The Cripple and the Silken Garrotte

By Joseph Felix Ernst

Translation Helen MacCormac

kalich kakuka julima
kalich kakuka julima
kalich kakuka
kalich kakuka
kalich kakuka julima african gibberish chorus of a nursery rhyme entitled the equator where the sun burns down

Everyone, all of us – felt sheepish. No sooner did we learn that the cripple would be taken to the garrotte on Assumption Day, than we – Javier and I – set off to Olivar. The whitewashed walls of the homesteads stood dry as dust in the sweltering summer heat – heat and dust; there couldn’t be a single place amidst the stones and rocks of this barren land not bursting with heat, or else it was the work of the devil. The whole earth was glistening with a dry glimmer, as if an alien landscape had been doused in rippling water, water that was, in fact, heat rising from the ground. So, we waded through this dry wet over grey, sharp-edged cinders, and if we happened to glance down as we went, we couldn’t see a thing, up to our knees, except a strange kind of shimmer which seemed to cover the burning ground – in it, below, it was like staring at our limbs through flawed panes of glass. The Ebo, the Zújar, even the Río Baûl had run dry weeks ago and were emblazoned with pale stony bones. A few days after the rivers and lakes, the wells had finally dried up; we didn’t know a single person who had drunk as much as a drop in the past three weeks. The heat was so intense, that wine bottles which had been carefully corked, sealed with sealing wax and stored down in the cool, often unbelievably deep cellars of the farms, had dried out within a matter of days, leaving nothing but glass hulls full of dry heat and boiled sediment. As we walked, small bunches of grass would suddenly ignite unexpectedly beside us in a brief blaze which burnt away in a moment. The sparse growth in this arid landscape meant that these flaming bundles of withered grass had no dried-up plants or, worse still, brushwood near them, so there weren’t any widespread wildfires. However, we kept hearing things crackle as herbs growing on the rocks suddenly turned to ashes in a blistering second of combustion. Although we were in a great hurry and despite the pressing swelter of those days, we didn’t choose the direct route; instead, we took a detour which would lead us to the shores of Lake Negratin, to see if the mile-wide stretch of water had also evaporated during the weeks of drought. When we finally reached the edge of the great basin, there was nothing but dry barren land as far as the eye could see: a void, which fell away steeply before us – but, at the very bottom of this eerie hollow, thick clouds of steam rose up into the air like giant geysers; the last heaving breath of the dried-up lake. As we marched on towards Olivar, sharp pieces of shrapnel kept shooting through the air and despite being so small and light they left painful scratches on our bare skin, that is: on arms, legs and faces. As we plucked these splinters out of our skin and studied them, we realized that they were fine slivers of basalt. Apparently, some stones ruptured as they expanded in this heat. The limestone along our path was crossed with veins of basalt, so there were shards whirling through the hot air everywhere. Javier told me – much later: not until months after our trek – that he had seen lumps of ore, copper apparently, along our path and he swore that he had seen heavy drops of red, shining, molten metal seep through the pores of those rocks because of the sheer summer heat. I can’t say if this is true; I don’t remember seeing anything like that. Maybe Javier ended up being deceived by a mirage in the shimmering heat of those glistening days, or perhaps he was right. We approached Olivar after several hours of hard walking, but turned right before we reached the first houses, heading in the direction of the forge which lay just outside the village, to the west. As the workshop came into sight, we realized that while we could clearly see the blackened bare bricks of the forge, the forge fire was out. There was no burning coal, no kindling. We were sure that the forge was abandoned and that our journey had been in vain when, all of a sudden, the door of the adjoining mud hut opened and the smith stepped out into the open, wearing the clothes of his trade including a heavy smith’s apron made of cowhide. We greeted him as strangers should, in an honest yet reserved manner, relieved that our trip had not been futile, after all. We promptly outlined the reason for our visit, telling him all about the cripple’s current predicament, the garrotte, or in other words: the impending execution. It was immediately apparent that the square-shouldered smith really was as lively and mischievous as everyone everywhere always said he was. He offered his services at once and started looking around for a suitable piece of metal to fit our description. Unfortunately, his stores contained practically nothing of any use. He wasn’t a trained tinsmith or coppersmith, he was one of the many country blacksmiths who provided the locals with nails and hammer heads, axe blades and horse-shoes and who had nothing to do with sheet hammering. Not like the brownsmiths or armourers or tinkers, even, who could all wield a hammer to work sheets of metal into breastplates, boiling pans, copper pots and stills; or to fix metal rims to the wheels of the peasants’ carts. The country blacksmith used raw material that had nothing in common with the materials a tinsmith might use; his stores were full of piles of iron and steel but always in the form of heavy rods or less-heavy bars. Once again, our mission threatened to end in failure, but then the smith came up with a possible solution: every once in a while, he was known to take the local peasants’ broken old tools in payment and sell them to an ironmonger called Alvaro for a marginal profit. The man ran his business from Granada, selling his wares (any cast iron, copper plate, black iron plate and white iron plate, zinc for the zincsmiths and tin for the tinsmiths) to rural workshops in the northeast. When he returned to the city (having also made a small profit), he then sold the scrap metal he had collected on his trip to the mining companies of Granada, who in turn sold it to the large smelters together with the ore they mined. And on this very day, the blacksmith had taken an old copper kettle of some considerable size in payment – which had suddenly cracked from bottom to top while hanging over the midday fire in front of the eyes of a very surprised housekeeper. Also, the inside of the kettle had originally been lined, but due to small nicks in the silvery coating, some stock had got through to the copper bottom which had sprouted rust and caused the zinc coating to blister in patches here and there. The old kettle was simply worn out. We were very grateful and encouraged the smith to go ahead and heat the cracked kettle and then pound it flat with heavy blows of his mighty hammer, transforming it back into a sheet of metal similar to what it must have been before some boilermaker or coppersmith gave it its bulbous shape. At this point, the mystery of the missing forge fire was finally solved: all the smith’s wood and coal supplies had burnt to cinders in the midday sun during the past couple of weeks. A fire had broken out in the coal pile and soon consumed all his fuel. The smith had had no choice but to cover the glowing embers with dry earth as best he could to keep the sparks from flying and then let the fire die down of its own accord. The lack of fuel was perfectly compensated for by the searing heat, however. This meant that the blacksmith simply brought the copper kettle out of the shade of the roofed forge into the blazing sunlight and within a few minutes, the bent metal started to glow – first in dark, earthen hues and then, after about a quarter of an hour, in a strong red colour reminiscent of pepper berries. The smith took hold of the metal with a set of tongs, placed it on the anvil and immediately started to pound it flat with his hammer. It took him about half an hour to form a fairly even piece of copper. Then he worked the metal into the right shape, putting all the skill of an armourer into his work and refusing to take a single real for his efforts.

When we finally returned from Olivar with our feet charred to the ankles, reeking of burning toenails, with boiled flesh up to our knees and scratches from the basalt shrapnel on bare skin, that is: on arms, legs and faces, with singed hair and congealed flakes of glair in our eyes which floated through our vision like clouds, we hurried to the place of execution as fast as our raw feet would allow. The cripple was already bound hand and foot and had been brought to the foot of the hill upon which the scaffold stood. We hurried over to the wretch, who hardly recognized us, grabbed him by the shoulders, lifted his chin with the palms of our hands and placed the copper gorget round his neck and throat as best we could. We fastened it with several iron bolts which we drove into the intended holes with a few hard blows of a hammer. A train of court workers, constables and gawpers had finally arrived and we set off in a silent procession to the place of execution on a path that wound its way up the hill in tight bends. In other words, the condemned man was forced on a fairly lengthy last march to the top of the hill which was intended to heighten the terrible pain of anticipation concerning the instrument of execution. By this point, Javier was on the verge of sunstroke – the glair that filled his eyeballs had congealed into a cloudy liquid. The burnt soles of his feet split open in a different place every step he took and he wouldn’t stop singing a nursery rhyme about a Negro called Ovambo the equator sun burns down on the barren steppe his angry Negro woman only Ovambo in the kraal sings his songs with joy his death oh now he has sung all he’ll ever sing his wife had his hide, and she ate his fat Negro body with her child again and again kalich kakuka julima kalich kakuka julima kalich kakuka kalich kakuka kalich kakuka julima. In the end we made it to the garrotte, the strangulation device from which we hoped to save the cripple with our copper circlet – we wanted the rope to tear, the executioner to break his shoulders and legs, rather than let it cut off the air to someone’s head, blood and lungs. No one, not even the executioner – and that really is remarkable – was offended by what we did. kalich kakuka julima again and again kalich kakuka kalich kakuka kalich kakuka julima and the equator sun burns down and kalich kakuka and the bleary eyes and kalich kakuka and when we finally saw the garrotte on the scaffold on the hill, we could hardly believe our eyes: the stake and the winch had been made of glass¸ they were completely hollow on the inside and as thin-walled as an expensive flacon. The rope was the most delicate silken thread, almost invisible, like a spider’s web and seemed as unreal as any of the strange appearances we’d witnessed in the dry air of these never-ending gossamer days. The cripple was positioned on the glass execution device, a thread was wound around the copper gorget and was so thin, you couldn’t even use it to sew, the executioner grabbed the winch and gave it a mere three half-turns before the thread snapped and the glass shattered into a shower of splinters which all caught the merciless glint of the sun as they fell. kalich kakuka, the cripple slumped forward in fright landing on his hands and knees in the boiling sand and again and again, kalich kakuka julima and only Ovambo in the kraal sings his songs with joy. The only one who never really recovered was Javier: he stayed bleary-eyed – the flocks and wisps of curdled white in my eyes slowly sank away and stopped floating through my vision like clouds. He also never stopped singing: kalich kakuka julima. Eventually, the summer days grew cooler and the autumn winds arrived from the north bringing fine grass seeds with them, which would replace the burnt meadows the following spring. What follows is a truthful account of how everything started to bloom again in between the rocks, between limestone and basalt – only: I’m not going to tell:   xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx

 

 

 

Translator’s Note

 

Joseph happens to come from the part of Bavaria where I lived for many years. So, I sense a whole landscape of familiar sounds, colour and diction in his writing and I always feel totally at home translating his work. Having said that, I don’t know a single young writer who fascinates me more. “The cripple and the silken garrotte” is an extract from a longer piece published in the literary magazine BELLA triste simply brimming with all the joy, wonder and pain I find in all his writing. Initially, I would have preferred to know more about time and place in the story, but I soon realized that I could simply choose words that are no longer in common usage to help create a certain space. I also had to cut up one or two scenes into tiny segments which I then translated individually before putting them back together—it was the only way I could do them justice.