f i c t i o n

k a r e l   č a p e k 

suppose I’ll spend the night in the restaurant, Záruba thought, since the train has already left, or I’ll stretch out somewhere in the waiting room; I’ll grab three or four hours’ sleep and then take the first train out in the morning. God, let the time pass quickly! There’s still a little hope left, and it’s possible everything can still be saved. So many hours!

But the restaurant was closed, and a detachment of troops filled the waiting room. They were sleeping on the benches and the table tops, they were lying all about the floor, their heads resting on the crossbars of the tables, against the spittoons, on scrunched-up paper, their faces to the floor, piled up like a heap of corpses. Záruba escaped into the corridor; it was cold and damp out there, reeking with the smell of tar and urine from the lavatories, and there were just two gas lamps weakly quavering. There were people yawning and shivering on the benches, impatient with the long wait. But at least there was a bit of space here, a bit of space for a man; at least a bit of space for a weary, unobtrusive sleeper.

Záruba found himself a bench and planted himself down on it, settling in as warm and firm as possible; he fashioned a nook to serve as his sleeping quarters, as bed, headboard, foot-board, refuge. – Oh, the discomfort – he wrenched himself out of his half-sleep – how to position my limbs? He thought about it long and hard; in the end he chose to lie like a child in a crib, and he stretched out lengthwise on the bench. But the bench was too short. In despair, Záruba struggled with his dimensions, saddened by such inconsiderate resistance; finally, he lay there as if shackled, motionless, boyishly small, and watched the great illuminated circles that wheeled in the darkness on revolving disks. – Why, I’m already asleep, flashed through his mind, and at that moment he opened his eyes, saw two sides of a triangle drift by, and was terribly confused: where am I? What’s wrong? Panicky, he looked around for some sort of orientation, but was unable to figure out the directions; he gathered up all his strength and rose to his feet. Once again he saw the long, cold corridor, but he saw it with greater sadness than before; he knew from the bitter taste of misery in his mouth that he was completely awake.

Resting his head on his knees, he pondered his situation. To hold out, to try and see it through until salvation came, yes; but still so many hours to go! Absently glancing down at the corridor’s dirty tiles, he found himself looking at trampled bits of paper, disgusting phlegm, debris from innumerable feet. – That one there has the shape of a face, eyes of mud and lips of spittle, a grotesque attempt at a smile…

Repelled, he looked up. There lay a soldier on a bench, sleeping with his head tilted backwards, groaning as if on his death bed. A nondescript woman sat sleeping, the head of a little girl on her lap; her face grim and pitiful, the woman slept on, but the little girl was looking about with pale eyes, whispering something to herself; she had a long, jutting chin and a wide mouth between thin cheeks, an old woman of a child, with sad, wide eyes that flitted everywhere. And look at that corpulent man, the way he’s sleeping, his swollen drowsiness, sagging limply over the bench, doltish and dumbfounded, a flaccid mass rolling off its primary support. Under the brim of a small green hat the lively black eyes of a young man are winking. “Come here,” he hisses at the pale-eyed girl through the gaps between corroded teeth: “Come here,” he whispers, and smiles. Confused, the little girl fidgets and smiles back with an appalling, old-womanish smile: she has no teeth. “Come here,” the young man sibilates, but then he sits down next to her. “What’s your name?” And he fondles her knee with the palm of his hand. The little girl gives him a nervous, unpleasant smile. The sleeping soldier lets out a gurgling sound as if at the hour of death. Záruba trembles with cold and disgust.

An hour after midnight. Time scraped forward with agonizing slowness, and Záruba felt it dragging, gratuitously dislocated by a growing, directionless tension. All right, he told himself, I’ll close my eyes and hold out, without thinking, without moving, for as long as possible, for a whole hour, while time ticks away. – And so he sat there frozen, forcing himself to hold out for as long as possible; the duration of each minute was endlessly suspended, counting without numbers, delay upon delay. – Finally, after an unsurvivable amount of time had passed, he opened his eyes. Five minutes after one. The corridor, the papers, the child, the same bewildered, old-womanish smile… Nothing had changed. Everything was frozen in the fixed proximity of a present that did not move forward.

All at once Záruba spied a man sitting stock-still in a corner, awake and alone, like Záruba. He’s like me, Záruba thought, he can’t sleep either. What is he thinking about? About this endless wait, just like me? The man trembled, as if he found the question disagreeable. Záruba involuntarily gazed at the man’s amorphous face, its features twitching as when someone drives away a determined fly. Suddenly the man got up, worked his way down the corridor on tiptoe, and sat down right next to him.

“That was rude, my staring at you,” Záruba said in a subdued voice.

“Yes.” Both were silent for quite some time. “Look,” the man finally whispered, pointing his finger at the ground, “that looks like a human face.”

“I already noticed it.”

“You already noticed it,” the man repeated gloomily. “Then you, too, have felt very–”

“Felt what?”

“Nothing’s harder than waiting,” the man remarked.

“How do I feel?”

“It’s hard. It’s hard to wait. No matter what happens eventually, it’s a form of deliverance. Waiting is hard.”

“Why are you talking about it?”

“Because it’s hard to wait. You too have read what’s written in the dust and spit. And it troubled you, as well. Nothing is more agonizing than the present.”


“Because waiting is hard.” The man stared at the ground.

“Where are you traveling to?” Záruba asked after a while.

“I travel only for pleasure,” the man replied absently. “That is to say, beautiful places can often be found. You go so far that you’re no longer thinking about anything, and then suddenly you’re in such a place, a creek or a well in a grove, or children, something unexpected and beautiful. – And then, caught unawares, you understand what luck is.”

“What about luck?”

“Nothing. You simply encounter it. In short, it’s a wonder. Do you ever think about the pagan gods?”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s like this: no one expected to see them, people came across them unexpectedly. Somewhere in the water or in a thicket or in flames. That’s why they were so beautiful. Oh, if only I could put it into words! if only I could put it into words!”

“Why are you thinking about gods?”

“It’s like this: luck has to be encountered quickly and unexpectedly. It’s a chance encounter, an event so unexpected that you say: oh, what an adventure! Have you had such an encounter before?”

“Yes, I have.”

“It’s as if you were dreaming. Adventure is the most beautiful thing of all. Whenever love stops being an adventure, it becomes a torment.”

“Why, why is that so?”

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t endure if it weren’t a torment. Look, in the old days people had a single word for luck and chance. But it was the name of a god.”

Fortuna, Záruba thought, and he felt sad. If only I were to encounter it on this journey! But it’s hard to wait for a chance encounter!

“Waiting is hard,” the man said once again, “so hard and painfully awkward that however long you wait, you’re waiting for one thing only: for the end of waiting, for deliverance from waiting. So hard that once you’ve waited until you see it, it can no longer be beautiful or lucky, but somehow, oddly enough, sad and painful from all the waiting. – I don’t know how to say it. Every redemption is like that: it’s never true luck.”

Why is he saying this? Záruba thought; how would I not be lucky to wait until I saw it?

“They waited for God Himself,” the man continued. “What manner of man came to redeem them from their waiting? He did not look beautiful, the least of men, a man of sorrows; he bore our grief and endured our pain, as if he weren’t a god.”

“Why are you talking about this?”

“Look, waiting is hard, it even breaks and humbles a god. You wait all year for some kind of luck, some great and beautiful event; finally it comes, rather trifling and gloomy, the way pain can be; but you say: yes, God, that’s it, what I’ve waited so many years for, in order to be redeemed!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this: the only reward for waiting is the end of waiting; and yet it’s worth the wait. That’s why it’s necessary to wait. It makes our belief make sense.”

“What sort of belief?”

“Any sort at all,” the man said, and he fell silent.

The people in the corridor started to stir and walk back and forth. The toothless little girl had now fallen asleep in her mama’s arms, hidden under a shawl. Life began to pour through the corridor, aimless and disorderly, but it moved and kept on moving.

“What did you mean about those gods?” Záruba asked aloud.

“They were beautiful,” the man said. “Only luck or chance was needed in order to see them and become oneself a bit of a god. This is what I think: that luck is unusual, so beauty is extremely unusual, and luck, luck can happen only with chance and an astonishing event. But whoever waits is waiting for something that must happen; something must come that completes the waiting. Look, everyone is waiting … even you; we leave our path with joy, so that we can wait for great things. Oh, waiting is a terrible strain, very much like belief. But the more we wait – Come what may, we will be redeemed. Look, it’s already morning.”

Into the station poured a stream of people with their laughter, coughing, and clamor. The noise whisked through the corridor like a giant broom, sweeping up the silence that had settled and blowing away the stale, dusty voices. The passengers got up off the benches, shook off the cobwebs of sleep, and looked each other over without malice, linked by their shared night, even though out the windows daylight shone.

The man who had spoken with Záruba became lost in the crowd of people. A new crowd, tickets, shouts, bells ringing. – The black and bellowing train pulled into the station, absorbed the crowd, hissed, exhaled, and set off for its destination. God, just go quickly, Záruba thought, all’s not yet lost, hope remains.



©copyright Karel Čapek; translation©copyright Norma Comrada.

From Karel Čapek, CROSS ROADS, tr. Norma Comrada (Catbird Press, July 2000)

With permission of  Catbird Press.


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