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Even before I had lifted the blan- ket and a single eyelid, I could already see them as they leant over me, the husky one by my head, the melodious one by my feet, my tsarist angels. He nodded at Bernatova; the landlady obediently left the chamber. Ivan drew up a tabouret for himself and sat down; he held his knees together, and on his knees a narrow-brimmed black bowler hat. I blinked. The second one perched on the foot of the bed, his weight dragging down on the eiderdown un- til I had to relinquish it; after grabbing hold of the blan- kets I raised myself on the pallet, and in doing so uncovered my back, the cold air rushed in under my pullover and long johns, I shivered, awake.

I flung an overcoat over my shoulders and pulled my knees up under my chin. They looked down at me with amusement. I leaned towards the wall and spat into the crachoir until I was bent over double. And thus bent over I coughed violently for a long moment. I wiped my mouth on the torn sleeve of my overcoat. My pocket book was lying on the window sill, squashed behind a flower pot with a dead geranium in it.

Do you take us for beat consta- bles? I had thought it impossible, but he held himself up even straighter, and now the walls seemed crooked, the cabinet like a hunchback, and the door frame scoliotic.

Offended, the chi- novnik raised his chin and puffed out his chest. The com- missioner always keeps himself supplied with sorbets, cup- cakes, and cream cakes, straight from Semadeny, real debauch- ery for the palate, if I may say so — may I not, Kiril?

Ivan Ivanovich had bushy moustaches, heavily pomaded and curled up at the tips; Kiril, on the other hand, was shaved silky smooth. Ivan took out a ticker on a tangled chain from the pocket of his waist-coat, announced that it was five to five, that Commissioner Preiss esteemed punctuality very highly — and when was he going out for supper?

Kiril offered Ivan some snuff, Ivan offered Kiril a ciga- rette, they both scrutinised me as I got dressed. I splashed some icy water into the basin. The stove tiles were cold. I turned up the wick in the lamp. When I was shaving — when I was still shaving — I had had to set the lamp in front of the looking glass, turned up to its full flame. Zyga had parted with his razor immediately after his arrival in Warsaw; he had cultivated a beard worthy of an Orthodox priest.

I peered over at his pallet on the other side of the stove. On Mondays he had lectures, he must have risen at dawn. The table was stacked high with dirty dishes, flasks empty , books, maga- zines, and copybooks; Zyga was drying out his socks and under- garments, which were hanging over the rim of the table-top, held in place by anatomical atlases and Latin dictionaries.

By the wall op- posite the stove hardbound tomes were piled up in even stacks arranged according to size and girth, and according to how frequently they were read. Ivan peered at it for a long time, with great concentration, stiffly planted upon the stool, his left hand with the cigarette cocked aside at an an- gle of forty-five degrees to his body and his right hand placed upon his thigh beside the bowler hat, wrinkling up his nose and brow, bristling his moustaches.

It was then I real- ised that he was almost blind, an office myope, as he bore the marks of a pince-nez on his nose and under his eye sockets, and that without his pince-nez he was forced to rely upon Kiril. They had come straight in from the frost and Ivan must have had to remove his spectacles. I myself sometimes find my eyes watering in here.

I vomited into the hole, from which an icy stench wafted up into my face. Cockroaches skittered out from under the shit-smeared board. I squashed them with my thumb when they came up under my chin. After coming back into the corridor I saw Kiril standing on the threshold — he was keeping an eye on me, he was on his guard, in case I might flee from them out into the frost in my long johns and pullover.

I smiled knowingly. He offered me his handkerchief and pointed to my left cheek. I wiped. When I wished to return it he moved back a step. I smiled for a sec- ond time. I have a wide mouth, it smiles very easily. The functionaries watched as I laced up my shoes, as I buttoned up my waistcoat, as I struggled with the stiff cellu- loid collar tacked on to my last cotton shirt. I took up my documents and the rest of my ready money, three rubles and forty-two kopeks — as a bribe it would barely even be sym- bolic, but with empty pockets a man feels naked in an office.

There was nothing to be done about my old sheepskin — patches, stains, crooked seams — I had no other. They watched in si- lence as I squeezed my arms into its unsymmetrical sleeves, the left one longer than the right. I smiled apologetically. Kiril licked his pencil and meticulously noted something down on his cuff.

We went out. A shape so close to a perfect sphere cuts itself out from the world. They looked straight ahead with a passionless gaze, with lips pressed tightly together and their chins lifted high through stiff collars, limply surrendering to the movement of the sleigh.

I had thought that I might learn something from them on the way. I had thought that they would start to demand a contribution for their good will, for their lack of haste and urgency. They were silent. I would ask them — how? They would pretend not to hear. Flakes of sticky snow swirled between us. I tucked my cold hands into the sleeves of my sheepskin. The lights were burning in the French pastry shop, the elec- tric glow shining through the great windows fringed the sil- houettes of the passers-by with woolly halos.

The summer sun ought still to have been far aloft in the sky, but as usual heavy clouds hung over the city; the street lamps — very high up with spiral tops — had even been lit. We turned to the north. I was reminded of the unfin- ished letter to Miss Julia and her final scream-question.

At the crossing with Nowogrodzka a fat cow hung frozen to a lamp post, a sinew of dark ice joining it to the top of the frontispiece of a four-storey building. The sleigh slowed down as we passed Nowogrodzka. The sleigh- driver pointed at something with his whip. The wagon in front of us pulled over onto the trottoir.

Kiril looked around be- hind him. I leant out to the right. At the crossway with Jeru- salem Avenue stood two policemen driving the traffic from the middle of the roadway with the aid of whistles and shouts — above the roadway, just freezing across, was a frosten. For several minutes we were held up in the traffic jam it had caused. Usually the frostens move about over the rooftops, in the cities they rarely descend to the ground.

Even from such a distance it seemed to me that I felt the waves of cold flowing off it. The chinovniks from the Min- istry of Winter exchanged glances.

Ivan peeped at his watch. Ivan and Kiril did not even notice him. Last year when the frostnik was crossing the Aleksandryjski Bridge from Praga to the Castle the bridge was closed for nearly two months. Three or four hours earlier, estimating from the crumbled architecture of the ice, the frosten had embarked upon a change in trajectory: before then it had been shifting along at barely a metre above the middle of the street, but then, three hours ago, it had moved in a steep upward parabola, up over the tops of the lamps and the crests of the frozen trees.

I saw the row of slender sta- lagmites it had left, they glittered in the reflected glow of the street lamps, in the reflections of the coloured neon lights, the lights shining through the windows and shop dis- plays. It would have been possible to enter under it if anyone had been crazy enough. Ivan nodded at Kiril and the latter clambered out of the sleigh with a reluctant grimace on his face, chapped red from the biting cold.

Thank you God for that icicle-monstrosity. I shifted on the bench, leaning my flank against the side of the sleigh. In the traf- fic jams in the centre of the city crowds form immediately, street hawkers appear, vendors of cigarettes, holy water, and holy flame. A band of urchins had stolen up from the direction of the Briesemeister restaurant.

The bravest of them, with this face wrapped in a scarf and in thick, shapeless gloves, ran up to within a dozen steps or so of the frosten and hurled a cat into it. The tom-cat flew in a high arc, paws outstretched, bawling as loud as it could It had probably fallen onto the frosten already dead, only to tumble slowly down from it into the snow, frozen to the bone: an ice sculpture of a cat with splayed limbs and a tail stiffened out into wire.

The boys ran off, howling with amusement. Meanwhile, Kiril had caught up with the older policeman, seizing him by the elbow so that he could not make off in pur- suit of the guttersnipes, and began to persuade him of some- thing in a hushed voice, though with considerable help from the expansive gestures of his other hand.



Toggle navigation. Stanley Bill The Old Axolotl is an exhilarating post-apocalyptic tale about a world in which a cosmic catastrophe has sterilized the Earth of all living things. Only a small number of humans have managed to copy digitalized versions of their minds onto hardware in the nick of time. Deprived of physical bodies, they continue to exist by uploading themselves onto gigantic industrial robots, sophisticated medical machines, mechs designed for hard labor, military drones, star troopers and sexbots based on Japanese manga.


The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams






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