Then knots of swirling, flitting movements formed on the dark stage as specters joined with each other, showing that the distinction between the sexes still existed within the realm of the dead. Now that eyes had become accustomed to the darkness you could see how men and women stepped out in pairs and then began a circular dance of phantoms winding around between the tombstones.
Even though all the onlookers knew that their own colleagues had discussed, put together and practiced this, and even if they thought they recognized someone beneath the ghostly wrappings, they were still transported into a very strange mood, an unprecedented excitement of the nerves.
Some trick of the beer caused a wild tension to come over the students, which you could sense as frivolous, without being able to tell its origin. This mixture of gruesome and grotesque was repulsive and compelling, fearful and as spellbinding as a look into an abyss. These young people, whose youth and profession brought daily encounters with death and to whom death was unavoidable, felt this dance of the dead, this play of putrefaction, was somehow a challenge; and somewhere in the back of their minds the will to live, to light and to health set itself against the dark influence of this scene.
Meanwhile the dance on the stage progressed, the couples uniting and separating, linking into a chain, forming themselves into a ball that quickly circled around itself, while a whitish-blue light, the phosphorous glow of decay, radiated out at them from the stage and the phantoms appeared to dance faster.
The performance sought to be loyal to Goethe’s poem, and there was something sharply familiar in the movements, some evil intention, something puppet like and angular, as if they really were fleshless limbs dancing.
At the beginning of this performance Herbert Ostermann felt a dull, hollow feeling arising, as if streaming from a storehouse into his body under great pressure, a kind of rage that incited him to jump up and do something foolish to stop the increasing tension. It shot through his head to beat on the table, smash a beer glass on the floor or simply scream with a wide open mouth, “Stop!”
But lightning quick, even as he considered these possibilities; he already felt how the angry outrage left his body, poured out and faded away, leaving him limp and powerless, exhausted and empty, exposed and defenseless against some unformed terror. And then it came to him, slinking from out of the void like a slimy, heavy fluid, rising up to the wall of his “I”, to the foundation of his world, a terror and fear of these wrapped things. A distant part of his consciousness was extinguished in this flood, went under, while another self rose up from it like an island, foul and glowing with an unnatural light.
He sat there, one hand cramped around a beer glass, the other on his knee, balled into a fist, with a distended face, from which his eyeballs appeared swollen from out of their place. That which was dancing around on the stage was an abscess of decay, clotted blood of the grave, stained with the slime of death. Didn’t anyone but him feel these dark, singeing rays that went out from this dance, an invisible, malignant radiation from some metal or stone perhaps; a corrosive excretion from the dance that ate through flesh and bone until it entered into the very soul? Couldn’t anyone sense how the poisonous pyorrhea ulcer raced around to seize and destroy the entire person?
While the horror sucked Herbert in, it suddenly seemed to him as if there was something familiar in the movements of the dancers. It was like when you see something vaguely familiar, yet distorted, and all efforts at remembering are in vain and fail to take form. Within the swaying, twisting, at times advancing and then retreating movements of the dance of phantoms, a flitting shadow of memory jumped forward, disappeared, lost itself in the chaos, and then reappeared once more. After a long stupor Herbert began to breathe heavier, as he recognized fragments of some movement on an innermost level, an inclination, a step, the lift of a hand. Then this shadow of memory lifted, and let itself down upon one of the figures, on one of the female phantoms, upon which it came and went.
It was a tentative growing of form from out of the chaos, a hesitant crawling forth from out of the darkness, of which Herbert felt, besides fear, also something like an outburst of passionate tenderness, a deep sympathy with it.
He was in a complete bundle of unsolved threads from a vague piece of his past that wound around him and held him fast. The phantom on the stage above whirled even more crazily between the gravestones; the skull remained motionless in scary contrast to the leaping and fluttering wrappings. The bones rattled against each other even more loudly, an entire confusion of dry and hard sounds droned from the stage out into the hall. It seemed that the lust of the phantoms had not died within the graves and a horrible orgy of skeletons was about to begin.
Then as if from a great height the sound of a clock fell in the middle of the dance. It was as if the phantoms were blown apart from each other by an explosion. The dance was destroyed. The figures stumbled and staggered back and forth, groping among the tombstones, robbed of all certainty; fearfully searching for missing parts, which they once more put back together. Wrapped with sheets, floundering, timid, staggering and flapping, once more robbed of their freedom, they crouched down at their tombstones and disappeared into the darkness.
There was a large exhalation through the hall before the first timid applause began. Then gradually the clapping of many hands, as if this happy noise could tear away the thin, horrible web that seemed to hang from the stage over the tables.
The president banged with his gavel and bellowed a command.
“By the devil, that was beautiful!” exclaimed Kretschmer and took a large gulp of his stale beer. Then he stood up, pulled on his waistband, flexed and straightened up again, as if he wanted to see whether his flesh and blood were still held together in their accustomed way.
Herbert Ostermann didn’t reply. He was busy trying to find his way out of the shock. There was a strange taste in his mouth and a peculiar emotion remained; a bitterness that could be described as heartburn of the spirit. He turned and saw the participants of the dance of death coming down the small steps of the stage and into the hall. They still wore their grave clothes, but had taken off their masks and fresh, red, youthful faces showed from out of the wrapping of the grave. That was the safest way to dispel the intensity of the past half hour and regain the old composure. They were surrounded, questioned, and praised, as people went around like tightrope dancers joking about an abyss they had just crossed over.
As Ostermann turned back to the table, he was struck by something ice cold and burning through the middle of his heart.
Next to him, in the place that Richard Kretschmer had just left, sat one of the dancers, very quietly, with white cotton gloves over hands respectfully folded in her lap. She still wore the grave clothes like the others, but had not taken off the skull mask, and when she turned her head to her neighbor, there were glimmers in her eyes like distant sparks in dark caves.
It seemed as if she expected to be addressed, and after several tries Herbert succeeded in forcing a type of obligatory smile on his lips and asked if the Fräulein was satisfied with the success of the performance.
The dancer, who seemed to not want to speak, simply nodded.
“Even on the stage you must have noticed the immense tension of the audience, when the dance, which at first showed recognizable amateur shortcomings, became freer, more skillful and artistic until something happened and a living transformation took place between the stage and the audience.”
Herbert continued to speak, as if continuous questions were directed at him by the soft glowing gaze. He spoke of things he hadn’t thought about for a long time. He attempted to bring rationality to the mood into which he had sunken, and felt the power of his speech was like the board on which a lost swimmer placed his last hope.
“Yes, it is strange,” his neighbor said, “for the living to perform a play about the dead.”
“And the cemetery music,” continued Herbert in great agitation. “That modern music with its remarkable beat and intricate rhythms somehow causes the listener to sense all the horrors of the grave. It is illogical music; the logic of music is in its melody. Mozart for example, was a logician and therefore takes us right where his spirit desires with the convoluted scene in ‘Don Juan’, not to the heart . . . but this modern illogical music goes beyond death, which itself is illogical . . .”
“And you are a medical student?” his neighbor asked.
Her voice was muffled and unclear as if pressed through some unclean medium, yet even in its distortion an original melodiousness was unmistakable and Herbert regretted that the resonance had become so altered and broken through the mask. This thought brought his attention with complete sharpness to this thing of paper maché, which was supposed to portray death in a Fasching’s joke. He had to admit that the mask had not been created from cheap materials. In its own way the mask was completely artistic. The harmless material, from out of which the face of the ugly step-mother was portrayed; a dull country clod, a wanton slut, double chinned with bloated cheeks, a red nose and every protuberance and rankness of the flesh; had this time been used to form deceptively smooth bones.
Everything was exact according to color and structure, each bone anatomically correct and sewn so that one could believe that the head really was a skull. They had kept a real skull as a model and used it to make an exact copy with such attention to detail that yes, in many places, in the eyes, the nasal holes and between the teeth the remnants of rotting flesh was portrayed. But the scariest thing was that hair hung down from the back part of the skull, down to the neck, and you couldn’t really tell how it was attached to the bone. That was in contrast to how the face was rendered, where the hair covering was no longer present and the skull was smooth. If the image of the mask was intended to heighten the horror as much as possible, it succeeded through this hair, discolored, matted and covered with little clumps of dirt. It looked as if it really had come from out of the grave.
Herbert Ostermann observed all this with unfathomable calmness, sharp and clear, as if glimpsing a great danger, something that strained against the immense power center of man, against the “I” itself.
“And you are a medical student?” his neighbor repeated her question in the meantime.
“What do you mean? Really! Do you know me?”
“I know you!”
“Won’t you take off your mask? The play has ended! The other ladies already have.”
Something like a soft rattling came out from between the teeth, that was supposed to be a laugh, but at the same time Herbert remembered in a tortured way a sound from out of his childhood days. It was when Prusik, the merchant, threw large, strangely formed scraps of dried shell fish onto the counter. At the same time he was reminded of something else, the forced laugh that seemed to have come from out of completely dried out, mummified, black vocal chords, rustled like a grave wreath.
The dancer stopped laughing.
“The other ladies find that the masks do not suit them. I am not vain. Mine fits me quite well. And you must still puzzle out who I am.”
“I know you then?”
She turned to Herbert and slid a little closer: “Yes!”
Again there was an ice cold and burning pain through the middle of his heart.
Then a miniscule movement, the irrelevant shrugging of the shoulders once more threw an uneasy memory over Herbert, a fragment of a gesture that he recognized. One that had spoken out to him in the play of limbs during that complex dance, one that had come from this dancer that sat next to him.
Immediately the blind towering fear was once more there, breaking the possessed calm of sharp observation, rushing with him down into the darkness. He looked around. To the left and right colleagues were talking away over their beer glasses, writing on calling cards, toasting one another. No one was paying attention to them. It was as if Herbert and his neighbor were not present.
Despite this everything had become unbearable to him. The noise and light beat oppressively against him. He suddenly stood up.
“Come,” we will go somewhere else.”
She was immediately in agreement and followed him to the wardrobe, where she stood next to him for a moment in her coat, and then they went out onto the street covered with a thin, miserable covering of big city snow.