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“Kill Me, Or You Are A Murderer.”

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Franz Kafka was born in 1883, so he would probably be dead had he lived.

I wonder what Kafka would think about the worldwide communication and information of today. He was a rigid fixture of the staid (he hated using the telephone). He also was a keen observer of the world around him (he wrote the first newspaper report about aeroplanes, and he invented the safety helmet). It was more this deep divide in his personality which caused him his problems, about which he so famously wrote.

He did not fit into his personal world, yet he fit into the real world perfectly. He was adored by his friends and by many ladies. He was respected at his work and rose to a position of power. His stories were published to acclaim in his lifetime.

Kafka lived a Kafkaesque life. He died a Kafkaesque death (he caught tuberculosis because he drank “pure” unpasteurised cow’s milk). He was rigid in his personal beliefs (until proved wrong), yet he was a beacon of compassion to others.

Kafka was always on a tightrope. He looked at things with such accuracy that his comments can seem bizarre. Supposedly his last words were:  “Kill me, or you are a murderer.” They were to  his doctor, as Kafka beseeches for an overdose of morphine.

I have written much about Kafka. This is a diary entry I had him write in my novel Kafka In The Castle:

03 July 1917

The anniversary of my birth. In honour of the day, I do not make it my last.

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The Ghosts Make Room For Me

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There are ghosts behind the ghosts.

There are legions of the dead,

Lined up to peer

Over my shoulder.

They breathe with satisfaction,

Upon the hand

That writes the word

Ghosts.

The millions of departed,

Disturb the air enough,

To stir the hair,

On my moving wrist.

They keep a place in line,

Patiently waiting,

For me to join them.

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Kafka Has A Dream About The Dead And Decay

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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. 

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21 March 1917

Dreamed I was standing in a galleria with him. In a town in Northern Italy. We could see across the rooftops, to a plain slipping gently toward the foothills of the mountains. The day was clear – a cool spring morning – and the touch of sun was welcome on our skin.

He pointed to a laden waggon passing beneath us. A curtain of dust rose from its wheels as it squeezed through a narrow lane. We watched it for awhile, then he turned to me, his body a silhouette against the vivid sky.

“I enjoyed my funeral. I wish we could have talked about it after – it was one of those things to share.”

“We did share it,” I pointed out. “I was there.”

“But I was not,” he said.

Then he eased himself over the balcony, and without effort, we were sitting in the back of the waggon, perched upon boxes and equipment. We rattled out of the village toward the countryside.

“I loved the outdoors,” he said. “I still remember my last walk in the fields.”

We moved slowly through the country side, the waggon rarely being jostled along the rutted road. The teamster must have been an expert, but he never turned his face to us. Intent upon his business, I suppose.

“You forget that I am dead; for which I thank you.”

“Sometimes I do,” I replied.

“It is at those times, I sometimes think I’m still alive.”

He occasionally pointed to things behind me. Once there was a rabbit. The countryside spread endlessly, without another person in sight. I mentioned this, and he nodded.

“It will be crowded at our destination. But I’ll want to meet my wife.” He then leaned toward me, across the waggon. “You helped me, you know – in our final dance.” He smiled, then sighed, then pointed beneath me.   “My destination is close, I must return.”

I looked down, and saw I was sitting on a coffin – the polished brown one of his funeral. I moved, then bent over, prepared to open it. His fingers touched the wood beneath my hand.

“No. Do not look. You would not like what you found.” His smile seemed forced, there were more teeth showing than usual. “I embrace my new world. But for you, I am well and truly dead.”

Whistling Past The Graveyard With Death

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I had an invitation which I won’t take too personally. Well – on the other hand – it is as personal to me as it is to any one, so I’m sure that’s OK, too.
The event is Death Expo 2019. I’m assuming they don’t know something that I don’t know – but you never know. I assume that not only are they the experts, but it is – after all – their business. However, I can take comfort (you know, as much as possible) that the topic will … eventually … be as interesting to everyone who is – you know – alive.
Still, even though we all approach closer to Death with each minute of life, and it is really no surprise, I was a bit surprised to find an event dedicated to the fact. And I was a bit bemused by the Free Admission. I mean, don’t they have a captive audience? Still – live and learn.
And it all seems quite sensible, from ‘wills’ to ‘End of life at home’. I was, admittedly, taken quite aback by what I first read as “Death Dracula”. But, even as various images were skirting though my head, I re-read the word. It was “Doula”. Which I had to look up. A Doula is a type of midwife, helping one to exit, instead of enter, this world. As I said – live and learn.

Shakespeare Born And Dead Day, April 23rd

 

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I bet Shakespeare could look you in the eye and tell you who you are – so well-versed in the ways of people he was. And he could then place you upon the stage, and have an actor have a go at you. With puns and foibles and insights.

Thus do I repeat my Shakespeare (if not Shakespearean) homage.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The stage is as bare as my lady’s ass in his lordship’s bedchamber. Rough-hewn in the most knockabout way, leaving splinters in the palace lawns of the imagination.

There’s many a dip ‘twixt the trap and the lip.

It fares little better than hastily strewn boards covering parched ground, and barely enough elevation to keep the understanding masses at bay.

Were one fool enough to come from out the wings, and at centre front begin a soliloquy about the beauty of the wretched arena on which he stands, to fight the resulting and justified spontaneous combustion, there would not be found one drop of piss from any a Thespian’s hose.

For who could allow this sacrilege to be spoken?

Even the flag atop the pole knows that the magic is not yet arrived.

A stage without commercial trappings:

without solid doors and thick drapes;

uncluttered by pillars and arches, tables and chairs, windows and fireplaces;

sans orchestra, sans balcony, sans pit.

A stage revealing all its secrets. Profound as emptiness.

A stage in wait.

For in this world writ small – as in the globe around – the audience has nothing to know, nothing to learn, until the actor makes an entrance, and prepares to fight past our eyes to battle with those thoughts and fears which lurk in sheltered halls.

What’s Hecuba to him?

Why – nothing.

Merely a name on a page of script, a cue at which to turn his profile thus.

It is what Hecuba becomes to we who wait,

that turns the key upon the heavy gate.

DE

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Anniversary Of The Sinking Of The Titanic

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Halifax is significant to the Titanic, and vice versa. It is the port where 209 of the victims from the Titanic were brought after being retrieved. 150 of these bodies were eventually buried in Halifax.   I live a short city bus ride  from one graveyard where many Titanic victims are buried.  I am also a longer bus trip to another graveyard where more of the dead are buried. I usually visit each once a year.
When cruise ships come to Halifax, one of the ‘tours’ offered the passengers is a visit to the Titanic graveyard. I assume the irony of this is lost, but I do wonder about the ‘tempting fate’ aspect of such an excursion.
One year I went to a Titanic “parade” down on the waterfront. The event started one hour late. The horse-drawn “hearse” was really a waggon from a local farm. The candles were  fake electric. Still, the team of Percheron horses was wonderful, and the folk in period costume were well done.
The ‘undertaker’ driving the team had a black frock coat and black top hat but – alas – no black riband around the hat. There was a plain, grey wooden box in the back.
Whatever the reason, a half dozen present-day undertakers from Snow’s Funeral Home (the funeral home which had tended to the actual Titanic victims) marched behind the waggon.
As a macabre aside (and I generally favour the macabre, but I found this creepy) there were meals to be had in some of the downtown restaurants which featured the menu of the last meal eaten on the Titanic.
One of these restaurants was The Five Fishermen. At the time The Titanic sank, Snow’s Funeral Home was in the building The Five Fishermen now occupies. So – literally – the coffins were once stacked in the same room where present day patrons were chowing down on The Titanic’s last meal.
I did learn one new thing. One of the people crowded around the ‘hearse’ opined  there would have been no women undertakes in 1912. The group following the waggon did have one woman. A member of the real undertaker group said that was not true. Indeed, two women embalmers from the city of Saint John (a port city in the adjoining province of New Brunswick) were brought in by train to help with the vast numbers of dead.

The Dance Of Death / Der Totentanz

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In my novel, “There Has Been A Sighting”, sightings of Satan are tracked and confronted. An antechamber to such an encounter occurs in the crypt of the St. Marien church, in Berlin.

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Excerpt from: “There Has Been A Sighting”

“Mother Ursula certainly expects me to go down into the gloom.” Dorkas is harsh. “Otherwise, why am I here?”

“I don’t deny that’s the way it is now.” Breeze stands beside her, peering into the dark. “I just wonder if it is what we would find tomorrow.”

“I may as well take their kind illumination.”

“Agnes only had a candle.” Breeze gives her the flashlight.

“Agnes could not fear half the terror I feel.” Dorkas shines the light down the stairs. “She expected to come back.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

“If I’m not forever, then I won’t be long.”

As Dorkas descends, the stone walls absorb the light, pockmarking the surface with rough shadows. She pauses before entering the room, perturbed by the dimness. Her light had shone brightly minutes ago, but now its beam seems submerged in water.

“Damn.”

She slaps the flashlight against her open palm.

“I’d do better with – ”

She stumbles on the bottom step, twisting her right foot as she is thrown against the wall.

“Damn.”

The flashlight falls and rolls across the floor. She hears its metal casing scratch over the stones, and watches the beam of light spiral like a demented beacon, until it turns around to shine back into her face.

“I won’t stay if that goes out.”

Dorkas deliberately speaks aloud.

“Whether I’m in Berlin for a night or a year.”

She tests her foot and finds her ankle is slightly injured.   “If I break my leg, what will they do? Leave me down here?”     She bends over to get the flashlight.

“A permanent fixture.”

As she takes the light, she points it away from herself.

“Christ.”

The feet are bare, and dirty, and raising dust as they dance. A cloud of dust rises up their emaciated legs to their knees. Although Dorkas is in a crouched position, she jerks away from the figures, and sprawls on her back.

She starts to cough in the dust, and the ragged, whirling band begins to encircle her. The light gripped in her hand strays across their bodies, and catches the glint of bleached, protruding teeth as they grin down at her.

“A tomb.” Dorkas shouts.

She can not count the number of hands reaching toward her, their flesh mottled from the iridescence of putrefaction. The frayed cuffs of their funeral finery trail strands of unravelling cloth, and she cringes from the touch.

“You want me with you?” Dorkas struggles to her knees. “To end on your wall?”

Bejewelled rings and bracelets rattle against bony fingers and wrists. The sound fills her ears as the hands, extending to grab her, are jostled by the tempo of the dance. They can not stop their own feet, and they can not stop their partners who hurry them ever on.

“I won’t.” Dorkas holds the light in both hands. “Alive or dead.”

Der Totentanz becomes smaller as the figures tighten the circle around Dorkas. A whiff of their decay permeates the dust, and she turns her head, coughing even more. But she can’t avoid their movement, their grasping hands, their stench. Victory is etched upon their faces.

“Dorkas.”

She barely hears her name as she huddles more closely to the floor. She is afraid to stand in case the frenzied dancers graze against her. She fears that the slightest brush – whether from their knees, their fingers, or even their rotting clothes – will lift her to her feet and make her a part of this final procession.

“Dorkas! I can’t turn on the electric lights.”

“You wouldn’t want to see.” Dorkas tries to shout, but her throat is clamped by hysteria. “This is worse than buried alive. I’d rather be in the dark.”

The dust of the dead is filling her mouth as she switches off the flashlight.

“Dorkas! For God’s sake.”

Breeze comes plunging down the stairs, scraping her hands as she steadies herself against the wall.

“Answer me!”

When she reaches the bottom, she stops in the blackness. Her hesitation is brief, and she starts forward at her usual pace, hands outstretched. She strains to hear the slightest sound.

“Dorkas? Did you drop the flashlight?”

“Are you alive?”

“Dorkas?” Breeze turns abruptly, for the voice is behind her. “Of course I’m alive.”

“Then I guess we both are.”

Dorkas gets to her knees, and slowly stands.

“Berlin proves to be as wonderful as I anticipated.” She brushes dust off her shirt. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Did you lose the flashlight?” Breeze starts to move toward the other woman’s voice.

Dorkas is momentarily puzzled, then realizes it is still gripped fiercely in her hand. She switches it on, casting a beam over Breeze’s legs.

“You’re it.”

“I thought you were it.” Breeze looks down at her legs, then follows the light back to Dorkas. “When you didn’t answer, I thought something had gone wrong.”

“I’m in Berlin.” Dorkas laughs harshly. “Everything goes wrong.”

She approaches the younger woman slowly.

“I don’t know where I would be if you hadn’t come to me.” Dorkas strokes Breeze’s arm. “Your intervention won’t make the others happy.”

“I’ll handle himself if you take care of the old girl.”

“Deal.”

“Let’s take a look.” Breeze reaches for the flashlight.

“A look?”

“At the bloody painting.” Breeze is turning the light toward the wall. “I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but maybe we can figure how its now in a different place.”

“No.” Dorkas swats the flashlight with her hand. “If you accept that there is God and Satan, then you accept there are things beyond your power.”

She stands close to Breeze, the light between them.

“You do not invite what can destroy you – that is dangerous folly.”

“But you came here.”

“Yes.” Dorkas takes back the flashlight. “I came here. And that courage – and you – enables me to walk out of here.”

She looks Breeze in the eyes.

“I have light, and I have a friend, and I’m not going to be buried alive. Not tonight, at any rate.”

She shakes the flashlight.

“Not here, at any rate.”

Dorkas sighs deeply.

“But I’ve done my part.”

“These are distinctions I don’t understand.” Breeze begins to feel uncomfortable. “Here we are – standing right here. Haven’t you won?”

“If you tempt fate?” Dorkas speaks softly. “No – fate will always win. Fate has all the cards.”

“That sounds fatalistic.”

“Life is fatal.”

“Perhaps I’ll come back tomorrow and be a tourist.” Breeze wants to hear her own voice. “Will a bunch of loud Italians and pushy Americans keep the dancers in the painting?”

“It might make it easier for them to mingle.”

“I’m not going to see them step from the wall,” insists Breeze.

“I suggest you look closely at the mustiest Italian, or the most hysterical American.” Dorkas shines the light toward the exit. “And then keep your distance.”

Dorkas is impatient as she watches the young woman walk through the beam of light, and quickly begins to follow.

“Did you say something?”

“No.” Dorkas answers curtly, but she has heard it too.

It is a sound which stays in her ears, until the door is firmly closed and locked behind them.

The sounds of an interrupted dance, where she knows partners are still being sought.

 

Is The Dead Man Really Dead In The Graveyard?

Mount Royal Cemetery; Montreal, Quebec, Canada

 

We were looking for a grave, and reasonably sure we were in the right section. But, it was a big graveyard, covering a number of city blocks. Winding drives up and down hills. Full grown trees and distant vistas. And, except for the very ornate ones, gravestones look much alike.

Near one of the junctures of the roads, pulled right over to the side, and as close to being in a ditch as it could be, a car of higher-end wealth was parked. This was not particularly odd within itself, but, glancing around the rows and rows of graves, there was no one to be seen. An empty car in a graveyard. I thought it best to take a look.

Although I assumed the car was empty, I also had thought it possible it was not. And when I got close enough to look into the windows, I understood why I had seen nobody. A thin, elderly man, his white hair mussed, was slumped to one side in the driver’s seat. He had not fallen completely over because he was held by his shoulder strap. I was peering through the passenger side window, and could not tell if he was breathing.

I tapped, louder and louder, on the door window, but nothing happened. Not a twitch or shrug by the man. I still thought he was probably alive, but wondered if he might have had a heart attack or a stroke. Or, he could be deaf. Regardless, my tapping did nothing to him. So I decided to go around to the driver’s side.

As the car was so close to the ditch, I had to stand in it. The ground was wet, though there was no running water. I reached up and started knocking on the driver’s window – no tapping this time. There was still no response, and since I had been at this about three minutes, I did start thinking he was at least unconscious. I kept rapping on the window, planning next to open the door and wondering what to do it it was locked.

The man finally moved enough that I knew he was alive. But I kept knocking on the window until he opened his eyes. He looked befuddled and didn’t move his head. I knocked again and finally he looked in my direction. He seemed dazed but not surprised. He didn’t sit straight but he did reach and open the window.

“Are you all right?”

“What?”

“I want to make sure you are all right. You haven’t been moving.”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“OK. I wanted to make certain.”

“Yes.”

I started to move out of the ditch, but he called to me.

“Thank you for taking the time.”

DE

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Awaiting The Dead On Halloween

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We lay in wait for the dead.

Not to flee from them

Not to hide from them.

But to be prepared.

The moon is full and the trees are bare and the old year ends and they come to dust us with their cold hands. To seep away a little of our warmth. To have just a taste of the life they once had. Blood in their veins. Breath in their mouth. Tears in their eyes. From the cold.

Of course, we are fearful of their touch. We are told they might have the stench of the grave upon them. We are told their skin might slough off on our own. We are told their rotted clothes might fall from their bones, and we will see things to make us scream.

We are told the fresh decay of our parents and uncles and aunts and grand folk will be the worse. They have had their year in the ground and are beyond any excuse to linger. They are the most reluctant. They have the clearest memories of what it is like to live. They, more than all the others, want it back. They might wish, if they can, to suck life right out of us and feel warm once again.

It is best we disguise ourselves from them.

It is best if we hide our faces with masks and wear clothes not our own.

As a last resort we can fill frightening faces with flame and scare them away.

We are all prepared for that.

And when the day passes over into the night and the full of dark and the promise that the cocks will again bestir themselves to start us into the cold of winter, we will light pyres of wood and open the cask of ale and have a feast with dance and song.

If we manage to get through the night.

DE

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