The following is a story from The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, chosen by guest editor Valeria Luiselli and series editor Jenny Minton Quigley. Olga Tokarczuk has won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Book International Prize, among many other honors. She is the author of a dozen works of fiction, two collections of essays, and a children’s book; her work has been translated into fifty languages.
The whole thing started one morning when B., having wrestled the sheets off himself, toddled as usual to the bathroom. He had slept poorly of late, nights breaking him apart into pieces as small as the beads on his wife’s necklace that he’d found in a drawer after she’d died. He had held that necklace in the palm of his hand, and the ancient string had broken, and the faded spheres had scattered, tiny, all across the floor. Most of them he had not managed to find, and ever since, during his sleepless nights, he had often wondered where they might be leading their globular, insensate lives, in what clumps of dust they might have nested, which minute crevices might have become their lodgings now.
That morning, as he was sitting on the toilet, he noticed that each of his socks had a seam that ran down its middle—an expertly done seam, machine-made, that led from the toe to the cuff.
It seemed like a small thing, but it did intrigue him. Evidently he had put them on without paying much attention, allowing this quirk to escape him. Socks with full-length seams, from the toes up through the insteps all the way to the cuffs. And so, once he had done with his morning ablutions, he stomped straight over to the wardrobe, where his socks resided in the bottom drawer in a dense gray-black clump. He disentangled the first one he came upon, brought it up to eye level, and unfurled it. He had landed on a black one, and the room was fairly dark, so he could not quite discern it. He had to go back to his bedroom to get his glasses, and only then was he able to see that the black sock, too, had the same kind of seam. Soon he had pulled all his socks out, taking the opportunity to try to find their mates—each and every one of them had a seam that ran from the toe to the cuff. Suddenly it felt as though this seam must be inherent to the sock, an obvious part of it, inseparable from the idea of sockhood.
At first he felt angry—whether at himself or at the socks, he wasn’t sure. Total strangers to him were such socks, with such seams, spanning their entireties. As far as he had ever known, socks had seams that ran crosswise at toenail level, but beyond that, they were smooth. Smooth! He put the black one on, but it looked so odd he threw it aside in disgust. He started to try on others, but he tired fast, and for a second he felt he could not breathe. Never before had he seen such a seam on a sock. How could this be happening?
He decided to forget about the whole thing with the socks; lately he had done so often: whatever overwhelmed him, he took care to store in the attic of his mind, knowing it wasn’t likely he’d need access to it again, anyway. Now he began the complicated ritual of brewing his morning tea, into which he sprinkled herbs for his prostate. The blend overflowed its strainer twice. While the liquid trickled through, B. cut bread and spread butter over two meager pieces. The strawberry jam he’d made himself had spoiled—the mold’s blue-gray eye gazed out at him provocatively, shamelessly, from inside the jar. He ate his bread with butter alone.
He did think of the thing with the socks several more times, but he was already treating it as merely a necessary evil, just like the leaky faucet, the torn-off cupboard handle, or the broken zipper on his jacket. Handling such matters would have been beyond him now. When he was finished with breakfast he marked what he planned to watch later on the television schedule. He tried to occupy the day completely, leaving only a little empty time to cook lunch and go to the store. Though he almost never managed to comply with the TV’s regime. Instead, he’d fall asleep in his chair and come to suddenly, without any awareness of the hour, attempting to orient himself according to whatever was then on the screen, to see what part of the day he had landed in that time.
At the store on the corner where he bought his groceries there was a woman who was called the Manager. She was a big, strong woman with very light-colored skin and well-defined eyebrows that were as thin as threads. He was already bagging his bread and a can of pasztet when he suddenly felt an urge. He asked, almost in spite of himself, for socks.
“I’d recommend the non-constricting,” said the Manager, handing him a pair of brown socks tightly packed in cellophane. B. clumsily turned them over and over in his hands, trying to see if he could tell through the packaging. The Manager took them from him, swiftly stripped them of their cellophane. Then she laid out one of the socks in the palm of her manicured hand with its attractive artificial nails and held it up for B. to see.
“Look at that, they don’t have cuffs, they don’t constrict, so the blood flows normally through your legs into your feet. At your age . . . ,” she began, but she didn’t finish, no doubt realizing that age was not a good subject for small talk.
B. leaned over her hand like he intended to kiss it.
Down the middle of the sock ran a seam.
“You don’t have any without that seam there, do you?” he asked, as though as an afterthought, as he paid.
“What do you mean, without a seam?” The Manager startled.
“Just for them to be completely smooth.”
“But what do you mean? That’s impossible. How would that work? How would the sock stay together?”
So he decided to definitively leave the thing alone. As a person starts to age, there are lots of things they miss—the world goes full steam ahead, people always coming up with something new, the next amenities. When socks had changed, he hadn’t noticed. Who knew, maybe they had been this way awhile. You can’t be an expert in everything, he thought, cheering himself, as he toddled on home. His trolley bag rattled after him, joyful on its wheels, and the sun was shining, and the neighbor woman from down below was washing her windows, and that reminded him he was meaning to ask her if she could recommend a window washer for his place. Now he saw his windows from the outside—gray, just like the curtains. You might think the person who lived in his apartment had already passed. But he chased those silly thoughts away and made small talk with the neighbor lady for a bit.
Seeing her spring cleaning made him anxious that he ought to be doing something, too. He set his groceries down on the kitchen floor and went into his wife’s room, where he slept now, his own room having been relegated to storage: old TV schedules, and boxes, and empty yogurt containers, and other things that might yet come in handy.
He glanced around. It was pleasant and still feminine, and he found that everything was as it ought to be: the curtains were drawn, the light was low, and the bed was neatly made, with just one corner of the comforter turned down, as though he slept motionless. In the glossy cabinet stood the teacups with their decorative gold and cobalt bands, the crystal glasses, the barometer brought back from the seaside. His blood pressure monitor lay on the bedside table. On the other side of the bed, the large wardrobe had been calling him for months, but since her death, he’d hardly even opened it. Her clothing was still hanging there, and he had promised himself time and time again that he’d get rid of it, but it was a thing he’d not quite managed yet. But now a brave new thought came to him: what if he just gave these things to the woman who lived downstairs? And he could take the opportunity to ask about a window washer.
For lunch, he made himself some instant soup—asparagus—that was actually really good. As main course, yesterday’s new potatoes, fried, which he washed down with kefir. After the nap that naturally followed from lunch, B. went into his room, and over the next two frenzied hours, he cleaned up all the old television schedules that had been set in there week after week, fifty-something of them yearly; and so some four hundred issues had gathered in those wobbly, dusty stacks. Throwing them away would be symbolic: B. needed to kick off this year—years began in the spring, after all, not on some number on a calendar—with an act of cleansing, like a ritual bath. He managed to get all of them out to the dumpster and to heave them over the side of the yellow container labeled “paper,” but then he panicked—he’d just eliminated a part of his life, amputated his time, his own history. On tiptoe, he peered down desperately, trying to spot his TV schedules. But they had vanished into oblivion. On the staircase, as he climbed back up to his floor, he sobbed—briefly, shamefully—and then he felt weak, which must have meant his blood pressure had shot up.
The next morning, when he sat down after breakfast as usual to mark the television programs worth watching, he found his pen was really getting on his nerves. The mark it left was brown, was ugly. At first he thought it was the paper’s fault, so he grabbed a different page from something else and furiously started trying to circle stuff, but those circles, too, came out brown. He decided the ink in this pen must have changed color, from old age or for some other reason. Upset that he had to disrupt his favorite ritual to go and find something else to write with, he stomped over to the glossy cabinet where he and his wife had amassed many pens over the years. There were an awful lot of them, and of course many were no longer usable—the ink had dried up, the little pathways in their cartridges had clogged. He rummaged around in that trove awhile, till he had amassed two handfuls, returning to his paper certain he would find at least one that would write as it was supposed to: in blue, in black, push come to shove in red or green. But none of them did. All of them left behind them a hideous trail the color of crap or rotting leaves or floor polish or moist rust, a color to make a person vomit. B. sat for a long time without moving, except that his hands trembled slightly. Then he leaped up and swung open the cubby in the old wall unit where he kept his documents; he grabbed the first letter from the row but instantly set it back down; it and all the rest of them—statements, bills, notices—had been written on computers. Only when he had managed to pull out some hand-addressed envelope from the very end did he understand that he had to give up: the ink on this envelope, too, was brown.
He sat down in his favorite armchair for watching TV, pulled out the leg rest, and sat still like that, breathing and gazing up at the indifferent white of the ceiling. Only after a while did other thoughts begin to storm his mind; he entertained and discarded them in turn:
—that there might be something in the ink of pens that loses its true color with time and turns brown;
—that there was something in the air now, some toxin, that made the ink change color;
—that it was his eyesight that had changed, maybe that yellow spot, and if not, cataracts, and that that was causing him to see color in a different way.
But the ceiling was still white. B. stood and went about marking his programs—the color didn’t really matter, after all. It turned out Secrets of the Second World War was going to be on later, along with a movie about bees on Planète+. He had wanted to keep bees, once.
Next it was the stamps. One day he pulled his letters out of the mailbox and froze, seeing that all the stamps on them were round. Dentate, colorful, the size of a zloty coin. He felt hot. Without concern for his knee pain, he raced up the stairs, opened the door, and without even taking off his shoes ran to the cubby where he kept his correspondence. He got dizzy. He saw the stamps were round on all the envelopes, even the older ones.
He sat down in his armchair and riffled through his memories trying to find one true picture of a stamp. He knew he hadn’t lost his mind—so why did these round stamps look so outrageous? Maybe he simply hadn’t paid attention to stamps before now. The tongue, that sweet adhesive, that little piece of paper his fingers would attach onto an envelope . . . Letters had been fat once, even bulging. Envelopes had been light blue, and your tongue would follow along their adhesive trail, and then you’d press the two halves of the envelope together with your fingers. You’d turn over the envelope and . . . —yes, the stamp had been square. That was certain. And now it was round. How was that possible? He covered his face in his hands and sat like that for a moment in the soothing emptiness that was always there under his eyelids, just waiting to be summoned back. Then he went into the kitchen and put away his groceries.
The neighbor was hesitant to accept his gift. Suspiciously, she examined the sweaters and silk blouses so carefully folded and placed in a box. But she could not conceal the flash of lust when her gaze fell on the fur. B. hung it up for her from the door.
When they had sat down at the table and eaten their pieces of cake and drunk their tea, B. got up the courage.
“Stasia,” he began dramatically, in a hushed tone. The woman looked up at him, her curiosity piqued, though her lively brown eyes were drowning in the depths of her wrinkles. “Stasia,” he continued. “Something is wrong. Can you tell me whether socks are supposed to have seams—that is, seams that run all up and down them?”
She said nothing, apparently taken aback by the question, reclining slightly in her chair.
“What are you talking about, friend? What do you mean, do they have seams? Of course they do.”
“But have they always?”
“But what are you talking about, ‘have they always’? Of course they always have.”
In a somewhat nervous motion, the woman flicked some cake crumbs off the table and smoothed out the cloth.
“Stasia, what color do pens write in?” he asked now.
She hadn’t had time to reply when he added impatiently: “Blue, right? Pens, ever since they were invented, have always written in blue.”
The smile was slowly disappearing from the woman’s rumpled face.
“It’s nothing to get so worked up over. They can also write in red and green.”
“Oh, I know that, but they’re usually blue, aren’t they?”
“Do you want something a little stronger? A little liqueur, maybe?”
He was about to say no because he wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol, but of course he realized the situation was exceptional. He said yes.
The woman turned to the wall unit and took a bottle out from the cubby there. She meted out two glasses’ worth. Her hands trembled slightly. In this room of hers everything was white and light blue: wallpaper with thin blue stripes, a white cover and white throw pillows on the sofa. On the table stood a bouquet of fake blue and white flowers. The liqueur released a sweetness in their mouths, sent back dangerous words into the depths of their bodies.
With great caution, he began again. “Tell me, though. Doesn’t it seem to you the world has changed? That”—he sought out the right words—“it’s hard to get ahold of it these days?”
She smiled again now, as though in relief.
“Of course, my dear, but of course. Time has sped up, that’s why. That is, it has not sped up, but our minds have worn out, and we can’t catch the time as it goes by like we could have, once.”
He shook his head helplessly, and this showed her he didn’t understand.
“We’re like old hourglasses, you know? I’ve read on this. The grains of sand get rounder the more they trickle, and they slowly rub away, which makes the sand flow faster. Old hourglasses always run fast. Did you know that? It’s the same with our nervous system, it’s also used up, you know, tired out, and stimuli flow through it like through a sieve that’s filled with holes, and that’s what makes us feel like time is flowing faster.”
“And other things?”
“What other things?”
“Oh, you know . . .” He tried to come up with some ruse, but nothing came to mind, so he came out with it directly: “Have you ever heard of rectangular postage stamps?”
“Interesting,” she answered, refilling their glasses. “No, I never have.”
“Or of glasses that have spouts on them? I mean, well, you know, like this one. They didn’t use to have those . . .”
“But—” she started, but he interrupted her.
“Or jars that open if you turn to the left, or clocks having a zero now instead of a twelve, or, and also . . .” He fell silent, too distraught to finish his list.
She was sitting across from him with her hands folded on her lap, suddenly resigned, polite, correct, as though all the wind had been taken out of her. Only her furrowed brow suggested how very uncomfortable it was for her to be in this position, and her eyes, which gazed out at him in stress and disappointment.
In the evening, as usual, he lay down in his wife’s bed, which was where he had slept since her funeral. He pulled the duvet up to his nose and lay on his back, gazing into the darkness and listening to his own heartbeat. Sleep was not forthcoming, so he stood up to open the wardrobe and take out his wife’s pink nightgown. He held it to his chest, and one short sob burst out of his throat. The nightgown helped—but then sleep came and annihilated everything.
“Seams” first appeared in Freeman’s. Copyright © 2021 by Olga Tokarczuk. Reprinted by permission of the author. Translated by Jennifer Croft.