Vladimir Nabokov. Wingstroke
© 1924 Copyright by Vladimir Nabokov
© Copyright by Dmitry Nabokov, english translation
"Wingstroke" ("Удар крыла"). Написана в 1923, опубликована
в 1924 г. Перевод с русс.яз. выполнен сыном Дмитрием. Русский
вариант в современной России, по-видимому, не издавался.
Известно, что существовало продолжение рассказа, но оно
потеряно - по всей видимости, безвозвратно.
Это последний из имеющихся у меня рассказов на English,
для которого не удалось найти русского оригинала или перевода.
Буду благодарен, если кто-нибудь таковые найдет.
When the curved tip of one ski crosses the other, you
tumble forward. The scalding snow goes up your sleeves, and it
is very hard to get back on your feet. Kern, who had not skied
for a long time, rapidly worked up a sweat. Feeling slightly
dizzy, he yanked off the woolen cap that had been tickling his
ears, and brushed the moist sparks from his eyelashes.
All was merriment and azure in front of the six-story
hotel. The trees stood disembodied in the radiance. Countless
ski tracks flowed like shadowy hair down the shoulders of the
snowy hills. And all around, a gigantic whiteness rushed
heavenward and sparkled, unfettered, in the sky
Kern's skis creaked as he made his way up the slope.
Noticing his broad shoulders, his equine profile, and the
robust gloss on his cheekbones, the English girl he had met
yesterday, the third day since his arrival, had taken him for a
compatriot. Isabel, Airborne Isabel, as she was dubbed by a
crowd of sleek and swarthy young men of the Argentine type, who
scurried everywhere in her wake: to the hotel ballroom, up the
padded stairs, along the snowy slopes in a play of sparkling
dust. Her mien was airy and impetuous, her mouth so red it
seemed the Creator had scooped up some torrid carmine and
slapped a handful on the nether part other face. Laughter
flitted in her down-flecked eyes. A Spanish comb stood erect
like a wing in the steep wave other black, satin-sheeny hair.
This was how Kern had seen her yesterday, when the slightly
hollow din of the gong summoned her to dinner from Room 35. And
the fact that they were neighbors, and that the number of her
room was that of his years, and that she was seated across from
him at the long table d'hфte, tall, vivacious, in a low-cut
black dress, with a band of black silk on her bare neck-- all
this seemed so significant to Kern that it made a rift in the
dull melancholy that had already oppressed him for half a year.
It was Isabel who spoke first, and that did not surprise
him. In this huge hotel that blazed, isolated, in a cleft
between the mountains, life pulsed tipsy and lighthearted after
the dead War years. Besides, to her, to Isabel, nothing was
forbidden-- not the sidelong flutter of eyelashes, not the
melody of laugliter in lier voice as she said, handing Kern the
ashtray, "'I think you and I are the only English here," and
added, inclining tableward a translucent shoulder restrained by
a black ribbonlike strap, ""Not counting, of course, a
half-dozen little old ladies, and that character over there
with the turned-around collar."
Kern replied, "You're mistaken. I have no homeland. It's
true I spent many years in London. Besides-- "
The next morning, after a half-year of indifference, he
suddenly felt the pleasure of entering the deafening cone of an
ice-cold shower. At nine, after a substantial and sensible
breakfast, he crunched off on his skis across the reddish sand
scattered on the naked glare of the path before the hotel
veranda. When he had mounted the snowy slope,
lierringbone-style as befits a skier, there, amid checkered
knickers and flushed faces, was Isabel.
She greeted him English fashion-- with but the flourish of
a smile. Her skis were iridescent with olive-gold. Snow clung
to the intricate straps that held her feet. There was an
unfeminine strength about her feet and legs, shapely in their
sturdy boots and tightly wound puttees. A purple shadow glided
behind her along the crusty surface as, hands nonchalantly
thrust into the pockets of her leather jacket and her left ski
slightly advanced, she sped off down the slope, ever faster,
scarf flying, amid sprays of powdered snow. Then, at full
speed, she made a sharp turn with one knee deeply flexed,
straightened again, and sped on, past the firs, past the
turquoise skating rink. A pair of youths in colorful sweaters
and a famous Swedish sportsman with a terra-cotta face and
colorless, combed-back hair rushed past behind her.
A little later Kern ran into her again near a bluish track
along which people flashed with a faint clatter, belly-down on
their flat sleds like woolly frogs. With a glint of her skis
Isabel disappeared behind the bend of a snowbank, and when
Kern, ashamed of his awkward movements, overtook her in a soft
hollow amid silver-frosted boughs, she wiggled her fingers in
the air, stamped her skis, and was off again. Kern stood for a
time among the violet shadows, and suddenly felt a whiff of the
familiar terror of silence. The lacework of the branches m the
enamel-like air had the chill of a terrifying fairy tale. The
trees, the intricate shadows, his own skis all looked strangely
toylike. He realized that he was tired, that he had a blistered
heel, and, snagging some protruding branches, he turned back.
Skaters glided mechanically across the smooth turquoise. On the
snow slope beyond, the terra-cotta Swede was helping up a
snow-covered, lanky chap with horn-rimmed glasses, who was
floundering in the sparkling powder like some awkward bird.
Like a detached wing, a ski that had come off his foot was
sliding down the hill.
Back in his room. Kern changed and, at the sound of the
gong's hollow clanging, rang and ordered cold roast beef, some
grapes, and a flask of Chianti.
He had a nagging ache in his shoulders and thighs.
Had no business chasing after her, he thought. A man
sticks a pair of boards on his feet and proceeds to savor the
law of gravity. Ridiculous.
Around four he went down to the spacious reading room,
where the mouth of the fireplace exhaled orange heat and
invisible people sat in deep leather armchairs with their legs
extending from under open newspapers. On a long oaken table lay
a disorderly pile of magazines full of advertisements for
toilet supplies, dancing girls, and parliamentary top hats.
Kern picked out a ragged copy of the Tattler from the
previous June and, for a long time, examined the smile of the
woman who had, for seven years, been his wife. He recalled her
dead face, which had become so cold and hard, and some letters
he had found in a small box.
He pushed aside the magazine, his fingernail squeaking on
the glossy page.
Then, moving his shoulders laboriously and wheezing on his
short pipe, he went out onto the enormous enclosed veranda,
where a chilled band was playing and people in bright scarves
were drinking strong tea, ready to rush out again into the
cold, onto the slopes that shone with a humming shimmer through
the wide windowpanes. With searching eyes, he scanned the
veranda. Somebody's curious gaze pricked him like a needle
touching the nerve of a tooth. He turned back abruptly.
In the billiard room, which he had entered sidewise as the
oak door yielded to his push, Monfiori, a pale, red-haired
little fellow who recognized only the Bible and the carom, was
bent over the emerald cloth, sliding his cue back and forth as
he aimed at a ball. Kern had made his acquaintance recently,
and the man had promptly showered him with citations from the
Holy Scriptures. He said he was writing a major book in which
he demonstrated that, if one construed the Book of Job in a
certain way, then. . . But Kern had stopped listening, for his
attention had suddenly been caught by his interlocutor's ears--
pointed ears, packed with canary-colored dust, with reddish
fluff on their tips.
The balls clicked and scattered. Raising his eyebrows,
Monfiori proposed a game. He had melancholy, slightly bulbous,
Kern had already accepted, and had even rubbed some chalk
on the tip of his cue, but, suddenly sensing a wave of dreadful
ennui that made the pit of his stomach ache and his ears ring,
said he had a pain in his elbow, glanced out as he passed a
window at the mountains' sugary sheen, and returned to the
There, with his legs intertwined and one patent-leather
shoe twitching, he again examined the pearl-gray photograph,
the childlike eyes and shaded lips of the London beauty who had
been his wife. The first night after her self-inflicted death
he followed a woman who smiled at him on a foggy street corner,
taking revenge on God, love, and fate.
And now came this Isabel with that red smear for a mouth.
If one could only. . .
He clenched his teeth and the muscles of his strong jaws
rippled. His entire past life seemed a shaky row of varicolored
screens with which he shielded himself from cosmic drafts.
Isabel was but the latest bright scrap. How many there had
already been of these silk rags, and how he had tried to hang
them across the gaping black gap! Voyages, books in delicate
bindings, and seven years of ecstatic love. They bil-lowed,
these scraps, with the wind outside, tore, fell one by one. The
gap cannot be hidden, the abyss breathes and sucks everything
in. This he understood when the detective in suede gloves. . .
Kern sensed that he was rocking back and forth, and that
some pale girl with pink eyebrows was looking at him from
behind a magazine. He took a Times from the table and
opened the giant sheets. Paper bedspread across the chasm.
People invent crimes, museums, games, only to escape from the
unknown, from the vertiginous sky. And now this Isabel. . .
He tossed the paper aside, rubbed his forehead with an
enormous fist, and again felt someone's wondering gaze on him.
Then he slowly walked out of the room, past the reading feet,
past the fireplace's orange jaw. He lost his way in the
resounding corridors, found himself in some hallway, where the
white legs of a bowed chair were reflected by the parquet and a
broad painting hung on the wall of William Tell piercing the
apple on his son's head; then he examined at length his
clean-shaven, heavy face, the blood streaks on the whites of
his eyes, his checked bow tie in the glistening mirror of a
bright bathroom where water gurgled musically and a golden
cigarette butt discarded by someone floated in the porcelain
Beyond the windows the snows were dimming and turning
blue. Delicate hues illumined the sky. The flaps of the
revolving door at the entrance to the din-filled vestibule
slowly glinted as they admitted clouds of vapor and snorting,
florid-faced people tired after their snowy games. The stairs
breathed with footfalls, exclamations, laughter. Then the hotel
grew still: everyone was dressing for dinner.
Kern, who had fallen into a vague torpor in his armchair
in his twi-lit room, was awakened by the gong's vibrations.
Reveling in his newfound energy, he turned on the lights,
inserted cuff links into a fresh, starched shirt, extracted a
flattened pair of black pants from under the squeaking press.
Five minutes later, aware of a cool lightness, the firmness of
the hair on the top of his head, and every detail of his
well-creased clothes, he went down to the dining room.
Isabel was not there. Soup was served, then fish, but she
did not appear.
Kern examined with revulsion the dull-bronzed youths, the
brick-hued face of an old woman with a beauty spot
dissimulating a pimple, a man with goatish eyes, and fixed his
gloomy gaze on a curly little pyramid of hyacinths in a green
She appeared only when, in the hall where William Tell
hung, the instruments of a Negro band had started pounding and
She smelled of chill air and perfume. Her hair looked
moist. Something about her face stunned Kern.
She smiled a brilliant smile, and adjusted the black
ribbon on her translucent shoulder.
"You know, I just got back. Barely had time to change and
wolf down a sandwich."
Kern asked: "Don't tell me you've been siding all this
time? Why, it's completely dark out."
She gave him an intense look, and Kern realized what had
astonished him: her eyes, which sparkled as if they were dusted
Isabel began gliding softly along the dovelike vowels of
English speech: "Of course. It was extraordinary. I hurtled
down the slopes in the dark, I flew off the bumps. Right up
into the stars."
"You might have killed yourself," said Kern.
She repeated, narrowing her downy eyes, "Right up into the
stars," and added, with a glint of her bare clavicle, "and now
I want to dance."
The Negro band rattled and wailed in the hall. Japanese
lanterns floated colorfully. Moving on tiptoe, alternating
quick steps with suspended ones, his palm pressed to hers, Kern
advanced, at close quarters, on Isabel. One step, and her
slender leg would press into him; another, and she would
resiliently yield. The fragrant freshness of her hair tickled
his temple, and he could feel, under the edge of his right
hand, the supple undulations of her bared back. With bated
breath he would enter breaks in the music, then glide on from
measure to measure. . . . Around him floated past the intense
faces of angular couples with perversely absent eyes. And the
opaque song of the strings was punctuated by the patter of
primitive little hammers.
The music accelerated, swelled, and ended with a clatter.
Everything stopped. Then came applause, demanding more of the
same. But the musicians had decided to have a rest.
Pulling a handkerchief out of his cuff and mopping his
brow. Kern set off after Isabel, who, with a flutter of her
black fan, was heading for the door. They sat down side by side
on some wide stairs.
Not looking at him, she said, "Sorry-- I had the feeling I
was still amid the snow and stars. I didn't even notice whether
you danced well or not."
Kern glanced at her as if not hearing, and she was indeed
immersed in her own radiant thoughts, thoughts unknown to him.
One step lower sat a youth in a very narrow jacket and a
skinny girl with a birthmark on her shoulder blade. When the
music started again, the youth invited Isabel to dance a
Boston. Kern had to dance with the skinny girl. She smelled of
slightly sour lavender. Colored paper streamers swirled out
through the hall, tangling themselves about the dancers. One of
the musicians stuck on a white mustache, and for some reason
Kern felt ashamed for him. When the dance was over he abandoned
his partner and rushed off in search of Isabel. She was nowhere
to be seen-- not at the buffet nor on the staircase.
That's it-- bedtime, was Kern's terse thought.
Back in his room he held the drape aside before lying
down, and, without thinking, looked into the night. Reflections
of windows lay on the dark snow in front of the hotel. In the
distance, the metallic summits floated in a funereal radiance.
He had the sensation he had glanced into death. He pulled
the folds together tightly so that not a ray of night could
leak into the room. But when he switched off the light and lay
down, he noticed a glint coming from the edge of a glass shelf.
He got up and fiddled a long time around the window, cursing
the splashes of moonlight. The floor was cold as marble.
When Kern loosened the cord of his pajamas and closed his
eyes, slippery slopes started to rush beneath him. A hollow
pounding began in his heart, as if it had kept silent all day
and was now taking advantage of the quiet. He began feeling
frightened as he listened to this pounding. He recalled how
once, on a very windy day, he was passing a butcher's shop with
his wife, and a carcass rocked on its hook with a dull thudding
against the wall. That was how his heart felt now. His wife,
meanwhile, had her eyes narrowed against the wind and was
holding her hat as she said that the wind and the sea were
driving her crazy, that they must leave, they must leave. . . .
Kern rolled over onto his other side-- gingerly, so his
chest would not burst from the convex blows.
"Can't go on like this," he mumbled into the pillow,
forlornly folding up his legs. He lay for a while on his back
peering at the ceiling, at the wan gleams that had penetrated,
as piercing as his ribs.
When his eyes closed again, silent sparks started to glide
in front of him, then infinitely unwinding transparent spirals.
Isabel's snowy eyes and fiery mouth flashed past, then came
sparks and spirals again. For an instant his heart retracted
into a lacerating knot. Then it swelled and gave a thump.
Can't go on like this, I'll go crazy. No future, just a
black wall. There's nothing left.
He had the impression that the paper streamers were
slithering down his face, rustling and ripping into narrow
shreds. And the Japanese lanterns flowed with colored
undulations in the parquet. He was dancing, advancing.
If I could just unclench her, flip her open. . . . And
then. . .
And death seemed to him like a gliding dream, a flufly
fall. No thoughts, no palpitations, no aches.
The lunar ribs on the ceiling had imperceptibly moved.
Footfalls passed quietly along the corridor, a lock clicked
somewhere, a soft ringing flew past; then footfalls again, the
mutter and murmur of footfalls.
That means the ball is over, thought Kern. He turned his
stuffy pillow over.
Now, all around, there was an immense, gradually cooling
silence. Only his heart oscillated, taut and heavy. Kern groped
on the bedside table, located the pitcher, took a swallow from
the spout. An icy streamlet scalded his neck and collarbone.
He started thinking of methods to induce sleep. He
imagined waves rhythmically running up onto a shoreline. Then
plump gray sheep slowly tumbling over a fence. One sheep, two,
three. . .
Isabel is asleep next door, thought Kern. Isabel is
asleep, wearing yellow pajamas, probably. Yellow becomes her.
Spanish color. If I scratched on the wall with my fingernail
she'd hear me. Damned palpitations. ..
He fell asleep at the very moment he had begun trying to
decide whether there was any point in turning on the light and
reading something for a while. There's a French novel lying on
the armchair. The ivory knife glides, cutting the pages. One,
two. . .
He came to in the middle of the room, awakened by a sense
of unbearable horror. The horror had knocked him off the bed.
He had dreamt that the wall next to which stood his bed had
begun slowly collapsing onto him-- so he had recoiled with a
Kern found the headboard by touch, and would have gone
back to sleep immediately if it had not been for a noise he
heard through the wall. He did not understand right away where
this noise was coming from, and the act of straining his
hearing made his consciousness, which was ready to glide down
the slope of sleep, abruptly grow lucid. The noise occurred
again: a twang, followed by the rich sonority of guitar
Kern remembered-- it was Isabel who was in the next room.
Right away, as if in response to his thought, came a peal of
her laughter. Twice, thrice, the guitar throbbed and dissolved.
Then an odd, intermittent bark sounded and ceased.
Seated on his bed, Kern listened in wonder. He pictured a
bizarre scene: Isabel with a guitar and a huge Great Dane
looking up at her with blissful eyes. He put his ear to the
chilly wall. The bark rang out again, the guitar twanged as
from a fillip, and a strange rustle began undulating as if an
ample wind were whirling there in the next room. The rustle
stretched out into a low whistle, and once again the night
filled with silence. Then a frame banged-- Isabel had shut the
Indefatigable girl, he thought-- the dog, the guitar, the
icy drafts. Now all was quiet. Having expelled all those noises
from her room, Isabel had probably gone to bed and was now
"Damn it! I don't understand anything. I don't have
anything. Damn it, damn it," moaned Kern, burying himself in
the pillow. A leaden fatigue was compressing his temples. His
legs ached and tingled unbearably. He groaned in the darkness
for a long time, turning heavily from side to side. The rays on
the ceiling were long since extinguished.
The next day Isabel did not appear until lunchtime.
Since morning the sky had been blindingly white and the
sun had been moonlike. Then snow began falling, slowly and
vertically. The dense flakes, like ornamental spots on a white
veil, curtained the view of the mountains, the heavily laden
firs, the dulled turquoise of the rink. The plump, soft
particles of snow rustled against the window-panes, falling,
falling without end. If one watched them for long, one had the
impression the entire hotel was slowly drifting upward.
"I was so tired last night," Isabel was saying to her
neighbor, a young man with a high olive forehead and piercing
eyes, "so tired I decided to loll in bed."
"You look stunning today," drawled the young man with
She inflated her nostrils derisively.
Looking at her through the hyacinths, Kern said coldly, "I
didn't know, Miss Isabel, that you had a dog in your room, as
well as a guitar."
Her downy eyes seemed to narrow even more, against a
breeze of embarrassment. Then she beamed with a smile, all
carmine and ivory.
"You overdid it on the dance floor last night, Mr. Kern,"
she replied. The olive youth and the little fellow who
recognized only Bible and billiards laughed, the first with a
hearty ha-ha, the second very softly, with raised eyebrows.
Kern said with a frown, "I'd like to ask you not to play
at night. I don't have an easy time falling asleep."
Isabel slashed his face with a rapid, radiant glance.
"You had better ask your dreams, not me, about that."
And she began talking to her neighbor about the next day's
For some minutes already Kern had felt his lips stretching
into a spasmodic, uncontrollable sneer. It twitched agonizingly
in the corners of his mouth, and he suddenly felt like yanking
the tablecloth off the table, hurling the pot with the
hyacinths against the wall.
He rose, trying to conceal his unbearable tremor, and,
seeing no one, went out of the room.
"What's happening to me," he questioned his anguish.
"What's going on here?"
He kicked his suitcase open and started packing. He
immediately felt dizzy. He stopped and again began pacing the
room. Angrily he stuffed his short pipe. He sat down in the
armchair by the window, beyond which the snow was falling with
He had come to this hotel, to this wintry, stylish nook
called Zermatt, in order to fuse the sensation of white silence
with the pleasure of lighthearted, motley encounters, for total
solitude was what he feared most. But now he understood that
human faces were also intolerable to him, that the snow made
his head ring, and that he lacked the inspired vitality and
tender perseverance without which passion is powerless. While
for Isabel, probably, life consisted of a splendid ski run, of
impetuous laughter, of perfume and frosty air.
Who is she? A heliotype diva, broken free? Or the runaway
daughter of a swaggering bilious lord? Or just one of those
women from Paris. . . And where does her money come from?
Slightly vulgar thought.. .
She does have the dog, though, and it's pointless for her
to deny it. Some sleek-haired Great Dane. With a cold nose and
warm ears. Still snowing, too, Kern thought haphazardly. And,
in my suitcase-- a spring seemed to pop open, with a clink, in
his brain-- 1 have a Parabellum.
Until evening he again ambled about the hotel, or made dry
rustling noises with the newspapers in the reading room. From
the vestibule window he saw Isabel, the Swede, and several
young men with jackets pulled on over fringed sweaters getting
into a swanlike curved sleigh. The roan horses made their merry
harnesses ring. The snow was falling silent and dense. Isabel,
all spangled with small white stars, was shouting and laughing
amid her companions. And when the sled started with a jerk and
sped off, she rocked backward, clapping her fur-mittened hands
in the air.
Kern turned away from the window.
Go ahead, enjoy your ride. . . . It makes no difference. .
Then, during dinner, he tried not to look at her. She was
filled with a merry, festive gaiety, and paid no attention to
him. At nine the Negro music began moaning and clattering
again. Kern, in a state of feverish languor, was standing by
the doorjamb, gazing at the clinched couples and at Isabel's
A soft voice said next to his ear, "Would you care to go
to the bar?"
He turned and saw the melancholy caprine eyes, the ears
with their reddish fuzz.
Amid the crimson penumbra of the bar the glass tables
reflected the flounces of the lampshades.
On high stools at the metal counter sat three men, all
three wearing white gaiters, their legs retracted, sucking
through straws on bright-colored drinks. On the other side of
the bar, where varicolored bottles sparkled on the shelves like
a collection of convex beetles, a fleshy, black-mustachioed man
in a cherry-colored dinner jacket was mixing cocktails with
extraordinary dexterity. Kern and Monfiori selected a table in
the bar's velvet depths. A waiter opened a long list of
beverages, gingerly and revercnuy, uke an antiquary exhibiting
a precious book.
"We're going to have a glass of each in succession," said
Monfiori in his melancholy, slightly hollow voice, "and when we
get to the end we'll start over, choosing only the ones we
found to our liking. Perhaps we'll stop at one and keep
savoring it for a long time. Then we'll go back to the
He gave the waiter a pensive look. "Is that clear?"
The part in the waiter's hair tipped forward.
"This is known as the roaming of Bacchus," Monfiori told
Kern with a doleful chuckle. "Some people approach their daily
life in the same way."
Kern stifled a tremulous yawn. "You know this ends by
making you throw up."
Monfiori sighed, swigged, smacked his lips, and marked the
first item on the list with an X, using an automatic pencil.
Two deep furrows ran from the wings of his nose to the corners
of his thin mouth.
After his third glass Kern lit a cigarette in silence.
After his sixth drink-- an oversweet concoction of chocolate
and champagne-- he had the urge to talk.
He exhaled a megaphone of smoke. Narrowing his eyes, he
tapped the ashes from his cigarette with a yellowed nail.
"Tell me, Monfiori, what do you think of this-- what's her
"You'll get nowhere with her," replied Monfiori. "She
belongs to the slippery species. All she seeks is fleeting
"But she plays the guitar at night, and fusses with her
dog. That's not good, is it?" said Kern, goggling his eyes at
With another sigh, Monfiori said, "Why don't you drop her.
After all.. "
"Sounds to me like envy-- " began Kern.
The other quietly interrupted him: "She's a woman. And I,
you see, have other tastes." Clearing his throat modestly, he
made another X.
The ruby drinks were replaced by golden ones. Kern had the
feeling his blood was turning sweet. His head was growing
foggy. The white spats left the bar. The drumming and crooning
of the distant music ceased.
"You say one must be selective. . . ," he spoke thickly
and limply, "while I have reached a point. . . Listen to this,
for instance-- 1 once had a wife. She fell in love with someone
else. He turned out to be a thief. He stole cars, necklaces,
furs. . . . And she poisoned herself. With strychnine."
"And do you believe in God?" asked Monfiori with the air
of a man getting on his hobby horse. "There is God, after all."
Kern gave an artificial laugh.
"Biblical God. . . . Gaseous vertebrate. . . . I am not a
"That's from Huxley," insinuatingly observed Monfiori.
"There was a biblical God, though. . . . The point is that He
is not alone; there are numerous biblical Gods. . . . A host.
My favorite one is. . . 'He sneezes and there is light. He has
eyes like the eyelashes of dawn. ' Do you understand what this
means? Do you? And there is more: " . . the fleshy parts of his
body are solidly interconnected, and they won't budge." Well?
Well? Do you understand?"
"Wait a minute," shouted Kern.
"No, no-- you must think about it. 'He transforms the sea
into a seething ointment; he leaves behind a trail of radiance;
the abyss is akin to a patch of gray hair! ' "
"Wait, will you," interrupted Kern. "I want to tell you
that I have decided to kill myself. . . ."
Monfiori gave him an opaque, attentive look, covering his
glass with his palm. He was silent for a time.
"Just as I thought," he began with unexpected gentleness.
"Tonight, as you were watching the people dancing, and before
that, when you got up from the table. . . There was something
about your face. . . The crease between the brows. . . That
special one. . . I understood right away. . ." He fell silent,
caressing the table's edge.
"Listen to what I'm going to tell you," he continued,
lowering his heavy, purplish eyelids with their wartlike
lashes. "I search everywhere for the likes of you-- in
expensive hotels, on trains, in seaside resorts, at night on
the quays of big cities." A dreamy little sneer fleeted across
"I recall, in Florence once. . ." He raised his doelike
eyes. "Listen, Kern-- I'd like to be present when you do it. .
. . May I?"
Kern, in a numb slouch, sensed a chill in his chest under
his starched shirt. We're both drunk, the words rushed
through his brain, and he's spooky.
"May I?" repeated Monfiori with a pout, "Pretty please?"
(touch of clammy, hairy little hand).
With a jerk and a groggy sway Kern rose from his chair.
"Go to hell! Let me out. . . . I was joking. . . ."
The attentive gaze of Monfiori's leechy eyes did not
"I've had enough of you! I've had enough of everything."
Kern dashed off with a splashlike gesture of his hands.
Monfiori's gaze came unstuck with what seemed like a smack.
"Murk! Puppet! . . . Wordplay! . . . Basta! . . "
He banged his hip painfully on the edge of the table. The
raspberry fatty behind his vacillating bar puffed out his white
shirtfront and began to float, as though in a curved mirror,
amid his bottles. Kern traversed the gliding ripples of the
carpet and, with his shoulder, shoved a falling glass door.
The hotel was fast asleep. Mounting the cushiony stairs
with difficulty, he located his room. A key protruded from the
adjoining door. Someone had forgotten to lock himself in.
Flowers meandered in the dim light of the corridor. Once he was
in his room he spent a long time groping along the wall in
search of the light switch. Then he collapsed into an armchair
by the window.
It struck him that he must write certain letters, farewell
letters. But the syrupy drinks had weakened him. His ears
filled with a dense, hollow din, and gelid waves breathed on
his brow. He had to write a letter, and there was something
else troubling him. As if he had left home and forgotten his
wallet. The mirrory blackness of the window reflected his
stripelike collar and his pale forehead. He had splashed some
intoxicating drops on his shirtfront. He must write that
letter. . . no, that wasn't it. Suddenly something flashed in
his mind's eye. The key! The key protruding from the
neighboring door. . . .
Kern rose ponderously and went out into the dimly lit
corridor. From the enormous key dangled a shiny wafer with the
number 35. He stopped in front of this white door. There was an
avid tremor in his legs.
A frosty wind lashed his brow. The window of the spacious,
illuminated bedroom was wide open. On the wide bed, in
open-collared yellow pajamas, Isabel lay supine. A pale hand
drooped, with a smouldering cigarette between its fingers.
Sleep must have overcome her without warning.
Kern approached the bed. He banged his knee against a
chair, on which a guitar uttered a faint twang. Isabel's blue
hair lay in tight circles on the pillow. He took a look at her
dark eyelids, at the delicate shadow between her breasts. He
touched the blanket. Her eyes opened immediately. Then, in a
hunchbacked kind of stance. Kern said: "I need your love.
Tomorrow I shall shoot myself."
He had never dreamt that a woman, even if taken by
surprise, could be so startled. First Isabel remained
motionless, then she lunged, looking back at the open window,
slipping instantly from the bed, and rushed past Kern with
bowed head, as if expecting a blow from above.
The door slammed. Some sheets of letter paper fluttered
from the table.
Kern remained standing in the middle of the spacious
bright room. Some grapes glowed purple and gold on the night
"Madwoman," he said aloud.
He laboriously shifted his shoulders. Like a steed he
trembled with a prolonged shiver from the cold. Then, suddenly,
he froze motionless.
Outside the window, swelling, flying, a joyous barking
sound approached by agitated jolts. In a wink the square of
black night in the window opening filled and came aboil with
solid, boisterous fur. In one broad and noisy sweep this
roughish fur obscured the night sky from one window frame to
the other. Another instant and it swelled tensely, obliquely
burst in, and unfolded. Amid the whistling spread of agitated
fur flashed a white face. Kern grabbed the guitar by its
fingerboard and, with all his strength, struck the white face
flying at him. Like some fluffy tempest, the giant wing's rib
knocked him off his feet. He was overwhelmed by an animal
smell. Kern rose with a lurch.
In the center of the room lay an enormous angel. He
occupied the entire room, the entire hotel, the entire world.
His right wing had bent, leaning its angle against the mirrored
dresser. The left one swung ponderously, catching on the legs
of an overturned chair. The chair banged back and forth on the
floor. The brown fur of the wings steamed, iridescent with
frost. Deafened by the blow, the angel propped itself on its
palms like a sphinx. Blue veins swelled on its white hands, and
hollows of shadow showed on its shoulders next to the
clavicles. Its elongated, myopic-looking eyes, pale-green like
predawn air, gazed at Kern without blinking from beneath
straight, joined brows.
Suffocating from the pungent odor of wet fur, Kern stood
motionless in the apathy of ultimate fear, examining the giant,
steamy wings and the white face.
A hollow din began beyond the door in the corridor, and
Kern was overcome by a different emotion: heart-rending shame.
He was ashamed to the point of pain, of horror, that in a
moment someone might come in and find him and this incredible
The angel heaved a noisy breath, moved. But his arms had
grown weak, and he collapsed on his chest. A wing jerked.
Grinding his teeth, trying not to look, Kern stooped over him,
took hold of the mound of damp, odorous fur and the cold,
sticky shoulders. He noticed with sickening horror that the
angel's feet were pale and boneless, and that he would be
unable to stand on them. The angel did not resist. Kern
hurriedly pulled him toward the wardrobe, flung open the
mirrored door, began pushing and squeezing the wings into the
creaking depths. He seized them by their ribs, trying to bend
them and pack them in. Unfurling flaps of fur kept slapping him
in the chest. At last he closed the door with a solid shove. At
that instant there came a lacerating, unbearable shriek, the
shriek of an animal crushed by a wheel. He had slammed the door
on one of the wings, that was it. A small corner of the wing
protruded from the crack. Opening the door slightly, Kern
shoved the curly wedge in with his hand. He turned the key.
It grew very quiet. Kern felt hot tears running down his
face. He took a breath and rushed for the corridor. Isabel lay
next to the wall, a cowering heap of black silk. He gathered
her in his arms, carried her into his room, and lowered her
onto the bed. Then he snatched from his suitcase the heavy
Parabellum, slammed the clip home, ran out holding his breath,
and burst into Room 35.
The two halves of a broken plate lay, all white, on the
carpet. The grapes were scattered.
Kern saw himself in the mirrored door of the wardrobe: a
Jock of hair fallen over an eyebrow, a starched dress
shirtfront spattered with red, the lengthwise glint of the
"Must finish it off," he exclaimed tonelessly, and opened
There was nothing but a gust of odorous fluff. Oily brown
tufts eddying about the room. The wardrobe was empty. On its
floor lay a white squashed hatbox.
Kern approached the window and looked out. Furry little
clouds were gliding across the moon and breathing dim rainbows
around it. He shut the casements, put the chair back in its
place, and kicked some brown tufts under the bed. Then he
cautiously went out into the corridor. It was quiet as before.
People sleep soundly in mountain hotels.
And when he returned to his room what he saw was Isabel
with her bare feet hanging from the bed, trembling, with her
head between her hands. He felt ashamed, as he had, not long
ago, when the angel was looking at him with its odd greenish
"Tell me, where is he?" asked Isabel breathlessly.
Kern turned away, went to the desk, sat down, opened the
blotter, and replied, "I don't know."
Isabel retracted her bare feet onto the bed.
"May I stay here with you for now? I'm so frightened. . .
Kern gave a silent nod. Dominating the tremor of his hand,
he started writing. Isabel began speaking again, in an
agitated, toneless voice, but for some reason it appeared to
Kern that her fright was of the female, earthly variety.
"I met him yesterday as I was flying on my skis in the
dark. Last night he came to me."
Trying not to listen, Kern wrote in a bold hand:
"My dear friend, this is my last letter. I could never
forget how you helped me when disaster crashed down on me. He
probably lives on a peak where he hunts alpine eagles and feeds
on their meat. . . ."'
Catching himself, he slashed that out and took another
sheet. Isabel was sobbing with her face buried in the pillow.
"What shall I do now? He "II come after me for revenge. .
. . Oh, my God. . . ."
"My dear friend,"' Kern wrote quickly, "she
sought unforgettable caresses and now she will give birth to a
winged little beast. . . ." Oh, damn! He crumpled the
"Try to get some sleep," he addressed Isabel over his
shoulder, "and leave tomorrow. For a monastery."
Her shoulders shook rapidly. Then she grew still.
Kern wrote. Before him smiled the eyes of the one person
in the world with whom he could freely speak or remain silent.
He wrote to that person that life was finished, that he had
begun feeling of late that, in place of the future, a black
wall was looming ever closer, and that now something had
happened after which a man cannot and must not continue living.
"At noon tomorrow I shall die," wrote Kern,
"tomorrow, because I want to die in full command of my
faculties, in the sober light of day. And right now I am in too
deep a state of shock."
When he had finished he sat down in the armchair by the
window. Isabel was sleeping, her breathing barely audible. An
oppressive fatigue girdled his shoulders. Sleep descended like
a soft fog.
He was awakened by a knock on die door. Frosty azure was
pouring through the window.
"Come in,"" he said, stretching.
The waiter noiselessly set a tray with a cup of tea on the
table and exited with a bow.
Laughing to himself, Kern thought, "And here I am in a
rumpled dinner jacket."
Then, instantly, lie remembered what had happened during
the night. He shuddered and glanced at the bed. Isabel was
gone. Must have returned to her room with the approach of
morning. And by now she has undoubtedly left. . . . He had a
momentary vision of brown, crumbly wings. Getting up quickly,
he opened the door to the corridor.
"Listen,"" he called to the waiter's departing back. "Take
a letter with you.""
He went to the desk and rummaged about. The fellow was
waiting at the door. Kern slapped all his pockets and took a
look under the armchair.
"You may go. I'll give it to the porter later.""
The parted hair bent forward, and the door closed softly.
Kern was distressed at having lost the letter. That letter
in particular. He had said in it so well, so smoothly and
simply, all that needed to be said. Now he could not recall the
words. Only senseless sentences surfaced. Yes, the letter had
been a masterpiece.
He began writing anew, but it came out cold and
rhetorical. He sealed the letter and neatly wrote the address.
He felt a strange lightness in his heart. He would shoot
himself at noon, and after all, a man who has resolved to kill
himself is a god.
The sugary snow glistened outside the window. He felt
drawn out there, for the last time.
The shadows of frosted trees lay on the snow like blue
plumes. Sleigh bells jingled somewhere, densely and merrily.
There were lots of people out, girls in fur caps moving
timorously and awkwardly on their skis, young men exhaling
clouds of laughter as they called loudly to each other, elderly
people ruddy from the effort, and some sinewy blue-eyed oldster
dragging a velvet-covered sled. Kern thought in passing, why
not give the old chap a whack in the face, a backhanded one,
just for the fun of it, for now everything was permissible. He
broke out laughing. He had not felt so good in a long time.
Everyone was drifting to the area where the ski-jumping
competition had begun. The site consisted of a steep descent
merging halfway down into a snowy platform, which ended
abruptly, forming a right-angled projection. A skier glided
down the steep section and flew off the projecting ramp into
the azure air. He flew with outstretched arms, landed upright
on the continuation of the slope, and glided on. The Swede had
just broken his own recent record and, far below, in a
whirlwind of silvery dust, turned sharply with one bent leg
Two others, in black sweaters, sped past, jumped, and
resiliently hit the snow.
"Isabel is jumping next," said a soft voice at Kern's
shoulder. Kern thought rapidly, Don't tell me she is still
here. . . . How can she. . . and looked at the speaker. It was
Monfiori. In a top hat, pushed over his protruding ears, and a
little black coat with strips of faded velvet on the collar, he
stood out drolly amid the woolly crowd. Should I tell him?
He rejected with revulsion the smelly brown wings-- must
not think about that.
Isabel mounted the hill. She turned to say something to
her companion, gaily, gaily as always. This gaiety gave Kern a
scary feeling. He caught what seemed a fleeting glimpse of
something above the snows, above the glassy hotel, above the
toylike people-- a shudder, a shimmer .. .
"And how are you today?" asked Monfiori, rubbing his
Simultaneously voices rang out around them: "Isabel!
Kern threw back his head. She was hurtling down the steep
slope. For an instant he saw her bright face, her glistening
lashes. With a soft whistling sound she skimmed off the
trampoline, flew up, hung motionless, crucified in midair. And
then. . .
No one, of course, could have expected it. In full flight
Isabel crumpled spasmodically, fell like a stone, and started
rolling amid the snowbursts of her cartwheeling skis.
Right away she was hidden from view by the backs of people
rushing toward her. Kern slowly approached with hunched
shoulders. He saw it vividly in his mind's eye, as if it were
written in a large hand: revenge, wingstroke. The Swede and the
lanky type in horn-rimmed glasses bent over Isabel. With
professional gestures the bespectacled man was palpating her
motionless body. He muttered, I can't understand it-- her rib
cage is crushed. . . ."
He raised up her head. There was a glimpse of her dead,
seemingly denuded face.
Kern turned with a crunch of his heel and strode off
resolutely toward the hotel. Beside him trotted Monfiori,
running ahead, peeking into his eyes.
"I am going upstairs to my room now," said Kern, trying to
swallow his sobbing laughter, to restrain it. "Upstairs. . . If
you wish to accompany me. . ."
The laughter neared his throat and bubbled over. Kern was
climbing the stairs like a blind man. Monfiori was supporting
him, meekly and hastily.