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Tuesday
Dec092008

Die Verwandlung (part 5)

Part five of "The Metamorphosis."  You can read the original German here.

Gregor's serious injury, from which he suffered for over a month − the apple sat deep in his flesh, visible and impregnable, since no one dared remove it − seemed to remind even his father that despite the sad and disgusting shape of the current Gregor, his son was still a member of the family whom one should not treat as an enemy.  He was owed the commandment of family, for whom one had to swallow one's reluctance and endure, simply endure.  And even if Gregor had probably incurred a permanent loss of movement due to his injury and took long minutes to crawl across the room − crawling upwards was now out of the question − the worsening of his condition, in his opinion, was sufficiently compensated by the opening of the living room doors every day towards evening, the same doors he used to watch attentively for one or two hours.  Thus, lying in the darkness of his room, invisible from the living room, Gregor could now see the whole family at the lamp-lit table, as well as listen to their conversations, albeit with general consent − a vast change from before.

Gone were, of course, the lively chats of yesteryear which had filled Gregor's thoughts with longing as he threw himself exhausted into the moist beddings of a small hotel room.  Quiet and stillness prevailed; his father would have an after-dinner nap in his chair; mother and sister admonished one another into silence; bent forward under the light, his mother would sew some fine clothes for a fashion boutique; and his sister, who had accepted a job as saleswoman, would practice stenography and French in the hopes of someday obtaining an even better job.  His father would wake up as if he had never been sleeping and say to his mother: "Still sewing?  You've been sewing all day!"  Then he would fall right back asleep to the tired smiles of his wife and daughter.

With something akin to obstinance, his father did not remove his uniform at home.  And as his nightgown hung uselessly on the clothes hook, his father slept fully dressed in his seat, seemingly ready for work at the beck and call of his superior.  As such, the uniform, not new to begin with, lost much of its sheen regardless of the two women's efforts, and many an evening did Gregor spend casting his eyes over the stained uniform, its gold buttons still pristinely polished, in which the old man slept uncomfortably if peacefully.

As soon as the clock struck ten, his mother would try to rouse his father with gentle suggestions, whispering in his ear and mentioning his bed, for all this was hardly the sleep his father desperately needed to be able to report to work at six.  But in his obstinance as a newly working man he insisted on remaining at the table although he fell asleep regularly, and only the greatest of efforts could compel him to trade his chair for a bed.  Fifteen minutes of admonition and reprimand were answered with head-shaking, closed eyes and a refusal to get up.  His mother would take him by the arm, reprimand him without being too pushy, whisper sweet nothings to him, and his sister would stop her homework and help her mother out, all for naught.  He would simply sink deeper into his seat.  Only when he was grabbed under the arms did he bat his eyes open and look at the two women in turn with the comment: "This is a life.  This is the quiet of my older days."  And leaning on both of them he raised himself up with some difficulty as if this were the greatest of burdens, let the women lead him to the door, waved them off as they got there and finished the journey by himself.  Which didn't prevent them, of course, from throwing down their needle and pen and running after him in case he needed help.

With everyone so worn out and exhausted, who had time to see to Gregor more than what was absolutely necessary?  The household kept getting smaller: the maid was let go; mornings and evenings came a massive, bony woman with white hair that flapped around her head.  She did the hardest work; everything else was taken care of by his mother in addition to all her sewing.  Even family jewels which his mother and sister had been delighted to wear to parties and events were sold off, with Gregor's having learned of the price received during the regular evening discussions.  Yet the most resounding complaint concerned the oversized apartment which, given the current circumstances, they could not leave since there was no conceivable way Gregor could be moved elsewhere.  Gregor realized full well, however, that consideration towards him was not what prevented them from relocating because he could have easily been transported in a crate with a couple of air holes.  What really held them back was their utter hopelessness and the thought that, of all their relatives and friends, they were the only ones burdened with such misfortune.

They tried as hard as they could to do what the world demanded of poor people: his father got breakfast for the petty bank officials; his mother sacrificed herself for the laundry of strangers; his sister scurried to and from her desk at her customers' command; but their strength went no further.  And the wound in Gregor's back began to hurt him again whenever his mother and sister, after having put his father to bed, would come back, put their work down, and sit down together, almost huddling cheek to cheek; whenever his mother would say, pointing to Gregor's room: "Go ahead and close the door, Grete"; and whenever Gregor was enveloped again by the darkness while the women sat in the next room mixing their tears, or sitting without crying and staring at the table.

Gregor spent both day and night almost entirely without sleep.  Sometimes he thought of again taking family matters into his own hands the next time the door opened; to the labyrinth of his thoughts returned the general manager and his boss, commission salesmen and apprentices, the dim-witted page, two or three friends from other firms, a chambermaid from a hotel out in the provinces − a cherished and fleeting memory − a cashier from a hat store whom he had seriously if too slowly courted.  All these people seemed immingled with strangers or others that he had forgotten, but instead of helping him and his family, they were all collectively unapproachable, and he was happy when they disappeared.

But then he was no longer in the mood to provide for his family; he was filled only with anger at the poor attention he was receiving.  And although he could not think of anything that he found appetizing, he concocted schemes whereby he would slip into the pantry to take whatever was owed to him despite his lack of hunger.  Now no longer thinking what would be nice to do for Gregor, his sister would hastily kick a plate of food across the floor into Gregor's room before she ran out the door in the morning and at noontime, and in the evening sweep up with a broom whatever remained, indifferent as to whether Gregor had just tried, or − the most common scenario − not touched the food at all.  Cleaning his room, which she had always done in the evening, could not have been more needed at this point.  Strips of dirt covered the walls, and here and there lay balls of dust and refuse.  Initially Gregor placed himself at a specific angle to the door upon his sister's arrival to show her that he was unpleased with the state of his room.  But he could have waited there a whole week without her doing anything to improve the situation.  She saw all the dirt just like he did, but had simply decided to leave it be.

In fact she had grown sensitive to the notion, of which the rest of the family was duly aware, that cleaning up Gregor's room was her task and hers alone.  One time her mother had subjected Gregor's room to a massive cleaning made possible only through the use of numerous pails of water.  All this moisture made Gregor quite sick and he lay there spread out and unmoving on the canopy, bitter at this turn of events.  Nor was the mother spared; for that evening hardly had his sister noticed the change when she, extremely hurt, ran into the room and broke into a sobbing fit despite the mother's raised hands beseeching her not to worry.  This fit astonished both parents − her father, of course, woke suddenly in his seat − and they looked on helplessly before getting agitated themselves.  On the right side, his father began reprimanding his mother about not leaving the cleaning to his sister; on the left, his sister screamed that she would never again clean Gregor's room.  Then his mother tried to drag his father, who was beside himself in agitation, off to the bedroom; shaking from all her tears, his sister now began banging away on the table with her dainty fists; and Gregor, enraged, began to hiss since no one thought of closing the door and sparing him this noise and sight.

But even if his sister, exhausted as she was from her office job, had become sick of taking care of Gregor, there was no way she needed to have her mother to step in for her and Gregor certainly did not need to be neglected.  There was the maid for that.  This old widow who had managed to survive the most troubling of times in her long life due to her powerful bone structure had no particular aversion to Gregor.  Without being curious in any way, she had once accidentally opened the door to Gregor's room and come into Gregor's line of vision.  He was completely surprised although no one was hounding him, and began running back and forth, which led her to stand perfectly still, her hands folded upon her lap in astonishment.  Since that time she never missed an opportunity to open the door a bit in the morning and evening and take a look in at Gregor.  In the beginning she would call him over to her with words that she probably thought were kind such as: "Come over here, you old dung beetle!" or "Look at that old dung beetle!"  So addressed, Gregor did not respond at all but remained unmoving in his spot as if the door had never been opened.  If only they had told the maid to clean his room instead of uselessly letting her bother him according to her mood!  Early one morning as the maid began her volley of epithets − heavy rain, perhaps a sign of the coming spring, was pounding the window pane − Gregor was so upset that he actually turned towards her slowly and decrepitly as if readying himself to attack.  But instead of being afraid, the old woman found a chair near the door, lifted it up high, and stood there with her mouth agape to make her intentions clear: she would only close her mouth once she had slammed the chair into Gregor's back.  "So that's all you'll be trying?" she asked as Gregor turned back around, whereupon she calmly placed the chair back in the corner.  Now Gregor was practically no longer eating.  Only when he happened to come over to the food, he would take a bite in his mouth as a sort of game.  There he would hold it for hours on end and then spit most of it back out.  He initially thought that his mourning over the state of his room prevented him from eating; but he quickly reconciled himself to the changes.  In this room his family had gotten accustomed to storing things that they couldn't keep anywhere else, and there were many of these things since one of the rooms had been rented out to three occupants.  These stoic gentlemen − all three of them had full beards, as Gregor was able to ascertain through the door crack − were almost embarrassingly keen on order, not only in their room since they had just rented it out, but also in the entire apartment and especially in the kitchen.  They could not bear the sight of dirty or unuseful things.  What is more, they had for the most part brought their own furniture.  For this reason many items suddenly became superfluous and could not be easily resold, although throwing them out was not a solution, either.  All these items found their way into Gregor's room.  This included an ember chest and the trash can from the kitchen.  What was not usable at this very moment was simply slid into Gregor's room by the maid, who always seemed to be in a rush.  Normally, Gregor was lucky enough only to see the item in question and the hand that held it.  Perhaps the maid's intention was to recover these items at the appropriate time and opportunity, or ultimately to throw them all out together.  Nevertheless, as long as Gregor did not wind his way through them and knock them in motion − he was almost forced to do so since no other space remained for him to crawl about − they remained in the place they had been first cast.  Gregor's enthusiasm for such shenanigans grew over time, although afterwards he would not move for hours since he was so tired and so sad.

Since the occupants often took their supper at home in their shared room, the living room door remained shut on many evenings.  Yet it was easy for Gregor to do without the open doors; after all, there had been so many evenings when he had made no use of them whatsoever and had remained, without anyone of his family noticing, lying in the darkest corner of his room.  One time, however, the maid had left the door to the living room slightly ajar, and it was still open as the occupants arrived that evening and turned on the light.  They sat up at the table where once Gregor and his parents had sat, unfolded their napkins and took up their forks and knives.  Immediately at the door appeared his mother with a bowl of meat; right behind her came his sister with a bowl piled high with potatoes.  The food was steaming, almost thick with smoke.  The occupants bent over to take a look at the bowls in front of them as if they wanted to inspect them before their meal.  And indeed, the one sitting in the middle, who seemed for the two others to be the leader, cut a piece of meat still in the bowl for the clear purpose of determining whether it was brittle enough or whether it shouldn't be sent back to the kitchen.  He was satisfied and Gregor's mother and sister, who had been looking on anxiously, began to smile in relief.

The family itself ate in the kitchen.  Nevertheless, before coming into the kitchen, his father would go into the room where his guests were seated, make a single bow, and walk around the table, his cap in his hand.  The occupants would get up in unison and mutter something into their beards.  Once they were alone again they ate in almost complete silence.  To Gregor it seemed rather peculiar that of all the sounds that emanated from the dinner table, it was only their chewing teeth that he heard, as if they were trying to show Gregor that one needed teeth to eat, and that the most splendid of toothless jaws would not be up to this simple task.  "I am indeed hungry," Gregor said to himself, full of worry, "but not for these things.  How these occupants eat while I die!"

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