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Mail from another city ež1

by Leena Krohn ež2

The burden - The fifth letter ež97

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The burden - The fifth letter ež97

I have not told you that I am already living at my second address here in Tainaron. There were some difficulties with my first apartment, so vague that I have not written about them earlier, but at the same time serious enough to force me to move. ež98

For my first week I lived in a northern suburb, in a building which must once have been plastered in pale green, but had since fallen badly into decay. The plaster had split off in great flakes, and the spaces they left behind them brought to mind faces and patterns seen long ago. At first, nevertheless, I liked both the house and the apartment a great deal: a room and small kitchen on the first floor, with a window opening on to a short, peaceful street. ež99

Then, one night, I woke up. It was perhaps my third or fourth night. My upstairs neighbours were making a noise, and it was this which had woken me. Someone was moving a heavy piece of furniture - that is what it sounded like, at least - dragging it back and forth across the floor above my ceiling. I looked at the clock: it was a little past one. For some time I lay awake, waiting for the noise to end, but when the din went on I got up, angry and tired, to look for something with which to knock on the ceiling. I could not find anything; I had not yet bought even a broom for the apartment. ež100

I opened the door that led to the stairway and listened: it seemed to me that the whole house must have woken up. But the noise was much fainter in the stairwell, and no one else had got up to wonder what it was. The calm light of the street-lamp drew a beautiful ornament in the cracked marble of the wall of the stairway. ež101

I lay down once more and stared at the ceiling. It looked at me as if it were shaking under the heavy thumps that went on, one after another. I thought I had lain there for a long time, I thought it was already morning, when the noise suddenly ceased and it was as if everything was abruptly interrupted. When I glanced at the clock, I realised that it had all lasted for less than an hour. ež102

The following night as I went to bed, I had already forgotten the matter. But my sleep was interrupted again by precisely the same kind of sound as on the previous night, and at exactly the same time. I tried to remain calm, and took up a book. I even leafed through it (it was the flora you gave me long ago), but the incessant knocking prevented me from understanding anything. The hands of the clock moved as if some nocturnal force were hindering them, but when they finally reached two, peace returned as suddenly as it had been broken. ež103

The next day, I saw the upstairs resident in a small neighbourhood shop opposite our house. She was a fragile old spinster with astonishingly thin limbs, who supported herself with a slender stick with an elegantly turned head - it represented a creature with a beak and horns. The lady was known well in the shop and was served with respect. In the midst of her purchases she turned to me and asked, in a surprisingly strong, trumpet-like voice, 'Well, how do you find us?' ež104

I had not in the least expected that she would know who I was. My landlord had only once pointed her out to me, through the window, when I was signing the rental agreement. ež105

'That old lady lives above you,' was all he had said, and I had glanced at my neighbour in passing from my first-floor perspective. ež106

'I am Pumilio,' the old lady said now, and now it was my turn to introduce myself; but I am sure that I was unable entirely to banish the quiver of suspicion from my face as she continued, immediately: 'Have you settled in to your new apartment?' ež107

As she asked the question, quickly and animatedly, I thought her gaze held real curiosity, quite out of proportion to the formality of the question. ež108

I hesitated, but managed to say: 'Thank you, it is a comfortable apartment. But at night I find it difficult to sleep.' ež109

I took fright at my own boldness, and watched her closely. ež110

'Really? Just fancy, and you are still so young. I am already quite old, as you see, but I sleep well. Quite well!' she repeated, examining me through her wide, motionless pupils. ež111

I did not know what to think. She left the shop before me, leaning on her beautiful stick, and proceeding with some difficulty. But on the threshold she turned: 'Tonight I am sure you will be able to sleep.' ež112

And she smiled, her mouth closed. ež113

I hoped it was some kind of promise. I fell asleep quickly and, it may be said, in good faith, but my sleep was interrupted again in the same way and at the same time as on the previous two nights. Exhaustion and rage pounded at my forehead, but now I listened to the sounds from the floor above more closely than before. In particular, I tried to make out the tapping of Miss Pumilio's stick on the floor, for it seemed to me that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for her to move without support. But all I could hear was heavy thumps and dragging sounds, and in addition I could see clearly in the light of the reading-lamp that the ceiling-lamp, a glass ball, was rocking slowly in its mount. ež114

It began to seem incredible to me that Miss Pumilio, who was old, frail and, what is more, an invalid, could be capable, night after night, of the kinds of trials of strength that the noisy events upstairs would seem to presuppose. But above all I asked myself: why would she do anything like that? What reasons could force her to move furniture around in the middle of the night? ež115

I could think of only two reasons, and both of them were linked with fear. First: Miss Pumilio feared something so strongly that, every night, she built a barricade in front of her door, using her heaviest furniture. Did that seem likely? Not really, because things were dragged above my head in a number of different directions - remember this - , and besides, the mornings, when she would have had to have taken down her fortifications, were silent. Second: Miss Pumilio wanted me to be afraid, perhaps because, for one reason or another, she wanted me to move out. ež116

On the fourth night, as soon as I awoke - and it happened a few dozen seconds before the noise began (and this time I was absolutely certain it would happen again) - I was extraordinarily afraid. It was as if the consuming fear that I had imagined Miss Pumilio felt (or that she wished me to feel) had, that night, been transferred to me. Most repugnant of all to me was that the noises always began at the very same stroke of the clock. I remember saying to myself, many times: 'But it is unnatural! It is unnatural!' ež117

This time, however, I did not get out of bed, and the most difficult thing of all for me would have been to try to do anything to stop the noise. I would not have gone upstairs for any price, or rung Miss Pumilio's doorbell and enquired what the matter was and whether she could not do whatever she was doing at some more civilised hour. ež118

Why was it so impossible for me? I will tell you at once: because my mind was afflicted by a suspicion that was difficult to dismiss. You see, I suspected that if I really did go upstairs, if I really did ring Miss Pumilio's doorbell and say the words I intended to say to her, she would look at me with the dim eyes of a sleeper who has just been wakened from slumber and would not understand at all, at all, what I was talking about and what had given me the right to dare deprive her of her much-needed sleep. ež119

And in fact this was the ultimate reason that cast me into despair and why I never examined the origin of the noise any more closely. ež120

From time to time I saw Miss Pumilio in our street or in the little neighbourhood shop. She always greeted me amicably, but no longer made conversation with me. But sometimes when I had passed her on the street, it seemed to me as if she turned to look after me, and as if her bluish mosaic eyes glowed with a feeling or thought that I did not understand. But it could also be the case that she was looking through me, and was not even thinking about me. ež121

At night, I stayed awake. And to keep up my courage, I repeated to myself: 'It's nothing! Nothing! I just don't happen to understand what is behind this, but I am sure it is something quite insignificant and ordinary. I am sure I would laugh if I found out what it is, and laugh heartily.' ež122

But above my head the rumbling continued like a very localised storm, and along the creaking floorboards was pushed and pulled something that was heavy and recalcitrant and immense, something so formless that it resembled human life. At last came night and, staring at the shaking ceiling, I felt the foundations and the cellar of the house respond to the thundering sound from above. I fled those two sledge-hammers, of which one was the earth itself, to the open air, and have never returned to that address. ež123

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Author: ©Leena Krohn 1998
Translation: ©Hildi Hawkins
E-presentation: © Ralph Amissah
W3 since October 3 1993