The Reason for It
by Hermann Ungar
Leopold stood by the door of the house he had just left and thought. He had the feeling he had forgotten something up there. He slowly turned round and went back up the three steep flights to the musician.
'Excuse me,' he said, going into the room.
He saw the picture straight away. Before, he had only caught a glimpse of it. Now he knew that the memory of this picture was what he had forgotten.
'A remarkable picture,' he said, looking at it in consternation. 'Truly, a remarkable picture.'
'Yes,' said the musician. He was astonished that was all Leopold had to say.
At the door Leopold turned round.
'I'm going to Wilhelm Rau's inn in Brunnenstrasse now,' he said. 'You know the place. I'll be there until ten. Then I'll go home.'
The musician didn't ask, why are you telling me this.
He was young and shy.
The thought of this picture weighed heavy on Leopold. It was in a simple frame. You saw a table. A man with bony hands together, palm upward on top of the table, was counting silver coins. Upfolded hands. They were slender and had long fingers. Before him sat a woman whose loose dress revealed her sagging breasts more than it concealed them. She had her hands upfolded too. Some liquid had been spilt on the table, a sticky liquid, he guessed. Their faces were angular, white and severe. They were bony faces, slender, sorrowful and upfolded like their hands.
Leopold thought that this picture could be called 'The Supper' or 'The Consecrated Host'. It reminded you of things it definitely had nothing to do with, no more than it had with the Last Supper. Basically it was a non-religious picture. It was the hands that made it sacred, the hands and the eyes.
Their hands were upfolded. That was the remarkable thing. Leopold had never heard the word used in that way before. But he knew it was a well-known sacred word. Perhaps it came from some forgotten hymn.
The musician began to play. Leopold could hear him because the musician's window was wide open. The street was deserted.
He remembered he had promised the musician he would go to Brunnenstrasse. The musician might come and look for him. It was nine o'clock.
Leopold walked quickly.
The thought of the picture weighed heavy on his mind. Now it seemed to Leopold that the liquid that had been spilt on the table was not wine or schnapps, as he had originally assumed, but blood. Although the picture had given the impression black and white were the only colours, the damp patch on the table seemed red, sticky, not yet dry. He could tell with his fingers that it did not have the feel of wine or spirits, that the stickiness did not come from sugar, that it was the stickiness of blood. It seemed to have flowed out of those bloodless fingers. But perhaps it had already been sticking there. The innkeeper came over to wipe it away but withdrew when Leopold didn't take his fingers out of it, left his beer untouched and gave him a forbidding look.
There was no doubt everything would soon be cleared up, as soon as the musician who owned the picture came. He could say what it was.
Leopold straightened up, moving his elbows out from his body. But he kept his fingers upfolded. He was horrified that the blood was on the table and looked towards the door that ought to open. There was no one apart from the innkeeper in the room.
Leopold rubbed his forehead, for the thought of the picture lay heavy on his mind. It was a thought he was trying to forget.
But the money, he thought. What about the money? There's a reason for everything. 'A reason'. He said it out loud and the word seemed incomprehensible, alien, scarcely bearable.
He left without having drunk his beer. It cost a lot, he thought, and his wife was starving. But he had promised the musician. And now he hadn't come.
The clocks were striking ten when he went out into the street. He began to run.
His wife was sitting in her dress in the room. He saw her sagging breasts which the dress revealed more than concealed. It was less than a month since the baby had died.
Leopold took the money out of his pocket and put it on the table in front of his wife. It was the six silver coins he had received from the musician for copying out the score. There was a smell of fresh meat. The meat was in a bowl by the window.
'Moritz?' Leopold asked.
Moritz had been the name of the black cat.
He took the meat out of the bowl, brought it back over and put it on the table.
'Let's eat,' he said.
They ate and threw the bones into the corner. All that was left of Moritz was a damp patch on the table. They were sitting beside each other.
'We'll have visitors soon,' he said.
They waited for the musician to come.
Towards morning her dress slipped down and the breasts he knew so well hung over the table. Poor, empty breasts. Severe and upfolded.
When she had been nursing the baby blood had come out of her breasts instead of milk. He looked at her breasts. There was a terrible patch on the table.
The blood killed the baby, he thought.
Beautiful breasts, he thought, empty, upfolded breasts. Is blood still coming from them? Onto her dress? Might there not be crust of blood sticking to her dress? The thoughts you think lie heavy on your mind, heavy on your mind.
Perhaps if the musician comes, Leopold thought, and sees this, her breasts, the patch, the money and her dress, her empty, bleeding, darling breasts, perhaps he will be able to say what the reason for it is. It is there. But incomprehensible, alien, scarcely bearable. Leopold, oh Leopold.
Story Copyright © 1920 by Hermann Ungar. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Hermann Ungar (1893-1929) was a Jew, born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who spoke German and Czech. He initially studied law before becoming a foreign trade attachÃ© at the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Berlin. He wrote short stories and novels, the most famous being Maimed in 1922. His work has been compared in sensibility to that of Franz Kafka and he was praised as a writer by Thomas Mann.