The Wartburg Incident
by L. S. Engler
“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has.”
— Martin Luther (from Table Talk, 1566)
In this grey stronghold, my solitude is heavy and burdensome. The barren halls are so desperate for conversation that they send even the smallest sounds echoing back. The only breath besides my own is the infrequent sigh of Nature stirring the dusty banners drooping from the high ceilings. The fireplaces gape like black, sorrowful mouths, open with hunger for warm, cheerful flames. Only one holds such a turbulent light, but I would hardly call it cheerful. It is the fireplace in my study, in my room, in my prison. My only connection to the outside is a single window overlooking the trees, bare like bones, where not even birds are content to settle.
I am so deeply lonely, though I am not alone. I have a companion, but he is not welcome here. He remains a nuisance, a boor, a torment. He paces, footsteps like clomping hooves clattering on the stone floors, though he appears as a simple, sinewy man in soft bedroom slippers. Every so often, the cold void of his missing shadow passes over me when he leans in close by my shoulder. He hums, thoughtfully, into my ear; it’s almost a purr, smooth like his smirk. He reads what I am writing and, as if his mere presence weren’t enough to test my patience, he constantly assaults my intelligence with his inane, simpering commentary. I can only ignore so much.
His soft coo is mocking, and his thin fingers reach out, dancing in the air behind my neck. “Oh,” he says, reaching past my shoulder. “That is very good. Almost musical! Oh, keep it; the rest of what you’ve written is so dry.”
My fist tightens around my quill. I lift the nub from the papers and turn my head to look at him. His angular face is obnoxiously close, and he chooses to ignore the hate burning in my eyes. His smile is malicious, a flash of neat, white teeth, slightly sharp.
“Don’t you have a pope to lead around by the nose somewhere?” I try to make my words nonchalant, casually turning away to dip my pen once, twice, a third time into the inkwell before returning placidly to my writing. Perhaps too placidly; I want to hide my annoyance completely, though I know it’s impossible.
“It’s not the nose I lead him by, my dear Jörg.” With a wink, he emphasizes my false name and claps an unwelcome hand on my shoulder. I barely suppress my visceral shudder at his touch. “Besides, he’s doing quite well on his own, as you well know.”
It has been like this all day, all week, and my anger reaches its boiling point. My hand slaps down on the desk, sending up small clouds of dust into the air. “Fiend!” I lift my voice to match the sharpness of my action. “Why must you insist on bothering me? I have work to do!”
He grins. Of course he does. He’s always grinning and, this time, he even lifts a loose hand to his quirked mouth, as if coquettishly hiding his amused expression. He tucks the other hand close to his chest; it seems as if he’s covering a heartbreak until I notice one finger extended, pointing toward my desk, in the manner of a tittering woman bent on gossiping without being noticed. His voice dances. “You will have much more work to do than before,” he informs me. “Look.”
I am reluctant to follow his finger, my brows lowered in frustrated furrows. I want to be able to decipher what he means without looking, but his face is so impossible to read. I must turn, back toward my desk, where I discover my ink jar has toppled over and a black puddle is slowly flooding over my parchment, drowning my words. I move quickly to pick up the jar, but it’s too late, too much is ruined, and a low moan works its way out of my mouth from deep within the pit of my stomach.
“And that page was nearly finished, too!” I shout. “Go away!” Furious, I yank the parchment off the desk. Black raindrops splatter on the floor. Taking more care, I cradle the ink at the center of the paper and shuffle to the fireplace. The ink has soaked entirely through; what a waste! The flames hiss when I throw it in, a flash of heat and light burning my face. I rub the coarse sleeves of my robe against my cheek, cough in a way that hurts my chest, and slowly return to start a new page. Patience is a virtue. I take my time; it is an interruption from tedium, at least. I sit again with a sigh. “I cannot work like this.”
With a deep and rumbling chuckle, he shakes his head. He glides across the room, the tails of his elaborate coat flickering at me like the tongue of a serpent, and then he drops into one of the dusty leather armchairs. He arranges himself lazily, luxuriously, stretching and draping one of his long legs over an arm; his shoulders slouch into the back of the chair. His eyes are sharp as they look at me, watching me write, and one hand twists in the air as he speaks, the other hangs limp between his legs. “Your God,” he says, “your Savior, spent forty days in the wilderness with me, without a thing to eat or drink or give Him shade from the hot burning sun, and He could put up with me far better than this. You have the advantage of a nice little castle with a splendid view, correspondence with the outside world, and a larder stuffed with food for your fat little stomach, and already you’re fed up with me. I must say, this is so disappointing. Truly pitiful.”
“I am far from Jesus Christ.”
“All that fuss you gave dear old Leo, Jörg, and here it turns out you’re just a petulant little monk. You’re so easy that I’d almost consider myself bored with you!”
“If you are so bored,” I ask him, “why do you not just leave me be and find yourself more entertaining company?”
His smile is like silk, tempting but cold. “You know me better than that, Jörg. Even if I personally ceased to grace you with my company, I’d make sure you weren’t entirely alone.”
Those words are all he needs to inspire sudden flashes of the imps that have been tormenting me. Garish trolls that steal away my writing utensils and shred my parchment, wretched temptresses that writhe suggestively on the ink-splattered rug. They manifest in the study, clear yet transparent apparitions pulled from the recesses of my consciousness and the darkest depths of hell. All the grotesque tools in his sinister arsenal, on display to remind me that his influence has a tight hold on these empty halls. I firmly shut my eyes against them, giving my trust to faith to guide my hand as I continue to write. I push my pen across the blank page, my lips moving from commitment as I recite Latin prayers for my blind German scribbling.
I feel something tug at my quill, so I tighten my grip. I open my eyes to an unholy tempest fluttering my pages, but I smack my hand down again to hold them all still. I remain focused on the words and the words alone: laboriously dancing in careful script, they provide a sturdy anchor against the spinning storm of demons around me. The candlelight flickers and the fire in the hearth falters, causing the room to drop into a sharp, bitter cold.
But I continue still, warmed instead by the blaze of my letters. He was right about them, my words. They are musical, bold and triumphant, drowning out the shouts and screams intended to distract me. I focus on the words. The world around me drops into unnatural darkness, impregnable night spreading over the study, but I can still see as if my words create illumination in their transfer from my mind to matter. The light surges back, blinding now, but I still write. I focus on the words.
I am sweating profusely through my robes, and my jaw hangs open, as if that could make breathing easier. I am not sure if this invading heat is from my driving inspiration or if it is from the twisting, reaching spires of hellfire springing up around me from the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Cold hands with digging claws pull at me. In my ears, shrill voices scream untold terrors. I brush them off as one does flies, and I keep writing with defiance, chanting the lines as I translate them, singing them, heralding them into bold proclamation.
The raucous noises rise to the metronome of my scratching pen while they increase their ferocious attempts to distract me. I scream, possessed with their frenzied rhythm, matching my pace to theirs until I feel myself rising to my feet. I am standing, my arms pushing them away. Amid the thrashing and swatting, my hands find the small jar of ink.
My body moves on its own accord. My right arm bends back over my head, behind me, fingers tight around the clay vessel. A drop of ink falls to my shoulder. I shout something, the language familiar, but I do not know the words, and my arm pushes forward, straightening as my fingers fly open.
The jar leaves my hand, sailing over the sea of stricken demons sprawled out on the floor. It races straight for him on the other side, in his chair, his eyes wide with shock. He leans back just enough to avoid the jar, and it shatters against the wall behind him. A dark stain drips on the stone like black blood.
“I asked you to leave me alone,” I inform him once I find a breath of air. “I have work to do.”
My neck hurts from how tightly I’ve been holding my jaw, and I stretch it out to relieve the pain. I brush the lingering remains of dissipating devils from my sleeves with defiant importance and then, calmly, I sit back down. I straighten my papers. I clear my throat and find a new jar of ink.
He stares at me for a good, long moment. I am certain he does not know what to think, but I will pay it no mind, I will just start writing again. By the time I reach the bottom of this new page, he begins to laugh, rich and full, grating on every one of my tense nerves.
“Well done, Martin!” He calls me by my proper name, though I do not know if he does it out of respect or merely to mock me. I force myself not to care. “Your convictions are certainly strong, I must give you that. You’ll cause me quite a bit of trouble in the future, I can feel it! But I look forward to it. I enjoy a challenge, and I was so worried you would turn out to be such a bore, my friend.”
I want to tell him that I am not his friend, but I ignore him instead, devoting only a corner of my attention to watching him as he begins to move. He stands with immeasurable grace, mimicking me by brushing off his sleeves. As he takes his slow and deliberate steps toward the door, I feel suddenly troubled. All that, and now he stalks away because I threw an ink jar at him? There is something more here, but I do not know what, and it troubles me greatly. But what more can I do? I don’t look up. I dip my quill once, twice, a third time.
“I know you are not leaving just because I want you to,” I say, as coolly as I can manage.
“Of course not,” he replies, his smirk betrayed by the red sheen in his eyes. “I’ve only just remembered that I have so many others to torment. You didn’t think you were so special I’d spend all my time with you, did you? I have an appointment with a pope. But don’t despair, my dear Martin Luther. I won’t be long, and I’m never too far away.”
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Engler