Radovan Brenkus
Deal with the Devil

The wind sweeps over the hot pavement, which repels the raindrops like the top of a stove. It's pouring with rain, and the water runs off in streams into the gutters by the roadside. This summer night rain beats out an organ-like fugue in hugely fast time, and I feel an absolutely unreasonable urge to cry. Just like the wind as it wails and shrieks, whistling through the chimneys of far-off hovels, like the wind which repeats the melody of the rain in deeper tones. Suddenly a dark ball flies across my path. A black cat, I expect. There's probably death lying in wait for me behind that fence over there. When it comes, it's going to look just like me. I can already feel it breathing down my neck, standing right behind me.
I stagger along with a bottle in my hand, held up now and then by the fence bordering the cemetery. I feel like I could murder someone, just to have something happen, beat someone up, or pulverize some rocks. I'm seething inside. But then again I feel tired, a tiredness that closes my eyelids with the weight of a whole tiny universe. I feel like just lying down somewhere and never waking up again, remaining forever in the sweet fuddle of unconsciousness, perceiving nothing, no pain. This is why I hate and at the same time love sleep. It's like I'm suddenly in a crowd of people waiting for a mass crucifixion. On the one hand full of protest against the brutality, but on the other quite stunned, resigned to our fate like a mouse watching a snake. Although I'm blind drunk, I manage to open the gate, the screech of its hinges stabbing into the sweaty air, and find my way to the grave marked:

Marie Louise von Truman 4. 3. 1675 – 10. 4. 1695
Sleep sweetly

At the sight of the portrait of this twenty-year-old beauty, my heart fell on the marble, my insides convulsed, my bowels knotted up and my throat felt like trembling hands were throttling it. "Why, God, tell me why!" I howled into the darkness. An inimicable darkness like from eyes blindfolded for execution. It penetrated right through me, until I became its very centre. Bats dangled upside-down beneath the chapel cornice. It was such a desperate cry that the surrounding trees shook. No, I had really not got over the fact that my beloved wife had died from whooping cough.
With my knees I pushed over the gravestone, and bracing my elbows against it I started digging away the earth. "Marie, come back! Why have you gone and left me?!" Strong light sliced through the dark void and thunder resounded from on high. It rocked the bats, which nestled closer together, and the rats slunk into their holes along the main gravelled path leading through the cemetery. The earth started stripping the nails from my fingers, but I only felt a kind of itchy burning. "God, where is your justice?! Why have you taken her from me?! You should have taken me instead!" When I was no longer capable of scraping away the mud, I was so tired, I just rolled from one marble edge of the grave to the other. The unfinished bottle was there somewhere, and I knocked it down without noticing. My mind was lamenting inconsolably for all the souls in damnation, and for Marie. I fell on the shards of glass and cut my hands to the bone. I struggled to my feet and made rudimentary bandages for them out of my handkerchieves. It was really all I could do to set off again in the right direction.
When death comes, it'll look like me. It will come with unending dark nothingness, where I won't even be aware of you any more, Marie. That's what torments me the most, that I will forget about you forever, just like you can no longer remember me. I know, this didn't bother me before I was conceived, and it won't after I die either, because I simply won't exist. In spite of that, it still infuriates me, and I curse everything and everyone, including the one we have created for ourselves. My greatest fear, in fact, is of not feeling fear, when I become indifferent to everything. But why? Because I know how it'll be. It's eating me up, knowing that I won't be able to remember anything then, none of the things we experienced together, not the warmth of your embrace or your mysteriously delightful smile, nor how I nestled my head in your lap and you would be mother to me for a while. That I'll never again imagine your touch or the fragrance of your body. And what I can reconcile myself to least of all is that in the end this won't even torment me any more.
I can't bear sleeping for the loss of memories it brings. I love it for bringing me relief from terrible experiences, but then I hate it again because it relieves me of all my memories, because it terrifies me just like death.
I left the cemetery.
In the distance along the path I could vaguely make out a figure. It was coming closer and I was not able to work out if it was a man or a woman. The more I strained my eyes, the less I could see. But when the figure came closer, it turned out to be an elegant man in an ebony-coloured top hat and a long, jet-black overcoat buttoned up to the neck. His moustache was twisted gently at the ends, and a thin line of hairs led from his bottom lip down to his beard. His long, curly-ended hair was drawn back and clasped. Apart from the fringe, which hung down in two locks brushing his full cheeks. The face had the expression of an experienced musketeer.
"Greetings, Theodor," he addressed me. I gaped at him. How had he guessed my name? But I calmed down again quickly, because although many people were unknown to me, I ws aware that most people in that wooded region knew me. "I know what has happened to you, and I feel for you. My sincere condolences." And well you might, I thought to myself, when practically everybody in the town knows about it. Hardly anything can be kept quiet here.
"You know nothing. You can't possibly know how I feel. I've lost everything."
"That's what you think. But I can empathize with your situation. I understand that unutterable pain, and I would like to help you." His effort to lighten my helpless misery pleased me somewhere deep inside and encouraged me to trust him, even though I still suspected him to be a local tramp who had robbed some aristocrat or other so that he could impress people with his appearance.
"Don't tell me you've popped down from heaven just to help me?"
"By no means from there, but in the past I have experienced very much the same as you."
If this man was in a similar frame of mind, it was probably pointless for me to suspect him of anything underhand. He instilled even more confidence in me to consider him as an equal. In fact we were probably indistinguishable in our wretchedness, stricken with misfortune like a pair of twins. These kinds of people are more ikely to understand each other.
At this point I remembered Marie. I imagined her sleeping peacefully down there, shut up in the narrow confines of her lightless coffin, with no room for wild love-making, not even for my breath and her cry. Oh, Marie, my long-lost Marie. I stroked her soft face, kissed her lips, her silken little breasts, every tiny tender fold in her skin. We sighed together. My heart beat within her, and hers pounded faster in my head. Darkness. Nothing I have touched remains to me, all snatched away by the alien hands of hideous darkness. And there's no possible way they can caress her and soothe her painful embitterment as I could. Dark, dark, dark. The accursed blackness of the coffin, from which worms are already crawling. How cruel can you get! It's only when you try to dig your own true image out of the grave that you understand what futility is. Even Death recoils from such impotence, catching itself in its own jaws.
Meanwhile, the other fellow seemed to be observing my thoughts, so I smartly continued with the conversation.
"I think I understand you, but you know just as well as I that the two of us are beyond help."
"What I mean is," he hesitated, "that I came to you specially so that I could help you." I looked at him and smiled through my tears.
"Are you the devil or something? Are you going to bring Marie back to me, back among the living?"
"That's not important, but I can promise you that you will meet again and be together." I couldn't keep from laughing, and I sat down in a puddle. I was soaked to the skin anyway, and I couldn't have cared less.
"What do you want in return? These days nobody does anything for anyone for free."
"I can see you're no fool. It's enough if you promise that for the next five years you will not give help anyone who needs it." The fellow raised his top hat, and over the horizon there was an appealing flash of lighting.
"I thought that as the devil you would arrange right now for any of my wishes whatsoever to be fulfilled, and that finally you would take my soul, which I would now pledge to you."
"Several souls is better than just one."
"So I don't have to sign a pact in blood?" I pressed the blood-soaked knots in my handkerchieves harder and harder into my palms.
"That won't be necessary," he replied, turning his corpse-like gaze on me.
"Pity, I expected it would," I sneered. "What a life that would be. At least I would live it to the full, like a king – even though in the end I would come to a sticky end." I wasn't taking this conversation seriously, and I was enjoying this kind of humour. I was surely dealing with a drunkard who had got bored on the way home from the pub, even though it hadn't looked like that at first sight.
"What will happen if I don't keep my promise?"
"Then I will take your place and you'll find yourself in mine. Our positions will be exchanged, and you will lose your Marie."
"Why not then? I agree." I had lost her anyway. And even if such a thing should happen, which was nonsense, it couldn't be any worse for me than it was now. "What about your side of the deal?"
"As far as I'm concerned, Theodor, there's no question of my not keeping my promise," his eyes sparkled. "You have to trust me. We'll make an oral agreement, and we'll confirm it by my drinking some of your blood."
"I hope I don't have to drink any of yours, because my stomach isn't too strong just at the moment." This conversation was leading nowhere, and it was going a bit too far. I wanted to put an end to it, and I was feeling cold.
"That won't be necessary," he said finally.
The puddle had brought me round a bit, so I stood up and jokingly held out my hand. When he put his mouth to it I turned my head away, partly to stop me vomiting but also out of fright caused by a bolt of lightning which struck and split a beech-tree. There was a noise like a cannon shot, and when I turned my head back the stranger was no longer standing there. I set out for the nearest pub.
In the noisy surroundings of the pub I stopped thinking about the stranger, even though his skill at rapid disppearances left me feeling uneasy. At last I was able to get warm and dry out. The landlord waited on me hand and foot till the morning. Then a coach came for me, since I had lost my horse somewhere, and took me off to the vast country house, where the servants took care of me.
And then... Then events proceeded at an unexpected rate. Three years passed like water falling from high rocks, but it was the proverbial quiet before the storm. It all began that day when...
The hunting horns sounded across the meadow, the horses stood by excitedly and the dogs barked. After the hunt ceremony, which we keep up as a time-honoured tradition, we split up into four groups. Ours, made up of myself, my father, brother, uncle and three friends, got into a long chase after a wounded stag, which my father had unfortunately not brought down. In the end the dogs led us to it. The spry old gentleman, thanks to whom I exist, broke off a couple of twigs. He placed one of them in the dead stag's mouth, then touched the other one on the wound and stuck it in his hat. He fired a shot into the air, and a startled wild boar burst out of the undergrowth. We all fired at it, but in vain. It gored my father with its tusks.
The hunt was hastily ended. Without a feast. General mourning settled on the house, and we threw the bullet-riddled boar to the dogs. With father's funeral even the last few pleasures vanished. It was certainly not my fault. Even with the best will in the world to save him, I could never have managed to aim and fire before those jutting fangs caught my father. At that moment it was beyond human capability to control events.
Another day I was walking through the market, where all kinds of fine foodstuffs were on sale, from bread to sweets, fruit and vegetables through to dried fish. A little boy, maybe five years old, came running out of one of the hovels, his mother beating him from head to foot with a stick.
"He-e-elp, he-e-elp!" he writhed on the stone pavement.
"What are you doing? Do you want to kill him?" The beating was intolerable.
"Mind your own business! I can do what I want with my own child!"
I became angry with this ragged beggar-woman. I was just about to instigate suitable measures, but then... A little voice in my head reminded me of what I had once promised. Instead of at least pulling the mother away, I remained standing there, while her son, with blood pouring from his nose and ears, fell unconscious and showed no sign of reviving. I would have liked more than anything to have the woman quartered for this, but something compelled me to control myself, and it forced me to back off like a coward into an alleyway. Long afterwards I still could not understand why I had behaved in that way, and I vowed never to act so crassly ever again. I couldn't care less about that dreamlike meeting and the deal with the strange man.
Several months later I was having a drink one evening in the Lantern inn. The musicians were playing, people were singing old army songs, others were dancing inanely, and beermugs were clashing till they broke.
"Come to me, my little dove," one of the soldiers groped the innkeeper's wife.
"Stop that! Let me be!" she pulled away from him.
"You giving us lip? Here, lads, get her on the table and hold her tight!"
They pushed the woman down on the table. Four of them caught her by the arms and legs so firmly that she couldn't move. The soldier who had provoked this ugly incident dropped his trousers, lifted up the gingham skirt, and attached himself like an octopus onto its prey. The innkeeper hit one of the soldiers over the head with a copper tankard, but another of them bent him double with a rapid blow to the midriff and with a punch to the back of his neck put him to sleep. The room went silent. The other soldiers took their turn with the innkeeper's wife, four of them constantly holding the poor woman as if in irons. There was not a sound to be heard, not even from the mosquito that had been bothering us, only the final calls for help from the wretched blonde.
Fear riveted everyone to the heavy wooden high-backed chairs. All they could manage to do was to look on in wide-eyed amazement. Nobody did anything to rescue the unfortunate woman. Why should I have been the particular one? I could have called the night watch, or even my own soldiers. Certainly no-one would have noticed if I had run outside. I could not have taken them all on alone anyway, and the others, knowing them as I did, would have disppeared without lifting a finger. But it didn't happen. I joined in spontaneously with all the onlookers. After all, such unpleasantness did not concern me. This was confirmed by the whispering inner voice – ...no-one who needs help.
Then someone came in the room. He saw what was happening, and set about the ruffians without a thought. A fight broke out, leaving two men on the floor with broken heads, next to the innkeeper. The young man, whose face could not be seen for all his wrestling movements, was clearly holding his own until finally one of the soldiers pinioned him so powerfully from behind that he could hardly use his arms or legs, enabling another one to pull his battered head upright by the hair and cut his throat like slaughtering a pig. Before I could realize what was happening, everyone who was still able to walk in their alcoholic haze had bolted in a blast of air. I went over to the dead man, while the violated innkeeper's wife knelt over her husband amidst the ruins of the tap-room, praying to God. Then I too had to sink to my knees, bury my face in my hands and wail out loud: "For God's sake, why? Why didn't I help?! Why did they kill him?!" For I was holding my own brother in my arms. By some unfortunate chance he had come into the wrong place at just the wrong time.
The news from my sister, that they had caught the soldiers, tortured and then executed them, did not cheer me up. I was now persecuted by the idea of my horrible guilt. More and more frequently I thought of that mysterious fellow, and whether he was taking our deal seriously or not.
I could have saved not only my brother, but my father as well, without a doubt. If I had helped, none of this would have happened. This way my whole family will be taken from me, without justification and completely in vain. Just out of stubbornness! Could this have been what he meant, when he said sarcastically that several souls were better than one? We have no right to sacrifice something that is tangibly living for the sake of something that is lost. Marie is not going to come back in any case. I don't give a damn about what has happened. It was all the fault of my drunkenness, and my imagination led me astray. How ridiculous it was of me to believe in it. Has she dwindled into oblivion, as far as I'm concerned? Of course she has, long ago...
It's possible I'm just fooling myself. These thoughts might have calmed me down, but my conscience has gnawed through my brain. Relief comes only when I knock my head soundly against the wall of the chamber where I'm sitting and wearying myself in brooding contemplation of these pictures.
Marie appeared to me frequently in my dreams. She would sit on the marble edge of the grave she was buried in, suffused with the melancholy of the entire inane world. She wasn't crying, but tears were streaming down her starkened face. Spiders were crawling over her, and she was stroking a monstrous wolf with shining eyes and bared teeth. The wolf circled the grave and disappeared into the maw of the fog. From the earth, where Marie's tears fell, grew thorny bushes with roses. They wound around her, and she remained captive in their clutches. They dried out, and the crackling bushes were spread apart by snakes which levelled the branches with the ground. Marie, now without a single spider, was weeping drops of blood. In the turmoil of snakes that same fellow walked up to her, she willingly took his hand and they moved away with their backs turned to me. At that moment I would wake up in a fright. No, he would not take Marie from me. Certainly not when she was dead. And if I were to find myself in his position, he would surely be richer in his family home than I. And if he wanted to change places with me, then he could be my guest. Nevertheless, I would not wish my status with this decaying property on the most wretched of paupers.
One sunny afternoon I was absent-mindedly counting my steps as they took me towards the centre of town. There was a pillory cage there, and out of curiosity I joined the crowd spitting on the wretch exposed to public shame inside. A bedraggled girl dressed in rags was squatting there. She reminded me of Marie. In fact, if I hadn't known she was dead, I would have been sure it was her. I decided to have the girl set free. I indulged myself in this decision, because more than enough had happened since Marie's death, and by now I felt it was all just too much. Nothing held me back any more, and the mysterious fellow no longer weighed on my mind.
"What has she done?" I asked the man-at-arms.
"She's an adulteress. She has sinned," he said, fixing on her with a glare.
"Would you let her out for me?"
"Can't do that. More than my job's worth. Orders is orders."
"I don't believe you," I said, pulling out my purse and pushing it into his hand. "Surely something can be done." The man-at-arms wavered, hefting the purse, but in the end he let himself be induced. "All right then," he announced, "her time is as good as done anyway." He opened the cage and the girl came out, thanking me with a glance. Then, like a hunted animal, she ran from the shouting crowd towards the market-place, and disappeared behind the church.
A week later I decided to go to the cemetery again, with the memory of Marie still turning like a knife in my insides. The sun had rolled down behind the hills, and dusk had thrown up a skein of wool across the sky. I stopped at the graveside, with feelings such as a lamb must have before the slaughter. But I was unprepared for the horror that penetrated me, totally overwhelming the lamb-like feelings. My eyes fixed themselves on the inscription. I could not imagine how it had got there.

Marie Louise von Truman 4. 3. 1675 – 10. 4. 1695
Theodor Amadeus von Truman 7. 2. 1669 – 17. 5. 1700
May You Rest In Peace!

"How can I be dead when I'm alive?" I concluded from the engraved lines. Then I realized that the date of my death was this very day, and that exactly five years had passed since that meeting, which I had come to think of exclusively as a dream. My eyes stayed glued in fear to the gravestone. There was a portrait of me on it... with the face of a man I had once known.
The moon, suddenly looking like one of the coins I had paid for the girl, shone down from the horizon and lit up a bush. Then I knew that the prediction had been fulfilled. I understood that I could never return from this place, because as the undead I was condemned under pain of my own solitude to wander eternally the roads of this world, until I had gathered up everything which had been forgotten at the crossroads of the accursed human race, or until I found another madman, equally lost and resembling myself.
Maybe it is death that looks like me.

 

Translated from the Slovak by Andrew Billingham