Monday, February 25, 2008


Mr. Knotek awoke in his bachelor apartment at six forty-five. “I could lay here another quarter of an hour,” he thought in satisfaction, and then a thought loomed up from the previous day. It was terrifying: he had nearly thrown himself into the Vltava! He had been about to write a letter to chief clerk Polický, which the recipient certainly wouldn't be framing. ”No, Mr. Polický, to my dying day I will be upset with how you could so injure a man.” So Mr. Knotek had been sitting at that table long into the night over a blank sheet of paper, paralyzed with indignation and shame at what had happened to him in the bank. “We've never had an idiot like you here,” Mr. Polický had shouted. “You knot-head, I'll see you transferred somewhere else, but God only knows what they'll do with you, you are the least capable force of the last thousand years,” and the like. This had been in front of the other clerks and secretaries. Mr. Knotek had stood red-faced and defeated in the meanwhile, while Mr. Polický raved and tossed the unfortunate statement of accounts at his feet; he had been so overwhelmed he could not even defend himself. “Just so you know, Mr. Polický,” (he could have said) “I didn't prepare that statement, Šembera did; go wag your jaw at Šembera, Mr. Polický, and leave me in peace; I've been at this bank for seventeen years, Mr. Polický, and I've never made a mistake as big as that.” But before Mr. Knotek could say anything, Mr. Polický had slammed his doors, and an uncomfortable silence spread throughout the office. His colleague Šembera had bent over his papers so he didn't have to look him in the eyes, and then Mr. Knotek, his spirit crushed, had taken his hat and left the office. “I won't ever be back here,” he thought woodenly. “This is the end.” He wandered the streets all afternoon, he forgot to eat, and slunk home without dinner, like a thief, to write his final letter; then it would be over, but Mr. Polický would have a man's life on his hands for the rest of his life.

Mr. Knotek stared thoughtfully at the desk he had been sitting at the night before. What had he been going to write? He couldn't remember, try as he might, a single of those lofty and bitter words with which he had intended to burden Mr. Polický's soul. He was so woeful and cold at the table that he suddenly burst into tears of self-pity; then he felt so weak from hunger and sorrow that he crawled into bed had slept like the dead. “I should write the letter now,” Mr. Knotek thought in bed, but he was so warm and snug. “I'll just wait a while,” he thought, “and then I'll write it; a thing like this must be carefully considered.”

Mr. Knotek pulled the covers up to his chin. “What do I write? First off I should say it was Šembera who prepared the statement. But that won't do—” Mr. Knotek recoiled from that thought. “Šembera is a fool, but he has three children and a wife who is sometimes sick; it has scarcely been six weeks since he got a position at the bank--such an employee would go right out the door! ‘There is nothing to be done, Šembera,’ Mr. Polický would say, ‘but we can't have people like you in our bank.’ “But I should at least write that it wasn't me who prepared the account,” Mr. Knotek thought, “but then Polický might investigate who it was who had, and Šembera would still lose his job. Then I'd have the poor man on my conscience,” Mr. Knotek thought pityingly. “I've got to spare Šembera from it somehow. I'll just write Mr. Polický that he has done me wrong and will have me on his conscience—”

Mr. Knotek sat up in bed. “Someone should watch out for that Šembera. I should say: ‘Look, you're my co-worker, it has to be done this way, I'd rather help you—’ But I won't be there any more, that's the thing, and that louse Šembera will lose his job as soon as it comes out. That's a stupid situation,” Mr. Knotek thought, clasping himself around the knees, “I really should stay on--And forgive Mr. Polický for being so cruel to me? -- Yes, forgive Mr. Polický for being so cruel to me. And why not? He may be a hothead but he doesn't actually think that, and in a while he won't even remember why he got upset.” Mr. Knotek found, to his surprise, that he didn't really feel that injured; he felt level-headed, almost pleasant. “I'll forgive Mr. Polický,” he whispered to himself, “and I'll show that Šembera how it's supposed to be done.”

Quarter to eight. Mr. Knotek jumped out of bed and tore to the sink. There wasn't time to shave any more, just to throw some clothes on and run. Mr. Knotek ran down the stairs, unusually light and full of vim, probably because he had it all straightened out for himself. He ran, his hat in his hand and so joyful he almost burst into song. Now he had to get his coffee in the coffeeshop, grab a glance at the newspapers, and he would go to the bank, as if nothing had—

Mr. Knotek reached for his head. Why were people staring so? Maybe he had something on his hat. No, his hat was in his hand. A taxi was going down the street; suddenly, the driver started staring at Mr. Knotek to such an extent that it was a marvel he wasn't driving on the sidewalk. Mr. Knotek shook his head somewhat reproachfully, to indicate that he did not need a taxi. It seemed as though people were stopping and staring after him, so he fumbled about to see if all his buttons were fastened and if he had his tie on. No, praise God, everything was in order, and Mr. Knotek entered his coffeeshop with a clear mind.

The busboy gaped at him.

“Coffee and a paper,” Mr. Knotek ordered, and made himself comfortable at his table. The waiter brought him coffee and stared in surprise over the top of Mr. Knotek's bald head. Several heads popped out of the kitchen doors, looking in surprise at Mr. Knotek.

Mr. Knotek grew uneasy. “What is it?”

The waiter coughed in embarrassment. “Sir, there may be something on your head.”

Mr. Knotek again reached for his head: nothing. It was dry and smooth like always. “What's on my head?” he sputtered.

“It looks like a glow,” the waiter gulped in hesitation. “I keep looking at it—”

Mr. Knotek frowned: clearly they were making fun of his baldness. “Mind your own business,” he said sharply and started his coffee. To be sure, he discreetly looked around and found his reflection in the mirror; he caught sight of his bald head and, around it, something like a golden ring. Mr. Knotek stood up suddenly and went closer to the mirror. The golden ring went with him. Mr. Knotek reached up with both hands, but he could not grasp a thing, his hands going right through the luminous ring—it was entirely intangible, leaving a weak, fine glow on his fingers.

“Where did the gentleman get this?” the witness asked with a compassionate interest.

“I don't know,” Mr. Knotek said helplessly, and suddenly took fright. He couldn't go to the bank like this! What would Mr. Polický say! “Mr. Knotek,” he would say, “leave such things at home; we cannot suffer such things at the bank.” “What can I do?” Mr. Knotek thought in horror. “I can't take it off and I can't hide it under my hat; if I could just get home—” “Please,” he said quickly, “do you have an umbrella here? I'd like to hide it under an umbrella.”

A man running through the streets under an open umbrella on a sunny day is certainly somewhat striking, but not as conspicuous as a man walking down the street with a halo around his head. Mr. Knotek made it home without any incident, until he met the neighbor's maid on the stairs, who greeted him, shrieked in fright and dropped her shopping bag; his nimbus shone especially bright on the darkened stairs. Mr. Knotek locked himself in his apartment and ran to the mirror. Yes, it was around his head, larger than a cymbal, about forty candlepower in brightness; it could not be extinguished even with water from the tap. No movement could disrupt it in any way. “How do I explain this one at the bank?” Mr. Knotek wondered hopelessly, “I have to call in, I can't go in like this.” So he ran to the landlady and shouted through a crack in the door: “Please call the bank and tell them I cannot come in today. I am very sick.” Fortunately no one saw him in the hallway. He locked himself in again at home and tried to eat something, but every few minutes, he got up and went to the mirror. The golden ring about his head shone serenely and clearly.

He started to feel very hungry in the afternoon, but he could not go to the pub for lunch like that. He couldn't even stand to read; he sat motionless, telling himself: “This is the end. I'll never be able to go out among people again. I might as well drown myself.”

Someone rang.

“Who is it?” Mr. Knotek sputtered.

“Doctor Vaňášek. The bank sent me. Would you let me in?”

Mr. Knotek sighed in great relief. Perhaps the doctor could help him, and Dr. Vaňášek was such a wise old practitioner—

“So what do we have?” The old doctor came within the doorway. “What hurts?”

“Have a look at what has happened to me,” sighed Mr. Knotek.


“Here, around my head.”

“My, oh my,” the doctor blinked, and started to examine it. “I must be crazy,” he grumbled. “Where did you get this golden thing, sir?”

“What is it?” Mr. Knotek asked anxiously.

“It looks like a halo,” the old doctor said, as seriously as if he had said “halitosis.” “I've never seen such a thing in my life, my good man. Wait a moment while I examine your patellar reflex— Hmm, and your pupils react normally. And your parents were healthy, my friend? Yes? No religious ecstasies, or something like that? Nothing?” Dr. Vaňášek straightened his glasses studiously. “Listen, this is an unusual case. I'd like to send you to a neurologist, so that they can study this scientifically. They write about electric currents in the brain these days—the devil only knows, perhaps it's some sort of electric radiation. The smell of ozone is strong here. My good sir, this will be quite the scientific triumph!”

“Please, not that,” Mr. Knotek managed gloomily. “They might not like it at the bank if they saw me written up in the newspapers. Please, doctor, couldn't you help me somehow?”

Dr. Vaňášek reconsidered. “It's a difficult business, young man. I could prescribe you a bromide, but—well, I don't know. Listen, as a doctor, I don't believe in these supernatural events. It's probably just something with your nervous system, but—listen, Mr. Knotek, you haven't by chance done anything, how do I put this, holy?”

“Holy? How?”

“Well, something extraordinary. Some virtuous deed or something.”

“I don't know anything about that, doctor,” Mr. Knotek swallowed. “Well, I haven't eaten anything all day.”

“Maybe it will pass after you eat,” the old doctor grumbled. “I will tell the bank you have the flu. Listen, in your place, I would try to blaspheme a little bit.”


“Yes. Or sin in some way. It can't hurt you, and it's worth trying. Maybe it will go away of its own accord. Well, I'll have a look at you in the morning.”

Mr. Knotek stayed by himself and tried to blaspheme, standing before the mirror. Perhaps he didn't have much of an aptitude for blasphemy or something; the luminous ring about his head did not even waver. Nothing blasphemous occurred to Mr. Knotek at all, so he stuck his tongue out at himself in the mirror and sat down, defeated. He was hungry, and he was so exhausted he almost burst into tears. “Nothing can help me any more,” he thought. “And it's all because I forgave that rat Polický. As though it were my fault: he is a brute of a man, and a careerist as well; something isn't right with him. It's well known he doesn't even open his mouth at the ladies at the bank. I would like to know, Mr. Polický, why you always need dictation from that one red-haired secretary. Not that I would think there was anything going on, Mr. Polický; such an old man as you wouldn't need that any more. It might strike someone as serious, though, Mr. Polický, such a young girl: it must be about money. Then another one of the clerks or the director takes a look at the accounts, and the bank heads for scandal. That's how it goes, Mr. Polický, and how else are we supposed to see it? Someone should tell the proper authorities, so they can warn him. Just ask her where she gets the money for her lipstick and her silk stockings—is that at all appropriate, silk stockings in a bank? Do I wear silk stockings? It's well known that such a young woman only works for a bank to catch an important man; then they just sit there putting makeup on instead of doing their work.” “They are all the same,” Mr. Knotek thought bitterly. “If I were chief clerk, I would turn that right around.”

Or that Šembera," Mr. Knotek thought. "He got his job out of nepotism, and he can't even figure out two plus two. Oh, I'll help you out, just wait and see! Such a nothing who just had to have children. I myself cannot afford a wife or children; how far would I get on my salary? A bank ought not to take such frivolous people into its employ. And if your wife is ailing, Mr. Šembera—well, it's easy to see why. She had to get help; it would make anyone sick to worry about their husband being sent to jail. No, no, and another thing, I won't cover for you anymore when you make mistakes; let every man fend for himself. The bank's not there to help people out. They could ask me: 'Mr. Knotek, do you know what your responsibility is?' 'To watch out for every mistake and not to conceal them.' 'That could spoil your career, Mr. Knotek; mind your own business and keep your nose clean.' 'One who would do otherwise deserves no false compassion. Do chief clerk Polický or the general director have any compassion? Do you understand, Mr. Knotek?'"

Mr. Knotek was reeling in hunger and faintness. “God, if only I could go out!” Full of self-pity, he stood and went to look in the mirror. He only saw a morose human face in it, and nothing else around it. There was not even a trace of a glow. Mr. Knotek almost touched his nose to the glass, but he saw nothing; instead of a golden ring, he could only see the gloom and solitude of his disordered room.

Mr. Knotek sighed, greatly relieved. So he could go back to the bank the next day!

LN, 24 April 1938

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