For a while now, Fedya had been eyeing the butter dish and finally, seizing the moment when his wife bent down to trim a toenail, quickly, in one motion scooped the butter out of the dish with his finger and stuck it in his mouth. Closing the butter dish, Fedya accidentally tinkled the lid. The wife immediately straightened herself and, seeing the butter dish empty, pointed at it with the scissors and said in a stern voice:
– There’s no butter in the dish. Where is it?
Fedya, his eyes bulging with an expression of surprise, stretching his neck out, peered into the dish.
– That’s butter in your mouth – the wife said, pointing with the scissors at Fedya.
Fedya began wagging his head back and forth in denial.
– Yes it is, – said the wife. – You are saying nothing and wagging your head because your mouth is stuffed with butter.
Fedya, his eyes bugging even farther out, started waving his arms in his wife’s direction, as though saying: “What do you mean, what do you mean? Nothing of the sort!” But the wife said:
– You’re lying. Open your mouth.
– Mm, – said Fedya.
– Open your mouth, – the wife repeated.
– Fedya, raising his hand up and spreading its fingers wide open, began to moo, as though saying: “Ah, yes, I entirely forgot. I’ll be right back,” and got up, preparing to leave.
– Stop, the wife yelled.
But Fedya quickened his pace and disappeared behind the door. The wife flung herself after him but stopped at the door because, being naked, she could not in such a state go out in the corridor, which was used by the other residents of the communal apartment.
– He’s gone, – the wife said, sitting down on the sofa. – What the . . . !
Fedya, having walked the length of the corridor to a door on which hung a sign, “Entrance categorically forbidden,” opened the door and entered the room.
The room Fedya entered was narrow and long, its only window covered with the pages of a newspaper. In the room, to the right, by the wall, stood a broken-down, dirty old couch, and by the window, a table consisting of a board placed on the night table at one end, the other end resting on the back of a chair. On the wall to the left hung a double shelf, on which lay an indeterminate something. There was nothing else in the room, if you didn’t count the man with the pale-green complexion lying on the couch, dressed in a long, torn, brown morning coat and black flannel pants from which recently-washed bare feet stuck out. The man was not at all sleeping, but rather intently watching the newly arrived.
Fedya bowed, shuffled his feet and, having removed the butter from his mouth with his finger, showed it to the prostrate man.
– One fifty, – said the master of the room, without changing his position.
– That’s not enough, – said Fedya.
– It’ll have to do, – the master of the room said.
– Alright then, – Fedya said and, sliding the butter off his finger, smeared it onto the shelf.
– Come for the money tomorrow morning, – the master said.
– Please, no! – Fedya exclaimed, – I need it now. It’s only a ruble and a half….
– Get lost, – the master said tersely, and Fedya ran out of the room on tiptoes, carefully shutting the door behind him.
February 10, 1939
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale
DANIIL KHARMS (1905-1942), along with Alexander Vvedensky, co-founded the OBERIU, the so-called Russian Absurdist group of poets during the 1920s and 30s. Kharms was not allowed to publish his work and survived for a time by writing poems for children. Having feigned insanity to avoid arrest and deportation to the Gulag, he starved to death in a psychiatric hospital in 1942, during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.
ALEX CIGALE has had his poems appear in Colorado, Green Mountains, North American, Tampa, Tar River Poetry, and The Literary Reviews, and online in Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Ancora Imparo, Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, The Manhattan, St. Ann‘s, and Washington Square Reviews. Other Kharms translations by Alex Cigale have appeared in PEN America and Gargoyle, and online in Eleven Eleven (California College of the Arts), Numero Cinq, Offcourse (SUNY Albany,) and Mayday Magazine.