Metamorphosis and other.., p.15
Metamorphosis and Other Stories,
‘Yes, the harrow,’ said the officer, ‘an appropriate name for it, don’t you think? The needles are set as in a harrow, and the whole thing is used like a harrow, albeit on one spot, and in a far more sophisticated manner. You will see, soon enough. The condemned man is laid on the bed. — Allow me to explain the machine first, and then demonstrate its use to you. That way, you’ll be better able to follow it. Also, one of the cogs in the engraver is rather worn; it makes a loud grinding sound when the machine is turned on, and it’s very hard to hear yourself think then; unfortunately, spare parts are very hard to get hold of. — Well, as I say, this here is the bed. The entire surface is covered with a layer of cotton-wool; its purpose you will learn in due time. The condemned man, naked, of course, is made to lie face down on the cotton-wool; these are the straps to secure his hands, his feet, and his neck. Here at the head end of the bed, where, as I say, the man is lying face down to begin with, is a little felt stump, which can be easily adjusted so that it goes directly into the man’s mouth. It serves the purpose of stifling his screams and preventing him from biting off his tongue. The man has no option but to take the felt into his mouth, otherwise the neck-retainer would break his neck.’ ‘That’s cotton-wool, you say?’ asked the traveller, leaning forward. ‘Yes, of course,’ said the officer with a smile, ‘feel for yourself.’ And he took the traveller’s hand, and moved it over the bed. ‘It’s cotton-wool with a special preparation, which is why it might appear different to you; I’ll discuss the point of that when I come to it.’ The traveller found himself warming to the machine a little; raising his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, he looked up at its top part. It was a large structure. The bed and the engraver were of equal size, and looked like two dark troughs. The engraver was roughly six feet over the bed; the two were linked at the corners by four brass rods, that were effulgent in the sun. Between the two troughs, the harrow hung on a steel band.
The officer had barely noticed the traveller’s previous indifference, but he now responded to his quickening interest; he therefore broke off his exposition to give him time to look at the machine uninterrupted. The condemned man did likewise; as he was unable to shield his eyes, he squinnied up.
‘So, you’ve got the man lying there,’ said the traveller, and he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.
‘That’s right,’ said the officer, and pushed his cap back a little, and wiped his face, ‘now, listen carefully! Both the bed and the engraver are independently battery-operated; the bed needs power for itself, the engraver for its harrow. As soon as the man has been tied down, the bed is set in motion. It vibrates both sideways and up and down, in tiny, very rapid movements. You will have seen similar apparatus in hospitals only, with our bed, all its movements are very carefully calibrated; they need to correspond absolutely precisely to the movements of the harrow. And it’s the harrow that is entrusted with the actual carrying out of the sentence.’
‘And what is the sentence?’ asked the traveller. ‘Oh, don’t you know?’ the officer blurted out, and bit his lip: ‘I’m sorry, perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself in my explanations; please forgive me. The commandant always used to give the explanations in person; the new commandant has excused himself from this honourable duty; but the fact that he has failed to communicate the form of the sentence to such a distinguished visitor’ — the traveller made the attempt to ward off the distinction with both hands, but the officer insisted on the expression — ‘to such a distinguished visitor as yourself, well, that sort of development’ — he was about to launch into an oath, but mastered himself, and merely said: ‘I wasn’t told, it’s not my fault. Although in point of fact, I’m best placed to explain the varieties of judgement, because I carry the sketches of the previous commandant’ — he patted his breast pocket — ‘right here.’
‘Sketches made by the commandant himself?’ asked the traveller: ‘Was there no limit to the man’s talents? He was soldier, judge, engineer, chemist and artist, all in one?’
‘Yes indeed,” said the officer, nodding with eyes fixed in thought. Then he looked critically at his hands; they didn’t strike him as sufficiently clean to handle the sketches; so he went over to the bucket, and gave them another wash. Then he pulled out a small leather folder, and said: ‘Our sentence doesn’t sound particularly severe. The condemned man has to have the law he has transgressed inscribed by the harrow on his body. This man here, for instance’ — the officer gestured at the condemned man — ‘will be inscribed with: Respect your commanding officer!’
The traveller glanced at the man; when the officer pointed at him, he had lowered his head and tensed his hearing to the utmost, in the hope of picking up some scrap of information. But the movements of his blubbery pressed lips showed that quite evidently he had not managed to glean anything. The traveller had various questions at the tip of his tongue, but, seeing the man, he merely asked: ‘Does he know his sentence?’ ‘No,’ said the officer, and wanted to proceed with his explanations, but the traveller interrupted him: ‘He doesn’t know his own sentence?’ ‘No,’ said the officer again, halted for a moment, as though to get from the traveller some sort of justification for such a question, and then went on: ‘It would be useless to tell him. It will be put to him physically.’ The traveller felt he had nothing further to ask, but he sensed the condemned man’s eyes on him; did he approve of the process, he appeared to be asking. And therefore the traveller, having just sat back, now leaned forward again and asked: ‘But he knows he has received sentence, surely?’ ‘No,’ said the officer, and smiled at the traveller, as though in expectation of further striking revelations from him. ‘No,’ mused the traveller, and stroked his forehead, ‘so the man doesn’t know what view was taken of the case for his defence?’ ‘He had no opportunity to defend himself,’ said the officer, and looked away, as though talking to himself, and unwilling to embarrass the traveller by telling him such self-evident truths. ‘He must have had an opportunity to defend himself,’ said the traveller, and got up from his seat.
The officer appreciated he was in danger of being delayed for some considerable time in his mission to explain the machine; he therefore went over to the traveller, took him by the arm, pointed to the condemned man, who now, seeing himself the object of so much interest, was standing at attention — and the soldier too gave a tug on the chain — and said: ‘It’s like this. I have been appointed judge in the penal colony. In spite of my youth. Because I assisted the former commandant in all punishment-related issues, and also I have the best understanding of the machine. My basis for deciding is this: guilt is always beyond doubt. Other courts are unable to follow this principle, because there are many people serving on them, or they have other, higher courts above them. This is not the case here, or at least it wasn’t under the previous commandant. The new one, admittedly, has already shown some interest in meddling with my court, but thus far I have been successful in staving him off, and I will continue to be successful in that regard. — You wanted to hear an explanation of the case; it’s just as straightforward as the rest of them. This morning a captain brought a charge that this man, who is his batman, and sleeps outside his door, failed in the performance of his duty. He is required to get up every hour, and salute outside the captain’s door. Not a particularly arduous duty, and a very necessary one, because it keeps the man fresh for guard duty and for service to his master. Last night, the captain wanted to see whether his servant was discharging his duty properly. At the stroke of two, he opened his door, and found the man sprawled out asleep. He fetched his riding crop, and struck him a blow across the face. Instead of getting up and begging for forgiveness, the man grabbed his master by the legs, shook him, and cried: “Drop that whip, or I’ll gobble you up.” — That’s the long and short of it. An hour ago, the captain came to me, I took down his report and wrote out the judgement. Then I had the man clapped in irons. It was all very simple. If I had called on the man first, and questioned him, it would have
The traveller looked at the harrow with wrinkled brow. The information about the methods of the court had left him unsatisfied. And then again, he had to remind himself, this was a penal colony, certain rules obtained, and military discipline evidently had to be kept tight. In addition, he put a little hope in the character of the new commandant, who clearly, albeit slowly, intended to reform the whole process, whatever the views of this particular narrow-minded officer. Reaching this point in his thinking, the traveller asked: ‘Will the commandant attend the execution?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ said the officer, caught off balance by the direct question, and his encouraging smile was distorted: ‘That’s one more reason why we have to hurry. I will even, I’m sorry to say, have to curtail my explanations somewhat. But then I could supply further information tomorrow, once the machine has been cleaned — the fact that it gets so dirty is really its only drawback. So, just the bare essentials from here on. — When the man is lying on the bed, and the bed has begun to tremble, the harrow is lowered on to his body. It automatically adjusts itself so that it barely grazes his body with the tips of its needles; the distance once established, the steel rope tautens into a pole. And then the performance begins. Of course someone without the necessary background would notice no difference in the punishments. The harrow does more or less the same job. Trembling, it sticks its points into the body lying on the bed, which is itself trembling. To make it possible for anyone to view the way the sentence is carried out, the harrow is made of glass. Fitting the needles to it gave us considerable technical headaches, as you might imagine, but after many attempts the difficulties have been surmounted. We shirked no effort. And now anyone can see through the glass the way the inscription is made on the body. Would you like to step nearer, and see the needles for yourself?’
The traveller slowly got to his feet, walked over, and leaned down over the harrow. ‘You see,’ the officer continued, ‘needles in many positions, but always in pairs. Each long one has a short one next to it. It’s the long one that writes, and the short one squirts water to wash off the blood, so that the writing is always clearly legible. The mixture of water and blood is conducted into these little runnels, and finally flows into this principal runnel, which feeds the drainage pipe into the pit here.’ The officer’s finger sketched the route the blood and water mixture had to follow. When, in an effort to make it as clear as possible, the officer cupped his hands at the end of the drainage pipe, the traveller lifted his head and with one hand put out behind him, groped his way back to his chair. Then he saw to his horror that the condemned man had also followed the officer’s invitation to inspect the harrow from close to. He had dragged the sleepy soldier along a short way on the chain, and was leaning down over the glass. One could see him looking with his uncertain eyes for what the two gentlemen had just studied, and how, because he didn’t have an explanation, he was unable to make sense of it. He bent over this way and that. Repeatedly, he ran his eyes over the glass. The traveller wanted to drive him back, because what he was doing was probably punishable. But the officer with one hand restrained the traveller, and with the other picked a lump of earth from the rampart, and threw it at the soldier. His head jerked up, he saw what the condemned man had dared to do, dropped his rifle, dug his heels into the ground, and yanked at the chain whereupon the condemned man fell over; then he stood over the man as he writhed on the ground, jangling his chains. ‘Pick him up!’ yelled the officer, because he noticed that the traveller was becoming unhelpfully distracted by the condemned man. The traveller even leaned down past the harrow, just to see what was going on with the condemned man. ‘Treat him gently!’ yelled the officer. He ran round the machine, picked up the condemned man under the arms, and, after several stumbles, finally got him upright with some help from the soldier.
‘Well, I suppose I know everything now,’ said the traveller, as the officer came back to him. ‘Everything except the most important thing of all,’ he replied, took the traveller by the arm, and pointed up: ‘There in the engraver is the mechanism which governs the movement of the harrow, and that mechanism is set according to drawings of the various possible judgements. I still use the drawings made by the previous commandant. Here they are’ — he took a few sheets from the leather folder — ‘I’m afraid I can’t give them to you to look at, they are the most precious things I have. Sit down, I’ll show you a few; from this distance you’ll be able to have quite a good view.’ He showed him the first page. The traveller would have liked to say something complimentary, but all he saw were labyrinthine criss-crossing lines that covered the paper so thickly that it was hard to see any white space at all. ‘Read it,’ said the officer. ‘I can’t,’ said the traveller. ‘But it’s perfectly clear,’ said the officer. ‘It’s very artful,’ said the traveller evasively, ‘but I’m afraid I can’t decipher it.’ ‘Ha,’ said the officer, and he laughed and took back the folder, ‘well it’s no primary school calligraphy, that’s for sure. It does take a long time to read. I’m sure you would eventually be able to decipher it. Of course, the writing mustn’t be too straightforward; it’s not supposed to be fatal straight away, but only after an interval of twelve hours or so on average; the turning-point occurs after about six. And many many ornaments surround the script proper; the actual text is traced round the body like a narrow belt; the rest of the body is set aside for decoration. Are you now able to grasp the work of the harrow and the whole apparatus? — Take a look!’ He jumped on to the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down: ‘Watch out, step aside!’ and it started up. Had it not been for the squeaking of the wheel, it would have been majestic. As though surprised by the annoying wheel, the officer waved his fist at it, and then spread his arms apologetically towards the traveller, and quickly climbed down, to watch the working of the machine from below. Something was still amiss, discernible only to him; he climbed back up, reached into the interior of the engraver with both hands, then, to get down quicker, instead of using the ladder, he slid down one of its poles, and, to make himself heard, screamed excitedly into the traveller’s ear: ‘Do you understand the procedure? The harrow is starting to write; once it’s completed the first phase of writing on the man’s back, the cotton-wool roll comes down and slowly turns the body on to its side, to offer clean space to the harrow. At the same time, the raw parts already inscribed are pressed against the cotton wool; its special finish immediately stanches the bleeding, and prepares the surface for a deepening of the writing. The jagged edges of the harrow here strip the cottonwool off the wounds as the body is further rotated, and drop it into the trench, and then the harrow gets to work again. Its script steadily deepens over twelve hours. For the first six of them the condemned man lives almost as before, only he experiences pain. After two hours the felt is taken away, because the man has no strength left with which to scream. In the electrically heated dish here at the head end some warm rice porridge is put, at which the man, if he likes, can lap with his tongue. No one ever passes up the chance. At least I don’t know of anyone, and I have seen plenty. It is only in about the sixth hour that he loses his relish for food. I am usually kneeling down here, watching for this to happen. The man rarely swallows his last morsel, he turns it in his mouth, and spits it into the trench. I need to duck, otherwise I would get hit in the face. But how quiet the man comes to be in the sixth hour! The very dimmest of them begin
The traveller had inclined his ear to the officer, and, with his hands in his pockets, he watched the machine at work. The condemned man watched too, but without comprehension. He stooped down a little to follow the wavering needles, when, on a sign from the officer, the soldier from behind cut through his shirt and trousers so that they dropped off him; he was reaching for them to cover his nakedness, but the soldier lifted him up in the air and shook off the last of his rags. The officer switched off the machine, and in the new silence the condemned man was laid under the harrow. His chains were taken off him, and he was strapped on instead; initially, it struck the condemned man as an improvement. Then the harrow dipped a little, because the man was lean. When the needle-points touched him, a shudder passed over his skin; while the soldier was busy with his right hand, he put out his left, not knowing where to; but it was straight at the traveller. The officer kept gazing at the traveller from the side, as though trying to read in his expression what impression the execution, which he had — however superficially — explained to him, was making on him.
The strap for the man’s wrist broke; presumably the soldier had drawn it too tight. The soldier held up the broken strap, requiring the officer to help. The officer went over to him, facing the traveller the while, and said: ‘The machine has a great many moving parts; every so often something in it is bound to break or tear, but that shouldn’t affect one’s overall sense of its performance. A strap is easily replaced; I’m going to have to use a chain; though admittedly it will have an adverse effect on the precision of the vibrations where the right arm is concerned.’ And while he chained the arm, he added: ‘However, the means to preserve the machine are severely diminished. Under the previous commandant, there was a fund ring-fenced for the purpose, to which I had free access. There was a storehouse containing all sorts of spares. I must confess I was spoiled, and used to be quite wasteful with the materials — earlier, you understand, not any more, whatever the new commandant claims, he’s just set on doing everything possible differently. So now he keeps the machine funds under his own supervision, and if I ask for a new strap, the old broken one is demanded by way of proof, and then the replacement doesn’t come for another ten days, and the quality is terrible, and it’s basically useless. And as for how I’m supposed to run the machine in the meantime, well, that’s not their concern, is it?’
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes