Illustration by Walerian Borowczyk, © Friends of Walerian Borowczyk
Anatomy of the Devil
By Walerian Borowczyk, Translated by michael levy
The odour of tar and burnt meat hits Olaf’s senses. His nose touches the rough surface of a thick envelope made of yellowed and stained paper, his nostrils dilate as he inhales.
The postman, nicknamed Rat-Tail by the village children because of his birch bark snuffbox, with its cover that opens with the aid of a small leather strap that resembles the tail of a rat, takes his time weighing in his hand the letter addressed to the parish priest before slipping it inside the presbytery through the irregular slot below the door.
The instant the envelope passes the narrowest point between the ground and the door panel, a brief and hoarse cry startles Olaf Rat-Tail. There is no doubt: the voice has come from inside the mail he has just delivered!
Olaf looks at his fingers: the index and thumb are bleeding. Two small bites from an animal that was clearly sealed inside the envelope frighten the brave postman. Two rivulets of blood flow onto his right hand. Olaf brings his fingers towards his open mouth to suck the blood, following the recommendations of Doctor Ruban, the specialist in viper bites. Olaf remembers clearly that Captain Ruban at the time of his military service in the distant past also gave precious instructions to him and his comrades regarding relations between young conscripts and prostitutes.
Stop Olaf! The priest exclaims. You’re going to die! It’s the venom of Satan; Beelzebub has bitten you!
The door suddenly opens before Olaf’s hand reaches his mouth and before he completes his thoughts.
- Stop Olaf! The priest exclaims. You’re going to die! It’s the venom of Satan; Beelzebub has bitten you!
Olaf Rat-Tail trembles with emotion.
- Yes, my son, the priest continues, what you have delivered to me inside this letter is the devil. Have a look!
The priest opens the letter with one clean stroke of a knife and turns it over with the opening facing downward… But nothing falls from the slashed envelope. Relieved, Olaf Rat-Tail takes a deep breath.
- May God be praised! says the postman instinctively, reaching for his rat-tail. He opens the box and enjoys a large pinch of tobacco. The priest, of skeptical mind, plunges his hand into the envelope and finds, for the second time… that it is truly empty.
- I believe, nevertheless, he says in a hushed voice… An explosive sneeze by Olaf brings the situation back to its earthly dimensions.
The poor postman Olaf Rat-Tail failed to notice that the tobacco he just sniffed contained the infernal venom mixed with the blood from his two oh so indispensable fingers used to remove the tobacco from the snuffbox.
The story described above inevitably raises the lingering and parallel question that has been gnawing at humankind ever since the birth of the controversy regarding the sex of angels: the anatomy of the Devil. As we have seen, the Devil can appear on earth greatly reduced in form, but how is he made?
Does he have a tail in front or behind?
I assert that the Devil’s tail is placed on the forward portion of his body. I have never seen a devil with its tail in the back.
How about you, have you seen it?
Walerian Borowczyk’s story ‘Anatomy of the Devil’ is featured in Anatomy of the Devil (Rotland Press), the first stand-alone publication of Borowczyk’s fiction in English translation, by Michael Levy, with a new foreword by Daniel Bird, and exclusive cover art by the Brothers Quay.