The February chill was made a bit less harsh due to a south wind. The cobblestone streets felt hard on his feet, the centuries old aroma of pig and cow dung from the farms to the West given another layer of definition by the smokestacks from the newly built factories that churned out fine leather purses from one end, and broken-down workers from the other. Everywhere there was growth, ‘progress’ according to those who had more gold in their pocket than mud under their eyelids. One of the recipients of industrialization which promised to liberate the working man from meaningless toil in the farm fields woke up that day a bit later than expected. He found himself once again haunted by memories of a childhood under well-stocked foster parents who saw fit to raise him up to be righteous, obedient but above all successful. A quarter-century of growing up in a country run by clocks taught Gustav Schmitt to always be late when he could be, and most particularly when he could get away with it. Clean-shaven on the face with a head full of long wavy hair that obeyed its own rules, and a Herclean body that just came that way with no particular requirement to keep it in shape with hard labor or strenuous work, firey tortured eyes more Promethianly godlike than obediently human, he walked to his destination slowly.
The nearly graduated medical student was late for the appointment at the hospital. Most particularly because it wasn’t really a hospital. By generally accepted but never spoken of definition it was a ‘place of containment’, for disorders less ugly than lepracy and more ancient than the bubonic plague. “There are many kinds of diseases in the world of men, and not all of them are caused by women,” he remembered from Professor Doctor Guttenburg’s lectures when the old coot was waxing about his wife, life and the kind of ailments doctors would really see in the world. Herr Guttenburg was the oldest professor in Hamburg, but also the youngest between his always open ears. Every time he would pontificate or discover something while officially lecturing about something else, he would append it by saying ‘as I see it’, or ‘as it seems now’ or his most famous expresison of true wisdomâ€”’but what the hell do I know?’ Everything was subject to examination and re-examination under Guttenburg’s over-sized, bright blue and chronically bloodshot eyes. It was a miracle that Professor Guttenburg was allowed to keep his position, but such miracles seemed to be needed, particularly in Hamburg.
The city had not really evolved very much. The overgrown small town had produced no great minds, and whatever minds had grown to be great left for places elsewhere. Indeed, Hamburg’s problems had to do with its lack of the kind of ‘problems’ that led to solutions which enhance the human spirit rather than merely maintaining the human condition.
Gustav contemplated it all, and as always, wondered what Professor Guttenburg would have said about it. He had vanished from his post two months ago, under mysterious circumstances. The Dean of the University said that he “died in a fatal accident, mortally wounded and met an inevitable finality.” Gustav smelled something foul, that the Professor must be Alive somewhere, most particularly because of so many words that emphasized death and finality. He hoped, and prayed, that the Professor who had enough love for God to question His motives and existence was not experiencing finality in the destination he was called to visit, at the Bergermeister’s mandate. The ‘containment’ facility, which was at the end of the day for those who went home to their own beds, and tortured life for those who ‘slept’ there, the Insane Asylum.
The appointment was to see a woman, one whose name Gustav didn’t recognize. Perhaps a patient assigned to him by his new Medicine Professor, Herr Professor Doctor ‘something’ by name. A forgettable very official old fart who thought himself to be unforgettable by everyone around him.
“Ah yes, ‘Maria 5”, the kind Clerk in an offensively clean uniform at the front desk with the receding hairline, military issue handlebar mustache and transparently honest eyes smiled upon seeing the letter summoning Gustav to the appointment. “She finally requested to see you, Herr Professor Doctor Schmitt.”
“I’m not a professor, or a doctor, and as for being a ‘Herr’ anything…” the medical student who was more interested in diseases than people slurred out of his mouth with an arrogance that he observed to be larger than any of his humble friends had ever noted.
The Clerk smiled, gave Gustav back the officially stamped summons for him to appear, and led him down a dimly lit hallway which smelled of blood, pus and urine. The impish administrative assistant seemed immune to the smell, and the ‘presences’ that seemed to speak out of the darkness, at least to Gustav. Almost-doctor Schmitt knew it was illogical to give credence to things imagined, that whatever could be proved scientifically was the only thing that was to be trusted. But, as Professor Guttenburg said, again and again, “scientific discovery starts with questioning science itself, then considers everything as possibly true, or possibly false, the only conclusions that can be trusted being provisional at best. Functional if such is required.”
Gustav’s journey down the first hallway, to the second, and to the third seemed to be a journey into a pit, each turn arousing his nostrils to the human realities of diseases of the body and mind. The sounds of the ‘tenants’ in this hotel talking to themselves, or the ghosts who had become their constant companions, scared the crap out of him. Most particularly disturbing to Gustav’s comfortably-predictable life were the patients who seemed content in their illusions, for reasons that eluded him. Maybe one of the demoted persons (i.e., ‘patients’) locked up in their cells for their own protection was Professor Guttenburg, or maybe he was ‘Maria 5’. The man’s man Professor had mused about what it might be like seeing life as a woman, and related tales about Indians in the Americas whose medicine men lived as women for several years of their training so they could effectively treat the body, mind and spirits of the members of the ‘fairer’ and ‘more interesting’ gender of their tribes. And Guttenburg had chosen to remove rather than grow more hair on his face as he advanced up the ranks in the University which needed him more than anyone, including Guttenburg himself, would ever know.
It was a place of ‘instruction’, this ‘containment center’. One of the patients greeted Gustav with an open mouth, no voice coming out of it, the parts within the oral cavity having been burnt out by acid which still stunk of its chemical content. An accident, no doubt. Another patient with a pale face kept his hand up at his forehead, fixed in a salute, an incision line recently sewn up with catgut and wire just underneath it. But the demons were being looked after by Jesus as well, or in His place, a woman looking more like a man whose wrists and ankles were bolt-locked to a metal cross, lamentations and prayers spewing out of the left side of her mouth while drool and blood dripped out of the right.
Gustav noted a young woman in one of the cells who was more alive than dead. With a bath, removal of the lice from her knotted hair and a dress that was more cloth than holes she could have been Hilda, the Conservatory dancer he thought he loved just prior to waltzing himself into enrollment at the Faculty of Medicine. Another reminded him of Lisel, a Nurse who he fell in lust with, though he thought it was love and to her demise, she did as well. Another of Elizabeth, a patient who he just wanted to be with who he cured of cholera, and who went home a healthy woman to her husband, who she never mentioned during her convalescence. And another of Eva, whose name still was on the motorized wheelchair he had drawn up plans for in order to transport paralyzed people, or perhaps populations, from one place to another without their feet ever touching the ground. Seeing the women stripped bear of the more attractive aspects of their natures, he noted something…They were all blonde, blue eyed, of slightly taller stature than other female humans, and had exaggeratedly chisseled faces, atop bodies which seemed to be naturally thin.
“They remind you of someone, Herr Doctor Professor Schmitt?” The Clerk smiled, startling Gustav into looking into a mirror he had long forgotten, and actively ignored.
Gustav didn’t answer, accepting the nameless Clerk’s ‘promotion’, recalling that same ‘mold’ of a woman from his past. A distant past which was never quite defined. A past which he had actively forgotten, or which he had been protected from. He had been protected by so much in his of ‘life’. Plague. Poverty. Humiliation from others. And the thing he experienced so little or but was scared of most…Struggle. So much came easily to Gustav, even after his wealthy foster parents’ death. He was told at the age of 9 that he was adopted, but it didn’t really matter. What Gustav felt for them was more respect than love anyway. And when they died from an outbreak of small pox when on business in St. Petersburg, Gustav respected their memory by shifting his focus from becoming a mathematician and zoologist to becoming a doctor. It seemed logical and, more accurately, natural, Nature being the highest expression of logic after all. But the sight of ‘Maria 5’ seemed to be anything but logical.
She lay on a bed, not a cot. A bed covered with fine linen, with candles that smelled more like flowers than rancid wax along its side. The flames illuminated her white face, its skin tight, the deep wrinkles hidden under a wide smile. Her hair was white, but seemed in the flames to be blonde. Her eyes, bright blue. Young and old at the same time. She extended her hand, a wrinkled appendage bearing hollow pox scars inflicted by nature, deep wrist and elbow indentations embedded by shackles, and old slash marks on her wrist undoubtedly inserted by herself. The dress she was fitted with was of a noble woman, but it neither fit her sagging breast, atrophied hips nor emaciated shoulders. By every definition of ‘disease’ she was one of the inflicted but she seemed more Alive than any patient, or doctor, Gustav had ever encountered, with the exception of Professor Guttenburg of course.
There was something else in the room which didn’t fit. A piano, a manuscript on it. “Come, it is time to continue your father’s destiny,” the old woman whose physique matched that of all the young women Gustav had ever been drawn to said in an accent that reeked of old Vienna.
Gustav peeked at the manuscript. “L. von Beethoven?” he said, finally making out the ink marks under the blood stains. The Clerk rolled his eyes, gave Gustav a ‘good luck’ tap on the shoulder and left him with his patient.
“The Leonora Overture number five,” Maria 5 smiled through a dry cough revealing a death rattle behind it.
“Beethoven only wrote four Leonora overtures,” Gustav replied, recalling his painful required tutorials in music ‘appreciation’.
“It was a prelude to your father’s second opera,” Maria 5 smiled back.
“Beethoven only wrote ONE opera, Madamme” Gustav said, respectfully bowing his head to the woman who for reasons of birth or madness considered herself a lady. “Fidelio, by name. An opera about liberation of global consciousness and the awakening of universal rather than selective compassion limited to family and friends only,” he continued, remembering yet another one of Professor Guttenburgs self-absorbed rants which the old fart had hoped was being listened to by SOMEbody.
“Yes”, Maria replied with a blank stare that penetrated through Gustav’s eyes. “Your father wrote one opera, so I suppose he wants you to write his next one. Which of course will be your own after it is finished. He left you some notes to get you started.”
Maria’s trembling hands retrieved more papers from a cleaned up and de-fumigated piss bucket next to her bed and handed them to Gustav. Seeing that her fingers could not hold onto them he snatched them quickly and assertively, then examined her hands and took her pulse. It was irregular, but firm. Her breath reeked of acetone and kidney toxins, the death rattle behind it getting louder. With her other hand she pointed to the piano. “You play it…You play it!” she asked, then demanded, then insisted with the utmost desperation.
“But I…” Gustav said apologetically, knowing that he was as adapt at playing any musical instrument as Professor Guttenburg was at being capable of sustaining a healthy relationship with a wife and/or family. Out of the corner of his eye he noted the happily subservient Clerk through the small holes carved into the door, waiting, contemplating, reading a copy of a book he hardly would have expected. “Common Sense”, the ‘how AND why to’ manual for the American Revolution by Thomas Paine, a manual for Political Revolution, recently translated into German.
“You play it!” Maria 5 ranted, her trembling fingers fixed on the manuscript above the weather-faded bloodstained keyboard with whatever breath was still lingering in her degenerating lungs while Gustav felt assaulted by the constellation of contradictions and illogical mandates inflicted upon him.
As if he knew when Maria would exhaust her energy and Gustav would run out of libertarian aristocratic ‘calm’, the Clerk re-entered the room, sat at the piano and gave Gustav his swaggerstick. “Conduct me,” he whispered into the now sweat-soaked Gustav’s ear, upon which he played the pieces in the manuscripts. Gustav pretended to conduct him, but was being conducted himself by something or someone else. Most immediately, the smile Maria 5 eminated from her eyes.
“I knew you would come back and finish what your father started, Maestro,” she said. She hummed along with the melody which, to Gustav’s ears anyway, sounded Beethoven-like, but then again so much did. When pushed to it, he could barely tell the difference between Mozart, Beethoven and Hyden. It was all mathematics of sound that he could not figure out, and certainly didn’t dance to, but which, on occasion, did move him. He found himself being moved by the music even more when he saw Maria 5 smile her way into sleep while humming harmony to it. It felt…symmetrical somehow. “Now it is your turn, my son,” she said as her final words before giving in to exhaustion and trusting herself to slumber. Her eyes shut closed, then started to blink, her fingers moving in the manner of a pianist with the song she was humming though her parched, blistered lips.
“She was a pianist, so we think,” the Clerk said, anticipating Gustav’s first question. “Some say Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved who the Maestro never wrote about or to with anything except musical notes,” he continued, answering the next question lingering in the troubled mind of the aristocrat raised to be a libertarian. “Who had a son with the Maestro who, well…”
“Isn’t me!” Gustav insisted. “It can’t be!”
“Because I’m tone deaf,” Gustav said. “And as unmusical as anyone can be. I’m a man of science, not art. Of logic, not feeling. Of sanity, not—”
“Lunacy?” Gustav interjected, appending his thunderous suggestion with a hearty yet terrifying laugh. “The only really pathological madness is effortless sanity, you know,” he continued in a tone that sounded ‘Guttenburgian’. The Clerk continued, his featureless face acquiring to Gustav’s perspective more ancient wrinkles and haunting shadows with every word he seemed to ‘prophetize’. “It does answer many questions such as…Why you acquired so many advantages in your purse, and between your ears. Your mind. Your eyes, which you are still growing into.”
“You’re as mad as she is,” Gustav asserted in a hushed angry voice.
“Yes, she is clearly mad,” the Clerk conceded. “But as for me…” He kissed Maria 5 on the forehead with more tenderness than any healthy family member displayed to a sick one, at least in Gustav’s experience. There were so many questions the young man wanted to ask this old one, but one which came to mind that was something Gustav hardly expected.
He moved closer to the civil servant who seemed so interested in Social Revolution, and the jailor of the woman he sought to liberate above all else. “Who are you?” Gustav asked, leaving open the nature and context of the answer.
“All men are brothers”, he replied, using the exact words from Ode to Joy by Schiller, given life and applicability to the world by Beethoven’s music in his 9th symphony. The Clerk pocketed the ‘Beethoven’ manuscripts, pulled a blanket over Maria 5’s emaciated chest and led Gustav outside the cell, closing the door gently on her while she continued to hum something ‘Beethovian’ amidst the missed key and slurred voice.
“What do you want, ‘brother’?” Gustav asked the Clerk.
“Visions cost money, Herr Professor Doctor Schmitt,” the Clerk replied humbly but with more self-respect than any aristocrat Gustav ever met.
“I told you, I’m not a Professor or a Doctor or a—” Gustav insisted, his rebuttal ended by a punch in the stomach from the Clerk, the stuffing of the manuscripts into his pocket, along with the Thomas Paine book. Footsteps approached, boots echoing the presence of someone important, and powerful.
Gustav looked up to observe the Clerk snap to a salute, becoming a mechanized manican for a Prussian Army Major who barely noticed him. The Major and his enterage of overly dressed, offensively impressive and well armed soldiers smelled of ‘sterility’, his eyes reeking of the most horrible of human diseases, and the ultimate consequence of ignorance, cruelty. Behind the Major was the result of that communicable pathology, a sane man shackled in chains, recently beaten by whips down his back and torso, the trail of blood tricking down his face, his chest reeking of recently burnt flesh tainted with lamp oil, his lips desperately muttering “I’m a free man…A free thinker! You’re the prisoners.”
Gustav froze as the man was put into a ‘room’. His voice sounded familiar. His face seemed even more familiar. He heard the door close on the man who soon would have no name, or voice, unless it was silenced or made obedient. The Clerk remained at attention until the Major and his guards had left the hallway. But the Clerk’s eyes remained on Gustav.
“What? What are you staring at!” Gustav blasted back, his stomach churning with fear, terror and shame.
“That ‘patient’ reminds you of someone, Herr Doctor?”
“What he said does…” Gustav replied, remembering that those words came from Professor Guttenburg, perhaps from one of the voices of one of his students who had the courage and conviction to heal the collective human spirit rather than just patch up diseased bodies. Maybe it was Johan, Karl, or Manheim…or one of the other students Gustav had gone to school with who did their assigned job of learning, and their Calling to question. “What can we do for him?” Gustav asked. “What can I do for him?”
“You are your father’s son,” the Clerk said, winking his eye. “It is time to save the few by activating the many.”
With that, the Clerk led Gustav outside for a smoke, a piece of sausage, a beer and a talk, patient to doctor.
MJ Politis, Ph.D., D.V.M., H.B.A.R.P. (human being, aspiring Rennaisance person)