Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The Wicked Nun-C

I trembled in a vague fear and suddenly I was assailed by a fearful thought. People often have a sensation that suddenly comes over them, that is not born in them, as if it does not belong to them, but comes from somewhere outside of them, as if it is communicated to them somehow by a stranger.  This sensation was so strong that I had the impression that the thought had been spoken out loud, as if someone near me had given a warning . . . in a whispering female voice.  Yes indeed, warned . . . the sense of this strange thought was a warning. It was as if someone whispered to me that I should take care not to reveal the passageway that was indicated on my plan. I wanted to shake the thought away and attempted to attribute its emergence to the strange tranquility, which was so saturated with incense as to be almost tangible.  It trickled incessantly from the old walls of the Sacristy, stirred up by the shaking of the demolition work of the adjacent building. The moonlight appeared filled with this trickle, as if it were made out of the grains of a silver sand that slipped through the hourglass of time.

The more stubbornly that I tried to turn my attention to observing my environment, the stronger the warning became. I needed to guard myself against revealing the blueprint; otherwise I would pull down a heavy misfortune upon myself. Again and again I frantically tried to contemplate the wonderful games of the moonlight and the more urgent and insistent the strange thought became. For a moment it seemed to me as if someone laid a hand on my shoulder and whispered into my ear. And then I sensed very perfectly, how a strange will tried to take control of me. I looked up and gazed into the dark, blazing eyes of the image above the cabinet.

Then it became painfully clear to me where I had seen those eyes before. It had been when the chase had passed by me; they were the eyes of the pursued woman. Even though I was not afraid, I was so startled, that I lost my senses. I did not cry out or run away, but I did something that was much worse. Slowly, my eyes fixed on those in the painting; I pulled myself back, step by step, as if to escape from a very real danger.

Then I gripped the large church key in my hand, like someone uses the nearest thing at hand as a weapon when ambushed by robbers. Finally, I was back in the church and slammed shut the door to the Sacristy. It echoed from lost alcoves in the darkness. The paintings and statues appeared to have changed their positions and looked scornfully down on me.

I quickly left the church.

The rest of the night was sleepless until morning. Even though I only first fell asleep at dawn, I awoke anyway, so that I could immediately begin work in the Sacristy. Despite the nightly warning, I was determined to uncover the passageway. My fear was during the night. My fear had no power over me during the day that could deter me.

As I entered the building site, I found the archivist already there, driven to come by the same impatience as I had been. I selected a number of skilled workers and told them how to proceed in removing the immense cabinet from its place. The painting over the cabinet, which I regarded with some trepidation, was ordinary, like dozens of other paintings, hidden under a thick dirty crust, of which little more than a pale spot—indicating the face of the portrayed saint—was clearly recognizable. It was not in the least sinister, and I was going to ask the archivist what he thought about the painting, but he spoke to me first.

“Listen,” he said to me, “it must have been very beautiful in this nun’s cloister. Yesterday, late in the evening, I took up the chronicle, and I thought that it might contain a few things of interest for us about this passage. I believe that I have already told you a few of the things that the chronicle reports of this cloister. Yesterday I read through everything once more, because I hoped to find some reference point for our research.

The modesty of the nuns, to the discredit of their cloister, in this place gave way to the most indulgent indecencies. They often gave themselves over to the worst excesses and the chronicle reports that quite often the clinking of glasses and cheeky laughter continued through the entire night and outraged the neighborhood. It must have been a type of lunacy, a frenzy of madness, that the entire cloister participated in and it incited the nuns to the wildest orgies. Quite often the citizens even saw the church itself lit, from which the noises came. They could hear from the sound that the nuns had chosen to use God’s house itself as the place for their celebrations.

The chaplains from the city were drawn to participate in these orgies and at first came only at night and entered the cloister in secret, but later they even came openly in the light of day. They were often seen leaving the cloister staggering, with bloated faces. Drunken nuns were seen lurching around the courtyard and in the cloister gardens. It is no wonder that the pious citizens, to whom these passions were an abomination, made a protest to the Bishop. The Bishop himself came to investigate, but he found nothing more than a group of pious nuns, that led a contemplative, prayerful holy life in this cloister, as was proper for the brides of Christ. And a survey of the clerics in the city only confirmed this observation.

The defaming accuser was brought before the court and sentenced to a hard punishment under pressure from the authority of the Bishop. As the Bishop turned his back on the city the shameful behaviors began once again. But no one dared to protest any more for fear of being punished. Of all the loose living nuns, sister Agathe was the worst. The orgies in the cloister were not enough to satisfy her. She must have been a very strange woman with a terrible and devilish rutting passion that tore at everything and destroyed it. She must have possessed the insatiability of a predator; because the chronicle tells of her, that she often left the cloister through a secret passage and spent nights running around the city.

She was a guest in the brothels and taverns of the suburbs and sat among the rabble, among the gamblers and drunkards, as if she belonged with them. She did this even though she was of noble birth, from one of the most prominent families of the country. Generations of carefully concealed vices from within her family were revealed in her and assumed a disgusting appearance. If she liked a young man, she wrapped herself around him and would not release him. With wild abandon, like a bacchanalian, she would pull him to herself. The entire city soon knew of her and spoke of her as a nightmare or a ghost.

They called her simply, “The wicked nun”. Then it happened that venereal disease slipped into the city. Agathe was also infected with it, but she was unable to contain her sexual drives and continued her wild living. As before, she danced in the taverns, sat among the rabble and fell upon young men in the street like a vampire.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Dr. Holzbock interrupted himself. “You look ill.”

I asked him to stop his story for a moment and turned away, in order to check the progress of the work. The floorboards were torn up all around the immense cabinet and the mortar was scraped away from the wall. But it was not possible to move the cabinet even an inch.

“I believe,” said the foreman, “that the cabinet is anchored into the wall.”

It could not be otherwise, but then it must have been anchored to the wall at the same time that the Sacristy was built. That meant our blueprint was wrong or—we looked at each other, and the archivist spoke my thought out loud.

“The passage goes in through the cabinet.”

I was excited and beside myself with impatience over the new revelation and angry over so many obstacles.

“How are we going to find the way through? We would have to break the entire cabinet into pieces and we can’t do that. It is part of the church inventory. What should we do?”

The archivist was almost as impatient as I was. While Dr. Holzbock considered, I searched the entire cabinet, pressed on all the protruding ornaments, pulled out all the drawers, at least the ones that were not locked, and measured all the dimensions, in order to perhaps find the hidden door out of some curious relationship.

 

“Don’t bother yourself over it,” said the archivist. “This cabinet, which has held its secret safe against generations of the curious, will not reveal itself to us either, without further counsel. We must search in the archives, perhaps . . .”

I was not listening anymore; as my eyes estimated the height of the cabinet, my glance fell upon the painting that was hanging over it, and suddenly it seemed to me as if this painting must give me the key. To the amazement of the archivist, I ordered a ladder to be placed against the cabinet and climbed up. Such close proximity to the pale face, being eye to eye with it, brought the horror of the night back to me. But I composed myself and began to examine the portrait. The thick layer of dirt left little more to be recognized, even this close, than that it portrayed someone in the garment of a nun, whose hair was free of ribbons or a hood, and whose head was surrounded by curly hair. Strangely enough, this hair looked more like snakes tangled together, like someone might paint the head of Medusa. But the painting was in such poor condition that you could not be certain about it. She wore an ornament on a string around her neck. It was not a cross, like one might find on a nun, but a type of brooch, a decoration, an ornament. It looked like a small lily that was enclosed in a polygon. It seemed to me as if I had seen the same ornament down below on the cabinet as well. The lily had been enclosed in a hexagon, a rhombus and again in a pentagon as it was here.

“Doctor,” I cried as I climbed down the ladder. “I believe that I am on the trail of a mystery.”

“And you have picked up the trail up there in the portrait?”

“I believe so. The key is a lily in a pentagram. Let’s search for it.”

Although I knew very well that I had seen the ornament, I was so confused at the time; that I could not immediately find it again. The sections of the cabinet seemed to me as if they were swimming in a fog, and I struggled in vain against a tiredness, which I now, in the decisive moment, could not explain. It almost felt the way frostbite feels.

Then the archivist cried out next to me, “Here is a lily in a pentagon. Now what?”

My tension had suddenly returned again, it was inescapable; there was no doubt about the outcome.  I examined the lily, all the curious workers stood around us. It seemed to me as if the wood gave a little beneath my hand. Then I pressed with all my strength—there was a groan that went through the ancient cabinet, a deep moan coming from its deepest depths and a narrow gap cut through the cabinet from the top to bottom. We put our shoulders to it, but the rusty hinges, not used for centuries, gave way only grudgingly. We had to open the door jerkily and had time to marvel at the secret inner mechanism.

Externally, this also followed portions of the cabinet’s broad formation, with pressure on the lily the united surfaces visibly separated to expose a door. At the same moment, in which this was opening, the drawers of the cabinet were pushed back to the left and to the right out-of-the-way and we stood before the back wall of the cabinet. There it was not hard to find the button which we had to press in order to open the door as well.

The Wicked Nun-B

That day we made a discovery in the rubble field that highly delighted the archivist. It was the excavation of a beautiful old portal, whose elaborate artwork had been done with such care in the past that he wanted to set it back up again as a memorial in a different place.  Over two pillars, which were richly decorated with flowers and fruit, curved a beautiful arch over the entrance. On the ledge above this portal stood statues of the saints in the style of the 17th century, saints that held their symbols out in front of them like hieroglyphs of their fates. As they tried to lift St. James from his pedestal, his head fell from his neck, rolled a few paces further and remained lying in the rubble. You could see a round cylindrical recess at the base of the head; as if an iron bar had once been fastened to it and when they picked up the rest of the statue you could see that the recess continued into the cavity of the statue as well.

At first I reproached the workmen for their carelessness, but Dr. Holzbock, who had lifted the head and was looking at it very intently, interrupted me:

“They could not help it, my friend. This is not a new break; it is an old one. It is not an accidental separation, but an intentional one, and it would not surprise me . . .”

Just then one of the workers came up to me and handed me a small role of dirty paper.

“This was inside the hole,” he said. “Perhaps there is something in it.”

The archivist looked at me and took the roll of paper from out of my hand. With great care he attempted to unroll it and finally succeeded in spreading it out on the drawing board in my office and fastening it down with thumb tacks. It was a piece of heavy ancient document, like that which the most important contracts had been preserved upon in the past. I tried in vain to make sense of the confusion of red and black lines. It appeared to be some type of blueprint, even though my skills as an architect failed to make any sense of it. I gave up my efforts, but Doctor Holzbock declared that he was determined to solve the puzzle of the paper and asked me if he could take the find home with him.

Even before closing time he had returned and beckoned to me from afar with his hand. Solemnly, he laid his hand on my arm and led me through a small nearby door into the church, where we could be undisturbed. A wonderful evening sky, in which unfathomable purples, reds, and the deep emerald of the pilot boats with their white sails disappearing into the night, gave the lonely church something of their colors.  The tall Baroque silver candlesticks, between which we were standing, were tinged with red. On the wall across from us St. Agnes allowed her anger to disappear and radiated in turn a glowing expression of sensuality. The statues of the saints, the pulpit and the angel below the gallery were transformed, as if released from the compulsions of the day and rejoicing in the night, in which they could be entirely free, and perhaps live a life of which we knew nothing.

In the meantime the archivist had pulled our blueprint out of his pocket and began:

“After some consideration it became clear to me that this blueprint as we see it now is meaningless. Or rather, its meaning is hidden. When we observe the confusion of lines, our senses are so overwhelmed, that it could be a blueprint, but we are not able to determine just exactly what it means. The appearance of the paper, even the letters, which you find here and there among the lines, I can with confidence claim, originates from out of the first half of the 17th century. That was also the time when this building was a cloister for nuns. Now, I have found an old chronicle that speaks quite often and very specifically about this cloister, and seldom with very kindly thoughts.

You know that people often said the strangest things about cloisters during those times. My chronicle also has much to report about this cloister, but very little of it is edifying. If our guess is right, that this paper which we found is a blueprint, then it could very well signify some mystery of the old building, which was then deliberately made to appear confused and incomprehensible to anyone else.  Another consideration strengthens me in this presumption. Have you discovered an inner passage at the portal, whose excavation you have begun today?”

“Yes, it adorned the entrance to the compound wings between the northern and the southern tracts and lies directly in front of the so called three cornered court. “

“Very good, then it will not have escaped you, that the top of this portal reaches as high as the second floor, so that some of the figures, that is the heads of the statues, could be reached without difficulty from the windows of the second floor.

Certainly, we can see that even now. The heads of some of the figures, including that of St. James, could be removed from the windows of the second floor without any trouble, if they had been separated from their bases. It would be easy to hide a dangerous paper in one of those clever recesses.”

“You think so too?”

“Haven’t I just told you that it was not a fresh break? Now I was so completely convinced of this, convinced that there was some hidden mystery behind the confused scribbles of our blueprint.  The message was hidden, but how could I get to it? I had to consider everything, before I applied any reactant chemical, because of the danger that I might spoil everything with it.

As a researcher of ancient history I have often had the opportunity to be amazed at the manifold and ingenious secret materials of the Middle Ages. I know many of the formulas for secret writing. Of these sympathetic ink plays the most important role, and the simplest type of this ink is one which becomes invisible again after drying and only becomes visible again when the paper is warmed up. This paper here could not be of that type, because it already has enough scribbles. But isn’t the reverse also possible with the unimportant and confused lines? That was something I could try without fear of damaging our treasure. Well, my dear friend, I made the attempt and it was a complete success. Would you like to see?”

Dr. Holzbock pulled out a small pocket lamp and lit it; then he laid the plan on the warming cylinder. We waited silently in the growing twilight, which was only a little disturbed by the fearful light of the little lamp. After several minutes of observation, I believed that several of the lines were becoming fainter. Then they disappeared entirely. Finally, all that remained were several lines that clearly formed a blueprint.

“It is a blueprint like I said, and now it is your job to read it.”

In a moment I found my directions, “Here is the three cornered court; here is the crossroads; this signifies the church and out from that is the Sacristy and out from the Sacristy . . . what is this? This line does not correspond to any masonry, it must be . . . Yes, and it is without a doubt a subterranean passage that leads out from the convent.”

The archivist was beside himself with joy that his suspicions had been confirmed, and I was delighted as well. It seemed to me that this discovery must in some way have something to do with my nightly experiences. I was about to tell him about it but a strange shyness held me back. I have always been guarded at the beginning of things as they developed, not wanting to speak too much, for fear of the impact of the spoken word. The word is more powerful than our common sense thinks, and it influences the future in some mysterious and intangible way.

But Dr. Holzbock must have noticed something of this because he asked me almost anxiously, “What is wrong? You seem so out of sorts.”

But I pulled him into the Sacristy without giving an answer. Here I began to search the walls according to the measurements described in the plan. I found that an immense cabinet stood against the wall where the beginning of the subterranean passage should be. It was a gigantic cabinet that could hide an entire kingdom of vestments and treasures, a well-crafted piece of old world craftsmanship.

The monstrosity, heavy as a boulder, decorated with rich carvings, rose like a Colossus from the floor to the ceiling. The archivist placed its origins in the 16th century. We were both convinced that the entrance would be found behind this cabinet, but it was also very clear to us that we could not move this monstrosity from its place if we didn’t know the secret mechanism.

“Enough for today,” said Dr. Holzbock and he managed to convince me that I should go home, although I had initially intended to remain in the Sacristy overnight, as if to guard our treasure from thieves. Our discovery and the assumptions that tied in with the blueprint occupied me so very much that my wife claimed I was obsessed.  She scolded me for so long that I promised her, as I had done before, to apply for my vacation.

Although I was resolved to not leave my bed again that night, a strange feeling compelled me, in which fear mixed with curiosity, to get up in the dark hours and go down onto the street to wait.

It struck midnight and immediately I heard the fearful scream. The sound of running men came closer and the pursuit went past me exactly as it had the previous night. This time I could see perfectly that the woman was wearing a long, nun like garment that was open a little at the breasts, as if she had hurriedly thrown it on. She turned her head to me for a moment, a pale, beautiful face, in which her dark eyes glowed with a strange light.

Once more I was compelled to follow after the chase, and again everything disappeared at the fence that surrounded the rubble field. But I believed I clearly seen the pursued woman tear open the gate and enter the building site.

“Didn’t you see anything tonight either?” I screamed at the night watchman. The man drew away from me and declared that he had not seen anything.

“But I know that she entered here. You must have seen a woman.”

When the night watchman insisted that he had seen no woman or anyone else, I pushed him aside and began to search without giving any explanation of why I was so upset and eager to get to the bottom of things. I climbed over all the debris piles, investigated all the rooms and a hundred times believed that I saw a woman in the long gray dress of a nun deep in the shadows.  Once I turned around suddenly because it seemed as if she was following with quiet steps so close behind me in the moonlight that I could hear her breathing. I opened the church with the key, which I had put in the pocket of my coat that evening with a dark intention.

In that moment I didn’t consider that there could not have been any way for her to enter the locked church. After I convinced myself that there was no living being in the church I entered the Sacristy and pulled out the blueprint. The moonlight shone bright and green on the old cabinet so that the decorations shone as if made of bronze. The beautiful carvings sprang out from the golden brown background, and the exuberant cherubs appeared to come to life in the light.

A painting above the old cabinet that I had not noticed during the day caught my attention. It was an old painting, so darkened by the smoke of incense and candle flames that only the face of the saint could be made out, as if stepping out from the shadows of the centuries. Or maybe it was not the face of a saint? Perhaps it was the portrait of a woman who had once lived within these walls? It seemed more friendly and informal than the portrait of a saint. Then in the green moonlight it seemed to me as if I had seen this face once before. Those dark, flaming eyes burned into my own.

The Wicked Nun-A

The Wicked Nun

By Karl Hans Strobl

Translation by Joe Bandel

 

One night I suddenly awoke out of a deep sleep. My first thought was a certain surprise that I had woken up at all; because I had spent the entire day in the ruins of the old Jesuit barracks and was very tired. I turned over onto my other side and tried to fall back to sleep, but then I heard a scream, a scream that scared all sleep away from me. It was a scream of terror, and in that moment I sat up straight in bed.

At first I tried to get my directions straight. Often at nights I don’t know where the door is or the window and have to search for them. I finally remembered that there was only one way that I could sleep, with my bed facing north to south, and then I knew that the door was on my right and the window was on the left.

In bed to my right my wife slept in a peaceful, contented, childlike sleep.  After a while, which I spent tensely listening, I lay back down, convinced that it must have been a dream. This dream must have been strangely powerful and wild to have those screams resound so loudly in the twilight of my consciousness. It was only after two hours that I was able to fall asleep again.

During the day I couldn’t keep my mind on my work. My thoughts were constantly preoccupied with my dream and I wanted to indulge in them undisturbed. I climbed around among the ruins of the Jesuit barracks. I had to manage and supervise the demolition.  The sun was relentless and the dust of the broken masonry wrapped around me and got into my lungs.

Punctually at eleven o’clock, as every day, Dr. Holzbock, the head of the provincial archives, found his way over to me and inquired after the progress of the work. He was extremely interested in the destruction of the ancient building, which in its oldest parts almost dated back to the founding of the city. Since he had made the history of this country his study, he hoped to find many clues in the dissection of this august body.

We stood in the great court and watched as the workers tore down the first floor of the main wing.

“I am convinced,” he said, “that we still have many special discoveries to find after we get down to the level of the foundations. On the testimony of the past, physical gravity has pulled many powerful works to the ground. I cannot tell you how much such a building attracts me; one with such a rich history as this one. At first it was a merchant’s court, then a nun’s cloister, then a fortification and finally a barracks for Jesuits.

A relatively large part of the old foundation appears to have touched the surrounding walls of the old city, and may have taken in and left traces of that life behind. These layers of deposits, which cover one another, proclaim traces of each time period in a geology of history for us. I believe that there are still strange things to discover in this old masonry—not just pots with old coins and whitewashed frescoes, but also petrified adventure and fossilized fate.”

Thus said the fanatical archivist, and across from us the team of workers exposed a tip of solid masonry. An archway was revealed there, and I imagined the many processions of merchants, nuns and Jesuits, who had spent one part of their lives under the oppressive grayness of this passageway. While Doctor Holzbock continued his rhapsody I was seized with the irresistible, romantic temptation to visit the ruins some night. I wanted the charm and thrill of the uncanny to work its effect on me and to make friends with the spirits of this place.

That night I awoke out of a sound sleep, exactly as I had done the previous night, and shortly after that heard the fearful scream. I had been listening for it and strained to determine exactly where it came from. Yet at the decisive moment, I was seized by such an inexplicable fear, that I couldn’t tell exactly if it came from inside our house or from out on the street. Shortly afterwards, I believed that I heard the loud steps of men coming from the street. I lay in an uncomfortable half sleep till morning; in which I occupied myself with the puzzle of this scream. When I spoke of these things to my wife at breakfast, she laughed at first.

But then she said worriedly,” I believe that you have become more nervous since you have been so preoccupied with the old Jesuit barracks. Take some leave and let one of your colleagues take your place. You are overtired and have an obligation to your health.”

But I didn’t want to hear anything about it because digging in the rubble of the old building and searching for the things that the archivist expected to find, had become my passion.  I gave into my wife only this much; I promised her that I would wake her up if I woke again in the middle of the night.

That night I once again woke out of a sound sleep. Hastily and fearfully I shook my wife awake, and we sat upright next to each other in bed. Then the scream came once more, shrill and very clear—from the street.

“There, there, do you hear that?”

But my wife lit the lamp and looked at my face.

“My God! How you look! It is nothing. I don’t hear anything at all.”

I was so beside myself that I screamed at her, “Hush . . . there . . . now there is running down below on the street.”

“You are hurting me,” cried my wife, as I squeezed her arm, as if to convince her by force.

“Didn’t you hear it?”—

“I didn’t hear anything, nothing at all!”

I sank back into the cushions covered with sweat, exhausted, like after strenuous physical work and was unable to give understandable answers to the concerned questions of my wife. Around morning, when she was once more asleep, I became clear about what I had to do to satisfy her. With completely serene and calm behavior during the day I succeeded in convincing my wife that I had calmed down. During the evening meal I joked about my nightly hallucinations and promised her that I would sleep until morning the next day and to not trouble myself any further over the scream, or other tumult on the street. At the same time I promised her that immediately on completion of this very special and responsible work I would take a long vacation.

But I had scarcely heard the deep breathing of my wife indicating she had fallen asleep, when I got up and got dressed again. In order to ensure that no unreasonable thoughts would enter my head, I took up Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and attempted to submerge myself in its strict and logical presentations. But around midnight a disquiet and unrest came over me that made me incapable of reading any more. It was impossible to follow the iron force of the book. A stronger force pulled me away from it.

I quietly got up and went out of the house. By my growing trembling I knew that the time had come. I pressed into the recess of the house entrance, summoned all of my courage and waited. I was determined to find the natural cause of my nightly torments and put a quick end to them. A gas street lamp burned twenty steps away and gave enough light for the section of the street in front of my house. A young man, who had apparently drunken too much, came up the other side of the street to a house. He stood there standing and after several failed attempts, finally unlocked the door. I listened to the sound of his return home as he crossed the main floor and began to climb the stairs. Then everything was quiet again.

Suddenly a scream flared up in the stillness. I staggered back into the deep shadows and reached for the door knob, whose cold metal I could feel perfectly in my hand. Desperate and beside myself with fear, I wanted to flee. But even though I had not locked the front door I could not open it. Then I heard the rushing steps of many people on the street and something flew past me. I could not recognize whether it was just a shadow or a human. It did not seem to possess the weight of a human as it passed; but it gave the distinct impression of physicality; of a woman in a frantic run up the street; a woman in a long flowing gown which she lifted up in order to run better. And several steps behind her came an entire crowd of men in strange garb that was foreign to our time. With them the experience was also repeated as of shadows gliding past, but still giving the impression of physicality.

I don’t know what madness possessed me and forced me to run behind them. It may have been the madness of the slaughter that is stronger than fear and causes soldiers to throw themselves into enemy fire. I never ran before like I did then.  It was not like a run; but more like a gliding and floating, as if I were in a dream. I never lost sight of the chase in front of me, the woman ahead and the crowd of men behind. It seemed to me that I had run for a long time and yet I felt no sign of fatigue.

Suddenly the woman disappeared; I still saw the chaotic back and forth movements of the pursuing men and then everything disappeared into the shadows of the night.

To my surprise, I stood in front of the wooden fence that surrounded the ruins of the Jesuit barracks. There was a sign over the entrance that read: “This site is banned to nonemployees!”

I tore open the gate and stormed in. The night watchman stood there very close to the entrance, leaning against a support, and greeted me as I appeared so suddenly before him. Proud that my sudden appearance had found him at his post, he pulled himself together and tried to announce his presence. But I did not let him say a single word.

“Have you seen a woman? She was wearing a long gray gown that she was holding up high and she just ran in here!”

“I have seen nothing Herr Architect, nothing at all.”

“By the devil, she could not have melted into the air. Have you been sleeping? Sleeping with your eyes open?”

The watchman was very upset about my suspicions and asserted emphatically that he had not been sleeping, and that he still had not seen anything. Then I began looking around for myself. I crawled around everywhere, looked into all the corners of the courtyard; the many rooms and crannies which were lit by the reflection of the city lights on the jagged broken walls overhead. I dared to cross dangerous remnants of masonry which threatened to collapse at any moment in order to look into the most otherwise inaccessible chambers.

Then I ran further along the half open gallery and the glow of the lanterns played strange shadow games on the dirty paintings. The church, which had been completely enclosed by the old building so that only the roof and tower rose high above the gray walls, was now laid bare for the greatest part, and there were a crowd of hiding places. But I didn’t find anything there either  and went back home with a heavy head and trembling knees; all the while thinking about what I had seen and putting every possible  interpretation on it, but just getting more confused than ever.

“Hopefully you didn’t hear anything last night,” said my wife the next morning.

“No—I slept soundly,” I lied and quickly stuck my face in the water basin so my wife would not discover the signs of the night on my features.

The Mermaid

The Mermaid

 

Tall Peters came running back into the village like a man possessed. Even from a distance he was waving his long arms in the air. Yes, then the pastor’s wife randomly threw a glance out the kitchen window. When she saw how tall Peters came running with his legs flying and waving his hands the frying pan fell out of her hands in terror.

The pastor’s wife was in another condition. Terror went shooting through her limbs and she sank down onto the wooden crate by the stove deathly pale. With one hand she held her aching body, with the other she felt along the wall trembling convulsively. Her trembling fingers threw the salt shaker from the nail so that it fell down and shattered. The white salt mixed with the gray dust in front of the stove. Her eyes were staring wide open and fear poured into the emptiness.

Then tall Peters ran through the village bellowing something as long legs flew behind him and his arms waved like a windmill. He was yelling at the top of his lungs. The women peered after Peters from out of all the doors. But he didn’t stop until he had ran through all the streets. Then he stood in the middle of the village square, pale and panting from the exertion. Curious, inpatient women crowded around him. What was it? Yes. What was it? Yes what?

The fishermen have caught a mermaid down on the beach. She’s lying there in the sand. She was trying to escape and the waves have washed her ashore. She has a fish tail and green blood and she’s lying down there. Everyone should come and see. Then the women gathered their bonnets and scarves together and in a few moments the entire procession was running out of the village. Hobbling along behind them as quickly as her old feet could carry her came the short weathered, over one hundred years old, grandmother of Peters. She was leading her smallest grandson by the hand because he still couldn’t run very well and kept on falling down.

The wind blew the skirts and scarves of the women so that they fluttered like loose sails behind them.

From a high dune they could already see the dark crowd of fishermen down below them. They were standing together in a knot and looking at something in their midst.

Then the women parted the circle of men that were standing around and the miracle of the sea lay there before them.

Half woman, half fish . . . a small, pale face with blue, fear filled eyes that wandered from one to the other of them in deathly terror. Heavy, moist blonde hair fell around her shoulders. And the trembling young, budding breasts lifted and fell in a storm of small dancing water droplets.

But where the legs began with human children, there was a tender, rosy red and green scale. And the gleaming scales became smaller and thicker, until they slid together and tightly covered the barrel shaped lower body around to the back where they ended in a fish fin. Diagonally above the tail, but right beneath the fin was a deep and hideously gaping wound. Only a thin band of flesh still held the fin to the body. Large, heavy drops of green blood slowly oozed and trickled from out of it. All around her the sand had been colored green.

A knife sharp coral reef must have wounded the helpless mermaid and the waves washed her onto the beach.

The fishermen, women and children stood in a circle and looked at the miracle with dull eyes.

Then the spell was slowly broken. What did it mean? What should they do with her?

Someone proposed that they should drag her up into the village with ropes. No, not into the village, the women clamored . . .

Let’s ask the pastor! Someone get the pastor! And Peters with his long legs was sent running to get the pastor. The others continued to shout at each other, a confusion of questions. But no one had any answers.

The blue, tired, and deathly afraid eyes wandered from one to the other. Finally they settled upon Jens.

Flaxen haired, broad shouldered Jens had pressed up to the front. He asked nothing; he answered nothing. He just stared fixedly and dumbly at the mermaid at his feet.

Her wandering eyes had found a calm place to rest and with a trembling look embraced his figure. Then her searching eyes met his . . . and bashfully and shyly her small, pale hands reached up to her heavy, moist mantle of hair and covered her tender, young breasts.

The two of them didn’t hear the confusion of voices and questions around them. Wealthy Klaus proposed to simply kill the devil thing and throw it back into the water. The women were all in agreement with that and the men wanted to run back to their boats and grab their oars.

Then Jens broke his silence. This woman was not to be killed, he declared with his deep voice. He would take her and heal her, and when she was healthy he would put her back into the water.

“But Jens!”—screamed his mother from the crowd.

And Jens was indifferent to what all the others said.

“You are not permitted to torture the animals. That is what the pastor said. So you must also help those that are only half human.”

The women raised a great fuss over it and Jens mother started to cry.

Jens thought that the pastor would agree with him.

Here comes the pastor, several screamed, and the pastor stepped into the circle with them.

He was very agitated and his legs shook. His hands trembled and the sweat of fear stood out on his forehead. At home his wife was writhing in pain.

“What is it?”

“Jens! Jens,” they all screamed.

Jens explained to the pastor what he intended to do.

But the pastor pressed his hand against his forehead, as if to come to his senses. Then he began to speak, hastily and brokenly.

What Jens intended, could not be tolerated within his congregation. All compassion and all charity went only to God’s creatures. But this creature here was without a doubt a creature of the devil, and it would be evil to take such a thing into the village and do such devil’s work.

“Kill it, kill it,” cried Klaus and a few others with him. But the pastor also thought that killing it was not right. They should just let it lie there in peace; it was a mixture from hell, and it would disappear again like a fish, when the tide came and carried it out into the sea again.

But now everyone should go about their work and leave the mermaid in peace.

Then the pastor pressed back through the circle of people and hurried with long strides back to his house. Slowly the people disbursed.

Only Jens remained behind. With bowed head he looked down at the woman. Her blue eyes had become more calm and quiet. There was gratitude and trust in them. She knew that he had spoken up for her.

Then a rough fist shook Jens shoulder.

“Come.”

His father stood next to him. But Jens stubbornly shook his head. He wanted to stay there. But his father shook him harder. A red rage climbed into his face. He threatened . . . then Jens grabbed the fist on his shoulder with his iron fingers so hard, that the joints creaked.

Both men stared into each other’s faces. But . . . Jens saw his mother up above on the dunes. Her skirt and scarf fluttered and she rang her hands in misery.

Then Jens let go of his father’s hand and went back up to the village . . .

 

 

The clouds scurried across the narrow crescent moon. The sea surged. Its loud sounds reached to the village. Everything there had long since become dark. Only in the pastor’s house, behind red curtains, was there a light. A dull red glow lay upon the small front yard. A figure sneaked past the picket fence—Jens.

He stopped for a moment and looked up at the lit window. He knew that up there a woman was struggling with death. He bit his teeth together and muttered an angry curse.

Then he was beyond the village and down the dunes. On the white sand lay a dark spot . . .

The mermaid heard footsteps. She tiredly raised her head. And then Jens kneeled down beside her and spoke to her with gentle, kind and compassionate words. He knew that she didn’t understand him. But it would sound good to her.

She hid her feverish hands in the brown fists of the boy.

Then she began to sing, softly and sadly, words in a strange language. Like thick gray fog over secluded rocky islands—the melody was so hollow and heavy—and so infinitely sad.

Jens listened . . . and he didn’t notice how the tears were rolling down his face.

Then he came to his senses. He had brought some food, bread and fish, and he offered her some.

But she just shook her head. And then she sang some more. Jens knelt beside her and held her hands in his, until the stars went out and the morning wind began.

Then he got up and looked at her.

“I will come again.”

And she understood the strange words and the promise, and her gaze was mild and peaceful, as he climbed up the dunes.

 

There was a great unrest over the entire village, as the people went with shy, quiet steps past the house of the pastor and the window draped with red curtains where it was so deathly quiet. Several had heard broken screams and strangled whimpering, as if someone was biting into a pillow. Around noon the pastor stood motionless in the garden behind the house and stared down at the distant roiling sea, with a long pipe in his hands. And then suddenly, like a madman, he shattered the glass ball of a lawn ornament with the head of his pipe so that it shattered in all directions and ran back into the house. There was something eerie in the air.

There was an early morning noise in Jen’s house. His father had learned from the night watchman that Jens had been down at the beach. It came to a dispute and Jens raised his hand against his father and flung him against the stove so that his head received a considerable lump. But finally the old man overwhelmed Jens, carried him upstairs like a child and locked him in his room.

In the village there was a wild muttering against the poor, abandoned mermaid lying down there on the beach. Several young fellows had been down there and reported that she was lying there motionless in the sand, with closed eyes. It was only by her slight breathing that they knew she was still alive. They had wanted to tease and throw sand at her, but the lust to do that had left them when they had seen her pale, dying face.

But the elders held the mermaid responsible for the disruption in the village that day. Wealthy Klaus thought it would have been better if they had immediately killed the thing of the devil yesterday.

Then, late that evening the people discovered that the pastor’s wife had brought a dead child into the world. The baby had a malformed water head and its crippled feet had a reddish and green metallic shimmer like fish scales. It was hopeless, the pastor’s wife was going to die.

Then a great rage seized the people and they wanted to go down to the beach immediately and kill the mermaid, whom they thought had caused all this. But the night was growing dark, and the wind that blew from the sea was so icy cold that they turned back. Tomorrow . . . in daylight . . . at dawn.

Then it became completely dark and not a light was burning in the entire village—only the sad flickering behind the red curtains showed someone was still awake in the pastor’s house—when Jens climbed out his bedroom window.

Like a cat, silently and carefully.—His broad shoulders barely fit through the narrow window frame. But he succeeded. Jens pushed himself through—and then jumped down to the soft lawn in front of the house. His knees buckled from the force of the fall, but he straightened back up. As he ran past the red curtained window of the pastor’s house, he balled his fists and growled a wild curse between his teeth.

And the mermaid knew that he would come. She lifted herself up on her arms and reached out her face to him. And Jens kissed the pale lips and the eyes, sunk deep into their holes.

Then she sang once more. The melody swam like fog over a rocky reef—then the veil of fog parted and her song became clear and golden. Sunshine lay over the sea and the waves became calmer and quieter and ebbed . . . and she softly fell asleep.

The woman had taken Jens hand and placed it on her breast. His hand moved through the heavy mantle of hair and then his heavy, work callused hand tenderly and softly lay upon the trembling breast of the woman.

And Jens felt how the life in her heart became fainter and fainter with every beat, then one last wild heartbeat, a convulsive grip on his arm and the woman fell back.

Jens sat and stared at the sunrise.

His eyes were dry. He had not shed one tear for his deep pain. And yet this pain was so easy and free. Only something troubled him. He didn’t know at first what it was. But then it came to him. He had heard what they had promised to do downstairs. They were going to come and kill her.

But they would not find her . . .

He got up with a powerful effort and took the corpse into his arms. His gaze burned solidly on her small, starring face; the severed fin dangled down from his right arm and swung with every step he took.

That is how he walked out into the sea. With confident leaps he went from stone to stone and from the last large boulder he flung the corpse out into the sea with a mighty heave.

A splash and gurgle—and the tide carried the body away . . .

 

When Jens arrived back on the beach he heard the voices of the men from the village up above on the dunes. He realized immediately that several of them were drunk, recognized their hoarse, tinny laughter right away.

They shouldn’t see him.

He laid down flat on the dunes in a low spot and let the procession go past. In the morning light he saw almost all of the men and boys of the village with sticks, clubs and oars. Several were drunk. At the front of the procession was Jens father with a white cloth around his banged up head. His fist was wrapped around an axe, and he was drunk as well. His eyes were bloodshot and his face was red.

Finally they were past. Jens raced up the dune. Halfway to the village he heard the angry, disappointed screams behind him.

Jens ran on. He wanted to reach the village and his room before the men came back. They shouldn’t know what had happened that night.

As Jens passed the house of the pastor, he saw all the windows wide open.

He knew then, that the woman inside had died. And he ducked as he went along the houses and growled a wild curse between his teeth.

 

Familiar Moves-C

Down below was an urban canyon, above, a few stars shone exactly between the thin, taut wires of the telephone lines. They looked like little glowing musical notes caught between the systems of lines and gave off an infinitely harsh and bitter melody at the desecration of heavenly lights being caught in the mundane.

Herbert took off his hat and the cold pressed against his head, tightening the skin of his face and neck. The dancer walked beside him, looking strange in her white sheets, on which her coat hung like a pair of black wings. Carts came rumbling by at a trot, automobiles leaped around corners with a squeal or a sudden honk, throwing harsh balls of light against the walls of houses, or they saw them coming from further away, two little balls of light at the end of the street, that quickly came rolling up in a dark roaring tunnel, then very close, a broad streak of light sweeping over the pavement. They stood in a blinding tremor of light, and then it was gone and the cold darkness pressed back in.

Meanwhile a couple beats of dance music spewed out through some quickly opened hotel door, fragments of laughter ran into the night, Fasching spread little waves of happiness along the lonely path of Herbert and his companion. But all that seemed immaterial to Herbert compared to the terrible feeling that was inside of him, that flowed out of him like a heavy, thick, freezing smoke.

They entered a little coffee house, in which Herbert often liked to sit for a half hour behind a newspaper, more from a sense of duty than from a sense of need. Yet on the threshold it occurred to him that now his companion must take her mask completely off. But she said the same thing as before, she wanted to remain unrecognized for a while longer, and since all the locals were celebrating carnival time they would allow her the freedom to continue wearing her mask.

She appeared to be correct, since among the tumult of the tables quite a number of people were masquerading, in national costumes, Venezuelans, Spaniards, Turks, as well as mountain folk, Eskimos and Indians. Among all these worn-out and faded traditional costumes and masks a phantom seemed to pass just as well, so Herbert’s companion was not noticed. She pushed through the thickest group without anyone taking special notice or making any effort to move away and again there was the unmistakable recognition of posture and movement that now hit Herbert like a bodily pain.

As they sat down at a table that had just become free, he seized her roughly by the arm.

“Who are you?”

He searched for her gaze, but found only a vague glimmer in the depths of her mask.

The waiter stood before Herbert. He let go of the hard, thin arm that had not given beneath his grip, and ordered coffee. After a silence, in which he observed the clownish, lusty celebration around them, the waiter returned bringing a single cup of coffee and placed it in front of Herbert. As the young man left and seemed indifferent to what his neighbor wanted, she asked him to let it be. This was their hour and he was not to ruin it for anything.

These few words, which again seemed so puzzlingly familiar, stirred such an unspeakable sadness in Herbert, that he put his head in his hands. He placed his fingers on his forehead and thumbs over his ears, as if he wanted to spare his senses from the craziness of the outer world.

It occurred to him that earlier his neighbor had asked, with ironic intent, if he was a medical student. Why that, he thought. Is that how she knew him? . . .

Between his spread fingers he looked angrily and resentfully into her eye holes. He understood, concluded, that she had something she wanted to say to him. Something that he, as a medical student should have already learned, how to become reconciled with death—that was the common view of the good people and of the bad cartoons, that the doctor and death stood in a type of company, one the lackey of the other.

And death always stood as a condition of his own occupation, as an element of the divine world. Just like the fur trader believed the fur bearing animals grew for him; and the mine owner, that the ancient forests of the Stone Age had flourished for his own pocket; and the architect, that gravity was discovered for him alone. In this way doctors maintained the logic of death, because it was demanded by the logic of their profession.

But this was not his viewpoint.

He always found that death was something absolutely senseless; that death itself lived the life of a fat good for nothing, a sewer man, a wanton lost spirit that would in the end set a goal that was only cheap and tawdry.

It was an opinion grubber, a fist baller, begrudging not only everything earned, but also everything glowing, tender, and contributing to love and happiness. All this had to be mowed down; this was proof of the senselessness of death.

No, his treasured values were unknown and in no way popular sentiments, but instead straight up truth. That this world was highly rich in misery was not to be doubted. But why? Every day you could see how the competent and honorable were driven without reason to the bottle, how the evil climbed in and the good were left sitting down in the mud and finally how death thoughtlessly brought forth a settlement, in which all of this and everything else on the mixed table of life was wiped away.

But how different it would be around the world, how bright and lusty it would be if a letter of parole for real human worth was presented to death. Those who according to their nature could not reach after a higher “I” would be weeded out; but those able to purify and reform themselves, their lives would be lengthened in the measure of their goodness and throughout the greatness of eternity. Then perhaps you could still speak with Dante, Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer. Then for the first time life would be entirely beneficial, a mutual exchange of love and effort, a mutual exchange of help. . .

The little flames in the depths of the eye holes of his neighbor appeared to grow brighter, a thin, but sturdy layer of air, like glass, enclosed Herbert and his neighbor, and except for this sphere you could only see colored, unrelated scraps of the surrounding world . . .

And already there were several things he could talk to death about, because he had seen him up close and the illogic of death had been clearly proven. If the world was arranged according to some reasonable plan, then Bettina would still be alive and he would not be so lonesome, so broken hearted, poison blooded, brain destroyed lonesome. He was a Robinson in the middle of the trackless ocean of life, the prisoner of an ice palace with all the terrors of both poles.

Bettina? Well, this unknown person admitted to knowing him, so she must have also known Bettina. Her blood didn’t freeze at the name, as if she knew the meaning there was within this name. She, who now belonged to eternity, should have lived for thousands of years, if there was any justice in this world. Oh, he knew death well enough, the old arch-rogue and pathetic buffoon; he had a grip on him. The fellow approached, made himself unrecognizable, but betrayed himself like a bad comedian without a punch line, forgetting his lines, disgracing his co-performers, taking them prisoner and making them into murderers.

Yes, murderers, he must be aware of it. When one of his beloved kills, you cannot call it anything else, right? Over there a child grows in its mother’s love, but within him also grows a fear of the world; a child who doesn’t want nature to take its due. Already, all around, people are stretching out their long naked necks, crooked noses and vulture claws, already pointing their round fingers, gleaming with fat, thrusting in shame. It is an arsenal of flesh pistols, fists filled with bottles and the pointer finger as the muzzle pointed in shame. And someone silently blurts out: “Give us today our daily bread!” . . . There is only enough for two, not enough for three.

But colleague, the germinating life must not be uprooted and destroyed! There is a path; it is dark to travel before the light is visible. And when the damned stand upon it; just once, there are only crimes against that which exists, but none against the unborn. Yes, but death crouches there somewhere in the corner. The miserable scoundrel squints, reaches for the little medicine bottle, shakes it and sticks its venom and poison on everything with an invisible slime.

That’s when you see your beloved convulsed in cramps, fighting back and clawing with all the power in life and yet you see the life slip out of your grip and become a flood, slowly running out to a dark door, through which it disappears. There you stand on the beach with all the skill of a soon-to-be doctor, and when the last drop has gurgled into the channel of death and disappeared; then a large, red hot needle presses through the top of your head and out through your entire body as a solidly forged, merciless word—murderer.

And the regret . . . the step by step searches into the past, and there is no day that is any different, no hour that does not fail to reveal . . .

Herbert Ostermann felt himself slowly come together, there was a hot forehead between his spread out fingers and two heavy lumps of feet beneath the table, and all this was bound together above and below with a broad band of pain. He could not say whether he had thought all this to himself, or if he had said it out loud, but he felt an understanding from his neighbor, as if from himself.

The waiter had noticed the lonely guest a long time ago. He considered the young man who was sitting alone in his corner, his distraught glances and heavy hand movements as he mumbled to himself, to be a heavy drunk in a miserable condition. Then, after the small room had emptied and the first street car rumbled by outside, he stepped up to his last guest and let the coins in his trouser pocket jingle.

Herbert looked up and saw the strange man, black and white in a radiant opalescent wreathe of steamy light. There was a sharp impression of empty glasses, burned up matches and gray ash heaps, and in the middle a pasty smile . . .

“We will go,” he murmured.

The dancer walked in front of him. But it was not strange anymore, everything was familiar and deep, embedded deep in his life. Originating from out of his core, it was still without a name, but was all most there.

“Who are you? Who are you?” and Herbert grabbed at the clothing of his companion. The cloth blew through his hand and in the depths of the eye holes he saw a crackling blue light, like a small discharge of static electricity. And then a churning and trembling ran through his arm, as if he had been struck by a slight blow.

“Where? Where are we going?” he asked stammering.

“I’m going with you!”

Herbert didn’t find it at all odd that this strange girl made this proposal. Everything that had happened, yes, had already happened a hundred times before, every word and every step. He even knew the sound of her voice, and had somehow known that she would come along.

How could he have told all that to a stranger, what he had pulled from out of his innermost core? Only one person had the right to hear all that. This admission hung upon her and transformed the unknown into the known, radiated back from her as a wistful, deep light.

So they walked together through a winter morning still heavy with the dense haze of dreams that were slumbering away, and now and then the first hard beat of work slipped in as well; meanwhile the hoarse remnants of Fasching’s revelry still sounded.

As if in a vision Herbert saw a collapsed clown on the brightly lit platform of a streetcar, with half-closed eyes and an extinguished cigar in the corner of a broad mouth. His right arm hung down over the guardrail and from out of his fingers ran a cord, on which a brown teddy bear hopped behind the streetcar in grotesque leaps, thrown from side to side by the rattling of the street car and dragging all its limbs against the pavement.

That was the last thing Herbert saw perfectly. From then on he went in a fog, from out of which just once in a while someone, a person came rushing up in a hurry, only to just as quickly disappear again.

He felt more than he saw, that his companion was not heading into the inner city, but instead headed out into the suburbs.

“Not that way . . . I live in the city,” he said.

“I don’t know anywhere else.”

She was right, and Herbert went along with her, walking next to the dancer down cool, endless streets and dark streetcars kept appearing in front of them.

He thought that what was happening was remarkable, even if she didn’t think so. Part of him was in the future and at the same time in the past, as well as being timeless. Perhaps death was not the end of time, but the uplifting of all disappointments. But then it would be the solution and it might be possible, through a strong will and perhaps through the power of a remorseful man to bring someone back; it could never give the complete appearance of someone, but it would be enough to serve! In this manner all questions would be answered, if only he knew her name. If only he could think of it . . .

A familiar house door was there, with withered vine boughs around the bottom story and the arch; the knocker with the lion’s head, over whose menacing snout they had always laughed. They went up and the stairs curved in front of them in the darkness, into which the morning fog now pressed . . . the seventeenth step still creaked as always, and you still had to tip toe past the door of the landlord. The narrow stairs turned tighter and tighter in the tower, and there was the branch of a cherry tree in front of the little window, from which you once tore a bouquet of flowers in the spring. There was the little black figurine of the Virgin that was set into the wall with its little red glass light.

And then the door to the tower room sprang open and you were home . . . once more Herbert saw everything perfectly, all the beloved furniture, the writing desk and the bookcase, and behind green curtains both beds, from which she had just risen up.

And when he turned around, Bettina stood there, in a white flowing gown and her parted hair, which she had just combed, hung down on both sides of her head.

She looked up and Herbert saw a blue shimmer in the depths of her eyes. But her flesh was strangely transformed, it pulled itself like a thin sheet of jelly over the smooth bones of her dance mask, and you could see every indentation and every fissure of her skull. Her hair fell loose and enticing in soft, flowing masses.

And everywhere the transparent features of the bones were eaten away by dull spots, little clumps of earth clung in the corners of the eyes and mouth, and her hair seemed to move slightly by itself as if swarming life lie hidden beneath it.

But Bettina threw the hair out of her face, lifted her arms high over her head and with strong, thrusting, exaggerated, and victorious movements began the wanton, angular, and provocative dance of the phantoms . . .

 

 

Familiar Moves-B

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.

 

Familiar Moves-A

Familiar Moves

 

After the death of his girlfriend, Bettina, whom Herbert Ostermann, medical student, had lived together with for almost two years; becoming a hermit was the best way to avoid people.

Being at the podium for countless semesters, during the prime of his life, had made him more critical of the academic youths, and Ostermann was already standing alone like a cliff. Then you add the pain of his lost girlfriend to it and he appeared to want nothing to do with his younger comrades. The life of high spirits and indiscretion lay behind and beneath him.

But Ostermann had more friends among the youthful students than he knew. His albeit not affectionate, but always polite manner, the certainty with which he kept little promises, the impression of unconditional reliability which he gave, let him appear as a paragon of all essential male qualities to his comrades.

Finally, they were interested in him, much more than he knew at the time, because of his relationship with the little German-Russian, and her quick, somewhat puzzling death that had caused him to become so closed off.

They knew the couple very well from the assembly hall and the concert hall. They had seen them together countless times and only occasionally alone. The tall, lean man and the petite, quick East Sea German did not seem like an exceptionally well matched couple. His movements, so to say, were awkward and angular as he took the lead while her charming curves did not entirely match as she followed. Yet there was something there despite the outer differences that implied an innermost communion. For that reason no one dared, what otherwise under similar circumstances was so common, attempt to take this most lovely of all students away from her friend and take her for themselves.

Ostermann accompanied the eager to learn and enthusiastic student to her science lectures, which lay far beneath his own studies, and listened patiently once more to the beginning basics of anatomy. It appeared as if he was starting over with his girlfriend and would finally bring a prosperous conclusion to his very lengthy studies. They became accustomed seeing the togetherness of this couple as something solid and inviolable; sensed something holy flowing out from the bond and observed the relationship with piquant curiosity. The death of Bettina horrified them all; even those medical students with a hardened disposition that cultivated cynicism as a critical virtue, could not escape this collapse.

So it was just an outpouring of the common compassion and respect for Ostermann, that made one of the younger students of those collectively assembled, the student Richard Kretschmer, ask him to come back. At first Ostermann declined the well-intended invitation. But then, as he passed through the urging voices, he was asked to at least take it into consideration. And finally he agreed, perhaps feeling that he didn’t want to be alone any longer.

Ostermann left his previous dwelling, one in the country over grown with wild vines, in whose spired upper story he had lived for almost two years with Bettina, and moved in with the rest of his countrymen. From out of a quiet, poetic corner he moved into a bare student’s room in the large city. He didn’t allow himself to notice that something was missing in his life, but he didn’t take part in the lives of his comrades either.

These well-intended people wanted Ostermann to escape from his unfruitful and dangerous brooding and were always urging him to go along to student festivities and get-togethers.

Fasching time came, the first festival since the death of Bettina, and the heads of the university planned an evening of festivities to celebrate the formation of their new committee and this happy time. A student drinking party was to take place, with all kinds of strange fellows and performances according to the mood of the festival. His friend was seriously resolved to entice Ostermann out of his cave for this very special festival.

“It is wrong for me to celebrate,” said Ostermann, as Kretschmer urged him even more strongly.

“You won’t be doing anything wrong,” replied his friend forcefully. “The dead are dead, and no mourning can change it.”

Ostermann looked at the younger and rasher person seriously and it seemed as if he were about to reply. But he remained silent, and when Kretschmer wouldn’t stop assailing him, he finally agreed to take part in the festival. Even though Ostermann couldn’t shake the feeling that something about it was wrong, the good will of his comrade was so apparent and sincere, that he didn’t want to lose his friend over it.

The large hall of the restaurant, where the Fasching evening took place, was full of young medical students. The faculty, feeling resplendent in the formation of their new committee, stepped proudly to the front. A large number of professors were in attendance and watched the goings on with fatherly benevolence.

The seemingly spotless table cloths spread over the long tables streamed the aroma of being freshly washed. The arc lamp under the ceiling sent a corona of glowing, needle pointed rays through the hall. From the kitchen came the clatter of dishes and often the aroma of prepared food.

One table was set up as a popular raffle of harmless jokes articles and things medical students would like as decorations for their writing desks: blinding white bone specimens as paperweights, half skulls, and a shoulder blade on a base with a collar bone railing to be used as a large ashtray.

The young people, an entire crowd of college students, went back and forth, assembled together into groups and then once more separated.

Ostermann, who had not been among such a large group of people for a long time, was not able to enjoy the uninhibited festivities.

While Kretschmer, next to him, was making an effort to involve him in the net of shouts and drinking taking place back and forth over the entire table, Ostermann fell ever more deeply into a feeling of discomfort. The noise, the needle sharp lighting of the arc lamp, the back and forth movement of the crowd, seemed partly exaggerated, foolish and crude, partly overstated and harsh to him. He began to regret that he had come here with his friend.

In the meantime the gathering took its accustomed form, speeches and songs followed one another, the professors jovially spoke of their delight at the antics of the academic youths . . . “Sour week, happy festival” . . . and sometimes the young girls laughed loudly with joking phrases. When Ostermann heard this laughter or saw the waving of a brightly colored dress, it tore at his heart, and flowed through his body like a stream of sharp pointed ice crystals.

Finally around eleven o’clock, he believed that he had done enough and told Kretschmer of his decision to go.

“Don’t talk,” laughed the other, “the best part is just starting. The door is guarded! No one is allowed to leave!”

And indeed one of the gentlemen of the new committee shortly announced a break so that a humorous Fasching performance could be prepared. In the sign of the carnival prince, much was allowed, honny soit, qui maly pense und so. [evil unto him who thinks evil of it]

After a somewhat commemorative speech filled with beer and brimstone, curtains were pulled across the wide hall in the space opposite the professors. A stage was set up behind it and you could see a vivisection table, on which a corpse lay, clothed only with a loin cloth.

A scene played out between the anatomy professor and several hung-over students that had returned from a card game after skipping work. The main joke of the performance lay in the successful depiction of one of the most well-known and popular professors, who came onto the stage with all his peculiarities, wheezing and spitting. That awoke the unbounded hilarity of the entire crowd, and most of all, the one that had been portrayed himself, who now saw himself in the distorted mirror image across from him. Next to the satire of the professor they had also thought to pattern the play after the anatomy of Rembrandt. The closing scene showed the professor in the position of Doctor Tulp standing at the corpse, surrounded by his students. Only he was not referring to bundles of nerves and muscles, but instead revealing all kinds of things that emerged from out of the depths of the corpse. It was all common stuff, a beer coaster, a cigarette lighter, a house key and a committee song book. But when he turned the corpse over and began to work on its backside, the corpse jumped up from the vivisection table with an angry bellow and the performance ended with a wild flight.

The grotesque humor, that was intended to put all the guests in a good mood, was not entirely missed by Ostermann. But in the end, it led to the uncomfortable feeling that such playing with the horror of death itself did not seem entirely appropriate for these unrestrained youth.

Ostermann also thought that perhaps it was only his own emotions that caused this heavy feeling of guilt. At the same time he felt so strangely held there that he no longer had any thought of leaving.

After a while a young medical student stepped out in front of the violet curtain, a book in his hand, from which he began to recite a poem with little talent and much enthusiasm. It was Goethe’s “Toten-tanz”. [Dance of the Dead]

“The watchman, that looks in the middle of the night down on the graves in their places . . .”

Ostermann found this tedious recitation seemingly superficial, but with the final words the hall suddenly became dark and then it was seen what purpose the poem had served.

The opened stage now showed a cemetery. From out of the darkest darkness something white stirred and moved forward. You could make out a figure wrapped in a sheet and groping its way between the tombstones. The specter lounged against one of the graves, set a violin against a bony chin and began to play in an absurd way.

Then it struck midnight somewhere, as if from a church tower. The little orchestra in front of the stage took up the haunting melody of the violin and wove it into highly strange, eerie music, whose bizarre harmonies and choppy rhythms seemed to conjure all kinds of terrors from out of the darkness. And then came, entirely in the manner of Goethe’s poem, from the left and the right, limping, groping, and stomping grave occupants, climbing out of self-opening mounds, moving from behind the tombstones to the front and staggering between the clods in the darkness. Around their limbs waved and flapped long grave cloths, in front of their faces they had white, phosphorescent masks of fleshless skulls with dark eyes, nostril holes and the grin of bare teeth.

They moved to the beat of the horrible music, approaching one another with contortions and ridiculous curtseys, in a mocking of the ordinary form of the dance. It was as if you could hear the rattling of the bones, the clicking of the thin joints under the white sheets, like the clicking of castanets, castanets of the grave, which formed a hard necked accompaniment to the music.

It was clear that the author and director of this production, some student, was an entirely original head of many fantasies.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers