"Mold of the Earth" (Polish: "Pleśń świata") is one of Bolesław Prus ' shortest micro-stories. Written in 1884, it comes from a several years' period of pessimism in the author's life caused by the lamentable situation of Poland (which nine decades earlier had ceased to exist as an independent country) and by the 1883 failure of Nowiny (News), a Warsaw daily that he had been editing for less than a year.
Mold of the Earth
I happened to be in Puławy one time with a certain botanist. We were seating ourselves by the Temple of the Sibyl on a bench next to a boulder overgrown with mosses or molds which my learned companion had been studying for several years.
I asked: what did he find of interest in looking at the splotches of beige, gray, green, yellow or red?
He regarded me dubiously but, finding before him a member of the profane herd, he proceeded to explain:
"These splotches that you see are no inanimate dirt but--collections of living beings. Invisible to the naked eye, yet they are born, carry out movements that we cannot detect, enter into bonds of matrimony, produce offspring, and at last die.
"More remarkably, they form societies of a sort, which you see here in the form of the variously colored splotches--they cultivate the ground beneath them for the next generations--they grow, colonize vacant areas, even wage struggles among them.
"This gray splotch, large as the palm of a man's hand, two years ago was no larger than a penny. This hoary little spot didn't exist a year ago and comes from the great splotch that covers the summit of the rock.
"These two again, the yellow and the red, are locked in struggle. At one time the yellow one was the more extensive, but slowly its neighbor has been displacing it. And look at the green one--how its grizzled neighbor is making inroads into it, how many gray streaks, spots and clumps you see against the green backdrop?..."
"A bit as among people," I interjected.
"Well, no," replied the botanist. "These societies lack language, art, science, consciousness, feelings; in a word--they lack souls and hearts, which we humans possess. Everything here happens blindly, mechanically, without sympathies or antipathies."
A few years later I found myself next to the same boulder at night, and by moonlight regarded the changes that had occurred in the forms and sizes of the various molds.
All at once someone nudged me. It was my botanist. I invited him to have a seat; but he stepped before me in such a way as to hide the moon, and whispered something soundlessly.
The Temple, the bench and the boulder vanished. I sensed about me a faint light and an immense void. When I turned my head, I saw something like a schoolroom globe, glowing faintly and large as the boulder that we had been next to the moment before.
The globe slowly revolved, showing successive new areas. There was the Asiatic landmass, with its little peninsula, Europe; there was Africa, the two Americas...
Looking closer, I made out on the inhabited lands the same sorts of splotches, beige, gray, green, yellow and red, as on the boulder. They comprised myriads of vanishingly small 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 joined, separated, vanished, appeared on the surface of the globe; but all these phenomena merited little attention. What was of consequence were the movements of entire splotches, which diminished or grew, showed up in new places, infiltrated or displaced one another.
The globe meanwhile kept making its rounds, and seemed to me to execute hundreds of thousands of cycles.
"Is that supposed to be the history of mankind?" I asked the botanist standing beside me.
He nodded in the affirmative.
"All right--but where is art, knowledge?..."
He smiled sadly.
"Where's consciousness, love, hate, longing?..."
"Ha! ha! ha!..." he laughed softly.
"In a word--where are the human souls and hearts here?..."
"Ha! ha! ha!..."
His demeanor offended me.
"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.
The above English translation by Christopher Kasparek appears with the permission of the translator.
"Cienie" ("Shades": a micro-story by Bolesław Prus).