1. POSTERS WERE HUNG.
The houses and streets held an ordinary appearance. The sky, with its age-old monotony, glimmered blue over all, just as it did every day. The gray masks on the roadway stones were, as always, impenetrable and indifferent, while half-mad people--tears streaming down their faces into buckets of paste-- were hanging these posters.
The text was simple, merciless, and inescapable:
"To all without exception:
"Verification of the all city residents' right to life is being undertaken on a district-by-district basis by a special commission composed of three members of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution. Medical and emotional evaluations are being undertaken as well. Residents determined to be unnecessary for life shall be required to depart said life within the course of 24 hours. During this time, appeals are permitted. Written appeals shall be delivered to the Presidium of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution. A reply shall be made within three hours. In cases of useless people who are unable to leave life--either because of a weakness of will or as the result of a love for life--the decisions of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution shall be enforced by their friends, neighbors, or special armed detachments.
"Notes: 1. City residents are required to submit with total obedience to the actions and decrees of the members of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution. They must give completely truthful answers to all questions. A report and character description shall be completed on every unnecessary person.
"2. This decree shall be enforced with unwavering firmness. Human rubbish hindering the transformation of life on the basis of justice and happiness must be exterminated without pity. This decree applies to all citizens without exception--men, women, the rich and the poor.
"3. Departure from the city during the process of the verification of the right to life is unconditionally prohibited."
2. FIRST WAVES OF ALARM
"Did you read it?!"
"Did you read it?!"
"Did you read it?!"
"Did you read it?!"
"Did you see it?! Did you hear?!"
"You read it?!"
Crowds began to gather in many parts of the city. Traffic was brought to a standstill. Pedestrians, struck with a sudden weakness, were leaning against building walls. Many were crying. Some fainted. By evening there was a great number of them.
"Did you read it? What a horror! It's unheard of, terrifying."
"But we elected the Collegium of Supreme Resolution ourselves. We gave it absolute authority ourselves."
"Yes, that's true."
"We ourselves are to blame for this monstrous blunder."
"Yes, that's true. We're to blame. But we just wanted to make a better life. Who knew that the Collegium would resort to such a simple and horrifying approach to the question?!"
"Oh, but what names have been enrolled in the Collegium! Ah, what names!"
"How do you know? Have they published a list of the Collegium members?"
"A friend told me. Ak has been elected chairman!"
"Oh! What did you says? Ak? Oh, what luck!"
"Yes. Yes. It's a fact."
"What luck! He's such a good person!
"Oh, of course. We don't have to worry. Only the true human trash will be leaving this life. Injustice will have no place."
"Tell me please, dear citizen, do you think I will be left among the living? I'm a very good person. Once, during a shipwreck, twenty persons were clinging to a single lifeboat. But the boat couldn't support the excess weight, and doom threatened everyone aboard. To save fifteen, five people had to be thrown overboard. I was one of these five. I threw myself over voluntarily. Don't look at me like you don't believe me. Now I'm old and weak. But then I was young and courageous. Don't tell me you never heard about it. They wrote about it in all the newspapers. Four of my comrades died. I survived only by sheer luck. What do you think, will I be left among the living?
"And me, citizen? What about me? I gave all my property and capital to the poor. It was a long time ago. I have documents to prove it."
"I don't really know. It all depends on the point of view and goals of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution."
"Allow me to inform you, respected citizens, that a primitive usefulness to those close to you does not justify a person's existence on the planet. If that were the case, any dim-witted nanny would have the right to exist. That's old-fashioned. You've really fallen behind the times!"
"In what does a person's value lie?"
"What is the value of a person?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, you don't know! Then why are you sticking your nose in with explanations if you don't know?"
"Excuse me. I'm explaining as best I can."
"Citizens! Citizens! Look! People are running! What a commotion! What a panic!"
"Oh, my heart, my heart. A-a-a...Save me! Save me!"
"Don't make the panic worse!"
Crowds were running through the streets. Red-cheeked young men with unrestrained horror on their faces were running. Modest office workers and establishment employees. Bridegrooms with clean white cuffs. Singers from amateur choral clubs. Fops. Tellers of anecdotes. Billiards players. Night-time habitués of the cinema. Careerists and con men with white foreheads and curly hair. Sweaty, good-natured profligates. Devilish drunkards. Friendly fellows, hooligans, pretty-boys, dreamers, lovers, bicyclists. Broad-shouldered brawlers with nothing to do, blabber-mouths, deceivers, long-haired hypocrites, melancholy nothings with sad black eyes behind whose sadness lies cold emptiness covered with youth. Young skinflints with full smiling lips, aimless adventurers, grafters, trouble-makers, good-natured failures, clever evil-doers.
Fat women were running--big eaters, lazy. Skinny shrews, demanding and nagging, boring females, wives of fools and geniuses, gossips, unfaithful women, envious and greedy, all now identically disfigured with terror. Proud fools, good-natured nothings, those who dyed their hair out of boredom, indifferent libertines, alone, helpless, impudent, begging, pleading, having lost the external elegance of their form because of horror.
Clumsy old men were running, fat men, those of stunted growth, the tall, the handsome, the deformed.
House managers, pawn-shop owners, iron traders, carpenters, craftsmen, jailers, grocers, courteous public-home landlords, gray-haired, portly lackeys, respected fathers of families surrounded with deceit and vulgarity, venerable card-sharps and stout scoundrels.
They were running headlong in a firm, tightly packed mass. Their bodies and extremities were wrapped in pounds of rags. Hot steam was billowing from their mouths. Cursing and wailing filled the concealed indifference of the buildings from which they were running.
Many were running with their possessions. In their crooked fingers they were dragging pillows, boxes, chests. They were clutching their valuables, children, money. They were shouting, running back, throwing their arms into the air in horror, then running off again.
But they came back. All of them. People just like them were shooting at them, running at them, beating them with sticks, fists, stones, biting them and shouting terrifying shouts. The crowds surged backwards, leaving behind the dead and wounded.
By evening, the city resumed its ordinary appearance. The quivering bodies of people returned to their apartments and hurled themselves on their beds. A brief, sharp hope beat desperately in their narrow, heated skulls.
4. THE PROCEDURE WAS SIMPLE
"I make cigarettes."
"Tell the truth!"
"I am telling the truth. I've been working honestly for fourteen years to support my family."
"Where is your family?"
"Right here. This is my wife. And this is my son."
"Doctor, examine the Boss family."
"Mr. Boss is anemic. His general condition, average. The wife suffers from headaches and rheumatism. The boy is healthy."
"Fine. You may go, Doctor. Citizen Boss, what do you enjoy? What do you love?"
"I love people, and, in general, life."
"Be more precise, Mr. Boss. We don't have much time."
"Love? What do I love? I love my son... He plays the violin very well... I love to eat, but I'm not a glutton... I love women... It's nice to watch beautiful women and girls walking down the street... I love to rest in the evening when I'm tired... I love to make cigarettes... I can make 500 in an hour... There's a lot more that I love... I love life..."
"Calm down, citizen Boss. Stop crying. Your opinion, psychologist?"
"It's nonsense, my colleague. Rubbish. The most ordinary creature. A semi-phlegmatic, semi-sanguine temperament. Level of activity is feeble. Lowest class. No hope of improvement. Passivity, 75%. Madam Boss rates even lower. The boy is very common, but maybe... How old is your son, citizen Boss? Stop crying."
"Don't get upset. Your son will stay for now. A deferral for five years. As for you... However, that's not my job. Decide, colleague."
"In the name of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution, in keeping with the goal of purging life of any superfluous human rubbish and indifferent creatures who are slowing our progress, I order you, citizen Boss, and your wife to depart life within 24 hours. Call the guards. They obviously won't be able to do it without the guards' help."
5. DESCRIPTIONS OF THE UNNECESSARY KEPT IN THE GRAY CABINET
The Gray Cabinet stood in a corridor of the main directorate of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution. It had an ordinary, respectable, thoughtfully foolish appearance, like all cabinets. In neither width nor height did it measure more than six feet, but it was the grave of tens of thousands of lives. Two short inscriptions stood out vividly on it: "Catalog of the Unnecessary" and "Descriptions-Protocols".
There were many sections in the catalog, including: "Receptive to Impressions, but Unable to Analyze", "Small-Minded Followers", "Passive", "Without Center", and so on.
The descriptions were short and objective. But sharp expressions occasionally leapt out, and when they did, the red pencil of Collegium Chairman Ak invariably appeared on the reverse of the file, noting that it was inappropriate to curse the unnecessary.
Here are a few descriptions:
Unnecessary Male No. 14741.
Average health. Visits acquaintances even though he is neither necessary nor interesting to them. Gives advice. In the flower of his strength, he seduced some girl, then abandoned her. He considers the most significant event in his life to be the acquisition of furniture for his apartment following his marriage. His brain is soft, flabby. He has no capacity for work. When asked to describe the most interesting thing he knows about life or that he has ever seen, he described the restaurant Quissiana in Paris. An extraordinarily simple creature. The lowest order of philistines. A feeble heart. --Within 24 hours.
Unnecessary Male No. 14623.
Works in a copper's shop. Class, middle. Has no love for work. In all things his thought moves along the line of least resistance. He is physically healthy but is spiritually sick with an illness common to the most simple of people: he is afraid of life. He is afraid of freedom. On holidays, when he is free, he stupefies himself with alcohol. During the revolution he demonstrated some energy: he wore a red ribbon and stocked up on potatoes and everything else he could find. He was afraid of running out. He was proud of his working-class origins. He took no active part in the revolution--he was afraid. He loves sour cream. Beats his children. The tempo of his life is unvaryingly doleful. --Within 24 hours.
Unnecessary Male No. 15201.
He knows eight languages, but what he says is boring even in a single language. He loves ingenious cufflinks and cigarette lighters. Very self-confident. This self-confidence derives from his knowledge of languages. Demands respect. Gossips. To life--real life--he is as indifferent as an ox. He is afraid of poor people. He is sweet in his treatment of other people, out of cowardice. Loves to kill flies and other insects. Experiences joy rarely. --Within 24 hours.
Unnecessary Female No. 4356.
Screams at her maid out of boredom. Secretly skims off the cream from the milk and the top layer of fat from the bouillon. Reads cheap novels. Lies around for days at a time on the couch. Her most profound dream: to sew a dress with yellow sleeves and protruding sides. A talented inventor was in love with her for twelve years. She had no idea what he did and thought he was an electrician. She left him and married a leather trader. She has no children. Is often capricious for no reason and cries. She wakes up during the night, orders that the samovar be set up so that she can drink tea and eat. Unnecessary creature. --Within 24 hours.
6. AT WORK
A crowd of specialists rose up around Ak and the Collegium of Supreme Resolution. There were doctors, psychologists, observers, and writers. They all worked extraordinarily fast. There were times when they consigned to the next work a good one hundred people in a single hour. And into the Gray Cabinet flew a hundred character descriptions, in which precision of expression vied with the unlimited self-assurance of the authors.
Work was in full swing from morning to night at the main directorate. Apartment commissions came and went, detachments of sentence executors came and went, and, as in a large editorial office, dozens of people were sitting at desks and writing with quick, firm, unthinking hands.
Ak gazed on all of this with narrow, firm, impenetrable eyes and pondered the thoughts which were his alone. From these thoughts his body grew hunched and his large, wild, and stubborn head grew gray.
Something rose up between him and his subordinates; as if something were standing between his tense, sleepless thoughts and the blind, unthinking hands of the executors.
One day, the members of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution entered the directorate, intending to deliver their regular report to Ak.
Ak was not in his accustomed place. They looked for him, but could not find him. They sent messengers, made phone calls, but still could not find him.
Only after two hours did they accidentally discover him in the Gray Cabinet.
Ak was sitting in the Cabinet on the burial papers of the dead and was thinking with an intensity unusual even for him.
"What are you doing there?" they asked Ak.
"As you can see, I'm thinking," Ak answered wearily.
"But why in the Cabinet?"
"This is the most appropriate place. I'm thinking about people, and thinking about people can be done fruitfully directly on top of their extermination decrees. Only by sitting on the documents concerning a person's extermination can you study his extraordinarily strange life."
Someone laughed shallowly and brazenly.
"Don't you laugh," Ak warned, gesturing with someone's file. "Don't laugh. It seems that the Collegium of Supreme Resolution is going through a crisis. A study of the people who have perished has led me to a search for new ways to achieve progress. You have all learned to quickly and maliciously prove how this or that person is unnecessary. Even the least gifted among you can convincingly show this in a few sentences. And here I sit thinking, is our path the correct one?"
Ak again fell into thought, then he sighed bitterly and quietly pronounced:
"What to do? How do we get out of this? When you study living people, you come to the conclusion that three-quarters of them must be eliminated. But when you study those who have been eliminated, you don't know, maybe you should have loved and pitied them. And there, in my opinion, is the blind alley in the human question, the blind alley in human history."
Ak mournfully fell silent and immersed himself in the mountain of character descriptions of the deceased, painfully trying to grasp the meaning of their official, terrible terseness.
The members of the Collegium departed. No one made objection. First of all, because it was pointless to contradict Ak. And secondly, because they did not dare to contradict him. But they all felt that a new decision was ripening, and almost all of them were dissatisfied. An established business--clear and precise--was, apparently, going to be changed for another. But for what?
What else would this man of troubled mind come up with, this man who held such unprecedented power over the city?
He always disappeared when he was immersed in thought. They searched for him everywhere, but could not find him. Someone said that Ak was sitting in a tree outside the city and crying. Then they said that Ak was running around in his garden on all fours and eating dirt.
The activity of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution abated. With the disappearance of Ak, something just didn't seem right in its work. Residents put iron bars on their doors and just didn't let in the members of the verification commissions. In some regions, the Collegium members' questions about the right to life were met with laughter. There were instances when unnecessary people seized members of the Collegium of Supreme Resolution, examined their right to life, and mockingly wrote out character descriptions which differed little from those stored in the Gray Cabinet.
Chaos began to spread in the city. Unnecessary, worthless people, whom authorities had not yet managed to kill, grew so bold that they appeared freely on the streets, began to visit each other, enjoy themselves, engage in all sorts of amusements, and even get married.
On the streets, people congratulated one another:
"It's over! It's over! Hurrah!"
"The examination of the right to life has ended."
"Don't you find, citizen, that life has become more pleasant? There's less human rubbish about! Even breathing has become easier."
"Have you no shame, citizen? Do you think that only those who had no right to life died? Oh! I know people who don't have the right to live for even one hour, and yet they're still alive and will go on living for years. And, on the other hand, how many of the most worthy people died! Oh, if you only knew!"
"That doesn't matter. Mistakes are inevitable. Say, do you know where Ak is?"
"No, I don't."
"Ak is sitting in a tree and crying."
"Ak is running around on all fours and eating dirt."
"Let him cry!"
"Let him eat dirt!"
"It's too soon to celebrate, citizens! Too soon! Ak is coming back this evening, and the Collegium of Supreme Resolution will resume its work."
"How do you know that?"
"I know! There's still too much human rubbish around. We still have to purge and purge and purge!"
"You're very cruel, citizen!"
"To hell with you!"
"Citizens! Citizens! Look! Look!"
"They're pasting up new posters."
"Citizens! What joy! What luck!"
9. POSTERS WERE HUNG
Panting heavily, people with buckets full of paste were running along the streets. Packets of giant, pink posters were unfurled with a joyful rustling and pasted on building walls. The text was as precise and clear as it was simple. Here it is:
"To all without exception:
"Effective with the publication of this notice, all citizens of the town are permitted to live. Live and be fruitful, fill up the earth. The Collegium of Supreme Resolution has fulfilled its stern responsibilities and has been renamed the Collegium of Supreme Delicacy. You are all beautiful, citizens, and your right to life is indisputable.
"The Collegium of Supreme Delicacy imposes a responsibility upon special commissions, comprised of three members each, to visit apartments on a daily basis for the purpose of congratulating residents on the fact of their existence and to record their observations in special "Joyful Protocols".
The members of the commission have the right to question citizens on how they are doing, and the citizens may, if they so desire, answer in great detail. The latter is desirable. Joyful observations shall be preserved in the Pink Cabinet for future generations."
10. LIFE RETURNS TO NORMAL
Doors, windows, and balconies flew open. Loud human voices, laughter, singing and music poured out of them and down onto the streets. Fat, untalented girls took piano lessons. From morning till night, gramophones growled out. Violins, clarinets, and guitars also played. In the evening, men took off their jackets, sat on balconies, stretched out their legs, and hiccupped in satisfaction. Young men and ladies raced around in carriages and automobiles. No one was afraid to be on the streets. Pies and cold drinks were sold in candy and sweet shops. Fancy-good shops did a brisk business in mirrors. People were buying mirrors and gazing at their reflections with pleasure. Artists and photographers were hired to do portraits. Portraits in frames decorated apartment walls. Such portraits even led to a murder, which was much written about in the press. A young man, renting a room in an apartment, demanded that portraits of the apartment owners' parents be removed. The owners were insulted and killed the young man, tossing him out of a fifth-story window.
In general, a feeling of self-worth and of self-love developed. All sorts of conflicts and squabbles became common. In such cases, along with the typical cursing, combatants harried each other with trite dialogue such as:
"You, apparently, were left alive by mistake. It's obvious that the Collegium of Supreme Resolution didn't do its job very well."
"Not very well at all if someone like you is still alive." But, in general, the squabbles went unnoticed in the general flow of life. People improved their table, prepared jams. The demand for warm, knitted underwear increased as everyone greatly valued their health.
The members of the Collegium of Supreme Delicacy punctually visited apartments and questioned the residents as to how they were doing.
Many people responded that they were doing fine and even insisted on proving it.
"Look," they said, snorting with self-satisfaction and rubbing their hands. "We're pickling cucumbers, hee-hee.... And we have marinated herring... I weighed myself recently, and I gained half a pood, thank God..."
Others complained about inconveniences and lamented that the Collegium of Supreme Resolution did too little:
"Yesterday I was riding on the tram, and just imagine! Not a single empty seat... What an outrage! Both me and my wife had to stand! There's a lot of superfluous people still around. Pushing and shoving everywhere...the devil take them! They should've been eliminated when we had the chance....
Still others got upset:
"Look, neither on Thursday nor on Wednesday did anyone congratulate me on the fact of my existence! What impertinence! Maybe I'm supposed to go to you for congratulations, hmm?!
11. END OF THE STORY
Ak's chancellery, as before, was abuzz with work. People were sitting and writing. The Pink Cabinet was filled with joyful protocols and observations. These were detailed and thorough descriptions of birthday parties, weddings, fetes, dinners, suppers, love stories, and all sorts of adventures. Many of the protocols assumed the nature and appearance of novels and novelettes. City residents requested the Collegium of Supreme Delicacy to release them in book form; and these books were widely read.
Ak was silent.
He only grew more stooped and more gray.
Sometimes he climbed into the Pink Cabinet and sat there for extended periods, as he had done in the Gray Cabinet.
Once, Ak leapt out of the Gray Cabinet shouting:
"We must kill them! Kill! Kill! Kill!"
But seeing the white hands of his subordinates moving quickly along their papers, describing the living residents with as much gusto as they had previously used for the dead, Ak waved his hand, ran out of the chancellery--and disappeared.
He disappeared forever.
There were many legends about Ak's disappearance; various rumors swirled. But all the same, Ak could not be found.
And people, of whom there were so many in the city, whom Ak at first killed and later pitied, then still later wanted to kill again, people--among whom there are many genuine and excellent ones and much human rubbish as well--to this day they continue to live as if there had never been an Ak and no one had ever raised the great question of the right to life.
Translated by: Eric Konkol
Born in Moscow in 1891. His childhood was spent in the manufacturing town
of Lodz. Attended school in Odessa, then returned to Lodz.|
He engaged in revolutionary activities and was more than once jailed.
He worked for a while as a sign painter.
At age 18 he began writing stories, but later dropped it as an occupation not worthy of a serious mind. Of course, he then changed his mind. His first publication was in the Odessa journal Krokodil. He created both realistic and satiric works.
In Zozulya's Story of Ak and Humanity a town's citizens happily vote absolute authority to its government, which promises to make a better life. The government then uses this authority to demand that all citizens prove their right to exist. Those found to be unnecessary or a hinderance to progress are ordered to depart life within 24 hours. Naturally, panic ensues. Eventually, things return to normal and people return to their petty, unnecessary lives.
In the story The Mother, an older mother can find no place for herself with her two daughters, one unmarried and one a widow.
Efim Zozulya died in 1941.
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