(As ghosts are wont to do)
When they go to wander,
In those places,
They used to play.
The Ghost wanted
(As ghosts are wont to do)
When all full of revenge,
To pull the living
To the Other side.
The Ghost hated
(As ghosts are wont to do)
Those who had been mean,
And hateful, and cruel,
And so so selfish.
The Ghost tugged
(As ghosts are wont to do)
With bony hands and fingers,
Hooked into both
Memory and conscience.
The Ghost succeeded
(As ghosts are wont to do)
Tenfold times ten again,
Turning troubled dream
Into shrieking nightmare.
The Ghost retreated
(As ghosts are wont to do)
At the blush of dawn.
Slipped behind the drape,
Waiting ever patiently.
I crossed the border yesterday, in this time of Pandemic. On an intercity bus. Restricted to nine passengers. At least I had a seat to myself.
The last time I crossed a border under threat of reprisal was decades ago. I entered (and left) Czechoslovakia (as it was then called) by train. I had gone to Prague to follow the footsteps of Kafka. Then the concern of authorities was all about smuggling. Dire consequences that could put you in prison. And, on my way back out of the country, I was subject to a random search. Open my luggage, and spread what items the soldier decreed upon the seat and aisle, as he poked and prodded. He took interest in an object ( I forget what it was) which quite quickly could be seen to be a commercial souvenir. Thankfully. My careful packing had then to be shoved helter-skelter back into my luggage. Better a jumble than a jail.
So, crossing the border in the same country in this time of Pandemic was not as filled with anxiety, though anxious I still was. Although travel restrictions are being loosened and (at least in this neck of the woods) the Curve is being flattened,
Death stalks the Land / and keep washing your hands.
I did change my seat once, because a passenger changed seats to “have a better view”. That seat was across the aisle from me.
I was handed a form to fill out by the bus driver at a transfer station (nearly empty of people) to give to the border guards if they asked. Apparently they did not ask for it all that often. Where are you coming from/where are you going to. Name. Full address. Reason for travel. Do you have any symptoms?
So, with mask in place (well … a lot of the time – though always when off the bus) I had a reasonably pleasant trip on a reasonably pleasant day. Lots of elbow room. There was an hour’s delay at the actual border. When it was the turn for the bus, no officer actually did board to check us out. Or take our forms. However, the driver handed his PA microphone out the window so the officer could tell us that: “Anyone breaking the fourteen (14) day quarantine upon arrival was subject to a $1,000 fine.”
I’ve got thirteen (13) days left.
[Illustration by Kafka]
In my novel, Kafka In The Castle, I fill in his lost diaries. Here, as the learned Doktor of Laws, he has been asked to speak to the citizens of the small village of Zurau, where he is living with his sister. He is talking about the end of the Empire the townsfolk have been living under all their lives. It, and the civilization they know, is soon to be swept away. Will their lives go with it?
He speaks the truth, and he avoids the truth.
15 January 1918
This war. They wanted my opinions about this endless war. These earnest, honest men, awaiting the words from the Herr Doktor of Prague.
I agreed only to answer questions – that way I could not be accused of fermenting treason. Even in these troubled times, the law allows a man to answer questions. Assuming that the law prevails.
The law was present in the form of the policeman, attending this questionable gathering while still in uniform. He doffed his hat as he shook my hand. I would rather have him in our midst, than lurking in the hall. We have nothing to fear from him.
“Will the empire last?” This was first from their lips. And they must have needed to hear the words, for even the Emperor must know that all is lost. The Old Order, having fallen into the hands of dull and witless men, must succumb. The complacency of the age must be purged – but that has not yet happened. That awaits the next generation – and the destruction will be furious. But I do not tell them this.
I am skillful in what I do not tell them, for the truth is beyond their power to persuade or control. (Their next questions would have been more difficult had I not curbed the truth further still.) “What will happen to Zurau? What will happen to us?” And they have every right to worry. To suspect. When a society crumbles, it is those at the bottom who get crushed. But I told them that Amerika seemed a just power – not bent on retribution.
I did not tell them that a victor can do as he wants.
And I told them that we live in a secondary part of a secondary empire – the powers of destruction will be concentrated on Vienna and Berlin. I did not tell them that during the death of a snake, the spasms of the tail can be lethal.
And I told them something which could really be of help. I told them, in this coming year, to grow more food: fatten more beasts: prepare, preserve and put away. Fill their cellars and barns to bursting with food and fuel. Buy some things now, which they can use for barter later if the currency becomes worthless. Look after their families and lands. Look after each other.
16 January 1918
I did not tell them that war is the end result of injustice and arrogance, and that it is oftentimes necessary. I did not tell them that when the natural balance is upset by human action, the cost of righting it must be made in human payment. I did not tell them that a country where neighbour is cruel to neighbour is a country mean for war.
17 January 1918
I did not tell them how the Jews will always suffer in time of war. How we will be searched out, then driven as far as the east is from the west, and then be persecuted. How there will never be safety for us. Yea, even unto the land of Israel.
Their world was ending.
They knew that from the toll of the church bells. They knew that from the stink of death. They knew that from the carts of seeping corpses being pushed through the streets. It was The Terrible Pox.
The Black Death.
Heat made the stink worse. The screams themselves became more terrible in the summer heat. Screams caused by the boils, and the black blood flowing through veins. The fetid vapours rose, and the drivers of the Death Carts puked from the stench.
There was nowhere to go, and no one to help. The monarch, the nobles, the bishops, and the wealthy, all fled to the country. They locked themselves into grand castles, yet they still died. The doctors, who knew no remedy, also died from their futile efforts.
Neither the poor nor the rich, the young nor the old, women nor men, were spared. They screamed and clawed to their death, and rats fed from their bloated bodies.
Towns and villages became armed camps. Strangers were turned back at the outer limits. Those suspected of the Plague were locked in their homes, sometimes to be burned. People were clubbed, a few were shot, many were buried before they were dead. There was no sorrow, and no mercy shown to any who were a threat.
The living were frantic to prove they still had life.
They ate and drank and danced and fucked as often as their bodies would allow. They were afraid to sleep, so terrified of that fake death with the real all around. They beat on drums, rang the bells frantically, shouted and sang and swore and cried. They rode horses wildly through the streets, until the beasts fell from exhaustion. They pillaged the vacant homes of the rich, looted stores and wine shops, and paraded in the jewels and fine clothes they had stolen. Women and girls and boys were raped and sodomised by strangers and kinfolk alike.
They did anything for action, anything to prove they were different from the rotting corpses in the carts, which trundled through the streets toward mass graves. They played all the more, and when some fell slavering in their midst, they were kicked into the gutters and forgotten.
It was a time for witches and charlatans. People would believe anything, take any quackish product, if it promised to save their lives. Ghosts walked the land while crops rotted from neglect. It was the end of the world for those who knew no better.
The first claw was so faint upon the door he barely raised an eye from the page. It could have been the wind – it sounded almost like the wind. Wind at other times and in other places might blow such a sound – but not this night. As his thoughts returned to what lay before him, the tiny scrabble, hesitant at floor level, moved slightly to the right, aligning itself more closely to the doorknob.
The noise skittered up the wood, almost a metallic sound. His head swivelled toward the door, and the first thought he had was for the paint. Then he could sense, by the sound alone, that the movement was groping in the dark, that it was unsure of where it was. He closed the book on his lap, still keeping his place with a finger. His eyes remained fixed on the door, and he thought he saw the light of his lamp glint off something through the keyhole.
The doorknob twitched, a slight movement counter clockwise, and then a brief turn clockwise. He let the book slide down the side of his chair as he put his hand into a pocket. He felt the key between his fingers, and held it tightly. There was more fumbling with the knob, muffled sounds as if a grip was hard to get. The knob turned once more, and then the pressure on the outside was released. He could hear some shuffling against the wood, and then saw, through the keyhole, light reflecting off a muddy iris.
He stared back through the keyhole, only to see the eye blink and move slowly away. He started to rise from his chair, but was stopped by a thump near the floor, as if a clumsy foot had bumped the wood by mistake. He realized that all the sounds which he heard seemed fuddled and uncoordinated. The doorknob was once again twisted, but the motion seemed to lack the ability to grasp.
He was wondering whether to turn out the lamp or not, when a hesitant, hollow knock came on the door.
In Kafka In The Castle, I fill in the ‘missing’ diary entries from Kafka’s real diary. He either did not fill in these days himself, or he destroyed them. There are some estimates that Kafka destroyed 70% – 80% of everything he wrote.
Kafka’s father gets a bad (and unwarranted) rap from Kafka and history. Hermann Kafka was emotionally distant, and devoted his life to his business (at which he was very successful). But he did this as much for his family, as for any other reason. He had come from hardship, poverty and want, and he wished different for his children. As long as they didn’t get in his way.
01 January 1917
There was a cloud caught in the branches of a tree today, outside my parents home. Or so it appeared. I got up from the cot and went to tell Ottla, but she was clearing the kitchen, tending to the dishes.
So I was radical, unthinking – driven by haste – and told the only one not consumed by labour. I told my father.
“In the trees?” he asked.
I propelled him from his chair, thrusting the papers aside. He followed me, and I could see the surprise on his face.
“Where?” he asked; and I pointed out the window. “But I see nothing.”
“Oh, you have to lie on the cot.”
“On the cot?”
“And with your head just so.”
I pushed him onto it, and he lay, looking sideways.
“But you are right,” he said.
I thought, because of the holiday, he might be humouring me, but then I saw that his jaw hung open, and his face was astonished.
Does the boy never grow, that he can feel so good to be vindicated by his father?
I post this winter tale when the snow decides to storm and the wind shakes the trees and there in nary a bird to see. It happened a few years ago, and hints at the rougher side of Nature, which is so often just around the corner in Canada.
Some years in the past, I looked after a dog whilst her owners went out of town.
Tibbit is a big, friendly dawg who likes inspecting piles of leaves. She has a long lead which her benevolent human allows to go as far as possible. She knows (better than her accompanying human) that there are treats at the end of each walk.
On Saturday I didn’t get Tibbit out until after dark. We skirted the university (where her masters work) and went up a street bordering the campus. We both liked the Christmas lights. Near the top of the street we met an inebriated gentleman warning us of a bear in the surrounding woods.
“Flush him out,” said he, “And I’ll get my 3 aught 3.”
“Get the rifle first,” I replied, and we went our respective ways.
Now Tibbit and I doubted the veracity of the gentleman, so when we came to a trail through the woods, we took it. I will admit I did peer more intently into the gloom than usual, but one trail led to a larger trail which led back to the university. We advanced without incident.
On Sunday I again walked Tibbit toward the university, though from a different direction. It was a crisp, clear day and she gamboled (as much as the leash allowed ) through the new fallen snow. Sunshine gleamed. This time we were on the other side of the campus, but our walk eventually led to a position about half a mile away from where we were the previous evening.
We followed another trail into the woods and admired the sun through the fir trees. The path was wide and sloped. It came to turn some distance away which would lead us even closer to where we were the day before.
At the top of the slope Tibbit stopped dead in her tracks. She stared and stared. She glanced briefly into the woods but mainly kept staring along the trail. I saw nothing nor heard anything (and I was intent upon both).
Tibbit did not move and made not a sound. She just kept staring.
After a solid two minutes of this I started to backtrack and she made no complaint.
You betcha she got her dog treats.
I like Halloween, though I am more prone to appreciate its origins and the additions imposed by those wily Christians, than either on its own. This blend with the new, upstart religion actually keeps alive the foundation of the old. Druids became priests and all’s well with the world. Amen and pass the hollow turnip.
I once had an apartment at the top of a darkened, high-ceiling flight of stairs. Even people who knew me, and came to call, commented that the entrance could make them a tad nervous. It was perfect as an entrance for those trick-or-treaters who dared to try.
As the gates between death and life nudged open a bit, I replaced the usual light bulb with a black light. I spaced a few candles from midway up the steps. I had a prominent jack o’ lantern sitting on a chair at the top landing. I placed a speaker in the vicinity of the grinning pumpkin and favoured loud Satie, Night On Bald Mountain, Gregorian Chants, and like-minded music. I also had a nice bowl of treats at the top of the stairs, and all who reached it were welcome to take what they wanted.
I had few takers.
One year, when the weather was warm enough to leave the top door open, I sat and listened to the passing traffic of costumed trick-or-treaters. At one point four or so teens clustered at the bottom door. They were in conversation.
“OK. That’s spooky.”
“What’s that music?”
“Are there any other lights in the window?” [Actually there were – candles.]
“You going up?”
“You go up!”
“I don’t think so.”
And they didn’t.