Fresh from the banks of the Rhine, Ed Kurtz brings home Shame.
Punishments can be unfair, but karma always finds its mark.
Punishments can be unfair, but karma always finds its mark.
Shame by Ed Kurtz
The mask was made of brass, welded together from dozens of pieces until it roughly resembled a sneering devil, its pointed tongue curling out from the mouth. Round, spikey pieces comprised the eyes, and horns curved up, provocatively, from the temples. The finished product was not particularly heavy, though it was terribly uncomfortable, and little care was taken to prevent the sharper edges from cutting into Heinrich’s flesh whenever he moved his head or neck or shoulders. Less worrisome to him, then, was the wooden sign that hung down over his chest, which read: Ich bin ein Teufel.
I am a devil.
Heinrich stood on the cobblestones in front of St. Jakob, the town’s twin-towered Lutheran church, where he had been since dawn. The ornate structure had only just been consecrated the year previous by His Grace Rudolf von Scherenberg, the Bishop of Würzburg, and Heinrich could not recall a time since when he had not seen some poor bastard propped up by the doors in similar circumstances to his own: bolted into a Schandmaske—a shame mask—or pilloried, or weighed down with stones and blocks. Naturally he never thought it would someday be himself, but who would? He’d had a few tankards at the Wirtshaus, to be sure, and was perhaps less than prudent where his words were concerned, discussing past grievances and petty local gossip, but words were merely words, reckoned Heinrich. Four and a half hours he’d already stood there at the church doors—mocked, laughed at, whispered about, even shoved a few times—the day stretching on interminably, his resentment turning gradually to anger. At first he decided to do his penance in silence and with patience, but that was before he caught sight of Dietrich Wächter, through the rusty ringlet enveloping his left eye, entering the church with a wry grin twisting his ugly face. Wächter said nothing, only smiled, and thusly satisfied went to pray while Heinrich thought, and remembered, and started to rage.
So when the moment came that, almost miraculously, the Kirchenplatz was for a minute vacant of any prying eyes, Heinrich steeled himself for the serrated scratches certain to accompany quick flight from St. Jakob, the long way round the platz, up Heugasse and east, sneaking along Sülzengaβchen until he reached Herr Wächter’s humble house on Georgengasse. He did not go entirely unseen nor unnoticed—there were gasps at the sight of the lurching metal demon, its head swiveling to see through the obstructive ornaments of the shame mask—but Heinrich arrived unmolested.
He went round to the back of the house, prised open the shutters on a window, and climbed inside. And he waited.
At one and four-fifths meters, Dietrich Wächter stood among the largest men in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. He was broad-shouldered and somewhat fat, his great arms long and thick, his densely bearded face pitted with deep scars from his adolescence. Wächter went nowhere without the horn in his belt, the chief instrument of his profession, which he blew every hour on the hour through the night at the Klingentor gate. He took the town’s safety seriously, and to the watchman this included its general moral welfare, as well.
So it was that the drunkard Heinrich Schoetzl aroused Wächter’s wrath in the Wirtshaus, spouting lies between great swallows of ale—lies concerning the watchman’s own betrothed, of whom spurious and licentious things were said by the drunkard, whom Wächter quickly dragged halfway across the walled town to the nearest magistrate for accusation and sentencing. By morning the ill-mannered bastard was masked and humiliated in the Kirchenplatz, and it was all Dietrich Wächter could do not to laugh out loud on his way for morning prayers. It was his way back out again that turned his mirth back to anger, for Heinrich was gone before his allotted time. The impudence of the situation bewildered Wächter, who emitted a high-pitched noise from deep in his throat and went flying across the platz, his cloak billowing out black behind him, to collect his dagger at home before setting out in search of the brazen whore’s son.
The wooden sign smashed against the base of the watchman’s neck the moment he passed through the door, knocking him to the floor and filling his eyes with pulsing white light. The makeshift bludgeon clattered beside him after he landed, the carefully painted words telling Wächter everything he needed to know about what was happening: Ich bin ein Teufel.
“You devil,” he rasped, as if prompted. The effort of speaking brought agony to his skull.
“No, Dietrich,” Heinrich said, and he gently lay the brass devil mask down atop the sign, so that its vacant eye ringlets stared mysteriously at Wächter. “Now it is you who will be the devil. Put it on.”
“How did you get out of it?”
“Put it on.”
Wächter continued to gawp at the shame mask, at the joining points that looked to have been ripped apart by great force. It seemed impossible; the mask was soldered together over Heinrich’s head, sealing the joints tight. Tools were required to get it off again, to cut away at the brass, which normally ripped at flesh not yet healed from the burns from the soldering. But there it laid, the brass strips that once held it in place twisted and toothed.
“Put it on,” Heinrich said again.
The watchman reached for it, his fingers shaking as they hooked around a curling horn, and dragged it toward himself. The metal scraped at his scalp, his cheeks and his ears, as he hurried to fit the mask over his head. He thought, Why? and the brass felt oddly hot against his skin. With some difficulty, he raised his head, recalling the incendiary words Heinrich spoke about Greta, and the punishment the fool had only brought upon himself, and as Wächter turned his masked head so that he could see his tormenter through the obscuring eye ringlets, he prepared to hiss: I will kill you. Instead, he screamed.
“You will not kill anyone,” the demon said, its golden eyes radiating as though illumined by some inner light. Its tongue then unfurled like a regimental flag, red and glistening wet, while the uneven, jagged teeth surrounding it shone white past curled-back, onyx-black lips. Wächter swooned, scrabbling crab-like to get away from the sneering imp, but his disorientation caused him to fumble and drop to the floor. The brass fittings banged hard, boxing his left ear, and a serrated edge tore open a broad gash down his chin. He felt the blood well up, its coppery odor mixing with the dried-blood, brassy smell of the mask. And when the demon pounced, giggling, it drove the horns on its lumpy red-black head into Wächter’s throat and sternum, and there was little more that the watchman could do but laugh.
“Du bist ein Teufel,” he croaked at the last, his throat filling with blood.
You are a devil.
His horn slipped loose from his belt and rattled unobtrusively to the floor.