By Katherine Lin
I am standing in the middle of a clearing. I am alone. The trees around me are silent. I think they are cold. I am cold too. My coat is at home, but I do not want to cross the Rhine again. My shoes are still wet; the frayed fabric is bleeding on blankets of red and brown leaves. The sun is bright in my eyes, making it painful to see. It glitters white upon water beads and frost scattered across a world of crimson and gold—a passionate flurry of fire that is carried away on winds of white and blue. It is almost winter, and the forest is wilting. It is beautiful. I am still cold.
The castle in front of me used to have white walls. And red flags. And maybe a surrounding moat and elegant stained crystal windows and oak furnishings. There is no moat now. All that remains of the windows are the shards of jagged glass among the debris, broken thoughts in a vast wasteland of disillusion and incoherency. I have to imagine the flags. And some of the walls as well. The castle is broken. That is what a war tends to do to things.
It has been four years since the war ended. We lost, I think. But I do not care; Father and Mother are home, and we are back in Germany. Father smiles more now, but it is a tired smile¾a smile that bleeds out his inner turmoil and melancholy, a smile that reminisces of a different world across time and space that has faded into darkness and a killing silence. When Father smiles, I know that he is remembering, once upon a time, before the war. And then things get really still and quiet.
I was only four when the war ended. I do not think that things have changed much. But I do wish that the walls of my castle were still white.
I am walking down a long hall. I imagine that it was once lit with candles, flickering faithfully in night’s black face, a light that shines on when all other lights have succumbed to darkness’s overweening power. But today darkness will win. There are no candles anymore. The place is silent¾no movement at all, save the pattering of bare feet against cold stone. I am an intruder, even though I have taken off my shoes to show respect. The castle commands my reverence.
I am standing perfectly still, in the heart of this ancient organism. I can feel my breathing, hot and noisy against the cold air. I close my eyes, listening to the stillness around me. I allow myself to be immersed in the spirit of the place; I amalgamate my senses with the rhythm of silence. Detachment. I can feel myself slipping away, my limbs relaxing, my heart slowing. The busy humming in my brain stops, the infernal wet slamming of thought against motion ceases. Silence. I do not feel like an intruder anymore.
I walk home slowly. This time, I am careful not to get my shoes wet.
Emelie says that I do not use my head. I am eight years old. I do not know anything. I do not know who Death is or what he says to lure you into forsaking Life and following him into his eternal realm of immortality. I ask her, do you? She suddenly seems too absorbed in her knitting to answer my question. I hardly know who Life is. All I know about Life is running along the River Rhine in the heat of a late summer day. Getting replete off of sweet vineyard grapes and intoxicated from the pollen-drenched air of a late spring afternoon. Falling asleep to the drone of busy honeybees, chasing patches of sunlight in the forest on a brisk autumn morning. Sitting by a crackling fire indoors while the entire Rhineland outside is layered with blankets of silent, white snow in the tiny hours of winter.
I am more interested in meeting Death. I want to shake his hand. So I go outside.
Hello, Death. My name is Raimund Rosenthal. I am eight years old, and I live with my Father and my Mother and my older sister Emelie in the Rhineland. My parents served in the war, under Hitler, only because they had to though. I do not remember the war. I remember riding bikes with my grandfather in Austria. I have met Life; he is quite a nice guy. But I have not met you. How do you do?
I wait. Silence. I do not think that Death is too eager to meet me. I go back inside.
I am back at the heart of the castle. My feet are not wet. I am still cold. I am alone. I try to picture what my castle looked like before the war. Radiant white columns set against the piercing blue of the sky, the water of the moat glinting like iridescent diamonds reflected against the facets of the crystal stained glass. Sounds of laughter, trumpet calls across rolling forests of green, scarlet oriflammes that billow in the cool morning wind. A beacon of hope, a temple on the hill.
I am seeing a skeleton¾a horn call of retreat, the lone note of despair. And the wind blows, a labored sigh that stirs up dirt and dead leaves in a hollow rattle of old bone across smashed brick. But it commands my reverence.
I am approaching a door at the end of the corridor. The hall seems to be getting longer and longer, retreating with each step I take. I think that I am frustrated. Or scared. Or hungry. I am not supposed to be here. My breath comes out in wispy little rasps. Silence around me lifts her menacing figure, reprimanding my intrusion upon her slumber. I am cold. I am alone. I am not supposed to be here.
I am touching the door at the end of the corridor. It is not oak. It is not even wooden, as I expected it to be in my dreams of the temple on the hill. It is metal. It is cold under my touch, unresponsive and lacking vitality. I draw back my hand in alarm. The hairs on the nape of my neck come alive; I feel a shudder work its way down my spine. There are strange gashes on this door, markings from another time, another age. I smell something that I cannot identify. I think it is fear. Suddenly, I know. I know. But the knowledge is undeveloped, a moment so brief and elusive in time that it is gone before I can comprehend it¾lost and completely incommunicable, irredeemable. My brain stirs, grappling for it, but it is already flying past the black emptiness at the edges of the universe, a mere memory of a sad melody from the depths of a black hole. Silence. Void.
This time I am running, putting as much distance as I can between myself and the door at the end of the corridor. I do not care if the river claims my feet on the way back.
Do castles cry? I ask Emelie this. She laughs. Laughs and laughs until tears stream out of her blue eyes, peals of laughter that fill up the house and clutter my head. Then she looks at me and laughs some more. It is a bantering, good-natured laugh, but it bothers me. She apologizes. No. Castles do not cry. Neither do grownups. Crying is a childish thing. Well, I retort, if I were a beautiful castle, and somebody came and smashed me up, I would cry. She just looks at me. I do not use my head. I am eight years old. I do not know anything. But I think about what she had said. She must be right. I have never seen Father or Mother cry before. Only Emelie and me. And castles certainly do not cry.
I am standing in the middle of the clearing again. My shoes are not wet, but I am still cold. I am not alone. The castle stands in front of me, still commanding my reverence. But it talks to me sometimes now, instead of listening all the time. I feel a bit better.
I am walking down the same hall, toward the same door at the end of the corridor. I am listening to the sounds of the castle around me. I hear the sashaying and rustling of the autumn leaves, the scampering of a lone squirrel against rough bark, the whimpering of the wind and the song of the Rhine. But I know that the castle is holding back. This time, I do not. I place my hands firmly on the metal of the door and push. The door creaks open slowly, resisting my force.
I am standing in the middle of a small room. There is nothing here. The wind stirs my hair, blowing about my feet; whining. Streams of sunlight filter in through a crack in the ceiling. I can hear the blood in my ears ringing. Silence. The room is empty, an oppressive stillness that gnaws at my flesh, a void that fills up my mind and soul. There is nothing here. Old pieces of chain are strewn across the corner of the room, there are strange metal pieces tacked to the stone of the wall. I become aware of the absence of sound outside. The castle has stopped talking. I feel a tinge of disappointment. The castle is dead. I start back home. I have the strangest feeling that I am saying goodbye. It is late evening by the time I get home. My feet are soaking wet.
I am lying in bed, awake. I cannot fall asleep. The world slumbers restlessly. I am tired. Castles do not cry. My brain is utterly dysfunctional¾a lump of cold grey oatmeal. I cannot think. I miss my castle. Castles do not cry. My eyes begin to glaze over.
Summer in Germany is hot. And muggy, a sweltering heat that swamps the senses and sucks the pulp out of energy. It is only mid-afternoon, but everything has already retired, waiting for the relief that comes with the cool breeze of evening. The castle is in front of me. The windows are there, the stained glass coated in a layer of dirt and grime; the blood flags hang slack against their poles. There is a moat, but it is not the same moat in my imagination. It is but a meager pool of stagnant water. Mosquitoes swarm about it, mumbling and breeding and multiplying¾cannibalistic mosquitoes that feed upon the flesh of their brothers, a cursed race condemned to their own brutality. A mosquito alights on my shoulder. Perhaps I am the next animal to be lead to the alter. I flick it off and head toward the castle. I do not know why I do this. Something tells me that I should not. I do not listen. I keep walking. Emelie is right. I do not use my head. My eyes are riveted on the door at the end of the corridor, so I do not see the walls around me. They are still not white.
The room at the end of the corridor is oppressive with an unbearable heat. There is a heavy pungent stench; the stale air stinks with the putrid smells of human confinement and festering wounds. There is a boy in the corner of the room, brutally chained to the metal pieces that nail him against the wall, a grotesque contortion of torment. The boy cannot be more than eighteen years of age, and he is still beautiful from youth, but it is rapidly fading. There are bags under his eyes from the lack of sleep. His soft face is marred with deep crevices born from the bowels of bitter suffering. Yet, underneath the rag of what was still left of his tunic, underneath the dirt and grime and blood that cover him like hideous casts, he is golden. His eyes are piercing blue underneath the haze that is rapidly devouring at the fringes of his soul. He is not German. Nor is he Austrian. He shouts out streams of phrases in some foreign tongue that clatter incoherently upon the lifeless stone below.
The guards hear him, and one rises. They are German, clad in stiff khaki colored clothing. Something about their arms transfixes my eyes. It is some sort of symbol, a white circle marred with hideous black markings in the center set upon a blood red band. I can feel my eyes getting bigger, my blood running cold in tight veins. And there is that feeling again, that inscrutable feeling that overwhelmed me the first time I touched the metal door. But the doors are bolted. I do not get out. I cannot get out. Emelie was right. I do not use my head. And the doors are bolted.
The guard that rose reaches for something. The boy’s eyes turn from piercing daggers to raging fire. Although he is a skinny boy, worn down from beatings and starvation and his ribs protruding nightmarishly through a film of pale flesh, his anger is splendid. He is the epitome of passion: his eyes blazing uncontrollably, his weak limbs struggling valiantly against metal chains, his teeth bared in an animal rage, terrible and complete¾a majestic strain against the cruelty of man. Here is love and hatred, anger and passion, utter despair and uplifting hope, all pure and beautiful. And the countless cold and dark months that had been spent in the bowels of the castle—my castle—his hell, had magnified these emotions tenfold, pouring forth in a torrent of unadulterated rage against Life’s assault upon the flickering vitality of his being.
The guard smiles. His lips curl slowly, but his eyes remain stone. Ice. His right hand wields a stout club.
The guard is advancing slowly now, but surely, upon the boy chained at the corner of the prison cell. The struggling grows more violent, the thumping of chain against wall grows louder and more desperate, drumbeats that excite and encourage a menacing killer. The guard is a predator, toying with his hapless victim, waiting for fear to reach its zenith before striking. But the boy shows no fear; all that comes from the corner is a deluge of raw anger. The guard is standing right in front of the boy now. His eyes glint diabolically. He fingers the edges of the club, almost lovingly. The boy is silent now, calculating. There is not much that one can do before weapon meeting flesh.
The guard arcs his arm back, muscles taught, aiming for the head. And then the boy moves, dancing the oddly graceful waltz that only a cornered animal knows, learned and forgotten within a passing moment. In one sweeping motion, he ducks his head and lifts a chained arm, ensnaring the club within its metal coils. With the inexorable power, awesome and unexplainable, that is born only from sheer desperation, the boy gives the chain a mighty jerk. The butt end slams squarely against the guard’s jaw before the club flies toward the other end of the room. And with the resounding clatter of the club comes the finishing chord from the orchestra. The dance is over.
The guard stands dumbly for a moment, stricken by what had just happened while blood gathers in his mouth. His eyes cloud over in bloodlust. He reaches for a solid metal rod hanging from the wall above the boy and stares, his mouth still gaping hideously as dark blood runs and splatters on the stones below.
The boy is afraid now. His eyes betray him. This is the fear that the guard had been waiting for, a poisoning fear that strangles sense, murders reason. Beatings can slay a body, but it is always fear that kills the mind. The first blow hits the boy directly in the face. He is thrown back against the wall violently with a wet thud; the entire room fills with the scent of the boy’s blood. Upon the sight of blood, the guard grows horribly excited, pushed to the edges of an ecstatic rage.
I know that I should not be seeing this. But I do not use my head. I watch anyway.
The rod is now a dizzy blur, colors of flesh and silver and scarlet blend into a fabulous and terrible tapestry. The entire castle rings of the sickening shrieks of a tortured soul. And for an utterly deplorable and terrible moment, the rod sparks malevolently in the shafts of the late afternoon sunlight, red against red—a moment frozen in the mind of time. And then the spell is broken. The rod falls, a merciful coup de grâce. And something about the fear in the boy’s eyes changes, shifts, and all of a sudden I am witnessing a fantastical sort of paralysis filtered through grainy photography. It is a new kind of fear that is completely foreign to me, a fear devoid of Life, a soul deserted by hope. Emptiness. I have not seen this look ever before. His eyes are vacant, lost; he is a deserted vessel, broken in every aspect. And then I know. I know who I am looking at. I had been searching for him days back.
Hello, Raimund Rosenthal. I am Death. I am ageless. I live in the bitter cries of neglected children, broken families, and blackened hearts. I eat the essence of human sadism, greed, and hatred. I remember the war. I was there. I was the merciful one that freed people when I thought man had gone too far. I also have ridden bikes in Austria. Those who have ridden with me are still riding with me now. I see that you are not too eager to come today. But it does not matter. You will, everybody always does. How do you do?
I feel a scream ripping itself out of me, but no sound is heard. Fear. Ice. Death. And he is gone. And they are gone. And I am standing in the room again, alone. There is nothing here. Silence. And then I hear it. It is the sound of hope dying.
It is the sound of the castle crying.
Father gets a job in Venezuela. We are leaving Germany. So I say goodbye to my childhood.
I did not return to the castle before we left. There were times in which thoughts, fragmented and elliptical, flitted across my mind, and my body stirred. But when the wind blew cold against my feet I knew. Some things were better off left unspoken and unresolved at the moment. My shoes were dry now, I kind of liked that. It had been that way for almost four months.
But Castle, one day I vow I will return to you. I am still a child, and I do not know anything. I do not use my head. But one day in the future, when I am smarter and wiser and know more about this world, I will come back. And then maybe you will know. Maybe you will not be bitter anymore—so filled with hatred and rage. Maybe you will finally be freed from the bondages of Death, and you will come up and out and away. I will introduce you to Life, whom I think you will like. And there will be sunlight and laughter; there will be running barefoot in wheat fields and watching the world awaken and become green again in the spring. But for now, I do not know anything yet. I am only eight.
I wish that the walls of my castle were still white. I still hope for a day that I know my castle does not cry.