Jaan Kaplinski

The Eye. Hektor
Jaan Kaplinski (Photo: Peeter Langovits)
Silm. Hektor Jaan Kaplinski
Tänapäev (2000)

Jaan Kaplinski
Nisu 33-9
50407 Tartu
phone: 372 7 425 755,


Read this extract from The Eye. Hektor by Jaan Kaplinski. Translation by Miriam McIlfatrick.

The Chinese man took two candles from his briefcase, stuck them into the ground and lit them, again murmuring some words as he did so. Then he put on a little black cap, sat down cross-legged, opened the book and started to read from it in a rhythmical, singsong voice which was slightly reminiscent of the Orthodox Church recitiation of the Scriptures. He tried to work out what language the Chinese man was reading in but he could not understand a single word, and he did not dare ask.

The Chinese man paused in his recitation and rang a little bell which he seemed to have taken from the briefcase too.Then he read a few more phrases but not in the same singsong voice as before.

'Right, when I ring the bell again and say 'now', drop one of the little balls onto the ground. Then there'll be a bit of a commotion but don't worry, nothing will happen to you. And as I said, it'd be better not to look this way.'
He resumed his chanting, paused briefly, then he rang the bell and said loudly and clearly, 'Now'.

With slightly trembling hands he took a ball from the pouch, said, 'First', and let it fall to the ground. The ball felt very heavy and hot to the touch. He was just wondering if this was really so or if it was only due to his excitement when there was a clap of thunder, the earth shuddered and shook and everything around them was bathed in a blinding light. He watched as the earth, mountains, hills, forests and houses all around started to heave like a stormy sea, the earth itself was heaving, and everthing on it was heaving and being smashed to pieces, mountains crumbled, houses collapsed, trees were thrown together and broke like matchsticks, lakes overflowed and rivers stood still. He felt utterly terrified and deliriously happy at the same time. So this was him, this was it, what was written about in Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation. This was the End, this must be the End that all the clerics spoke of and that hardly anyone believed in any more; the End, terrible in its sublimity and sublime in its terror. Then a whirr like thousands of wings filled the air and there was another roll of thunder, nearer this time. It lasted longer and suddenly he realised that the rumble consisted of words, it was saying something. He realised too that the circle in which he and the Chinese man were sitting was not moving like everything else, it only quivered but stayed put just like a tiny island. All of a sudden the word 'stylites' sprang to mind: there the two of them were, inside a magic circle just like being up on top of a column, only they were not surrounded by desert but by the earth raging like a stormy sea.

'Who are you?' a voice thundered.
'How dare you summon me, I, the one and only lord of worlds and ages, creator and destroyer, he who begins and he who ends?'
For a moment all was quiet; the silence was just as awful as the thunder and the storm had been. The earth too was still, it seemed as if all activity had ceased. Only the blinding light remained and illuminated a tower in the distance; it had started to crumble and fall apart but, strangely, it had stopped short mid-decay just like in a film still. He couldn't say how long this silence lasted, how long time stopped. For that is what must have happened: time had stood still and with it all activity, all voices, all life, if there was still anything alive which had survived the earth's upheaval. But was time still flowing in their magic circle, up on top of their column? If there were no time, he would not have been able to watch or think.

Then he saw how bits of the collapsing tower started to move again and seconds later fell to the ground. The earth began to heave again, but not as violently as before. At the same time he heard his companion's voice. It was strange though, the voice was recognisably the same as it had been, it was not even louder, but there was something in it which made it carry; it was a calm, human voice which filled the air just as the thundering voice had before.

'Your question is so grossly rhetorical that it's quite obvious that you don't actually expect an answer. It's quite clear that you're not used to asking questions any more, just giving orders and having your say. If some one asks a question, they want an answer. But you don't, you just want to scare me and my young friend here. I knew this was what you'd do. That's why I dared to summon you.
Again the voice thundered, even more angrily this time, it was not a rumble now but a boom of which it was hard to understand anything.
'Traitor! Blasphemer!... Impudent dog! You should be cast into the abyss of torment to be gnawed by worms and flames until the end of time. Be thankful that I am a merciful God, the Lord of the armies of heaven and that I will end your wretched life right here and now!

The earth shook and the landscape around them started to rise and fall once more. There were flashes all around. Without meaning to he looked up and saw something he had never seen before: the night sky bursting into thousands of flashes of lightning. He scarcely knew how to describe it - the sky was like a huge bluish-black flowerbed; rapidly, but not quite at the speed of light, it was sprouting sparkling plants which grew downwards, put forth branches and all together moved towards them. This was all accompanied by much rumbling, crackling and swishing, a generally deafening, numbing din. He was suddenly aware that he was shaking all over and realised that it was probably due to fear. Slowly the bolts of lightning were getting nearer, perhaps this was so as to increase their terror. He was reminded of the Edgar Allan Poe story 'The Pit and the Pendulum', where incandescent walls slowly close in on the Inquisition's victims. He couldn't help looking over his shoulder: the Chinese man had not moved an inch. The bolts of lightning were coming nearer and nearer. It seemed to him that he could already feel the heat and a burning smell. Then the Chinese man took something out of another briefcase, it looked like a fly-swatter, the kind that consisted of a stick with a piece of leather attached to one end, just like his grandfather had. The Chinese man raised the fly-swatter and waved it, breaking into a laugh as he did so. It was a strange laugh: it was not louder than his normal speaking voice, but again he felt that it filled the heavens; there was neither superiority nor malice in the laugh, it was more like boyish high spirits, something not generally associated with an old man's laugh. And yet there was a force in it, a force that seemed to outdo the divine thunder and shooting bolts of lightning. Whether because of the laugh or the fly-swatter, the lights stopped and did not come any nearer them. The old man's laugh swelled and as if multiplying, it resounded all around, as if it were reverberating from everything, the earth, the ruins, the sky and the lightning. The laugh was like some kind of cosmic flood which swept along absolutely everything in time and space.

The flashes of lightning began to recede, they withdrew into the sky which was growing noticeably paler. One after another they faded away and the sky grew lighter. The ground was still shaking, but somehow differently. Then he saw the moon, bobbing up and down in the sky and spinning around as if it were dancing. How had the half moon turned into a full moon? He understood that the moon and the earth were moving to the same rhythm, and he suddenly remembered a phrase from a folk song:
The moon played with beads,
the sun played with pearls,
the sky danced, the earth throbbed,
and the rainbow played the fiddle.
(the original reminded me so much of this phrase from an archaic Estonian folk song that I could not resist using it here instead of the literal translation)
He felt the laugh reverberate inside him too, he heard himself laughing, dancing with the earth and the sky, even though he was still sitting on the ground.
He lost track of time, he felt as if time itself had melted into the laugh, changed into a cosmic, omnipresent laugh. His thoughts and imagination were moving in time with the laugh: he realised that he now knew what joy was, real joy, on which rested - or perhaps danced - all existence.

When he came to again, the laugh had died away, all that remained was a strange radiance, just like the fading reflection of the light of the dancing moon.
Then he heard the Chinese man's voice which still retained some of the lightness and joy of the laugh:
'Are we even now? Do you still want to destroy me or are you ready to come and talk?'

Everything went quiet, as if the moon, the earth, the trees and the ruins had pricked up their ears, awaiting the response. This strained silence lasted a few seconds, then came a voice from above. It was reminiscent of the earlier thundering voice, but it was much quieter and more subdued, it was no longer the voice of a conqueror and destroyer, but of the defeated.
'Who are you? What do you want fromme?'
'As to who I am, you should remember. Think back a little. I want to ask you a few things so it would be useful to refresh your memory.'
'What do you want to know? Don't you already know everything yourself?'
'Obviously not. I haven't got such a high opinion of myself as you have. You never ask questions, do you? But I'd be more comfortable talking to you if you came here. And it would also be enlightening for my young friend here to meet you face to face. He's already investigated you a little ... So, whenever you're ready.'

Once again there was silence, total silence, in which he could distinctly hear his heart beating and his eyes blinking. Then he felt the earth shudder again. The horizon suddenly began to glow as if the sun were rising. No, it was not the sun: after a few moments he saw a huge bright, shining figure approaching from afar. It was taller than the mountains, stepped over the snow-capped peaks and was getting closer by the second. The halo around it was so bright that he had to screw up his eyes and peer through his fingers. The giant came towards them, the brightness increased, it seemed to make everything transparent, a person became nothing more than an X-ray, if even that. He remembered a passage from the Bible about God searching our heart and kidneys. He felt that he could not hide from such a light or the gaze of the creature behind it, the light and the gaze were all-pervasive, all-seeing. Again he was gripped by fear. Was it wise to take God's name in vain, to summon him like this? Perhaps He was playing cat and mouse with them. At least he should protect his eyes: he flung himself face down onto the ground. Now he understood why the earth was shaking: it was His footsteps. He must have been quite near. His steps were so heavy that it seemed the ground would never be able to bear them. Could these steps pierce the earths crust and open up a path for an earthquake, lava and white-hot magma to pour out and wipe them off the face of the earth, along with the city and everything else?

Suddenly the light was gone: it went dark. The stranger was already standing over them, or to be precise, the sole of his foot was right over their heads, stretching from horizon to horizon. But the Chinese man had raised his fly-swatter which had suddenly grown almost to sky level too and screened them from the blinding light of the stranger.
'Here I am,' boomed a voice from on high.
'I didn't ask you to step on us, just to come here. Dont you ever get tired of all this theatricality: the rolls of thunder, the earth quaking, the air of greatness and now these proportions. Make yourself smaller and come down here,' said the monk, his calm voice all-pervading.
The stranger did not seem to like this rebuke. There was a rumble of reproach in his voice once more:
'Why should I accommodate myself to your proportions? It's you who wants to talk to me, why don't you measure up to me?'
'I just don't want to,' came the reply. 'You're far too used to having everyone do things your way, begging you, praising you, adoring and fearing you. Now it's time you saw that there are some people who have no desire or need to beg you for anything, nor to praise, adore or fear you. And it also seems to me that you're too used to being the greatest and mightiest in time and space.'
'But that's precisely what I am,' boomed the voice from the sky.
'No, you're not!' replied the voice from the ground. The Chinese man rose, or rather, he shot up, growing as if propelled into the sky, the fly-swatter grew with him. Within seconds he was higher than the gigantic stranger and was brandishing the fly-swatter above his head. Next minute they both started to get smaller, then the Chinese man was standing in the circle again and there in front of him was a tiny little shining man with a fly-swatter above his head.

He had just been thinking that nothing could surprise him any more. But nothing could have prepared him for the sight of the little man's face. He had seen that face countless times in the mirror: it was his own face, the features were all the same, but the general impression was different - majestic and somewhat haughty. There in front of him he saw himself as he could have been in another role, in another life. And yet the little man was smaller than him, only about the height of a two-year-old child.
'Sit down,' said the Chinese man. 'I'm sorry I can't offer you a throne, you'll have to do without. And you can grow a bit if you want, you don't have to be so small.'
The other sat down without a word, when he was seated he was already of normal adult proportions, a little taller than the old man.
'Well, tell me what you want,' he said, some of the former arrogance still lingering in his voice. 'I haven't got much time.'
'You can always conjure up some time if you're a bit short,' said the old man, never stuck for an answer.
'The thing is, I've heard and read one or two things about you that surprised me and saddened me a bit too. I just wanted to know what you yourself have to say about it all.'
'What exactly?' snapped the stranger.
'Oh, but you're impatient. In the very book that you worked on yourself it says that there is a time for everything. Now, what was it in the original? Do you remember, my young friend?'
He did:
'Lakol zeman ve'et lechol hefets tachat haaamaim ...'
'Sound familiar?' the Chinese man persisted.
'What's that got to do with anything?'
'Just this, it's my turn to ask the questions now and your turn to answer. Shall we begin?'
'I've been ready for ages, but you're just going on with this ceremonious display.'
'All right. It's said that you created this world. Is that true?
'And also that you saw that what you had created was good? That's the phrase that's repeated several times at the beginning of the creation story.'
'Do you mean by that good in the ethical sense rather than beautiful, interesting or technically perfect, like a machine or a construction?'
'Why do you ask that?'
'Perhaps you might answer first, then we'll come to your question.
'Both, of course. What I did turned out well.'
'I see. But then perhaps you might clarify one or two things. You see, among all the creatures you've created there's a particular fly, Lucilia bufonivora is the Latin name. As the name suggests, it eats toads. The mother fly lays her eggs on the toad's head and when the larvae hatch they make their way through the toad's nostrils into its body where they gradually eat away at it until there's not much left but bones and legs. According to some researchers the story gets even more interesting, not only does the mother fly lay her eggs on the toad's head, she then flies about and hovers around the toad until it swallows her and infects itself with the deadly eggs. In this way the mother fly sacrifices her own life for her children. There are other flies too who are parasites in the larva stage, for example, one kind lays its eggs in young swallows, others use insects, snails or worms. My question is - in what sense are such flies good?'
He felt as if all of them, as if the whole world - the ruins, the city and its lights, the distant mountain tops and the sky with its twinkling stars - had sunk, had plunged into silence. It was total and absol

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