The Strangling Hand
by Karl Hans Strobl
translated by Joe E. Bandel
Copyright Joe E. Bandel
The Strangling Hand Ch 1 pg 13–16
With a long last glance Eleagabal Kuperus parted from his souvenirs of the dead and turned to a table, which stood in the middle of the room covered with strange instruments, beakers and retorts. The wrapped head of the poet lay between sparking knives, lancets and clamps, so sharp and precise that it gave certain evidence of its reality, even though Emma knew that it had been left behind on the marble table in the domed hall. But she didn’t have time to think about it, how it could have gotten here, before the old man picked up the package with soft tenderness and began to unwrap it. As the head of her beloved appeared, a sharp pain began to climb out of the deeps, as she saw that it had begun to decompose. The eyes lay deeper, the mouth gaped open and was covered with a dull foam. Gory blood stuck to the severed surface of the neck. Under the equalizing power of death the head had lost its freshness and now showed a dull humanity, which a richer and finer spirit had once struggled to overcome.
The scrupulous finger of Kuperus lifted the lids from the eyes of the dead. The spouse, who had done the work of washing the corpse herself, watched the moderate hands work with strong emotion which she sensed as almost a rape, as this man held it as a friend cuddles what was dearest to herself.
“You are welcome here poet, far more welcome than any of the others who would despise my work.
Now you are restored,” and after a short thought, Eleagabal Kuperus added a short sentence from out of the Book of the Dead. “Even the greatest is only a cobblestone for the roads of the public to destroy.”
The spouse stood there astonished: “You know his words.”
“I don’t live in the world, yet I live with it. Should I tell you something similar? The eternal point remains unmoving, where equal forces cross each other, which are striving in opposite directions. It also exists in all streams and takes on different aspects as it flows. I live in this point called the present moment, and pour myself into every possibility. Yet the best and finest thing is to rest in peace. Everything comes to me, and I merge more deeply with the world.”
He raised his hand. “Go my dear friend. You brought a stream of beauty and love. My most diligent skill will maintain the memory of your spouse for you. You must never carry any guilt about this, because immortality can only be preserved with hands of love.”
He reached into the marble wall and hastily lifted the network of vines up to allow the Frau to step back into the domed hall, where the servant with the wolf’s face waited, in order to escort her out of the house.
She stood quietly before the door for a short time and looked over at the Cathedral, whose immense weight, seemed to have increased in the night and the heavy, unmoving fog, pushing it down into the hill upon which it stood. Tired and flickering gas lanterns fought the darkness which crawled up to the foot of the Cathedral and pulled itself up the walls, as if the ground was seeking to pull it in. She was seized with the thought that she might be singled out for attack by a drunk in these empty streets, and even more by the notion that she was afraid of the sinking Cathedral. She didn’t dare leave the door of Eleagabal Kuperus.
Through the uncomfortable play of the darkness and the gloomy lights a stone face magically appeared on the front of the Cathedral with a broad talkative, but now closed mouth. There was a broken balcony and above the high arched windows appeared two mismatched silent and stubby towers. They were so misshapen and alien that they grew out of the massive structure like a finger that springs out from a head. After the impression of harmonious peace and wisdom, which Emma had sensed in the domed hall and the museum of Eleagabal Kuperus, this Cathedral across from his house appeared to her like a lurking monster of stone. One with a scornful, contorted smile that leered at the hand over the door, prepared to strike some fearful, murderous blow if it had the chance.
In the same way that the meerschaum mask of a warrior, the terrifying painted shield with the head of Medusa on its polished armor, or the locked visor of a helmet bewitched at the sight, so did this sinking Cathedral in the darkness. The friendly gestures of hospitality, which greeted the oppressed during the daylight, transformed during the night into a procession of unquiet, murmuring voices filled with a malicious joy that spread fear and terror.
And now — ever more clear, came a sad and unrelenting melody from out of the confusion of voices, rising up — a sad and unrelenting melody. A long, drawn out, dreary song, which lingered on a few notes, climbing up and down as if it were sounding a warning. Something wasted and bleak lay within it, like a breath, which comes from over infinite planes, which has uprooted all life from out of a magical world, something poisonous and offensive, like the wind that blows over a field of slaughter. This song, this unbearable, monotonous tune seemed to come from out of the solidly closed mouth of the Cathedral, as if it was searching for some way to escape. The wailing of this monotonous hum rose and died, and when it finally lost itself in the whispers of the fog, it never left the trembling Frau for a moment.
She knew that this was all related to her past life, when she was younger and had suffered under this same song, but she was not capable of finding her way free of it, and could not really say what was reality and what was dream. She just stood at the threshold of Eleagabal Kuperus and held on to the iron ring which protruded out from the carved wooden door. Some superstition and fear had her convinced that she would fall under the power of an enemy if she stepped onto the courtyard in front of the Cathedral.
Slow steps came from out of the darkness, which echoed dully and repeated against the walls of the houses. The night had produced feet and wandered across the courtyard in front of the Cathedral. But it was only a watchman, who came through the fog with heavy legs, tired from long service, and his movements were like those of a drunken sleepwalker. In the thick fog his movement appeared aimless like the movement of a ship that has lost its direction. He came up to the Frau, looked sharply into her face with a penetrating glance, was about to say something about single women walking the streets at night, but then turned and walked back up the street, stopping under a street light. He stayed there, prepared to perform the duty of his office if needed. The tip of his helmet began to glimmer under a ray of light, as if it carried a little blue flame.
His appearance broke through the spell of this place. Then Emma once more gathered her courage. She let go of the ring, whose coldness had frozen her fingers, and walked across the courtyard, between the two ill tempered saints of stone, around whose raised arms the thick fog collected and she climbed back down into the city. The cold, leering eyes of the saints and the echoing footsteps of the watchman followed her.
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