Science Fiction & Fantasy

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The Puzzle

Mr. Adam only started to paint late in life, after his retirement. It happened quite unexpectedly. For the first sixty-five years of his life he had never shown any predisposition towards painting, for which he had neither talent nor interest. The arts in general attracted him very little.

The only exception might have been music, although he didn’t really enjoy it. Sometimes he would find a radio station devoted mainly to music and leave it on low, just enough to dispel the silence that surrounded him during his long, dreary hours at work. It didn’t matter what sort of music was being played; almost any would serve his purpose equally well, although he preferred instrumentals since singing distracted him. All he did at home was sleep, and often not even that, so there was little opportunity for anything else.

Retirement brought Mr. Adam an abundance of empty hours which he had to fill. Experience gained at work had taught him that whenever he had to wait an indeterminate time for something, he had to impose obligations upon himself, and then discharge them doggedly, regardless of how unusual they might seem. This at least gave a semblance of meaning to everything. And one could not live without some meaning, however illusory.

He set himself one obligation for every day of the week. On Sunday he cooked, something he had never done before. He bought the biggest cookbook he could find in the bookstore and set himself to prepare every dish in it, in alphabetical order. The uncertainty of how far he dared hope to get at this tempo did not disturb him. He was aware that he would require extreme longevity to reach the end of the book, but that was of no importance to him.

He followed the instructions for each recipe to the letter, and the only trouble he encountered was when they were not specific enough, but allowed the cook to use his own judgment or taste. He did not like everything he cooked, but that did not bother him greatly. He ate his culinary creations down to the last spoonful, throwing nothing away. This was almost a matter of honour to him. Sometimes, when the recipe was intended for several people, he ate the same food the whole week through.

On Monday Mr. Adam rode his bicycle. This was also a new departure. He learned how to ride easily and quite rapidly, despite his advanced age. He was not deterred by bad weather, though he would dress accordingly. The only trouble he had was when the rain spattered his glasses, unpleasantly fogging his vision. He preferred to ride without glasses in a downpour, though that rendered his vision equally foggy.

He always took the same route, each time increasing the distance a little. He tried to conserve his energy so he had enough left to go back by bike. He was only forced to return by other means of transport on the few occasions when there was a sudden turn in the weather, or he was overcome by fatigue. His conscience always plagued him when he gave up like that.

Unlike cooking, cycling had its limits. The route he took never actually ended, since it connected to many others, but even if he were to ride the whole day without stopping, which was not very likely, at midnight he would be required to stop. Tuesday was not for bike riding, but imposed its own obligation.

While still employed, he had read very little except professional journals. Not because there was no opportunity — many of his colleagues read for pleasure to pass the time at work — but because it seemed to him a sign of insufficient dedication to the job. Of course, his work would not have suffered for it, particularly since computers had taken over the bulk of his responsibilities. Now he decided to make up at least partially for this lapse. He became a member of the town library and went there every Tuesday. He entered as soon as it opened and stayed until it closed, only taking a short break early in the afternoon to eat something.

His initial subject was science fiction. This was a natural choice, but Mr. Adam soon gave it up. What he read about first contact seemed unsophisticated for the most part, often to the point of inanity — pulled out of thin air, at best. The number of writers demonstrating any knowledge of the real state of things was quite small, though such knowledge was easy enough to obtain. Disappointed, he was briefly tempted to abandon reading entirely. But giving up in the face of adversity was not in his nature, and besides, he had paid his dues a year in advance. Finally, were he to stop going to the library he would have to think up a new obligation for Tuesday, and that prospect did not please him at all.

He found a solution to this problem, using the same means he had often resorted to at work. Whenever his search in one area drew a blank, he simply broadened his field of vision. Not knowing what else to choose, this time he broadened the field to the farthest limit, like suddenly taking the whole sky instead of one small sector. Instead of science fiction he chose literature in its entirety, but as this turned out to be far greater even than the cookbook, he had no idea at first where to begin.

The main catalogue was indexed by author, and he briefly considered adhering to that order. But then he thought again, and concluded that this would not be a satisfactory approach. He spent some time at the library computer, classifying titles by publication date, and finally obtained a list of books from the oldest to the most recent. The scale of this list did not discourage him at all — he had become accustomed to such challenges long ago. He started to read steadily, without rushing, as if all the time in the world lay before him.

On Wednesdays Mr. Adam went to the zoo. The middle of the week was the right time to visit, when there were far fewer visitors than at weekends. Moreover, if the weather was bad, he would often see no one in the vicinity for long periods. That suited him best. Ideally he would have liked to be completely alone at the zoo, but of course, he was never able to count on that.

Mr. Adam did not behave like the ordinary sort of visitor, who just wanders around enjoying himself. First he found out which animals were housed in the zoo, then he drew up a schedule of visits. Each animal was allotted a whole day. Few of the zoo’s inhabitants were worthy of such dedication, but the systematic patience with which Mr. Adam approached everything did not allow him to act otherwise.

He would arrive in the morning at the chosen cage and sit in front of it. When there was no bench, he brought a small folding chair from home. He would stay in that spot until nightfall, doing nothing but observing the animal carefully through the bars. He did not know exactly what to expect. Certainly nothing special. What he hoped for was at least a certain reaction to his presence, just an awareness that he was there, perhaps a glance that deliberately crossed his own. Anything short of complete disregard.

It was actually quite easy to attract the animals’ attention by offering them food, but Mr. Adam never did. It would be a form of cheating, and he would brook no cheating. Therefore he took no food with him, not even for himself. When he left the zoo on a Wednesday evening, he was often faint with hunger.

On Thursdays Mr. Adam visited churches. Not being religious, he had never been to such places before, and was surprised to learn that the town held sixteen of them. Sometimes he had to walk the whole day in order to take them all in. He could have used public transport, of course, which would have sped things up considerably, but that would have run contrary to Mr. Adam’s basic intention. His Monday bike ride was by no means sufficient to keep him in shape, and his need for additional exercise was the more acute after spending all Wednesday sitting still at the zoo. What could be more appropriate than a seriously long walk?

In order to avoid the tedium of repeating the same walk every time, Mr. Adam took a different route every Thursday. This was not done at random; he had worked out a precise plan. He approached it as a simple problem in combinatorial mathematics. There were far more ways of ordering the sixteen points than he imagined he would ever need. The itineraries greatly varied in length, because the algorithm he had chosen took no account of the distance between the churches. He bore up stoically under this inconsiderate mathematical dictate, consoling himself with the reflection that he found longer walks more enjoyable.

Mr. Adam could have visited points other than churches. In principle, the direction of his walks was immaterial to him, so he could not have explained why he had made churches his choice. Luckily, no one ever asked him, which saved him from embarrassment. On reaching a church he began by walking all the way round it, examining it inquisitively, as if seeing it for the first time. Then he would take a little rest, sitting in the churchyard if there was one, before continuing on his way.

In time he got to know the exteriors of all sixteen churches quite well, and came to regard himself as a real expert in this field. He believed that he alone had noted some of the details. For example, there was always an even number of birds’ nests under the eaves. Who knows why? He rarely felt any urge to examine the churches’ interiors. He was only tempted to enter on two or three occasions, but he always refrained, and here again he was unable to say what it was that had dissuaded him.

Friday was his day to go to the movies. Mr. Adam would always watch four films in a row, from mid-afternoon to late in the evening. This was by any standard too much. After the second film his impressions were already becoming confused, and by the end of the fourth he would feel truly exhausted, as though he had been working at some strenuous task, rather than sitting in a comfortable seat the whole time. But this did not prompt him to decrease the number of films.

Mr. Adam was not the least bit selective regarding the repertoire. He did not have a favourite film genre, although he felt most relaxed watching romantic comedies. Action films left him rather indifferent, and although they were loud as a rule, he even managed to doze off to them, particularly if they were the last of that day’s four. He found thrillers unconvincing, although not as much as most science fiction films. Those sometimes appeared outrageously idiotic; he could never understand why filmgoers got so excited about them. Overly erotic scenes embarrassed him, but fortunately that was not noticeable in the dark.

Although it might have appeared that Mr. Adam chose his films at random, this was not at all the case. He bought his tickets with great care, concentrating on films that were expected to sell out. Just before the lights dimmed, Mr. Adam would stand up for a moment and look all around. He would feel annoyed should he spot any empty seats. Those empty places would bother him until the end of the show. He only felt at ease in a full house. That alone could temporarily lighten the burden of solitude, which, like some sinister inheritance, hung over from his former work.

Mr. Adam passed Saturday in the park. He needed to spend time outside in the fresh air after so many hours indoors the previous day. Late in the morning he would go to the large city park with its pond in the middle, and head for the bench where he always sat. On the rare occasions when someone was already sitting in the place he considered his own, on the far left-hand end of the bench next to the wrought iron armrest, Mr. Adam would wait unobtrusively to one side for the bench to come free. It did not bother him if the remainder of the bench was occupied, though he avoided entering into conversation with strangers.

On warm, sunny days he would stay there until dusk, doing nothing but idly watching what was happening around him: people strolling by, dogs chasing each other frantically on the grass, leaves rustling in the surrounding treetops, birds gliding silently through the blue sky, sudden ripples on the smooth surface of the pond. Until recently this idleness would have seemed an extremely foolish waste of time. Now, however, the tables were turned. He saw everything which had gone before as a waste of time. All his previous life. All the years, all the effort, all the hopes.

That was not how it had seemed, at any rate not in the beginning. Not in the least. It was a pioneering time of great excitement. Great expectations. And great naïveté. They thought that contact was only a matter of time. The cosmos was teeming with life, messages were streaming between worlds, all that was needed was to prick up our electronic ears to hear them. Without this optimistic certainty, the money for the first projects would never have been found — investments that could pay off stupendously as soon as the inexhaustible wealth of knowledge started to pour in from the stars.

Mr. Adam had fond memories of those early days, despite later disappointments. There was something romantic in the anticipation that overcame him whenever he put on his earphones. He spent countless hours listening to the cacophony streaming from the skies, straining to recognize some sort of orderly system in it. Like all his colleagues, he secretly hoped that he would be the first to hear the signal.

But as time passed and nothing arrived except inarticulate noise, the true proportions of the task started to emerge. Since listening to the closest star systems produced no results, there was a shift to more distant ones, but each new step brought a substantial increase in their number. The initial enthusiasm foundered when it was established that more than one generation might be needed to complete the task. This led many people to leave the search for extraterrestrial life in favour of more promising areas, and financiers were less and less willing to continue investing in something so vague and unreliable.

Fortunately, at that point computers were introduced, with their numerous advantages over people: They are incomparably faster, more effective and dependable, and do not quickly lose heart in the face of failure. Even so, Mr. Adam did not look upon their use with total approval. Computers reduced people to commonplace assistants whose sole purpose was to serve them. What had begun as a noble project for the chosen few degenerated into a routine technical duty that almost anyone could perform — mere waiting, leached of any true excitement. The last remnants of romance vanished without a trace.

After several decades had passed, and the computers had meticulously checked many millions of sun systems but detected no sign of extraterrestrial intelligence, Mr. Adam felt a certain gloomy exultation. His feelings were paradoxical, because only under opposite circumstances, with contact made, would he be able to say that his life’s work had meaning. On the other hand, contact achieved with the assistance of computers would to him be some sort of injustice, almost an anticlimax.

Despite the silence of the cosmos, the search programs were not discontinued. Although large, the number of investigated stars was trifling compared to the total number of suns in the galaxy. In principle, one of the giant radio telescopes could start receiving the long-awaited message from the very next spot in the sky. However, as his retirement approached, Mr. Adam became more and more skeptical in this regard.

It was not just the realization that the prospects of finding Others within his lifetime were negligible; he could somehow reconcile himself to that if he was sure they were on the right track. But the suspicion started to trouble him that the reason for failure lay not in the fact that only a tiny part of the sky had been investigated, rather in something much more fundamental. What if some of the basic assumptions upon which the entire project was founded were wrong?

Maybe there was no one out there after all. Maybe sentient beings were so unlikely that they had only appeared in one place. Everyone was convinced of the opposite, but this conviction had no solid basis. Behind it might lie an unwillingness to accept the terrifying fact of cosmic solitude. As the years passed, Mr. Adam started to feel anxious under the unbounded wasteland. The starry sky pressed heavily upon him at times. The strange need arose for some sort of shelter, for consolation.

Suppose extraterrestrials exist and are communicating, but we don’t recognize it? What if they were doing it in some other way, and not the way we presumed? Mr. Adam had never asked himself this question seriously. Whenever it stole quietly into his consciousness, he would expel it hurriedly, with a sense of hostility and guilt, as any true believer rejects a heretical thought. All his sober, scientific being opposed it. Similar inconsistencies had prevented him from coming to like science fiction.

He still considered this the proper approach, despite all the unfulfilled hopes in the life that yawned behind him. And at the end of the day, what other means besides electromagnetic waves could be used to communicate between the stars? With regard to his past, the daily obligations he set himself helped put it out of his mind. Perhaps these obligations really were meaningless, but the problem of meaning no longer plagued him. He enjoyed everything he was doing now, even idling in the park each Saturday, and that pleasure was all that mattered. In any case, he was not just idly passing the time. He had recently started to paint.

Music had been the catalyst. Upon reaching the park one Saturday at the beginning of summer, he found that a bandstand had been erected near his bench. It had not been there seven days previously, nor had anything heralded its advent. This had irritated Mr. Adam to no end. Although pretty, with its slender columns and domed roof, he considered it an unconscionable desecration of the environment. In addition, the bandstand largely blocked his view of the pond, and he seriously considered looking for another place to sit. But habit won out and he stayed on his bench, scornfully endeavouring to disregard the interloper.

This ceased to be possible when musicians climbed onto the bandstand at noon. They were formally dressed and the conductor even wore a tuxedo with a large white flower in his lapel. They sat on chairs placed in a circle and spent some time tuning their instruments. Mr. Adam found this dissonance an additional nuisance. It not only sounded awful but started to attract park visitors, and rather a large crowd soon formed. A crowd of people, however, was the last thing Mr. Adam wanted after his Friday spent in a packed movie theatre.

He would have to move after all. He couldn’t stand this. But just as he started to rise, the music began. He stopped halfway, transfixed, then slowly sat down again on the bench. All at once he was no longer surrounded by too many people, his bad mood disappeared, and nothing existed beyond the music. He stared fixedly at the bandstand, immobile, listening intently.

This paralysis did not last long. He came out of it suddenly and began feverishly rummaging through his jacket pockets. It seemed to take forever to find what he was after. He always carried a notebook and pen with him. Since retirement he had not written anything in it, but he carried it with him nonetheless. He opened it hurriedly and started to draw. He dared not miss a thing.

He drew short, brusque lines, just like a stenographer taking rapid dictation. The pages in the notebook were small, so he filled them quickly. He was afraid he would run out of pages before the music ended, but fortunately the notebook was thick enough. Even so, he made the last drawing on the brown cardboard covers. Had the music lasted a moment longer, there would not have been enough room. The very thought suddenly filled him with horror.

The listeners’ echoing applause after the last chords had the effect of an alarm clock suddenly going off. Mr. Adam jerked like one waking from restless sleep; he turned this way and that in confusion for several moments as if trying to figure out where he was. He feared he would arouse the suspicion of those around him, but no one paid any attention to the old man on the end of the bench, engrossed in his writing. All eyes were turned toward the conductor who was bowing theatrically.

Mr. Adam stood up and walked away unobtrusively. There was no reason to stay there any longer. During his extensive walks between churches he had come to know the town quite well, so he knew exactly where to find a shop with painting supplies. There might have been one closer, but he would waste more time inquiring after and finding it than it took to reach the other. The salesman noted with a smile that he was clearly preparing a serious project, judging by the quantity of materials he had purchased. Mr. Adam returned the smile, mumbled something vague, then hurried home.

Unskilled at painting, he had trouble setting up the easel properly, but then got down to work. He opened the notebook and began carefully transferring onto the canvas what he had written, as if neatly copying over rough notes taken in a hurry. He worked slowly but with passion, unaware of the passage of time. When he had finished it was already quite dark.

He did not know what he had painted. Viewed from up close it looked just like random strokes of paint. He was convinced, however, that not a single stroke of the brush had been accidental, that everything was exactly as the music ordered, in spite of his inexperience. When he moved back from the painting a bit, he thought he could make out part of a larger shape, but he wasn’t sure. It suddenly crossed his mind that before him was just one piece of some larger puzzle. He thought briefly about what to do with the canvas, and then he hung it unframed on one of the bare walls.

The next Saturday he went to the park well prepared. He no longer needed the notebook as intermediary. He sat at his usual place on the bench and set up the easel in front of him, holding paintbrush and palette. In different circumstances he would have abhorred the inquisitive peering of bystanders, although a painter at work was certainly not unusual in the park. Now, however, he paid no attention, concentrating exclusively on the impending concert.

This time he painted rapidly. It lasted just as long as the music. When the applause resounded, Mr. Adam, panting and sweaty, had just finished covering the last white space with paint. Before the crowd dispersed, several pairs of eyes glanced at the painting, perplexed, since it did not depict anything recognizable. A short, elderly woman dressed in a bright orange dress stopped by the bench for a moment. She took an enormous pair of glasses out of her handbag and examined first the painting and then the painter. “Very nice,” she said with a smile. She put her glasses back in her handbag, nodded in brief approval and walked away.

As a man unaccustomed to compliments, Mr. Adam felt ill at ease. The woman’s words were by no means unpleasant, quite the contrary, yet he was still glad she had not lingered. He would have been in the awkward situation of having to say something in reply. He waited a while for the elderly woman to move on, then collected his equipment and hurried home. He could have stayed in the park longer — his work was completed and the day was very fine — but curiosity got the better of him.

He put the new canvas next to the other one on the wall. He had no expectations and thus was not very disappointed when it turned out they had no points in common. For a moment, though, he thought he could make out some part of a greater whole in the second painting, too, but here again it was most likely just his imagination. In the absence of any recognizable form, he thought he saw something that was not actually there. This was a trap he had learned to avoid back in the early period, before computers, while listening to the stars with his own ears. If you’re expecting a horseman, you have to be very careful not to mistake your heartbeat for the beat of a horse’s hoofs.

The next fourteen Saturdays, all summer long, each time Mr. Adam returned from the park he had one more painting to place on the wall next to the others. In time, his brisk, almost frenetic painting became something of an attraction at the park, and a good many music-lovers would stand around to watch him work. He paid no attention to them. At the end of the music and painting he would quickly glance through those gathered around him, but never once did he catch sight of the slight figure in orange.

When Mr. Adam reached the park on the first Saturday in September, carrying his painting materials as usual, a surprise awaited him. The bandstand had disappeared as unexpectedly as it had arrived. It had been removed very carefully, leaving no trace behind — not even trampled grass. He darted in bewilderment around the spot where the little structure had stood, overcome by completely opposite feelings from those which had assailed him in the beginning. Now he missed the bandstand, and the environment seemed somehow naked and incomplete without it. For a moment he considered inquiring as to why it was no longer there, maybe even lodging a complaint, but he did not know where this should be done and in the end dropped the idea.

He returned home in a dejected mood and sat in the armchair facing the wall covered with paintings. The canvases formed a large square: four paintings in each of four rows. He stayed there for seven full days, only leaving the armchair to take a quick bite or go to the bathroom. He even slept there in his clothes, but the brief, restless, erratic sleep did not refresh him. He changed the distribution of the paintings from time to time. During that long week filled with almost constant pouring rain, he tried all possible combinations of the sixteen canvases.

On the evening of the following Saturday he got up from the armchair, stretched, and went to the window. Rays from the low sun in the western sky were cutting a path through patchy clouds, just like gleaming swords. He stayed there a while looking absently at the flickering play of light. Then he went to the wall and took down the paintings. He couldn’t carry them all at once and had to make two trips to the basement, where he left them.

When he came up from the basement the second time, he went into the kitchen, took the large cookbook down from the shelf, opened it at the bookmark and became immersed in reading the recipe that was next in line. The following day was Sunday, his cooking day.

Zoran Živković

Zoran Zivkovic by Nebojsa BabicZoran Živković (pronounced ZHEEV-ko-vitch) was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, in 1948. In 1973 he graduated from the Department of General Literature with the theory of literature, Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade; he received his master’s degree in 1979 and his doctorate in 1982 from the same school.

In 2007, Živković was made a professor in the Faculty of Philology at his alma mater, the University of Belgrade, where he now teaches Creative Writing. The author of twenty books of fiction and eight books of nonfiction, Živković continues to push the boundaries of the strange and surreal. His writing belongs to the middle European fantastika tradition, and shares much in common with such masters as Mikhail Bulgakov, Franz Kafka, and Stanislaw Lem.

Translator Alice Copple-Tošić

Alice Copple-Tošić is a professional literary translator from French, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian into English. She has translated nearly one hundred books, including seventeen by Zoran Živković.