to 5

    on the 5ives




The end of the world came; and to save his family from the horror which would befall those who must await their own end from storm or famine, fire or pestilence, he poisoned them all. And as he was about to hang himself, an angel appeared and said to him that he had dreamed it—dreamt that the end of the world was come. He stared in horror at his wife and children lying dead in the room with him as the angel, with an inscrutable look, withdrew—its wings stiff with insolence.

He went into the haberdashery to buy a shirt, leaving his wife to look at rings in a jewelry-store window. When he came outside again, she was gone. An old woman standing at the jeweler's window seemed almost to recognize him. He noticed how loose the ring was as she twisted it round and round her withered finger.

The train stopped at the station every afternoon at 5—every afternoon the same, except holidays and Sundays. This day, however, the train did not stop although it was neither a holiday nor a Sunday. At least no one saw it stop; no one saw a train at all. But they felt a wind rise up against them and heard the roaring of a train hurtling past. And looking down from the station platform, they saw a man lying between the tracks, his body "as if torn apart by beasts."

He left his apartment building and walked to the restaurant where he liked to eat his breakfast. The streets were empty; but he thought little, if anything at all, about it. On the way, he discovered that he had forgotten his wallet. He returned to his building, opened the door, and stepped through it into another street. All that day, he walked through one door after another only to be met immediately by another street. A street with no one on it except him. By nightfall, he was nearly mad with loss, realizing that his life—spent largely indoors—had, for a reason which could only be characterized as "sinister," vanished.

Often, he dreamed of a woman, always the same woman—dark hair, dark eyes, a loose white dress showing the tops of her breasts. He desired her with an abandonment he did not know when awake. Always, as they were walking down the street, past the shops, on their way to her apartment, his wife appeared at his side to take him home. Not even in sleep, he thought.

That it was only in his dreams he behaved violently to her made it no less culpable: the bruises to her face and arms were always new as she brought him his breakfast.

Such dreams as yours, he said, are common—I assure you; do not worry, try to relax; there are techniques to manage terror; you must—above all—sleep. The man thanked the doctor, he whose study is the mind—its mysterious workings—and went home. That night, after swallowing a tablet, he fell promptly "into the arms of Morpheus" and found himself once more in the empty street "under night's black hand." The tiger was at that very moment coordinating its exquisite mechanism of attack—nerves, muscles, and bone. Then it leapt and, leaping, seemed to the man as it unfurled in the night air to be a flag of prophecy. In the morning, they found his mutilated body behind the tea importer's warehouse. The tea from Ceylon, where there are tigers.

He read in the morning paper of his own death in a boating accident. That same day he bought a boat and took it out on the river. It capsized, and he drowned. He was a man who believed always what he read.

He found among his late father's things a roll of undeveloped film. Curious, he sent it to a lab and received back twelve prints—each of a young woman he recognized as having disappeared twenty years before "under mysterious circumstances."

Some there were who claimed that the camera steals the souls of those it photographs. Were their detractors able to see the ghosts that flee the rolls of exposed negatives, they would not have jeered. But spirits are invisible in the darkroom, even under a red light; and the shriek they habitually utter is beyond human audition.

There was one photograph among those he received from the lab that he had not taken: of a woman of unearthly beauty. Seeing it, he was lost to her—her eyes, the intensity of their gaze. He spent the next five years in search of her. It was as if she had been able to enthrall him with a single look. Because he could not forget her, he forgot everything else that had mattered to him: wife, child, house, job. Forgetting them, he lost them all. In the fifth year of his search, he found her. She was not what he had expected. She was five years older. But more than this, she had not the photograph's power to possess him. Her eyes—in it so entrancing—would, after a moment, slide off his in embarrassment. He was broken. But he married her in spite of his disenchantment in order to "justify himself." It was a marriage he bitterly regretted.

In this version, he visited a used-book store and chose six —two by Hesse, one by Lawrence, one by Borges, one by Poe, and the collected poems of Cavafy. Leafing through them later, he was surprised to find that all six had belonged to the same person: Shelly M—. Strange—he thought—that her taste in literature should be mine! Reading them, he fell in love. He imagined her having read the books—how she must have been moved or thrilled, aroused or terrified. He imagined her in bed with a yellow spill of light lighting the page, the pillow, her blouse, a negligee. He drank wine and imagined her drinking it also. It was as if they were in the room together—silent, reading, their eyes from time to time lifting from the page to regard each other fondly. He determined then to find her. To make her his own. To have her with him. They would read to one other. They would drink wine together. They would make love in the yellow spill of light. And so he looked for her and, after some months, found Shelly M—, who happened, unfortunately, to be a man.

He no longer knew how to live. In what way, so as to be happy and good. But of this he was certain: to remain in the city would be his doom. So he determined to leave it—leave everything by which he was known. His wife, his children, his dog, his job of courtroom usher, his clothes, the pipes and tobacco enjoyed by him each evening in the small garden he had made for himself behind the house—everything. I must begin again, he whispered. It's the only way to become what I must become next. One morning when the house was empty, he wrote his letters of farewell and of resignation. He ruined his usher's uniform and broke his pipe stems as a sign to himself there could be no turning back. Finally, he took his memories, one by one; and, as if they were clean shirts bearing the heat yet from his wife's iron, he folded them and laid them neatly in a drawer of oblivion, for which he had no key. (Yes, there is such a drawer. But one must have traveled far from oneself to have found it.) Nothing of what used to be his life would go with him into what was to be, for him now, his new life. He closed the bedroom door, softly, almost regretfully, and started down the stairs. Halfway down, he tripped—on a toy belonging to one of his children, on one of his wife's shoes dropped there by the dog, or on a lace of his own shoe that had come undone—it doesn't matter what sent him headlong to the bottom of the stair. He was not to leave, is all. No, it was impossible, really, to begin again in despite of all that claimed him. He ought to have known that.