The Bucket Rider – Franz Kafka
Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless;
the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing;
the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime;
the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it.
I must have coal; I cannot freeze to death; behind me is the pitiless stove, before me the pitiless sky, so I must ride out between them and on my journey seek aid from the coal dealer. But he has already grown deaf to ordinary appeals; I must prove irrefutably to him that I have not a single grain of coal left, and that he means to me the very sun in the firmament. I must approach like a beggar, who, with the death rattle already in his throat, insists on dying on the doorstep, and to whom the cook accordingly decides to give the dregs of the coffeepot; just so must the coal dealer, filled with rage, but acknowledging the command “Thou shalt not kill,” fling a shovelful of coal into bucket.
My mode of arrival must decide the matter; so I ride off on the bucket. Seated on the bucket, my hands on the handle, the simplest kind of bridle, I propel myself with difficulty down the stairs; but once downstairs my bucket ascends, superbly, superbly; camels humbly squatting on the ground do not rise with more dignity, shaking themselves under the sticks of their drivers. Through the hard-frozen streets we go at a regular canter; often I am upraised as high as the first story of a house; never do I sink as low as the house doors. And at last I float at an extraordinary height above the vaulted cellar of the dealer, whom I see far below crouching over his table, where he is writing; he has opened the door to let out the excessive heat.
“Coal dealer!” I cry in a voice burned hollow by the frost and muffled in the cloud made by my breath, “please, coal dealer, give me a little coal. My bucket is so light that I can ride on it. Be kind. When I can I’ll pay you.”
The dealer puts his hand to his ear. “Do I hear right?” he throws the question over his shoulder to his wife. “Do I hear right? A customer.”
“I hear nothing,” says his wife, breathing in and out peacefully while she knits on, her back pleasantly warmed by the heat.
“Oh yes, you must hear,” I cry. “It’s me; an old customer; faithful and true; only without means at the moment.”
“Wife,” says the dealer, “it’s someone, it must be; my ears can’t have deceived me so much as that; it must be an old, a very old customer, that can move me so deeply.”
“What ails you, man?” says his wife, ceasing from her work for a moment and pressing her knitting to her bosom. “It’s nobody, the street is empty, all our customers are provided for we could close down the shop for several days and take a rest.”
“But I’m sitting up here on the bucket,” I cry, and numb, frozen tears dim my eyes, “please look up here, just once; you’ll see me directly; I beg you, just a shovelful; and if you give me more it’ll make me so happy that I won’t know what to do. All the other customers are provided for. Oh, if I could only hear the coal clattering into the bucket!”
“I’m coming,” says the coal dealer, and on his snort legs he makes to climb the steps of the cellar, but his wife is already beside him, holds him back by the arm and says: “You stay here; seeing you persist in your fancies I’ll go myself. Think of the bad fit of coughing you had during the night. But for a piece of business, even if it’s one you’ve only fancied in your head, you’re prepared to forget your wife and child and sacrifice your lungs. I’ll go.”
“Then be sure to tell him all the kinds of coal we have in stock! I’ll shout out the prices after you.” “Right,” says his wife, climbing up to the street. Naturally she sees me at once. “Frau Coal Dealer,” cry, “my humblest greetings; just one shovelful of coal; here in my bucket; I’ll carry it home myself. One shovelful of the worst you have. I’ll pay you in full for it, of course, but not just now, not just now.” What a knell-like sound the words “not just now” have, and how bewilderingly they mingle with the evening chimes that fall from the church steeple nearby!
“Well, what does he want?” shouts the dealer. “Nothing,” his wife shouts back, “there’s nothing here; I see nothing, I hear nothing; only six striking, and now we must shut up the shop. The cold is terrible; tomorrow we’ll likely have lots to do again.”
She sees nothing and hears nothing; but all the same she loosens her apron strings and waves her apron to waft me away. She succeeds, unluckily. My bucket has all the virtues of a good steed except powers of resistance, which it has not; it is too light; a woman’s apron can make it fly through the air.
“You bad woman!” I shout back, while she, turning into the shop, half-contemptuous, half-reassured, flourishes her fist in the air. “You bad woman! I begged you for a shovelful of the worst coal and you would not give it me.” And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.
Franz Kafka – The Bucket Rider