, and saw the next heavy, bright drop fall from the ceiling and land at my feet. The whispers increased in volume, as though they had mated with one another, reproduced themselves, and begotten offspring in the form of more whispers, flitting like invisible spirits to and fro about the room.

It was with a certain relief that I left this installation and continued up to the fifth floor.

In the middle of the room, which was grey as a day in December, floated a golden egg. I positioned myself under the egg, which was about the size of an ostrich egg, convinced that it must be some kind of hologram.

I was wrong.

The egg was solid, hanging there right above my head, though I could not spot any fixing device. I felt the shell with my fingertips and experienced a quite distinct vibration at the same time as I heard a very faint sound, as though someone were pronouncing the letter ‘m’ with closed lips. There was an almost sacred atmosphere in the room, which the mysteriously floating egg did nothing to diminish. Even though I naturally perceived that there was a ‘natural’ explanation for the phenomenon, I had to admit that I was immensely impressed by the egg which, with a supreme contempt for the laws of physics, appeared to float there as though the law of gravity were an unknown concept. Even the thoughts in my head fell silent, which I found gratifying, as it was not every day that they were given such an emphatic put-down.

I left the grey room with its unscientifically levitating egg, and continued up to the sixth floor in the hope of coming across fresh and, to my brain at least, stimulating and inexplicable phenomena. When I was halfway up, my ears picked up the sound of suggestive, heterophonic, oriental-sounding music. The hissing flutes, moving with virtuoso dexterity up and down the five notes of the pentatonic scale, the sound of chiming cymbals, bells, gongs and hand-drums, induced me to take the last few steps in a few long, anticipatory strides. So lifelike was the music that I could have sworn it was being performed by a group of actual Asiatic musicians.

But the room was empty, and there was only music everywhere, like the footsteps and whispering voices on the floors below, and I could still not discover any loudspeakers. But if the music, whose complex melodies and rhythmic patterns thrilled in the bones of my extremities and throbbed in my pulse, was suggestive and hypnotic, the sight that greeted me was so unexpected and overwhelming that even the floating egg on the fifth floor took second place.

The room’s furthermost wall was almost entirely taken up by a panoramic window behind which stars twinkled in a black sky. For a few seconds, I actually thought that it was the real night sky I could see, but the constellations, which were unfamiliar to me, and the large half moon that lay in the wrong quarter for our latitudes and filled the whole room with a weird, light yellow radiance, convinced me once again of the cleverness of these illusion-creating innovators. I realised, moreover, that it could not yet be night.

I went over to the window and was almost seized with vertigo before the three-dimensional creation which convinced my brain, at any rate, that the sky, the stars and the reclining half-moon behind the window were not a skilfully made theatrical backdrop, but were as authentic as their real prototypes, even though my common sense told me that this was merely an optical illusion, which to me was one more demonstration of how deceptive and easily deluded are the human organs of sense. I stopped my ears with the help of my middle fingers in order to shut out the music and concentrate better on the celestial expanse. I stood at the window for a long time and fell into a reverie: it was as though I myself were floating in a capsule out there, on my way towards an alien solar system.

When I took my fingers out of my ears, the music had died away to something resembling a high note that lingered on between the walls. Behind the clear note I could hear an even clearer and higher note, and after a while I detected a third note that hovered barely audibly in the room. But even behind that note there was layer upon layer of almost inaudible notes, and it was impossible to determine whether they were coming from outside or from within my own head.

There was still the flat on the seventh floor.

The room was red from floor to ceiling.

Even though there were neither windows nor any other visible source of light, it was lit by broad daylight. For some reason I took off my shoes and hung up my coat in the hallway before going inside. The floor felt as soft as skin beneath my feet, and the silence was so intense that I clapped my hands to convince myself that I had not gone deaf.

There was not a sound.

I went back out into the hallway again and, much to my relief, was able to check that there was nothing the matter with my hearing.

But inside the red room there was no sound, and I was quite bowled over by the ability of the designers to create such a miracle. I threw myself on the soft floor, turned my back to the door and let myself sink deeper and deeper into the tranquillity of the red silence.

As I sat there, cross-legged, I suddenly felt a tickling in the area between my penis and my anus, as though someone were brushing the space between them with a feather. I closed my eyes and saw myself standing in front of the yellow door with the red triangle in the middle of which a snake coiled itself three and a half times round an egg. The door slid open, and I perceived a stone staircase that clearly led down to the basement. After some hesitation, I began to go down the stairs. The strange, acrid odour grew stronger and stronger the further down I went. The stairs stopped beside a low passage that was lit by a weird twilight. The passage shrank to a thin grey line that petered out in utter darkness. As I did not have sufficient courage to investigate the passage, I went back up to the ground floor.

The tickling, too, moved higher, and stopped at my caudal vertebra. I saw myself stepping into the room with the phallic fountain seven floors below me. It was like seeing myself on a cinema screen; I did not summon up the sight, I did not exert my brain in order to remember, but I saw and experienced the black room in the same way as if I were there in my own body. My mouth even had the same nourishing taste, and I could feel my thirst being slaked by cold, fresh water of the fountain.

The feather brushed lightly against the vertebra that was on a level with my navel, and I could see myself entering the room with the smokeless fire and the golden eye. The eye blinked and the feather moved higher, up my spine, and stopped on a level with my heart. I was in the dark blue room with the hundred oil lamps and felt the wind caressing my face.

I saw myself go up the stairs to the next floor and step inside the room that contained the ear and the incomprehensible whispers. The drops from the ceiling had formed a small puddle on the floor. I leaned my head back, opened my mouth, and felt something cold that did not taste of anything fill my gullet.

The golden egg floated before my closed eyes. It grew smaller and smaller, shrank to the size of a pearl, and was suddenly inside my head ­ and I realised that it was I, that I was the golden egg, reposing in myself, surrounded by the sea of consciousness.

I stood at the window again and looked at the strange constellations and the reclining half moon. The feather touched the top of the back of my neck, then moved higher and tickled my head all over with its small, circling movements.

I sat in the red room at the same time as I saw myself sitting there.

I opened my eyes and stood up.

As in a dream, I put on my coat and shoes, went out to the staircase and automatically pressed the lift button.

Only then did it strike me that I had seen no lift during my journey from the ground floor up to the red room. There certainly were houses where the lift went all the way down to the basement, but in that case the lift’s counterweight ought to have been right at the top, and I could see nothing of that kind.

My ears picked up an electrical, whining sound. I looked down and saw something large and black approaching. So there is a lift in the house, I thought, and put my hand on the door-handle.

I opened the door and reached out my hand to pull the gate aside.

There was no gate.

An enormous black head swayed slowly up and down on a metre-wide scaly neck that extended upwards from the lift shaft. Two green and yellow eyes the size of dinner plates fixed themselves on me, while a forked tongue swung to and fro, only a few centimetres from my face. I stood as if nailed to the floor, in a state that words cannot describe.

The snake opened its jaws, and its hissing filled me with stench and sound that exploded inside my head. This must be what it is like to die. I remember it as an infinite moment of oblivion.

The man in the black winter coat is myself, but he seems like a stranger. I watch him cross the street and stand beneath the roof of the tram shelter. A tram stops, and the man gets on it, sits down and looks out of the window in which his face is palely reflected against the darkness outside. He rides back and forth between the termini, and does not get off until the last journey of the night. The man asks people he meets the way but they shake their heads and cannot understand what he is saying, and he does not understand them. He tries in vain to decipher the street signs, which seem to be written in letters from an unknown alphabet. He is knocked down at a street corner, and picked up by a police patrol car that takes him to a hospital. His pockets are threadbare and empty, and his description does not correspond to that of anyone who has been reported missing. I curl up in a corner of his head, sleep for a long time and wake up to white rooms and people in white clothing. It is spring and summer, autumn and winter. Slowly, very slowly I acquire words that I can use and understand.

I am introduced to unknown people who say they are my relatives.

I am given a name, a date of birth and a personal code number.

I am told that I have a profession.

They say I am a translator.

But I have forgotten every language.

I no longer have the strength to work. Even this language, in which I have written the above, seems foreign, though they say it is my mother tongue.

The sheet of paper with the oval and the row of figures is no longer there on the notice board of the vegetarian restaurant, and none of the people who work there remember the inconspicuous poster that once hung there. Many an evening I have sat at the telephone, trying to remember the seven figures, without success.

Last week I took the tram into town, changed on to the metro and, after searching for a while, found the cul-de-sac again.

The house was gone.

There was only a hole, excavator shovels, lorries, cranes and men in overalls and helmets. A large sign announced that the construction firm Cheops was to build a twenty-five storey residential pyramid block there.

Last night I dreamed about my real mother tongue. I was standing in front of a blackboard, writing words that I understood in the dream but were incomprehensible when I awoke. I can still see the words in front of me, but when I try to write them down, my hand refuses to give them shape.

Translated by David McDuff


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