Classics Translated

In the Penal Colony

Franz Kafka, first published in 1919; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same. 

“It’s a peculiar machine.” The Officer said to the Traveler, admiring the device he was thoroughly familiar with. The Traveler only answered the Commandant’s invitation to be polite; the execution was for a soldier who insulted his superior, but interest was low even in the penal colony itself. It took place in a deep, sandy valley closed in by barren slopes. Apart from the Officer and Traveler, the only people present were the dispirited Condemned Man and the Soldier holding the chain to his shackles. The prisoner’s feet, wrists, and neck were bound, and he looked completely defeated.

The Traveler had little interest in the device; he paced indifferently behind the Condemned Man while the Officer completed the final preparations. Sometimes, he crawled into the pit to look under the machine, and sometimes he climbed a ladder to inspect the higher parts. These were things a mechanic could do, but the Officer performed them enthusiastically; maybe because he was particularly fond of this machine, or maybe he simply could not trust anyone else to do it.

“It’s ready, now!” He cried, climbing down the ladder. He was breathing through his mouth, tired, and there were two lady’s handkerchiefs pushed under his collar.

“Those uniforms are too heavy for the tropics,” the Traveler said.

“That’s true, but they represent our homes, and we don’t want to forget our homeland.” the Officer replied, washing his oily hands in a nearby bucket. “Here, have a look at this device. I used to do some of this work, but now, the machine does it all.”

The Traveler nodded and followed the Officer as he continued, “of course, malfunctions happen. I hope none occur today, but we’ll be prepared for it. The device is supposed to run for twelve hours without stopping, but if any breakdowns do occur, they’ll be minor, and we’ll fix them right away. Do you want to sit down?” The Traveler gratefully accepted his offer while he sat on the edge of the pit and cast a fleeting glance inside; it was not very deep. On one side, the dirt was piled into a wall, and the machine was on the other.

“I don’t know if the Commandant has already explained the device to you…” The Officer began, and the Traveler indicated he had not. “This device,” he grabbed a connecting rod and leaned against it, “is our previous Commandant’s invention. I assisted him with it from the first test to its completion, but the credit belongs to him alone. Have you heard of our Old Commandant? No? Well, it’s not a stretch to say he’s responsible for starting the penal colony. When he died, his friends knew it would take several years for a successor to change anything even if they wanted to. So far, this prediction has held true, and the New Commandant recognizes that. It’s a shame you didn’t know the old one!

“Anyway, I’m babbling, and his device stands here before us. It consists of three parts. The bottom piece is called the Bed, the top part is the Inscriber, and the moving part in the middle is the Harrow.”

“The Harrow?” The Traveler asked; he had not been fully paying attention. The sun was extremely strong in the shadowless valley, and he could hardly collect his thoughts. It made the Officer’s eager explanation even more admirable while adjusting screws in his parade-ready, tight tunic covered with shoulder pieces and braids.

The Soldier’s wrists were wrapped around the prisoner’s chain, his head was hung back, and he was using his weapon to support himself. He appeared to be in the same mood as the Traveler which was not surprising. The Officer spoke French, but it was clear the Soldier and Condemned Man did not. That the prisoner still tried to follow the Officer’s explanation was surprising. His eyes followed each direction the Officer pointed, and he looked at the Traveler when he interrupted.

“Yes, the Harrow; the name fits. The needles are arranged the same way as a harrow, and the whole thing runs like one; although, it stays in one place and is much more artistic.” The Officer continued. “You’ll understand in a moment. First, I’ll describe it, and then I’ll show you; that way, you’ll be able to follow it better. Also, one of the sprockets is excessively worn and squeaky. When it’s in motion, you can hardly hear yourself speak. Unfortunately, replacement parts are difficult to come by. The Bed is completely covered with a layer of cotton-wool, and the condemned is laid on top – face down and naked. These straps secure the hands, feet, and throat. At the head of the Bed, this small protruding lump of felt can easily be adjusted to press into the man’s mouth; it’s there to stop him from screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. If he doesn’t let it into his mouth – the straps around his throat would break his neck.”

“That’s cotton-wool?” the Traveler asked, bending down.

“Yes; feel for yourself.” The Officer smiled.

He guided the Traveler’s hand. “It’s specially prepared; that’s why it looks so different.”

The device was already winning over the Traveler. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked at the top of the machine. It was massive; the Bed and the Inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The Inscriber was two meters above the Bed, and they were connected at the corners by four brass rods while the Harrow hung on a band of steel between the chests.

The Officer hardly noticed the Traveler’s earlier indifference, but now, he noticed the man was genuinely interested; he paused the explanation to give the Traveler time to study the device properly. The Condemned Man studied it as well, but he did not have a free hand to shield his eyes.

“So, now, the man is lying down…” The Traveler leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” the Officer said, pushing back his cap and running his hand over his hot face. “Both the Bed and the Inscriber have their own batteries. The Bed needs them for itself, and the Inscriber holds them for the Harrow. When the man is strapped in, the Bed is set into motion. It simultaneously moves up, down, and sideways at a rapid speed. There are similar devices in mental hospitals – except our Bed’s movements are precisely calibrated to be synchronized with the Harrow – which is what actually carries out the sentence.”

“What’s the sentence?” the Traveler asked.

“You don’t even know that?” the Officer asked in astonishment, biting his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are confusing; I am sorry. The Commandant used to provide this information, but the new one has delegated the responsibility. The fact he did not even inform such an important visitor of our method is something which…” He stopped himself from cursing and continued, “I was not aware of; it’s not my fault. Anyway, I am certainly the best person to explain our way of sentencing,” he patted his breast pocket; “I have the Old Commandant’s hand-drawn diagrams.”

“Made by the Commandant himself?” The Traveler asked. “It sounds like he was a combination of everything – soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and artist.”

“He was indeed,” the Officer said, nodding his head with a thoughtful expression. His hands were not clean enough to handle the diagrams, so he washed them again. Then, he pulled out a small leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. Whichever law a condemned man has broken is carved into his body with the Harrow. For example, this Condemned Man will have ‘honor your superiors’ carved into him.”

The Traveler stole a quick glance at the prisoner. When the Officer pointed at him, the man put his head down; he appeared to still be listening, but his thick, pouting lips showed he did not understand. The Traveler had various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man, he only asked, “does he know?”

“No.” The Officer said.

He wished to continue his explanation, but the Traveler interrupted him. “He doesn’t know his own sentence?”

“No.” The Officer repeated. “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it firsthand.”

The Traveler wanted to keep quiet, but he felt the prisoner’s gaze asking whether he approved of the process, so instead, he asked, “does he have some general idea that he’s been sentenced to die?”

“Not that either,” the Officer said, smiling as if expecting an explanation for the odd question.

“No?” the Traveler said, wiping his forehead. “He doesn’t know he was found guilty?”

“He had no opportunity to defend himself.” The Officer looked away, as if not wanting to embarrass the Traveler with such an obvious answer.

“But there must have been a trial!” The Traveler rose from his chair.

Realizing his explanation was being postponed, the Officer took the Traveler’s arm and pointed to the Condemned Man. “Here in the penal colony, I have been appointed judge despite my youth. I worked with our Old Commandant in overseeing punishments, and I also know the most about the device. My basic principle for making decisions is, ‘guilt must be beyond a doubt.’ Other courts have many judges and even higher courts, but that’s not the case here… At least, it wasn’t with the Old Commandant, but the New Commandant has shown a desire to get involved… Though, so far, I’ve managed to fend him off.

“If you want to know about this case, it’s simple; this morning, a captain charged this man with sleeping on duty. His job is to stand and salute in front of captain’s door at the top of every hour. That’s certainly not difficult, and it’s necessary. He is supposed to remain fresh for guard duty, but last night, the captain found him asleep at 2:00! He was hit across the face with a horse whip, and instead of begging for forgiveness – he grabbed his master’s legs and threatened him! The captain came to me an hour ago; I recorded his statement and the sentence, then I had the prisoner chained. If I had summoned the man and interrogated him first – it would have caused confusion; he would have lied, and if I had proven he lied – he would have told new lies, but now, I have him. Does that make sense? Time is wasting; we should be starting the execution, and I haven’t finished explaining the device yet.”

He urged the Traveler to sit down, walked back to the machine, and continued. “The shape of the Harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This piece is for the upper body, and here are the ones for the legs. This small cut-out is for the head. Do you understand?” He leaned forward in a friendly way – ready to elaborate if necessary.

The Traveler looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown. The information about the procedure had not satisfied him, but in a penal colony, special rules were necessary; military regulations must be followed down to the finest detail. However, he did have hope in the New Commandant; the man was obviously trying to introduce a new procedure which this Officer of limited intelligence could not handle. With this thought, the Traveler asked, “will the Commandant be at the execution?”

“That’s uncertain,” the Officer said with a grimace, seeming embarrassed by the question. “That’s why we need to hurry. I regret I’ll have to make my explanation even shorter. I’ll tell you the most important things now, and tomorrow – after the device is cleaned – I can explain the rest. When the man is lying on the Bed and it starts shaking, the Harrow automatically adjusts the needles to touch the body lightly, and when it’s in position – this steel cable tightens into a rod. Then, the show begins! As the Harrow shakes, the needles penetrate the body – which is also vibrating – and since it’s made of glass, the process can be supervised. That caused technical difficulties with fastening the needles, but after several attempts we were successful. Don’t you want to see the needles for yourself?”

The Traveler stood slowly and approached the Harrow. “There are two sorts of needles in this arrangement.” The Officer said. “Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one penetrates, and the short one squirts water to wash away the blood. The dirty water is channeled into small grooves which flow into these main gutters, and the outlet pipes take it to the pit.” The Officer pointed to the path.

As he approached the outlet pipe to demonstrate, the Traveler was horrified to see the Condemned Man had also accepted the invitation to inspect the Harrow. He pulled the sleeping Soldier with him and bent over the glass, confused. He tried to discern what the two men had just observed, but lacked enough information. His eyes ran over the glass, and the Traveler wanted to push him back, worried he would receive another punishment.

The Officer held the Traveler firmly with one hand, and with the other, he threw a lump of dirt at the Soldier. The man opened his eyes, startled to see what the Condemned Man had done, and he pulled the prisoner back hard enough to make him collapse.

“Stand him up!” The Officer cried, noticing the Condemned Man was distracting the Traveler. “Handle him carefully!” He yelled, helping the Soldier with the prisoner.

“Now, I know all about it,” the Traveler said.

“Except the most important thing,” the Officer returned his attention to the Traveler, grabbing his arm and pointing upwards. “A mechanism in the Inscriber controls the Harrow’s movement, and the diagram shows how to arrange it based on the sentence.” He pulled some pages out of the leather folder. “Unfortunately, you can’t hold them; they are my most cherished possessions. Sit down, and I’ll show them to you.” He held up the first sheet.

The Traveler would have been happy to say something complimentary, but all he saw was a maze of lines crossing in every direction. They covered the paper to the point hardly any white space remained. “Read it,” the Officer said.

“I can’t,” the Traveler replied.

“But it’s clear,” the Officer said.

“It’s very elaborate, but I can’t decipher it.” The Traveler said evasively.

“Yes,” the Officer smiled and put the folder away. “It takes a long time to understand, but you will eventually; obviously, we can’t use simple text that just anyone could read. It’s not supposed to kill right away but over a period of twelve hours, and the turning point is set for the sixth. There must also be several embellishments surrounding the words. The part engraving the text only moves around the body in a narrow belt; the rest is reserved for decoration. Do you appreciate the device? Just look at it!” He jumped up the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down, “Watch out! Get back!”

Everything started moving. If not for the squeaky wheel, it would have been marvelous. The Officer shook his fist at the disturbance and spread his arms in apology before hurrying down to observe the operation from below.

Something was still not working properly. He climbed back up, reached inside the Inscriber, then slid back down one of the poles, straining his voice to be heard. “Do you understand? The Harrow is starting to write, and when it’s finished with the man’s back – the layer of wool slowly turns his body onto its side. Meanwhile, the cuts are covered by the specially treated cotton which immediately stops the bleeding in preparation for round two. As he continues to rotate, prongs on the Harrow’s edge remove the wool from his wounds and throw it into the pit; this way, the inscription continues to deepen.

“After two hours, the felt is removed; by then, the man has no more energy for screaming, so warm rice pudding is placed at the head of the Bed. If he wants it, the prisoner is welcome to what he can reach; I don’t know of any who refused it – and I’ve had lots of experience – but they usually lose their appetite around the sixth hour. I often watched; the men rarely swallow the last bite. They turn it around in their mouths and spit it into the pit; I have to lean aside to avoid getting hit in the face… But then, they become so quiet! Even the dumbest begin to understand. It starts showing in their eyes, and their looks could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow, but nothing happens. They simply begin to decipher the inscription. It’s not easy to figure out with your eyes, but these men decipher it with their wounds. True, it requires six more hours to complete, but then, the Harrow spits them into the pit, and the judgment is over.”

The Traveler leaned towards the Officer and watched the machine work. The Condemned Man was also watching, but he did not understand. He bent forward, following the needles as the Soldier cut off his clothes. He wanted to grab the garments as they fell, but the Soldier shook the last rags from his body.

The Officer stopped the machine, and the Condemned Man was laid under the Harrow in silence. The chains were removed and the straps fastened in place. At first, he seemed almost relieved until the Harrow sunk lower; then he shuddered as the needles touched him. While the Soldier was busy securing his right hand, the prisoner reached out with his left, and it was pointing at the Traveler.

The wrist-strap was ripped off – probably from the Soldier pulling too hard. He showed the torn piece to his superior, hoping for help, but the Officer only turned to the Traveler and said, “The machine is very complicated; sometimes, pieces tear or break, but don’t let that influence your overall opinion. I’ll use a chain even though it will affect the right arm’s movement.”

He continued to speak while attaching the chain, “Our maintenance resources are very limited at the moment. Under the Old Commandant, I had a cash box set aside. There was a store room where replacement parts were kept. I admit, I was a little extravagant as the New Commandant claims. With him, everything is fight against the old ways. He keeps the cash box under his own control, and if I ask him for a new strap – he demands the torn one as evidence. The new one doesn’t arrive for ten days, and it’s a worthless, inferior brand. How is the machine supposed to work in the meantime? But no one’s concerned about that.”

The Traveler thought it was a gamble to speak up in unfamiliar situations. He was not a citizen of the penal colony or the state. If he condemned the execution, people might tell a foreigner to keep quiet. He would have no response for that; the purpose of this visit was only to observe – not to alter – but it was becoming very tempting. The injustice and inhumanity of the entire process was beyond doubt. No one could think he was acting out of self-interest; the Condemned Man was a stranger – not a countryman. The Traveler had letters of reference from high officials and was warmly welcomed here. The fact he was invited to this execution seemed to indicate people were asking for his opinion. This was even more likely since the Commandant was clearly no supporter of it, either, and he maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.

Then, the Officer suddenly cried out in rage. He had finally managed to shove the felt into the Condemned Man’s mouth when the prisoner shut his eyes and threw up.

The Officer quickly yanked him off the stump and tried to turn his head toward the pit, but it was too late. The vomit was already spewing onto the machine. “This is all the Commandant’s fault!” He cried, mindlessly rattling the brass rods. “My machine is filthy!” With trembling hands he showed the Traveler. “I’ve spent hours trying to make the Commandant understand there should be no food served the day before the execution, but the new administration has a different opinion. Before the man is led away, the women cram sugary things down his throat. His whole life he’s eaten stinking fish, and now he has to eat sweets! That would be fine if they would get a new felt like I’ve been asking for the last three months. How can anyone take this into his mouth without feeling disgusted? Hundreds of men sucked on it while they were dying!”

The Condemned Man laid his head down and seemed peaceful while the Soldier cleaned the machine with his torn shirt. The Officer approached the Traveler, who tried to take a step backwards but was pulled aside. “I want to speak a few words in private, is that alright?” He asked.

“Of course.” The Traveler said, eyes lowered.

“This process doesn’t have any more open supporters in our colony. I am the only one still defending it… just as I am the lone advocate for the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about improving the process; it takes all of my energy simply to maintain what’s left. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of supporters. I have a bit of his persuasiveness but none of his power, so the supporters have gone into hiding.

“There are lots of them, but no one admits to it. If you go into the tea house today and listen carefully, you may hear nothing but ambiguous remarks. They’re all supporters, but under the present Commandant, they’re totally useless to me. I ask you, should a man’s entire life’s work be undone because of this New Commandant and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen? Even if one is a foreigner and only here for a couple of days?

“There’s no time to lose. People are already preparing something against these proceedings. I am never invited to their meetings in the Commandant’s headquarters; even your visit seems to have something to do with it. People are cowards, so they send you out here. You should have seen the executions in the old days! The entire valley would be overflowing with people a whole day before the event – just so they could watch. The Commandant would arrive early with his women, and the music would wake the entire campsite. When everything was ready, we all gathered around the machine.

“This pile of cane chairs is a sorry fossil from that time. The machine glowed from its cleaning, and I had new replacement parts after almost every use. Hundreds of spectators stood on tip-toe as far back as the hills, and the Commandant laid the prisoner beneath the Harrow himself. The part now done by a common soldier used to be my job as the senior judge, and it was an honor; then, the execution began, and there were no squeaky wheels. At this point, most people were laying in the sand with their eyes closed. They knew justice was being carried out, and the prisoner’s muffled groan was the only sound to break the silence. Back then, the needles dripped a caustic liquid which we aren’t allowed to use any more. Then came the sixth hour; it was impossible to allow everyone to watch from up close, so the Commandant arranged for the children to see it first. Naturally, I was always allowed to stand close by because of my position. I often crouched there with two small children in my arms, and we would all take in the martyred man’s expression! Ah, what times we had!”

The Officer had obviously forgotten who was standing in front of him; he put his arm around the Traveler and laid his head on his shoulder. The Traveler – extremely embarrassed – looked away impatiently. The Soldier was finished cleaning and poured rice pudding into a bowl. The Condemned Man – who now seemed fully recovered – immediately began licking at the treat, but the Soldier kept pushing him away. It was probably meant to be eaten later, but it was rude of the Soldier to take the food with his dirty hands and eat it in front of the starving prisoner.

The Officer quickly collected himself. “I didn’t want to upset you; I know it’s impossible to make someone understand those days now. Anyway, the machine can operate when it’s left alone. At the end, the body still falls into the pit even if no one is there to see it. We had to erect a strong rail around the pit, but it was removed.”

The Traveler turned away, but the Officer thought he was looking at the valley’s wasteland and turned him back around. “Do you see the shame of it?” He asked, but the Traveler said nothing.

The Officer left him alone and stood looking at the ground with his legs apart and hands on his hips – smiling cheerfully. “Yesterday, I was nearby when the Commandant invited you, and I immediately understood his intention. Although he has enough power to come after me, he doesn’t yet dare to do so. I believe he is exposing me to your judgment; he is very calculating. This is only your second day on the island; you didn’t know the Old Commandant and have a European perspective. Perhaps you are opposed to the death penalty in general and to this machine in particular.

“You see the execution as a sad procedure performed with a damaged machine without any public participation. When considered in that light, it’s obvious you would think poorly of my procedure and speak against it. You’ve seen many peculiar things among many cultures and learned to respect them. You probably won’t speak out with your full power in a foreign land, but the Commandant doesn’t need that. A casual word or careless remark is enough. It doesn’t need to match your beliefs as long as it’s in line with his wishes. I’m certain he will use all of his shrewdness to interrogate you, and his women will listen.

“You will say the accused are questioned before the verdict in your trials, or that torture hasn’t been used since the Middle Ages. For you, these observations seem obvious, and they do not challenge my procedure, but what will the Commandant think? I see the way he pushes his stool aside and hurries out to the balcony; I see how his women stream after him, and I hear his thunderous voice. He’ll say a great Western explorer tasked with inspecting every country’s legal procedures found ours to be inhumane, and that will make it impossible for me to continue this work.

“It’s true, you didn’t call my procedure inhumane. In fact, you consider it to be most humane – and you admire this machinery – but it’s too late; my and the Old Commandant’s work are lost.”

The Traveler suppressed a smile; the work he had considered so difficult was easy. “You’re exaggerating my influence. The Commandant has read my letters of recommendation. He knows I’m not an expert in legal matters; if I were to express an opinion – it would only be as a civilian and far less significant than the Commandant’s. I understand he has extensive power in this penal colony; if he is as against this method as you say he is, then I’m afraid it’s time for this procedure to end regardless of my humble opinion.” He said evasively.

The Officer still did not understand. He shook his head vigorously, briefly looking back at the Condemned Man and Soldier who both flinched and stopped eating. He got closer to the Traveler – gazing at parts of his jacket – and spoke gently. “You don’t know the Commandant; believe me – your influence cannot be overestimated. I was actually happy when I heard you were coming to the execution alone. Without being distracted by false remarks and ugly looks, you have listened to my explanation, seen the machine, and are now about to view the procedure. You’re decision is already made, but if any small doubts remain – witnessing the execution will remove them. Now – I’m asking you – help me with the Commandant!”

The Traveler did not let him continue. “How can I?” He cried. “It’s impossible; I can’t help you!”

“You could do it,” the Officer said, clenching his fists. “I have a plan that must succeed. I know your influence will be enough, but even if you’re right – isn’t saving this procedure worth the effort? Listen to my plan; for today, you must stay quiet. Unless someone asks you a direct question, you should not say anything. People should feel that it’s difficult for you to speak— that if you were to speak, you’d be cursing furiously.

“I’m not asking you to lie – not at all – but when you do speak, your answers should be brief, simple statements like, ‘yes, I’ve seen the execution’ or ‘yes, I’ve heard the explanation.’— nothing more. That will be enough for people to notice your bitterness even if the Commandant doesn’t. He will misunderstand, and my plan is based on that. Tomorrow, he will hold a meeting at headquarters with all of the higher administrative officials, and he understands how to turn such an event into a spectacle; the new gallery is always full of people.

“I’m compelled to take part in the discussions even though they fill me with disgust. Regardless, you will certainly be invited to the meeting. If you follow my plan today – the invitation will become an emphatic request, but if you are somehow not invited – you must request an invitation. You’ll be sitting with the women in the Commandant’s box where he can assure himself you are there with frequent glances. After a trivial agenda designed to entertain the spectators, the legal system will come up for discussion. If the topic isn’t raised soon enough, I’ll give a brief report on today’s execution. Such an announcement isn’t really customary, but I’ll do it anyway. The Commandant will thank me with a friendly smile and say something like, ‘the great explorer attended this execution; his visit is an extraordinary honor for our colony. Should we ask his opinion of our old customs?’ And everyone will applaud – myself loudest of all.

“Then, the Commandant will bow and formally ask the question. You should step up to the railing, and place your hands where everyone can see them or else the ladies will play with your fingers. I don’t know how I’ll bear the tension until then, but you must not hold back; lean over the rail and shout it out— yes, roar your unshakable opinion at the Commandant! But you may not want to do that… It doesn’t suit your character…

“Perhaps your people behave differently in these situations. That’s perfectly fine. Don’t stand up at all; just say a couple of words. It’s enough to whisper them for the officials to hear. You don’t need to mention the low attendance, squeaky wheel, torn strap, or disgusting felt – I’ll take care of those details. If my speech doesn’t chase him out of the room, it will knock him to his knees! That’s my plan; do you want to help me? Of course you do— you must!”

The Officer gripped the Traveler by both arms and looked at him, breathing heavily into his face. He had yelled the last sentences so loudly that even the Soldier and Condemned Man were paying attention. Although they couldn’t understand, they stopped eating to watch.

The Traveler was already sure of his answer, but with the Soldier and the Condemned Man watching – he hesitated before saying, “no.” The Officer blinked several times, but never broke eye contact.

“Would you like an explanation?” The Traveler asked, and he Officer nodded dumbly. “I was against this device even before you told me your plan, but I will never tell anyone what we spoke of. Your conviction is genuinely moving – but my decision was already made. I had been debating whether I have any right to speak against this procedure and if there was any chance of success. If there was, I knew I would need to see the Commandant first.

The Officer remained quiet, turned toward the machine, grabbed one of the brass rods, and looked up at the Inscriber as if inspecting it. The Soldier and Condemned Man seemed to have become friends. The prisoner was whispering something into the Soldier’s ear as he nodded.

The Traveler moved closer the Officer before continuing. “Yes, I will tell the Commandant my opinion; not publicly, but in private. Additionally, I won’t be here long enough to get called into any meetings; my ship leaves tomorrow morning.”

The Officer did not appear to be listening. “So, you were not convinced…” He said, smiling to himself – the way an old man smiles over a sleeping child. “Well then, it’s time.” He finally said, looking at the Traveler with bright, demanding eyes in a silent plea for help.

“Time for what?” The Traveler asked uneasily, but did not receive an answer.


“You are free,” the Officer told the Condemned Man in his own language. At first, the man did not believe him, so the Officer repeated himself, and the prisoner’s face came to life – asking many questions in a single expression. Was it true? Had the Traveler brought him a pardon? What was it? Whatever the case might be, he did not need to wonder for long. In a rush to be free, he began to struggle against the Harrow.

“You’re tearing my straps! Be still! We’ll undo them.” The Officer cried, signaling for the Soldier’s help. The Condemned Man remained silent, slightly smiling to himself; he turned to the Officer, then to the Soldier and back again.

“Pull him out,” the Officer ordered. This required a certain amount of care because of the Harrow. The prisoner already had a few small wounds on his back due to his own impatience.

From this point on, however, the Officer hardly noticed him anymore. Instead, he returned to the Traveler, pulled out the small leather folder once more, and flipped through it until finding a specific sheet. “Read that,” he said.

“I can’t; I’ve told you, I can’t read these pages.” The Traveler replied.

“Take a closer look.” The Officer said. When that didn’t help, he raised his little finger high over the paper in hopes of making it easier.

The Traveler made an effort, but it was impossible. Then, the Officer began spelling the inscription and read out the letters. “It says, ‘be just!’ Now, you can read it, too.”

The Traveler bent over the paper, and the Officer moved it away – frightened it might be touched. The Traveler said nothing more, but it was clear he could not read it. “Be just!” The Officer repeated.

“Yes, I do believe that’s written there.” The Traveler said without looking away. His neck grew stiff, and the sunlight was blinding.

The Soldier pulled the Condemned Man’s shirt and trousers out of the hole with the tip of his bayonet. The prisoner washed his filthy shirt in the bucket of water and laughed as he circled around the Soldier in his ripped-up clothes. The Soldier crouched over laughing and slapping his knees, but they restrained themselves out of consideration for the two gentlemen.

When the Officer was finally finished with the machine, he looked over all its parts once more with a smile and closed the Inscriber’s cover. He climbed down, looked into the hole, and was satisfied to see the Condemned Man had retrieved his clothes. Then, he washed his hands in the bucket and became upset with the realization it was already disgusting. Instead, he cleaned them in the sand; this option was not satisfying, but he did what he could.

Finally, as he stood to unbutton his coat, the two lady’s handkerchiefs fell into his hands. “Here, take your gifts.” He said, throwing them to the Condemned Man. “Presents from the ladies,” he explained to the Traveler.

“Good,” the Officer said, at least partially satisfied. Still holding the paper, he climbed the ladder, and, with great care, set it into the Inscriber. Turning the gear was tiring work; the wheels are extremely small. Sometimes, he inspected them so closely, his entire head disappeared into the machine.

Despite the speed he undressed, he handled each article of clothing carefully – running his fingers over the tunic’s silver braids or shifting a tassel into place, but – when finished – he flung them into the pit. The last item was his short sword; he removed it from the scabbard, broke it into pieces, and threw them into the pit where they could be heard rattling the whole way down. Now, he stood there naked. The Traveler bit his lip and said nothing; he knew what was happening, but he had no right to interfere. The Officer truly believed in this process, and the Traveler would have done the same in his place.

The Soldier and the Condemned Man did not understand at first; they did not even see what was happening. The prisoner was extremely happy to get the handkerchiefs back, but he did not enjoy them for very long. The Soldier unexpectedly snatched them away and tucked them into his belt. The Condemned Man tried to take them back, but the Soldier was too wary. Their fighting was only for play, but when they saw the naked Officer – they started paying attention.

The Condemned Man seemed especially struck by this transformation; what happened to him was now happening to the Officer, and this time, the procedure would not be stopped. He believed the Traveler probably gave the order. Though he had not suffered to the end of it himself, he would be completely avenged; a wide, silent laugh appeared on his face and remained there.

The Officer turned towards the machine, and handled it in a way that showed his mastery of the mechanics. He only had to bring his hand near the Harrow for it to rise and sink several times while making room for him. He only had to grasp the edges of the Bed, and it began to quiver. The stump of felt moved up to his mouth; it was obvious he did not want to accept it, but he only hesitated a moment before submitting.

Everything was ready, except for the straps; they hung down on the sides, but they were clearly unnecessary. When the Condemned Man saw this, he thought the execution would be incomplete without them and waved to the Soldier for help. The Officer had been preparing to kick the crank designed to start the process, but when he saw the two men coming – he let himself be strapped in. Neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man could find the crank, and the Traveler was determined not to touch it, but they were not needed. The straps were hardly attached when the machine started. The Bed quivered, the needles danced on the Officer’s skin, and the Harrow swung. The Traveler had been staring for some time before he remembered one of the Inscriber’s wheels was supposed to squeak, yet all was quiet.

Because of its silence, the machine did not attract much attention. The Traveler looked at the Soldier and the Condemned Man – who seemed interested by everything. Occasionally, he bent down or stretched up – pointing at something to show the Soldier, but the Traveler was embarrassed. He was determined to stay until the end, but he could no longer endure the two men’s presence.

“Go home,” he said. The Soldier might have been ready to obey, but the Condemned Man took the order as a punishment. He folded his hands, begging to stay, and even went to his knees when the Traveler still refused.

The Traveler wanted to chase them away. Then, he heard a noise from the Inscriber and looked up, wondering if a wheel was out of alignment, but no, it was something else. The Inscriber’s lid was lifting up slowly, then it fell completely open. A cog-wheel’s teeth were exposed, and soon, the entire wheel appeared. It was as if some huge force were squishing the Inscriber. The wheel rolled all the way to the edge and fell into the sand with several more close behind.

Just when you thought the machine must be empty – a new cluster of parts would fall into the sand. With all this going on, the Condemned Man forgot the Traveler’s order; the gears utterly delighted him. He wanted to grab one and was urging the Soldier to help, but he kept pulling his hand back when a new gear startled him.

The Traveler, however, was very upset. Obviously, the machine was breaking. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt responsible for the Officer now that he could not look after himself, but while the falling gears held his attention, he failed to notice the rest of the device. Once the last gear fell, he bent over the machine and received an even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing – only stabbing – and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering into the needles. The Traveler wanted to stop the whole thing. This was not the torture the Officer wanted; it was murder – pure and simple. He stretched out his hands, but the Harrow was already moving up and to the side with the skewered body, which it should only do in the twelfth hour.

Blood flowed out in hundreds of streams, but not mixed with water; the water tubes had also failed to work. Then, one last thing went wrong; the body would not come loose from the needles. Blood streamed out, but the corpse hung over the pit without falling. The Harrow wanted to move back to its original position, but, unable to free itself of its load, it remained over the hole.

“Help,” the Traveler yelled. He wanted to push against the feet and have the others grab the head so the body could be taken off slowly, but the two men were hesitant. The Condemned Man turned away, and the Traveler had to drag him over by force. Almost against his will, he looked at the corpse’s face. It was still the same; there was no sign of the promised transformation. What all those before had found in the machine, the Officer had not. His lips were pressed together firmly, his eyes were open, and his gaze was calm. The tip of a large, iron needle had gone through his forehead.


As the Traveler, Soldier, and Condemned Man came to the first houses in the colony, the Soldier pointed to one and said, “That’s the tea house.”

On the ground floor was a deep, cave-like room with smoke-covered walls. The side facing the street was open along its full width, but there was little difference between the tea house and the rest of the houses. Except for the Commandant’s palace, they were all very old and worn. The Traveler was surprised by its historical appearance. He went closer – still followed by his companions – walking between the empty tables in front of the tea house, and he took a breath of the cool, stuffy air coming from inside.

“The old man is buried here; the chaplain denied him a place in the cemetery. For a long time, people couldn’t decide where to bury him. Of course, the Officer explained none of that to you; he was the most ashamed of it. A few times, he even tried to dig the old man up, but he was always chased off.” The Soldier said.

“Where is the grave?” The Traveler asked, disbelieving.

Instantly, the Soldier and the Condemned Man ran in front of him and pointed to the grave. They led him to the back wall where guests were sitting at a few tables. They were probably dock workers – strong men with short, shiny, black beards; none of them wore coats, and their shirts were torn. They were poor, oppressed people. A few got up to lean against the wall, watching the Traveler as he came closer, and a whisper went around the room. “It’s a foreigner. He wants to look at the grave.”

They pushed one of the tables aside, and beneath it was a real grave marker. It was a simple stone placed low enough for it to remain hidden under a table. It bore an inscription with very small letters; the Traveler had to kneel to see it clearly. It read, “Here rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried him in this grave and erected this stone. There is a prophecy that says the Commandant will one day rise and lead his followers to reclaim the colony. Have faith and wait!

When the Traveler read it and stood, he saw the men around him were smiling as if they had read along, found it ridiculous, and wanted him to share their opinion. The Traveler acted as if he did not notice, gave them a few coins, and waited for the table to be pushed back into place before leaving for the harbor.

In the tea house, the Soldier and the Condemned Man became preoccupied with friends but hurried away. The Traveler found himself in the middle of the long staircase leading to the boats when he saw them coming, and he knew they wanted to go with him. While he haggled with a sailor at the bottom of the stairs, the two men were racing down the steps in silence – not daring to cry out. The boat was already casting off when they reached the bottom. They could have jumped in, but the Traveler picked up a heavy, knotted rope and threatened them with it.

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