In its English translation, Thomas Bernhard’s 1967 breakthrough novel Verstörung received the title Gargoyles. Verstörung translates to something like distress or disturbance, while Gargoyles (obviously) evokes Gothic monsters. Considered together, both titles communicate this philosophical novel’s themes of abjection, decay, and madness.
Bernhard explores these themes by dividing the novel into two sections that occur over the span of the same day. In the first section, “First Page,” a country doctor takes his son on his daily rounds in rural Stryia, “a relatively large and ‘difficult’ district.” The son, a mining engineer student and aspiring scientist, is ostensibly the narrator of Gargoyles. He tells us that his father “was taking me with him for the sake of my studies.” Their journey culminates in a visit to Hochgobernitz, the gloomy castle of Prince Saurau, an insane, suicidal aristocrat who mourns his own son’s self-exile to England, where he has gone to study. While the doctor’s son remains the narrator of the book in “The Prince,” the second part of Gargoyles, Prince Saurau overwhelms the novel with the force of his monologue, a tirade that gobbles up all that comes before it. His monologue ventriloquizes the narrator’s consciousness, echoing in the young man’s skull long after he’s left the castle.
The prince’s monologue is a prototypical Bernhardian rant that will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Loser or Correction (and undoubtedly other Bernhard novels I haven’t read yet). Unlike those novels, Gargoyles offers its first section “First Page” as a point of contrast to the monologue that will come later. These episodes are short and digestible, and while hardly conventional, they are far easier to handle than the sustained intensity of the prince’s monologue. The grotesque cavalcade that the doctor and son trek through in “First Page” allows Bernhard to set out his themes — not neatly or precisely, but clearly — before the prince commences to swallow and then vomit them.
Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:
On the twenty-sixth my father drove off to Salla at two o’clock in the morning to see to a schoolteacher whom he found dying and left dead. From there he set out toward Hüllberg to treat a child who had fallen into a hog tub full of boiling water that spring. Discharged from the hospital weeks ago, it was now back with its parents.
He liked seeing the child, and dropped by there whenever he could. The parents were simple people, the father a miner in Köflach, the mother a servant in a butcher’s household in Voitsberg. But the child was not left alone all day; it was in the care of one of the mother’s sisters. On this day my father described the child to me in greater detail than ever before, adding that he was afraid it had only a short time to live. “I can say for a certainty that it won’t last through the winter, so I am going to see it as often as possible now,” he said. It struck me that he spoke of the child as a beloved person, very quietly and without having to consider his words.
The specter of infanticide and the doctor’s resistance to it haunts the novel. We can also sense a cerebral chilliness in the narrator, who is “struck” by his father’s empathy. The doctor’s empathy repeats throughout the novel; we next see it clearly when he’s brought to attend an innkeeper’s wife assaulted in the early morning “without the slightest provocation” by one of the drunken miners who frequented her inn. Unconscious for hours before police or doctor are even called for, the woman dies. But—
It was of no importance that the innkeeper had not notified him of the fatal blow until three hours after the incident, my father said. The woman could not have been saved. The deceased woman was thirty-three, and my father had known her for years. It had always seemed to him that innkeepers treated their wives with extreme callousness, he said. They themselves usually went to bed early, having overworked themselves all day on their slaughtering, their cattle dealing, their farms. But because they thought of nothing but the business, they left their wives to take care of the taverns until the early morning hours, exposed to the male clients who drank steadily so that as the night wore on their natural brutality became less and less restrained.
As the day unfolds, the “natural brutality” that the doctor is up against evinces again and again in the various gargoyles he attends to. The rumor of the innkeeper’s wife’s murder floats in the background as a reminder of violence and brutality that bizarrely unites this community of outsiders.
Those outsiders: a bedridden, dying woman with a feeble-minded son and a murderer for a brother; a retired industrialist, living “like man and wife” with his half-sister, who devotes “himself to a literary work over which he agonized, even as it kept his mind off his inner agony”; the school teacher whose death initiates the novel; mill workers murdering exotic birds with the help of a young bewildered Turk; an insane and deformed man, the son’s age, attended to and cared for by his sister. And the prince. But I’ve rushed through so much here, so much force of language, so much terror, so much horror.
These gargoyles live, if it can be called that, in abject, isolated otherness. The doctor diagnoses it for his son:
. . . no human being could continue to exist in such total isolation without doing severe damage to his intellect and psyche. It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsession. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves. The process always goes slowly at first.
There is something of a warning here for the doctor’s son, who tells us at one point: “Every day I completely built myself up, and completely destroyed myself.” Like Roithamer of Correction, the son is something of a control freak (“Only through such control can man be happy and perceive his own nature”), and, like Roithamer and so many other Bernhardian figures, he has a frail (perhaps suicidal) sister who could perhaps fall prey to his idealism—who might indeed be the “creature who has entered the dungeon” with him.
There’s also the risk, one which the doctor perhaps did not account for when he set out to help his son with his “studies,” that the son might fall into the prince’s dungeon. But perhaps I’m making too much of the doctor’s empathy, of his resistance to brutality and his commitment to caring for those who repel all others. His own philosophy seems coded in misanthropy and failure. “All of living is nothing but a fervid attempt to move closer together,” he says at one point. But also: “Communication is impossible.”
The resistance to abjection is paradoxical—as the doctor points out, the “philosophically oriented” and “imaginative scientific obsession[s]” often lead people deeper into the abyss—as the prince’s monologue will illustrate. Each of the gargoyles presented in the text offers a rare and special talent—art, music, philosophy, etc. Sussing out the novel’s treatment of the philosophies it invokes is beyond my ken, but I can’t resist lazily dropping a few names: Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Pascal, Diederot (all on the doctor’s reading list), and Schopenhauer, whose philosophy of the will surely informs the text more than I can manage here. (From the prince’s father’s suicide note: “Schopenhauer has always been the best nourishment for me”). And while I’m lazily dropping names: Edgar Allan Poe, King Lear, Macbeth, Dostoevsky, and Francisco Goya—especially his Los caprichos, a few of which accompany this review . (And although he came after, I can’t help but read Roberto Bolaño in some of the more grotesque, horrific passages).
The levels of ventriloquizing and the layers of madness set against the novel’s depiction of radical repression lead to an abyssal paradox, perhaps best figured not in the philosophers Bernhard invokes but in the novel’s backdrop: a dark, enveloping gorge, the yawning chasm that surrounds the high walls of the castle the prince walks with his auditors. These walls are the stage from which the prince performs his monologue; their visceral dramatic emphasis derives from the abyss below. In an ironic note at the beginning of “The Prince,” the son remarks, “From here, I thought, you probably had the finest view of the entire country.”
Upon this stage, Bernhard’s main characters function as asymmetrical parallels (forgive the purposeful absurdity of this oxymoron). The father and his son the narrator are set against the prince and his absent son. In a particularly bizarre episode, the prince recounts a dream:
“But my son,” he said, “will destroy Hochgobernitz as soon as he receives it into his hands.”
Last night, the prince said, he had had a dream. “In this dream,” he said, “I was able to look at a sheet of paper moving slowly from far below to high up, paper on which my own son had written the following. I see every word that my son is writing on that sheet of paper,” the prince said. “It is my son’s hand writing it. My son writes: As one who has taken refuge in scientific allegories I seemed to have cured myself of my father for good, as one cures oneself of a contagious disease. But today I see that this disease is an elemental, shattering fatal illness of which everyone without exception dies. Eight months after my father’s suicide—note that, Doctor, after his father’s suicide, after my suicide; my son writes about my suicide!—eight months after my father’s suicide everything is already ruined, and I can say that I have ruined it. I can say that I have ruined Hochgobernitz, my son writes, and he writes: I have ruined this flourishing economy! This tremendous, anachronistic agricultural and forest economy. I suddenly see, my son writes,” the prince said, “that by liquidating the business even though or precisely because it is the best, I am for the first time implementing my theory, my son writes!” the prince said.
Note the strange layers of narration and creation here. The prince’s son, a creation of the prince, exists in the prince’s dream (another creation) where he creates a manuscript. All this creation though points to destruction—of the father, of the ancestral estate. The prince’s impulses signal self-erasure, suicide as a kind of radical return of the repressed (here, Austria’s inability to speak about, reconcile, admit its complicity in the horrors of World War 2).
The doctor contrasts with the prince, perhaps representing an order, health, and sanity that serve to sharpen and darken the abject decay of the crazed aristocrat. “My father goes to see the prince only to treat him for his insomnia,” observes the narrator, “without doing anything about his real illness . . . his madness.” But can the doctor really treat the prince’s illness?
Both fathers in their respective philosophies signal the possible paths that might be inherited by their sons (and, if you like, by allegorical extension the sons could represent Austria, or perhaps even Western Europe). How to live against the promise of suicide, against the perils of infanticide, against the kind of “natural brutality” that leads to murder, insanity, the abyss?
This problem is encoded into Bernhard’s rhetorical technique. The prince’s devastating monologue consumes the narrative, reader and narrator alike. By the end of the novel, he’s infiltrated (and perhaps infected) the narrator’s consciousness, highlighting the dramatic stakes here—of being ventriloquized, possessed by the diseases of history and authority—an illness that trends to self-destruction. It’s worth sharing a passage at some length; the following section highlights and perhaps even condenses what I take to be the core themes of Gargoyles:
“Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness. When they hear its name, no matter whether the scene is London, Brussels, or Styria, they are frightened, but they try not to show their fright. All these people conceal the actual play within the comedy that this world is. Whenever they feel themselves unobserved, they run away from themselves toward themselves. Grotesque. But we do not even see the most ridiculous side of it because the most ridiculous side is always the reverse side. God sometimes speaks to them, but he uses the same vulgar words as they themselves, the same clumsy phrases. Whether a person has a gigantic factory or a gigantic farm or an equally gigantic sentence of Pascal’s in his head, is all the same,” the prince said. “It is poverty that makes people the same; at the human core, even the greatest wealth is poverty. In men’s minds and bodies poverty is always simultaneously a poverty of the body and a poverty of the mind, which necessarily makes them sick and drives them mad. Listen to me, Doctor, all my life I have seen nothing but sick people and madmen. Wherever I look, the worn and the dying look back at me. All the billions of the human race spread over the five continents are nothing but one vast community of the dying. Comedy!” the prince said. “Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy. The world actually is, as has so often been said, a stage on which roles are forever being rehearsed. Wherever we look it is a perpetual learning to speak and learning to walk and learning to think and learning by heart, learning to cheat, learning to die, learning to be dead. This is what takes up all our time. Men are nothing but actors putting on a show all too familiar to us. Learners of roles,” the prince said. “Each of us is forever learning one (his) or several or all imaginable roles, without knowing why he is learning them (or for whom). This stage is an unending torment and no one feels that the events on it are a pleasure. But everything that happens on this stage happens naturally. A critic to explain the play is constantly being sought. When the curtain rises, everything is over.” Life, he went on, changing his image, was a school in which death was being taught. It was filled with millions and billions of pupils and teachers. The world was the school of death. “First the world is the elementary school of death, then the secondary school of death, then, for the very few, the university of death,” the prince said. People alternate as teachers or pupils in these schools. “The only attainable goal of study is death,” he said.
Such searing nihilism here—the prince angrily mourns the grotesqueness of the world, the lack of agency of people to control their own fate, to be but players, dummies mumbling someone else’s script. And it all leads to death. For the prince, dialogue is impossible in the face of this death: “All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.” But the prince, notably, is his own interlocutor; he pushes himself into abysses of his own contrivance.
Neither is love a solution for the prince:
“We face questions like an open grave about to be filled. It is also absurd, you know, for me to be talking of the absurdity,” he said. “My character can justly be called thoroughly unloving. But with equal justice I call the world utterly unloving. Love is an absurdity for which there is no place in nature.
We see in a person frailties which at once make us see the frailties of the community in which we live, the frailties of all communities, the state; we feel them, we see through them, we catastrophize them.
But is this necessarily the essential view of the novel? I don’t think it plausible to argue that the prince’s monologue be read entirely ironically, but it’s worth bearing in mind that both his auditors understand him to be mentally ill and terribly isolated. The guy is histrionic, a drama fiend holding forth on his stage. And while his acerbic misanthropy and nihilism may scorch, it’s also very, very funny. I chuckled a lot reading Gargoyles.
But yes—the prince is sincere in his pain. ”We assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” he declares near the end of the novel. He’s a a prisoner in his own gloomy castle, the dungeon he refuses to leave. He resents his son’s self-exile to London, but also longs—literally dreams for—his son to return to destroy that dungeon.
Of his family: “But probably all these creatures deserve ruthlessness more than pity.” I think that But is important here. The doctor, like the prince, also situates everyone on an axis of ruthlessness and pity. The doctor is full of cruel observations about the gargoyles he encounters. But: But he gets up, goes out, does his rounds, tries in some way to mitigate some of the “natural brutality” of the world. And he tries to show this world—and this method—to his son this as well, for his son’s “studies.” In the room of the lonely, dying woman, the son remarks of his father: “I noticed that he made an effort to stretch out the call, for all his eagerness to leave.” The son, in thrall to the prince’s monologue, perhaps fails to notice that his father also stretches out his time on the castle wall despite an eagerness to leave the prince.
By the end of the novel, we see the prince’s consciousness inhabiting the son’s thoughts:
In bed I thought: What did the prince say? “Always wanting to change everything has been a constant craving with me, an outrageous desire which leads to the most painful disputes. The catastrophe begins with getting out of bed.
The pessimism and sheer despair here erupts into black comedy with that last line, one echoed in Bernhard’s later novel Correction: “Waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.” If to simply get out of bed (which, of course, is where the son is as he work’s through the prince’s ideas) is to invoke and invite disaster and despair, it’s worth noting that this simple action—getting out of bed—is what the doctor performs each day, even if it means he wakes to a dead teacher, a boiled infant, a murdered wife. While hardly a beacon of optimism or hope, the doctor nonetheless figures an alternative to the prince’s abject madness. If we “assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” the doctor understands that it’s important to leave those walls, to not seek out dungeons—and drag others into dungeons with us.
Gargoyles is by turns bleak and nihilistic. It’s also energetic, profound, and at times very, very funny. Its opening section will likely provide an accessible introduction to readers interested in Bernhard, with the prince’s monologue offering the full Bernhardian experience. Dark, cruel, and taxing, Gargoyles isn’t particularly fun reading—except when it is. Highly recommended.
This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that ﬂash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s ﬂash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to ﬁnd out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life ﬂashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where ﬁrst you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a ﬁnite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.
From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.
I read ”Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.
I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).
“Out, Out—” by Robert Frost
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs
“Of Death” — Francis Bacon
MEN fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other. Certainly, the contemplation of death, as the wages of sin, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak. Yet in religious meditations, there is sometimes mixture of vanity, and of superstition. You shall read, in some of the friars’ books of mortification, that a man should think with himself, what the pain is, if he have but his finger’s end pressed, or tortured, and thereby imagine, what the pains of death are, when the whole body is corrupted, and dissolved; when many times death passeth, with less pain than the torture of a limb; for the most vital parts, are not the quickest of sense. And by him that spake only as a philosopher, and natural man, it was well said, Pompa mortis magis terret, quam mors ipsa. Groans, and convulsions, and a discolored face, and friends weeping, and blacks, and obsequies, and the like, show death terrible. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the mind of man, so weak, but it mates, and masters, the fear of death; and therefore, death is no such terrible enemy, when a man hath so many attendants about him, that can win the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over death; love slights it; honor aspireth to it; grief flieth to it; fear preoccupateth it; nay, we read, after Otho the emperor had slain himself, pity (which is the tenderest of affections) provoked many to die, out of mere compassion to their sovereign, and as the truest sort of followers. Nay, Seneca adds niceness and satiety: Cogita quamdiu eadem feceris; mori velle, non tantum fortis aut miser, sed etiam fastidiosus potest. A man would die, though he were neither valiant, nor miserable, only upon a weariness to do the same thing so oft, over and over. It is no less worthy, to observe, how little alteration in good spirits, the approaches of death make; for they appear to be the same men, till the last instant. Augustus Caesar died in a compliment; Livia, conjugii nostri memor, vive et vale. Tiberius in dissimulation; as Tacitus saith of him, Jam Tiberium vires et corpus, non dissimulatio, deserebant. Vespasian in a jest, sitting upon the stool; Ut puto deus fio. Galba with a sentence; Feri, si ex re sit populi Romani; holding forth his neck. Septimius Severus in despatch; Adeste si quid mihi restat agendum. And the like. Certainly the Stoics bestowed too much cost upon death, and by their great preparations, made it appear more fearful. Better saith he, qui finem vitae extremum inter munera ponat naturae. It is as natural to die, as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful, as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit, is like one that is wounded in hot blood; who, for the time, scarce feels the hurt; and therefore a mind fixed, and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the dolors of death. But, above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is’, Nunc dimittis; when a man hath obtained worthy ends, and expectations. Death hath this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy.—Extinctus amabitur idem.
“On the Fear of Death” by William Hazlitt
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern—why, then, should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?
When Bickerstaff wrote his Essays I knew nothing of the subjects of them; nay, much later, and but the other day, as it were, in the beginning of the reign of George III., when Goldsmith, Johnson, Burke, used to meet at the Globe, when Garrick was in his glory, and Reynolds was over head and ears with his portraits, and Sterne brought out the volumes of Tristram Shandyyear by year, it was without consulting me: I had not the slightest intimation of what was going on: the debates in the House of Commons on the American War, or the firing at Bunker’s Hill, disturbed not me: yet I thought this no evil—I neither ate, drank, nor was merry, yet I did not complain: I had not then looked out into this breathing world, yet I was well; and the world did quite as well without me as I did without it! Why, then, should I make all this outcry about parting with it, and being no worse off than I was before? There is nothing in the recollection that at a certain time we were not come into the world that ‘the gorge rises at’—why should we revolt at the idea that we must one day go out of it? To die is only to be as we were before we were born; yet no one feels any remorse, or regret, or repugnance, in contemplating this last idea. It is rather a relief and disburthening of the mind: it seems to have been holiday-time with us then: we were not called to appear upon the stage of life, to wear robes or tatters, to laugh or cry, be hooted or applauded; we had lain perdus all this while, snug, out of harm’s way; and had slept out our thousands of centuries without wanting to be waked up; at peace and free from care, in a long nonage, in a sleep deeper and calmer than that of infancy, wrapped in the softest and finest dust. And the worst that we dread is, after a short, fretful, feverish being, after vain hopes and idle fears, to sink to final repose again, and forget the troubled dream of life!… Ye armed men, knights templars, that sleep in the stone aisles of that old Temple church, where all is silent above, and where a deeper silence reigns below (not broken by the pealing organ), are ye not contented where ye lie? Or would you come out of your long homes to go to the Holy War? Or do ye complain that pain no longer visits you, that sickness has done its worst, that you have paid the last debt to nature, that you hear no more of the thickening phalanx of the foe, or your lady’s waning love; and that while this ball of earth rolls its eternal round, no sound shall ever pierce through to disturb your lasting repose, fixed as the marble over your tombs, breathless as the grave that holds you! And thou, oh! thou, to whom my heart turns, and will turn while it has feeling left, who didst love in vain, and whose first was thy last sigh, wilt not thou too rest in peace (or wilt thou cry to me complaining from thy clay-cold bed) when that sad heart is no longer sad, and that sorrow is dead which thou wert only called into the world to feel!
It is a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts.Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life. Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within. There will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table. Harsh, brief, poor lives.To these upland woodsmen, the Devil is as reals as you or I. More so; they have not seen us nor even know that we exist, but the Devil they glimpse often in the graveyards, those bleak and touching townships of the dead where the graves are marked with portraits of the deceased in the naif style and there are no flowers to put in front of them, no flowers grow there, so they put out small votive offerings, little loaves, sometimes a cake that the bears come lumbering from the margins of the forests to snatch away. At midnight, especially on Walpurgisnacht, the Devil holds picnics in the graveyards and invites the witches; then they dig up fresh corpses, and eat them. Anyone will tell you that.Wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out the vampires. A blue-eyed child born feet first on the night of St. John’s Eve will have second sight. When they discover a witch – some old woman whose cheeses ripen when her neighbours’ do not, another old woman whose black cat, oh, sinister! follows her about all the time, they strip the crone, search for her marks, for the supernumerary nipple her familiar sucks. They soon find it. Then they stone her to death.
Winter and cold weather.
Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked for her on the hearthstone and a little pot of butter.
The good child does as her mother bids – five miles’ trudge through the forest; do not leave the path because of the bears, the wild boar, the starving wolves. Here, take your father’s hunting knife; you know how to use it.
The child had a scabbby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife, and turned on the beast.
It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.
The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem. It went lolloping off disconsolately between the trees as well as it could on three legs, leaving a trail of blood behind it. The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron, wrapped up the wolf’s paw in the cloth in which her mother had packed the oatcakes and went on towards her grandmother’s house. Soon it came on to snow so thickly that the path and any footsteps, track or spoor that might have been upon it were obscured.
She found her grandmother was so sick she had taken to her bed and fallen into a fretful sleep, moaning and shaking so that the child guessed she had a fever. She felt the forehead, it burned. She shook out the cloth from her basket, to use it to make the old woman a cold compress, and the wolf’s paw fell to the floor.
But it was no longer a wolf’s paw. It was a hand, chopped off at the wrist, a hand toughened with work and freckled with old age. There was a wedding ring on the third finger and a wart in the index finger. By the wart, she knew it for her grandmother’s hand.
She pulled back the sheet but the old woman woke up, at that, and began to struggle, squawking and shrieking like a thing possessed. But the child was strong, and armed with her father’s hunting knife; she managed to hold her grandmother down long enough to see the cause of her fever. There was a bloody stump where her right hand should have been, festering already.
The child crossed herself and cried out so loud the neighbours heard her and come rushing in. They know the wart on the hand at once for a witch’s nipple; they drove the old woman, in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcass as far as the edge of the forest, and pelted her with stones until she fell dead.
Now the child lived in her grandmother’s house; she prospered.
My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.