For they were harsh days, without softness or sentiment. And the nights were harsh too, there was something to that blackness that seemed sharp, if you went out after hours you could cut yourself on it – and the villagers were protected in their beds, but they cuddled together only for warmth not for comfort or for love. They were days of back breaking work in the fields, in the stables, in the kitchens, in the mines; hot and fierce they were by summer, cold and fierce the rest of the year, and there wasn’t time to be happy, nor room for it either – you looked after your own, and no others, you looked after your wife and whatever issue had come from that union, and when a disaster befell your neighbours’ family you would cross yourself and thank the Lord it had not befallen yours. And as each year ended the villagers would maybe pause, and reflect, and say, we got through it, we got through another. And then they’d let the year go, they’d set their faces hard, let that year die and walk on right into the next.
And once a year, or maybe once every other year, Ernie Kiel would come. He would batter upon their doors at the very dead of night, “Hello-o-o!” he would call, “Hello-o-o!” – until everyone indoors got up and got dressed and joined him. And it was never the same time of year, sometimes it was summer, sometimes there was snow, you couldn’t predict his arrival; but when it happened there was always a rightness to it, an inevitability even, because it was the night when the blackness seemed at its very sharpest, and the air its most dead and still, and each villager knew that it was time, they would feel inside that their souls were full. They would hurry out on to the streets, husbands and wives, the children too, and merge with the swelling crowd, and they would blink at each other, and maybe smile, as if this were some long awaited reunion, as if they hadn’t seen and blanked these people every single day their whole lives.
And they would have blanked Ernie too – Ernie was an idiot – Ernie who never spoke – Ernie who had the face of a child but the body of a grown man, who grinned too much and showed only baby teeth that had still not yet fallen from his head – Ernie who wasn’t even the blacksmith, just the blacksmith’s assistant, hardly good enough to fix a horseshoe (and who wanted horseshoes much anyway, it wasn’t as if the villagers ever went anywhere!). They all forgot Ernie Kiel, or despised him, or sometimes somehow both; but on this night, now, they’d remember, they’d know what Ernie Kiel was and what he would do to them and the burden he would relieve. And he could speak, now, at least, even if he never spoke besides, even if his only word was that one cry, “Hello-o-o!” as he knocked on the last remaining doors, and he was grinning too, he danced around the villagers in giddy excitement, and they could hardly help but grin back – and some of them had not smiled in so long their faces smarted with the effort – and Ernie was at the last house now, “Hello-o-o!” he called, and the villagers all joined in the sport, “Hello-o-o-o!” they all echoed, and laughed, and then laughed at the laughter, at the silly embarrassment of it all – and the last family crawled out of bed and into the night, and they were all together, the village was one.
And at that, at last, they fell silent, expectant.
And then Ernie pulled out a whistle. Or sometimes it was a flute. Sometimes a drum. Once it was even a zither, and no one had ever seen a zither before, and the sound of it in that still dead air made them goose with delight. He’d clap his hands to get them started, and the villagers all clapped in time – and then he’d play on the whistle, or the flute, or the zither, and it was a marching tune – and he’d wave that they should follow him, and they would; they’d march keeping rhythm, each clap at a footfall, each footfall at a clap, they would march through the village until they reached its very edge.
Sometimes there was a lake there. Because their village had become an island without their knowing, and here it was, the dark water lapping at their toes. It looked like ink, but that may just have been the blackness of the night, or maybe it really was ink. And Ernie didn’t hesitate, into the ink he’d stride, and the villagers would fast follow. In the summer months it was cool and refreshing, in the winter it felt like thick warm chocolate, tugging at their bodies and making them feel safe; the women would carry the children up high in their arms, and the men would carry their women, and so they would march, trying to keep time as best they could with Ernie Kiel’s music. Deeper and deeper into the lake – until it rose above little Ernie’s head. And if it were a whistle he were playing he would tilt his head back, just so, so that the whistle still sounded above the surface, and if it were drums he would raise them, just so, above his head and beat them high, and if it were a zither – well, no one knew how he played the zither underwater, but he did his best. And the children would let their hands trail in the water, might splash each other in fun; and the wives would perhaps turn their heads from their husbands’ chests and sip at the water now and again, or lap at it like cats; and the men would laugh, and hold on to their families tight, even as they felt their clothes get heavier and inkier with the soak, even as the water passed up over their waists and their chins and their mouths, they kept their families close and were proud.
Sometimes at the far shore there was a tunnel. A great hole in the ground, going steep down. And Ernie wouldn’t hesitate here either, there’d be no time to dry off the ink, he wouldn’t break the beat of the music or let the clapping stop. Into the earth he’d lead the village, and the mothers would have to let their children down now, and the husbands let down their wives, because there was hardly the space to stand. And soon they’d have to crouch down – and it didn’t matter whether it was the tallest man or the tiniest girl, whichever path they trod was just low enough to make them hunch their heads into their shoulders, and just high enough it were just about possible. And it was dark down there. And the air was stale. And cold – there was a wind coming up from, where? From the very bowels of the planet? From Hell itself? And every part of every body screamed at them to turn back, but there could be no turning back, because before them and behind them were jammed all the other villagers, all the people they had ever known – they couldn’t see each other, but feel them, their body heat against that impossible wind, that body heat was the only comfort there was. But, no, there was still Ernie’s music, because Ernie wouldn’t stop the music – far ahead they could hear that whistle, those drums, the zither, and it was the music that they followed – that, and blind instinct, that for all this torture there must be something better soon, if they just refused to give up and die, if they just kept going – that, and gravity, because it really was now very steep. And this is the time Ernie played his happiest tunes, where the call to march had a lightness to the melody, where in spite of all it put a spring in their steps – and they tried their best, still they clapped, even though there was no space to clap in any more, even though the narrows were becoming narrower and narrower, even though their heads were now crouched lower than their waists, even though there was no tunnel any more and they were just squeezing through cracks in the soil and they were tasting dirt and swallowing dirt and breathing dirt – still, Ernie played, still, the villagers clapped, still, they moved on ever deeper into the darkness, and then at last upwards, curving now upwards, and out, oh God, into the burning thirst-quenching fresh air.
And whether there had been a lake, or whether a tunnel, there was always a hill. Rising up into the clouds, and at this point Ernie would at last take a breath, he would turn around and beam at all his friends, as if to say, we’re nearly there, the end is in sight! Though it was nowhere in sight, not yet, but his music promised otherwise – it stepped up the pace, and it was a celebration. And it wasn’t clear what it could be a celebration of – because their lives were all so cold and bleak, and their souls so full it was weighing their bodies down, and they hadn’t done anything, they hadn’t achieved anything, they had all this life and they’d let it dribble through their fingers – they hadn’t each reached the top of the hill yet, they couldn’t even celebrate that much. And yet here they were, celebrating, lives unfulfilled and loves unexpressed, and they were running towards the top of that hill, they could achieve that, surely, at least. The villagers broke the march – as tired as they were, they were racing now, laughing and shouting and singing; children would run about and chase each other and play hide and seek – hiding from their friends behind thick great patches of dark. And husbands would scoop their wives up in their arms, and dance with them; they’d kiss them; they’d pick for them the flowers growing wild, and the flowers were of such glorious colours that the reds and blues still gleamed bright through the pitch black like beacons. And neighbours would talk to neighbours, women would talk of business and politics and the men would gossip – and on they’d climb, higher and higher, for all the distractions they were sprinting, and Ernie would dance about them all delighted by their happiness – he’d give the children candy (though how could Ernie afford candy? maybe they were sweet mushrooms growing wild), he would play peek-a-boo with the babies (they would grin at his grinning, baby teeth flashing at baby teeth), he would flirt incorrigibly with the women (and the men didn’t care) – because there was air up here, and space, and here time seemed to stretch out with no risk of end and carrying so much promise – it wasn’t all over yet, there could still be meaning to all this – Ernie was so pleased they all liked playing his little game. Friendships were made on the climb. Bread and cheese was shared. Bottles of wine, passed about. Girls fell in love with boys, and boys grew bashful around girls, and kisses were stolen and then returned, marriages were proposed, kisses were stolen away again for good. And they reached the summit before they even knew it was there, there was nowhere higher to climb to – they were on the top of the world, and looking down they could see how small their village was and that it wasn’t the entire world they had imagined it to be – and yet, in a way, it was exactly that, it was exactly their world.
And only then did Ernie put away his whistle, or drums, or zither. The music stopped, and the sudden dead still of the air seemed to rumble. Ernie smiled. And he clapped his hands, but he wasn’t now beating out a tune. And the villagers all got into line.
One by one he pulled out their souls.
The children giggled as he reached into their chests, he tickled so. The women gasped, and sighed, and some of them closed their eyes tight and moaned a little at his touch. The men grunted at the sense of something lost.
Some of the souls hadn’t grown much since the last extraction. Some were barely bigger than pinecones. And yet mostly they were the size of babies – and they looked like babies too, they had baby hands and baby feet and itsy bitsy baby fingers, but their heads were adult and their eyes looked so old. Ernie held them up close, Ernie with his child head and adult frame; the souls with their old man faces and limbs flexing uselessly in pathetic infancy. And he kissed each one upon the forehead.
He hanged them, then. Hanged them upon the blackness of the night, right off the sharpest corners of it. The villagers watched their souls struggle against the inevitable, jerking upon that invisible rope. And they kicked and spasmed and died. Some of the most gentle souls were so light they twisted in a wind so delicate no one could feel it there.
The executions lasted all night. And that took minutes, or hours, or even days, it was impossible to say – but they were performed with decorum and decency, every single soul had its due, not a single killing was rushed.
The sun was rising, and this high up on the hill it seemed so close they could reach it – but no one ever tried, not one of them, because it was silly. And at dawn they all walked back down the hill to their homes. There was no lake or tunnel to traverse, and that was good, because they were all tired. And there was no weight in their chests now, it was all empty inside, and that was good too, oh, they were all so very tired. And they had nothing to say to each other. Ernie Kiel stayed on the hill to dispose of the bodies.
It was maybe a week before Ernie Kiel would return. And no one would speak to him, though some had vague memories of what he had done, if not why he had done it – scraps of thought like dreams that fade upon waking, that with one little head shake vanish for good. Ernie Kiel’s face was still a child’s, but his body always looked older, and for days his hands would shake. But no one ever asked why. For they were harsh days. And there was no room for softness or sentiment. Softness and sentiment were strangers to them then.
And someone went and built a railway right through the village. No one knew why, but then, no one asked. The fields were dug up for the tracks, the stables were turned into a station. The farmers worked on the railroad, and the blacksmith became the stationmaster, and he was given his own uniform, and watch, and whistle. Most of the miners got new jobs, started to commute.
Ernie Kiel sat outside with his horseshoes, but no one needed horseshoes any more. Still, he would grin at passers-by hopefully, and once in a while someone or other might take pity on the simpleton and throw him a coin. And then they’d feel something new and unpleasant twisting in their gut, something like heartburn, and that didn’t sit well, and they would vow never to show such pity again.
He tried to help them all. He did, just the once. One night he banged on all the doors in the dead of night. “Hello-o-o!” he called. No one joined him on the streets. “Go to bed, you idiot!” “We’ve got work in the morning!” Babies cried. Men swore. One woman poured a bowl of water over Ernie’s head from an upstairs window, and it was a cold night, and this felt nothing as comforting as wading through thick chocolate.
He made the journey alone that night. He crossed the lake. He went down the tunnel. He climbed the hill, and all the while he played upon his flute, and his drum, and his zither, he triumphed as a one man orchestra, and he played well, he marched in time to himself, and as his own audience felt compelled to applaud at the end. He grinned at the unexpected appreciation. Then he pulled out his soul, and it was a stunted little thing with big blinking eyes, and he kissed it on the forehead, and hanged it, and stayed with it until it was dead. And this time he didn’t bother to hide away the body, he let it stay pinned fast to the night sky where everyone could see.
The next day he went to the railway station. He grinned at the ticket seller. “Where do you want to go?” But Ernie couldn’t say. “How much money you got?” And Ernie just shrugged and smiled. “You can’t ride our trains unless you buy a ticket,” said the man, who had as a child watched his soul dance upon the noose fifteen times, who as a grown-up had once been a cobbler before his job was lost, had been a husband before his wife had died. The man sighed, looked about in case anyone might see, and wrote Ernie out a ticket. It was for anywhere he wanted to go, as far away as he might wish. It was one way. And his soul stirred as he did this, and that annoyed him, so he beat at his chest with his fist, so hard it bruised, and the soul was beaten back down once more.
Ernie Kiel sat alone in the compartment. No one wanted to be close. He played at his last remaining tooth with his tongue, and then sucked it straight out of the gum – and his child face was now just this loose bag, he looked like such a silly. He began to whistle, he didn’t need an instrument to do it, he just pursed up that loose baggy mouth and began to blow. There was a lurch, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the train starting, or something inside, something new growing in spite of itself.