Book of the Festival
"Phenomenon" by Jānis Ivars Stradiņš
Translated from the Latvian by Suzanne McQuade
– Once again, - the philosopher shook his head reproachfully, - once again you play the wrong card, detective! What is that – leisure or excessive professional precaution?
Frowning, the speaker tossed his remaining card on the table and leaned back in his chair. His stern features reflected disappointment.
- Possibly. But if I had played... – he broke off and gave it up for lost. – A futile appeasement of the mouth.
The philosopher, whose appearance suggested a classic bookworm – gaunt, boney, with an unhealthy yellow colored face and thick bifocals – clinked his glass.
- How about a measure, friends? Vilnius has been spoiled recently with warm weather.
- You simply have to gain some weight, professor, - the mathematician responded. He himself was the initiator of the card game, and also its host. Then, likely not wanting to aggrieve his guests, he suggested – let’s go to the newspaper table – it’s closer to the fire. The cards can wait for a moment.
- A sensible idea, - the investigator rubbed his hands. – Such an enormous house and such a vast room... What’s more, it’s raining outside again. Dampness is the shortest road to the sniffles. I heard somewhere that the Gulf Stream is becoming colder, perhaps even changing course. It isn’t out of the question that eighty years from now, polar bears will be as comfortable as chickens in Lithuania. What do you say, professor?
- Yet others prattle on about global warming, - the philosopher sullenly growled, and tucking the bottle under his arm, was the first to move to the new area.
In the proximity of the fireplace, where logs of birch firewood crackled in the sizeable stokehold, it was far and away warmer, and after several glasses, they became completely snug.
- Well, the architect really should have realized the quirks in the character of heat transfer, and taken the distances into account, - the professor observed. – Are the rights to the estate in your hold?
- Since Wednesday. I haven’t moved yet, but we can see it as if we’re dedicating my new home.
- That means, - the investigator let his glance wander around, - that everything that we see here belonged to your uncle.
- Except for this bottle, - the owner tapped on the glass with a nail. – The deceased was a painter, and those paintings found on the walls in this house belong to his brush. My uncle loved landscape, but worked predominantly in portraits. An eccentric, yet on exploring the house, I had to admit he was also a person of a practical nature.
- However, you can’t say the same when speaking of heat transfer. Gathering the various facts, in an investigation...
- Leave it be! – the philosopher mumbled. – Don’t quibble over trifles! Try to grasp it on a broader scale. Facts, versions, these are all narrow. But by generalizing your thought, by searching for and discovering regularities that establish intellectual laws, it’s possible to grasp...
- What? – The mathematician bitterly interrupted the speaker. – Heat transfer? Or perhaps existence? Or even thought? Their origins? Tendencies? You know all too well that thought itself brings about action. And, also, that there could be evil as well as good therein. In fact, it’s precisely the reckless philosophizing of your professional brethren which has brought the greatest misery to mankind. Ideology! I wouldn’t think to remove my hat before Marx or Nietzsche. And underneath it all lies such a trifle as thought.
The host, who with his broken nose and broad shoulders sooner resembled a boxer than a math teacher, seemed to fly into a rage in the name of justice. – A philosopher should root not for the secrets of existence, but rather he should look for an answer to the question: how can one distinguish evil from good? Good ideas from evil ones. If mathematics is able to do something of the sort numerically, why couldn’t a philosopher as well?
-Mathematics? – the investigator raised his eyebrows in disbelief. – In what sense?
- In what sense? – the host pensively retorted and, sipping from the glass in his hand, settled back into the chair. – Absolutely elementary – by producing the square root. Up to now no one has explored mathematics from an intellectual aspect. Just as in individual judgment, in mathematics too exist both positive and negative figures. Let us consider that these are not different people, but ideas. They’re all mixed together in this world, and, as such, they manifest in respective individuals, groups, or the actions of entire nations. Undivided, they will always be taken as a positive. Otherwise all mankind would be forced to sit in prison.
- Decidedly, - the detective nodded his head.
- So far I get it, - the philosopher too raised no objection. However – how does one distinguish them? An intellectual litmus has yet to be invented. Explain this square root!
- Fine. I’ll speak of numbers, but try to apply what you hear to ideas. So then – when solving the square root of a positive number, one arrives at two answers! One with plus signs, the other – with minus signs. Hence the generally accepted, outwardly visible, supposed positive comes from the presence of a negative. Do you see the similarity?
- Interesting, - the philosopher muttered pensively. – Very interesting! – Suddenly his glance behind thick glasses, already uncertain, became completely blank, and, taking his chin in his hands, he lost himself in thought.
- It’s a strange theory, - the investigator admitted, scratching the back of his head. – If only one could put it into practice. Hmm... But don’t lie detectors do anything?
- They’re completely approximate and uncertain. What’s more they rely not on individuality, but on separate fact. Forced into a situation, a good person could tell lies to save someone else. The lie detector only records nervous reaction to a definite question. Just as imprecise and misleading as philosophic speculation. He cast a wry glance toward the professor, but the professor didn’t react. It was clear that the idea sown by the host had completely overcome his mind. However in the very next minute he literally jumped.
- But zero? You forgot about zero!
- Not at all. – The host shrugged his broad shoulders. – Zero is allocated to a special place. It’s a border marker that separates numbers with differing signs. The two can only get closer to it. I’m not speaking of mathematical rules, but of nature. An insurmountable wall, a world about which nothing is known.
- The further we go, the crazier it gets! – the investigator mumbled. – I’d better stick to deduction and evaluating everything from the angle of irrefutable evidence.
- Deduction isn’t any exception, just the same as any intellectual work. Even more so. You can’t eat minus five apples, can you? However, drawing that figure in front allows you to understand that these – real apples – have been stolen! Thus in gathering the facts and events and weighing them out according to the intellectual measures of mathematics, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that mankind is just like a scorpion who, consumed with masochism, even if it doesn’t kill him immediately, still pricks and poisons himself incessantly. With ideas and their consequential actions.
Twiddling the empty glass in his fingers, the philosopher measured up the speaker with an undisguised glance of disapproval.
- The very nihilism! Then it would appear that science and technological progress... – he said furiously, but with a peremptory gesture the host made him silent.
- You want to argue? To object? The facts consistently show this progress with fatter and fatter minus signs, however the mysterious researchers of existence don’t see it – god knows why not. But perhaps – they can’t? So you say – what has this progress truly offered to people? Peace? Prosperity? Love in the broadest sense? The liquidation of violence? – A blush rose in the landlord’s cheeks. – The complete opposite! Everything negative has swollen bigger than ever! If you don’t believe me, ask our detective.
- You can’t disagree with that, - the investigator nodded. – People are becoming ever more aggressive. Greed, going hand in hand with overt propagandized moral decay bears a dismal fruit throughout the world. – One could sense the heavyheartedness in his voice. – If only one could isolate evil thoughts. Or at least identify them. We can’t be sure about our own, so where else... – He spread his hands and filled his glass anew. – So then, this is your new dwelling now?
The landlord nodded, pulled a pipe from his breast pocket, filled it, and lit it, asking:
- What do you think?
- A castle! A well-to-do person built it, not your uncle.
- Judging by what?
- In the first place, the architecture. The early jugendstils dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time your uncle couldn’t have been able. In the second place, painting isn’t a trade that fills the pockets with the sound of money. Recognition normally comes to painters after their deaths.
- Shortly before the war he bought the building for a song from some rich businessman. Wolfgang Bergs. A German, it seems.
- I’ve heard the name somewhere. Strange, supposing he was a businessman, that he’d sell the property for a pile of beans.
- My uncle told me that after the German came to Klaipeda in the thirties, many began to emigrate. It’s possible, knowing what was anticipated from his countrymen and simultaneously understanding that there wasn’t much time, that Bergs simply didn’t bargain. One way or another, the house is mine now.
- With everything in it?
- Yes. I’m the last one left in our family, if you don’t count distant cousins, who hadn’t claimed judicial rights to something. Perhaps the only one who truly doesn’t have what it takes...
- Do tell! – the investigator urged.
- I’m not sure how to say it. After the will had been drawn up, my uncle showed it to me. Embarrassed, I tried awkwardly to thank him, but he sharply interrupted me. My uncle was a person of a different, stern disposition, which you couldn’t always figure out. He then informed me that the property is only big in monetary terms, but as a home – it wouldn’t suit anyone. The house was in decent condition, so I tried to clarify what he meant by that. In place of an explanation he only pointed to the couch and informed me in an unconditional tone: - Tonight you’ll sleep here! – Without going into details, I can say that the night turned out to be awful! In fact nothing tangible happened, yet... I tossed and turned for a long time, couldn’t get tired at all, until the grandfather clock deeply struck midnight. Such a silence came over the house, I could hear the blood pulsating in my temples. Suddenly an icy wind ran across my face. I tensed up, completely involuntarily. It’s indescribable in words: little by little, a horrible inkling clenched my heart and wrapped it in an inexplicable shroud of fear. It was so real, that I began to lose my breath. You know that I’m free of superstition and empty bias, therefore I forced myself to stay calm and discover a definite explanation with the help of my mind.
Unfortunately, as I already mentioned, nothing tangible happened. That meant that any guess wouldn’t be sought in the material world, but somewhere deeper. And it’s strange – at the same moment the certainty grew in me that the source of the horror is nevertheless related to it. I turned on the light, but the feeling of fear didn’t diminish. It seemed as if some sort of motionless, evil eye followed my every step. The next morning, exhausted with sleeplessness, I asked my uncle – what does it mean? In place of an answer he shrugged his shoulders and gave me an older-than-old key. Bergs had left it here. By the way – the house had passed over into my uncle’s property with all of Bergs’ belongings in it.
- How so?
- Simple. The old owner never came back for them. My uncle moved in in the allotted time, and for many years didn’t mess with Bergs’ things. In the end, he understood that he wouldn’t just turn up like that, and gradually began to establish his own order.
- So then he didn’t try to explain this apparition?
- No. He gave me the key and suggested I look for myself. Or sell the house. Since that time I haven’t come here, but if it happens again, I’ll be forced to convert the property into money.
The investigator suddenly laughed.
- And, so, this is where the true reason behind tonight’s card party is hidden! Interesting – why did your uncle endure it all?
- I already said – he was an eccentric, and I have a suspicion that he therefore drew inspiration for his work. There’s something in his portraits that can’t be expressed in words. But you can sense it.
- The Dorian Grey author? – the philosopher smirked.
The mathematician nodded and asked the investigator:
- Will you stay here tonight?
- Of course, I’ll just have to let my wife know.
- And you?
The professor, not knowing why, took off his glasses, and, squinting nearsightedly, reluctantly nodded in agreement.
- But I don’t believe that you invited us just so that we too could experience this, shall we say, phenomenon...
- Of course not. Still, a detective together with a philosopher – a cold, logical mind together with a deep outlook on things in existence, - this time he spoke without any sort of irony, - perhaps they’d be able to bring clarity to this mystery. As I already mentioned, it’s not impossible that the phenomenon is related to something... material.
- If you want material, then let’s start with the key. Show it to me! – the detective proposed. – A tangible thing is material, isn’t it? Interesting, hasn’t that night stimulated your thoughts on the intellectual side of mathematics?
- Possibly, - the mathematician agreed and, setting his pipe into the ashtray, pulled a strangely shaped key from his side pocket. Then he took several documents from the bookshelf and placed them all in front of the investigator, sinking back into his previous place.
- A key like any key. Perhaps considerably older than us, but there’s nothing unique in that, – the philosopher said. – Have you found the lock?
- Judging from its size, it could be from some sort of chest or grand piano.
- Or from a desk.
- No, - the detective shook his head. – A desk key is used frequently, and abrasions would be visible in two places – here and here. Furthermore it normally stands in the lock, but a desk is furniture, and the furniture, as we know, all transferred into your uncle’s property. All right, let’s put the key to the side and look at what else we have here. – He pulled the documents closer and, talking to himself, began to murmur: - An inventory map. Here, a cross-section of a floor. Measurements. And what’s this? Ah, the commercial contract. The buyer resolves to pay... Honestly, the sum is laughable! The contract comes into affect... Signatures... And this? A map of the property. Right here the trees are noted.
Having finished his inspection of the documents, he filled a glass and sipped, casting enquiring glances around.
- Couldn’t the key be for a safe?
- The house doesn’t have one.
- Are you certain? Perhaps it was built into a wall. Hidden.
- No. Ten years ago, uncle had them re-plaster the walls – they’d found rot under the old plaster. I remember, at the time I was helping with the auxiliary work. The furniture was moved, the walls scraped, the floors changed. If there’d been a safe, it definitely would have been found.
- I see. Hang on! What are these marks? – The investigator took the map of the property that rested on top of the documents and began to examine the corners of the pages. He then turned it over and showed the mathematician. – Look!
The host reached out and cast his eyes on the document.
- X=2, y=3. I don’t understand any of it. – He shrugged his shoulders and bit down again on his pipe.
- Don’t you feel as if we’re idly wasting time? – the philosopher said, likely from impatience at the continuing interruption of the party. – What are we really looking for? Nothing illegal has happened, furthermore we aren’t fixed to our friend’s story. Of course, I wouldn’t think to doubt his words, but I don’t feel anything. It’s a house like any other house, it’s not as if the devil’s horns are lurking around the corner.
At that very moment the old grandfather clock chimed midnight. The sound, deep and mysterious, echoed in the vast room and scattered throughout the entire house. It seemed to those present to be the beginning of something that was about to happen. And it happened! As the first witness, a cold wind blew in. It came in a column from nowhere, rustling over their faces like a horrible and mysterious breath. Just then the confident philosopher trembled, sensing that despite all extenuating circumstances, in him awoke a savage, bestial fear. The others obviously felt the same, for the mathematician suddenly turned pale, and the investigator shifted uneasily in his chair.
- I don’t know about the heat transfer, - the host said softly, - but judging by your face, professor, the facts I related to you have become fixed. Furthermore, it’s not any less real, is it?
- Certainly, - the investigator answered in his place. – Being self-critical, if I’m even able to control my legs with difficulty, it is indeed. Brr...
His remark relieved the tension slightly, but the feeling of fear didn’t disappear at all. Like an evil lurker it only hid itself somewhere down deep, making its presence known with a gloomy depression.
- But if it is something real, then it must also have a real explanation. – the philosopher mentioned, suddenly wiping his damp forehead with a handkerchief. – That which we just now... relished in, is surely a consequence. That means that there must also be a cause. The motive for fear is always related to something real – whether it be a dog broken loose from his chain, or heights. The dog on its own can’t endanger anyone, and yet... Hmm. – The professor’s glance once again became completely void of expression.
- There could be a small grain of truth hidden here, - the detective agreed. – Perhaps some past occurrence still exerts its influence on this house? In that case it could be related to the previous owner, for, when your uncle moved in, hadn’t this phenomenon already been here?
- Maybe it’s the effects of your intellectual theories of mathematics, but all the same it seems to me that these figures, - he raised the map of the property, - are related to the solution to this mystery. Hang on, I forgot to call my wife! – The detective rose. – Wolfgang Bergs – now this name definitely seems familiar to me. Fine. You examine the key, theorize what can be discovered from it all, and I’m going to make a call. I believe I saw a telephone in the corridor?
The investigator returned after a long while.
- Did you get a fright? – The philosopher suddenly smiled.
- No. The wife was understanding. I was gone so long because I was on the phone for some time with the old archive office drudge. A man long ago pensioner-aged, but his mind still works like a Swiss clock. I’ve known him since the service militia. If that is our Wolfgang Bergs, then your uncle got the property from a complete scoundrel. The old archivist remembered something from before the war, about which I’d also heard of in my time. It happened soon after Hitler’s instigated “kristallnacht”. Many Jews gathered their belongings and got out of Germany in a hurry. Bergs – ship owner, boat captain, and contrabandist all in one, taking advantage of the situation, was overqualified for a lucrative business – the transportation of illegal emigrants to Sweden. In the end, he helped the family of the wealthy Berlin jeweler Blumenfeld escape, but the ship never reached its intended coast. Precisely at midnight it exploded somewhere near Gdansk. Everyone was asleep at the time of the accident, so it was clear how everything must end. Fortunately, however, at that moment a Norwegian oyster trawler was going past. It took command of the wrecked ship and its passengers. It turned out that in the midst of the rescue, the captain wasn’t there. And then as it transpired, Blumenfeld’s diamond collection was lost, along with all of his money. It became clear that the scoundrel had first robbed the passengers, and then, to cover his tracks, had blown up the ship. The intent was well thought out – late November, icy water, midnight, an explosion. Afterwards all that was left was to become legal and start life in a new place – only as a millionaire. I think that something is becoming clear. And how are you coming along? – he asked the host.
- I’m getting the same feeling. – The mathematician unfolded the floor plan and beat at a room in the basement with his finger. – In my mind, the figures could refer to this place.
- Why there in particular?
- If we’re considering the talk to be of a hideaway, then like I said, my uncle changed all of the floors during the capital renovations. Only what was in the basement remained intact. Concrete. Secondly, I was reminded of this point here in the corner of the room. You see? X and y marked mathematically as coordinates on an axis. Consequently, if it’s the starting point of the coordinates, as I think it is, and the walls – are the axis, then the place is obvious.
- Could Blumfeld’s treasure really be hidden in the basement? – the philosopher perked up.
- I’m not looking for treasure, professor. I’m looking for the solution to the phenomenon of this house. By the way, it’s not out of the question that they are one and the same.
- Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go enjoy! – the investigator exclaimed. – Who knows, perhaps along with the title of the house you’ve become a millionaire. Lead the way! – He thrust the old key into a pocket and, taking up the documents, followed the landlord.
For a moment the hustle and bustle subdued the feeling of fear, but as they climbed down the stairs, it grew stronger with each step, and when they reached the place they were looking for, it became completely unbearable.
- Oof, - the mathematician exhaled, turning on the electricity. – Just like the child’s game – hot and cold. I think that we’ve gotten completely hot.
A large space with low ceilings and a concrete floor appeared in the dim light of the ceiling light bulb. A line of empty, dusty bottles stood in the corner like soldiers in a row. Having obviously already considered a plan of action, the host acted certainly and methodically. First, with the help of a measuring tape he’d brought along, he laid out the length of the axis on the walls. Then he drew out the perpendicular to the center of the room and, arriving at an intersection, briefly declared:
Although the floor appeared even, the investigator’s trained eye noticed the tiniest of gaps. Thrusting the edge of his pocket knife into one of these, he pressed, and suddenly, a small square popped out of the ground, like a piece of a mosaic. In the recess beneath a keyhole appeared! The lock squeaked, and in the next moment a section of the floor stirred. So easily, at that – as if made not of concrete, but of cardboard. Obviously the basis for the mechanism was some sort of simple principle of balance. The thick slab turned, and a sizable pit appeared before those present. The philosopher, staring, recoiled with a suppressed cry – from below, empty black eye sockets were staring at them ... a corpse!
- And here he is – your phenomenon! - the detective murmured.
There was nothing else in the hideaway, only an empty, smashed wooden box lying in the corner, but from the half-decomposed clothes, the investigator extracted a sailor’s dagger. Engraved in German on the still glittering blade were the words – “From the crew!”
A week had passed since the dreadful discovery in the mathematician’s home, when the trio came together again for a card party.
- And again you played the wrong card! – the philosopher angrily burbled, and the investigator bent his head in admission of guilt.
-Something’s caught... Perhaps a measure would help? – He addressed the host hopefully.
- Let’s move to the fireplace! – He nodded understandingly, and after a moment they all sat comfortably before the crackling fire once again.
- So then, was the phenomenon cast out of the house along with the body? – the professor asked. – Or should I say – what wasthat?
- A curse, - the mathematician answered seriously. – The curse of the ship’s crew on a traitor. The engraving on the dagger bears witness to an oath of vengeance. The curse was what marred the atmosphere in the house, what imbued it with fear. The curse was able to eat away at body and spirit. I’ve grown interested in it. Lucky for us we didn’t find the treasure! It’s clear that he kept it in the hideaway, probably in that very wooden box that rests there.
- Yes, - agreed the detective, - it was indeed lucky. No matter how strange it might be, an inanimate object was subject to the influence of the curse just the same. Your uncle wasn’t forced to make capital renovations in vain. In my opinion, Bergs sold the home for such a cheap price because he’d discovered the sinister horrors. He wanted to run, but didn’t manage to. Brr... I’m imagining myself in your uncle’s place. To live for so many years under the same roof as...
- There’s one thing that isn’t clear to me – why did this person legalize himself in Vilnius under his real name? – the philosopher asked.
- I think that he simply didn’t know that his diabolical plan would fall through and that a witness would remain alive, - the host answered, lighting his pipe. – But, when he found out, it was already too late. Did you find out anything about Bergs’ life here? – he said, addressing the detective.
- Miserly to everyone. In reality, he was known at the time in Vilnius not as a businessman, but as a philanthropist!
- What? – the listeners cried in once voice.
- Indeed. Donating legal fees to the poor, building orphanages, etcetera. Judging by all that, he must’ve regretted his actions.
- Astonishing! But... what indeed doesn’t happen in this world! Unfortunately, one can’t subtract his good deeds from the curse, even in intellectual mathematics.
- Pardon me, but I disagree! – the philosopher interrupted. – For example, add plus two to minus three and you get minus one. That means that by adding good to the evil, it diminishes!
The host shook his head, blew out a dense puff of smoke, and placing the pipe in the ashtray, answered:
- The actual deed is different. Hidden. Although there’s no difference in the result, the correct notation is this: minus three minus minus two. From the total evil you must take away a fraction, only then does it diminish. A person isn’t capable of atonement himself. Intellectual surgery is not in his realm.
- But then, what is?
© Jānis Ivars Stradiņš. All Rights Reserved 2005.
Jānis Ivars Stradiņš
Latvian author Janis Ivars Stradins was born in 1943. After graduating secondary school the author did his military service in the Soviet army...
2005. Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania. All rights reserved e-solution: gaumina