One morning, Kosef J was released. First, the chains of the locks that fettered the lift had clanked. Then, the doors at the end of the corridor had opened. Lastly, a few muttered curses could be heard, immediately followed by the squeak of the trolley bringing the breakfast trays. It was not until the two old warders passed Kosef J.’s cell without stopping that it dawned on him that something strange was happening.
In the first few moments, Kosef J. was left feeling deeply confused and even somehow embarrassed. It was the first time that Franz Hoss and his adjunct, Fabius, had passed his cell as if he, Kosef J., were not inside. The shutters of the slots for the food trays were clanging open as usual, all the familiar noises were punctuating in their usual rhythm the precise ritual of breakfast. Old Franz Hoss kept yelling and banging on the iron doors. Fabius, incensed as always, kept muttering and complaining about the inmates being bone idle.
There followed some five minutes of silence. All that could be heard was muffled chomping and the occasional splutter of someone choking.
Kosef J. leapt out of bed and rushed to the door. He pressed his brow to the cold metal and listened for a long time. He felt his stomach starting to quake rebelliously, as if gripped by nausea. All of a sudden he realised that all the other inmates were eating, all the other forty-nine inmates in the other forty-nine cells were eating, but he, the fiftieth, in the fiftieth cell, had for some unknown reason been overlooked. In that instant, old Franz Hoss re-emerged at the end of the corridor.
Nobody could mistake the shuffling gait of the old warder. His toecaps scraped along the cement floor and the soles of his boots sounded like sandpaper. Kosef J. could hear those boots drawing nearer to his cell, like two strange, slightly infirm, but still menacing, animals. “O Lord,” Kosef J. said to himself. “I hope it won’t be anything very bad.” And without knowing why, he moved backwards a few steps, sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to hold his breath for a few seconds.
Franz Hoss opened the door, leaned against the jamb, looked at him smilingly and said:
“Good morning, Mr Kosef J.”
“What?” said the man who been thus greeted, rising mechanically to his feet.
Franz Hoss entered the cell and began to examine the walls. He paced around the cell and shook his head with displeasure. He placed the palms of both hands against the wall and waited intently, as if trying to gauge the humidity of the place. Then he sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“There’s some bad weather on the way,” said the old warder sadly. “Yes, yes,” he added, scratching his chin.
Kosef J. thought he was dreaming. Above all else, he could not believe his eyes when he saw old Franz was capable of revealing such a face: tired, calm in his tiredness, sad, and at the same time very warm and human in his sadness. Apart from that, it seemed unbelievable that the rancorous old warder could speak in such an equable, even affable tone of voice, a tone that encouraged you to sit awhile and chat.
“These rains are killing me,” heard Kosef J., as if in a dream. “It never used to rain like this.”
“What?” Kosef J. found himself saying once more. It was the second “what” he had uttered in his stupefaction and he felt a little ashamed at not being able manage to engage in conversation.
“No, no,” replied old Franz, somewhat enlivened. “It’s quite clear that it never used to rain like this.”
In the mind of the prisoner terrifying doubts had begun to spring up, and now they were whizzing around with the speed of bullets. “Maybe they want to kill me, maybe they have gone mad, maybe my mother has come to see me,” Kosef J. heard himself thinking and for an instant he was almost certain he had been thinking out loud. But no, he had not been thinking out loud, because old Franz continued to sit calmly on the edge of the bed, scratching his chin from time to time.
“It’s November already and December is on its way,” mused Franz Hoss and looked Kosef J. in the eye, insistently, as if he were trying to divine his opinion from his gaze.
“But it didn’t rain in September,” Kosef J. blurted out, astonished to hear his own voice.
“What do you mean it didn’t rain?” asked the warder, rather abruptly.
“It didn’t rain,” insisted Kosef J.
“What do you mean it didn’t rain?” snapped the warder, with a kind of friendly curtness.
“It didn’t rain,” insisted Kosef J., sure of himself. He would have liked to add “it just didn’t,” but he decided against it, sensing that he had already pushed his luck too far. All the same, he felt flooded by a wave of joy. He had got away with no fewer than two “what’s,” which meant he had had the courage to contradict him twice. “Now,” Kosef J. said to himself, “all that remains is for him to hit me.”
But Franz Hoss did not hit him. He lowered his eyes to the floor, and the expression on his face revealed a man growing old and weary. Kosef J. suddenly felt sorry for the old warder. He almost felt sorry about insisting that it hadn’t rained. What was the point of irking a man who was old and possibly sick?
They heard the sound of jumbled words coming from outside the door. Somebody was muttering and hobbling along the corridor past the row of cell doors. “It’s Fabius,” Kosef J. said to himself with a start, an unpleasant thought lodging itself in his brain.
“It’s Fabius,” said the old warder, as if he had heard the thought in the prisoner’s mind, and wanted to reassure him.
“Good morning, Mr Kosef J.,” said Fabius when he reached the open door.
Kosef J. gave a short nod and averted his eyes, looking into empty space. In the end, a warder was allowed to do anything he liked. If the two old men felt like greeting him in this way, then nobody could stop them from greeting him as cordially as they wished. Similarly, if the two warders had felt like giving him a sound beating and saying, “Good morning, Mr Kosef J.” after every punch, then nobody could have stopped them carrying out what they intended.
But Fabius and his superior Franz Hoss had no evil intentions that morning. Fabius was leaning against the doorjamb with a confused look on his face, as if he were embarrassed to enter, but at the same time very much wishing to do so. There followed a few long seconds of silence. Fabius produced a packet of cigarettes, weighed it in his palm, and then offered it to Fanz Hoss. The old warder took a cigarette from the packet, with an expression of deep gratitude on his face.
“Do you smoke, Kosef J.?”
Kosef J. heard the question and felt as if he were enveloped in damp cyclone, as if his head were being repeatedly plunged into water. His senses were being assailed by something confused, something highly unpleasant, like a waking nightmare.
“It’s good that you don’t,” he heard Fabius saying, from a great distance.
The two wardens lit their cigarettes and Kosef J. realised that Fabius was about to put the packet back in his pocket. They had probably interpreted his momentary dizziness as a refusal.
“No, no,” blurted Kosef J. “I’d like one too.”
“Smoking is bad for you,” remarked Fabius, holding out the packet of cigarettes to him. “Especially in damp weather.”
“That’s right,” agreed Franz Hoss.
“It is, isn’t it,” said Fabius, turning toward his superior with a merry look on his face.
“Yes, it is! Yes, it is!” said Franz Hoss, heartily agreeing with him, and Kosef J. suddenly had the fantastical image of the two warders smiling at each other, happy that they were in such profound accord.
“It’s good,” said Kosef J., pointing at the cigarette, feeling obliged to participate in the harmony of that moment.
“I’ve got more,” replied Fabius. “When you want another, I’ve got more.”
The cell quickly filled with smoke. The cigarette made Kosef J. even dizzier than he was already. His legs began to tremble. Faster and faster, his heart was pumping insufficient amounts of blood to his brain, producing a jerky kind of sound, like somebody chopping onions. Embarrassed, Kosef J. wondered whether his heartbeats could be heard a little too loudly inside the cell. He would have liked to sit down on the edge of the bed, at least for a minute, but he didn’t know whether or even how he should ask permission.
Franz Hoss chuckled. Fabius took two steps forward, stopped in front of Kosef J. and gave him a protective pat on the shoulder. In the next instant, all three were sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking. Kosef J. felt more relaxed and more protected than he could ever remember having felt before. He would have liked to die in that moment, just to prolong, to freeze that feeling forever.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth