Mold of the Earth

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Mold of the Earth  (1884) 
by Bolesław Prus, translated by Christopher Kasparek

I happened one time to be in Puławy with a certain botanist. We were seating ourselves by the Temple of the Sibyl on a bench next to a boulder grown over with mosses or molds which my learned companion had been studying for some years.

I asked what he found of interest in the irregular splotches of beige, grey, green, yellow or red.

He looked at me doubtfully but, persuaded that he had before him an uninitiate, he proceeded to explain:

"These splotches that you see are not inanimate dirt but — collections of living beings. Invisible to the naked eye, they are born, carry out movements imperceptible to us, enter into matrimonial bonds, produce offspring, and finally die.

"More remarkably, they form as it were societies which you see here in the form of the variously colored splotches — they cultivate the ground beneath them for the next generations — they proliferate, colonize empty places, even fight one another.

"This grey splotch, large as the palm of a man's hand, two years ago was no larger than a penny. This tiny grey spot, a year ago, did not exist and comes from the great splotch that occupies the summit of the boulder.

"These two again, the yellow and the red, are fighting. At one time the yellow was the larger, but slowly it has been displaced by its neighbor. And look at the green one — how its grizzled neighbor is making inroads into it — how many grey streaks, spots, clumps you can see against the green background..."

"A bit as among people," I said.

"Well, no," replied the botanist. "These societies lack language, art, learning, consciousness, feeling — in a word, they lack souls and hearts, which we humans possess. Here everything happens blindly, mechanically, without sympathy or antipathy."

A few years later I found myself at night beside that same boulder, and by the light of the moon I regarded the changes that had taken place in the shapes and sizes of the various molds.

Suddenly somebody nudged me. It was my botanist. I invited him to have a seat; but he stepped before me in such a way that he hid the moon, and he whispered something in a hollow voice.

The Temple of the Sibyl, the bench and the boulder vanished. I sensed about me a faint luminosity and an immense void. And when I turned my head, I saw something like a schoolroom globe that shone with a faint light, a globe as large as the boulder beside which we had been the moment before.

The globe slowly revolved, showing successive new areas. There was the Asian landmass with its little peninsula, Europe; there was Africa, the two Americas...

Looking intently, I made out on the inhabited lands the same kinds of splotches — beige, grey, green, yellow and red — as on the boulder. They comprised myriads of infinitesimal points, ostensibly motionless but actually moving very lazily: an individual point moved at most by a two-minute arc in an hour, and that not in a straight line but as it were oscillating about its own center of motion.

The points converged, separated, vanished, came to the surface of the globe: but all these things merited no particular attention. What was of consequence was the movements of entire splotches, which diminished or grew, appeared in new places, infiltrated or displaced one another.

Meanwhile the globe kept making its rounds and seemed to execute hundreds of thousands of revolutions.

"Is that supposed to be the history of mankind?" I asked the botanist, who stood beside me.

He nodded in confirmation.

"All right — but where are the arts and knowledge?..."

He smiled sadly.

"Where is consciousness, love, hate, yearning?..."

"Ha! ha! ha!..." he laughed softly.

"In short — where are the human souls and hearts?..."

"Ha! ha! ha!..."

I was offended by his demeanor.

"Who are you?..." I asked.

Just then I found myself back in the garden, beside the boulder, whose shapeless splotches swam in the moonlight.

My companion had vanished, but now I knew him by his mockery and melancholy.

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