The Strangling Hand
by Karl Hans Strobl
translated by Joe E. Bandel
Copyright Joe E. Bandel
The Strangling Hand Ch 1 pg 33–36
Chapter 2 The Forest People
Andreas Semilasso lived among people for half a century before renouncing them. His habits ran counter to the laws of the common interest so much that his life was a constant battle. He really enjoyed this battle, even though a few tried to tell him that the will of the people was stronger and would always win. The powers were too unevenly distributed, and it was impossible for even the strongest personality to go against the written law and custom. So the people laughed at the foolishness of Andreas Semilasso and shook their heads over his eccentrics, until they began to recognize the dangerousness of his example and their smiles transformed into frowns of scorn.
They finally recognized that such resistance against society could not be allowed to go unpunished, and that such a person, who only lived for his own wild and untamed nature, could lead the herd into a revolution and uprising against customs. It was as if a beautiful, untamed beast ran around free, with its fangs and claws, and its unbounded power was an immense threat to the peaceful citizen. At first the law good naturedly overlooked the little trespasses of Andreas Semilasso, but when he threw a tax collector out the door so violently that his leg was broken, it was too much and they stuck him behind secure walls for a while.
After Andreas Semilasso was set free, public opinion turned against him. It was certain that people who had once considered him formidable were now inclined against him and decided to find ways to weaken his superior strength. But it was impossible for these crippled people, who had lost all their instincts, and their will to live. But he never again went out among them, never made friends with the students or public. He did what he should have done a long time ago. He gave up his dwelling place among people.
With his few bits and pieces, which he loaded onto a donkey, he left the city, wearing a large gray smock belted with a cord around his body and with sandals on his feet. On his head, for protection against the sun, was a broad straw hat, the remnant of a Panama hat, from which he had removed the top part. His black straggly hair protruded out from the top of it and the yellow straw of the brim surrounded his head and grim face like a massive halo. He looked like a wandering apostle, warlike and the enemy of all luxury, as he marched through the streets of the city, followed by a crowd of jubilant urchins. Andreas Semilasso let them scream and bluster behind him, but when a beefy fellow confronted him just outside the city and shouted scornful words at him, he turned around and threw a stone at his head.
So he took his leave from civilization and moved into a cave in the forest, which he had discovered on one of his day long excursions. Now he had won his solitude; now they wouldn’t lock him up anymore; now he was free, to enjoy all things above and below the earth as he pleased. He transformed the front of his cave into a comfortable chamber with windows, a door and an oven, and the back of his cave opened out into a huge cathedral. From this cathedral, whose pointed arches bored high above into the darkness, branching passages led far beneath the rock. When harsh fires burned inside of him, Andreas Semilasso often sat there in complete darkness on a pile of rubble, which had been formed by falling stone. He listened to the voices of the deep. Somewhere down below, from a split in the limestone came the sound of water, like the song of the blood that flowed in his veins.
During the course of the year he explored his cave and named the two passages with names that sounded like those found in old chronicles. He named one “Justice”, which was long and winding, very extensive and always went in ever widening circles until one finally got lost in the darkness. The other he named “Injustice”. It was short and straight and led to a hole in the rock wall from which he could look out into a valley. There was also a little room which he called the chapel, because of the white stalactite formations and a glittering pillar. In the center lay a massive, heavy black block of stone which he named “the Deed”. There was also a black pool in the back of a distant grotto, which reflected the pointed flames of the torch he carried upon the cold waters of its ebony surface. Its waters were fed by some unknown spring from somewhere deep below, but the water overflowed and poured into an abyss which he named “the Insatiable”. In the spring the snow water also came streaming in, shutting off a portion of the cave and overflowing, so that Andreas Semilasso was more than once in danger of his life. That was why he loved this traitorous pool.
This was not some silly game that the hermit was playing. When a story came to his ear about someone who was repressed by the brutal law of the majority, in which some refined sensibility became choked under its force, then he went down the passage of Justice, to where the unexplored darkness began, extinguished his torch and waited until he heard laughter in the darkness. When he heard of a brave deed that opposed the desires of the crowd, he was led to the passage of Injustice and to the window, from which he waved out at the great valley. When he wanted to strengthen his will, he went to the chamber of the glittering pillar and laid his hands upon the wet black block of stone, drawing strength from it until his own power became greater and greater and he felt prepared for anything.
Everything that he thought was superficial and foolish, any dispensable equipment and the remains of his meals, he threw into “the Insatiable”. When he wanted to rid himself of tormenting thoughts, he banished them by imprisoning their spirits in stones, which he drowned in the black pool. One of his favorite wonders in this subterranean kingdom was a temporary flight up a stone chimney which he would search out when he wanted to lighten his spirits. The chimney was a narrow fissure that led to the surface world. Fir trees stood over its entrance, which slowly leaked drops of water. The rush of the wind in the branches created a wild bellowing of strange beauty and moving rhythm, like the ridiculous beating wings of the angel of creation, and the falling drops of water counted out the beats between this wonderful song of eternity with the silver ringing trickle of time.
Often Andreas Semilasso didn’t come out of his passages and grotto into the light for weeks. But when he did he was seized with the beauty of a sunset, the green of the trees in front of his door or the purple colors of the evening sky which he glimpsed from out of some fissure. These glimpses were so powerful that he would leave the underworld and give himself entirely to the wonders of the light. That was when his life in the forest began. There in the lonely hot mountain meadows, where he lay among high weeds between the forgotten tap roots of tree trunks, from out of whose cut surfaces sparkling resin dripped.
Andreas Semilasso would lay for hours among these tree trunks, which he called his brothers, so still, that the emerald lizards crawled over his hands and his shoulders, even to hesitatingly come near his face. He was familiar with the Morse code that the woodpecker beat into the bark, with the cries of the sparrow hawk and falcon, with the cooing of the forest pigeons, and the busy ants in war and peace with the thieving ground beetles kept no secrets from him. He often sat naked on a high limb and felt transformed by the sun and the light. Other times he placed himself under the falling water of a forest brook and let the drops spray over his body. Sometimes he lay on his belly watching the stupid water bugs at the edges of a pool and with long patience caught the slender Gobies in the hollow of his hand, only to fling them back out into the water.
In moonlit summer nights he searched over jagged blocks for a path from his grotto to the witches’ stone, where skewed placements of bursting rock tiles created wild adventures. Grim faces looked out from the wrinkled stone fissures. There were fortune hunters, sneering gallows birds, glum mountain spirits and even moon maidens. In the crevices tree roots lay like giant sleeping snakes, and mandrakes giggled beneath the moss. From here he could look out over the sleeping forest. At first only old hares watched him from behind the bushes and fir trees. But the shimmering things came forward on the ridge to listen to his stories, until the early morning dawn when they left him and hid themselves once more in their secret corners.