Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.

The Thief, by Georg Heym

Translation © Barnaby Thieme, 2019. All rights reserved.

Weeping Nude, Edvard Munch, 1913-14

Motto: Aux sots je préfère les fous
Dont je suis, chose, helas! certaine.
– Baudelaire

“God, I swear to you, I shall do Thy will, for Thou are the Lord, Lord, and I am Thy instrument, forever and ever, from now until eternity, amen. That is to say, yes, yes, it shall be done thus. Night after night, I have prayed to you on my knees, as You know, here in the Gethsemane of this attic room. If it may be so, Lord, then let this cup pass from me. But let not my, but Thy, will be done. And now I shall gird myself and cast them out, as Elijah of old cast out the false priests, or as Moses strove against the great dance of the dancers. Not one more of these nights, Lord, or you will drive me out of my mind. And I need my reason, for you have have laid a great work on my shoulders.”

He fell down and bowed before the Angel of the Lord, who stood behind the oven, there, where the overcoat hung, there, where he was now always careful to appear. 

Then he stood up, took the package, and left. 

He didn’t know how it began. For the last few years he had withdrawn from his friends in an attack of sudden aversion. He had been nearly forgotten. His friends knew nothing more of his life. If one of them saw him by chance in passing, he no longer recognized him. 

He had passed his time in all manner of study to heal the agony of his melancholy. It had been biology, astronomy, and archaeology, one after the other. Nothing satisfied him. Everything only filled him with great emptiness. And now he lived in a large guesthouse, buried in his small attic room, alone, known by no one, one of the many solitaries of this great city. 

He spent the evenings in the depths of his armchair, tracking the dwindling light and the cloud ships that sailed with their red keels on their voyage to new, mysterious lands. Or in late summer when the days of the north winds began with large, strange shapes in the heavens, he watched huge whales, giant camels, and the fleet of innumerable small fish that vanished over the ocean of the sky into the endless blue. 

He kept a record for himself of all the strange apparitions. Once he saw the devil before a wine-red ground above a pile of worshipful black bodies. Another time he saw a monstrous bat with outstretched wings that appeared to be struck to the heavens like farmers nail them to barn doors. Or a gigantic barque, or trees on mountains, or powerful lions, monstrous serpents laid on the shoulders of the sky, or a giant monk dragging his cassock, or men with strange, long profiles. One time he saw a fiery angel that rose with a great blaze above the steps of the aether. 

At times, everything was filled with a strange, nearly inaudible music, like the roar of the ocean in the darkness of endless grottos and subterranean cathedrals. 

The clouds had been his last study, the last temptation, the most dangerous work of the devil. 

One evening he burned the book, and now, when he heard the storm at night that drove the purple minotaur of cloud over the horizon, he closed up the room and draped it with black cloths, and sank entirely into the darkness and the silence. 

And at that time the voice had begun from a distant corner, as if from out of pipes, muffled and tired, like the lamentations of the dead that swam about in the the veins of the earth. 

In the first weeks, he hadn’t understood them, but he gradually learned their language, the more the voices gained power over him. And once, after he had fasted for four days and stayed awake for four nights, the first vision was granted to him, and then for the first time he had felt that feeling of infinite blessedness and immeasurable suffering. 

He was prepared slowly for his great journey, like Christ, who had to endure two years in the terrors of the desert. Such torments, such terrors, so many sleepless nights, but also what hopes, what ecstasies, what visions! After his body had been completely weaned from the flesh, and after the last remaining animal matter of his blood was purified, at last, one night he received his tidings from a voice that rose like thunder over the sea. 

Yes, woman was the original evil. Christ’s work had been in vain. For how could he have saved man, if they must ever necessarily fall back into sin like a stone falling back to earth, and would do so, even if it were thrown above the clouds? Truly, they were like the poor flies that try to fly out of the honeypot – they fuss and crawl, but they never go far, they must always go back down into sin, into sweetness. 

And he read aloud Mark 15:34: “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And verse 37: “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.”

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

That had been the last word of Christ, and with that he had entombed his entire glory. In the horror of death he had recognized the ultimate truth. His work was in vain – his entry in Jerusalem, his bloody scourging, his pains, his ordeal, and the long hours on the dark wood. God had forsaken him, and his work had been in vain. 

And the darkening of the heavens, the tearing of the temple curtain, the coming forth of the dead from the graves, these had been nothing but the shabby props of a bad and senseless comedy. 

Yes, and “he cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.”

And he read further, in Revelation 17: 

  1. “And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters. 
  2. “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
  3. “So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
  4. “And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.
  5. “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”

“The beast that was, and is not, and yet is.” And the profundity of these words terrified him. 

Before him he saw the throat of the infernal beast in terrible sorrow, and, hanging over its horns, the face of that woman, and above her brow, the seal of death, and about her mouth a terrible and heartbreaking smile, like the reflection of the infernal abyss. 

So all must be done once more, for the beast was not yet vanquished. 

Evil must be torn up by the root. 

Adam was good as long as he was alone, but when Satan crept into the dream of God and called on him to create woman, the hour of sin was already set in the future of the race. Whether man must fall by the hand of the first woman or through her daughters was not determined; that he must fall was certain. 

And the Messiah passed over woman. For that, in the last hour, God had forsaken him. 

There was a sign; women always gather there, or they pass it by and draw from it a new strength, like serpents that sometimes circle back to their mysterious, subterranean dwellings to fetch new poisons. 

And this sign hung down the street, two blocks away in its temple, and everything else that hung there was there only to conceal the sign and to hide the secret from men. Yes, yes, this is why women always laughed that way when they set down their umbrellas in the cloakroom. God himself had told him. 

The first time he visited her was in the morning hours, when she was thronged by the many people who longed to sacrifice their hearts on the devil’s altar. That way she couldn’t be on guard against him, immediately know her enemy. And so he could slowly grow accustomed to her eyes. Every day he stayed a bit longer, every day he became more patient, and he hardened himself more for the final contest with the Dragon, just as Mithridates took ever-larger doses of poison every day to strengthen his blood.

At first he employed manifold means of protection against the sinister stare. He stuck the thumb of his left hand through the index and middle finger upon entering the hall, or he carried a silver phallus on his person. But gradually he could do without them, and look the woman in the eyes without danger. 

And one day, she marked the one that she had before her. It ran over her face suddenly, like the white shadow of recognition. For a moment she turned away, but she then took up the struggle with him. Through all the people around, she only saw him in his corner. Their eyes met in the room, like two daggers thrusting into one another, or like two great maws in an empty cosmos that sought to consume one another. Who would engulf the other, which eternity would be greater, devour the other? 

Whoever won here gained the final victory, had no more enemy, and around the victor was either the immeasurable brightness of the light and the choir of the sun, or the black skies of dreary silence, and Belial’s black throne over piles of coffins, and the gigantic flags of Hell. 

And so, in the busy hall he fought the first battle, the first mute battle. No one saw him, no one paid him any mind, no one marveled at him. Of these wretched fools, no one knew what was done here, what happened here, and which destiny of mankind was decided on this fearful, bloodless battlefield. If he had had the time in his struggle, he would have driven them all from the temple, these usurers and idolators. But he couldn’t move. 

His eyes began to hurt. He saw the woman as if through a red fire, he thought he was going to faint. He had to lean on a chair, but he held out. 

And slowly he began to feel like he would win. Her eyes were not so hard anymore, not so large anymore, not so certain of victory. It passed like a shadow over her brow, and he saw how tired she had become, and how she slowly waned. She gradually seemed to disappear from the foreground, her outline became dark, her face became smaller. And it seemed to him as though she dived back into the mysterious landscape behind her, as though in the veils of green and silent water. 

And all of the sudden she was only the usual Mona Lisa Giaconda, to which the daily hordes of English and American tourists were driven like a herd of pigs. 

The first battle of the heavenly war was won. He fell into an armchair. 

As he was leaving later, he turned toward her from the door one more time. Their eyes met one last time, and he caught a glimpse that was supposed to be mocking, but it was merely stood like a thin layer on seas of rage. And one more time, he pushed and drove her back into her rocky wasteland. As he went through the door, he knew that her eyes followed, and he felt as though an assassin stood behind him. But he did not stab – he had lost the courage.

He was outside in the glow of the streets, and he had to restrain himself, or he would have danced and sung and shouted his bliss in the twilight heat of the skies.

In the afternoon, he amused himself by lying at the window and watching the people below. He ate a bag of plums and threw the pits at the people’s tiny heads. “If you knew,” he thought, “these damned Philistines, if these idiots only knew,” and his scrubby beard was shaken by a loud laugh. 

From then on, he also began to visit his enemy in the hours when it was empty at the Louvre, when the pictures woke from the sleep of the day, toward evening, when the light of the afternoon withdrew, and, in the half-dark of the forsaken hall, each head grew deeper and stranger in the prison of its frame. 

He had gotten into the habit of eavesdropping on her from afar when she thought herself unobserved, and then he would advance. 

She was never so beautiful as when the fire of the setting sun trembled in the room’s dust and lay upon her brow, and her dark hair began to glow as if from its own light. Then she seemed to grow forth out of the dark background and become flesh, and to bask in the light of her own shamelessness. Perhaps it had been at just this hour when the soul of that depraved artist once stood open to the devil to receive her. For her face sometimes carried something like the memory of a far distant hour full of mysterious lust. 

Yes, anyone else would have been taken in by her, and at times he would have also weakened, but then he called to the Lord in his spirit, and the Lord filled his heart with hate and divine wrath. 

And then he advanced. He felt her terror and saw how cold she became, and how she carried her repugnance for him on her brow. And then the battle began again. Silent and mute, day after day. At times he thought that he already had her to such a degree that she no longer dared to take up the fight. She hung there in her frame like an ordinary picture, her eyes were without light, melancholy, and regret. Then he felt pity for her, he tormented her no longer. Then he studied her with the eyes of a doctor who had come to save her. You would have to make a great incision, doubtlessly the operation would be a matter of life and death. You would have to blind her, but if she came through, perhaps she would find mercy before God. You would at least have to force her to repent, for there is greater rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. 

But all at once she was laughing again, and he had to see that she had only mocked him, that everything had only been an impudent game. 

The guards no longer paid him any notice. 

They told jokes about the madman and otherwise didn’t trouble themselves much about him. He always greeted them politely, and they got a good tip from time to time when he wanted to stay later than the regulations allowed. Then one of the guards would let him out a back door. 

In August, several young people committed suicide. In every case, the newspapers attributed a motive of lovesickness. Apparently God heard the news, because He took that as an occasion to act more energetically. 

The angel tasked with conveying heavenly messages had implied for several days that the hour of the deed was nigh, and today told him that the heavenly council had appointed August 17th. 

He didn’t go in for a day, in order to unsettle her and to confuse her thoughts with a blow against her habit. He observed good tactics – at least he tried to. In truth, anxiety had suddenly fallen on him after the angel had brought him the message. He ran forth from his apartment to be among men, he wanted to hide from God. But God was after him. He saw Him everywhere, between the buses, among the people. Everywhere he ran, on the house signs, on street cars, he kept seeing the number 17 – precisely the number he would have so gladly blotted out. He was certain he would see a 17 whenever he raised his eyes, and he did. 

Behind him, he heard a few snatches of a conversation: “If the trumpeter steps out of the gates.” “But that would already be tomorrow.” “Ah yes, tomorrow is the 17th.”

So it was decided. The dear Lord had sent his policemen after him everywhere, he could certainly not escape him. The words occurred to him: “And if I should come to the uttermost sea, you would already be there.” Yes, there was nowhere you could hide from God’s face, even should you crawl down Satan’s fiery throat. 

The bit about the trumpet was clearly a reference to the Last Judgment, and the punishment that was set for the disobedient. And he turned and gave himself over to his destiny. 

He spent the afternoon, the night, and the following morning in prayer. He lay before God in the dust and abased himself, he tore his entire soul asunder and let God flood in like smoke, like fluid. At midnight he extinguished his lamps. He prayed on in the darkness. And on the tips of his hands, which he swung in the darkness, shone a weak blue light like Saint Elmo’s Fire, as the power of God drove into his hands like electricity, filling him with delight. 

He swelled with strength like a warrior, he could have hypnotized an entire city, he could have driven the night horizon before him to its black knees, could have pulled the dark ocean behind him like a giant, storming robe, as he strode forward from this place. 

The more he submitted himself to God, the more he burned to take the measure of the princes of Hell, the Beelzebubs and giant Leviathans of the abyss. For of course, they made their preparations, too.

Perhaps they already lurked behind the painting by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps they had bored monstrous tunnels through the perplexing mountains behind the goddess, and they waited there in fiery armor to attack him, if he should touch the picture. Then the hosts of Hell would break forth with cries and stink, night and flames; the cohorts of Satan, to burn and devour him, the Louvre, Paris, France, the world, everything. 

And tomorrow at this time, perhaps it would be chaos once more, starless skies, and a huge, satiated dragon that would dance above the flames on the tip of his tail. 

And now the hour had come. 

There was no turning back. 

God had spoken. 

He stood below at the door, and his knees shook so fearfully that he had to lean against the wall, so little was he master of his nerves. 

He wanted to take a little walk first, to think over everything one more time and to settle himself. And so he lost himself in a few streets full of people. But he wasn’t able to immerse. For in their fullness, in their aimlessness and transience, his greatness and loneliness radiated out continually like the fire of an eternal lamp, or like the step of an invisible god wandering through the streets. Many people watched him. They seemed to marvel at him. But he had concealed his eyes beneath large glasses so as not to betray their radiance. His lips moved in prayer. The frayed tails of his shirt flew behind him, and his large hat slid over his brow with each step. A policeman watched him as he crossed a causeway. 

Down at the Seine, the battle had already begun, for Hell had advanced its outposts far. A man sawed branches from a tree, one fell directly on his head. He looked around and saw the entire sky filled with demons, hundreds upon hundreds riding on red clouds, devils with a great horn on their brow, others with trombones, powerful horses reared in the skies, giant lances were swung, and a mighty roar filled the northwest sky far above the roof of the Louvre. The blood vanished from his face. A terrible cold engulfed his body despite the afternoon heat. His veins were like withered roots, and his brain spun around like a top in the confines of his skull. 

He began to pray aloud in terror. A few kids playing on the street ran after him. He tried to get a hold of himself, went into a soda fountain, and demanded a lemonade. Then he sat peacefully and plotted his way forward. The kids lost him. 

That was his last weakness. From now on, God was with him. 

He made his way into the Louvre with his package under his arm. The porter greeted him, he gave him a tip. It was already empty up in the galleries, and only the pictures’ oppressive silence was in the twilit galleries, like the guilty silence of gossips. He came in, she suddenly fell silent. But the evil conversation of these lesser devils, these shadows and dead things, still seemed to swing forward through space to ring in his ears. 

A guard slept in a chair in the twilight. Hearing steps, he woke and looked at the clock, it was closing time. 

The madman went to him and gave him a five Franc piece, and said to him he should come get him in two hours and let him out. The guard took the tip and went out, yawning loudly. 

Now he was completely alone, a solitary man in the most remote foothills of life, beneath the terror of the ultimate and invisible mysteries. All the dead eyes of people centuries gone watched him haughtily from the darkness of their frames as he crossed over to them. Someone seemed to be waiting for him in every corner, something great and dark, and when he approached, it moved away ahead of him. He heard a step behind him, what was that? He stood still. The steps fell silent. He went further, it was there again. Suddenly he registered that it was only the distant echo of his own footfalls. 

It became darker, stormy weather seemed to gather in the skies. A powerful roar filled the air outside. And in front of one of the windows, a pile of leaves and dust blew past. Somewhere distant in the halls a murmur kicked up, somewhere the wind had found its way in, and the blood in his veins froze in horror. 

A large chair stood behind the entrance to La Giaconda’s room. He lowered himself down to his hands and crept on all fours like an animal through the antechamber, quickly through the door, and hid himself behind the broad backrest of the armchair. 

He had lost all courage, and fear shook him this way and that with its giant fists. He would have rather turned around. But if he was weak now, devils would certainly fall upon him, in two seconds his head was twisted upon his neck. He lay here like an emptied-out sack, and humanity would again have to wait millennia for salvation. He tried to think, tried to will his fingers free from terror. He made an effort to get a hold of himself. He tried to think of some matter of indifference. He counted the fringes on the armchair, he began to pray, and finally he began to shed his excitement, for no one came. “Thy will be done,” he said again quietly, and then carefully stuck his head out from behind the chair. 

And there she hung. 

She saw him, she remained composed, she never once became frightened. So she was already informed – perhaps she had seen him crawl in. 

In the dark of the cloud-hung sky her face seemed to glow threefold with lies and evil. What was it about her that made her look so evil? There was hardly a crinkle in her face. But that was even more frightening to see than if it had been ripped apart completely by lines of rage. And suddenly he could study her quite calmly. He took her measure, from her unstained brow, which seemed to glow with a holy light, down to her hands, which knew every vice of fornication, every betrayal, every game with sharp daggers, and every mix of white, innocent poisons. He examined her face. He wanted to single out where her baseness lay, but he received no answer. He raised himself behind his chair and waited. It was as though her lips trembled from quiet words like butterflies on an evening meadow. 

Hell, she was beautiful in her depravity. 

Was she mute, did she speak? Oh, would that he had better ears, to be able to take in all of her vulgarities and to therefore damn her with twice the righteousness. 

Such wisdom of the abyss, such infernal ideas must dwell behind her brow. You would peer into such depths if you had opened the silver gates of this temple. Oh God. 

And the silence let the blood in his head roar, in the broad silence of these halls he heard it like a subterranean water raging by his ears, in which, perhaps, a few more words still jittered out of that mouth, like drops that fell into a silver basin. 

A shadow lay over her face like grief. Her mouth appeared to close and she fell silent. 

But the silence pouring out of her was like a perpetual song, like the roaring of distant blue and immeasurable seas. 

Self-Portrait in Hell, Edvard Munch, 1903

The storm outside was over. Only now and then did an errant gust of wind move through the high trees. The evening sun threw a fiery blaze inside, and the deep Lombard colors of the paintings came to life in purple, the garment rushed and flared up, the red light moved up off her face and was tangled in the golden nets of her quiet laughter. And it slowly seemed to dissolve in the twilight like a fragrance, a whiff, the mountains behind her, her brow, her hair, all elapsed slowly in blue shadows, but her smile still swam in the light, faint as the silver sound of an infernal harp, her smile like a deep and golden reflection of Ahriman’s kiss, Satan’s great seal, which the fire of his embrace buried eternally on her lips. 

And now she must be destroyed. Yes, she must – it was commanded of him. And finally he could not defy God. For indeed, God had no one other than him.

She had to be shattered. Yes, hell, she was very beautiful. It was for naught, her hour had struck. And the final battle had to begin. 

He turned around and knelt on the earth, held out his Bible and read again the words of Revelation: 

And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.

Yes, full of abomination…. 

His hairy gray mane had fallen over his face, his glasses had slipped over his gray nose, and, as he knelt there, he looked like an ancient ape that crouched over his meal at the end of his dark cave. 

And he read on, the sixth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, fourth verse: 

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

Yes, if he fell away – if he, who had seen the heavens open, recited obedience to God – then he would mock himself and crucify himself, he, the true messiah and ambassador of God. And he came to lie down in the deepest abyss and the bowels of Hell. There was absolutely no other choice. 

He hid the book away and stood up, and went one more time through the gallery, everything was empty. 

He went back and hid himself behind his chair one more time, gathered all of his strength one more time. 

Would he win, would he be torn apart? 

But he was calm, he had no more fear. It could be that she would fall upon him and tear him apart. He bowed before God one more time before the window above, he entrusted his soul to Him, then he went forward slowly, with each step calling aloud to heaven for aid. 

He came near the picture. No one stirred. He looked around to all sides. Only in the twilight dark of a corner, a wavering appeared like a giant, formless shadow. 

He did not yet dare to touch her. But he stood close and looked at her. He lowered his eyes to hers one last time in struggle. And she answered. Hell had accepted the challenge. 

His face was dark as a dying candle, but over the woman’s brow was something like the sallow dawn of a timeless eternity. And though his face, seized as it was in the fixity of a cramp, seemed to continually change like a cloud-heavy sky over a stormy sea, hers was like a well with perpetually-still waters, though many shadows and images fluttered about the surface. 

Nothing came. No one came. And time went by. Something had to be done at last, or it would be too late. Someone had to do something at last, take hold of her. And in the next seconds, the darkness would come, and the earth stand up, and the heavens break forth, nocturnal howls, fire, and din, and the ocean rise up above the evening like a furious storm, and the light of the stars go out. Perhaps she held her hand over him already. And he looked up again stealthily. 

Then he moved his left hand with its fingers spread wide slowly over the painting, while he held the right balled in a fist, ready for a fight.

He touched her hands, nothing moved. He grasped her head, nothing, absolutely nothing. 

He touched her with this right hand too, no one moved, everything remained quiet, everything remained dark. 

Then he seized the painting by the frame, lifted it off the hinges, lay it on the ground, wrapped it in the paper of the package he had brought with him, and it now looked like the package itself. A moment later he lay it against the wall. Then he took the painting under his arm and went out. The guard shut up behind him, they wished each other a good evening, and he vanished in the night. 

The next morning, all the newspapers already knew of the theft of the Mona Lisa Giaconda. 

The guards were immediately taken to task, but they were of course very careful to shield their negligence. They simply hadn’t seen anything, they knew nothing at all. 

Hundreds of statements were taken, entire hordes of petty thugs were picked up from every country road in France and subjected to humiliating interrogations. Huge swarms of detectives nested on every ocean steamer, hundreds of thousands of police officers chased a hundred thousand clues. Every murderer and thief had a good run, and every art historian started earning at a breakneck pace. All of Paris fell into a wild frenzy, and every suburban tavern owner had to have a picture of the Mona Lisa over his bed. 

A Florentine spring. A soft light like twilight trembles over the rounded, dark Etruscan mountains below a black sky. And the moon passes over them. 

Suddenly, all of the streets that came down out of the mountains lay in the moon’s white light, and all the rooftops and towers of the city below the moon appear out of the night, dissolved, without outline, like the cities of a dream kingdom. Silver rectangles of the river lay shining between the darkness of bridges. 

He turned around, a ray of the moon hung there in her eyes like a golden drop. 

She was indistinct to the eye, the shadows of the curtains moved over her face. Only a strip from the chin to the brow was free and glowed in the moonlight. Was she weeping, perhaps? 

Ah, if only she could have wept, only a single drop, a single tear of remorse. 

He ripped the curtain back from the window before she could fix on his movements. He had already guessed correctly – it never occurred to her to weep. No thought of remorse made its way to this vice-filled brow. She continued to flower in her insolence, which only the hand of death could chase from her mouth. 

She had in no way improved since he imprisoned her here, she had only become still more evil, the whore. Perhaps Satan and been with her every night while he flew halfway around the world to forget his love for her. 

How many tear-stained nights. Devil, Mona Lisa Giaconda, God. 

He had rented this little house over the city when he had arrived in Florence. And as soon as the first night, he had wanted to dispatch her. Yes, then, three years ago, he had still been strong then. Heavens, and now? Everyone in the street laughed in his face. 

Once he had held the knife to her eyes, but he hadn’t been able to stab her. For a bitter insight had weakened him – he suddenly knew that he loved her. Oh, my Lord God, that was the most dreadful of all, these desperate struggles that began then, lasting weeks. In that night when he had nothing more to fear in her eyes, he had the tip of the knife over her face, but at that moment he had let his arm sink again, and he sat there in the corner, creeping like a whipped dog, and he no longer dared to look at her. 

One day, he had hidden and imprisoned her here. Then he was off, through who knows how many cities, ever chased in a circle around Florence by the hurricane of his love, through Spain, Tunisia, Greece, over the Alps, orbiting forever like a small comet that could no longer tear itself out of the sphere of an overwhelming sun. 

Finally he could go no further. God had forsaken him. And now he lay there like a storm wreck thrown onto the reef. 

God had departed. Perhaps God had died, and was buried somewhere in Heaven. Perhaps entirely different gods now sat upon his throne. 

He wished to make only one more attempt, for he had no desire for a beloved who today hangs on one man and tomorrow another. If she wished to drop her duplicity, if she wanted to stop smiling, fine, at this price he would dedicate himself to the devil on the spot, and sit at her feet in Hell for an eternity, like a minor demon or a small winged butterfly, forever above the giant gardens of her throat. 

The moon came entirely into the room. 

All objects withdrew and shrank in its blue light. 

But the face of the Mona Lisa was as wide as the sea. 

He got up. “I want to forgive you,” he said. “I want to love you, but you must not laugh anymore.” And to give her time to change her face, he turned around. 

He saw his Bible on a chair. He threw it out the window and listened as it clattered below. Then he went to the window and stuck out his tongue at God. 

When he turned back to her, she was not one hair better. He decided to use more forceful means, for he could not show weakness before a woman’s obstinacy. 

And all of the sudden he recognized that this laughter in the mouth of man was blasphemy, an impossibility. 

Oh, he despised her, but he loved her. And he despised himself for loving her, this whore who understood how to drag him, the saint of God, into the muck. 

But it was entirely irrelevant, he loved her still, and there was nothing more to be done about it. 

But the laughter had to go, this damned laughter that absolutely could not be tolerated any longer. He began his incantation. 

Like a fiend, he jumped against the picture, three jumps forward and three jumps back, his arms paddled in the air, his curved hands held like twin beaks above his head, and his long, ruined hair danced on his thin shoulders. His knees buckled a bit together with each leap, and his great black shadow danced near him on the wall, always three jumps forward and three jumps back, like a giant kangaroo. 

But it didn’t help. 

“So,” he finally thought, “you don’t want it, eh, I’ll help you come around. You may think I’m your fool. No, I’ll get this lesson across to you.”

He lit the light before her and held it under her nose to tickle her a bit. Maybe now she would scream one time at last. And she appeared to warp her face a bit, but only when she pulled her lips apart in a double grin that only mocked his futile efforts further. 

All of the sudden, he again threw the lamp away. “What have I done,” he thought, and fell on his knees before her, he wept before her, and his sobs rocked his shoulders to and fro. 

And then he suddenly heard her laugh loudly. 

And no one could stand that. 

His entire feeling of love vanished. He was suddenly like a stone. He stood up, and once more sought the light, and he climbed down the stairs, shielding the little flame with his hand. The reflection fell over his face, it was red and taut. 

In the kitchen below, he looked for a large knife, long and broad, a proper butcher’s knife. And then he went up again. When he entered through the door of the attic room, he held the candle high in his hand and let the light fall over her face. 

He sought his starting place with care. Certainly, the eyes were the most evil. Sure, you could take her heart to kill her instantly, but for revenge, that was not enough. 

He came against her and set the tip of the knife in the inside corner of her right eye, stabbed the knife in a bit and began to carve out the eye. It was a bit of work, because the old canvas was hard and stiff. Finally, it hung merely by a thread. He tore it out and trod on it with his foot while it quivered. 

He did the same with the left eye, but it was more firmly set, it didn’t want to give way as he ripped at it. And when it finally came free, a big piece of forehead came with it. 

But that was not yet entirely enough. Now it was the mouth’s turn. He couldn’t resist stroking it once more, going lightly over these lips with his index finger once more. 

Then, there, where the laugh was most vicious, in the right corner of the mouth, he stabbed. 

He cut the mouth above and below to the middle and pulled out the scrap. And then he stepped a few steps back and regarded his work like an artist. He had to laugh for the first time in an eternity. He did no more work with the knife, he took the flap in his fist and ripped it out in a crosswise motion over the entire face while he clutched his belly with laughter. 

It was terrible to see, this head. Death broke forth from it suddenly like a prisoner from his hole. The head with these monstrous eyeholes, like many windows behind which darkness sat. And this big, empty mouth that truly laughed no more, but had been torn apart to the frightful laughter of death; an inaudible laugh, but also loud; invisible, but there; as old and as dark as the millennia. 

And suddenly, as he studied his work, he could recognize the essence of the thing, that there was nothing, no life, no being, no world, nothing, only a great black shadow all about him. And he was entirely alone up on a cliff. And if he took only a single step, he would fall into the endless abyss. 

A terrible exhaustion fell over him. There was truly nothing more to do. He squatted crosswise under a floor hatch like a black animal in a rectangle of blue moonlight. 

He fell asleep. And as he sat there, leaning against the wall with his head hanging down between his knees, his long arms limp on the ground, as though they would flow away from him, he was like a great pile of black cinder that had lost the last wisp of flame. 

The light he had thrown away had fallen on a pair of rags, which slowly began to smolder. This went on for a while, then the sparks ate their way to a pile of straw. A wind came in, and a small red fire serpent coiled about the dry stalks. 

After a while, a few drunks on the street who had lost their way saw a great red fire dragon sitting above on the roof, battering the burning rafters with its enormous wings. 

Events took their course. The drunks began to cry out, a few windows opened, a few nightcaps fluttered about, a few front doors opened, and three or four shapes ran down to the street below toward the yellow lamps of the police office. 

The streets were filled with men, noise, squabbling, the cries of children, police, all staring up into the fire. A burning balcony broke off and fell crashing to the ground. New shrieks. A few wounded or dead were conveyed out. 

The fire brigade arrived, the spray drove into the fire, and a great yellow steam rose in the night where the water struck the flames. A large ladder like a crane turned above in the air where the head of an old man hang out of the attic room. 

The ladder was set against the wall, and a few firemen with large helmets ran up the rungs like a couple of apes. 

When they were nearly up, the head withdrew. Now they could be seen springing through the glowing rafters after a fleeing black shadow, ever here and there through the embers and the beams, like a pair of great devils hunting a mouse. Suddenly, the wild hunt vanishes back into a smoking cloud. 

When the firemen found the old man through smoke and fumes back in his corner, he crouched over a bundle of things. He held something large before his face, a painting without eyes or mouth, but the eyes of the old man looked out at them through the hollow cut-outs, big and wild through the mask, and his long tongue lolled out of the empty mouth of the picture. 

They wanted to take the picture from him, he held it fast. They wanted to bring him out with the picture, he kicked at their bellies with his feet. 

Half of the roof cracked apart and they were already suffocating. They tried once more to pull him out, but the old man let go of the picture with one hand, tore out a glowing rafter with great glowing nails over his head, and struck one of the firemen above the face. He collapsed. 

Then horror seized the other two, and they let both lay where they were, the dead and the injured, and tried to back out to where there was air. They jumped into the smoke that pounded against them, but they couldn’t find the way anymore, the threw off their helmets to see better, they ran back past the old man to the other side, jumped over the firey wreckage, again back, again past the old man, and as they flew by him again, they still heard his loud laughter behind them in their despair. 

The flames seized them. They beat with their bare hands, always running, always beating, suddenly they were a pair of burning columns of flame, they ran back one more time, but there was a burning wall of planks, to the left, there was a wall, the could go no further, they screamed and they beat with their frying hands against the stone, nothing, nothing, the fire devoured their hair, their skulls, the flames tore their eyes, they were blind, they saw nothing more, the fire ate their faces, the flesh flew in pieces from their hands, but still they hammered the charred lumps of their fists against the wall, even in death. 


Written by Mesocosm

November 9, 2019 at 6:58 am

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