Conversations with a Devotee – Kafka

Conversations with a Devotee
by Franz Kafka

There was a time when I went every day into a church, since a girl I was in love with knelt there in prayer for half an hour in the evening and I was able to look at her in peace.

The Virgin Mary by H. Bosch
The Virgin Mary by H. Bosch

Once when she had not come and I was reluctantly eyeing the other devotees I noticed a young fellow who had thrown his whole lean length along the floor. Every now and then he clutched his head as hard as he could and sighing loudly beat it in his upturned palms on the stone flags.

Only a few old women were in the church, and they kept turning their shawled heads sideways to watch the young man at his devotions. Their awareness of him seemed to please him, for before each of his pious outbursts he cast his eyes around to see whether many of them were looking. This I found unseemly, and I made up my mind to accost him as he left the church and to ask him why he prayed in such a manner. Yes, I felt irritable because my girl had not come.

But an hour elapsed before he stood up, crossed himself punctiliously and strode jerkily towards the basin of holy water. I set myself in a direct line between the basin and the door, knowing that I was not going to let him pass without an explanation. I screwed up my mouth as I always do when I want to speak decisively, I advanced my right leg and rested all my weight upon it, balancing my left leg carelessly on the points of my toes, that too gives me a sense of firmness.

Now it is possible that the young man had already caught sight of me when he was sprinkling himself with the holy water, or he might even have remarked me sooner with some dismay for he made a sudden unexpected dash through the doorway. The glass door band shut. And when I came out immediately behind him I could not see him anywhere, for there were several narrow streets and plenty of traffic.

He stayed away for the next few days, but my girl was there. She was wearing her black dress with the transparent lace top over the shoulders- the crescent of her petticoat showed under it- from the lower edge of which the silk hung down in a beautiful cut ruffle. And since she had come I forgot the young man and did not even concern myself with him when he continued to appear regularly to do his devotions in the usual manner. Yet whenever he passed me he always seemed in a great hurry and turned his face away. Perhaps it was only that I could not think of him except in motion and so even when he was standing still he seemed to me to be slithering past.

One evening I stayed too long in my room. All the same, I went along to the church. My girl was not there, and I thought of going home again. But there was the young fellow lying on the floor. I was reminded of my first encounter with him and my curiosity revived.

I went on tiptoe to the doorway, gave a coin to the blind beggar who sat there and squeezed in beside him behind the open half of the door; and for a whole hour there I sat, perhaps with a crafty look upon my face. I liked being there and made up my mind to come again often. In the second hour I began to think it foolish to sit there because of a man at his prayers. Yet for a third hour in growing irritation I let the spiders creep over my clothes while the last of the people came, drawing deep breaths, out of the darkness of the church.

And then he too came. He was walking cautiously, testing the ground lightly with his feet before setting them down.

I rose up, took a large stride forward and seized him.

“Good evening,” I said, and with my hand on his collar pushed him down the steps into the lighted square.

When we were down on the level he said in a fluttering voice “Good evening, my dear, dear sir, don’t be angry with me, your most devoted servant.”

“Well,” said I, “I want to ask you some questions, sit; you slipped through my fingers the other time but you’ll hardly do that tonight.”

“Sir, you are a compassionate man and you’ll let me go home. I’m a poor creature, that’s the truth.”

“No,” I cried, against the noise of a passing train, “I won’t let you go. This is the kind of encounter I like. You’re a lucky catch for me. I congratulate myself.”

The he said, “Oh God, your heart is alive but your head is a block of wood. You call me a lucky catch, what good luck you must be sure of! For my bad luck is like a seesaw teetering on a very fine point, and it will fall on anyone’s head who lays a questioning finger upon it. Good night, sir.”

“Right,” said I, and held his right hand fast, “if you don’t give me an answer I’ll begin to yell here in the street. And all the shop girls that are coming out now and all their sweethearts waiting for them so happily will come running up, for they’ll think a carriage horse has fallen down or some accident has happened. And then I’ll point you out to the people.

At that he tearfully kissed my hands, one after the other. “I’ll tell you what you want to know, but please let us rather go into the side street over there. I nodded, and we crossed to it.

But it was not enough for him to be in the dusk of the little street where only a few yellow lamps hung at wide intervals, he drew me into the low hallway of an old house underneath a tiny lamp that hung dripping before a wooden stair. There he took out his handkerchief gravely and spread it on a step saying, “Do sit down my dear sir, and you will be better able to ask questions, while I stand here, for so I’ll be better able to answer them. Only don’t torment me.”

So I sat down and said, looking up at him with narrowed eyes, “You’re an utter lunatic, that’s what you are! Look at the way you carry on in the church! How irritating it is and how unpleasant for onlookers! How can anyone compose himself to worship if he has to look at you?”

He kept his body pressed against the wall, only his head could move freely to and fro. “Don’t be angry- why should you be angry about things that don’t concern you? I get angry when I behave badly; but if someone else does the wrong thing I am delighted. So don’t be angry if I tell you that it is the aim of my life to get people to look at me.”

“What a thing to say,” I cried, much too loudly for the low-roofed hallway, but I was afraid to let my voice die away again, “truly, what a thing to say. Of course I can guess, of course I guessed the first time I saw you, what kind of state you are in. I’ve had some experience, and I don’t mean it as a joke when I tell you it’s like being seasick on dry land. It’s a condition in which you can’t remember the real names of things and so in a great hurry you fling temporary names at them. You do it as fast as you can. But you’ve hardly turned your back on them before you’ve forgotten what you called them. A poplar in the fields which you called ‘the tower of Babel,’ since you either didn’t or wouldn’t know what it was a poplar, stands wavering anonymously again, and so you have to call it ‘Noah is his cups.'”

I was somewhat disconcerted when he said, “I’m thankful to say that I don’t understand what you’ve been talking about.”

With annoyance I answered quickly. “Your saying that you’re thankful shows that you do know what I was talking about.”

“Of course it shows that, my dear sir, but what you said was rather peculiar, too.”

I laid my hands on a step above me, leaned right back and in this almost untacklable position, which is the last resource of a wrestler, asked him, “Haven’t you a comic way of wriggling out of things, projecting your own state of mind like that on other people?”

That made him pluck up courage. He clasps his hands together to give his body unity, and put up some resistance, saying, “No, I don’t to that with anyone, not even with you, for instance, because I can’t. But I should be glad if I could, for then I wouldn’t need to make people look at me in church. Do you know why I need to?”

This question rather dished me. Of course I didn’t know, and I believed I didn’t want to know. I never wanted to come here, I said to myself, but the creature forced me to give such a hearing. So all I had to do was to shake my head, to convey that I didn’t know, yet I found myself unable to move my head at all.

The young man standing opposite me smiled. The he dropped on his knees and with a dreamy look on his face told me, “There has never been a time in which I have been convinced from within myself that I am alive. You see, I have only such a fugitive awareness of things around me that I always feel they were once real and are not fleeting away. I have a constant longing, my dear sir, to catch a glimpse of things as they may have been before they show themselves to me. I feel that then they were clam and beautiful. It must be so, for I often near people talking about them as though they were.”

Since I made no answer and only though involuntary twitchings in my face betrayed my uneasiness, he asked, “Don’t you believe that people talk like that?”

I knew I ought to nod assent but couldn’t do it.

“You don’t really believe it? Why, listen; once when I was a child and just waking up from a short afternoon nap, still half asleep, I heard my mother calling own from the balcony in the most natural voice, ‘What are you doing, my dear? It’s so hot.’ And a woman answered from the garden, ‘I’m reveling in the grass.’ She said it quite simply and without insistence, as if it were to be taken for granted.”

I thought an answer was expected from me, so I felt in my hip trouser pocket as if I was looking for something. But I wasn’t looking for anything, I only wanted to shift my position to show that I was paying attention. And then I said that the incident was remarkable enough and quite beyond my comprehension. I added also that I didn’t believe it was true and that it must have been invented for some special purpose which I could not fathom. Then I shut my eyes for they were hurting me.

“Oh, how glad I am that you agree with me, and it was most unselfish of you to stop me in order to let me know it. Why indeed should I feel ashamed- or why should we feel ashamed- because I don’t walk upright and ponderously, striking my walking stick on the pavement and brushing the clothes of the people who pass by so loudly. Shouldn’t I rather venture to complain with justified resentment at having to flit along the house walls like a shadow with hunched shoulders, many a time disappearing from sight in the plate glass of the shop windows.

“What dreadful days I have to live through. Why are all out buildings so badly put together that tall houses sometimes collapse without any discernable external cause? I go clambering over the ruins asking everyone I meet, ‘Now how could such a thing happen? In our town- a brand new house- that’; the fifth one today- just think of it!’ And nobody can give me an answer.

“And people often fall down in the street and lie there dead. Then all the tradesmen open their doors that are hung with a little of goods, come trotting out, carry the dead man into a house, and then appear again, with smiling eyes and lips, saying, ‘Good morning- the sky is overcast- I’m selling a lot of kerchiefs- yes, the war.’ I go slinking into the house and after timidly raising my hand several times with the fingers ready crooked knock at last on the porter’s little glass window. ‘My dear fellow,’ I say to him in a friendly way, ‘a dead man was just brought in here. Do let me see him, please.’ And when he shakes his head as if undecided, I say positively, ‘My dear chap. I’m from the secret police. Show me that dead man at once.’ ‘A dead man,’ he asks, almost in an injured voice. ‘No, there’s no dead man here. This is a respectable house.’ And I take my leave and go.

“And then if I have to cross a large open space I forget everything. The difficulty of this enterprise confuses me, and I can’t help thinking, ‘If people must build such large squares out of pure wantonness why don’t they ass a stone balustrade to help one across? There’s a gale from the southwest today. The air in the square is swirling about. The tip of the Town Hall is teetering in small circles. All this agitation should be controlled. Every window pane is rattling and the lamp posts are bending like bamboo. Th every robe of the Virgin Mark on her column is fluttering and the stormy wind is snatching at it. Is no one aware of this? The ladies and gentlemen who should be walking on the paving stones are driven along. When the wind slackens they come to a stop, exchange a few words and bow to each other, but when the wind blows again they can’t help themselves, all their feet leave the ground at the same moment. They have to hold on to their hats, or course, but their eyes twinkle merrily as if there were only a gentle breeze. No one’s afraid but me.'”

Smarting as I was, I said, “The story you told me about your mother and the woman in the garden seems to me not in the least remarkable. Not only have I heard many like it and experienced them, but I’ve even played a part in some of them. It was quite a natural incident. Do you think that if I had been on the balcony I couldn’t have said the same thing and got the same answer from the garden? Such a simple affair.”

When I said that, he seemed very delighted. He remarked that I was well dressed and he particularly liked my tie. And what a fine skin I had. And admissions became most clear and unequivocal when one withdrew them.

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