The Head by Karl Hans Strobl and translated by Joe Bandel
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Translation Copyright Joe Bandel
I translate German Weird Fiction that was originally published in the German language over one hundred years ago. Most stories have never been translated into English before…
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It was entirely dark in the room and all the curtains were shut. Not a glimmer of light came in from the street and it was entirely quiet. The stranger, my friend and I compulsively held our shaking hands together. There was a terrible fear around us . . . in us.
And then a gaunt, white glowing hand came up to us from out of the darkness and began to write on the table at which we were sitting, with the pencil that we had prepared for it, which was lying there. We could not see what the hand wrote, yet we felt it within ourselves at the same time, as if it were written in fiery letters right before our eyes.
Here is the story of this hand, and the man, to whom it once belonged, that was scribbled down on the paper there in the deep darkness of midnight by the white, glowing hand:
. . . — As I stepped upon the red cloth that covered the well-worn steps . . . there was something odd about my heart. It swung back and forth in my chest like a large pendulum. But the edge of the pendulum weight was as fine as a hair and sharp as a razor and when the pendulum touched the edge of my chest at the end of its swing, I felt a cutting pain there — and had trouble breathing — so that I wanted to gasp out loud. But I bit my teeth together so that no sound could come out, and I balled up my shackled fists so tightly that blood poured out from beneath my nails.
Then I was at the top. Everything was in order; they were all just waiting for me. — I calmly let my neck be shaved and then asked for permission to speak to the people one last time. They granted my request. I turned around and looked over the endless crowd that was pressed up close, head upon head, standing around the guillotine, all those stupid, dull, bestial faces, partly filled with crude curiosity, partly filled with lust: that mass of people, that 14,000, that I scorned to even call human — the entire affair seemed so ridiculous to me that I had to laugh out loud.
Yet, then I saw the official looking face of my executioner filled with strict folds, scowling at me. It was downright impudent of me to not take this more seriously. Yet, I wanted to incite the good citizens a little more and quickly began my speech.
“Citizens,” I said, “citizens, I die for you and for freedom. You have misunderstood me; you have condemned me; but I love you. As proof of my love, listen to my testament. Everything that I possess is yours, here . . .”
I turned my back to them, and made a gesture that they could not misunderstand. . . There was a bellowing of outrage . . . I lay down quickly and with a sigh of relief placed my head in the opening . . . there was a rushing hiss . . . I felt an icy burn in my neck, then my head fell into the basket.
Then it seemed to me, as if I had stuck my head under water and my ears were being filled with it. The dark and confusing sounds of the outer world that pressed at me became a mere buzzing and humming in my temples. On the entire cross-section of my neck I had the feeling as if ether had evaporated there in large quantities.
I know that my head lay in the wicker basket — my body lay up above on the frame, and yet I had the feeling that the complete separation had not yet occurred. I felt my body lightly kicking and dropping down on the left side. Behind my back my manacled, balled up fists were lightly twitching; my fingers forcefully contracted, then stretched out and pulled back together. I also felt the blood streaming out of the stump of my neck and how this draining of blood made the motions become ever weaker. Also the ability to feel my body became more weak and faint, until the lower half below my severed neck was completely gone.
I had lost my body. In the complete darkness from my severed neck downwards I suddenly sensed red spots. The red spots were like sparks of fire in a dark stormy night. They flew around each other, flared up and spread themselves out like drops of oil on the still surface of water . . . when the edges of the red spots touched each other I sensed electrical shocks in my eyelids, and the hair on the top of my head stood up. Then the red spots began to spin around themselves, faster, ever faster . . . countless numbers of burning fiery wheels, glowing fluidic slices of the sun . . . there was a rushing and a whirling of the discs with long tongues of fire licking out from behind them, and I had to close my eyes . . . I still felt the fiery red discs inside me . . . they stuck to me like grains of sand between my teeth and in every joint. Finally, the discs of flame faded away; their frantic spinning became slower, then one after the other became extinguished, and then for the second time it became very dark for me from my severed neck downwards. This time it was forever.
A sweet fatigue and lethargy came over me, a letting go; my eyes became heavy. I didn’t open them anymore, and yet I could see everything around me. It was as if my eyelids were made out of glass and had become transparent. I saw everything as if through a milk-white veil, over which delicate, bloodshot veins branched outward. But I could see clearly and further than I could when I still had my body. My tongue had become lame and lay heavy and paralyzed in my mouth like a lump of clay.
But my sense of smell had refined itself one thousand times; I not only saw things; I smelled them, each different, with its own particular, personal odor.
There were three other heads in the woven wicker basket beneath the notch of the guillotine blade besides my own, two male and one female. Bits of makeup clung to the rosy colored cheeks on the woman’s head; a golden arrow stuck in the powdered, coiffed hair, and dainty, diamond earrings were in the little ears. The heads of the two men lay with their faces turned downwards in a pool of dried blood. An old, badly healed wound showed across the temple of one; the hair of the other was already gray and sparse. The woman’s head had its eyes shut and did not move. But I knew that she was watching me through the closed eyelids . . .
We lay like that for hours. I observed how the rays of the sun moved upwards across the frame of the guillotine. Then it was evening, and I began to freeze. My nose was quite stiff and the cold of evaporation on the cross-section of my neck became uncomfortable.
Suddenly there was a coarse shouting. It came nearer, much nearer, and suddenly I felt how a rough, powerful fist seized my head firmly by the hair and pulled it out of the basket. Then I felt as if a strange pointed object was pressed into my neck — the tip of a lance. A crowd of drunken day laborers and soldiers were doing something with our heads. A powerful, lanky man with a red bloated face held the lance with my head on its tip in his hands and waved it high above the wildly excited and screaming crowd.
A knot of men and women were fighting over the division of the loot and pulled at the hair and ears of the woman’s head. They rolled around wildly — entangled with each other — fighting with hands and feet — with teeth and nails.
Then the fight was at an end. They parted from each other. The crowd of disappointed ones that pressed around were clamoring and screaming at the ones that had managed to carry a piece of the booty away.
The head lay on the ground, defaced, defiled, with traces of fists everywhere, the ears were torn off by the violent jerks with which they had removed the earrings. The carefully coiffed hair was disheveled, the powdered braids of the dark blonde hair lay in the dust of the street. One nostril was cut as if by a sharp instrument; on the forehead was the imprint of a boot heel. The eyelids were half opened, the broken, glassy eyes stared straight out.
Finally the crowd moved forward. The four heads were stuck on long spikes. The anger of the people was mostly directed at the head of the man with the gray hair. The man must have been especially unpopular. I didn’t know him. They spit on him and threw clumps of filth at him. Then a handful of street dirt hit him on the ear — what was that? Did he just move, softly, lightly; unnoticeably, perceptible only to me, or was it only a band of muscles?
Night fell. They requested that our heads be placed together on the tips of the iron fence surrounding the palace. I didn’t know the palace, either. Paris was large. Armed citizens lounged around the courtyard and set up a large bonfire. They sang bawdy songs and told jokes. There were bellows of laughter. The smell of grilled lamb wafted over to me. The fire gave off an aroma of costly rosewood. The savage horde had hauled the entire interior of the castle out into the courtyard and they were now burning it piece by piece. A graceful, elegantly upholstered sofa was brought up to the edge. It was now its turn — but they hesitated; they didn’t throw the sofa into the fire. A young woman lunged forward, in a shirt that was open at the front and showed the full, solid shapes of her breasts. She spoke with lively hand movements to one of the men.
Was she asking them to give the costly piece to her? Did she suddenly desire to think of herself as a “duchess?
The men still hesitated. The woman pointed at the fence, on whose pointed tips our heads were stuck and then again to the sofa. The men hesitated — finally she pushed them aside, tore a sword out of its sheath away from one of the armed men and with the help of the blade began to pull the little enameled nails from out of the wooden frame of the sofa, which held the heavily stretched silk in place. Then the men were helping. Then she was pointing again at our heads. One of the men came closer to the fence with hesitant steps. He searched, then climbed up the iron rods and took down the abused, disfigured head of the woman.
A terror shook the man, but he acted as if under a compulsion. It was as if the young woman over there by the fire, the woman in the red skirt and open fronted shirt ruled all those men around her with her wildly blazing predatory gaze. With a stiff arm he carried the head up to the fire by the hair. The woman seized the dead head with a wild, joy filled outcry. She twirled it around, swung it by the long hair twice, three times, over the flaming fire.
Then she crouched down and took the head in her lap. She stroked the cheeks a couple of times as if with a loving caress — the men settled down in a circle around her — and then she had one of the small enameled nails in one hand and gripped a hammer in the other, and with a short hammer blow she pounded the nail up to its head into the temple. Again a short hammer blow, and again one of the nails disappeared into the woman’s thick hair.
Then she started humming a song, a very fearful, joyous and strange folksong of ancient magic.
The bloody monsters sitting around looked over at her pale and terrified — their fearful eyes stared at her from out of their dark hollows. And she hammered and hammered, driving one nail after another into the head in time to the music of the strange old magical song that she was humming.
Suddenly a piercing scream pushed out of one of the men and he jumped up. His eyes were opened wide and protruding. Drool dribbled from his mouth. He threw his arms backwards and twisted his upper body as if from a terrible cramp and from out of his mouth came the shrill and piercing scream of an animal.
The young woman hammered and sang her song.
Then, a second man jumped up from the ground and howled as he waved his arms around him. He tore a burning brand from out of the fire and pushed it against his breast — again and again, until his clothing began to smolder and a thick stinking smoke spread out from him. The others sat stiff and pale and did not prevent him from doing it.
Then a third jumped up — and at the same time the others staggered to their feet as well. There was a deafening noise, a shrieking, a yelling, a screaming, a bellowing and howling; a tangle of moving limbs. Whoever fell . . . remained there to be trampled on by the others . . .
In this orgy of madness, the young woman sat there and hammered and sang.
Then she was finished, and she stuck the head studded with little enameled nails onto the tip of a bayonet and held it high over the howling, jumping masses. Someone tore the fire apart, the pieces of burning wood were put out and glowing sparks flew out into the dark corners of the courtyard where they were extinguished . . . it became dark — only a single passionate scream and a wild noise, as if from a fearful scuffle — I knew, that all of these insane men, these wild beasts were now fighting over this single woman, with teeth and claws . . .
Everything became dark before my eyes.
My consciousness remained only long enough to see everything become gray around me . . . It was dawn . . . dark and indistinct, like the ending of day on a dreary winter afternoon. It rained on my head. A cold wind ruffled my hair. My flesh became soft and weak. Was this the beginning of decomposition?
Then something changed for me. My head was in another place, in a dark pit, but it was warm and peaceful there. Inside of me it was once again bright and clear. There were many other heads with me in the dark pit, heads and bodies. And I realized that the heads and bodies had found each other as best they could. And in this position they had again found their speech, but it was a quiet, inaudible, thought speech, in which they talked to one another.
I yearned for a body, like I once yearned after one to finally find relief from the unbearable cold on the cross-section of my neck which had now almost already become burning hot. But I yearned in vain. All the heads and bodies had found each other. There remained no body for my head. Yet finally, after a long wearisome search I found a body . . . at the very bottom, modestly in a corner . . . a body, that still had no head — a woman’s body. Something in me strove against a connection with this body, but my desire, my longing, triumphed and I moved closer — moving by the power of my will — toward the headless trunk and I saw how it also strove toward my head — and then both severed surfaces touched each other . . . there was a slight shock, the feeling of a soft warmth. Then the most important thing happened, I had a body again.
But strangely . . . after the first feeling of well-being had passed, I sensed a huge difference in my other half . . . it was as if entirely different juices were being mixed together, juices that had nothing in common with each other.
The woman’s body, which my head now sat upon, was slender and white and had the cool marble skin of an aristocrat, one who took wine and milk baths and squandered costly ointments and oils. On the side of the right breast, over the hip and across a portion of the belly was a strange design . . . a tattoo. And within it, thoroughly entwined among the blue points, hearts, anchor, and other arabesques were the letters “J” and “B”. Who could this woman have been?
I sensed that I would know — soon! Something was forming from out of the vague darkness of the body beneath me. Minute by minute this image became clearer and more distinct. It was due to the painful penetration of the juices into my head, and suddenly it seemed me, as if I had two heads . . . and the second head — the woman’s head, — was bloody, disfigured, distorted, — I saw it in front of me — completely covered with little enameled nails. It was the head that belonged to this body — at the same time in my own head, I felt perfectly the hundreds of pointed nails in my temples, the top of my head and in my brain; I wanted to scream out in pain. But everything around me sank into a red veil, one which moved back and forth as if pushed by a strong breeze.
Then I felt it, I was a woman, only my mind remained decidedly male. And then an image climbed out from the red veil . . . I saw my other self before me, in the lavish splendor of an extensively decorated room. I lay burrowed into the soft carpets . . . naked. In front of me, bending over me was a man with the hard coarse features of a man from the lowest levels of society, with the work hardened fists and the weather burned skin of a sailor. He was kneeling in front of me and poking strange designs into my soft flesh with the tip of a needle. The pain and stimulation aroused a strange sort of lust . . . I knew that the man was my lover.
Then a short, sharp pain from the needle caused my body to twitch and convulse together. I wrapped my white arms around the man’s neck and pulled him down to me . . . kissed him and lay his hardened, callused hands upon my breasts, my shoulders and then kissed him again in a tumbling frenzy; embraced him and held him so tightly against me that he moaned breathlessly.
Then I seized his brown throat with my teeth, the throat, which I loved so much and which had so often aroused me, caused my tongue to stroke it with moist caresses . . . and then — and then I had to press my teeth into the firm brown flesh — I could not help it — I had to bite . . . and I bit . . . I bit . . . and I felt his moan become a gasp — I felt how the man in my arms was writhing and twitching spasmodically . . . but I didn’t let go. His body became heavy — heavy . . . a warm stream flowed down over my body. His head sank down on top of it — I let him slide out of my arms — he fell back onto the soft white carpet with a dull thud . . . a thick stream of blood poured out of his bitten through throat. — Blood, blood was everywhere, on the soft, white polar bear fur — on me . . . everywhere.
I began to scream . . . the hoarse and raw sound forced itself out of my throat. The chamber maid rushed in, she must not have been very far away, perhaps in front of the door in the next room . . . had she been listening? . . . She remained rigid for a moment, without comprehension, and then threw herself over the body of the dead man without a word . . . without words and without tears . . . she buried her face in his blood covered chest — I could only see her clenching her fists.
Then I knew everything . . .
And then I saw another image . . .
Again, I saw my other self and it was the time when I was in the wooden cart, the same one that was going to the guillotine. Then I was standing above on the platform and raised my eyes to look at the sun for the last time. I slowly turned, then my gaze fell on a young woman who was standing very close to the front, who had pressed up into the first row . . . it was her . . . the lover of the man, the beloved of the one that was the victim of my lust . . . with a pale, twitching face, a red skirt, a revealing shirt and fluttering hair . . . her eyes glowed wildly, like those of a predator, moist as if from restrained grief and loss, as if about to experience a great joy. Then she raised her balled up fists in front of her face, and her mouth began to move . . . She wanted to speak, to reproach me, scold me, yet she could only cry — broken and incomprehensible . . . then I lay my head under the blade.
Then I knew everything.
I knew whose head it was that served as a sacrifice the night before in the glow of the bonfire, the terrible revenge from beyond the grave — I also knew who the young woman was, who in the same night in the dark palace courtyard had unleashed the raging beasts so that they raged, mangled and trampled . . . in my head was the pain of hundreds of needle sharp nail tips . . . I was bound to this body . . . to this body full of horrible memories and terrible pain, to this sinful, beautiful body, that has wandered through all the gates of hell.
This terrible split of my two beings is tearing me apart . . . oh, not for much longer . . . I feel a gentle leaving behind of all my limbs, a letting go of the fleshly parts . . . all the inner organs are becoming spongy and turning to liquid . . . the decomposition begins.
Soon my disgusting two fold self will embrace the night — the night of decomposition . . . my body will fall apart — my spirit will become free . . . the hand stopped writing and disappeared.