(translated by Patrick Bumfzek)
He either fainted or fell asleep – it was hard to say which. In any case it was now dark outside and Gregory was feeling relatively well-rested. His side was a little sore, but the injury suffered from his knock against the skirting board did not seem to be serious. Though it will not heal as easily as a human’s, he thought, a paper bruise can not hurt as much. But it was whilst casting his mind over this idea that he realised that he was not in exactly the same position he had been prior to the accident. Not only was he standing up straight again, but he was a foot or so further over, directly opposite the window. And, once again, he had liquid in his body: two inches of lukewarm water, the effect of which was undeniably pleasing. It reassured him without his having any idea of what he was being assured of in the first place. It was good, because it felt good. For want of acknowledged certainties, Gregory was in his transformed state indebted to gut reactions. There were no other foundations on which to construct fresh strategies.
His room being without curtains, and his current position being in line with the window, Gregory was presently partially bathed in the orange light of a street lamp. This light threw itself upon a portion of the floor and of the wall, interrupted at intervals by loose black lines: the fuzzy shadows of the dying tree’s outer branches. For there was no better position in the bedroom from which to see the tree than here where Gregory stood. And at this time in the day it looked nobler than anyone could have imagined it. The details of its malady were lost in the poor light. It existed as a silhouette; as a proud form standing still and silent in front of that unhappy orange light. Gregory had never understood why it was that street lights were orange. The idea was not objectionable, not as an idea, but in reality there was a cheapness to it, a mysterious tawdriness not unlike the mild unpleasantness of the cold tea. If you ever saw a man standing under such a street light, you would understand the objections – for the lamps brought out the worst in a man’s skin, exaggerating every pimple, drawing the world’s eternal attention to the paddock of free hairs under the chin, those that escaped the razor’s hitherto clinical blade.
But here is the tree at least. Gregory thought it better that the tree had lived, and was now dying, than suffered the fate of the street light, which had never lived at all. So it could throw orange light hither and thither. Was it not better to have had life? Wasn’t it? The paper cup pondered this for a while, before turning its weightless mind back to some of the day’s unsolved mysteries. Where had this lukewarm water come from? It was much appreciated, but it needed a source nonetheless. It could not have seeped into him by mistake. Most likely it was given to him following the corrective repositioning; either as a straight gift, or with some unknown purpose. One purpose might be to ensure that he did not fall over onto his side again – for were he empty, it would take no more than a draught to push him over. He was not made of the strongest paper, not by any means.
If it was given to him, though, who was it that had done such a thing? One of his flatmates perhaps. But as far as he was aware, none of them knew about his transformation into a paper cup. They were under the impression that he had either disappeared or escaped through the window. Felice had walked right by him without even glancing in his direction. Karl, admittedly, had kicked him – but if that was any kind of evidence, it was further support to the claim that they knew nothing of the metamorphosis. That left only Olga, who he had not seen enter the room. And there was yet no reason to suggest that, had she done so, she would have come to the conclusion that Gregory was now a paper cup, nor that she would have come to the decision forthwith to fill that cup with an inch of lukewarm water. Whoever was to thank was to remain nameless then. And they certainly deserved thanks, for Gregory much appreciated the simple gift of water. Though his form was far too altered to feel as direct a human emotion as hunger, he nonetheless sensed that any appetite was well served by this gift. Water is indeed a glorious thing, thought Gregory, that it should please me so easily, just by being there.
It may not have been a surprise that Gregory’s thoughts were now wavering around the subject of sustenance. For it was now past eight o’clock. The restaurant would be inundated by dinner requests. The head chef would be in the kitchen, a carving knife in hand, barking incomprehensible orders over his subalterns’ heads. Gregory would be working through his hundredth vegetable, chopping with the speed and efficiency of a well oiled machine. Meanwhile in the restaurant a customer, most likely, would be complaining about the state of his salad; in particular the way that the cucumber had been sliced, or the manner in which the lettuce had been washed. Gregory felt simultaneous relief and regret that he could not be part of such a scene. For he had not lost all sense of duty, nor forgotten the small pleasures that could be obtained in the midst of a hectic working environment. And he had no real desire to stay in his present form, for all the peace he was presently receiving.
But it was not an unhappy evening, all things considered. The flat was at first astonishingly quiet. Every now and then Gregory heard someone move from one place to another; but conversation was rare, and essentially inaudible. That more than one person was at home was proved by the fact that there was any conversation at all; that there was not much more than nothing suggested that two rather than three of Gregory’s flatmates were in the house. In light of the low level of speech, one of these might conceivably be Olga – by far the quietest of his friends – and Karl – who was never quiet except in Olga’s company. It might also be, in the interest of covering all possibilities, either two strangers, or one friend and one stranger. For there was still some chance that Gregory’s disappearance might have caused a disturbance worthy of outside interest. Maybe the subdued tones were emanating from the mouth of a police detective, accompanied by a nodding Karl. Or maybe someone else from the restaurant, come to inform a flat mate that Gregory was to be discharged, on the arguably unfair basis of no longer seeming to exist. Now he considered it, that quiet voice he heard intermittently might in fact be coming not from a real person, but from the television. After all, it was normally at this time in the evening that Karl would be sitting in the living room, watching the news with a bottle of beer in his lap. Gregory could be easily imagine the scene: the warm light of the table lamp, the endlessly shifting shades of the television screen and Karl, propped up by a cushion or two, his right hand lovingly cradled around the bottle like it were a baby.
If only he could inch himself a little closer to the door he might be able to catch a word or two from the television. But if someone were to burst in suddenly, he might run also the risk of being squashed. He was resistant to a light kick perhaps, but were someone to step on him he would be finished. Death, in whatever form it chose to take, would surely come to him. In consideration of this conclusion, he was altogether better off staying where he was. From this position he may not have been able to keep ahead of what was going on behind his bedroom door, but he was in a magnificent location from which to observe the tree outside of his bedroom window. For it was not only the size of it, but the way that its shadow fell heavily; as if it was another tree altogether, laid out like a carpet yet breaking through the window; effortlessly traversing the spatial stratagems of the three dimensional world. Gregory found himself right under that carpet, which was not altogether un-consoling. For though the tree might be condemned and waiting for execution, it had not lost its power, much as a skeleton retains a certain character, even when stripped of its flesh. There is even something to be gained from the dying state: a nobility lacking in life: the elegance of sincere melancholy. Or else this is nothing more than a collection of mumbled thoughts projected upon the image of a tree in a moment of boredom. So it is, thought Gregory, feeling all of a sudden quite unexpectedly tired.
There were now more voices to be heard outside of the room. And this time Gregory could attach the tones to the known personalities. It was not an impossible task, as they seemed to belong to each of his three flatmates: Karl’s lively tenor, the busy squeaks of Felice and quiet murmurs of Olga. Distinguishing one voice from another was no challenge. But it was not yet possible to understand every word that was said. And when a sentence was caught, its meaning was no more easily comprehended. For their conversation, such as it was, knew no purpose. An idea was taken up, only to be discarded within a minute or so. Gregory had nothing on which to hold; no sense of which direction the flow of speech was moving. All that he could be certain of was that, all the while he was listening, he never once heard mention of his own name.
It was while listening to his friends speak, it would appear, that he fell asleep. In any case the room was light when next he was conscious. The evening had passed, and the night after it. To all intents and purposes, it was now morning. The dead tree still stood outside the window, but its presence was no longer so strongly felt. The light touched almost everything, restoring equality to all objects, whilst minimising atmosphere. Gregory was once again refreshed by his rest, though shocked by some margin to discover that he no longer contained water. He was an empty cup once more; not a drop remained in his paper stomach and hardly an explanation as to why this may have been the case. Possible as it may have been to create an excuse for the water’s appearance, it was increasingly unfeasible to concoct a plausible scenario for its disappearance. If anyone should have picked him up during the night and sipped away his water, surely he would have woken?
Having hardly begun to ponder how to negotiate the readily intricate territories of this question, Gregory was disturbed by a sound from outside his bedroom door. It was, in fact, the door itself, creaking open. At first, upon the lack of any subsequent action, he supposed that the culprit might be the wind; a draught combining its powers with the vulnerability of the door in its present state – a side product of Karl and Mr Pollak’s decision to break the door open. But within time a figure did enter the room, and this figure was Olga.
Olga was neither tall nor small in Gregory’s memory, but in light of his new slighter form she now approached a giant in size; a character which hardly seemed consistent with her personality. For she was a quiet person at heart; not incapable of words, but careful with them. This was not to say that she was always accommodating, nor that she wasn’t fond of arguing. And Gregory could not say that she was any more ‘easy’ to live with, all things considered, than either Karl or Felice. But she gave the impression, unconsciously or otherwise, that she held the potential to be more reliably obliging. And for one reason or another, Gregory’s initial reaction at her entrance was one of satisfaction, more so, he thought, than it might have been were the figure Felice, or Karl.
Having approached the door without due warning, Olga’s presence in the room was more clearly signalled by her self-conscious humming. The subject of her humming was a popular song, imperfectly transposed, with or without intention. Gregory could not tell which. He was busy wondering whether it was it all possible to attract Olga’s attention; a needless task, for as it happened, no sooner had she entered the room than she was headed in his direction. She carried herself there directly, but not speedily. This may have been because she was carrying something. This as it transpired was a carton of milk which had no lid.
Her attitude to Gregory was a curious one. Stopping in front of him and descending to her knees, she managed to make him both the object of her entire attention and yet never quite fix her gaze on him. She was awake, but she assumed the expression of one who is sleepwalking; capable of negotiating space without being fully conscious. Considering this, it was a surprise that she managed not to spill the carton of milk that she was carrying and that she was able, now kneeling beside the paper cup, to pour some liquid into its body without a drop landing upon the surrounding carpet. Gregory though this a small and strange miracle, as many things presently were, not the least the experience of being dwarfed by a carton of milk. On the side of this carton, Gregory saw an illustration of a black and white cow. It was a small illustration, no bigger than a fingernail, but to Gregory it appeared as a full size painting, lacking though it was in the appropriate depth of detail. If this cow was surprisingly large, however, Olga at close quarters was something more. He found it hard not to fear her, though she was not in herself threatening. What if she decided, as Karl had, to submit to some whim; to lash out at him merely to satisfy an elemental craving? And yet, unlike Karl, she was aware of him as an entity other than a paper cup. This is what Gregory had to suppose. After all, was she not filling him up with milk? Who would walk into a room and fill a paper cup with milk simply on the spur of the moment? Unless, thought Gregory, she means to use me on the basis for which I was designed. She may be planning, perhaps, to drink from me. But with so many superior drinking receptacles in the flat, why settle on a paper cup?
When the milk flowed into his body he felt as he had been plunged into a pool of water, but had inexplicably managed to stay dry on the outside. It was an exhilarating sensation; immediately refreshing and enduringly affirming. The previous evening’s water had had a similar effect, but it was ultimately a lesser one. The milk took its place with a degree of sincerity that suggested it was the natural occupant. I was created, thought Gregory, for the purpose of carrying milk. And he was so content with his lot that he almost entirely disregarded the continuing presence of Olga, kneeling in front of him, unengaged yet not undutiful, like a lapsed believer in front of an altar or shrine. She still clasped the carton of milk in her right hand, as if prepared to pour some more. But Gregory was satisfied with what he had. Maybe she was waiting for a signal of some sort; some kind of proof that this was her flatmate after all. On this account, Gregory found himself peculiarly unable to move. The level of milk was much higher than the water had been and he feared that shuffling might cause him to topple over entirely. Olga’s presence, similarly, was not conducive to movement. For though her gaze was not fixed upon him, he nonetheless felt the fine rays of her attention and was as such debilitated, either by embarrassment or by bad luck. Eyes excluded, her body alone exuded a certain aura. He could both hear and see her breathing; her chest rising and falling under a large white blouse. She now given up her humming and sat reasonably still, her hands clasped together, resting on her dark grey skirt. Either his diminutive stature had given him an awareness of details previously ignored or Gregory was for the first time noticing aspects of Olga’s appearance that hadn’t ever demanded his attention. He had not known, for instance, that she was of the habit of biting her fingernails, nor that her chestnut hair, which stretched beyond her relatively broad shoulders, was in its intermediate stage subject to a series of waves which then straightened at the tip. She was also plumper than he remembered; with plenty of flesh about her cheeks and hands that almost found themselves on the wrong side of chubbiness. However this was, thought Gregory, by no means a distraction to her better points. Indeed, the roundness of her body accentuated the potential and periodically attendant warmth of her personality. It also reminded him, faintly, of the woman from the cover of the cookery book.
Had she lost herself in her thoughts? The length of Olga’s visit, while hard to explain, could not go on for ever, nor did it. Within fifteen minutes she had got up off her knees, brushed down her skirt and walked towards the bedroom door. This she opened with her right hand, transferring the milk carton to her left as she did and then returning to the right when she walked through the door, which she duly closed behind her. Gregory presumed that she had used her left hand to close the door.
Upon her exit he noticed in the air the scent of something sweet. He considered it at first to be no more than the traces of Olga’s perfume, until he came to the retrospective conclusion that she had not been wearing perfume. This deduction was sustained by his deciding that the scent was in fact quite unlike that of women’s perfume, and much more in line with some sort of sugary foodstuff. This in turn was confirmed by his sighting of a foreign object on his bed, which could be glimpsed, just, though by no means in its entirety. This object was, he surmised, a gift of food, sitting on what would appear to be a plate. From the odour alone Gregory guessed it to be something in the region of a pastry, possibly coated with some type of jam. That it was out of reach was beyond doubt. Where it had come from and why he hadn’t noticed it before now was a different question, the most sensible answer to which was that Olga must have brought it in before the milk, when Gregory was still asleep. In light of the care in which she poured the milk directly into him, however, it seemed strange that she would have put the food, which he couldn’t consume in any case, in such an inaccessible position. This raised the possibility that the pastry was not intended for his consumption – in which case, why was it there? Ah, thought Gregory, but what if her purpose was to provide someone else with food and drink. This might shed light on the milk in his belly. Perhaps it was laid out for someone else entirely. Or laid out for Gregory, but a different version of him: Gregory existent within a form which could indeed consume food from a plate and milk from a paper cup. But such a creature would have had to have made itself known to Olga to deserve such gifts. Maybe she has mistaken a mouse for me, thought Gregory, though he had himself never seen a mouse in the flat. Maybe it is nothing but coincidence that I have been filled up with milk. Maybe it is all a great mistake.
In any case, he could not eat the pastry. Nor could he solve the problem of how to make himself know to Olga should she return. He could try to move, of course. But he had already tried and failed to move in her presence. And if he couldn’t move in her presence how would she know that he had moved of his own accord? If Gregory had been a mouse, that mouse would be capable of moving the paper cup around the room without exciting suspicion that the cup was in itself a living being. When considered in this way, there was every possibility that making Olga aware of his transformed state was an impossibility, so long as she was not already aware – the probability for which Gregory held out. This, however, did not disentangle the matter of the sugary pastry, a mystery best left alone in the absence of any serious solutions.
Gregory was determined all the same to make an effort towards movement, if not to establish to a visitor that he existed, then at least to view the room from another perspective. For he could not pretend to himself that he had not had enough of his current prospect. From this position he could see the tree through the window, but he could not see his desk. And though he appreciated the view of the tree through the window, he also appreciated the view of his desk and, most of all, the opportunity to enjoy both views, if not simultaneously, then concurrently. For which reason he was, as noted, determined to make an effort towards movement. An effort which was by no means complicated by the fact that he seemed to have less milk inside of him then he thought he had. This, another mystery, was soon to be established as factual happening. Thar is to say it was a fact that the level of liquid in Gregory, the paper cup, was subject to change. It went down. Liquid was in some way consumed, or else it vanished. It could not be said where it went exactly, but it could not be denied that it did go. A lower level of liquid made movement easier, but it also led to a feeling of incompleteness; a semi-hunger which words cannot wholly express. Having milk inside him made Gregory feel good: this was the only certainty.
Over the next thirty minutes Gregory was able to move himself from one position to another, a metre or so away. This it transpired, was enough action for the day, and the rest of it was duly spent in this new position, taking stock of the new view it afforded. For though this was not the greatest pleasure that could be had, it was yet a surprisingly time-consuming and, in its way, not unpleasant way to spend a day. It gave Gregory a chance to reassess the space in which he had been living for the last few years and to reaffirm the emotions tied up with all the objects that had come to inhabit that space. This may not have been something he was ever planning to do, but he was no less willing to take the opportunity now that it had arrived.
By the end of that day, Gregory felt fully acquainted with that particular patch of carpet; with that especial angle of sight across the bedroom, in which some objects were revealed, and others hidden, awaiting their turn to be examined at another time, another day. By the end of that day, he was also empty again. There was not of drop of milk inside him. For this he had to wait until the next morning, following restful sleep, when Olga would enter the room for the second time and replenish him with her carton.
For so it was, and thus became a pattern. In the morning Olga came into the bedroom, knelt down beside Gregory and poured milk into him. At first he would wait until her exit before starting his journey to a different point, but in time Olga took it upon herself to make his journey somewhat easier, by picking him up and putting him elsewhere. Whether or not this confirmed that she was aware of the cup’s identity was never known for sure, but from this moment on seemed increasingly likely, despite her continuing reluctance to gaze directly at the cup. However, her behaviour was surely intended, thought Gregory, to be of the greatest kindness. What was provoking her to exhibit such kindness was at present a question to be left aside. It was more beneficial to concentrate on those few things which could be understood; better still on the process of engaging with things that were, in their way, incapable of unpredictability. On the animate objects that littered the room; his father’s armchair, his bed, his desk, his chest of drawers, his shoes waiting patiently for feet that no longer existed. And outside the room, the living organism breathing its last: the dying tree, statuesque and solemn to the last.
Olga’s consistent appearances contrasted with the consistent non-appearances of both Karl and Felice. Gregory heard each of them every day, confirming their presence in the flat. But for a week or so he saw neither. Karl’s identity was boiled down to his laughs; Felice’s to a squeal or so, upon receipt of a small shock or pleasing surprise. Conversation was never too clear; words could be snatched from the silence, but little was to be gauged from the results of this sonic grasping and Gregory soon gave up. The world of conversation seemed increasingly far away from him; the things that concern humans appearing to be of less interest to a small paper cup. For this is what it came back to. Gregory had sat on the windowsill by now; he had long been offered, and taken, a day-long glimpse of his own reflection. And what he saw, though it was all that he imagined, still surprised him. He looked at himself, but not into his own eyes. After all he had no eyes. And yet he saw. I am beyond the laws of science he thought to himself with a faint sense of pride, mingled with the loneliness of the true outsider. I have no senses, but I can feel. I am great, but yet I am a paper cup.
One afternoon, ten days or so after the first replenishing of the milk, Felice entered Gregory’s bedroom. Like Olga, she did not look at Gregory directly, but when she spoke he appeared to be addressing him, even if the content of her speech was, for the most part, of little concern to him. ‘The restaurant is going well’, she announced within minutes, as if his absence had been a welcome boost to its success. And, businesswoman that she was, she did not hesitate to expand upon this success, going so far as to quote figures that he considered she ought not to have known. She also outlined further improvements that could be made to the business, which she had no intention, she said, of supplying to Mr Pollak. She was, thought Gregory, merely entertaining herself, using his presence as an excuse to enjoy private ideas aloud, without the fear of their being at any time used against her. For surely she did not seriously suppose that he would be in any way excited by her ceaseless talk of money? He was hardly in the position to be deliberating over his finances. And yet Felice, clearly, saw his primary concerns as integral to hers. The question of milk prices was, therefore, not ignored. Neither was his recent inability to pay his share of the rent. Was he aware that the situation might have to change sometime? Gregory felt vaguely aware of this, but all the more conscious that there was little he could do. This, thought Gregory, ought to have been clear to Felice. Perhaps it was, though. For she did not wait for any answers. She knew that he could not speak. Every question was, therefore, a statement in disguise. Or else she is simply rambling, thought Gregory: drunk on the delicate strains of her own sweet voice.
Shortly after reintroducing the subject of milk prices, Felice made her way to the bedroom door. She was about to leave. But before she did so, she backtracked two steps towards the desk, upon the far side of which Gregory was currently situated. Her focus was not him, however, but his cookery book, the one with the handsome woman on its cover. ‘May I take this?’ she asked, picking up the book. It was another statement disguised as a question. ‘No’ said Gregory, plainly, in response. But the words meant nothing. They were nothing. The book left under Felice’s arm.
As the door closed and the reality of the book’s absence struck him, Gregory felt a sudden anger rise within him. A desire to scream, such as that he had never experienced as a human, boiled within him. The injustice of Felice’s behaviour took on strangely tragic proportions. He was now furious over her actions; insanely aggravated by the very causality of her cruelty. He was as irritated as any paper cup has been since the dawn of time. And in his anger, he found himself physically stirred. The scream which could not be let out in one way revealed itself in another. Following a manic shudder, Gregory fell down onto his side. Half a cup of milk spilled out over his desk; a pool of it collecting in the space where the cookery book had once been, but no longer was. A stream of milk trickled to the desk’s edge, where it became, for a second or so, a pathetic waterfall. Gregory lay still.
by Fritz Kafka