A Cup of Coffee

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A Cup of Coffee  (1914) 
by Ivan Cankar, translated by Louis Adamič
A Cup Of Coffee was written in 1914 and appeared in a collection of stories and sketches entitled My Life (Moje življenje) published in 1920.

A Cup of Coffee
By IVAN CANKAR
Translated from the Slovenian (Yugo-Slav.)
LOUIS ADAMIE, Translator.
Note.—The original of A CUP OF COFFEE appeared in a collection of Ivan Cankar’s stories and sketches entitled MY LIFE (Moje Zivljenje.) Cankar is the foremost literary light of Yugo-Slavia, a novelist and poet, noted especially for his spiritual depth and love of truth. He was born of extremely poor peasant parents in Slovenia, prior to, and during the World War a part of Austria, and died in 1917.


IHAVE often been unjust, unfair to people whom I loved. Such injustice is an unpardonable sin, permanent, enduring, unforgettable in one's conscience. Sometimes the sin is forgotten, eroded from your life, drowned in the eventfulness of the days; but suddenly, perhaps in the middle of a beautiful enjoyable day, perhaps at night, it comes back upon you, to weigh down your soul, to pain and burn your conscience as though you have just committed it. Almost every other sin or bitter memory may be washed away with atonement and good thought, except this sin of injustice against someone whom you love. It becomes a black spot in your heart and there it remains.

A man may perhaps try to lie to his soul.—"It wasn't so bad as that. Your restlessness has created a black night out of mere shadows. It was but a trifle, an every-day occurrence."—Such words are lies, and the man knows it. The heart is not a penal code in which crimes and offenses are defined. Nor is it a catechism in which sins are classified. The human heart is a judge, just and exact.

Pardonable is a sin which can be described by word of mouth and atoned for. But heavy, tremendously heavy, is a sin which remains with you—in your heart—indescribable, formless. You confess it to yourself when you tremble in fear before death, or at night when the covers of your bed seem like mountains piled upon you.

* * *

Fifteen years ago I came home and remained three weeks. Throughout that time I was gloomy, tired and discontented. My mother's dwelling seemed empty, blank, and I thought that on all of us lingered repulsive shadows, dampness.

The first few night I slept in the large room, and as I awoke in the middle of the night, I saw my mother sitting by the table. She appeared motionless, her head resting on her knuckles, her face illumined in the darkness. As I listened, I did not hear the breathing of a sleeping person, but subdued sobbing. I pulled the covers over my head, but even then I heard her sobbing.


I moved to the attic, where in that dismal humor of mine, I began writing my first love stories. I had been forcibly directing my thoughts to beautiful scenes—parks, woods, creeks, pastures.


One day I craved black coffee. I don't know how it came to my mind; I simply wanted some black coffee. Perhaps because I knew that there was not even a slice of bread in the house and that much less coffee. Sometimes a person is merciless, cruel.

Mother looked at me with her meek, surprised eyes but would not speak. After I informed her that I wanted some black coffee, I returned to the attic to continue my love story, to write how Milan and Breda loved each other, how noble, divine, happy and joyful they were.—"Hand in hand, both young and fully alive, bathed in morning dew-drops, swaying—"

Then I heard light steps on the stairs. It was mother, ascending carefully, carrying a cup of steaming coffee. Now I recall how beautiful she was at that moment. A single ray of sun shone directly into her eyes through a crack in the wall. A divine light of heaven, love and goodness were there in her face. Her lips held a smile as those of a child bringing one a gift. But—

"Leave me alone!" I said harshly. "Don't bother me now! I don't want any coffee!"

She had not yet reached the top of the stairs. I saw her only from her waist up. As she heard my words, she stopped and stood there motionless, only the hand holding the cup shook. She stared at me in terror and the light in her face died.

Blood rushed to my head, from shame, and I stepped toward her as quickly as I could.

"Give it to me, mother."

But it was too late. The light in her face had died. The smile on her lips had vanished.

As I drank the coffee, I said to myself:

"Tonight I shall speak tenderly to her and make up for what I have done."

In the evening I could not speak to her kindly, nor the next day.

* * *

Three or four months later a strange woman brought a cup of coffee to my room. Suddenly I felt a sting in my heart. I wanted to cry out from pain. I shivered, my whole being trembling in stark agony.—For a man's heart is a just judge; a man's heart does not concern itself with paragraphs in statute books or trifles.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1918, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.