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Vladimir Nabokov
1899-1977

   

Sounds

by Vladimir Nabokov



   
 

It was necessary to shut the window: rain was striking the sill and splashing the parquet and armchairs. With a fresh, slippery sound, enormous silver specters sped through the garden, through the foliage, along the orange sand. The drainpipe rattled and choked. You were playing Bach. The piano had raised its lacquered wing, under the wing lay a lyre, and little hammers were rippling across the strings. The brocade rug, crumpling into coarse folds, had slid partway off the piano's tail, dropping an opened opus onto the floor. Every now and then, through the frenzy of the fugue, your ring would clink on the keys as, incessantly, magnificently, the June shower slashed the windowpanes. And you, without interrupting your playing, and slightly tilting your head, were exclaiming, in time to the beat, "The rain, the rain. . . I am go-ing to drown it out. . . ."

But you could not.

Abandoning the albums that lay on the table like velvet coffins, I watched you and listened to the fugue, the rain. A feeling of freshness welled in me like the fragrance of wet carnations that trickled down everywhere, from the shelves, from the piano's wing, from the oblong diamonds of the chandelier.

I had a feeling of enraptured equilibrium as I sensed the musical relationship between the silvery specters of rain and your inclined shoulders, which would give a shudder when you pressed your fingers into the rippling luster. And when I withdrew deep into myself the whole world seemed like that--homogeneous, congruent, bound by the laws of harmony. I myself, you, the carnations, at that instant all became vertical chords on musical staves. I realized that everything in the world was an interplay of identical particles comprising different kinds of consonance: the trees, the water, you. . . All was unified, equivalent, divine. You got up. Rain was still mowing down the sunlight. The puddles looked like holes in the dark sand, apertures onto some other heavens that were gliding past underground. On a bench, glistening like Danish china, lay your forgotten racquet; the strings had turned brown from the rain, and the frame had twisted into a figure eight.

When we entered the lane, I felt a bit giddy from the motley of shadows and the aroma of mushroom rot.

I recall you within a chance patch of sunlight. You had sharp elbows and pale, dusty-looking eyes. When you spoke, you would carve the air with the riblike edge of your little hand and the glint of a bracelet on your thin wrist. Your hair would melt as it merged with the sunlit air that quivered around it. You smoked copiously and nervously. You exhaled through both nostrils, obliquely flicking off the ash. Your dove-gray manor was five versts from ours. Its interior was reverberant, sumptuous, and cool. A photograph of it had appeared in a glossy metropolitan magazine. Almost every morning, I would leap onto the leather wedge of my bicycle and rustle along the path, through the woods, then along the highway and through the village, then along another path toward you. You counted on your husband's not coming in September. And we feared nothing, you and I--not your servants' gossip, not my family's suspicions. Each of us, in a different way, trusted fate.




Your love was a bit muted, as was your voice. One might say you loved askance, and you never spoke about love. You were one of those habitually untalkative women, to whose silence one immediately grows accustomed. But now and then something in you burst forth. Then your giant Bechstein would thunder, or else, gazing mistily straight ahead, you would tell me hilarious anecdotes you had heard from your husband or from his regimental comrades. I remember your hands-- elongated, pale hands with bluish veins.




On that happy day when the rain was lashing and you played so unexpectedly well came the resolution of the nebulous something that had imperceptibly arisen between us after our first weeks of love. I realized that you had no power over me, that it was not you alone who were my lover but the entire earth. It was as if my soul had extended countless sensitive feelers, and I lived within everything, perceiving simultaneously Niagara Falls thundering far beyond the ocean and the long golden drops rustling and pattering in the lane. I glanced at a birch tree's shiny bark and suddenly felt that, in place of arms, I possessed inclined branches covered with little wet leaves and, instead of legs, a thousand slender roots, twining into the earth, imbibing it. I wanted to transfuse myself thus into all of nature, to experience what it was like to be an old boletus mushroom with its spongy yellow underside, or a dragonfly, or the solar sphere. I felt so happy that I suddenly burst out laughing, and kissed you on the clavicle and nape. I would even have recited a poem to you, but you detested poetry.

You smiled a thin smile and said, "It's nice after the rain." Then you thought for a minute and added, "You know, I just remembered-- I've been invited to tea today at. . . what's his name. . . Pal Palych's. He's a real bore. But, you know, I must go."

Pal Palych was an old acquaintance of mine. We would be fishing together and, all of a sudden, in a creaky little tenor, he would break into "The Evening Bells." I was very fond of him. A fiery drop fell from a leaf right onto my lips. I offered to accompany you.

You gave a shivery shrug. "We'll be bored to death there. This is awful." You glanced at your wrist and sighed. "Time to go. I must change my shoes."

In your misty bedroom, the sunlight, having penetrated the lowered Venetian blinds, formed two golden ladders on the floor. You said something in your muted voice. Outside the window, the trees breathed and dripped with a contented rustle. And I, smiling at that rustle, lightly and unavidly embraced you.




It happened like this. On one bank of the river was your park, your meadows, and on the other stood the village. The highway was deeply rutted in places. The mud was a lush violet, and the grooves contained bubbly, café-au-lait water. The oblique shadows of black log isbas extended with particular clarity.

We walked in the shade along a well-trodden path, past a grocery, past an inn with an emerald sign, past sun-filled courtyards emanating the aromas of manure and of fresh hay.

The schoolhouse was new, constructed of stone, with maples planted around it. On its threshold a peasant woman's white calves gleamed as she wrung out a rag into a bucket.

You inquired, "Is Pal Palych in?" The woman, with her freckles and braids, squinted against the sun. "He is, he is." The pail tinkled as she pushed it with her heel. "Come in, ma'am. They'll be in the workshop."

We creaked along a dark hallway, then through a spacious classroom.

I glanced in passing at an azure map, and thought, That's how all of Russia is--sunlight and hollows. . . . In a corner sparkled a crushed piece of chalk.

Farther on, in the small workshop, there was a pleasant smell of carpenter's glue and pine sawdust. Coatless, puffy, and sweaty, his left leg extended. Pal Palych was planing away appetizingly at a groaning white board. His moist, bald pate rocked to and fro in a dusty ray of sunlight. On the floor under the workbench, the shavings curled like flimsy locks.

I said loudly, "Pal Palych, you have guests!"

He gave a start, immediately got flustered, bestowed a polite smack on the hand you raised with such a listless, familiar gesture, and for an instant poured his damp fingers into my hand and gave it a shake. His face looked as if it had been fashioned of buttery modeling clay, with its limp mustache and unexpected furrows.

"Sorry--I'm not dressed, you see," he said with a guilty smile. He grabbed a pair of shirt cuffs that had been standing like cylinders side by side on the windowsill, and pulled them on hastily.

"What are you working on?" you asked with a glint of your bracelet. Pal Palych was struggling into his jacket with sweeping motions. "Nothing, just puttering," he sputtered, stumbling slightly on the labial consonants. "It's a kind of little shelf. Haven't finished yet. I still have to sand and lacquer it. But take a look at this--I call it the Fly. . . ." With a spinning rub of his joined palms, he launched a miniature wooden helicopter, which soared with a buzzing sound, bumped on the ceiling, and dropped.

The shadow of a polite smile flitted across your face. "Oh, silly me," Pal Palych started again. "You were expected upstairs, my friends. . . . This door squeaks. Sorry. Allow me to go first. I'm afraid my place is a mess. . . ."

"I think he forgot he invited me," you said in English as we began climbing the creaky staircase.

I was watching your back, the silk checks of your blouse. From somewhere downstairs, probably the courtyard, came a resonant peasant-woman voice, "Gerosim! Hey, Gerosim!" And suddenly it was supremely clear to me that, for centuries, the world had been blooming, withering, spinning, changing solely in order that now, at this instant, it might combine and fuse into a vertical chord the voice that had resounded downstairs, the motion of your silken shoulder blades, and the scent of pine boards.




Pal Palych's room was sunny and somewhat cramped. A crimson rug with a yellow lion embroidered in its center was nailed to the wall above the bed. On another wall hung a framed chapter from Anna Karenin, set in such a way that the interplay of dark and light type together with the clever placement of the lines formed Tolstoy's face.

Rubbing his hands together, our host seated you. As he did so, he knocked an album off the table with the flap of his jacket. He retrieved it. Tea, yogurt, and some insipid biscuits appeared. From a dresser drawer, Pal Palych produced a flowery tin of Landrin hard candy. When he stooped, a fold of pimply skin bulged behind his collar. The down of a spiderweb on the windowsill contained a yellow, dead bumblebee. "Where is Sarajevo?" you asked suddenly, rustling a newspaper page that you had listlessly picked up from a chair. Pal Palych, busy pouring tea, replied, "In Serbia."

And, with a trembling hand, he carefully gave you the steaming glass in its silver stand.

"There you are. May I offer you some biscuits? . . . And what are they throwing bombs for?" he addressed me with a jerk of his shoulders.

I was examining, for the hundredth time, a massive glass paper-weight. The glass contained pinkish azure and St. Isaac's Cathedral specked with golden sandy grains. You laughed and read aloud, "Yesterday, a merchant of the Second Guild named Yeroshin was arrested at the Quisisana Restaurant. It turned out that Yeroshin, under the pretext of. . ." You laughed again. "No, the rest is indecent."

Pal Palych grew flustered, flushed a brownish shade of red, and dropped his spoon. Maple leaves glistened immediately beneath the windows. A wagon rattled past. From somewhere came the plaintive, tender cry "Ice--cream! . . ."




He began talking about school, about drunkenness, about the trout that had appeared in the river. I started scrutinizing him, and had the feeling I was really seeing him for the first time, even though we were old acquaintances. An image of him from our first encounter must have remained impressed on my brain and never changed, like something accepted and grown habitual. When thinking in passing about Pal Palych, I had the impression for some reason that he had not only a dark-blond mustache but even a matching little beard. An imaginary beard is a characteristic of many Russian faces. Now, having given him a special look, so to speak, with an internal eye, I saw that in reality his chin was rounded, hairless, and had a slight cleft. He had a fleshy nose, and I noticed, on his left eyelid, a pimplelike mole I would have dearly loved to cut off--but cutting would have meant killing. That little grain contained him, totally and exclusively. When I realized all this, and examined all of him, I made the slightest of motions, as if nudging my soul to start it sliding downhill, and glided inside Pal Palych, made myself comfortable inside him, and felt from within, as it were, that growth on his wrinkly eyelid, the starched winglets of his collar, and the fly crawling across his bald spot. I examined all of him with limpid, mobile eyes. The yellow lion over the bed now seemed an old acquaintance, as if it had been on my wall since childhood. The colored postcard, enclosed in its convex glass, became extraordinary, graceful, joyous. It was not you sitting in front of me, in the low wicker armchair to which my back had grown accustomed, but the benefactress of the school, a taciturn lady I hardly knew. And right away, with the same lightness of movement, I glided into you too, perceived the ribbon of a garter above your knee and, a little higher, the tickle of batiste, and thought, in your stead, that it was boring, it was hot, one wanted to smoke. At that instant you produced a gold case ftom your purse and inserted a cigarette into your holder. And I was within everything--you, the cigarette, the holder. Pal Palych scrabbling awkwardly with his match, the glass paperweight, the dead bumblebee on the windowsill.

Many years have sailed by, and I do not know where he is now. timid, puffy Pal Palych. Sometimes, though, when he is the last thing I am thinking about, I see him in a dream, transposed into the setting of my current existence. He enters a room with his fussy, smiling gait, faded panama in hand; he bows as he walks; he mops his bald spot and ruddy neck with an enormous handkerchief. And when I dream of him you invariably traverse my dream, looking lazy and wearing a low-belted silk top.


* * *

I was not loquacious on that wonderfully happy day. I gulped the slippery flakes of curds and strained to hear every sound. When Pal Palych fell silent, I could hear his stomach muttering--a delicate squeak, followed by a tiny gurgle. Whereupon he would demonstratively clear his throat and hurriedly start talking about something. Stumbling, at a loss for the right word, he would frown and drum his fingertips on the table. You reclined in the low armchair, impassive and silent. Turning your head sidewise and lifting your angular elbow, you would glance at me from under your lashes as you adjusted the hairpins in back. You thought I felt awkward in front of Pal Palych because you and I had arrived together, and he might have an inkling about our relationship. And I was amused that you were thinking this, and amused by the dim, melancholy way Pal Palych blushed when you deliberately mentioned your husband and his work.




In front of the school, the sun's hot ochre had splashed beneath the maples. From the threshold, Pal Palych bowed, thanking us for dropping by, then he bowed again from the doorway, and a thermometer sparkled, glassy-white, on the outside wall.

When we had left the village, crossed the bridge, and were climbing the path toward your house, I took you under the elbow, and you flashed that special sidelong smile that told me you were happy. Suddenly I had the desire to tell you about Pal Palych's little wrinkles, about the spangled St. Isaac's, but, as soon as I began, I had a feeling the wrong words were coming out, bizarre words, and when you tenderly said, "Decadent," I changed the subject. I knew what you needed: simple feelings, simple words. Your silence was effortless and windless, like the silence of clouds or plants. All silence is the recognition of a mystery. There was much about you that seemed mysterious.




A workman in a puffed blouse was resonantly and firmly sharpening his scythe. Butterflies floated above the unmowed scabious flowers. Toward us along the path came a young girl with a pale-green kerchief on her shoulders and daisies in her dark hair. I had already seen her three times or so, and her thin, tanned neck had stuck in my memory. As she passed, she gave you an attentive touch of her barely slanted eyes. Then, hopping carefully across the ditch, she disappeared behind the alders. A silvery tremor traversed the matte-textured bushes. You said, "I bet she was having herself a nice walk in my park. How I detest these vacationers. . . ." A fox terrier, a plump old bitch, was trotting along the path after her owner. You adored dogs. The little animal crawled up to us on its belly, wriggling, its ears laid back. It rolled over under your proffered hand, showing its pink underbelly, covered with gray maplike spots. "Why, you sweetheart," you said with your special, petting-ruffling voice.

The fox terrier, having rolled around for a while, gave a dainty little squeal and trotted on, scuttling across the ditch.

When we were already approaching the low park gate, you decided you wanted to smoke, but, after rummaging in your handbag, you softly clucked, "How silly of me. I left the holder at his place." You touched my shoulder. "Dearest, run and fetch it. Otherwise I cannot smoke." I laughed as I kissed your fluttery eyelashes and your narrow smile.

You cried out after me, "Just hurry!" I set off at a run, not because there was any great rush, but because everything around me was running--the iridescence of the bushes, the shadows of the clouds on the damp grass, the purplish flowers scurrying for their lives into a gully before the mower's lightning.




Some ten minutes later, panting hotly, I was climbing the steps to the schoolhouse. I banged on the brown door with my fist. A mattress spring squeaked inside. I turned the handle, but the door was locked. "Who's there?" came Pal Palych's flustered voice.

I shouted, "Come on, let me in!" The mattress clinked again, and there was a slapping of unshod feet. "What do you lock yourself in for, Pal Palych?" I noticed right away that his eyes were red.

"Come in, come in. . . . Glad to see you. You see, I was asleep. Come on in."

"We forgot a cigarette holder here," I said, trying not to look at him.

We finally found the green-enameled tube under the armchair. I stuck it in my pocket. Pal Palych was trumpeting into his handkerchief.

"She's a wonderful person," he said inopportunely, sitting down heavily on the bed. He sighed and looked askance. "There's something about a Russian woman, a certain--" He got all wrinkled up and rubbed his brow. "A certain"--he emitted a gentle grunt--"spirit of self-sacrifice. There is nothing more sublime in the world. That extraordinarily subtle, extraordinarily sublime spirit of self-sacrifice." He joined his hands behind his head and broke into a lyrical smile.

"Extraordinarily. . ." He fell silent, then asked, already with a different tone, one that he often used to make me laugh, "And what else do you have to tell me, my friend?" I felt like giving him a hug, saying something full of warmth, something he needed. "You ought to go for a walk, Pal Palych. Why mope in a stuffy room?"

He gave a dismissive wave. "I've seen all there is to see. You do nothing b-but get all hot out there. . . ." He wiped his puffy eyes and his mustache with a downward motion of his hand. "Maybe tonight I'll go do some fishing." The pimplelike mole on his wrinkled eyelid twitched.

One ought to have asked him, "Dear Pal Palych, why were you lying down just now with your face buried in the pillow? Is it just hay fever, or some major grief? Have you ever loved a woman? And why cry on a day like this, with this nice sunshine and the puddles outside? . .."

"Well, I have to run. Pal Palych," I said, glancing at the abandoned glasses, the typographically re-created Tolstoy, and the boots with earlike loops under the table.

Two flies settled on the red floor. One climbed on top of the other. They buzzed and flew apart.

"No hard feelings," Pal Palych said with a slow exhalation. He shook his head. "I'll grin and bear it--go, don't let me keep you."




I was running again along the path, next to the alder bushes. I felt that I had bathed in another's grief, that I was radiant with his tears. The feeling was a happy one, which I have since experienced only rarely: at the sight of a bowed tree, a pierced glove, a horse"s eye. It was happy because it had a harmonious flow. It was happy as any movement or radiance is happy. I had once been splintered into a million beings and objects. Today I am one; tomorrow I shall splinter again. And thus everything in the world decants and modulates. That day I was on the crest of a wave. I knew that all my surroundings were notes of one and the same harmony, knew--secretly--the source and the inevitable resolution of the sounds assembled for an instant, and the new chord that would be engendered by each of the dispersing notes. My soul's musical ear knew and comprehended everything.




You met me on the paved section of the garden, by the veranda steps, and your first words were, "My husband called from town while I was gone. He's coming on the ten o'clock. Something must have happened. Maybe he's being transferred."

A wagtail, like a blue-gray wind, quickstepped across the sand. A pause, two or three steps, another pause, more steps. The wagtail, the cigarette holder in my hand, your words, the spots of sunlight on your dress. . . It could not have been otherwise.

"I know what you're thinking," you said, knitting your eyebrows. "You're thinking someone will tell him and so forth. But it makes no difference. . . . You know what I've. . ."

I looked you straight in the face. I looked with all my soul, directly. I collided with you. Your eyes were limpid, as if a pellicle of silken paper had fluttered off them--the kind that sheathes illustrations in precious books. And, for the first time, your voice was limpid too. "You know what I've decided? Listen. I cannot live without you. That's exactly what I'll tell him. He'll give me a divorce right away. And then, say in the fall, we could. . ."

I interrupted you with my silence. A spot of sunlight slid from your skirt onto the sand as you moved slightly away.

What could I say to you? Could I invoke freedom, captivity, say I did not love you enough? No, that was all wrong.

An instant passed. During that instant, much happened in the world: somewhere a giant steamship went to the bottom, a war was declared, a genius was born. The instant was gone.

"Here's your cigarette holder," I said. "It was under the armchair. And you know, when I went in. Pal Palych must have been. . ."

You said, "Good. Now you may leave." You turned and ran quickly up the steps. You took hold of the glass door's handle, and could not open it right away. It must have been torture for you.




I stood in the garden for a while amid the sweetish damp. Then, hands thrust deep into my pockets, I walked along the dappled sand around the house. At the front porch, I found my bicycle. Leaning on the low horns of the handle bar, I rolled off along the park lane. Toads lay here and there. I inadvertently ran over one. Pop under the tire. At the end of the lane there was a bench. I leaned the bicycle against a tree trunk and sat down on the invitingly white plank. I thought about how, in the next couple of days, I would get a letter from you, how you would beckon and I would not return. Your house glided into a marvelous, melancholy distance with its winged piano, the dusty volumes of The Art Review, the silhouettes in their circular frames. It was delicious losing you. You went off, jerking angularly at the glass door. But a different you departed otherwise, opening your pale eyes under my joyous kisses.




I sat thus until evening. Midges, as if jerked by invisible threads, darted up and down. Suddenly, somewhere nearby, I became aware of a bright dapple--it was your dress, and you were--

Had not the final vibrations died away? Therefore, I felt uneasy that you were here again, somewhere off to the side, beyond my field of vision, that you were walking, approaching. With an effort, I turned my face. It was not you but that girl with the greenish scarf-- remember, the one we ran into? And that fox terrier of hers with its comical belly? . . .

She walked past, through gaps in the foliage, and crossed the little bridge leading to a small kiosk with stained-glass windows. The girl is bored, she is strolling through your park; I shall probably make her acquaintance by and by.

I rose slowly, slowly rode out of the motionless park onto the main road, straight into an enormous sunset, and, on the far side of a curve, overtook a carriage. It was your coachman, Semyon, driving at a walk toward the station. When he saw me, he slowly removed his cap, smoothed the glossy strands on the back of his head, then replaced it. A checkered lap rug lay folded on the seat. An intriguing reflection flashed in the eye of the black gelding. And when, with motionless pedals, I flew downhill toward the river, I saw from the bridge the panama and rounded shoulders of Pal Palych, who was sitting below on a projection of the bathing booth, with a fishing rod in his fist.

I braked, and stopped with my hand on the railing.

"Hey, hey. Pal Palych! How're they biting?" He looked upward, and gave me a nice, homey kind of wave.

A bat darted above the rose-colored mirror surface. The reflection of the foliage looked like black lace. Pal Palych, from afar, was shouting something, beckoning with his hand. A second Pal Palych quivered in the black ripples. Laughing aloud, I pushed away from the handrail.

I passed the isbas in one soundless sweep along the firmly packed path. Mooing sounds floated past through the lusterless air; some skittles flew up with a clatter. Then, farther along, on the highway, in the vastness of the sunset, amid the faintly vaporous fields, there was silence.

 
           

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Last updated:
February 27, 2004
   
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