THE TIRED GUEST
Out there we had got in the habit of never sleeping for very long at a time. And we slept for no more than about an hour after that experience with the crashing tree. We awoke simultaneously, Tom and I. At that moment I had the feeling that someone silently sat and looked at me. And so it was.
I hardly dared believe in the face I saw turned toward me. I had never really seen it clearly before, but merely sensed it; it was, nevertheless, all too well known to me: it was Peak-Head. The Russian. He was inside our hole and sat and looked at me.
The carbide lamp on the ceiling burned with a hissing sound. Its blue-white light cast a pitch black shadow from the stranger's nose, which was enormously large but well [p. 21] shaped nonetheless, a nose that might have been borrowed from a circus giant. He was, in fact, no giant, even though he appeared so, clad in that wide-flaring coat we had seen him in against the moonlight. He looked powerful and tough, but not especially tall. I couldn't see his mouth and chin because they were obscured by the deep shadow cast by his nose, but I did see his eyes and they captured me immediately. They were very light. When you meet men like that, out in full daylight, it's as if their eyes were holes right through the head and what you see is a light, airy spring sky far behind the man. He stared at me, in an open, friendly fashion, but as if he was completely exhausted. He sat very close to the rectangular oven where there was still a fire. I could tell that the heat, which he must have been quite unaccustomed to, had got into his blood and dazed him. He looked as if he wouldn't hear anything if he were spoken to, in spite of the fact that his eyes were open. I don't know what made me suddenly start to ask him in Russian what the idea was of wrapping a dead man in his cloak, but just as I was about to say it, the Russian slowly began to fall to one side, to collapse, in precisely the same silent way that the tree had done out in the woods. It seemed as if he were deep asleep in the midst of his fall, even before his head reached the spruce on the floor and perhaps even before he shut his eyes. And he lay there.
But in just that place which had been hidden by all his bulk — just as it was with the tree — Tom and I saw another figure and one better known to us: the Bouncer. With his back against the earth wall, partly hunched into a little niche, he sat or half lay there, like an entirely new man, a figure with the aura of a stranger. He was so utterly changed since we saw him last that Tom exclaimed:
"God in heaven, is it you?"[p. 22]
But we needed no more than the exchange of a glance, Tom and I, to know what had happened.
The Bouncer had always seemed to us the prototype of those hunks of men installed at the entrances of bars, clumsily gross and yet with something of a doll's harmlessness about his whole person. Back in those days before Tom had joined us, the Bouncer had been silent, humble, a little dreamy, and almost shy. Everybody had somehow felt sorry for him and his colossal arms and legs at such a young age — well, hardly twenty-five anyway. You wanted to help him move them. But then he began to turn into an entirely different man: arrogant, a little condescending, threatening, better than the rest — in short, an egotist and a bully. It didn't suit us at all. Some among us were worse than the Bouncer, in one way or another, and we let them alone. But we gave the Bouncer hell. Even if he thought just as others thought, even the stupidest among us said that the Bouncer was wrong and the others were right. All he had to do to be attacked was simply to appear.
But the Bouncer took up the battle. Stubbornly — and perhaps heroically — he fought for his inflated ego. He wouldn't part with it. He defended the unsympathetic side of himself. Oh, sometimes he wavered. When it was clear that his "well-meant" designs were a mistake or that he wasn't as strong as his limbs suggested — he was actually quite weak — then he folded up for a time, with a humble, deep sorrow in his eyes that were "brown as bedbugs and just as cheeky," and he responded without a word or a grimace to the abysmal contempt that we all showered upon him. But then he could sigh a short, peculiar sigh that sounded exactly like snow about to turn into water when it's in a cup on the stove. After that he'd recover quickly and begin to stride around, pleased with the disagreeable stench of his black fur coat, and he'd say:[p. 23]
"What got into you just now, fellas? Getting a little tense already? More guts needed, huh?"
His humility had stayed with him about a week last time, that is to say, since the day he swore the potatoes spoke Russian in that cellar in Kámenka. His nose had been rubbed in those potatoes so thoroughly that it almost hurt to look at him. For a whole week he avoided everyone, said nothing, and sighed frequently like snow beginning to melt.
Anyhow he now sat in the niche with a dogskin coat over his shoulders and exuded self-assurance. His eyes were directed steadily and with some sympathy first at Tom, then at me, and then at his own nose which had changed, had in fact grown and was twitching uneasily since it was frost-bitten and did not thrive in the neighborhood of the stove. He had to squint somewhat in order to see it, but the brown gaze lost nothing of its smugness: in front of him lay Peak-Head.
Into that already insufferably crowded hole the Bouncer had come, dragging with him a prisoner.
Copyright © 1945 by Medéns Förlags Aktiebolag, Stockholm, Sweden. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1965 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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