(With apologies to F.K.)
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a small insect. Having also fallen out of bed, he wasn’t sure at first what upset him the most. Spinning slowly on his back on the hardwood floor, Gregor gazed up at the edge of the bed, which looked exactly like the white cliffs of Dover, or at least like a bed the size of the white cliffs of Dover. Maybe my bed has grown to be as big as the white cliffs of Dover, thought Gregor. He lifted his head a little and saw his brown pot-shaped belly, which seemed only a bit darker than he remembered. He saw his numerous, barb-heeled, incessantly gesticulating legs, much thinner than his legs usually look, and he thought, if I had to say, I suppose falling out of bed is less objectionable than waking up in a state of transmogrification.
What has happened to me? he thought. I’ve turned into a bug, that’s what. But what kind of bug? A cockroach? A cockroach is flat in shape and I am anything but flat. I’m convex, belly and back. Really, I’m like a cockroach, only in that I am brown. But let me pursue this. My belly is divided into segments, it would seem, though it’s difficult to see. I have a hard rounded back, surely suggestive of wing cases. That’s it! The cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded to carry me for miles in a blundering flight. Further, I have strong mandibles. Who ever saw a cockroach with mandibles! Indeed, I have assumed the shape of a beetle, a stag beetle, or a cockchafer perhaps.
His room, a normal bedroom, only rather too gigantic, lay quiet between the four familiar walls, behind two blind-drawn windows. Above the table, on which – beyond his vision – lay a collection of cloth samples, unpacked and spread out (Samsa was a fashion designer) hung the photograph, from a magazine, of his latest creation. It showed a lady in a fur coat and cap that covered her from head to toe, with the hem drawn tight around her ankles, and into which her entire body had vanished! Only two beady little eyes peeked out between the fur collar and the fur brim of her cap. He couldn’t see it in the photo, but Gregor knew that behind the collar the woman wore a frown.
“Ah, Grete!” Gregor sighed, “You are lovely, I’ll grant you that.”
Gregor’s eyes turned to the window, where raindrops falling made him quite sad and melancholy. Why don’t I sleep a little longer and forget about all this nonsense? But he couldn’t sleep; he could only sleep on his side. However violently he tried to roll over he always rolled onto his back again. The sight of his legs flailing about was a constant irritation. I’ll bet real beetles don’t have this problem, he thought. He gave it up only when it occurred to him that all the stress he was laying on his back might damage his little wings and he might never get a chance to fly.
“No,” he said to himself aloud, “relax. Go with it.”
Gregor stared up at the ceiling, which was like a white sky, with a globe fixture luminous as the moon. He remembered that whenever he’d taken it down to change the bulb, it was always full of dead, dry insects.
This sleeping late, he thought, makes one stupid. Other people get up at a decent hour and come home to a pleasant evening in front of the fireplace. I didn’t get in till 4 this morning, at least. My head! Grete pouring me all the Courvoisier! If I ever make it in this business, big enough to afford putting Mom in a home where she belongs, I’ll just have to settle down. But with whom? he wondered. Not Grete! She only loves me for my connections.
He looked at the clock on the dresser. Would you believe it? he thought, it’s only noon! I can’t live on less than ten hours sleep. Without his blanket, which was nowhere to be seen, probably tied into knots on top of the bed as usual, Gregor would never back to sleep on the cold, hard floor. In fact, he didn’t feel the least bit drowsy.
This is silly, he thought. I may as well get up, put on that new pinstripe I’ve been dying to wear all week, and go down to the studio. Nobody but Chester will be there, but perhaps I can do a few more sketches for the gala this fall. If I can sell them on that bottomless leotard, I’ll be as rich as everyone thinks I am.
Fully resolved to get to his feet, Gregory tried rocking back and forth, stretching his head back and to one side like a turtle. He rocked ferociously. I’m like a cradle! he thought. But it soon began to hurt. The top of his head ached so much, he wondered if he wouldn’t pass out from the pain. At all costs, he must not lose consciousness, not when he’d made up his mind to put in an extra two hours of work that day.
With joy, Gregor discovered that he had made some progress after all. He was now much closer to one of the wheels attached to a leg at the head of the bed. If he would move within reach of the wheel by continued rocking, he might grab hold of it and lever himself onto his legs.
He began to rock himself as furiously as before. He would have to nerve himself mightily to withstand the pain long enough to reach the wheel, which was, he noticed with some irritation, absolutely filthy with dust and other questionable matter. Then the doorbell rang. “Who in hell could that be?” Gregory groaned. His whole body twitched from the frightful pain in his head; his legs jigged wildly, like dancing exclamation marks. He was barely an inch away from the wheel. An inch, an eternity, Gregor thought with despair. He began to repeat over and over, “Why me? Why me?”
“Is he up?” asked Chester when Gregor’s mother opened the door.
“Are you kidding?” came her feeble croaking whisper.
“Something terrible has happened!” cried Chester.
Hearing the words, Gregor didn’t wait for his mother’s response. He rocked as hard as he could. The pain set his thoughts spinning.
He’s got troubles? What’s it now? His boyfriend’s moved out again? A drop of gravy’s fallen on his blue suede shoes? It had better be terrible for him to disturb me in the middle of the day. Yet, I can’t let him see me like this, and Mother would have a coronary! This would be her biggest shocker since Dad left her for that cosmetician, K. The way she sits in that chair knitting God knows what, day after day, year after year. She never knitted anything for me, that’s all I know. Now it looks like the thumb, just the thumb of a glove is all I’d need. I must get to my feet. I must!
As Chester rapped the bedroom door, Gregor felt the edge of the wheel against his left side. I’ve done it! he thought.
“Gregor? You up?” Chester asked.
“Go away,” Gregor responded. “Can’t you let a man sleep? I was up with Grete until God knows when. The poor kid’s driving me crazy with her ambitions. Even I can’t help her. I mean I won’t help her. And nothing you can say can make me, so leave me alone. I need my sleep. I’ll see you at three, as always.”
Saying all this in a tone of voice Gregor felt remarkable for its civility under the circumstances, he managed to grab hold of the dirty wheel that was, now that he was right under it, as big as a room. He was gratified to discover that his little legs each had a sticky substance on the soles. By pulling at the wheel from a gradually lower and lower position with his left legs, and steadying himself with his right legs, Gregor finally managed to turn himself over and to stand on his feet.
“Gregor? You there?” said Chester, sounding more and more anxious.
Chester’s apparent deafness vexed Gregor. Hadn’t he provided more than sufficient dismissal of the fellow? What a pest he was! Gregor shouted, “Damn you, Chester! Get the hell out of here. I’ll see you at 3 and not a minute sooner.”
“Did he come home last night, Mrs. Samsa?”
“I didn’t hear him, Chester. Not that I ever listen,” said Gregor’s mother, “I got to bed at ten o’clock like all good God-fearing people.”
“The door’s locked, but I don’t think he’s in there. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s there,” Chester said in a voice tearful and quavering.
Gregor’s mother said, “That would be about the size of it in any case.”
That’s it! Gregor thought. She’s starting in again and he’s in one of his states! If he weren’t so clever with needle and thread, I’d have sacked him years ago.
Then a thought struck Gregor, clearing his mind of everything else.
“Wait a minute!” he said aloud, “I'd nearly forgotten.”
Gregory had remembered his wings.
“Gregor! Wake up. Unlock the door. I must talk to you,” shouted Chester.
“Something horrible has happened!”
“Call me if you raise him, Chester,” Gregor’s mother said, “I’ve got work to do, but I would like to give him a piece of my mind. He hasn’t paid the rent this month!”
Hearing his mother trudge off, Gregor scurried under the bed, feeling more and more sure of his legs every second. He flexed this muscle and that, searching for the right ones. He could feel the hard shell of his back split apart. He could hear the crackle, like wax paper, of his wings unfolding. He tried other muscles. All of a sudden, he jumped. Astounding! His first airborne experience! He jumped again. Ouch! His head hit one of the enormous metal spirals under the bed. Wait a minute, he thought, let me get out of here before I brain myself. Away from the massive roof of the bed, Gregor tensed the now-familiar muscles and up he went. “Yikes!” screaked Gregor, veering to his right just as he was about to collide with a brass floor lamp. “Wheeee!” Gregor flew, rather blunderingly, about the room. He’d never felt so wonderful in his entire life.
“Gregor? Unlock the door!” Chester yelled.
Damn him, thought Gregor. He’ll never leave. Well, if he wants to see me, then he’ll just have to see me. Mother, too. And the Devil take them both. I can fly! There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that.
Veering unsteadily, he made several practice runs at the doorknob. Now, he thought, I’ve got to be going slowly when I land so that the sticky stuff on my feet grabs on and my momentum doesn’t pull me loose. His next two passes were just slightly too fast. I’ve got to hone my timing, he thought. Concentrate. Careful. Then, there he was, standing on the doorknob, sawing precariously. He steadied himself and sheathed his wings.
“I did it!” Gregor shrieked.
The key, Gregor thought. Trusting his ability to cling to even the smoothest surface, he crawled under the great brass ball of the doorknob, onto the wall, and down to the key. Now for the hard part, he thought. Tensing the muscles in his face – there seemed to be dozens of them – he soon found what he was searching for. The mandibles opened effortlessly. He snapped them shut; they made a great, scraping noise. “Ooooo, how terrifying!” he screamed with delight. As he bit the disc of the key, he heard Chester’s voice booming through the door.
“Gregor, if you’re there, please come out. She’s thrown herself from Brooklyn Bridge! Oh, Grete! What could you have done to her, Gregor?”
His great jaws gripped the hard key and his body swiveled across the round brass plate of the lock. An indescribable pain shot through Gregor. Brown fluid dropped from his mouth and the meaning of Chester’s words seared his brain. He dropped to the floor.
Chester could have sworn he’d heard a noise, ever so soft, from Gregor’s bedroom. He began to fear the Grete’s death – “Gregory, I’ll see you in hell!” her note had read – was not the only one. A suicide pact? he wondered. Quite besides himself, he ran to Mrs. Samsa’s bedroom.
“Mrs. Samsa!” Chester cried, “He still doesn’t answer. But I heard a noise. I’m afraid something’s happened.”
“Something terrible?” asked Mrs. Samsa, cocking her head to one side.
She looked up at him, rocking comfortably, a twinkle in her tiny old eyes.
“He doesn’t know it, but I have a key.”
“Get it!” Chester shouted. “For God’s sake, Mrs. Samsa, get it!”
The tinny, rasping sound of his mother’s key in the lock brought Gregor back to consciousness. He was on his back once again. His wings, having spread during the fall – perhaps, instinctively, to break it – felt crumpled and torn beneath him.
“Grete!” he moaned, remembering, “you loved me?!” He saw her young body stretching, her long, wingless flight down.
The door opened, swinging over him with a great blast of wind, blowing him halfway across the room and flipping him onto his feet again.
“There’s nobody here!” shouted Chester hysterically.
“Greetings!” said Gregor, gritting his mandibles against the pain, determined to put the best face on his predicament
“Ugh! A cockroach,” Mrs. Samsa ejaculated.
The last thing Gregor knew was his mother’s shiny black shoe descending upon him like that of some colossal goddess.
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