Bitter Water

“Here he is, making his way to Sardis with his army. He spots a plane-tree along the road which was so beautiful that he presented it with golden decorations and appointed one of the Immortals as guardian to look after it. He is still under the spell of the tree’s charms when news reaches him that a great storm in the straits of the Hellespont has destroyed the bridges which he had ordered built so that his army could cross from Asia into Europe in its advance on Greece. Upon hearing this, Xerxes flew into a rage. He ordered his men to give the Hellespont three hundred lashes and to sink a pair of shackles into the sea. I once heard that he also dispatched men to brand the Hellespont as well. Be that as it may, he did tell the men he had thrashing the sea to revile it in terms you would never hear from a Greek. ‘Bitter water,’ they said, ‘this is your punishment for wronging your master when he did no wrong to you. King Xerxes will cross you, with or without your consent. People are right not to sacrifice to a muddy, brackish stream like you!’ So the sea was punished at his orders, and he had the supervisors of the bridging of the Hellespont beheaded.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus



Occupational Hazard

” ‘They have read your novel,’ began Woland, turning to the Master, ‘and they said only one thing, that, unfortunately, it is not finished. So I wanted to show you your hero. He has been sitting here for about two thousand years, sleeping, but, when the moon is full, he is tormented, as you see, by insomnia. And it torments not only him, but his faithful guardian, the dog. If it is true that cowardice is the most grave vice, then the dog, at least, is not guilty of it. The only thing that brave creature ever feared was thunderstorms. But what can be done, the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves.

‘What is he saying?’ asked Margarita, and her utterly tranquil face was covered by a veil of compassion.

‘He says,’ Woland’s voice rang out, ‘the same thing over and over. That the moon gives him no peace and that he has a bad job. That is what he always says when he cannot sleep, and when he does sleep, he always sees the same thing – a path of moonlight, and he wants to walk on that path, and talk with the prisoner Ha-Notsri, because, as he keeps maintaining, he did not finish what he wanted to say long ago, on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. But, alas, for some reason, he never does manage to walk on the path, and no one comes to see him. So there is nothing for him to do except talk to himself. Some variety is necessary, however, so when he talks about the moon, he frequently adds that he hates his immortality and unprecedented fame more than anything in the world. He maintains that he would gladly change places with the ragged wanderer, Levi Matvei.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita


“An old man driving an empty sleigh sluggishly yielded the road to them beneath the very windows of the cottage. Then Rybak suddenly had a real thought, he could leap into the sleigh, seize the reins and whip up the horse – he might just get away. But the old man! As he held back his young impatient horse, he cast a glance at the man in charge and at the whole column of politsai, and his eyes showed so deep a hatred for them that Rybak understood – no, he could never get away with it! But who would be willing to help him? Then, thunderstruck, he was swamped by the unexpected realization that there was no way of getting out of it. After this execution there was nowhere to go. There was no way of escape from the column he had joined. The shattering clarity of this revelation jolted him so much that he stumbled, fell out of step and couldn’t pick up the rhythm again.

‘What’s up with you?’ his neighbor asked in a scornful bass voice.


‘You’re not used to it then? You’ll learn.'”

Vasily Bykov, The Ordeal


“How often had he heard the teacher of Moral Theology preaching in his nasal voice on the subject of Sin, comparing it to the serpent, and exhorting the seminarians, with unctuous words and large gestures, and with the slow, mellifluous pomp of his sentences, to follow the Virgin’s example and trample the ‘vile serpent’ under foot! And then there was the teacher of Mystical Theology who, after taking a pinch of snuff, would speak to them of their duty to ‘conquer Nature’! And quoting from St John Chrysostom and St Chrysologus, St Cyprian and St Jerome, he would explain the saints’ curses against Woman, whom he called, in the language of the Church, Serpent, Sting, Daughter of Lies, Gateway to Hell, Fount of Crime, Scorpion…

‘And as our father Saint Jerome called her,’ and at this point he would always loudly blow his nose, ‘the Path to Iniquity, iniquitas via!’

Even his textbooks were obsessed with Woman! What kind of creature was this, then, who, in theology, was either placed on the altar as the Queen of Grace or had barbarous curses heaped upon her? What power did she have, that this legion of saints should one minute rush to meet her, passionate and ecstatic, unanimously handing over to her the Kingdom of Heaven, and at the next, uttering terrified sobs and cries of loathing, flee from her as if she were the Universal Enemy, hiding themselves in wildernesses and in cloisters so as not to see her and to die there from the disease of having loved her?”

Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro


“[…] all he had to do was to observe what the others did or did not do in order to do it or not do it himself, their omissions were his activities, his activities were their omissions, a simple trick in which he had been able to achieve great facility from earliest childhood, by constantly observing everything around him, by a persistently testing and receiving and rejecting of everything other than himself, his character, his mind […]”

Thomas Bernhard, Correction