by Georg Heym
The dead man lay alone and naked on a white table in the big room, in the oppressive whiteness, the cruel sobriety of the operating theatre, where the cries of endless torments still seemed to tremble.
The midday sun covered him, and awakened the death-spots on his forehead; it conjured a bright green out of his naked belly and blew it up like a big water-bag.
His body was like a giant shimmering calyx, a mysterious plant from the Indian jungles, which someone had nervously laid at the altar of death.
Splendid red and blue colours grew along his loins, and in the heat the big wound under his navel slowly split like a furrow, releasing a terrible odour.
The doctors came in. Two friendly men in white coats with duelling scars and golden pince-nez.
They approached the dead man, and looked him over with interest, talking in scientific terms.
The took their dissecting equipment out of the white cupboards, white boxes full of hammers, bone-saws with strong teeth, files, gruesome batteries of forceps, small sets of giant needles like crooked vultures’ beaks forever screaming for flesh.
The began their ghastly handiwork, looking like fearsome torturers, with blood streaming over their hands. They delved ever deeper into the cold corpse, and brought forth its inside like white cooks disembowelling a goose.
The intestines wound around their arms, greenish-yellow snakes, and the excrement dripped onto their coats, a warm, foul fluid. They punctured the bladder; the cold urine shimmered inside like yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls; it had a sharp, biting stench like ammonia.
But the dead man slept. He patiently allowed himself to be torn at and pulled about by the hair, this way and that; he slept.
And while the hammer-blows rang down on his head, a dream awakened in him, a remnant of love which shone into his light like a torch.
Outside the big window, a great wide sky opened up, filled with little clouds swimming in light in the stillness of the afternoon, like small white gods. And the swallows circled high above in the blue, shimmering in the warm July sun.
The black blood of death ran over the blue decay of his forehead. It evaporated in the heat into a horrible cloud, and the dissolution of death crawled with its gaudy claws all over him. His skin began to fall apart. His belly grew as white as that of an eel under the greedy fingers of the doctors who dipped their arms elbow-deep in his wet flesh.
Decay pulled the dead man’s mouth apart, he seemed to be smiling; he was dreaming of a glorious star, a sweet-smelling summer evening. His decomposing lips trembled, as if touched by a fleeting kiss.
“How I love you! I have loved you so much. Shall I tell you how I love you? As you moved through the fields of poppies, yourself a flame-red fragrant poppy, the whole evening was swallowed up in you. And your dress, which billowed around your ankles, was like a wave of fire in the setting sun. But your head bent in the light, and your hair was still burning and flaming from all my kisses.
“So you went on your way, turning all the time to look at me. And the lantern swayed in your hand like a glowing rose far off into the twilight.
“I shall see you again tomorrow. Here under the chapel window, here where the candlelight falls from within, turning your hair into a golden wood, here where the narcissi brush your ankles like delicate kisses.
“I shall see you again every evening at twilight. We shall never leave each other. How I love you! Shall I tell you how I love you?”
And the dead man trembled softly with happiness on his white table, while the iron chisels in the doctors’ hands broke open his temples.
This story is an excerpt from The Thief and Other Stories, by Georg Heym.
Georg Heym (1887–1912) was the son of a Prussian military lawyer and rebelled against his conservative family to become one of the outstanding poets of the Expressionist generation in Germany. His first volume of poetry, Der ewige Tag, was published in 1911 to great acclaim. In January 1912 Georg Heym drowned when he fell through the ice while skating on the Havel river in Berlin.
Susan Bennett is a freelance filmmaker, writer, and translator.