Uncertain Origins

by Eric Maroney

 

Ringing the doorbell, he arrived on a rainy night four months ago. I knew immediately who he was, for he had made a name for himself publishing scholarly papers in his country. Then he had been ejected from his land, as they all had been, and now here he was, on my doorstep.

His hat was so drenched that the brim was drooping. He held in his arm a cardboard briefcase, nearly transformed to pulp. He had gloomy, drooping eyes and an upturned nose. Disappointment was etched like hieroglyphics in the lines beneath his eyes, and he hunched, balanced carefully, as if an invisible weight on the top of his head threatened to topple him to the ground.

“You are the translator, Madam…” and he mispronounced my name. I could have corrected him, and turned him away. The baby was crying and I had no time for the job.

When the baby was asleep, I would pick up books and work on the translations for these refugees. There were too many of them, and it seemed they all had penned books. So I could take no more work. But he waved his dejection like a sodden flag of surrender. It hung heavy in the rain and I imagined that banner walking down the wet streets, falling lower and lower to the ground until it seeped into the puddles and mud.

Just like that, a man’s life would be snuffed from the world, simply because I sent him out into the rain, because I hid behind the veil of indifference and haste. So I let him enter.

“Come in, please,” I gestured. “Can you please sit here, while I tend to my baby?”

“Yes, of course,” he slurred. “I can come back…”

“No, it will only take a minute,” and I left him confused. When I returned only 10 minutes later, he was gone.

 

“I’m back,” he said, at the door again the next day. He smiled dimly. It was still raining, but since yesterday he had procured a battered gray umbrella. “Is baby alright?”

“Yes, please come in. You should not have left so suddenly yesterday.” He turned red, avoiding my eyes.

“For this I’m sorry,” he answered, removing his wet hat, holding it in his hands, where it drooped like a dead fowl. “I don’t like to disturb people.”

“That is what I do for a living,” I smiled, sitting across from him. “As you can imagine, my services are very much in demand lately, as not many people can translate your language.”

“Will you not translate?” he asked. He rustled through his papers. “I have references. Letters.”

“I know who you are. I even read your paper on the nature of the Good a few years ago. It’s just I have too many projects now. Maybe in six months. I could put you on my waiting list…”

He suddenly stood up, once again ransacking his cardboard case, his pale, trembling fingers trying to draw something out with great difficulty, as if his work was a crowning baby’s head, and he was in charge of ushering it into the world.

“Please, if you just read a few pages, you will see how important is the work. Just read a little.” He handed me the documents, his crestfallen manuscript as gray as his umbrella.

“Sir, I don’t work with manuscripts, only published works. I’m sorry…”

“Yes, I see,” he answered kindly, but pointedly. He wanted to leave his theme behind with the manuscript, and let the work speak more eloquently than he could in my language. “But you see there is no publisher here. This is all I have. If you take it for one night, and then decide? This is all I ask. I have money. I give you money for tonight, and if you take it on, money for work, of course.” He smiled with difficulty. Begging did not come easily for this wisp of a man.

“Very well,” I answered. “But I don’t want money to read a few pages.”

“I insisted, Madam,” and he thrust some bills in my hand.

“I can’t take this,” I protested. “I don’t take money to review a work. And this is too much money.”

“How much then? Please name the price.”

“Zero,” I averred. “If you leave here without taking your money back, I won’t be able to help you further.”

He paused and smiled. His teeth, yellow but even, glinted in the light of the living room lamp. Perhaps he liked my principles. Maybe he was shy. After all, it was no easy task to accept that the great dreams of life are gone, and now we are forced to live with the shards of this or that unpleasant compromise. He was a man stumbling from today’s broken dream to tomorrow’s tattered hope.

“I thank you,” he bowed his head in courtly fashion. “I will come tomorrow morning for your answer.”

“Please come in the afternoon,” I said, “around four.”

He bowed his head again and was gone.

 

What he wanted to accomplish in the book was impossible. First, his handwriting was nearly illegible and there were no margins. Each line was as tiny as a silk thread. When I tried to translate a sentence, it was inadequate. I would start again, poring through the dictionary, consulting my word lists, plodding my way along the narrow tracks of intelligibility. Always the identical riddle: how to convey the meaning of one language in another? How to shift between worlds without betraying both? Translating his work was like trying to comb a rocky beach for pebbles of the same size, shape, color. Here was his eulogy to a land and a people, if not already dead, then dying. And even though I should pay attention to the task at hand, translating this word, this paragraph, this page, I couldn’t help but leaf through the pages to see where he was headed. But there were simply so many pages. If I charged my standard rate, he could never have afforded the translation. But in his world, his work must be translated. The language he spoke, once as natural as part of the landscape of his country, has been uprooted. Now its roots are dangling in the air and dying. The refugees try to cast it off like a filthy garment. The only way he could live—and by this I mean live on—was if I translated his work.

 

“It is very long, and your handwriting is unclear.” I said this to him the next day at four, meaning to state it as a fact. But I sounded like a schoolteacher scolding a child. He blushed and looked away from me.

“This is true,” he stammered. “I worked at it, how do you say, under trying times. Sometimes on boat or train or on run. So you see, it was not avoidable. It was…” and he trailed off.

“The manuscript is also very long. Do you want to cut some material before I start in earnest? It will cost a great deal of money to translate the entire work.” He looked confusedly at me; a swatch of wet black hair was plastered to his forehead in the form of a comma.

“No, Madam, you see, I must have every word translated. You see, it is all that I have. All years of work. You see, it was gone. The original manuscript was destroyed in fire. This one, the one you hold in your hands, is what I could bring back from memory.” I was astonished. I looked down at the bundle of gray papers.

“You mean, you lost your original work, and then re-wrote this from memory?”

“Yes,” he answered, eagerly nodding his head. “All of it was here,” he pointed a quaking finger to his temple. “They took the paper, but not what is here.” Then he smiled. “Not yet, that is.”

I looked down at the work and could not help but smile in astonishment.

“You see Madam, if you don’t translate, then it is gone for good. No longer does it matter what I saved. It will all be lost. No readers, no work, no me.”

“I see,” I answered, taking up the bundle. “Then I must reduce my charge. And please don’t argue about this point. I beg of you.”

 

I found a tempo, a rhythm, a style that suited the work. You struggle with a book, you read it in one language, and when you try to find words in another there is often no commerce between the two streams. You frequently find yourself gazing at a featureless, terrifying wall. You are stuck in details. You read an idiom, and search for a cognate, but nothing fits. You must seek a region of compromise, where the original meaning gets not so much translated as transferred into the new language. Things will be lost along the way; certain fragile pieces of connotation will fall off, as with a delicate transplanted tree. But sometimes an element is gained. A dimension is added when you have rendered the words into something new. A fresh meaning erupts in an unlikely place, like a seed dropped into a pile of ash, developing into a lovely, hardy flower.

 

I took a third of what I typically asked. My other clients were irritated, as more of my time was spent with his work. My husband noted my withered income, but did not ask why. He came every few days to pay me.

“Where do you get your money? You can’t work here, can you?”

“No,” he answered sadly. “There is no work. But we help each other. Some who has money shares with others who don’t. That is the way it has always been… well, in better days, you know…” He lost the thread of his words and switched to his own language. I nodded my head.

“I’ve finished the first two chapters,” I told him, holding out the typed sheets. “Would you like to read them?” He took a step back, as if I was handing him an unclean item. He realized his reaction was too strong and smiled.

“No thank you,” he said quietly. “I would not read the translated work. For me, this is already the copy.” He pointed at the original manuscript. “When I wrote it again, I remembered much, but I know I did not get all. How could I? Some of it, it went,” he moved his hand like the motion of wind. “Now your translation is a copy of a copy. It is very necessary, and I’m grateful, but…” Again his hand moved, as if wind was again carrying his ideas aloft into empty air.

Then he began to cry, soft tears, not full of histrionics. He was a bashful man, easily moved but locked behind a veil of reserve. But hearing of these matters, of words on paper and this history of loss was too much. I knew enough not to compound his sorrow with words of support. There was no way to offer comfort. He mumbled an apology and quickly left.

 

After the fourth chapter, his manuscript took a turn. Here were long, convoluted sentences, all a variation on the same theme: the anatomy of suffering. He cataloged its various manifestations, from the most grotesque to the banal. For a man like him, who had already suffered enormously, he was now in the grip of the most common form of ailments. He had a cold that would not disappear. He woke up with extreme fatigue, as if he had not slept at all, and only a handful of pills from an émigré doctor set him right. His writing was the typology of this conjoint suffering. The hands that ached. The heart that raced too fast. The head that bore the imprint of a mysterious pain. Both in his writing and his life these followed him everywhere, and on the page, he outlined their uncertain origins and the arc of their scattered aim. And his body, like the writing that reflected it, bore the imprint of life’s shocks. But the predominant meaning of his suffering he could no longer firmly remember.

 

“You don’t look well,” I told him a month later. I had finished a third of his manuscript. His skin was gray and his hands shook. His face lacked the essential details to form a strong expression. Fatigue hung off his features. “Can’t your doctor help you?”

“He can find nothing wrong, Madam,” he answered, smiling lightly. “According to him, I’m healthy. He says it is here” and he moved his index figure toward his temple. “Not much help.”

“There are agencies that can assist you,” I offered. “I know a person who works with refugees…” he raised a hand to cut me off, too polite to use words.

“I thank you for concern, but really, there is nothing to be done, you see, once something has happen, a person has two choices. Reject or accept. To reject, you suffer all manner of harm. Your legs ache. Your head is in pain. It covers you. To accept, you must swallow the pain, whole, in one piece, and even then, you suffer, for who can swallow so much pain? But still you must make a choice.”

I was going to ask him which choice he had made, but the baby was crying, and he excused himself.

“No, just let me feed him and then I’ll serve you some tea.”

“Please not,” he stammered. “Here is your payment.” He placed bills on the table. “I thank you. I thank you for your efforts.”

When he did not return for a week I made inquiries with people in his world. When they couldn’t find him, I sought him out.

 

When I reached the mid-point of the manuscript, the text appeared to start over again. But I realized, after reading a few pages without the effort to translate them, that this was an illusion. He had traced the outlines of his thoughts so many times, in so many configurations, that it was if he was saying the same thing again, when actually he was approaching the identical problem from a different angle. Why are people in the world? Is there such a thing as human nature? Are people good, bad, or both? What is the nature of evil? Does it exist, or it is an illusion? If it exists, how to combat it? He returned to these questions in such subtle ways that sometimes I had to dig deep into the words to mirror the small variations in meaning.

 

I said his name. The clerk asked me to repeat it. At the long table, there were at least a dozen people trying to be heard, and behind them, a boisterous line forming out the door and into the hall.

“We don’t have names here. Only registration numbers. Is he registered?” The woman asked.

“I don’t know. He came to me so I could do some translating for him.”

“Did he pay you?” The woman pressed.

“Yes, he did.”

“Then he had to give you form F12. It will have his registry number. Do you have the form?”

“No, I misplaced it,” I lied.

“Then you must find it. If you can’t produce it, you will have to forfeit your wages. He could be placed in custody. Next!”

 

What do we owe to other people, and what do we owe to ourselves? If a person is called upon to commit an act of evil on another person in order to save his own life, is he permitted to do so? How far can a person go to save his own life? Should he sacrifice his own? Again, he asked these questions, and his words, like so many lines of twine spread out over an open field, extended to cross at certain junctions, forming webs of meaning, a place where thought and dream could come together for a moment, embrace a wider conception, and then separate. Was this not the nature of thought, he wrote, the rise and fall of ideas in the present? The constant toppling of old, useless notions for the attainment of ideas that suited the unfolding changes in the world? He envisioned reality as one great expanding orb, growing wider, larger, more expansive, until it distended under its own weight, and collapsed.

 

“Have you checked the morgue?” The doctor answered.

“No, I haven’t. I didn’t think it would come to that.”

“I gave him some medicine for pain,” the doctor said, ignoring the crowding people around him imploring him for help. “He’s a sick man. I never could find out what was wrong with him. You should check the morgue. He never ate enough or had proper shelter. He’s probably dead.”

When I stepped back, he was engulfed by sick people, fellow refugees. And I was out the door and in the teeming streets.

 

There is no death, he proclaimed in Chapter Ten. There it was, after all these pages. I came across this statement like a clearing in a dense stand of trees. There is no death. After the long, torturous journey through life’s innumerable, unsolvable problems, he learned that there is no death, and from this statement, concluded that neither is there life. We are formed from an egg and sperm. From this simple beginning, cloaked in darkness and heat, our bodies grow. Then, our bodies break down into the elements of nature, which uses those elements for whatever end it seeks, or for no end at all. But the person who has lived and then died is no more dead than if he were alive. The continuum between life and death, he explained, is less severe than we think. Actually, it is as simple stepping over a small twig that has fallen from a mighty tree. It is only our fear that strangles our knowledge of this simple fact. We close our eyes from our childhood dread of the anonymous darkness.

 

“What is his registry number? We don’t do names here,” the coroner was standing before me in white scrubs in need of laundering. He was impatient. I now had his number. He went to a file cabinet and rifled through papers.

“Since they came here, it’s been trouble for me,” he snorted, as the papers moved quickly between his fingers. “They die like flies, and do I get any more funds to deal with them? No! We had to buy a refrigerated unit to handle the overflow. There goes my bonus! And none of their relatives come to claim them. They let the bodies lay here like dogs.”

“Most of their relatives are dead, Doctor,” I told him. “Dead or missing.” He said nothing. He found his paper.

“Here is it: R145-8597. He was brought in three weeks ago. Cause of death unknown. Of course, no one is claiming the body. You aren’t claiming the body, by any chance?”

“I will. What do I need to do?”

“First,” he explained, “you must identify the remains. I have to warn you, this isn’t a pleasant thing to do. He wasn’t found for a few days.”

“I’m ready,” I answered. “Where is he?”

I was led down a long hallway, passed several offices, and then into a basement room with gray drawers and a concrete floor. The doctor held the paper to his eyes in the failing light.

“Here it is,” he said. He pulled open the drawer revealing a thin, long figure in a white bag. He unzipped the top and there was his familiar face, but slack, colorless, bearing the imprint of death’s indifference.

“That’s him,” I said, turning quickly away.

“OK,” he answered, quickly touching my shoulder. “Sorry my words were so rough. You know how it is. This way, I have papers for you to sign.”

 

He wrote: There is no past, no future, no present. The past is gone; it only exists in the murky recesses of memory, and is subject to all manner of distortions. It serves our base needs. It is a talebearer and gossip. The future does not yet exist. What is it? Time extended forward? Time does not extend. There is no such thing as time. We can’t touch or taste it. Time is the momentum of our bodies in space and a byproduct of our natural dissolution. This future will happen, but it is not for us to know its pathway. The present is a slim reed, pressed between the ephemeral past and the cloudy future. And we stand here, poised between two illusions. What are we to think of this thing we call life and so treasure?

 

His people forbade cremation, but I did not have the money for a proper burial. I received his ashes in a long cylinder.

“What are you going to do with them?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. I just couldn’t leave him in that morgue.”

“Is there someplace we can spread the ashes? I can help.”

I didn’t answer. I was stymied. What to do with the dust of a man? It was like one of the questions in his book, a thought exercise on the value of things that pass out of this world. Would he care anyway, a man who saw life and death as injurious illusions?

 

He wrote: And the folly of humanity is that they fail to see the fleeting nature of life. They dance with the anguish of its ephemera, and then they face death, and wonder how to hold onto things that were not there at the outset. This is the dilemma: how to hang on to love and compassion, but also let go of those objects of our love and compassion. One hand must nurture, while the other hand thrusts away. We must act as if life was tangible and vital, while knowing that it is as fleeting as a puff of air.

 

When I finished, no one wanted to publish the manuscript. The problems he addressed were immense, and he had done nothing to solve them. He was very deft at posing questions, but not at answering them. He was like a man who could build a room but had no idea how to furnish and make it beautiful. His ideas were vast expanses of space devoid of comfort. The end product perplexed editors. I took the original manuscript, the translation, and the urn of ashes and found a place for them in the back on my closet. When I closed the door, I felt a nagging sense of relief. This was unfinished business, and now it was done.  I had done my duty, and I could move on.

And as if to herald this, as I left the room and returned to my crowded desk, the front doorbell rang.


ERIC MARONEY is the author of two books of nonfiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010). His fiction has appeared in over a dozen journals. His nonfiction has appeared in the Encyclopedia of Identity, The Montreal Review, and Superstition Review. He is a regular fiction and non-fiction reviewer for The Colorado Review. His story, “The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Busso” was the runner up for the 2011 Million Writers Award. He has an M.A. from Boston University and lives in Ithaca, NY, with his wife and two children. More of his work can be found on his web page.

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