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Short Story

Kant’s Day Off

A short story about the Sage of Königsberg by Heather Reyes.

When Kant saw the time, he knew he must be dreaming.

“Good lord! I must be dreaming!” he said aloud – in his dream, of course. “I never wake up at that time.” He made a small movement of his head towards the time-piece. Not that anyone was there to see. He was alone in his dream.

“This is the strangest dream I ever had,” he continued, “a dream of reality – in as far as we can know it.”

He went first to the window, as was his habit in waking life, opened it to breathe in the fresh air that stimulated the brain. Königsberg looked just a little strange, as if lit from a different angle.

“Of course, at this hour, the city is, indeed, lit from a different angle because the sun is higher in the sky. It’s later.” He was about to close the window again, but paused. “On second thoughts, it’s probably because I’m dreaming that it has an eerie brilliance. Dream-light.” He checked the time once more. “At this hour I am normally at my desk. At my desk in my study in my house in the city of Königsberg on the River Pregel (frozen November to March), a city which grew up around the castle built in 1255 by the Teutonic Order …” He heard his young school-boy voice running on in his head. An odd sound. Like the odd light. He hadn’t heard it – even in his head – for a long time.

It was just over a week since his fiftieth birthday. Yesterday had been the last day of April. So today was … Well, it would depend. If this dream was happening before midnight, it was still the thirtieth of April. If after, then the first of May. And the dream city was bright and blooming. Inviting. The iron grip of a ponderous Prussian winter had been irrevocably loosened and this lovely morning had placed in the opening fist a sweet posy of spring flowers. Who could refuse the invitation of such a city?

Since he was dreaming, there was no need to bother with ablutions and breakfast and all the fussiness of dressing.

He passed a man on the stairs, vaguely resembling someone he knew from his waking life. But the face was changed by dreaming – the eyebrows oddly raised into two startled arches, the eyes beneath staring and terrified. “Poor chap,” murmured Kant to himself. “Clearly having a nightmare. At least my dream’s a pleasant one.” He tapped the man on the nose with the tip of his forefinger. “Cheer up. It’s only a dream.”

The man opened his mouth. The voice was odd. “What are you doing?”

Kant, now thoroughly warmed to the freedom his dream bestowed upon him, replied, “I am tapping you on the nose,then I am going out for a walk in my nightshirt.”

And he did.

The fresh spring air was lovely around his naked ankles. It took delicious liberties with his legs and played with the hem of his white linen shift.

“Hope it’s not going to be one of those common old dreams where the night-shirt gets shorter and shorter,” chuckled Kant, blowing a kiss to the staring housemaid who was supposed to be sweeping a front step. He checked the length of the night-shirt. No problems – so far.

Finding himself in a wide thoroughfare, Kant stopped, a little smile pulling up the corners of his mouth.

“Something I’ve always wanted to do and, since I’m dreaming, nothing can harm me if I do it.” And he made straight for the middle of the wide, cobbled street, paused to savour the moment, then, with a light step – almost a skip – he proceeded down the centre of the busy road.

He chuckled at the astonished expressions on the faces of horse-riders as they veered away from him at the last moment, and at the way the terrified horses rolled back their enormous brown eyes (they were very close) with the sudden, dramatic change of direction. And he laughed out loud at the green-liveried driver of a coach and six whose face turned to a mask of terror as he struggled to manoeuvre the morningfresh team of horses and the heavy vehicle out of the path of a cheerful apparition dancing towards him.

Suddenly, Kant felt a hand grasp his elbow and he was propelled firmly to a less exciting location on the right side of the thoroughfare.

It was a few seconds before he recognized the dreamchanged face of his handsome friend, Friedrich. Taking the beloved face in both hands, he did what he’d wanted to do for years and met the full, delicious lips with his own. Handsome Friedrich, mouth now gaping, could only stare as Kant skipped backwards away from him calling, “My best wishes to your good wife!”

Turning the corner, he was in a street that formed part of the route for his normal afternoon walk. He plucked a sprig of some unnaturally bright purple flowers from a windowbox, twirling the stem between his thumb and forefinger as he went down the familiar street. There was a peculiar, otherworldly stillness about it. He was aware of people at their windows and in doorways, but a general hush held the air. He was used to feeling the eyes of Königsberg’s inhabitants upon him: the rumour had come back to him that they set their clocks by his presence in the streets – so regular was his walking-out time. But in his dream it was different: he had not set out at four o’clock in the afternoon. (Would they dream their clocks were wrong?) People were looking at him in a different way, as if he were … a bride! Dress. Flowers. Walking down a hushed aisle with all eyes upon him.

But there was no altar at the end of the street. Usually he turned right. So, for his dream, he’d turn left … and left again … and arrived in the busy, colourful market. The smell of fruit aroused a dreamy hunger. Apples. That’s what he wanted.

The purple flowers in his hand were beginning to annoy him, so he stuck them into the cleavage of a buxom girl whose dress was simply crying out for such attention. She laughed good-naturedly – even when he added a friendly pinch to her retreating behind. Then he spotted just the apples – apples well stored since the previous autumn. Still crisp-looking. He picked up two and walked off – who needs money in a dream? – and, after only a moment’s hesitation, began to juggle with them – the way he had done as a lad.

The stall-holder called after him something in a special dream-language – in response to which Kant caught both apples in one hand and, with the other, raised the back of his night-shirt.

“And not many people have seen that,” he called over his shoulder. “Call it payment in kind.”

A worm-eaten turnip narrowly missed Kant’s ear, but caught an old lady square in the face, precipitating a most vivid nosebleed. However, Kant’s attention was now on the group of children collecting around him and chanting, “Do it again, do it again …” “Huh – youngsters!” mused Kant. “They never change.”

“I’ll let you in on something more interesting than that,” he proclaimed in a loud voice, snatching a little wooden flute from one child and a jester-like hat from another. “Follow me!” And he put the hat on his head and the flute to his lips and made a noise with it – not an actual tune, because he didn’t know how, even in his dream. The children jostled and ran behind him, laughing and calling out words Kant had never heard before: that dream-language again. Feeling the energy of the children blowing him along from behind – like a wind pushing into the future – he began to realize how exhausting it surely was to be a teacher of young children. So much energy! Still playing a weird melody on the little flute and half dancing over the cobbles, he glanced over his shoulder at the rowdy band whose numbers were increasing by the minute. If I can only get them sitting down quietly to listen to me, what things I could tell them … show them! But they’ll never sit still and listen at this time in the morning. We’d better take some exercise first – tire them out a little, make them happy to sit down for a bit. Then they might pay attention.

So he snaked up and down the side-streets, taking the longest possible route to the quiet square he had in mind, and thinking to himself this was the best dream he’d ever had … and in fact what a wonderful thing dreaming was, allowing an unmarried professor of logic and metaphysics to lead away a whole troupe of children in broad daylight…

And being busy with his thoughts, it was some time before he noticed that the rabble of youngsters was no longer pressing at his heels. A noticeable gap had opened between them. And they’d quietened clown considerably. Their energetic noise had sunk to a resentful grumbling. Some were dragging their feet. Some leant (rather melodramatically, Kant couldn’t help thinking) on their friends for support.

“How much further?”

“Nearly there! Best foot forward. You can do it!”

One more street and there, indeed, they were – the quiet square. The large monument on the far side had a flight of wide stone steps leading up to it. Ideal for his young audience! Gratefully, the children staggered and stumbled towards the steps and flopped down with a general moaning and groaning.

“Cheer up!” grinned Kant, still sprightly and on his feet in front of them. Removing the jester hat and placing it, together with the flute, on the ground beside him, he hummed under his breath something that sounded rather like “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…”

A curious little white and brown mongrel approached the hat and began sniffing at it, keeping a wary eye on the unfamiliar figure watching him. When Kant – suspecting the dog was about to piss on the lovely bright hat – tried to shoo the dog away, it began to bark at him.

“Aggression, as usual, brought on by fear,” mused Kant, pulling up his night-shirt slightly so he could squat down comfortably and try to make friends with the little dog. And, indeed, after a few minutes, he was able to stroke it. It even began to wag its tense little stump of a tail and … yes! … he got it to lick his hand!

“There!” he said, standing up again and looking at the children.

But they were all fast asleep on the steps – curled up against one another like a large basketful of puppies. Kant sighed. “Oh, dear. What a shame. There was so much I wanted to tell them. I felt I was about to give the lecture of my life. And I seem to have worn them out just getting them this far and ready to begin. What a shame. What a shame.” He tried shaking one or two of them gently. A single, sleepy eye-lid lifted a moment, but unable to make the immense effort any longer … closed. He stepped back and looked at them, paused, then raised his hand in a sort of secular benediction. “Sweet dreams, my dears, sweet dreams.”

He picked up the hat and the flute and placed them by their sleeping owners, then walked slowly from the square, murmuring, “I hope some of them, at least, saw me make friends with the dog before they nodded off.”

He hadn’t gone far when a distinct rumble came from his stomach.

“It seems I’m hungry,” he said aloud, waving and blowing kisses to a group of middle aged ladies staring at him from the doorway of a cloth-seller’s shop. “I wonder what sort of meal my dream is going to come up with. I’ll call on Heinrich. He always keeps an excellent table.”

Heinrich’s housemaid looked rather strange with that expression on her face. It made her look older, somehow. But she was niftier than ever on her feet. He’d never seen her flit up the stairs at such a speed – not in his waking life. It was wonderful how time and space – the constants of ‘reality’ – could bend and melt in dreams. And here was Heinrich himself – wheeee! – down the stairs in the wink of an eye.

“Sorry to arrive out of the blue like this, Heinrich, only I’ve been out there dreaming for some time and was feeling a bit peckish and I thought to myself …”

“My dear man, are you all right?”

“Never felt better. Just a bit peckish, that’s all, and I knew you wouldn’t refuse an old friend a bite to eat. And I’ve got something terribly important to tell you.”

“Hannah!” called Heinrich.

The little housemaid with the dream-changed face and oddly speeded up movements reappeared.

“Hannah, tell cook to send up a cold meat supper for two right away … in my study, not the dining-room.”

“Supper, sir? At this hour?”

“Dreamers’ privilege,” pronounced Kant before Heinrich had time to reply. “Freedom to do what you like when you like – how you like. Just try it!”

Heinrich nodded in a slow, deliberate, rather odd manner and the maid moved off at her accelerated dream-speed towards the kitchen.

Heinrich led Kant upstairs to his study and pulled a couple of chairs up to a small table near the window which looked out from the back of the elegant house.

“Now, ‘Herr Professor’,” Heinrich began, gazing with quite unnecessary seriousness, Kant thought, into his face, “tell me what all this is about.”

“If only any of us really knew,” smiled Kant. “But I do believe I am a step closer, at least when it comes to the matter of the planets.” He had lowered his voice to one fit for schoolboy secrets. “And as a thank-you for the supper I’ve invited myself to, I’m going to let you into the most tremendous secret.”

“My dear friend, you have clearly been working too hard. Your mind is everywhere at once … science, morality, religion, history, metaphysics, epistemology … It’s too much … too much …”

“Balderdash! The more a man thinks, the more he can think. Besides, it’s the greatest pleasure in the world. Now listen – but keep it secret for the moment. I’m still working on the fine detail but it’s so tremendously exciting I simply must share it with you.” A prolonged rumble came from Kant’s stomach. He leant forward. “Gas,” he whispered. “The planets are condensed from a mass of gas!”

“My dear friend,” Heinrich began once more, “you really must take some time off. Why don’t you …”

But at that moment the maid appeared at the open door and sped to the table with a tray of cold meats, bread, cheeses, and wine.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” She was already backing towards the door.

“Just inform my wife I’ll be going out shortly and will be needing the carriage.”

“Heinrich, why ever didn’t you say you were going out. I do hope I haven’t delayed you. I say, this is excellent wine! A veritable dream of a wine!”

“I am going out because I’m taking you home.”

“No need for that, dear fellow. I’ll be quite capable of walking through the streets of Königsberg unaided once I’ve a spot of supper inside me. Besides, I want to make the most of this night.”

“So I see!” Heinrich looked startled by the rapidity with which the capacious glass emptied. And even more so when it was held out for refilling immediately.

The effect of four consecutive glasses of rather good, strong wine began to turn the room around Kant into even more of an unfamiliar, wavering, dream-scape and he was vaguely aware that his sentences were twisting and turning upon themselves as he tried to explain so many things … so many things … until he began to sound, even to himself (though he couldn’t do anything about it, it seemed) quite sentimental about reconciling British empiricism and German rationalism. “If only … if only …” Sentimental and, soon, almost lachrymose … and it was so tiring, so tiring to explain about all that and the planets and why people should…

The ride home in Heinrich’s carriage was a vague affair … although the rattle of cobbles beneath the wheels seemed to hurt his head, for some illogical reason, so that he wanted the comfort of resting it on his friend’s obliging shoulder …

And when he became aware of his own bed beneath him once more, he knew the dream was over.

Kant woke up at his usual hour. Remembering the dream, he smiled to himself, then swung out of bed, went to the window, threw it open, and breathed in the good fresh air. Once dressed and breakfasted, he sent for his secretary. The man (whose nose he’d tapped in his dream) stood hesitantly at the door.

“Come in, then, come in.” Kant was already at his desk. “Now, I have no engagements today, as I recall, so …”

“Excuse me, Herr Professor, but you are delivering a lecture at the university at eleven o’clock this morning.”

“I think you’ll find that’s tomorrow, Wilhelm. I distinctly remember it was to be the second of May.”

“It is the second of May, Herr Professor.”

Kant was very still for a number of seconds. His servant did not interrupt this brief time of reflection.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Herr Professor.”

Another pause. “

Absolutely sure?”

“Yes … Herr Professor.”

“Then yesterday …?”

“… was the first of May, Herr Professor.”

An odd kind of smile made Wilhelm’s face look unfamiliar – though not unkind – once more.

“Oh … dear,” said Kant, slowly. He covered his face with his hands. “Oh … dear …”

© Dr Heather Reyes 2002

Heather Reyes is a fiction writer who believes the world could be a better place if everyone ‘did’ philosophy.

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