A Game of Make-Believe
A Halloween Story
Erik tries to find a way to somehow be a member of human society, to find friends. This should be a Halloween-story? Read it and you know why.
If I want to know who I am I have to look it up in my papers. I used so many names in the last months, I tend to forget how to call myself now. In Persia it is absolutely not necessary to have any papers. If you have the ability to do something better than other men, you get the job. In Europe - well, first you can't exist if you don't have identity papers. Without them, you end up in prison for month because it is illegal to exist without having the papers that officially allow you to exist.
As a child I had never cared much about that, in the Orient it had not been necessary - now that I was back to Europe, it soon became a problem. No papers - a week in prison for being a vagrant. Begging is punished with up to three months in prison. But to find a job, one needs papers. Papers to prove my identity, papers which state that I finished school, a positive apprenticeship certificate, papers signed by previous employers... It is so very difficult.
Most unfortunate people in a position like mine end up in workhouses where they are forced to work all day long to get three meals and a bed for the night. They aren't allowed to wear anything than the uniform they are given, they aren't allowed to speak. They are more or less slaves and that is the idea behind the poorhouses or workhouses: That the poor are treated so badly, they would prefer every job to that slavery.
The mere thought of such house was enough to send me running and hiding. The way to escape that was money - even without a decent income I would never be send there if I had money to prove that I was not poor. I tried to live away from humanity and found myself unable to do so. I need other people or I would starve and freeze to death. Unfortunately. So I had to do something to be able to live.
I began stealing papers because it is much easier to steal papers and alter them a little bit than to create a complete forgery. If some stamps are missing the papers are not valid and that would cause even more problems than no papers at all. Right now I called myself "Alexander Schmitt". A German name, I am in Germany so it is good to have a German name. The papers belonged to Alexander Schmit, born 3.3.1835. I changed them to "Alexander Schmitt, born 8.8.1835" just in case the real Alexander Schmitt might have committed a crime. I made that mistake once, using stolen papers, only to find out the police wanted to arrest that man for stealing from his employer. Luckily for me the victim of that theft told the police that I could not be the man they wanted - that man was taller than me and at least twice as heavy.
In the papers usually a description of distinguishing marks. If my papers did not show any distinguishing marks they would easily be found as forged - every official would note my horrible deformity as "distinguishing marks" in the papers. So I had to write something. "Facial deformity after accident". I had tried some descriptions and found out that it was the easiest way. If I honestly admitted to a birth defect, I was faced with even more hatred and fear, two times I barely escaped being beaten to death. An accident was a better explanation because I wasn't the only one who had suffered an accident. Factories left many workers deformed and crippled after some terrible accident so I would not raise any suspicions.
I have to admit that I lived like a parasite then. I was in no way willing to work, so I lived as a thief and beggar. Begging is something one has to learn. If I would ask for money I'd be arrested and taken to a prison or a workhouse. So I used a different strategy. I wore bandages over my head and used a walking stick as if my leg too had been hurt and asked for a job. Of course absolutely no one would ever offer me a job, but if I sat down before a church on Sunday morning with a paper sign "Do you have a job for me, please?" the police could not really accuse me of begging. Of course they knew that I was, but laughed at my creativity and usually let m get away with it, probably with a money fine.
This way I made quite a lot money. A sad story and the right victims - I shamelessly used their Christianity against them - brought in more money than a worker could earn in a month in a few hours on Sunday. There is a difference between Catholics and Protestants, I learned as I moved to the north, left Austria and came to Germany. Catholics tend to give a poor cripple alms because that makes them feel good for having done a good deed. Catholics admire a man who just asks to sit in church all day in prayer - or just sleeps there, they wouldn't be able to tell the difference - because he's so devout. Protestants do not like lazy people. They tend not to give alms but offer food and a job. They love hardworking people. I did not really want a job so I tried to pretend I was really trying but due to the recent accident unable to do so.
It was a smaller city where I found a smaller job as kitchen helper. My idea had been to tell the story that I had an accident - now I added that I had been able to escape and ran back into the fire to save my co-workers and suffered the injury then - and ask for work. Usually that got me at least a decent meal and some admiration for being a hero, sometimes even a place to sleep. Unfortunately the city I had come to was a very strict Protestant city. Their religion told them that they had to help me, this Alexander Schmitt, who was crippled trying to save others. This got me several really good meals and even a small room in an inn, one of the cheap rooms they could not really rent to paying guests because it was directly over the diningroom and I would hear every word that was spoken there. The innkeeper even offered me a job as a kitchen helper. My first idea was to leave the city immediately, but then I overheared the conversation of some men about some charity gala. Whatever they called a charity gala. That made me change my plans - I accepted the job as kitchen helper, deciding to wait until after the gala. I wanted to steal the money, I had overheared that the pastor would take the money home to his office and bring it to the bank the next day. The easiest way to steal it was to break into the parsonage when the family was sleeping. Protestant priests are usually married and have several children.
Breaking into the house would be easy - the office was in the first floor, the family lived in the second floor. They would never know I had been there and I would be long gone when they noticed the money had been stolen. Of course they would suspect me, especially if I was gone the next day, but no one really knew anything about "Alexander Schmitt" - they would think I had only faked being crippled and deformed. I would need another name then, but the money would be enough for months, maybe years.
So I was busy in the kitchen during the gala - I had volunteered to help as a kitchen helper there - because I wanted to be able to follow the pastor to find out where precisely he would keep the money. I did not want to risk a robbery, I did not want to fight him. Not that he might be a match for me - certainly not - but I did not want to hurt or kill if it was not absolutely necessary to get what I wanted. Most times I found a way to get what I wanted without violence.
That's why I followed the small caratella, which was quite easy. The pastor had a small caratella which was drawn by two small ponies and they were very slow. Even a real cripple might have been able to follow them. The pastor lived close to the church and that was a few kilometers from the hotel that hosted the gala. The city had the shape of a crook if one saw it on a map, the pastor took the shortcut through the woods. Obviously he did not expect to be robbed, the carelessness of humans and their oblivion to obvious threats makes me wonder how humankind survived through the centuries anyways.
The carriage stopped because a man jumped out of the woods. Usually I would have expected the ponies to bolt and run, sending the carriage away and out of reach - but they did not. They stopped dead in their tracks and just stood there. I had a wonderful view of what was happening. The man had a gun pointing at the pastor, he demanded money. Now that was ruining my own plans - I wanted the money! The pastor had to keep it for now because it was by far easier to steal it from the parsonage than from a robber on the run.
My mind made up I just moved into the bushes at the side of the road to approach the robber from behind - and now I saw why the horses had not run. The man had blocked the small bumpy roead with a piece of rope with various rags tied to it. To the small ponies this looked like a fence. The pastor and the robber were arguing. The pastor tried to persuade the robber to let him go - telling the man that the money was for the poor, it was for a residental school that would take in children whose parents were in prison so the children would get a good education and be spared the fate of their parents. The robber either did not have the guts to shoot the pastor or his gun did not function, I don't know, but he yelled at the pastor to hand over the money. Obviously the robber didn't care about the poor kids - as did I.
I did not even need the punjab lasso. I just used my walking stick to hit the robber over the head. The man dropped down like he was dead. My first move was to get the gun out of his hands, then I stood up to look at the pastor. It was an awkward moment - I did not know if I should just tell him to get off the caratella and steal the caratella and the ponies and the money that was in the large leather bag or if I should let him go home and steal the money then - the latter would be a nice twist to my plan because the pastor would tell the police that I had saved him, they would not suspect me to be the one who stole the money. I could even stay in that city for a few weeks longer, just for the pleasure of hearing the rumors spreading and people arguing who might be the culprit. That would be fun.
The pastor jumped down from his caratella, took my hand hand shook it. "Thank you! Thank you very much, sir! Thank you!" he exclaimed. I stared at him dumbfounded. I had expected many things - especially because I wore a dark brown cloth over my head, not the white bandage. The dark brown mask and cloak helped me becoming almost invisible in the night, but of course in the light of the small lanterns on the caratella I think I looked rather frightening and much more like a robber than the actual robber who was now lying unconscious on the ground.
I was taken by surprise and did not know what to do - I just stood there doing nothing. The pastor kept praising me for my heroic deed and thanking me so much, I somehow could not bring myself to rob him right then and there.
The pastor was thinking rather practical. He had a look at the man on the ground, examined his head and decided that we should take that man to the prison. In the outskirts of the city was a large courtroom building, the criminal court, with a large prison building. I kew that. So I helped the pastor to lift the man onto the caratella, we removed the rope with the rags and unsed it to tie the man up.
The situation was absurd. Here I was, sitting on the caratella directly behind the pastor who was on the driver's seat, trying to find out what to do while the pastor was prattling on about my selfless heroic deed. And he asked my name. I told him the story I had told before - that I was Alexander Schmitt, a factory worker, that I suffered a terribe accident while trying to save other workers when there was a fire in the factory. I told him that my face and body were terribly scarred and I needed to keep it covered.
When we reached the large prison building the pastor was treating me like I was his best friend and we had known each other for years. I still had not figured out what to do now. My situation became even more absurd when I saw the small villiage that was around the courthouse and the prison building. I saw the small houses with the little gardens where the guards and ordinary staff lived, the larger houses for the officials, the judges and prosecutors.
The pastor rang at a large and beautiful house. The brass-plate told that the prison governor lived there. That man was in no way happy to be disturbed in the middle of the night, but when the pastor told of his adventure and that we were delivering the robber to the prison he suddenly was wide awake and started barking orders. The robber was taken to the prison, a prosecutor and a judge - and the doctor - were called in.
The pastor and I were lead to the parlor and the prison governor offered us drinks. The pastor accepted, I did not, not out of modesty but because my mask did not allow me to drink or eat without lifting it - I did not want anyone to see my face. They accepted this, especially because the pastor spoke for me, telling them the story I had made up. Somehow this whole scheme gathered a momentum of its own and was wildely out of control now. I was named a hero and treated as an guest of honor despite my unkempt clothing and my lowly status as crippled laborer. They absolutely loved the story of the poor "Alexander Schmitt" who heroically ran into a burning factory to save his co-workers, who had now risked his life to save the pastor from being robbed.
They found out that the gun had been rusty and not working, but that did not make me less heroic in their eyes. Even as we were told that the robber had died - I must have cracked his skull with my stick - they suddenly felt obligued to help me. I did not say much, I had no idea what to do and I was terribly scared and helpless. I was so scared, I did not know what to answer as I was asked how they could thank me. I really did not know. They asked about four times before I finally managed to speak and when I did, I used the little speech I had prepared for the police should they arrest me for being a vagrant. I told them that I just came to the city to look for a job. Too late I remembered that officially I already had one - as kitchen helper at an inn. When I remembered that, I told them that being a kitchen helper at an inn was not enough for me - that I knew I could do more.
I do not know why but they offered me a job as a guard in the prison. I would get one of the small houses for the guards to live in, I would get clothing - the uniform for work and the uniform for going to church, I would get paid and would be allowed to eat as much as I liked in the prison.
The sheer absurdity of me going to prison freely was enough for me to accept the offer. So I became Alexander Schmitt, prison guard.
The other guards were not happy to have me there. I do not know if it was because I wore a mask made of fine black wool or just because they did not think making an untrained man a guard a good idea. The first tour through the prison was what I had expected - the prison was not created by a good achitect. I could have done much better, but I could not say that. The prison had its own factory - a laundry where female prisoners worked, a weaving mill and a clothing factory. Prisoners would have to work and female and male prisoners had to be kept seperated. Prisoners were not allowed to talk to each other, they should not be able to exchange their criminal tricks.
The prisoners who had only committed minor crimes would also be allowed to work outside of the prison - and then a guard would have to accompany them to make sure they would not try to run or commit another crime. Usually being allowed to work outside was considered a reward by the prisoners who otherwise would have to stay in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the dark prison building.
The worst was a wing reserved for the most dangerous criminals. They were considered more dangerous than wild animals, they had to be kept in their cells all the time and the other guards warned me not to come too close to the bars even when I had to feed them. It was mostly a souterrain hall with a few small windows and on both sides of the hall were cages. Every man had his own cage. The bed was just a block of bricks and a pile of rags. Unlike the other cells which had covered buckets - which prisoners had to empty each day - these cages had a tiny gutter that could be flushed from one side of the hall. Of course the prisoners on the lower side of the hall weren't happy about that. But a bucket would have to be cleaned out and these men were considered really dangerous, the guards opening the door and the prisoner picking up the buckets would be in danger.
Fortunately there were only five men in these cages and the other cages were empty. I watched as two prisoners put the trays with the food for the men in the cages on the floor and pushed them to the cages with brooms. A curious way of feeding men, but I had seen similar precautions when dealing with tigers and leopards. It seemed unnecessary to me.
The other guards laughed as they told me to sit down and have the first night-shift in that wing. I had to sit there and watch the men to make sure they did not do something odd like trying to build a fire, throwing their excremets at each other or build weapons. So I sat down and used the small lantern on the table to read the files that lay on the table. It were the verdicts of these men - all had life-sentences or death-sentences - which reported their crimes in that typically emotionless legal language. The five were all murderers, two of them had even killed other prisoners and guards. And one would have to stand trial for murder of three other prisoners in a few days.
I have to say that I admired the depressing and frightening atmosphere that room created. It was clearly made to scare men and the darkness and the little light from my oil-fueled lamp. The men in the cages eyed me curiously. They clearly had no idea who or what I was - guards always made sure never to adress each other with their real names to prevent prisoners from learning the identities. There was always the risk that a prisoner might smuggle some message to an accomplice who might take revenge on a guard. Not the prisoners with the minor crimes, they were somehow treated like naughty boys and some even befriended guards, but the dangerous ones, like those I was left alone with now.
They started talking. As a guard I had to prevent that. Normally I would use my cane or crack a whip as first warning, then beat the culprit and set him on the list for "confinement in a darkened cell and no feeding". But that would certainly not scare these men - they already were in small cages in the souterrain and what could I do? Put them on the "no feeding" list? I had been told that I must not allow a prisoner to die on his own terms, so suicide was to be prevented - and of course prisoners had to be fed. Beating them would require me to open the door to the cells - which was something guards were afraid of.
Of course they mocked me. "Haven't seen you here, boy. What did you do that you get night-duty down in hell? Slept with the director's daughter?" They laughed. A taunting laugh.
I knew that I could not let them win. I must not show them that they did hurt me. I have feelings and I can be hurt, even by the likes of them. I started reading the descriptions of the crimes of that prisoner aloud. He was a murderer, having murdered two women and three street-kids before he was caught, then he had killed two prisoners and a guard. That one seemed to be the most dangerous for he really had nothing to lose, he already knew the date of his execution.
"What's all this crap?" the man asked, "You can read. Fine. And? Aren't you scared? We have nothing to lose, we already are in hell."
It was my time to laugh. A dark chuckle I usually reserved for men I wanted to scare. "No. Just surprised how unimaginative you are when it comes to causing pain." I could see the shift in his posture. He clearly had not counted on me acting that cold. "You have no idea what hell is."
"That's all you can - talk!" the man challenged me, but I was sure he was not as confident as he tried to appear.
I got up from my seat, took off the cab, my jacket and the mask. I knew the effect of the light from directly under my face and the shadows that caused - it made a normal man look spooky, but with my deformity it was just horrible and grotesque. They flinched and one even turned aside.
"Come on - he's just one ugly guy," the loud-mouth encouraged the others.
"O really?" I went to unlock his door. Of course I did not have the key, I did not need them. I knew how to pick locks with small pieces of hooked metal. Of course I watched him carefully. He saw me as unarmed - I had left my weapons on the table. He did not know that I had my lasso ready. He wouldn't attack before the door was open, this was a chance too good to be true. Maybe he planned taking me hostage, maybe he planned killing me. Whatever. It was a chance to escape if he played his cards right.
How often had I played that game in the Persian courtyard? It was so much fun to try it here, even knowing I would not kill him. No, I would make him beg for his execution. It was so easy. He thought just because he was that much heavier than me he would just rush to the table and get the weapons. As soon as the door was open the noose was around his neck and I used it to choke him to unconsciousness - he was quite strong so I did not release the noose before I could smell that he soiled himself. Everyone who is strangled does that because the muscles in the abdomen losen just before death. Then I used the rope to tie him into a painful position, he was bent back lack a bow, the rope around his neck and his ankles. He was lying on his stomach, the feet drawn back to his buttom and the spine bend backwards. To add to his discomfort I had tied the hands behind his back too, I could just take the rope and pull them to an even more painful position. Then I just went back to my place and continued to read, waiting for him to wake up. I was in no way surprised to find the other prisoners sitting quiet on their beds, no one wanting to challenge me further.
Loudmouth was quiet for a while when he woke up, obviously trying to get out of the bonds until he found that the more he moved, the more he was strangling himself. "Funny," he finally grunted, obviously still not willing to give up. "And now? You cannot let me die, you know that!"
"Yes, I am not allowed to have all the fun alone," I replied calmly, watching him struggle a bit longer. He would not strangle himself, I saw that. He did not have the guts. He would not kill himself, he was a coward. So I could just let him lie there until the morning and that I did. I let him lie there in his own filth, unable to speak any longer, barely breathing, his eyes wide with the panic every lack of oxygen automatically causes.
It was a rather uneventful night. When the clock told me I'd better prepare for the end of my shift I decided to losen his bonds enough so he could speak again. "I can keep you tied up like this to the day you die," I told him, "If you want me to let you go back to your cell, you take off your clothing and wipe up the mess you made. Then you go to your cell and never cause any trouble again. Or you can stay lying here until you are nothing more than a skeleton, it is your choice."
I was surprised myself to find how obedient the prisoners were from that night on. I soon got the reputation being a cruel sadist among the prisoners. O, I knew so many ways of hurting a man without causing obvious wounds, and of course I used them when I had to. As long as the prisoners behaved and did as they were told, I did not punish them. I knew what I was doing was certainly not legal, but it worked. It worked so well, the other guards respected me and even liked me. Whenever a prisoner was rebellious or violent, I was called to break him in - which was easy in the most cases. I did not really need much violence. Mostly the knowledge I had gained from reading the files - unlike most guards - was quite enough to threaten them. It was enough to tell them I would come for their whores and their brats - mostly they weren't married, just had illegitimate "wives" and children - to make sure they would be at his best behavior.
And the others... the others would be left to me in some cellar. I could do with them as I pleased and no one would ever ask what I did, I just had to make sure the men did not have large open wounds or would die. Mostly lying tied up in the darkness and not knowing if it was night or day, if it was minutes or hours that passed, did the trick. Sometimes I used drugs on them, knowing these drugs would cause panic attacks instead of a good feeling. Creating such panic was easy - a dark cellar and a few magic tricks, a bit of ventriloquism and the sight of my face usually was more than enough to drive anyone mad. They would surely do everything to avoid having to suffer that again. And of course a nice tool I kept carrying around: castration pliers. Everyone knew what that was and no one wanted that thing to be used on him. I did not need it once, really not once. The mere threat that I might - and everyone obviously thought me capable of that - was enough.
I was like a spectre, a bogy man, a demonic creature who came in to punish the disobedient men. It was funny how well this worked with grown up, hardened criminals as it would work with children who were told a monster would come to eat them if they were not good.
My colleagues and superiors liked me. I was the one who knew how to keep the prisoners quiet and working, who knew how to bind a man if he was to be taken to the court so he had absolutely no chance to free himself - and the thin piano strings were hidden under the prisoner's clothing so the judges and the spectators would not see them. But they were much like martingale reigns in horse riding. Like the "Wiener Zügel" they use on horses to prevent them from buckling. It worked elegantly and easily on men too. They would not even think of running if I tied them up correctly. Every large step or every attempt to lift their hands more than a few inches would put pressure on their most sensitive parts. Trying to fight or to run would literally disable them permanently. They could not get rid of these strings without help because they were beneath the clothing and they could not take off their clothing alone. I was the only one who knew how to bind them - and how to remove the strings without hurting them. It worked.
I spend very little time in my "home". I had been given a small house like all the other guards. These small houses had a large livingroom, a kitchen, a bedroom. Behind the house was a small outhouse and a shack. A small garden. Each family had a different garden and in each garden were children of various ages playing. Women taking care of the houses and the gardens. There were public faucets in the street, four houses had to share one faucet. The quality of that water was not bad since it came from farther away and was not contamined with the faeces from the outhouses.
When I went home with the other guards, they came home to warm and well lit houses, to a steaming hot meal their wives had prepared. The houses were clean and the laundry done, the gardens were kept in one way or another. My house was dark and cold, I could not leave a fire when I was not at home. The garden was wild and unkept, the house chaotic and dusty. My only company were some spiders at the ceiling.
Why should I go home at all? I could easily sleep in a small room in the prison, I had my own room there - it was just another cell that had been cleaned out for my use. I ate the meals the prison's kitchen provided. In the kitchen worked female prisoners. My room was cleaned by a female prisoner and she did the laundry for me. My colleagues loved that I spend all days there, always volunteered to work extra shifts, stay on Sundays and holidays. I had no other life then.
One night I was called to the women's wing in the prison. That was rare. Usually the women were much easier to keep than the men. I was told that a woman had tried to commit suicide. The guards did not know how to make sure she wouldn't try again.
Now this was difficult. Violence and rebellion was one thing - suicide another. I decided to just sit down and talk to her. I found an elderly woman. She had only two teeth left in her mouth and her back was hunched, her hands large an rough from years of hard work.
"Who are you?" I asked, her file in my hand. She would not be able to lie to me.
"Martha," she replied and shuddered, "You are the one they call the spectre."
"Yes, but you have nothing to fear. I only come for the bad boys and you certainly lack at least one of these characteristics."
She laughed. An odd, cackling laugh. She was sitting on her bed and obviously afraid of me. But she smiled. She did not look like she was really injured, only a bandage on her left arm showed that she must have hurt herself.
"Why did you try to kill yourself?" I asked, skimming through her file, "You only got two weeks for stealing bread - that's not that bad. In two weeks you are back home."
She broke down sobbing and slowly I realized that she had no home. She had been a farmworker, but her back was damaged from years of hard labor and she could no longer work at a farm. No factory wanted her as worker, but she had never learned finer skills one would need as a maid in a noble household. She could count a bit, but she could not read or write. She had been on the streets, not wanting to go to the poorhouse, and yes, she had stolen food. I understood her problem. She was not as clever as I was, so she was not able to survive like I did. And she was too old and too ugly for any other job than some unskilled labor, but for that her back was no longer strong enough.
"You must not give up," I told her, for the first time helpless. I knew how to cause pain, I knew how to infuse panic, I knew how to manipulate men - but I had absolutely no idea how to comfort a crying woman.
"But there is no way of living for me. I know what happens now - I'll go to the poorhouse, from the poorhouse to the prison and back and forth and finally to the graveyard."
Quite a realistic vision of her future, I had to admit that, but confirming that would do no good. "Maybe you could become a maid in some household?"
"Who would hire an old crone like me?" She lamented.
"I would." It was a very sponanous idea. Why not? I had a house and no one in that house. It might be nice to have a housekeeper.
Her head shot up. "You... would? But... what would your wife say?" I had to laugh at the compliment. Did she really think someone like me would ever find a wife?
"I am alone. I need someone to clean the house, prepare food and do the laundry. Maybe you can keep the garden as well. I can't pay you, but you'd have a roof over your head, clothing and food. My offer stands, I just want your answer before you are released."
The deal was made. The other guards warned me not to do that, never to show too much kindness and understanding to prisoners, especially never to become emotionally involved with their cases, it would only make him a victim to be seduced into a crime they called abuse of administrative authority, in their world the worst crime a man could possibly commit.
It took me many long boring nights on duty when I had nothing to do but read books and wait for some prisoner to make trouble - which usually they did not whenever they knew I was on duty, I had shown them what I was capable of - so I really had lots of time to borrow books from the prison's own library and read. After several days I had the right answer I would give them: That I was just trying to welcome back the lost son - in this case daughter - to society. Why should I not help her to get back on her feet?
Some looked aside, feeling uncomfortable at my commend. It was almost funny, they were so used to me, they had almost forgotten that I came to the city as homeless vagrant.
My life changed from the moment that woman was in my house. She was very happy to have a home now, but I soon realized that she was not a good housekeeper. She tried, but she just wasn't good. It took some time until I realized that she did not see the dust on the shelves or the wrinkles in the shirts. She really did not see what she did wrong and felt that I was unjust when I scolded her or - I have to admit that I did - slapped her. It was nothing others did not, as her master it was my right to chastise her for not obeying my orders. She wasn't much more than a slave - she was alone, she had no male guardian, she had no one who would ever press charges against me. As a woman she could not do it without a male guardian so as long as I did not really cause injuries, I had nothing to fear. She had to be grateful and happy to have a decent job at all, to have food and a bed.
We shared the same house, she got what in most houses of that size was the livingroom, I got the bedroom. The kitchen was the room we both used - not that we shared a meal but when we had to heat up water to have a bath at Saturday. Saturday evening was bathing-time because on Sunday mornings we would attend to church. I desperately wanted to fit in so I did whatever I could, ready to give up everything I wanted, becoming whatever they wanted me to be. It turned out I was very good in adapting to a role they liked me to play - so very good that I pretended to be a good Protestant when I clearly was not. I just acted in my role, accepting that I would never live my own life, just live in the role "Alexander Schmitt". But that was better than many other roles I had in my past.
I went home now after work, like every other man. It was nice to find the house warm and get a hot meal in the evening. She was quite a good cook and I put on some weight and was able to relax after my work. It was nice, a luxury I never had before. My life was in an ironic way peaceful because every prisoner was so scared of me.
I never harmed one, I knew I was not allowed to, but I used my knowledge about human anatomy and how to cause pain to tie men - and women - up in a way that made it absolutely impossible for them to even think of escape. I invented a way to tie them up with very thin wires - even piano strings or violin strings - because they hurt too much if they tried to break them. Some of my inventions could be attatched under the clothing so the prisoners who were taken to the court could be presented as if they did not wear any shackles - but they would behave, o yes, they would never try to lift a hand or make a larger step because if they tried the thin wires would painfully tighten around a man's most sensitive parts. Not one ever tried to run.
It was more difficult with women. I knew how to find the right spots on a male body to cause the most pain with the least injury - I just had to try it on myself. But women? How could I find the weak spots in a female body? I knew absolutely nothing about that. But then I had the idea - it was much easier to keep a woman from running. They wore long skirts. We just had to give them their normal clothing back: give them a very narrow skirt and they won't even think of running. The same with narrow cut shoes with high heels and, most important, the corset. A woman in a very tight corset can't run. Laughably easy, but I was the only one to think of that. I even asked if we could use that for male prisoners too, but that was forbidden, only if we wanted to punish a man for extremely bad behavior we would put him in women's clothing and make him work in that. Most men failed miserably at the mere attempt to walk in these shoes, with long narrow skirts or even to breathe with a corset.
And at home? Well, Martha learned. It was a bit like training a dog - if she misbehaved, I scolded her and sometimes even hit her, and if she was good, I gave her treats, bought something for her she liked to have. It worked, it worked very good and after a few months I seldom had to discipline her. And I learned that I needed to give her little freedom - she was not good in gardening or keeping the house tidy. The garden was a mess, neither flowers nor vegetables grew. Well, we would have one of those gardens that looked like untamed wilderness.
One day Martha begged me to buy her a Sunday-Dress. Every socially acceptable woman had a good dress she would only wear on Sunday to go to church. I did not understand why, but I did as she asked. I bought her a black dress second-hand and gave it to her. She cried with happiness, for the first time in her life she had a Sunday-Dress. If I had known she would have such a strong reaction to that, I would not have given her a dress. But somehow that changed her. She began trying to please me - and I liked it. I did not need to discipline her, I did not need to bark orders, she just did what she thought I wanted.
The next Sunday I had a day off, so I did as I did on many free Sundays. I put on my good uniform and went to church like everyone else. I just wanted to fit in, so I did what everyone else did. We walked to the church together, the men sitting on the right side of the church, women on the left. The socially higher ranking sat in the front, the lower ones in the back. As a prison-guard my place was somewhere in the middle of the church, with my colleagues. It was some sort of inofficial promotion that I was invited to sit behind the prison director and the officials as if I was one of the high ranking guards.
I liked Sundays. I was among my colleagues who accepted and respected me in some way. They would not invite me to their homes, not that kind of acceptance, but they would let me sit with them in church and then, when the women and children went home to prepare lunch, I would be invited to sit with them at the inn and have a beer. I felt like I was part of their group and I desperately did everything I had to do to be one of them - and if it meant drinking beer, which I did not really like.
The pastor was standing at the church door after mass, wishing everyone a good Sunday and engaging in some polite smalltalk. This day he asked me to wait for he had to talk to me. I assumed it would just be about the next mass for prisoners. There was a chapel in the prison building and the not-dangerous prisoners were allowed to attend regulary. The more dangerous ones could not be allowed to leave their cells, which meant, no mass for them. It was much easier for Protestants, there was absolutely no need for any confession - in fact, Protestants don't have any confession except the congregation answering with a "yes" to the pastor's question if they had sinned and regretted their sins. A nice idea, everyone could just say yes and there was absolutely no need to go into detail. Far more practical than the Catholic version where one had to confess all his sins to a priest. This might be a reason the Catholic Church was so rich and powerful: they knew everyone's sins and I still have the suspicion that they keep detailed records somewhere for future use to be able to blackmail anyone.
The pastor startled me out of my musings when he was done shaking hands and wishing people a nice Sunday. "Mr. Schmitt, a word with you, if you please." I nodded and wondered why he invited me to a little walk. We had discussed the mass for the prisoners so often, why would we do this now like it was a secret? "I have been told that you hired an ex-prisoner as your housekeeper?" he asked.
I had no idea what was wrong about that until he informed me that it was absolutely not acceptable that I as an unmarried man lived under the same roof with an unmarried woman. Obviously he - and everyone else - thought the temptation would be too much for us. I was tempted to ask him if he ever saw Martha. He had not seen my face, but he knew that I was forced to keep it covered all the time.
He did not take it too well when I chuckled at the absurdity of the thought. "This is not funny, it might become a severe problem!" he scolded me. Then he gave me a lenghty speech about my responsibility as the man of the house and that I was responsible that nothing bad would happen, that I should be a good example for others.
I did not tell him what I knew about my colleagues and that some of them most willingly accepted certain favors from female prisoners and gave them some things they would not have otherwise in return. A whore is a whore and guards are only men. This was the guard's version, some of the female prisoners would disagree, but I was not the man to judge them.
"Do you suggest that I send her away?" I asked angrily, "Matha would end up in the streets, she's too old and weak for any menial job - and far too stupid for anything that needs a brain." I did not have a high opinion of her.
"No, I suggest that you consider ending your life as bachelor."
I stumbled backwards a few steps and would have ended on the ground if he had not grabbed my arm firmly. Asking Martha to marry me? I could not even think about that. Never. She was old, stupid and ugly. She could do nothing right - except cooking - and I certainly did not want a wife like that. The pastor was clever enough not to press the matter that day.
But he did. A few days later he came to visit me. It was an honor if the pastor and his wife visited, almost everyone of my colleagues envied me that he came to me. Martha was out of her mind with happiness. She cleaned the house - she really cleaned it in a way she had never done before - she did the laundry and ironed my best uniform and her Sunday dress. She did everything to bake a cake and brew coffee. She behaved like it was a king who came to visit us and was extremely nervous about everything.
I did not know then, but a visit by the pastor was an honor only special people were granted, usually only the upper class in the city. A common laborer or a guard could never hope for such an honor. But of course the pastor and his wife had set their minds on bringing Martha and me together, I don't know why, I certainly had no interest in her and she absolutely none in me. We lived together because we needed each other, but if we had any choice, we would rather not.
The pastor asked me to help him with the ponies - we would tie them in my small garden-wilderness and let them munch away some of the overgrown grass and weeds. Again he tried to persuade me to make Martha my wife, especially by telling me that the wedding wouldn't change anything - we lived together anyways.
My arguments against marriage were very selfish: I did not want to be responsible for her. I wanted to be able to send her away at a whim. And of course I would never want her as my wife. And then I made a mistake in my argumentation, I said: "Have you ever seen her?"
He looked at me in a way that made me shift uncomfortably. Then he asked: "I have not seen you - but don't you think you should not judge her by her looks? She's a decent, helpful woman and a good cook. She has always worked hard and is willing to do so for the rest of her life."
I bit my lip. He had a point: I of all people should not despise someone because of her looks.
When they were gone Martha was unusually tense. I had expected her to prattle on about how honored I should feel and how great it was that the pastor's wife helped her in the kitchen while I helped with the ponies. Other than our seperate talks we just had coffee and cake and a very boring hour of engaging in absolutely meaningless conversation.
"Martha?" I asked and she dropped something , I had startled her so much. "Tell me, is it the habit of the pastor to play matchmaker?"
She laughed nervously. "Usually not... sir, may I speak frankly?"
She sat on the other side of our kitchen table and wrung her hands, a clear sign of dispair. "I cannot," she told me, "Sir, I... I cannot. I have never seen you. They say you are horribly deformed since a fire in some factory - I... I can't..."
I laughed. Precisely my reaction: she did not want me, as I did not want her. "Tell me, Martha, how many chances to find a husband do you think you have? I'm not speaking about your past when you were young and beautiful, I am speaking about now. Tell me, how many chances do you think I have to find a wife? I, who cannot ever let anyone see my face?"
In the following weeks we both gave it some thought and in the end we agreed that it might be a good idea. We did not love each other and would never share a bed, but we needed each other. I needed someone to keep my household and she needed soeone to provide food and shelter. We really did not have much choice.
The wedding was a surprize. I had not counted that anyone would want to attend or help us with the celebration. But they did. Many people did. Especially from the church. Obviously I was playing my role far too well, I found out that my colleagues appreciated me for I always volunteered for the jobs no one wanted, I was able to control the most dangerous prisoners and since I spend much time in the church they thought I was a good Christian. Little did they know what I did to the prisoners - since I did not leave obvious marks like large bleeding wounds no one would ever accuse me of anything.
And now they prepared a celebration for my wedding like it was a religious holiday. So many families - whom I did not know at all - helped with bringing something so we could have a celebration. I have to admit that I was touched how much help we received and how many people came to congratulate, to bring gifts and to celebrate with us. Neither Martha nor I had a family, but there were many people who felt obligued to come and bring presents like they were family or friends. I do not know if they just came to stare at us - Martha and I were surely the most grotesque couple in the world - or if they pitied us or if they just wanted to feel better by showing off their generousity. Whatever it was, I had never been one to refuse any gifts offered to me.
The wedding did not change much between us. We lived like master and maid and in some way I was content. I had found a place where I fit in, I did not really have friends but colleagues who liked me and I lived a rather normal life. But since I was married now I felt obligued to ask Martha what she liked. Get to know her, in some way. It was an utter disappointment. She had bad eyes, absolutely no taste for arts, she could not read and did not even want to learn. She had absolutely no sense for music. Singing, even from good singers, was just "all that shouting" to her. It was hopeless.
But we soon found we had one thing in common: We both wanted desperately to fit into society and fate had placed us in a devout Protestant community and we both accepted that and embraced it. Martha was so happy when we went to church together for the first time. She was so proud to walk on the arm of her husband. She was so very proud not to have to sit in one of the last benches or even stand, she now shared my social status and sat in the middle of the church which was more than she could have ever hoped for. She was proud to be able to tell me to come home after I had my obligatory beer with the other men. As a maid she had absolutely no right to ask me to come home at noon because she would be ready with lunch then - as a wife she could at least ask me. I laughed it off good-humored. It did not hurt me to play along, it rather amused me.
We lived a little game of make-believe and to my own surprise I found some happiness in it. It was a hollow, faked happiness, but that was more than I ever had before.
I was so content that I made an efford to ask Martha what would make her happy. I should not have asked for I had to hear nothing but goats and chicken for days. She loved goats and chicken, she really had a large knowledge about these animals, how to keep them, breed them, make the most of the milk and the eggs. I did not care about goats and chicken and sometimes fled from her endless lectures and volunteered to work on my free days just to escape more lectures about goats and chicken.
In retrospect I think I made a mistake then. I bought her two young chicken and a few days later a third chicken strayed to. Since no one demanded his chicken back, she had three to tend to now. She was so happy. Really happy and she showed me by trying hard to keep the household as I liked it, by sewing me a new mask, by accompanying me to organ concerts and other Evangelical church music concerts in the church, even if she found them boring. I did not have the money or the time to buy tickets for the theater where they sometimes gave operas too, but the concerts in the church were almost for free - or voluntary donation, that is. There was just a basket for the donations and the sexton and his family sat there with broad smiles thanking the people for the donations - and I knew they would gossip about everyone who gave nothing or less than was expected with his income and social status.
My slight of hand tricks convinced everyone that I was quite generous when in truth I stole money shamelessly. It gave me a certain thrill to do that, even if I did not need the money.
And I bought two goats for Martha. She was out of her mind with happiness, she had everything she had ever dreamed of in her life - a house, a husband, chicken and goats. She had a certain social status now, she was the wife of a prison guard, that was just under the usual policeman.
When she told me that I laughed, I had to think of the good Daroga. In my mind I could hear him laughing and telling me that I was precisely where I belonged - in prison. And the very best of this situation: I was there of my own free will and had no intention of leaving it. Yes, the Daroga would die of laughter could he see me now like this.
What I had certainly not counted on was that Martha began to show genuine interest in things I liked. She didn't like music - but now she asked me to take her to the church music concerts in the church. I could not afford tickets for the lokal theater where they sometimes performed operas - but the church music concerts in the church were for 'free donation'. A little slight of hand trick just for the thrill of committing such crime before everyone's eyes and I was known for being generous despite the fact that I never gave anything.
Martha began asking me about my past and my interests and that was when I finally got it that she liked me. Well, not me. She liked the Alexander Schmitt role I had adopted and played to the perfection.
But I enjoyed the role far too much to stop it and leave. I thought I would be able to live this life, that was not mine, under a name that was not mine until I died. It was such a good life - it was so perfectly normal. I could pretend to be normal and I loved it, absolutely loved it.
One evening in winter I sat in the kitchen reading a book - I usually sat in the kitchen because it was the only room in the house with a stove. I needed the warmth. I liked the noises the fire made when the icy wind rattled at the roof and I was warm and comfortable.
Martha was like always busy rearranging the dishes in the shelf. I never knew why she did that - she could not sit down and do nothing - or do something useful like dusting. She had to rearrange the dishes. I barely noticed her that evening.
Suddenly she stopped and asked me nervously: "Alexander, I know you don't like that but... what do you look like?"
"I told you that I am horribly disfigured," I snapped, my good mood suddenly gone.
"It can't be that bad," she argued, "I am not beautiful myself."
This became a recurring argument we had. I do not know why, but the more I insisted that my face was too horribly deformed, the more she wanted to see it. She never tried to snatch my mask away or break into my room when I was sleeping, but she asked me to take off my mask almost every day. But her constant nagging bothered me, especially because she clearly showed me that she was fond of me. She did not behave like a loving wife, but then, she was much older than me. She behaved more like a nice aunt and I her favorite nephew.
But then... we were quite used to each other and during her life she had seen many people who were crippled or deformed. At first I described to her that I had no nose left. The nose was completely gone, except for a tiny stup of the nasal bone. Her eyes widened, I don't think she could imagine how I looked like. I tried to describe my face to the best of my ability, to prepare her for the shock if she ever saw me - and to get her to admit that she did not even want to see.
I tried it. I really tried it, I described my face in all gruesome details to prepare her for the shock, I tried to prepare myself for her reaction. In some way she was right - she should better know or else the shock would be too much if she found out by accident.
And then the day we had agreed on came. We were in the kitchen, she sat on her place with her back to the iron stove and I on the other side of the table. Again I asked her if she was ready for the shock of seeing my deformed face and she said yes, she was. I took the mask of.
I will never forget that horrible scream she howled as she pushed herself away from me. She fell backwards, I tried to reach out to grab her but my fingers closed aroun thin air. The back of her head hit the edge of the stove, she let out a strangled gasp and slid to the ground.
Somehow I put on the mask mechanically and knelt beside her. "Martha? Martha?" I asked, noticing that she was bleeding at the back of her head. Only then I realized that she did not breathe any longer.
I have no idea how long I sat on the floor, holding her, trying to get her to breathe. Suddenly some of my neighbors were around us, asking what had happened. My thoughts raced. Everyone knew that I sometimes hit her - not that this was entirely uncommon here, many men used to discipline their wives and children. But now? Martha was dead.
"She fell..." I told them, "She fell backwards - she needs a doctor! Please help her!"
Of course there was absolutely no way to save her. She was already dead. The doctor said it was just another home-related accident. There were no further inquiries. All I could do for her now was to give her a decent funeral, a grave like other people had so she would not end in a pauper's grave. I could give her a funeral she would have wanted - not to be thrown away like trash, like so many other former farmworkers who ended up in prison or the poorhouse were, but a real funeral and a grave with an iron cross.
I nearly broke down during the funeral. I was unsure if it was my fault that she was dead - I had done everything to prepare her for the sight. I had warned her, described my face, I had hoped she would be able to get used to it eventually, at least enough that we could co-exist.
I could not stay. At the beginning everyone was sympathetic, regarding me as the mourning widower, but far too soon some rumors began to spread. They thought I might have hit her and caused that accident. I knew that I had to leave. I had no choice but leaving everything behind as it was and pack my belongings. I took whatever money I had, burned my "Alexander Schmitt" papers and dressed in normal clothing, then I released the goats and the chicken - they would find themselves new homes. I left like I had entered this area of the world: on foot, with only a slingbag with my belongings haunted by the memory of her dead face - the bitterness of knowing what I had lost.
A rather long Halloween story. I came up with this when I re-read Leroux's book and asked myself: Why doesn't Erik just tell Christine that he is deformed? Her shock is so bad because she expects him to be beautiful or at least normal.
Well... here's my idea why.
Hope you like it! Please review!