Authors: Hermann Hesse
And when I had been executed and was dead and came before the eternal Judge in heaven, I would by no means bow down and submit. Oh no, not though all the choirs of angels were gathered around him and he radiated pure holiness and dignity. Let him damn me, let him have me boiled in pitch! I would not apologize and not humble myself, would not beg his forgiveness, would not repent! If he asked me: “Did you do such and such?” I would cry out, “Yes, I did it, and more, and I was right to have done it and if I can I will do it again and again. I killed, I set fire to houses, because I enjoyed it and because I wanted to mock and anger you. Because I hate you and I spit at your feet, God. You have plagued me and hurt me, you have made laws nobody can keep, you have set grownups to make life a hell for us boys.”
Whenever I was able to imagine this scene with sufficient vividness, so that I felt I would really act and speak along these lines, I felt for moments gloomily good. But then came doubts. Would I not weaken, would I not quail, would I not give in after all? Or if I carried through as I was determined to doâwould not God find a way out, some superior deception such as the grownups and the powerful always contrived, producing one more trump card at the last moment, shaming me after all, not taking me seriously, humiliating me under the damnable mask of kindliness? Ah yes, of course it would end like that.
My fantasies eddied back and forth, let me win one time, let God win another time, raised me up to a dauntless criminal and dragged me down again to a child and a weakling.
I stood at the window looking down at the small back yard of the house next door, where poles for staging were leaning against the wall and a few beds of vegetables were sprouting green in a tiny garden. Suddenly, in the afternoon stillness, I heard the clang of bells intruding firmly and somberly upon my visions: one clear, stern stroke for the hour, and then another. It was two o'clock, and I started out of my anxious daydreams and back to reality. Now our gym hour was beginning, and even if I had rushed off to the gymnasium on magic wings I would still have been late. More bad luck! Day after tomorrow I would be called up, scolded, punished. I might as well not go at all; there was no way to rectify things now. Perhaps if I had a very good, very subtle and believable excuseâbut at the moment none occurred to me, brilliantly though our teachers had educated me in lying. Right now I was incapable of lying, inventing, constructing a story. It was better to stay away from school entirely. What did it matter if a small sin were added to the great one!
But the striking of the hour had roused me and numbed my fantasies. I felt suddenly very weak. My room glared at me with intense reality; desk, pictures, bed, books, were all charged with austere concreteness, all a summons from the world in which I had to live and which today had once more shown itself hostile and dangerous. Hadn't it? Had I not missed my gym class? And had I not stolen, wretchedly stolen, and weren't those damnable figs lying on the bookshelf, those I had not already devoured, that is? What did I care now about the criminal, God, and the Last Judgment! That would all come along in its own good timeâbut now, right at the moment, it was far away and was silly nonsense, nothing more. I had stolen and any moment the crime might be discovered. Perhaps it already had been, perhaps my father upstairs had already opened that drawer and was confronting my crime, offended and angered, considering the best way to bring me to trial. He might even be on his way down to my room already, and if I did not flee immediately, in another minute I would have his grave, bespectacled face before me. For of course he knew at once that I was the thief. There were no criminals in our house aside from me; my sisters never did anything bad. God knows why. But then why did my father have to keep such fig rings hidden in his chest of drawers?
I had already left my room and made off through the back door and the garden. The meadows and gardens lay in bright sunlight. Sulphur butterflies flew across the path. Everything looked threatening now, far worse than this morning. Oh, how well I knew this feeling, and yet I thought I had never felt it so painfully before. It was as if everything were looking at me with such matter-of-factness and such untroubled conscience, the town and the church tower, the fields and the path, the flowering grass and the butterflies, and as if everything pretty and pleasurable, everything that usually gave me delight, were now alien and under an evil spell. I was familiar with that, I knew the savor of it, when I ran along through the familiar neighborhood with pangs of conscience. Now the rarest butterfly could flutter across the meadow and alight at my feetâit was nothing, gave no pleasure, did not tempt me, did not comfort me. Now the loveliest cherry tree could offer me its fullest branchâit had no value, there was no joy in it. Now there was nothing to do but flee, from Father, from punishment, from myself, from my conscience, to flee on and on until, inexorably and inescapably, everything that had to come would come anyhow.
I trotted along restlessly, I trudged uphill toward the woods and down from Oak Hill to the mill, across the footbridge and uphill again on the other side, and on through the woods. Here we had had our last Indian camp. Here, last year, when Father was away traveling, our mother had celebrated Easter with us children, hiding the eggs for us in the shrubbery and the moss. During the summer holidays I had once built a castle here with my cousins; it was still partly standing. Everywhere were vestiges of former times, everywhere mirrors out of which a child looked at me who was different from the child I was today. Had I been all those others? So gay, so contented, so grateful, so comradely, so affectionate toward Mother, so untouched by anxiety, so incomprehensibly happy? Had that been me? And how could I have become what I now was, so utterly different, so wicked, so full of dread, so distraught? Everything was the same as always, the woods and the river, the fern and the flowers, the castle and the anthill, and yet everything was poisoned, shattered. Was there no way back to happiness and innocence? Would what had been never be again? Would I ever again laugh like that, play with my sisters like that, hunt for Easter eggs like that?
I ran and ran, my forehead sweaty, and behind me my guilt ran and with it, huge and fearsome, ran the shadow of my father in hot pursuit.
Lanes ran past me; the margins of the woods dropped away. I came to a halt on top of a hill, cut away from the path, threw myself into the grass, my heart pounding; that might be from running uphill, might stop if I rested. Below me I saw the town and the river, saw the gym where the class was now over and the boys were dashing off in all directions. I saw the long roof of our house. There was my father's bedroom and the drawer from which the figs were missing. There was my small room. There, when I returned, judgment would strike me. But suppose I did not return?
I knew I would. I always went back, every time. That was how it always ended. It was impossible to get away, impossible to flee to Africa or Berlin. I was small, had no money, and nobody would help me. Oh yes, if all children would unite and help one another! They were many; there were more children than parents. But not all children were thieves and criminals. Few were like me. Perhaps I was the only one. But no, I knew that such cases as mine were commoner than thatâan uncle of mine had also stolen as a child and had done many bad things which I knew about from eavesdropping on my parents' conversation. That was how I learned everything worth knowing, secretly, by overhearing. But none of that helped me in the least, and even if that same uncle were here now, he would not help me. He had long since grown up; he was a pastor and would side with the grownups and leave me to my fate. They were all like that. Toward us children they were all somehow liars and swindlers; they played a part, pretended to be different from what they were. Perhaps not Mother, or she less than others.
But suppose I didn't go back home? After all, something could happen to me; I could break my neck or drown or fall under the train. Then everything would be different. Then they would carry me home and everyone would be quiet and frightened and crying; they would all feel sorry for me and nothing would ever be said about the figs.
I knew quite well that it was possible for a person to take his own life. I also thought that some day I would probably do it, later, when everything turned out altogether bad. It would have been good to be sick, but not just with a cough. Really deathly ill, the way I had been the time I had scarlet fever.
Meanwhile it was long past gym class, and also long past the time I was expected home for coffee. Perhaps they were calling and looking for me now, in my room, in the garden and yard, in the basement. But if Father had already discovered the theft, there would be no more searching, for then he would know why I was gone.
I could not go on just lying here. Fate was not forgetting me; it was right at my heels. I began running again. I passed a bench along one of the paths. Another memory was attached to that, a memory that had once been lovely and now burned like fire. My father had given me a penknife. We had gone walking together, in good spirits and at peace, and he had sat down on this bench while I went into the bushes to cut myself a long hazel switch. And then, in my excitement, I broke the blade of the new knife close to the haft, and came back to him horrified. At first I wanted to conceal it, but he promptly asked me about the knife. I was terribly unhappy, because of the knife and because I expected a scolding. But then my father had only smiled, touched my shoulder lightly, and said: “What a pity, poor boy.” How I had loved him then; how I had inwardly begged his forgiveness for so many things. And now, thinking of my father's expression at that time, of his voice and his sympathyâwhat a monster I was for having so often saddened and lied to a father like that, and today stolen from him!
When I reached the town again, near the upper bridge and far from our house, twilight was already falling. Lights were already lit in the shop windows. A boy came running out of a shop, stopped abruptly, and called my name. It was Oskar Weber. The last person I wanted to see. Still, I learned from him that the teacher had not noticed my absence from gym class. But where had I been?
“Oh, nowhere,” I said. “I wasn't feeling well.”
I was taciturn and unfriendly, and after a while, which seemed to me outrageously long, he realized that I wanted to be rid of him. Then he turned nasty.
“Let me alone,” I said coldly. “I can go home by myself.”
“Really?” he snapped. “I can just as well walk by myself as you, dumbbell! I'm not your poodle, if you want to know. But first what about our savings bank? I put a tenner in it and you haven't put in anything.”
“You can have your tenner back today if you're worried about it. I wish I never had to see you again. Do you think I'd take anything from you!”
“You were glad enough to take it not so long ago,” he sneered, though he still left open a crack for reconciliation.
But I was hot and angry. All my accumulated fear and helplessness erupted in sheer rage. Weber had nothing to complain about! I was in the right; I had a clear conscience toward him. And I needed someone to make me feel proud and in the right by contrast. All the chaos and bleakness inside me poured furiously into this channel. I did what I ordinarily was careful not to: I put on the gentleman's son, indicated that it was no loss to me to give up friendship with a street urchin. I told him there would be no more of his eating berries in our garden and playing with my toys. I felt myself coming to life again in red-hot fury. I had an enemy, one who was to blame, one I could come to grips with. All my vital impulses gathered together into this releasing, welcome, liberating fury, into fierce delight in hating the foe who this time was not within myself, who stood facing me, staring at me with eyes at first alarmed, then angry, whose voice I heard, whose recriminations I despised, whose abusive language I could top.
Side by side, in a swelling altercation, we walked down the darkening street. Here and there someone glanced out of a door at us. And all the rage and contempt I felt toward myself poured out upon the unfortunate Weber. When he began to threaten that he would tell on me to the gym teacher, I felt rapturous. He was putting himself in the wrong, showing meanness, strengthening me.
When we began fighting in the street, a few people stood still and watched us. We hit each other in stomach and face and kicked each other. For those few moments I had forgotten everything. I was in the right, was not a criminal; the thrill of combat seized me, and although Weber was the stronger, I was more agile, smarter, faster, and more furious. We grew hot and swung fiercely. When he desperately grabbed and tore my shirt collar, I felt with ecstasy the stream of cold air pouring over my burning skin.
And while we punched, kicked, tore, wrestled, and choked, we did not for a moment stop berating, insulting, and annihilating each other in words, words that grew steadily hotter, more foolish and malicious, more inventive and fantastic. And I was his superior in that, too; I was more malicious and inventive. If he said
If he said
Both of us were bleeding without feeling a thing, and at the same time our curses and abuse mounted; we threatened each other with the gallows, wished we had knives to drive in each other's ribs and twist; each defiled the other's name, descent, and father.
That was the first and only time I fought such a fight to the end in the full fever of battle, with all the blows, all the cruelties, all the vituperation. I had often watched fights and listened with shuddering pleasure to the vulgar swearwords. Now I myself was shouting them as if I had been accustomed to them from the time I was small and had often practiced using them. Tears ran from my eyes and blood over my mouth. But the world was glorious; it had meaning; it was good to live, good to hit out, good to bleed and make another bleed.