Readings — From the July 2018 issue

Feast of the Epiphany

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By Nikolai Grozni, from Claustrophobias, a short-story collection published by his press, Begemot, in Bulgaria in 2016. Grozni is the author of the novel Wunderkind (Free Press).

It must’ve been either my thirty-third or my thirty-ninth birthday, if one is to believe the numerological charts, and there must’ve been some kind of adult arrangement involving children or else I would’ve never agreed to show myself in public in the company of three or four diversely aged creatures whose cumulative understanding of metaphysics was equivalent to the curiosity of a wart on the nose of a Rajasthani kaan-saaf wallah cleaning people’s ears in the streets of Paharganj. I didn’t have a clear idea of what lay in store for me that evening until I found myself trapped in a private motorcar barreling down N113 toward Montpellier, amid trembling poplars and vine stumps and stonewalled oubliettes, and even then my imagination failed to prepare me for the hushed bourgeois horrors of the cavernous restaurant in the old quartier. Unable to appreciate the animated performance of the waiter who insisted on joining his forefingers over his head and doing a little dance every time he mentioned the rabbit in orange and thyme sauce, I finished the rather cheerless ten-year-old Hermitage before I even read the menu, and it’s likely that I didn’t say anything until, halfway through the spongy côtes de porc à la lyonnaise, I offered my excuses, briskly disentangled myself from the chair and the enormous serviette, and headed toward the darkest corner of the dining hall, where I imagined I would find a narrow hallway leading to the lavatory. I found instead a dwarf-size Roman arch and a short marble staircase opening onto another, lower-level dining hall whose vaulted ceilings were even more oppressive than the ones in the previous dining hall, and where the majority of the guests exhibited a kind of derangement characteristic of prolonged exposure to the mistral.

I traversed the dining hall and went through a second Roman arch and down a second marble staircase, ending up in what I assumed was the dining hall where I’d been seated in the beginning. Peeking somewhat discourteously at the faces of the women in backless evening dresses and startling more than a few short men wearing children’s clothes, I concluded that either I was in a third, contiguous dining hall or I had lost the capacity to recognize the faces of my companions. It struck me that I could arrive at a point where, as a result of irreversible reality-loss due to estrangement from the third skandha governing the faculty of identification and projection, I could no longer tell the difference between people I knew well and people I’d never met before. While forgetting was a simple negation of memory, estrangement from the third skandha made memory completely irrelevant, or as relevant as a pubic hair in the ganja-packed chillum of an ash-smeared sadhu watching a funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges in Benares. Seeing that identification and identities were things without an owner, I would naturally struggle to act surprised or even tepidly outraged at the suggestion that I had produced a number of children in close collaboration with, say, the brunette in the backless green dress whose gecko eyes were matched by a pair of reptilian hands, or the well-bred blonde in a satin dress who laughed with her eyes closed, or the saturnine woman with scary mascara and very short fingers. Who are you talking about, I would ask politely, unhitching myself from the third skandha. You, they would say, pointing at a body that wasn’t even mine, a body that had been signed over to me before I could read the fine print or put up a good fight. As you wish, I would concede, failing to grasp the difference between this and that for I was either the father of all children or none, and both possibilities were absolutely true. It wasn’t difficult to see that we lived in a world where all bodies were but a single body and all faces were but a single face, I thought, growing increasingly disoriented by the helical nature of the dining hall and the overlapping echoes of curt whispers and clanking silverware.

I would’ve probably continued to roam aimlessly through the chamber for a long time had I not tripped on the carpet and prostrated myself before the waiter who’d earlier pretended to be a rabbit. The waiter helped me to my feet and explained the route I had to take to reach the lavatory. Suddenly it all seemed incredibly simple, and I felt foolish for getting lost in such a well-ordered restaurant. I slipped through a crevice in the wall and arrived in what was clearly the first dining hall, though I didn’t bother to look for the table where I’d been seated, fearing that I might forget the waiter’s instructions. The reason for my initial confusion was self-evident: I had passed through the archway on the right, whereas I should’ve taken the archway on the left. Presently, I passed through the correct archway on the left and ended up in the second dining hall, which should’ve been accessible only through the incorrect archway on the right. While I tried to imagine the geometric shape that would allow for a single room to exist in two places at once, I passed through a rather wide arrow slit and ended up in the third dining hall, where I had earlier tripped on the carpet, except that I couldn’t locate the carpet, or the brunette in the backless green dress, or the short men in children’s clothes, and, consequently, I was compelled to conclude that I had reached a completely different part of the restaurant and that the lavatory might not be far off after all. I realized that I hadn’t actually heard the rabbit waiter say anything specific about the location of the lavatory. When I ran into him for the second time, in what I would refer to as dining hall number five, I paid very close attention to every word he said to me and determined that he did not in fact mention the lavatory even once. I was disinclined to press the matter any further, and so I let him finish his speech and, nodding cordially, continued walking in a random direction.

It dawned on me now that I could not expect to reach my destination unless I changed my tactics, and since my tactics had hitherto been aimed at concealing the fact that I could not locate the lavatory, I decided to adopt a completely new approach, whereby I would traverse each dining hall in the manner of a waiter, zigzagging gallantly between the tables and bending over the guests’ shoulders to check whether they had cut their pork chops properly or if they might need another glass of wine. This approach made my wanderings through the restaurant a lot more enjoyable and, as I explained to the rabbit waiter, I wouldn’t have objected to bringing the two plates with half-eaten hors d’oeuvres and the empty soup bowl back to the kitchen if the bulldog-faced man hadn’t shoved them at me without any warning and then dropped them on the floor before I could even flex my fingers. I also told the rabbit that even if I had actually kicked the chair on which the bulldog-faced monsieur had been seated, I must’ve done so inadvertently and without any foreknowledge of the fact that his wife would stab herself in the face with her fork, whereas the bulldog monsieur had not only intended to kick the chair of the woman in the satin dress sitting behind him but did so with full knowledge of the consequences, since it was obvious that the woman in the satin dress would spill her wine and make a scene about it.

I left the rabbit to deal with the situation and zigzagged into the adjacent dining hall, which looked exactly like dining hall number one, except that I couldn’t find the table where I’d been seated, and the people who’d originally brought me to the restaurant seemed to have disappeared as well. I was beginning to think that I should cancel my plans to visit the lavatory and instead inquire about the possibility of booking a private motorcar when I caught a glimpse of my companions sitting at a table in the neighboring dining hall and realized that there was still hope to accomplish what I’d set out to do. The lavatory was almost certainly at the end of the long, winding corridor right in front of my eyes, and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before. The other thing I wondered about was the provenance of a half baguette and an assortment of charcuterie and olive pits that I discovered in the pockets of my velvet jacket and which, judging by their perfunctory flavor and relatively soft texture, could not have come from any place other than the restaurant.

I was in the process of extracting a long string of prosciutto out of my left pocket when the doors to what turned out to be the men’s lavatory swung open and out came the rabbit with a crazed look, disheveled hair, and a crooked bow tie. He didn’t seem to recognize me and rushed down the corridor in a manner that could only be described as completely deranged, bumping into walls, swerving into dead ends, and cursing his shoes, which, in all fairness, looked like something you might find hanging from the ceiling ventilator of a sleeper car on the Patna Raj­dhani Express. It was odd that I should even think of the Patna Rajdhani Express on my birthday, I thought while I washed my hands and examined my face in the mirror. I didn’t look too young or too old, and no matter how hard I stared into my eyes, my cheeks, my hair, my nose, and my lips, I could not shake the feeling that I was someone else, someone with whom I had switched places in a back alley in Majnu-ka-Tilla, or in some god-forgotten train station on the way to Patna, and now I continued to roam the crowded bazaars, dressed in rags and reciting Pali texts, whereas the other one was stuck in a rather grim domestic situation devoid of any metaphysical significance. It was also possible that I was beginning to detach myself from the third skandha and could no longer make a qualitative difference between myself and a common house gecko glued to the wall of a hotel room in Bodh Gaya. Satisfied with this sound and exhaustive reasoning, I wiped my hands in my hair and rushed out the door.

It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t actually used the lavatory for its intended purpose until I found myself in the middle of the kitchen, having wedged myself between the sous-chef, who was cutting a bunch of steamed asparagus, and the main chef, who was sautéing half a dozen squids in a large frying pan. The chefs didn’t seem very bothered by my presence, and I felt a bit apprehensive about leaving the kitchen at once lest I create some kind of misunderstanding. As I leaned against the countertop and smiled politely at the main chef, who presently set the squids on fire, I retraced my string of thought to the moment when I excused myself from the table and concluded that I had either imagined that I needed to use the lavatory and then didn’t use the lavatory or I had imagined that I didn’t use the lavatory when, in fact, I did.

I exited the kitchen, taking a silver tray with a plate of finely chopped parsley, in case someone asked me what I’d been doing in the employees-only area. Standing in the middle of the corridor, with the silver tray over my head, I didn’t have any difficulty determining the precise reason why I had veered off course and ended up in the kitchen. The part of the corridor that branched off to the right was almost completely dark, whereas the passageway leading to the kitchen possessed a light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel quality that tricked the unwitting guest into behaving like a moth. Further, the floor of the passageway leading to the kitchen was smooth and shiny, while the floor of the corridor branching off to the right looked like the paan-splattered platforms of the Hazrat Nizam­uddin railway station in New Delhi. Taking all these considerations into account, I headed down the dark corridor and burst into the lavatory, slamming the swinging door against the wall and sending the rabbit flying back into the cubicle. It’s hard to know if my apology failed to appeal to his sensitivities, or if my spontaneous decision to offer him the silver tray with the plate of chopped parsley upon his laborious emergence from the lavatory cubicle fit in with some twisted plot in his head, or if he was simply having a very bad day, but what is obvious to any impartial witness observing the situation astrally from the remoteness of the Dungeshwari caves outside Bodh Gaya is that the rabbit’s reaction was both disproportionate and futile. Even if he had continued to kick the lavatory door for another ten minutes, he would not have succeeded in causing any additional damage to his right shoe, which had fallen apart after the first kick.

Limping, the rabbit rushed down the corridor with the silver tray in his hand and I rushed behind him, counting all the faux turns and misleading signs along the way. The rabbit veered left, to bring the silver tray with chopped parsley back to the kitchen, whereas I immediately turned right, calculating that by going in the opposite direction I would reach the dining hall without further ado. As logical as this argument might have seemed to me at the time, I did not exclude the possibility that I could get tangled up in space and tossed onto a completely different shore, and when I found myself in the middle of the kitchen, helping the sous-chef pick up a large octopus off the floor with a sieve, I felt a sense of relief, for I realized that I had finally exhausted all the wrong choices and, henceforth, could no longer go astray even if I wanted. I left the kitchen and headed in the direction in which I had earlier seen the rabbit disappear with the silver tray. Finding myself in the lavatory for the third time, I decided to suspend my investigation and use it for its intended purpose, namely, to pass water.

I was about to open the door to the cubicle and go in when, putting my hand in the pocket where I had previously found the half baguette, I discovered three small oval objects that had the exact structure and fragility one would normally associate with raw eggs, and when the bulldog-faced monsieur unexpectedly stormed out of the cubicle, I had no other choice but to push him back with my hands, thereby smearing his gray shirt and pink necktie with a mixture of yolks and whites. I exited the lavatory and sprinted down the corridor, ignoring the bulldog’s eagerness to pursue some kind of dialogue. The two chefs did not task me with collecting mollusks off the floor and let me pass through unobstructed, pointing at a small wooden door at the far end of the kitchen. As I pushed it open and exited out into a dark back alley, the door let out a terrifying squeak, frightening a few ravens pecking at bones and crumbs.

It was comme il faut that I should spend my birthday outside my birthday, I thought, conceding that I might never find my way back to the dining hall. Maybe that’s what I had always wanted—to go out on a limb, nameless, ageless, out into the longest street, to put on the old rags, to make a bed inside the real estate section of a discarded newspaper, to share my food with dogs and ravens, to warm my tongue with Sanskrit words, to think the thoughts of passing strangers. The door to the restaurant opened and out came the waiter who had pretended to be a rabbit. He lit a cigarette, leaned against the wall, and stared with furrowed brows into the distance. Another door opened farther down the alley and another waiter stepped out to light a cigarette. I knew this place quite well: this wasn’t a back alley in Montpellier but a side street in Majnu-ka-Tilla. The waiter who pretended to be a rabbit was actually someone else pretending to be a waiter. He was still missing one shoe but he didn’t seem even slightly worried about it. They left, monsieur, the waiter said to me now, pretending to speak French. Who, I asked, also pretending to speak French. Your companions, monsieur. They booked a car and left. The waiter stubbed out his cigarette with his bare foot and scrutinized my face with curious eyes. Then he held the door for me and invited me back into the restaurant.

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