by Franz Kafka
Translated by Claudia Furrer
When it had already become unbearable – by an evening in November – and I was running along over the narrow carpet in my room as on a racetrack, frightened by the sight of the lights in the street turned around again and was given a new goal in the depths of the room, at the bottom of the mirror, and I cried out, just to hear the scream which is answered by nothing, and from which nothing takes the strength of the scream, which therefore rises up, without any counterpoise, and cannot cease even when it grows silent; a door was opened in the wall so hastily, since haste was indeed necessary, and even the wagon-horses down on the pavement reared, like crazed horses in a battle, their throats exposed.
As a small ghost, a child scurried out of the completely dark corridor, in which the lamp was not yet burning, and stood still on his toes, on an imperceptibly shaking floorboard. Immediately blinded by the twilight of the room he wanted to hide his face in his hands, but calmed down unexpectedly with a look at the window, before whose cross-bar the rising haze from the streetlights finally kept low under the darkness. With the right elbow he supported himself in front of the open door by the wall and let the draught from outside caress the joints of his feet, also the neck, also along the temples.
I watched a little bit, then I said “Good evening” and took my coat from the fire-screen because I did not want to stand there so half-naked. I kept my mouth open for a while, so that the excitement may leave through my mouth. There was bad saliva in me, and in my face the eyelashes were twitching, in short, it only wanted this nevertheless expected visit.
The child was still standing by the wall in the same place, he pressed the right hand against the wall and, all red-cheeked, could not get enough of this, that the whitewashed wall was coarse-grained and rubbing the finger-tips. I said: “Do you really want to come to my place? Is it not a mistake? Nothing easier than a mistake in this big house. My name is Soandso, I live on the third floor. So, am I the one you wanted to visit?”
“Silence, silence!” the child said over his shoulder, “everything is just right.”
“Then come further into the room, I would like to close the door.”
“I just have closed the door. Do not go to trouble. Calm down at any rate.”
“Do not mention trouble. But there are many people living in this corridor, naturally all of them are acquaintances; most of them are now returning from their businesses; if they hear talk in my room they just assume the right to come in and see what is going on. That’s just the way it is. These people have left behind their daily work; who would they submit to in the provisional freedom of the evening! You also know that, by the way. Let me close the door.”
“Well then, so what? What’s the matter with you? For aught I care all the house might come in. And once again: I have already closed the door, why, do you think only you can close the door? I have even locked it with the key.”
“Then it’s alright. That’s all I ask for. You did not even have to lock it with the key. And now make yourself comfortable, as you are here now anyway. You are my guest. Trust me completely. Spread yourself without fear. I will force you neither to stay nor to leave. Do I have to say that in the first place? Don’t you know me better?”
“No. You really didn’t have to say that. Even more, you should not have said it. I am a child; why go to all the trouble for me?”
“It’s not that bad. Of course, a child. But you are not so very small. You are really already grown-up. If you were a girl you might not just lock yourself in a room with me.”
“We don’t have to worry about that. I just wanted to say: The fact that I know you so well protects me little, it only saves you the effort of telling me lies. Nevertheless you are making compliments. Don’t, I’m telling you, don’t. Add to this that I don’t know you everywhere and always, especially in this darkness. It would be much better if you let the lights be put on. No, rather not. Yet, I will bear in mind that you have already threatened me.”
“What? I have threatened you? But I beg your pardon. Why, I am so glad you are finally here. I say ‘finally’ because it is already so late. I don’t quite understand why you came this late. So it is possible that I spoke confusedly in my gladness, and that you understood it like that. I confess ten times that I spoke like that, yes I have threatened you with everything you want. – Only no fight, for heaven’s sake! – But how could you believe it? How could you offend me like that? Why do you want with all your power to spoil this short moment of your presence? A stranger would be more obliging than you.”
“I believe that; that is no wisdom. As much as a stranger can be obliged to you I already am by nature. You also know that, so why this woefulness? Tell me you want to play-act and I’m going right now.”
“Really? You dare even to tell me that? You are a little too bold. After all, you are still in my room. You are rubbing your fingers like crazy on my wall. My room, my wall! And besides, what you are saying is ridiculous, not only insolent. You say your nature obliges you to talk to me in this way. Really? Your nature obliges you? That’s obliging of your nature. Your nature is mine, and when I am friendly to you by nature you mustn’t do otherwise.”
“Is this friendly?”
“I’m talking about earlier.”
“Do you know how I will be later?”
“I know nothing.”
And I went over to the bedside-table on which I lit a candle. I didn’t use to have gas or electric light in my room at that time. Then I sat for a while at the table, until I grew tired of this, too, put on the overcoat, took the hat from the settee and blew out the candle. Going out I became entangled with a leg of the armchair.
On the stairs I met a tenant from the same floor.
“You are already leaving again, you scamp?” he asked, resting on his legs spread out over two steps.
“What am I to do?” I said, “now I have had a ghost in my room.”
“You say that with the same discontent as if you had found a hair in your soup.”
“You are joking. But mark my words, a ghost is a ghost.”
“Very true. But what about it if you don’t even believe in ghosts?”
“Why, do you think I believe in ghosts? But how does my not-believing help me?”
“Very easy. You just don’t have to be afraid anymore when a ghost really comes to you.”
“Yes, but this is just the subordinate fear. The substantial fear is the fear from the cause of the apparition. And this fear stays. This one is downright tremendously in me.” In my nervousness I began to search through all my pockets.
“But since you were not afraid of the apparition itself you could have asked it quietly for the cause of it!”
“You have obviously never talked with a ghost. Why, you can never get any clear information from them. It’s a to and fro. These ghosts seem to be in doubt as to their existence even more than we are, which, considering their frailty, is no wonder.”
“But I have heard you can feed them up.”
“You are well informed. You can do that. But who would do such a thing?”
“Why not? If it’s a female ghost, for example,” he said and rose up on the upper step.
“Oh, I see,” I said, “but even then it will not stand for it.”
I recollected myself. My acquaintance was already so high up that in order to see me he had to bend forward under a curvature of the staircase. “But still,” I cried, “if you take away my ghost up there it is over between the two of us, forever.”
“But that was only a joke,” he said and drew back his head.
“Then it’s alright,” I said and could have quietly gone for a walk, now. But because I felt ever so much forsaken, I rather went up and laid me down to sleep.
Claudia Furrer was born in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, on May 21, 1981. She is a student of English and German Literature at the University of Fribourg. She enjoys reading a great variety of books, but she has a special interest in Virginia Woolf, Christopher Marlowe, Georg Büchner and Franz Kafka.