by Karl Hans Strobl
translated by Joe E. Bandel
Copyright Joe E. Bandel
The Strangling Hand
Behind the Cathedral, where the roofs of little houses pressed around a narrow courtyard, the little alleyways lost their direction and disappeared, crowding up against the fronts of old gray buildings, or suddenly turning to the side around protruding corners, going up and down stairways, until they ended in some corner at one of the surrounding houses. The modern times with its expanding circle of industrial development had still not changed this innermost core of the city. And under the dark arches, in dusty niches, and in front of the blackened statues of saints lit with trembling little lamps cowered the past.
The stairs which climbed up and down around the houses had many steps which had become worn smooth and slippery, so that in the winter time the old women could only timidly and with choking prayers dare go to the Cathedral. Such joys and sorrows were carried over these stairs. There were holes worn into the granite steps, in which little pools of water stood after the summer rains and in the winter everything was covered with crackling ice. Thoughtful and sometimes sullen faces looked out the little windows of the old houses at the few people who carefully made their way over the rough concrete, and urgently and uncomfortably rushed past the mountainous Cathedral as if it held no power over them.
You could see many old people. Life appeared on these quiet and crooked little streets that stretched out in all directions. On Sunday you could see all these old men and women walking to the Cathedral, as if it were a treasured memory, haunted by the shadows of what it had once been. Yet the youth lived in the midst of these old people, rude, irrepressible and noisy in the present moment as they clambered over the stairs among the gray houses to play in the sunshine and enjoy the energy of youth.
The old people looked at them and smiled, because here the past and the present was not yet in conflict. These old people loved their green plants and white gardens, and many green window boxes protruded from the many paned windows. In the summer blood red fuchsia blossoms nodded above the wooden window boxes and sturdy wide leafed geraniums stood in the background. There were also entire windows full of blooming hyacinth, boasting all colors and in one arched window frame that was topped with the figures of animals and birds, you could see the foliage of exotic plants and wondrous orchids, which captivated all the children. They were compelled to stand in front of the window and push against the glass with their fingers. During the greatest summer holidays that was where the passion flowers were placed, the beautiful and sad blossoms which carried all the marks of the martyred Christ, the nails and the hammer and even the terrible thorn of crowns.
Here the people still celebrated the holidays. They put decorations on the doors and even the houses transformed their faces for Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Christi day. That was when a procession came through the narrow streets, when the bells rang out and the white clouds of incense swam above the heads of the priests. That was when rows of candles flickered in the windows and the statues of the saints looked out of sleepy eyes at the many lights. During Pentecost boughs of green birch were placed on all the doors, so that it seemed as if springtime had placed an ostrich plume on the face of every house. That was when things seemed so bright and cheerful in the world, so cheerful that people almost didn’t believe, how many other stories hid behind the old brown doors and slept inside the little windows. Familiar stories and strange stories, which awoke on sad days and during the long winter nights.
Near the main entrance to the Cathedral, guarded by the cold empty eyes of the stone saints, stood a house, around which many such stories were told. That was where Eleagabal Kuperus lived, of whom the people in the houses around the Cathedral told the most remarkable things. Of whom the youth told fantastic and mysterious stories and whom the old women were so careful to avoid, if he crossed their path on the way to the Cathedral.
His house was certainly the oldest anywhere around and had a slate gable roof on its wrinkled brown face that sat there like an old hat. In dry weather it’s front appeared dusty and furrowed , but when the rain beat against its walls, ancient images appeared on its surfaces: the sacrifice of Isaac, the judgment of Solomon, the passage of the Jews through the Red Sea and many others, of which the people up here on the hill knew nothing about. Like a secret ink that is activated by the sun or the water, these images appeared from out of the moisture, stretching themselves along all the walls, between the windows and showing themselves, down below intertwined with vines of plants and animals bound together with words written in an unreadable language.
But over the richly carved door that was bound with iron bands, a figure became visible, which stood there in the garments of a distant time, in one hand a sword and holding a key in the other. From out of its mouth came a ribbon on which was written in ancient letters: “Believe in miracles”. The strangest thing about this figure and about this house was, that the hand which held the key extended from out of the wall in a real and graspable form. This hand, with its curled fingers, sinews and perfectly formed veins appeared so much like the living hand of a human that you had to marvel at the artistic skill of its creator. After the rain coursed through the furrows and turned into a trickle the sun once more dried the walls and then the figure and letters disappeared, and only the hand remained holding the key above the door, as if it grew from out of the wall and wanted to show that the passage was locked and could only be opened by it alone.
And even the door – was a terrifying puzzle which the children could never solve. It was a carving of Saul and his visit to the witch of Endor. Misshapen bodies with hideous grimaces surrounded the hero. Up above, a wingless dragon spewed fire from out of its mouth, and down below Leviathan swam in an ocean of enormous pointed waves and blasted mighty streams of water from out of its nostrils.
Of all the people that told stories about Eleagabal Kuperus, it was old Frau Swoboda who told the strangest ones. She was the one who lit slender candles in the Cathedral for all the souls in purgatory. She was the one who had seen on one moonlit night, how a finger of the hand over the door had released the key and straightened out, exactly like the finger of a human hand that wants to relieve a cramp. And she was the one, who at the crack of dawn on one foggy winter day had seen clearly how the dragons and the monsters on the carved door had swarmed together, and how Saul had raised his arm to banish her. Ever since then she swore that Eleagabal Kuperus was a sorcerer, and a legion of old women stood behind her maintaining the same thing.
But even the men, who just laughed at this gossip, shunned the old man in the mysterious house, and when they encountered him in the twilight of a dimly lit street, gladly crossed over to the other side. Only rarely did anyone ring the bell under the hand with the key, and it was always a stranger, someone from the bustling city down below, who visited Eleagabal Kuperus in his castle.
The Frau, who surrounded by a heavy mist filled with mysterious voices, climbed up the large stairs one winter evening and slowly crossed the little space in front of the Cathedral, hesitated a moment in front of the door to the house in which Kuperus lived. Here on the top of the hill only a few little lights glowed, and one of them stood unmoving like a staring eye in the forehead of this house. Frau Swoboda, who had just came from out of the sanctuary of the Cathedral, saw, how a dark figure in front of the door of Kuperus reached to ring the bell, and with a shudder sent a short prayer for the salvation of this poor soul that was in the clutches of evil, and entrusted its soul to heaven. As she rounded the corner of the alley, she heard the shriek of the bell, and freezing, yet happy in the kindness of God’s grace, wrapped herself more tightly in her large shawl.
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