When you are grieving, the sounds of the Earth are doubled as the voices of your fellow man seem somehow halved. And smells paw for memories to bring context to their moment, but the brain has no willing to match the two. You feel the cold more, but not the heat. These things happen when loved ones are snatched from you. Vienna in November was no place for a man in grief, yet here he was.
So snow crunched louder than bone as Professor Schopmeyer made his way to Café Mozart across Albertinaplatz, and, as he sat there awaiting his visitor from the Orient, the bell that signaled each and every patron to the café chimed so loudly he felt compelled to wait outside. Yes, you felt the chill more, but that wasn’t to say you didn’t enjoy it. In the same way a man with ailments of the mind might open his arm with a blade to feel something on days devoid of newness, the feeling of freezing was something to cherish. It was a feeling, at least. Stale bread was bread nonetheless.
The foreigner arrived silently. A very slight man, who barely cast a shadow, and barely was a man at all. Small shoulders and young, very young, perhaps only twenty years of age. “Do you know the way to Das Wiener Riesenrad?” he asked, his German broken but said with a smile. His teeth were much older than he was, brown and jagged.
“It is I, Jan Schopmeyer”, he replied, and the stranger smiled again. From his pocket, he handed Schopmeyer a card envelope tied with string. Schopmeyer motioned to walk, and they did, through the snow to Allgemeines Krankenhaus der Stadt Wien, where the Professor held an office.
The two men sat opposite each other, the bureau between them. The gas lamp flickered as Schopmeyer read. The letter of introduction, from a colleague in Peking, was brief and to the point. Schopmeyer looked up at his visitor and eyed him inquisitively, but the man did not notice. He was looking around the room; papers and documents and open books covered everything. Medical apparatus. A beaten and worn top hat. His eyes landed on a framed etching of a large mechanical ferris wheel. The word ‘Riesenrad’ was inscribed on the frame. The man smiled and pointed. ‘Riesenrad’, he said. ‘Like our secret greeting’. Schopmeyer remained unmoved.
“You claim to bring the dead back to life?” he asked.
And so their business was at hand. “The body, yes”, the man replied.
“Explain what that means”.
And so the stranger explained things to him. That of how reanimating the dead was a task that could be performed, and has been, many times, by his hand. He told him the story of when he was but three years old, and he brought a dead horse back to life. That of age ten, he reanimated corpses by a river so he had friends to play with for the day. He heard the story of people coming far and wide, bringing their dead with them, in the hope that he could help.
“But to man the ship with the same crew is difficult”. The man was far from his smile as he spoke. “The act you seek, that of returning your wife’s body to life, is something I can do, but to return your wife’s soul to your wife’s body is not always possible.”
Heavy snow fell outside as the stranger continued. Schopmeyer watched the flakes hitting the window, brow furrowed, listening intently. The foreigner talked of seas of souls, of the unborn. Oblique concepts which, a week before, a man of science would have openly mocked. But a broken man is no longer a man of science. He was a man no more. He was a man of nothing.
Schopmeyer lit a cigarette. “You are telling me that my wife will live again, but in terms of her mind, her soul or whatever we may may call it, this may be… missing?”
“It may be missing. She may be without a mind at all, like a baby or child. It may be her, but not of the age you knew her. But I must warn you that it is more likely to be different. A difference. The mind of another.”
Schopmeyer grew angry and raised his voice. “Pray tell, man, you must explain the risks of the task I am asking you to perform. You simply must.”
The undead swim like fish, he said. And the way he said fish was with such emphasis that the word lasted nearly twice as long as it should. They swim like fish. In a sea, he said. And for each of the dead, there was a fish. They wait for someone to catch them.
“A fisherman can catch a fish, yes. But he cannot tell you which fish.”
Schopmeyer was trembling. His wife’s body was not four rooms away in the academic’s morgue, her body on ice that he had replaced daily now for a week, the time it had taken to receive his visitor from China. A close friend’s research had informed him of this man, but to be told her frame may be populated with another’s soul? He had so many questions for the stranger. Would her memories be hers? Would she wish to be called by another name? Would she know him or love him? He had lost everything, and she had lost everything. His heart was black and heavy.
He focused on the man’s mouth, his broken, brown teeth as he mouthed the words “I cannot tell you which fish”.
His guest explained how they must bait the right fish. Schopmeyer should prepare his mind to be calm, to be full of fond memories and happiness as the man performed his task. He must remind his wife why the earthly world is one of value. He must think of happier times. The sun, not the snow. The week before, not the week now. This task, to Schopmeyer, seemed more difficult than any. When he thought of happier times with her, he felt his hope crease and fold. “Think of a specific, very happy time as I go about my work”, asked the man. A light to illuminate scenery she might recognise, he thought.
The two men walked down the corridor, lamp in hand. Schopmeyer’s footsteps echoed. They entered the academic’s morgue, and there, in the centre of the room, in an iron tub filled with ice, lay the body of a woman, clothed, as a still loved cadavre should be. Medical stitches from ear to sternum, blue lips and open, glassened eyes. Schopmeyer brushed her lifeless red hair out of her eyes, and lost his breath to holding back tears. “The task you ask of me is too much, my blood barely moves at this time” he petitioned. The stranger smiled, this time as if a parent to a child. “Think of times”, he asked.
Schopmeyer imagined a ritual or operation, runes or incantations or equipment and paraphenalia being required. The man needed nothing. He stood and asked Schopmeyer to put out the lamp, which he then did. The stranger closed his eyes and put his hand over the corpse’s frozen eyes. He put his other hand over Schopmeyer’s eyes, pressing his glasses into his skin.
“Now, her name and the thoughts”, he asked.
Anna. Anna Werner, then Anna Schopmeyer. He thought of the time they rode the Riesenrad for the first time. June, 1931. He thought of her smile as she listened to him bore her about his work. The sound of her voice. Soft, so soft, between a mother’s voice and twilight at home. How her hazel eyes shined bright and how her hands were always warmer than his. Her playing the violin. The Riesenrad went around and around, slowly. They kissed, and when they stepped off the wheel, they ate roasted chestnuts and walked home. She talked of Rilke. A year later, they were on the wheel again and she talked of children. One Sunday, they barely said a word to each other as they both pressed flowers and listened to Mahler’s 5th, looking up at each other now and then, smiling and knowing the warmth that being alone together can bring. The Riesenrad shifted, and the cars moved around. To be in love is to become more than a man or a woman, he felt it now.
A tone of almond and petrichor seeped into the room, a strange smell, not unpleasant but wholly unearthly. The light flickered and the air was suddenly metallic. Anna’s arms twitched and Schopmeyer’s eyes widened, somewhere between terror and happiness. Anna leapt up from her death, ice flying left and right, and fell to her knees, coughing and spluttering.
“Do not touch her yet”, asked the man, “We do not yet know her”.
Anna finished coughing. After seconds of silence, she panicked, leapt to her feet and backed herself into a corner, terrified. Her eyes darted left and right, eerily out of step with each other, as if moving independently, a severed muscle from the cause of her death, perhaps. She calmed and her gaze rested upon the young stranger, and what happened next shocked Schopmeyer into paralysis.
Anna cleared the length of the room in a heartbeat, jumping a metre, landing next to the man. She grabbed his small, boyish head with both hands. In a second or two, she tore his head through the medium of a forceful twist, an arterial spray of blood covering the room from his lithe neck. The petrified Schopmeyer now stood pale, speckled bright red. The stranger fell lifeless to the floor, his head lop-sided and barely attached, more a dead chicken than a dead man of twenty. She stood still and regained her composure, then her eyes darted around the room again, looking at the lights, the table, the materials that the room was crafted from. She looked confused, and then, dramatically, she began to speak. Her voice was low and gravelly, almost that of an old man.
“Quid est hoc saeculum?”
In his terror, Schopmeyer took this language to be English or Gaelic or Finnish, but as he thought straight in the seconds that followed, he recognised it to be Latin. She had asked what world this was that she stood in.
He responded in Latin, as taught to him during his studies. “Do you know where you are?”, he asked.
“Vindobona”, she replied, as she frowned and her face contorted once again into one that sought to take the life of another. She stepped forward, advancing on Schopmeyer slowly, predatory. Her frozen, bloody hands clenched into beastly fists. She repeated, in an unearthly, deep voice, her tongue, tonsils and teeth speaking where her lips might once have,