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Totenhaus

.

Herr Köhler is a handsome man, all jaw, rigorous cloud-gray eyes that darken and mist as he speaks of his wife. Frau Köhler—the object of his sorrow—lies in an elegant, parable-caliber state of repose on the stretcher beside him. She is a lithe, fragile, mythic beauty, exquisitely inert. Her skin is nearly translucent, speckled with vivid purple, blood-rushed bruises.

"A carriage accident," Herr Köhler explains.

"Of course," Herr Schwartz replies with a polished, cooing sympathy, as though a carriage could leave thumbprints beneath the jaw.

As the two men stare with longing at the lost life beneath them, as though she was ever anything other than lost, I feel what I have always felt in this place: that I am an interloper, a voyeur, a hundred-pound fly on the wall.

This place is, after all, a Totenhaus. A house of the dead.


Death is a tricky thing at this moment in time. Science and medicine have never been more compelling, but there has also been an excess of slip-ups—nail marks discovered on the insides of coffins, bodies suddenly bolting upright, half-desiccated, on the mortician's slab. Struck by a plague of taphephobia, several of the most prominent German families have hauled their dearly departed to the Totenhaus, a kind of waiting room, jammed with flowers, where the bodies of the deceased (or not) are laid for a period to ensure that they are, in fact, deceased prior to burial.

Of course, in the event that a body is, in fact, not deceased, someone must be there to greet them, to assure them that they are not mad, to alert their loved ones and to protect them from the fate of Juliet awaking in the crypt.

This, since my relocation from Paris, where I have seen a number of things worse than death, has been my profession.

La Terreur—the Reign of Terror—has the glamorous historical ring of having been terribly, viciously loud. And it was, of course—those roaring, undulating crowds, the slick whir and crunch of the guillotines. But more than anything, I remember the terror as silence, aftermath. The emptiness of the streets, the absolute quiet. The bodies outnumbering the grave plots, and a kind of whisper in the trees: Enterre moi... Enterre moi...

Bury me.

There is nothing irregular, nothing macabre, about a single dead body. But when several dead bodies slump together, clumped and fused in a tangle of limbs, and float down the Seine like a raft... this is when one begins to fear death.


I am not mad; I have worked with the living. I was a nurse (once). But in the wake of revolution (la révolution), a parade of death so casual and purposeful, all I can see is the almost-death of any person, their innate tragic flaws—the cough, the wound—that will slowly unravel and sever the cord.

There's a kind of dull and swollen boredom to being surrounded by death, like watching paint dry, if paint were the blood in the veins or the plump, damp luster of the skin. It is certain and slow, underwhelming and inexorable.

My diet has become borderline biblical, dominated by bread and wine (with a ratio tipped heavily toward the latter). But the key to a sense of calm, a comfort with the sepulchral residents of das Totenhaus, is to add just a touch of embalming fluid to one's glass of wine. The sensation is at once poison and preservation, the banal pace of eternity, a taste of knowing everything and thus profoundly not caring.


Death purportedly dissolves marriages, so Frau Köhler is technically no longer Frau Köhler; she is now (again, pre- and post-Herr Köhler) simply Ingrid. I imagine her skin, paper-thin and eager, taking to his like a graft. In the event that she awakes—a thing that has never happened in this purgatorial living-room mausoleum—he will be notified. He will be surprised.

He visits sporadically, hovers over her corpse with a tight, watchful focus. It is unclear what he expects from these little visits.

Her stretcher is nestled between two similar contraptions, occupied by two of the more attractive corpses, near the window, where a glaze of semi-regular sunlight casts a bleak sheen over her delicate features. The gaping front window, sheathed in an ashy lace curtain, is something of a standing dare among the local youths. Peeking is routine, and this artful casting of bodies will ideally deter (or, less ideally, complicate) the nightmares of boys aged thirteen to fifteen.

From the moment of her arrival, Ingrid is bathed in magic. There are fifty-four bodies in the tight little room; she is fifty-five—fünfundfünfzig. From a certain angle, her body bleeds into the bouquets of das Schleierkraut—baby's breath—and appears as a small, isolated lump of undulating flowers.


By the fifth day, Ingrid's bruises have begun to heal. Like magic. On either side of her, the stiff, buxom corpse of a thirty-eight-year-old woman and the brittle limbs of a twelve-year-old girl have started to blacken and swell. But Ingrid is intact. The violet, bead-like wounds around her throat have begun to dissipate.

Dead bodies, of course, tend not to heal.

So I do what any normal person would do. I go to the kitchen, draw a rusted knife from its sheath, return to the room of the dead, and delve the tip of the knife into the gap between her first two toes. I draw the blade downward to the crest of her heel. A plume of thick, viscous red blood leaks from her foot.

I breathe a sigh comprised of equal parts disappointment and relief. She is dead.


As the sun sets, I am alone with the bodies. When I first began, I initially tried filling the void by singing—

Sieben Jahr
Trüb und klar
Hänschen in der Fremde war.
Da besinnt
Sich das Kind,
Eilt nach Haus geschwind.
Doch nun ist's kein Hänschen mehr.

—but when I learned the meaning of the German lyrics, a child who had vanished and never returned home, I stopped. No song sounded right, sung to this massive audience, deaf and endlessly attentive.

I go the kitchen, where I make a show (for no one other than myself) of selecting a wine glass, though in the end I will drink from the bottle. I pour in a dram of embalming fluid—das Gift, an expression which means "present" in English and "poison" in German. Never has a flourish of etymology seemed more splendidly or aptly ironic.

I drink deeply, feeling the cocky adrenaline of being alive, and the haunting thrill of proximity to death. A shift in heart rate. The lavish glow of nausea and sweat, a swimming of the senses. A sensitivity to the old house's pipe system, which chugs with a musical rhythm:

Enterre moi... Enterre moi...

I am jarred from my reverie by the loud, bright ringing of a bell.

This is always frightening, and nearly always normal. There are fifty-five bells in the Totenhaus, each hung from the ceiling and strung to the finger of its respective corpse. These are designed to alert me, the watchperson, to a body that is actually alive. But as anyone who has served as watchperson in a house of the dead knows, the dead move frequently. Bodies shift, curl, seize, deflate. Because I wish to see none of these things, am no longer curious or hopeful, I wait, braced against the kitchen table, drinking das Gift, and wait for the ringing to stop.

But it does not stop.

Another bell rings, then another, and another, and another, until the entire adjacent room is rattling with a cacophony of bells.

I drop the bottle, which shatters at my feet. As the ringing grows and swells in volume, a kind of chorus emerges: Enterre moi... Enterre moi...

But this is, of course, all in my mind. Has to be. I laugh, aloud. Too loudly. These bodies do not speak French. If it were real, I would hear

Begrabe mich.

The voice is soft, feminine, strained.

I jerk open a drawer and seize a butcher's knife. From the next room, a blur of candlelight shifts and wanes.

The bells stop.

Flush with the feeling of omniscience—an all-knowing and not-wanting-to-know—I step softly toward the room of the dead.

All is as it ought to be, save for the listless dangling of the disturbed bells.

But one cot is empty.

Ingrid is gone.

Carving a ragged pathway along the floor, a series of lines—the strip of blood from her cut heel—marks a staggering curve toward the upper stair. The dead, apparently, walk.

The gaping front window, protectively barred, is open. There's no room for a body (either ingress or egress), but a breeze has begun to extinguish the candles, throwing the room into a dull, ethereal darkness. Moonlight pools against the gaunt clavicles and corroding pores of the dead.

There is a kind of horror to the absence of demons, the placid, black silence. No conflict, no objection. Merely death on death.

I look toward the front door—clear safety, obvious retreat. But I am understanding, finally, that there's a reason that the tree of knowledge was the undoing of humankind. I am bored, and curious, and need, above all, to know. Which is why, inevitably, the wisest among us go up the stairs.

Each step is marred with a parallel stripe of blood, and each step creaks with a whining, percussive rhythm: Begabre mich... Begabre mich...

The candlelight from the room where the bodies are laid, like a graveyard pushed upward to the surface of earth, glimmers and dims. The door at the top of the stairs gapes, broad and black, the door flung open, freckles of blood on the banister. Each stair step is a vertebra, leading to the place where a head ought to be.

After what feels like an eternity, I reach the landing.

There, a slat-roofed attic stretches in every direction, amorphously framed by leaking shadows.

I step across the floor—Begabre mich... Begabre mich...—but the space is empty. I walk toward the curve of an unused balcony as the wind catches the door and slams it shut behind me. My head swims. Needles prick the lining of my stomach; fingers of panic claw their way up my lungs. Human forms—intertwined and indistinct, like a cluster of bodies in the Seine—cloud my vision. I walk toward the sliver of light at the edge of the room.

There, braced against the rail of the balcony like the figurehead at the prow of a ship, is Ingrid. She turns.

"Es gibt Dinge, die schlimmer sind als der Tod."

There are things worse than death.

"Ich kenne," I say.

I know.

I would carry her downstairs, to what must have felt like a hospital when she awoke. But before I can move, her body sinks like a stone, a flutter of cloth and skin, to the earth below. She hits the ground with a sickening whir and crunch, the snapping of bones, reminiscent of a guillotine.

In the morning, Herr Köhler will come to visit. He will study Ingrid, this splay of pale limbs and fresh bruises, silently puzzling at her wounds.

And left alone, quietly poised in a flicker of candlelight, I will sit awake, praying that the wounds do not heal.

First appeared in Black Static, Issue #68
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