Invitation to a Beheading. (Chapter Two) :: Vladimir Nabokov

He took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk. He took off his hips and his legs, he took off his arms like gauntlets and threw them in a corner. What was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly coloring the air. At first Cincinnatus simply reveled in the coolness; then, fully immersed in his secret medium, he began freely and happily to . . .


The morning papers, brought to him with a cup of tepid chocolate by Rodin, the local sheet Good Morning Folks, and the more serious daily Voice of the Public, teemed as always with color photographs. In the first one he found the façade of his house: the children looking out from the balcony, his father-in-law looking out from the kitchen window, a photographer looking out of Marthe’s window; in the second one there was the familiar view from this window, looking out on the garden, showing the apple tree, the open gate and the figure of the photographer shooting the façade. In addition he found to snapshots of himself, depicting him in his meek youth.

Cincinnatus was the son of an unknown transient and spent his childhood in a large institution beyond the Strop River (only in his twenties did he casually meet twittering, tiny, still so young-looking Cecelia C., who had conceived him one night at the Ponds when she was still in her teens). From his earliest years Cincinnatus, by some strange and happy chance comprehending his danger, carefully managed to conceal a certain peculiarity. He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in a world of souls transparent to one another; he learned however to feign translucence, employing a complex system of optical illusions, as it were—but he had only to forget himself, to allow a momentary lapse in self control, in the manipulation of cunningly illuminated facets and angles at which he turned his soul, and immediately there was alarm. In the midst of the excitement of a game his coevals would suddenly forsake him, as if they had sensed that his lucid gaze and the azure of his temples were but a crafty deception and that actually Cincinnatus was opaque. Sometimes, in the midst of a sudden silence, the teacher, in chagrined perplexity, would gather up all the reserves of skin around his eyes, gaze at him for a long while, and finally say: “What is wrong with you, Cincinnatus?” Then Cincinnatus would take hold of himself, and, clutching his own self to his breast, would remove that self to a safe place.

In the course of time the safe places became ever fewer: the solicitous sunshine of public concern penetrated everywhere, and the peephole in the door was placed in such a way that in the whole cell there was not a single point that the observer on the other side of the door could not pierce with his gaze. Therefore Cincinnatus did not crumple the motley newspapers, did not hurl them, as his double did (the double, the gangrel, that accompanies each of us—you, and me, and him over there—doing what we would like to do at that very moment, but cannot . . . ). Cincinnatus very calmly laid the papers aside and finished his chocolate, The brown skim that had mantled the chocolate became shriveled scum on his lips. Then Cincinnatus put on the black dressing gown (which was too long for him), the black slippers and pompons, and the black skull cap, and began walking about the cell, as he had done every morning since the first day of his confinement.

Childhood on suburban lawns. They played ball, pig, daddy-longlegs, leapfrog, rumpberry, poke. He was light and nimble, but they did not like to play with him. In winter the city slopes were covered with a smooth sheet of snow, and what fun it was to hurtle down on the so-called “glassy” Saburov sleds. How quickly night would fall, when one was going home after sledding . . . What stars, what thought and sadness up above, and what ignorance below. In the frosty metallic dark the edible windows glowed with amber and crimson light; women in fox furs over silk dresses ran across the street from house to house; the electric “wagonet” stirred up a momentary luminescent blizzard as it sped by over the snow-powdered track.

A small voice said: “Arkady Ilyich, take a look at Cincinnatus . . .”

He was not angry at the informers, but the latter multiplied and, as they matured, became frightening. Cincinnatus, who seemed pitch-black to them, as though he had been cut out of a cord-size block of night, opaque Cincinnatus would turn this way and that, trying to catch the rays, trying with desperate haste to stand in such a way as to seem translucent. Those around him understood each other at the first word, since they had no words that would end in an unexpected way, perhaps in some archaic letter, an upsilamba, becoming a bird or a catapult with wondrous consequences. In the dusty little museum on Second Boulevard, where they used to take him as a child, and where he himself would later take his charges, there was a collection of rare, marvelous objects, but all the townsmen except Cincinnatus found them just as limited and transparent as they did each other. That which does not have a name does not exist. Unfortunately everything had a name.

“Nameless existence, intangible substance,” Cincinnatus read on the wall where the door covered it when open.

“Perpetual name-day celebrants, you can just . . .” was written in another place.

Further to the left, in a strong and neat hand, without a single superfluous line: “Note that when they address you . . .” The continuation had been erased.

Next to this, in clumsy childish letters: “I will collect fines from writers,” signed “director of the prison.”

One could make out yet another line, an ancient and enigmatic one: “Measure me while I live—after it will be too late.”

“In any case I have been measured,” said Cincinnatus, resuming his journey and rapping lightly with his knuckles on the walls. “But how I don’t want to die! My soul has burrowed under my pillow. Oh, I don’t want to! It will be cold getting out of my warm body. I don’t want to . . . wait a while . . . let me doze some more.”

Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. At fifteen Cincinnatus went to work in the toy workshop, where he was assigned by reason of his small stature. In the evenings he would feast on ancient books to the lazy enchanting lap of wavelets in the Floating Library, in memoriam of Dr. Sineokov, who had drowned at just that spot in the city river. The grinding of chains, the little gallery with its orange-colored lamp shades, the plash, the water’s smooth surface oiled by the moon, and, in the distance, lights flickering past in the black web of a lofty bridge. Later, however, the valuable volumes began to suffer from the damp, so that in the end it was necessary to drain the river, channeling all the water over to the Strop by means of a specially dug canal.

In the shop he struggled for a long time with intricate trifles and worked on ragdolls for schoolgirls; here there was little hairy Pushkin in a fur carrick, and ratlike Gogol in a flamboyant waistcoat, and old little Tolstoy with his fat nose, in a peasant’s smock, and many others, as for example Dobrolyubov, in spectacles without lenses and all buttoned up. Having artificially developed a fondness for this mythical Nineteenth Century, Cincinnatus was ready to become completely engrossed in the mists of that antiquity and find therein a false shelter, but something else distracted him.

There, in that little factory, worked Marthe; her moist lips half open, aiming a thread at the eye of a needle. “Hi, Cincinnatik!” And so began those rapturous wanderings in the very, very spacious (so much so that even the hills in the distance would be hazy from the ecstasy of their remoteness) Tamara Gardens, where, for no reason, the willows weep into three brooks, and the brooks, in three cascades, each with its own small rainbow, tumble into the lake, where a swan floats arm in arm with its reflection. The level lawns, the rhododendrons, the oak groves, the merry gardeners in their green jackboots playing hide-and-seek the whole day through, some grotto, some idyllic bench, on which three jokers had left three neat little heaps (it’s a trick—they are imitations made of brown painted tin), some baby deer, bounding into the avenue and before your very eyes turning into trembling mottles of sunlight—that is what those gardens were like! There, there is Marthe’s lisping prattle, her white stockings and velvet slippers, her cool breast and her rosy kisses tasting of wild strawberries. If only one could see from here—at least the treetops, at least the distant range of hills . . . Cincinnatus tied the dressing gown a little tighter. Cincinnatus moved the table and began dragging it backwards as it shrieked with rage: how unwillingly, with what shudderings it moved across the stone floor! Its shudderings were transmitted to Cincinnatus’s fingers and to Cincinnatus’s palate as he retreated toward the window (that is, toward the wall where way, way up high, there was the inclined cavity of the window). A loud spoon fell, the cup began to dance, the pencil started to roll, one book began sliding upon another. Cincinnatus lifted the bucking chair onto the table. Finally he climbed up himself. But of course he could see nothing, only the hot sky with a few white hairs thinly combed back—the remnants of clouds that could not tolerate the blueness. Cincinnatus could barely stretch as far as the bars beyond which rose the window tunnel with more bars at the end, and their shadowed repetition on the peeling walls of the stone incline. There, on the side, written in the same neat, contemptuous hand as one of the half-erased sentences he had read before, was the inscription: “You cannot see anything. I tried too.”

Cincinnatus was standing on tiptoe, holding the iron bars with his small hands, which were all white from the strain, and half of his face was covered with a sunny grating, and the gold on his left mustache shone, and there was a tiny golden cage in each of his mirrorlike pupils, while below, from behind, his heels rose out of the too-large slippers.

“A little more and you’ll have a fall,” said Rodion, who had been standing nearby for a full half minute and now firmly clenched the leg of the trembling chair. “It’s all right, it’s all right. You can climb down now.”

Rodion had cornflower-blue eyes and, as always, his splendid red beard. This attractive Russian countenance was turned upwards toward Cincinnatus, who stepped on it with his naked sole—that is, his double stepped on it, while Cincinnatus himself had already descended from the chair to the table. Rodion, embracing him like a baby, carefully took him down, after which he moved the table with a violinlike sound to its previous place and sat on the edge, dangling the foot that was in the air, and bracing the other against the floor, having assumed the imitation-jaunty pose of operatic rakes in the tavern scene, while Cincinnatus picked at the sash of his dressing gown, and did his best not to cry.

Rodion was singing in his bass-baritone, rolling his eyes, brandishing the empty mug. Marthe used to sing that same dashing song once. Tears gushed from the eyes of Cincinnatus. On a climactic note Rodion sent the mug crashing against the floor and slid off the table. His song went on in chorus, even though he was alone. Suddenly he raised both arms and went out.

Sitting on the floor, Cincinnatus looked upward through his tears; the shadow of the bars had already moved. He tried—for the hundredth time—to move the table, but, alas, the legs had been bolted down for ages. He ate pressed fig and began again to walk about the cell.

Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. At twenty-two he was transferred to a kindergarten as a teacher in division F, and at that time he married Marthe. Almost immediately after he had assumed his new duties (consisting of keeping busy little children who were lame, hunchbacked or crosseyed) an important personage made a second-degree complaint against him. Cautiously, in the form of a conjecture, there was expressed the suggestion of Cincinnatus’s basic illegality. Together with this memorandum the city fathers also examined the old complaints that had been made from time to time by the more perceptive of his colleagues at the workshop. The chairman of the education committee and certain other official figures took turns locking themselves up with him and making on him the tests prescribed by law. For several days in a row he was not allowed to sleep, and was compelled to keep up rapid senseless small talk until it bordered on delirium, to write letters to various objects and natural phenomena, enact everyday scenes, and imitate various animals, trades and maladies. All of this he performed, all of this he passed, because he was young, resourceful, fresh, yearning to live, to live for a while with Marthe. Reluctantly they released him, allowing him to continue working with children of the lowest category, who were expendable, in order to see what would come of it. He took them for walks, in pairs, while he turned the handle of a small portable music box that looked like a coffee grinder; on holidays he would swing with them at the playground—the whole cluster would be still and breathless as it soared and would squeal as it plummeted down. Some of them he taught to read.

Meanwhile Marthe began deceiving him during the very first year of their marriage; anywhere and with anybody. Generally when Cincinnatus came home she would have a certain stated half-smile on her face as she pressed her plump chin against her neck, as if reproaching herself, and, gazing with her honest hazel eyes, would say in a soft cooing voice, “Little Marthe did it again today.” He would look at her for a few seconds, pressing his palm to his cheek like a woman, and then, whining soundlessly, would go off through all the rooms full of her relatives and lock himself in the bathroom, where he would stamp his feet, let the water run and cough so as to cover up the sound of his weeping. Sometimes, to justify herself, she would explain to him, “You know what kind of a creature I am: it’s such a small thing, and it’s such a relief to a man.”

Soon she became pregnant, and not by him. She bore a boy, immediately got pregnant again—again not by him—and bore a girl. The boy was lame and evil-tempered, the girl dull, obese and nearly blind. Because of their defects both children ended up in his kindergarten, and it was odd to see nimble, sleek, rosy Marthe leading home this cripple and this stocky tot. Gradually Cincinnatus stopped watching himself altogether, and one day, at some open meeting in the city park there was a sudden wave of alarm and someone said in a loud voice, “Citizens, there is among us a — — –.” Here followed a strange, almost forgotten word, and the wind swished through the locust trees, and Cincinnatus found nothing better than to get up and walk away, absent-mindedly picking leaves from bushes bordering the path. And ten days later he was arrested.

“Tomorrow, probably,” said Cincinnatus as he slowly walked about the cell. “Tomorrow, probably,” said Cincinnatus and sat down on the cot, kneading his forehead with the palm of his hand. A sunset ray was repeating effects that were already familiar. “Tomorrow, probably,” said Cincinnatus with a sigh. “It was too quiet today, so tomorrow, bright and early . . .”

For a while they were all silent—the earthenware pitcher with water at the bottom that had offered drink to all the prisoners in the world; the walls, with their arms around each other’s shoulders like a foursome discussing a square secret in inaudible whispers; the velvet spider, somehow resembling Marthe; the large black books on the table . . .

“What a misunderstanding” said Cincinnatus and suddenly burst out laughing. He stood up and took off the dressing gown, the skullcap, the slippers. He took of the linen trousers and the shirt. He took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk. He took off his hips and his legs, he took off his arms like gauntlets and threw them in a corner. What was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly coloring the air. At first Cincinnatus simply reveled in the coolness; then, fully immersed in his secret medium, he began freely and happily to . . .

The iron thunderclap of the bolt resounded, and Cincinnatus instantly grew all that he had cast off, the skullcap included. Rodion the jailer brought a dozen yellow plums in a round basket lined with grape leaves, a present from the director’s wife.

Cincinnatus, your criminal exercise has refreshed you.


[Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. Translated by Dmitri Nabokov, in collaboration with the author.]

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