SLEEP OF BRONZE (Χάλκινος Ύπνος)
Homer, Iliad, Book 11, line 210
By Eleni Ladia
Translated by Vassilis C. Militsis
So there he fell, and slept a sleep of bronze (Iliad, ΧΙ 241) Translation by A.T. Murray
On that beautiful autumn morning I did not have the usual hunch (as I often have it to such a degree that it grows annoying) that something extraordinary would befall me. I had woken up rather sad, suffering from a slight headache, as in the previous evening I had eaten out with friends. Every time I break the blissfulness of my loneliness, I return home guilty and exhausted. When I am with people, I am considerably ill at ease. I make enormous efforts to hold myself on the surface of discussions so as not to founder into my blissful ‘abstraction’. Consequently, I have trained a small part of myself to communicate with the others, and indeed at most times, so effectively that startles even me. I converse, agree, brook objections, grow vexed but au fond and deep in my solitude I always find out that ‘I don’t give a damn’. I have been so much inured in my lonesomeness that I observe myself as if I were someone else. I never get bored with me and in case I detect a trace of ennui, I ‘play’ games. For instance, I have three alarm clocks which I set at three different hours. In this way I am in the past, present and future and I become triple; an individual of the past, present and future. And my psychology varies accordingly. When I have to do the boring house chores (as I have no one to take care of me) I split in half. For several hours I play the maid, dress like one and prepare everything. Then I have a bath and leave the house. When I come back after about an hour, I have caused my psychology to change. I have turned into a lady entering a clean house to inspect it, to make some remarks about the slovenliness of the maid (in this way I grow into a gradually better housewife) and finally I take a rest. As far as being served (nothing is more galling for a single woman than having to serve herself), I have discovered something amazing. For instance, all mechanically and unconsciously (i.e. I can manage to break up my conscientious unity) I can peel and husk a pomegranate. I do it perfectly and empty its gem-like seeds in a saucer. Afterwards, I place the saucer on my bedside table. I refrain from eating them immediately. Sometime later I lie in my bed, reach out for the grains and relish them like a roman banqueter, being grateful to the good girl that prepared this for me. It goes without saying that I play cards with myself. I divide myself in two parts dealing the cards for two players. At other times I tell the fortune in the sediments of my coffee, I examine my face in the mirror for hours (the more I observe the less I recognize it); I use a magnifying glass and study my old photographs in such meticulousness that I appear to decipher texts with hieroglyphics. I also invent a host of other things that imagination grants ungrudgingly to lonely people. At other times (when this serves my purpose) I even change Time. For example; when it is a sunny morning outdoors, I seal hermetically doors and windows, I let sometimes a tap drip, I turn on all the lights of the house and in this way I pretend it is a rather rainy night. At most times, I analyze myself. This obsession for self-awareness (which I have had since I was a child), bore fruit after I had given an end to my metaphysical quests. The time has indeed gone by since when I was pestered by the ‘finite limit of human mind and the cause of God’. I do not aspire to break the wall with my head as it is so vividly described in novels. I waded through the stage of doubts and quandaries rather unharmed. I am not the tragic person as I used to be for years. Love that does not bind you with the universe – unless it is instructive – does not preoccupy me. After a soul-shaking experience in which I had invested much and hoped in what I myself did know, I ended up realizing that ‘each wends his way alone’. How I overcame my metaphysical thoughts and the problem of God is a long and dramatic story. My story is tragic in view that I have wasted many, in fact countless years of my life, during which I depended my reason on God’s presence. I say presence or absence of God and not existence or non-existence. Absence does not necessarily mean non-existence. Observing the world in relation to social injustice and chiefly the fate of the individual (and it was this that always weighed upon my conscience) I was convinced that reason carries no value, and causality (the outcome of this lame logic) is empty of meaning. A poignant feeling of guilt that has haunted me since my birth has taught me that a result (not a cause) can pre-exist seeking subsequent causes. Each time I removed God from my conscience, I felt wonderfully calm. I accepted everything without a spirit of rebelliousness. I expected no order and consequently no administering of justice or punishment. I gradually crystallized in my thoughts the fact that the absence of God renders the world less irrational and unfair. Therefore, why should I protest against injustice and arbitrary punishment though there is no sin? I also collected some more hackneyed but useful notions: how many entities are daily squashed under the soles of our shoes without our perceiving their demise? Has anyone ever thought that as he runs off to work he becomes the murderer of an ant? Thus God (when he is not present) punishes us with the same lack of consciousness. Why weep for the death of young and worthy people? Do they not compare to the lambs slaughtered for Easter? The most beautiful lambs are already moribund, marked out indeed with a red spot. Our attitude to inferior consciences is but an imitation of God’s attitude to us. And all this transpires without the conscience and the standard required by our common sense. When God is absent, human fate does not appear unjust or irrational. Having therefore unraveled these issues, due to my natural bend to it, I am obsessed with myself. I place a most keen interest in myself. I even try to love myself. Now let me go back to my initial narration, since this trite interpolation has gone too far.
On that beautiful autumn morning my instinct portended that nothing could happen to me out of the ordinary. I had a cup of black coffee, chain-smoked two cigarettes, donned my overcoat and, as I had nothing specific to do, I began roaming in the streets.
Although I do not much like being outdoors, sometimes I like to be lost in the streets and play almost always the same game; I probe my own stamina in relation to others. However, I always realize that the others, objects and nature injure my self-independence. I risk being absorbed or fossilized. I have just spoken of God’s absence … ah, I believe this absence resembles Apollo’s journey to the hyperboreans, the legendary denizens of the northernmost limits of the Earth. The issue of God repeats itself and tyrannizes me. Particularly, when I discover the wise complexity of simple things, such as chamomile; chamomile is the principal evidence of real divine manifestation. Anyhow, I was walking in the street, relatively calm, and – I stress it – sensing no foreboding whatsoever. And now that I am endeavoring to tell the story, I do not know if…
On the way I met several people being off somewhere; seriously now where were they heading to? Once on the bus I was watching them intensely and from time to time I furiously felt like asking them, once indeed I had an irrepressible desire to slap one of them in the face, so fierce was my fury that I forced myself to get off the bus at the next stop. What a quaint thing it is that I could be among them. Who, I? No definition of I could utterly satisfy me. Was the I messed up with the Self and split from Id? And was the Self connected with the I or did it act independently? And when I played cards with myself yesterday, when I was divided into two players, was it because I wanted to win and not myself? I hate definitions though I am attracted by aphorisms. I could hear my footfalls ringing on the pavement and I was startled as if they were not mine. I never knew precisely what belonged to me and what did not, or what my rights were and what not. Many a time I disputed my reflection the mirror puzzled over my features. I was unable to recognize myself or referring to me I would say: “I do not allow me this”, “I do not approve of me”, “and I like me” and other such similar things.
I walked into a park and sat down on a bench. I lit a cigarette and looking around me I saw there was a deserted playground though it was the hour it should have been full of kids. I felt depressed as if I had seen an empty swallow nest. Beautiful clouds sailed high in the sky continuously changing shapes. How much would I rather watch the transience of the clouds than the steady brightness of the stars! I took out my notepad to draw when I felt lightheaded; I felt a movement as though I was being churned within the clouds. When I came to and opened my eyes, I saw a little girl crying silently on the next bench. She must have been around eight years old. I was taken aback for I am always disturbed by a child’s tears; I am utterly defenseless before a weeping child and I can’t stand seeing a child suffer. I would never reasonably want to have a child at the thought that it might suffer – all mothers are Medeas – I dare say, though I have much loved my own mother. The little girls went on crying. I had half a mind to go near her, but no sooner had I thought of it than I found myself sitting on the same bench. Her blond braids reached her spear-thin neck, and when she lifted her head to look up at me in a startle, I was overwhelmed by that queer dizziness again. Oh, my God, her look was poignantly familiar as though I had so many times scrutinized it in the mirror or in a photograph. “Why have you been crying” I asked almost in a silly way. Her sensitivity was also excruciatingly intimate. I felt a burden weighing desperately upon me and I had a déjà vu of this scene, as if I had relived it in a cloud. I asked her what her name was and she willingly told me. “Ah, we’ve got the same name,” I said laughing. Carried away by my mood, she also began to laugh. I was gently penetrating her brittle world. “What have you got in your pocket, jacks?” I asked pointing to her bulging pocket of her pinafore. She produced the jacks from her pocket and placed them symmetrically on the bench. I was enraptured, for I too as a kid was fond of playing at jacks for hours. “How about playing?” I suggested. A kind of ironical smile crowned her ruby colored mouth. She began the game and I marveled at the dexterity of her little fingers. Something gnawed inside me recalling the fact that I too was at her age when I had played at jacks with an unknown woman on a bench. “Why were you crying just a little while ago?” I asked again being less curious. I was being overwhelmed by a satanic clarity which was rendering me breathless. I already knew her answer before she spoke. “What kind of insight is this?” I marveled and tried to rein in my wayward thoughts. The child began to speak and I wanted to shout at her to stop, for alas I already knew everything.
The girl recounted on:
“In the morning I went to the baker’s to buy bread for Mother and then I went to sit over the big gully. Many poor families live in there. When it rains, its bed grows into a rising stream and then the people risk drowning. The water washes away chairs and mattresses, and sometimes little creatures are found dead, drowned in the water. Whenever I walk over that gully, I am sad. Nonetheless, I always go there. I feel real shame because I believe I am the cause of all this. And when some kids steal something in the class, I sweat all over in fear because I believe I stole unwittingly. I continually suffer and I pray to God to forgive me. Sometimes I cry and I don’t know what it is that annoys me. I always keep on thinking that I am to blame, that all I do is bad. And I can find no peace…”
I interrupted her three times:
“What is it that makes you think that you are to blame for everything?”
The kid looked at me in confusion and whispered “I don’t know”.
I was then overcome by a mad desire to tightly hold the girl in my arms and teach her the magic word: guilt, guilt without cause. It is the same haunted octopus that has grabbed me, too, in its tentacles since when I can date my memory. But how could I explain to her this inexplicable word? What use would it be to her if she learned the name of her sadness? She would then have to undergo another torture. She would try to seek the causes that framed that queer feeling of hers.
“Do you love God? How do you picture Him in your phantasy?” her eyes sparkled and replied she did love God, very much. However, she did not imagine God in the way the Sunday school small icons pictured Him. She silently confessed to me her secret; she often imagined God as a big duck with a yellow bill. And that was another reason that she felt unhappy.
“Where’s this gully?” I asked and at the same time I felt my arms tremble, for this gully was unbearably familiar to me, since in my childhood I had also shared the same experience. She answered that it was very close to the bus terminus. I also knew the area very well; I knew that this gully no longer existed because it was turned into a black-top motorway thirty years ago.
I felt dizzy again: the world was fiercely dancing around me like a head-hunter. And suddenly I vehemently clutched the frail, gaunt girl’s body in my arms. Our heads touched and our hair mingled; my brown hair that was once blond and hers that from blond now will someday change into brown. I realized everything very clearly: I was holding in my arms my past, the girl who was myself, I was the child of myself and the mother of myself; how fast and strangely could all this happen? I was holding in my arms my own girlish self with infinite tenderness in spite of the fact that I hated my childhood because of its hard psychological experiences. And this skinny, nervous body, which rested in my arms, and its future of which, I knew from moment to moment, was bound to become present, the present I was, pressed such great responsibility upon me. “Where was then the so-called Time split and where was the true initiate when now past and present were linked together in a kids’ playground bench?” I was overwhelmed by an irresistible desire to change the destiny, if it existed as such, that awaited myself as a child and brought to the point I am now. How? What right of choice did I have? Which choice? Where is then free will? How could I alter a year, a month, a day or even a moment of the events that would follow, shape me as a child and bring me to my present self? A mere insignificant instance would be adequate. That is a good example. Now the girl and then I leave school for home. It was simple. It was the same routine journey. If I could intervene to delay a moment, what could happen afterwards? Perhaps a random event that could change her destiny, such as taking the right turn instead of the left one? Some event might have made the difference for good. I knew I was being irrational, for I could neither make a choice nor effect a change. This child will go with mathematical certainty through all the stages until she arrives here and now. Naturally, she was unaware of it and her ignorance would grant her the hope to make a free decision. However, I clearly knew, and despite this, this seducing hope sparked inside me, too, that something could probably change. But if nothing changed, I had already realized that I loved this child, who was no other but me, such as she was with her shells and monsters she fished. I was lullabied in her arms, utterly reconciled with what I was, suffered, and what I was bound to suffer.
“Shall we go on with our game?” I asked her for a moment and she willingly threw the jacks. Now I could see with terrific clarity: I was playing at jacks with myself. How long had we been sitting there absorbed in our game without talking? I don’t know, nor did it occur to me to look at my watch. What did measured time now matter against this time paradox? Of what significance were the days and nights when the same alchemist worked backstage? We were so absorbed in our game that we did not perceive that elderly lady who came and crowded next to us, as if there was no other bench free nearby. Whence and when did she come to disturb our snug peacefulness? I looked at her startled and she smiled at me with the frankness in the manner many unfamiliar old people smile and greet you. I smiled back noticing at the same time that she was knitting a sweater, her hands working speedily. I had always been touched by the hands of elderly people, with their veins and knuckles standing out, with the black-blue spots like irregular painter’s strokes. This old woman’s hands displayed a singular personality: they were delicate and curiously moved like living manikins. All of a sudden I recalled my friends’ flattering comments on my own hands. The child, holding the jacks tightly in her fists, was watching with keen curiosity the old woman. I, too, when I was a child, used to scrutinize in the same manner old people, whom I adored all. Then the girl turned and peered at me. “Have you been playing at jacks” asked the old lady adding almost immediately, “I also used to play at jacks”. She set her knitwear on her lap and kept on looking at us. Her regard seeming to be coming from the dawn of ages was familiar to me. I felt again queerly lightheaded as though I was swaying back and forth in a swing. I even had the impression that she recognized me. I was more familiar to her than to the child. “Surely, the kid is not yours” she said suddenly as if brooking no objection. “Surely, grandma, you’re not knitting this sweater for your grandchild” I rejoined rather roughly, “you have neither children nor grandchildren. You are all alone”.
The old woman smiled at me good-naturedly nodding in the affirmative. I felt ashamed, for I had great respect for old people and I never contradicted them. But this old woman – the personification of destiny herself – irritated me. I was struck with revulsion to her though I should not have, for the old lady was exceptionally calm and polite. The child sat still and speechless like a statue. I fell to biting my mails nervously. “There will be a time when you won’t be so disturbed” the old lady said in a benign way. “In time you’ll calm down. All things will become stable and smooth. Time always works for the benefit of man though it makes his cells grow old. In a way you can find God, too. And if you can’t find Him directly, you will be able to do it through what you’ll love most”. Her words staggered me, naturally not because I agreed with them, on the contrary. In the seditious stage I was in, they caused me only allergy. But it happened in my loneliness of the night that their echo penetrated my mind. They were in my mind in a latent condition, whereupon I rejected them out of hand because I considered them an insidious refuge. So I said; “At old age, grandma, you’re reconciled with everything because you’re only faced with fear”. The old lady stroked her sparsely haired chin. She burst out laughing as though she heard a funny joke. The child joined in the merriment, because she apparently found the old woman’s mirth comical. “Fear?” the old lady spoke with blunt severity. “Fear or Time? Aren’t you faced with fear? Don’t you dread your loneliness as much as you dread association with people? Aren’t you afraid of God’s absence as much as you are of His presence? Why don’t you write off God with one stroke of the pen instead of claiming that He is just absent? Might not your aphorism of God’s absence making the world less absurd and unfair conceal fear before your typical logic? Aren’t you afraid of madness either? Doesn’t it ever cross your mind that you might someday end up on a mental hospital bed? Aren’t you afraid of your own talent, which you push back because of your fear? You haven’t painted for five years with the illusion that you have been freed. You’re afraid in spite of your being still young! Why doesn’t this dread make you reconcile with reality? And don’t you dare rationalize contending that time is the resultant of condensed fear”.
She stopped abruptly terribly weary from the intensity of her monologue. I felt devastated; awesomely ashamed of what was said in front of the child. However, she seemed to have understood nothing and went on playing at jacks. What unsettled me most was the old lady’s keen intuition. How come did she know of my hidden secrets? How did she know that I had begun painting since five years before, and of my aphorism about God? And how did she judge my response I was about to hurl at her was a sophistry? It was so easy to realize it without confessing; for such a confession would blatantly prove that I was not free. But I must be honest and admit it: the old woman was my future; she was going to be me in the years to come, but after how many years? Her age was indefinable, especially dressed in a curious and youngish way. I did not want to look at her; I hated looking at me as an old woman; the spectacle was greatly disturbing me. “I’ve understood everything, everything!” I snapped at her spitefully. She looked at me with immense benevolence. “And yet, you dislike me but you shouldn’t” she replied calmly and resumed her knitting. I could not help looking at her aged hands with the intricate tiny veins, my hands, which had been prematurely aged even since my youth. “But why” I wondered. I was a very kind and decent and old lady. I was longing to find out about me when I reached her age. Only one thing had I ascertained: the old lady lived all alone. I wanted to ask her but she had forestalled me again. “Don’t ask me to tell you anything, I can’t explain it to you. It’ll be very hard and I’m a weary old woman. Neither could you explain to the child next to you. Hard as you could try, she wouldn’t understand you. Likewise, no matter how hard I could try, you wouldn’t understand me either despite your experience and knowledge. Only once is unity achieved. Throughout our lives we are but fragments unknown among us. Love me only as I am all alone as you are, as is this girl, too, who ignores us being busy with her jacks. Not even a short moment of your life can I interfere to change it.” She went on talking and knitting, no longer looking at me. “Tell me only something”, I asked, “I think it’s easy for you. It’s something that has pestered me for years. Have you contributed something important to art?” I was trying to make me tell my own future. “You’ll paint again and you’ll understand,” the old lady responded dryly.
I was seized by anxiety. I was in my future and yet it was unknown to me. “My God, what a fearsome ignorance” I mused and laid my head in the lady’s aged bosom, finding rest at last. I cannot remember how long it had been since I rested my head in a bosom. I had loved the old lady as I had loved the child, too. I took her knitwear from her and began to knit myself. I was knitting a sweater with my future.
Afterwards, the three of us sitting on the bench were looking at the deserted street. Has it passed a day followed by the next or was it just the moment when I sat down there for the first time? The back of my head was aching terribly. I remember having woken up once by a similar pain after a nightmare, in which a giant was breaking away chunks of rock and throwing them onto my head. I rubbed my head vigorously with both hands, which gave me some surcease of pain. The old lady started picking up her knitting slowly and at the same time the child was putting the jacks in her pocket.
“It is high time we got up and dropped off to sleep of bronze” the old lady commanded. I tried to smile at her poetic expression. “To death” she repeated ruefully, “unity has been achieved”.
A shudder ran down my spine. No, I could not accept this. I did not want it. “I’m still too young” I yelled in indignation, “you should drop off to it”. And then hugging the child as if I were going to protect her, I went on: “And the child? The child has a great many years to go”. The old lady had risen from the bench and wrapped her shoulders with her shawl. “I’m not coming” I shouted and felt my head go numb, as I do every time I get upset. “Besides, my present consciousness is mine. It is only I that I am in the present”. I looked at the deserted street in despair. Perhaps another visitation would have dissolved my ghosts. “My consciousness is in the present, too. And so is the child’s” the old woman explained gently. “Don’t forget that you, I and this child are the same entity. Besides, what significance does the present consciousness have before Time?”
I thought that all these were absolutely correct, like mathematical squares.
Defeated I swung my bag around my shoulder, took the child by the hand and held the old woman’s arm. We started off, and had someone seen us, he would have believed the trio was a grandma, a mother and her daughter. I was looking at us melting slowly away in the deserted street, three sad shapes.
Am I talking now that I have gone through the gates of the Sleep of Bronze? Or perhaps haven’t I yet? My tale has blown me off like a wind onto another time level. I began telling of an incident in the past, but I ended up narrating it in a perpetual present. How can I take the initial thread? The past incident does not exist as it has become present. But simultaneously it exists as I am in the future. Am I really talking from my future? What I have attempted to tell I was experiencing it at the same time; is it a paradox? Or perhaps this paradox does not have a real existence but it is a mere invention of logic in cases when it is at an impasse. But by what standards can true reality be found? Am I relating of a past incident starting off from my future and at the same time living my present? And who am I really? Am I the little girl who might have imagined the woman who might have lived or the old woman who might have remembered? I thought I was through with the problem of God and I was now concerned with issues of self-awareness. Or perhaps are not such issues the same problem only in disguise? I am drifting again to an unknown, horrible dead end. I wonder if it is unknown, i.e. unfamiliar, because I know that I am not aware of it, or it might be familiar but I consider it unknown because I have not yet seen it. However, I stop again in front of the large bright danger sign. Have I passed the portal of the Sleep of Bronze irreversibly or can I come back and resume the same identical road? I DO NOT KNOW.
(1981) Χάλκινος ύπνος (Β΄ Κρατικό Βραβείο Διηγήματος 1981), Βιβλιοπωλείον της Εστίας.