Metamorphosis and other.., p.17
Metamorphosis and Other Stories,
The officer remained mute, walked over to the machine, gripped one of its brass rods, and then, leaning back a little, looked up at the engraver, as though to check whether it was all in good order. The soldier and the condemned man seemed to have struck up some kind of friendship; the condemned man was making little hand signals to the soldier, hard though this was for a man in chains; the soldier leaned forward to him; the condemned man whispered something, to which the soldier nodded.
The traveller set off after the officer, and said: ‘I don’t know yet what I will do. I will indeed express my view of the process to the commandant, not in a public forum, though, but face to face; nor will I remain here long enough to be drawn into any sort of public session; I shall be leaving tomorrow morning, or at least boarding a ship then.’
The officer didn’t appear to have been listening. ‘The procedure didn’t convince you, then?’ he observed to himself, and smiled in the way a grown-up might smile at a foolish child, keeping his own serious reflections to himself behind the smile.
‘So the time has come,’ he said, and looked at the traveller with bright eyes that contained some summons, some call for involvement.
‘Time for what?’ the traveller asked in perplexity, but received no reply.
‘You are at liberty,’ the officer said to the condemned man in his language. The man at first would not believe him. ‘Come on, you’re at liberty,’ the officer said again. For the first time, the condemned man’s face grew animated. Was it true? Was it just a whim on the part of the officer, which might as suddenly change again? Had the foreign traveller secured forgiveness for him? What had happened? His face seemed to inquire. But not for long. Whatever it was, he could be free if he wanted, and he started to stir, as much as the harrow would allow.
‘You’re tearing my straps!’ yelled the officer. ‘Keep still! We’ll let you out!’ And, together with the soldier, to whom he had given a signal, he set about the task. The condemned man was chuckling softly to himself, now turning his face left to look at the officer, then right at the soldier, not leaving out the traveller either.
‘Pull him out,’ the officer told the soldier. Some caution was needed here, on account of the harrow. The condemned man had already received some lacerations to his back, purely as a consequence of his own impatience.
From now on the officer hardly bothered about him any more. He walked up to the traveller, produced the little leather map-case again, leafed around in it, finally found the sheet of paper he was looking for, and showed it to the traveller. ‘Read it,’ he said. ‘I can’t,’ said the traveller, ‘I told you, I can’t read these inscriptions.’ ‘Come on, look at it properly,’ said the officer, and stood beside the traveller, to help him with the reading. When that didn’t help either, he lifted his little finger high up in the air, as though the paper must on no account be touched, and moved it across the paper, to make it a little easier for the traveller. The traveller made an effort too, so that at least here he might please the officer, but it was beyond him. The officer started to spell out the inscription, and then read it back to him fluently. “Be just!” — it says,’ he said, ‘now you can read it.’ The traveller bent down so low over the paper that the officer, fearing he might touch it, moved it away from him; the traveller didn’t say anything, but it was clear that he still hadn’t been able to read it. “Be just!” — it says,’ repeated the officer. ‘Maybe so,’ said the traveller, ‘I’ll believe you.’ ‘Well then,’ said the officer, at least part-contented, and he climbed up on the ladder with the sheet of paper; he very carefully set the sheet of paper in the engraver, and seemed then comprehensively to rearrange the machinery; it was very laborious, they were evidently very tiny wheels, and sometimes the officer’s whole head disappeared into the engraver, so minutely did he have to consult the machinery.
From down on the ground, the traveller gave his entire attention to the work, his neck became stiff, and his eyes started to hurt from the expanse of sun-bright sky. The soldier and the condemned man were entirely preoccupied with one another. The shirt and trousers of the condemned man, which were already in the pit, were fished out by the soldier with the tip of his bayonet. The shirt was dreadfully soiled, and the condemned man washed it in the tub of water. When he then put on his shirt and trousers, both men had to laugh, because the garments had been sliced apart up the back. Perhaps the condemned man felt under some obligation to entertain the other, he twirled round in front of him in the cut clothing, while the soldier squatted on the ground and smacked his thighs as he laughed. At least the two of them did show a modicum of restraint in the presence of the two gentlemen.
When the officer had finally finished, he went over everything once more in detail and smiled, this time slammed shut the lid of the engraver which had been open, climbed down, looked into the pit and then at the condemned man, saw to his satisfaction that he had recovered his clothing, went over to the water tub to wash his hands, noticed the disgusting filth too late, was sad that he could now no longer wash his hands, finally instead plunged them — it was hardly adequate as a replacement, but it was all he could do — into the sand, and then stood up and started to unbutton his tunic. At this stage the two ladies’ handkerchiefs that he had stuffed under his collar came into his hands. ‘Here are your handkerchiefs,’ he said, and threw them to the condemned man. And to the traveller he explained: ‘A present from the ladies.’
In spite of the evident haste with which he first took off his tunic and then stripped off altogether, he still treated each successive garment with great care, even stroking the silver braid on his tunic with his fingers, and shaking his tassel out. Admittedly, it sat oddly with his care that as soon as he was finished with a garment, he tossed it with a jerk of revulsion into the pit. The last thing he was left holding was a short sword on a sword belt. He pulled it out of its sheath, broke it over his knee, then bundling everything together — the pieces of sword, the sheath and the belt — flung them down so viciously that they jangled together at the bottom of the pit.
And then he stood there naked. The traveller bit his lip and said nothing. He knew what was about to happen, but he had no right to interfere with anything the officer was minded to do. If the justicial procedure to which the officer adhered was really so close to being abrogated — possibly in consequence of the intervention of the traveller, and which he felt obliged to make — then the officer was now behaving perfectly correctly; the traveller in his place would not have behaved any differently.
The soldier and the condemned man initially understood nothing, they weren’t even watching. The condemned man was overjoyed to have received his handkerchiefs back, but he didn’t have long to enjoy their possession, because the soldier took them from him with a sudden quick movement. The condemned man now tried to snatch them back from where the soldier had tucked them, under his belt, but the soldier remained alert. So they squabbled together, half in play. It wasn’t until the officer stood there completely naked that they took notice. The condemned man in particular seemed struck by the sense of some vast reversal in their roles. The thing that had happened to him, was now happening to the officer. Perhaps it would continue to the end. Probably it was on some order given by the foreign traveller. That was his vengeance. Without himself having suffered to the limit, he would be avenged to that limit. An expression of broad silent mirth appeared on his face, and did not leave it.
The officer, though, had now turned to his machine. If it had been clear before that he understood the machine well, the way he dealt with it and the way it obeyed him now could make one almost afraid. With his hand he merely approached the harrow, and it rose and sank several times till it had reached the correct height to receive him; he barely touched the edge of the couch, and already it began to tremble; the stump of felt approached his mouth, it was clear that the officer did not really want it, but his hesitation was only momentary, straight away he yielded and received it into his mouth. Everything was ready, only
By operating so silently, the machine seemed to make itself unnoticeable. The traveller looked across at the soldier and the condemned man. The condemned man was the livelier of the two, everything about the machine interested him, now he stooped down, now he stretched up, all the time he had his index finger out, to draw the soldier’s attention to something. The traveller was mortified. He had decided he would remain here till the end, but he could not have endured the presence of the other two for long. ‘Go home,’ he said. The soldier might have been prepared to go, but to the condemned man the order seemed positively punitive. He implored him with folded hands to be allowed to remain here, and when the traveller shook his head he even dropped to his knees. The traveller saw that orders did no good here, he would have to go over and drive the two of them away. Then up in the engraver he heard a noise. Was the cogwheel playing up after all? But it was something else. Slowly the lid of the engraver lifted and then opened up completely. The teeth of one cogwheel emerged into view, before long the entire cog was visible, it was as though some giant force were crushing the engraver so that there was no room for this wheel, the wheel moved to the edge of the engraver, fell out, rolled in the sand a while and came to a stop. Then already another cog popped up, and then many more followed, large, small, of no ascertainable size and with all of them the same thing happened, you thought the engraver was surely empty by now, but then another, particularly numerous cluster of them came up, fell down, rolled in the sand, and toppled over and lay still. With all this going on, the condemned man forgot the traveller’s order, he was mesmerized by the cogs, he kept trying to reach out and touch one, and also encouraged the soldier to do so, but then hastily withdrew his hand, because another cog came along and gave him a fright, at least by its initial approach.
The traveller, on the other hand, was very disquieted; it was evident that the machine was falling apart; its smooth operation was an illusion; he had the sense that he had to look after the officer now, as he evidently could not fend for himself. But while the tumbling of the cogwheels had claimed all his attention, he had forgotten to keep the rest of the machine in view; now, though, once the last wheel had come out of the engraver, he leaned down over the harrow, and found he had a new, and worse surprise waiting for him. The harrow was not writing, it was merely stabbing, and the bed was not revolving the body either, but merely raising it trembling towards the needles. The traveller wanted to intervene, perhaps to bring the whole thing to a stop, this wasn’t torture of the kind the officer wanted to achieve, it was crude murder. He stretched out his hands. But already the harrow lifted aside with the transfixed body, something it didn’t otherwise do till the twelfth hour. Blood flowed in a hundred streams, undiluted with any water, the water supply having failed as well. And now the last thing failed too, the body did not come off the long needle spikes, it poured forth its blood and hung over the pit, but without falling into it. The harrow was about to return to its previous position, but then, as if it noticed it was not yet freed of its burden, it hung over the pit longer. ‘Can’t you help!’ the traveller yelled to the soldier and the condemned man, and grabbed hold of the officer’s feet himself. He wanted to press down against the feet, while the other two on the opposite side would busy themselves with the officer’s head, and gradually lift the man off the needles. But the two of them did not seem to want to come; the condemned man even turned away; the traveller had to walk over to them, and force them to attend to the officer’s head. There, almost against his will, he was forced to see the dead man’s face. It was as it had been in life; there was no trace of the promised transfiguration; the thing that all the others had found in the machine, the officer himself had failed to find; his lips were pressed together, his eyes were open, their expression was that of the living man, their look was firm and assured, and the point of the great iron spike had passed through the forehead.
When the traveller, followed by the soldier and the condemned man, reached the first few buildings of the colony, the soldier pointed to one of them, and said: ‘This is the tea-house.’
On the ground floor of one building was a low-ceilinged, rather cave-like space, with walls and ceiling blackened by smoke. Along the street side, it was entirely open. Even though there was little to distinguish the tea-house from the colony’s other buildings, which, with the exception of the commandant’s palatial dwellings, were all very run down, it still evoked a sense of history in the traveller, and he sensed the might of earlier times. He walked up to it, followed by his companions, threaded his way between the unoccupied tables, and breathed in the cool, rather fusty air that came from its interior. ‘The old man is buried here,’ said the soldier, ‘the priest refused to allow him a place in the cemetery. For a time, people were undecided where they should bury him, and in the end they buried him here. Of course the officer didn’t tell you anything about that, because for him that’s the most shameful thing. He even tried once or twice to dig him up overnight, but he was always chased away.’ ‘Where is his grave?’ asked the traveller, who could not believe what the soldier told him. Straightaway, both the soldier and the condemned man went on ahead, and pointed at the alleged grave with their hands. They led the traveller as far as the back wall, where there were a few tables with people sitting at them. They were probably port workers, strongly built men with short, gleaming black beards. All of them were jacketless, their shirts were ripped, they looked demoralized and poor. As the traveller approached, one or two got to their feet, backed against the wall, and looked up at him. ‘He’s a stranger,’ the whisper went up around the traveller, ‘he wants to see the grave.’ They pushed one of the tables aside, under which there actually was a gravestone. It bore an inscription in very small letters, the traveller was forced to kneel down to read it. It read: ‘Here rests the old commandant. His supporters, who now have no name, dug him this grave, and set this stone for him. It is prophesied that after a certain number of years, the commandant will rise again, and from these premises here, lead his followers on to the reconquest of the colony. Believe and be patient!’ When the traveller had finished reading, and stood up again, he saw himself surrounded by men all standing and smiling, as if they had read the inscription at the same time and found it ridiculous, and expected him to share their view. The traveller feigned unawareness, distributed a few coins among them, waited while the table was pushed back over the gravestone, left the tea-house and walked down to the port.
The soldier and the condemned man had met acquaintances in the tea-house, and were detained by them. But they must have broken free of them again shortly, because the traveller was only halfway down a long flight of steps leading down to the ships when he heard them coming after him Probably they wanted to make the traveller take them with him at the very last moment. While the traveller was negotiating the price of the steamer crossing with a shipping agent, the other two raced down the steps, silently, because they didn’t dare raise their voices. But by the time they reached the bottom, the traveller was already in the boat, and the boatman was just untying it from the
A Country Doctor: Short Prose for my Father
The New Advocate
We have a new advocate, Dr Bucephalus. His exterior offers few clues to the time he used to be the battle charger of Alexander the Great. However, anyone familiar with his background will not fail to notice certain things. On the stairs recently, I saw a very simple court servant watching our advocate with the appraising eye of a regular race-goer, as, raising his thighs mightily, he mounted the marble steps with ringing strides.
On the whole, the bar approves of Bucephalus. With remarkable insight, people tell one another that with society ordered as it is today, Bucephalus is in a difficult situation, and for that reason, and for his historical role, he deserves compassion. Today — to state the obvious — there is no Alexander the Great. Admittedly, some people know how to kill; nor is the adroitness required to murder a friend with a spear across a banqueting table wholly a lost art; there are plenty of people who find Macedonia too small, and they curse Philip, his father, but no one, no one, is capable of leading us to India. Even then the gates of India proved unattainable, though the king’s sword was certainly pointed in the right direction. Today, though, these gates are altogether elsewhere, and higher and more distant; no one points the way; plenty hold swords, but merely for the purposes of waving them around; and the eye that seeks to follow them will only be confused.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes