By Thomas Londono
Artwork by Howard Skrill
The last days of the great Czech writer, C. L. Bardanek, born 1890, began quite unexpectedly with a plate of chilled gooseberries at his brother’s winter home in Swabia. A stomach ache had spoiled his appetite for the main course, but the pain had subsided and the perfect, frost glazed appearance of the berries enticed him to try a few. He had scarcely swallowed the little rotund berry when about halfway down his throat he felt it get stuck. His facial expression turned into one of agony and this prompted his brother to ask what was wrong, to which Bardanek responded with a few lung-shattering coughs and a frantic gulp of wine. His brother’s wife said “Oh, mercy” and the children looked at him like he was a leper. Upon spitting phlegm into his napkin very politely, Bardanek excused himself and ate another, only to get choked on that one too.
On the third try, a gooseberry went down with some difficulty. After tidily hiding his napkin, which was speckled with blood, he realized his brother’s face was filled with familial concern. Bardanek knew what he was going to say before his brother’s lips pursed in enunciation.
“Please brother, go see Uncle Morty in the morning.”
With such a look of concern in his brother’s eyes and three other pairs of concerned eyes staring upon him he had no choice but to accept a visit to the family doctor.
Breakfast came and the good writer consumed frothy porridge with the same air of difficulty just without the agonizing choking. He felt considerably weak and similarly unhealthy when he mounted the carriage to take him to the town square. His brother nearly pushed him off at their stop. He had said he had some urgent business to attend to at the apothecary and doctors annoyed him, family or not. In an instant, the chariot raced off, leaving Bardanek’s flimsy bowler hat floating in the air.
Upon touching the icy doorknob, he was possessed by a chill that was not produced by the wind. Walking into his uncle’s office would certainly result in a proclamation of prolonged death. Only months ago, at a theater in Munich, did he discover that after coughing horridly a few times he had managed to turn his handkerchief crimson with blood. This choking business only solidified what he thought a few weeks before; the consumption was spreading. He did not need to pay a man to tell him this. Any greedy medical professional would send him straight off to a sanitarium to die. A stay at such an institution would bankrupt him. He was also entirely too busy, those stories, those beautiful, critically lauded stories, must be written.
He departed immediately after claiming to have seen his uncle. The solution to his new fictitious illness, dubbed by him as “Devil’s Throat”, was to ingest copious amounts of alpine air whilst seeing a family member one had not seen in a while. The family member of his choosing was Elise, his sister, who coincidentally lived in the cozy, hamlet of Arschende deep within the Bavarian Alps.
Bardanek’s brother was hesitant to let him ride on a train with his sickly mien, but he relented in his suffocating concerns when his brother purposefully consumed a large piece of undercooked liver.
“Let me leave, dear brother! For I shall die here in your graceful home if I am to stay much longer,” he said after downing a quart of milk.
So with a scantily packed suitcase and a looming sense of imminent mortality the dying man was shipped to Arschende.
The lonely train ride through snowed canyons and darkened tunnels got to him. He was the only one riding in coach. He sat in the back wrapped in a flowing fur coat given to him by his brother. It did little to combat the mountain air and the train-supplied tea only exacerbated the growing discomfort in his throat. Swallowing saliva was beginning to feel like ingesting molten gold.
“In a few weeks time, my throat shall be useless and then I’ll fade unto death. Yes, this is quite the situation,” he thought.
It was at this thought that he decided to write voraciously until he died. He considered the fact that the onset of terminal illness had given past writers quite the motivation to write. And he was free from work, who needed money in the grave? And there would be a lot of letters to write, tying up loose ends. He would especially relish the ones to past girlfriends. They were all suckers for dark romanticism. They would swoon and their hearts would be inflamed by love for their dearest, Curt. His current lover, Magarethe, who lived in Berlin, would be heartbroken of course, but she would live. “There’s so much to do before the end!”
He arrived in Arschende in the early morning hours. Elise was happy to see him and at first he did not notice anything wrong with her. That was until he walked into her house, which was covered in German marks used as wallpaper.
“Ja, but you know, one American dollar is worth 726,000,000,000 marks. My little toe is worth more than my walls.”
He explained his predicament to her and in response she gave him the guest room of the house. It was a large room with a comfortable bed, an accommodating hearth, and, a divine gift, a rolling desk that could be pushed to his bedside.
He got a pair of woolen pajamas, a quilt, and a lifetime supply of paper and ink. Elise also made satisfying porridge and tea that went down somewhat easily and frequently bought pain silencing medications during his darkest hours.
At night, he wrote usually wrote stories, since he had written all the necessary letters to lovers and relatives. Then Elise would regale him with various half-sensical anecdotes and quips.
Like: “Dying takes a while, you know? All the old men at the hotel just don’t drop fast enough. I count their heads, yet they still appear at noon the next day. They’ve learned what I think about them. They’re forming a society against me.”
Or: “Sometimes at night, when you’re asleep, they come. Waltzing to Wagner against the aura of the moon, all dressed in leather and suits and daggers. They appear beside me and whisper: ‘Death is only God in passing.’ You’ll hear them, eventually.”
The letters were all of a lesser quality than what he imagined them to be. Nevertheless, he shipped them off, hoping for any kind of response. Bardanek especially desired a tender response from Magarethe; who would desire the touch of his sickly embrace, but never obtain it. He imagined that when everything was said and done, and he was in the grave, his last lover would stroll out to his grave every night and pray to God for his eternal soul, while she sobbed hot tears against the cold air seeping through her long black veil.
But by the fourth week of his stay the only letter he received was from an adulterous cabaret singer named Lonna who he once kissed behind a bar in Prague; their liaison was not substantial by any stretch of her tiny imagination, undoubtedly she put too much regard into the lengthy correspondence the two shared when the lecherous writer moved back to Berlin.
She arrived by train three days later and upon seeing him Lonna shrieked, “Curt! How thin you’ve gotten.” She then began to savagely cling to him in bed while he thought how he wished Magarethe showed up. He thought he heard a giggle come from the direction of Elise as Lonna stood up and fixed her bodice which had become untangled when she bent over.
Even now, after two years of absence, her overall aesthetic still rang of a gaudiness that only a cabaret performer could pull off; her red velvet dress, black hair that shot in every direction, the corset straining her underneath, and the crimson of her lips. He imagined that given a few days by her side he would succumb to suffocation from her rather than consumption. As expressed by her: “My Curtie will not suffer long”
Oddly enough, Elise stayed mostly quiet around Lonna. The two women enamored themselves with their respective chores pertaining to Bardanek. Elise still supplied him with his food, but Lonna did most of the cleaning and kept him company while Elise was at work. During this time he used to do most of his writing, but Lonna proved to be an incessant master of annoyance. Her favorite topics she spoke of were the cabaret scene of Berlin, burlesque, and her recently deceased husband, who withered away due to an unknown illness.
At night, she cozied up to him in the bed which did not accommodate two people. Some nights she would realize this and go to work at his desk while he pretended to sleep. Once in the morning, he asked what she was doing and she replied with: “Editing your art, my darling.”
After hearing this, his blood ran cold with another shiver produced not from the sickness. He reproached her for touching his work, but she would not hear of it. She said it was her duty to tend to the artistic needs of such a great man as himself. He became horrified at what havoc she was wreaking upon his stories.
As if his disposition could not degrade anymore, on January 15th, 1923, during the dead of night he awoke to find Lonna on top of him, smothering him. He tried to say something in vehement protest, but not a single syllable would roll out of his throat. The ever-expanding mass in his throat had swallowed up his larynx. Now he was truly helpless. So, with a silent cry of resigned fate, he tried to estimate the days until his demise.
It was also learned the next morning that porridge had become too difficult to eat and that water burned going down. The malaise of hunger swept over his body and he spent the next three days in a miasma of delirium while unbeknownst to him Lonna toiled away on his work. On the fourth day, his senses regained, he consumed a large bowl of viscous goat milk by sheer will alone. With his strength momentarily regained, he went to work on his last story, which he finished by sundown. At the bottom of the manuscript read: “Dearest Lonna, do not take the time to edit these. They are senseless, scribblings of a corpse. Please, burn them after my death. This is my last will and testament.”
He knew that even such a stark note would never deter the poor woman. She was smitten with a pre-mortem love. He felt sorry for her. He felt sorry Elise and her fragile mind. He felt sorry for himself, confined to a single room, with a beautiful, yet overbearing woman, dying a young man’s death at the ripe age of thirty-three. He saw the afterlife in three possibilities: Heaven, Hell, or Nothing. He was sure that Hell was out of the equation and Nothing would be a place without Lonna. He was not afraid. But truthfully and non-stoically, the absence of Magarethe and the unlit fires that would never consume his manuscripts scared him more than anything.
On February 13th, 1923, weighing only one hundred pounds, Curt Lael Bardanek was visited by a moment of peace when Lonna went to the apothecary. Elise came in to give her brother a new pillow and upon leaving Bardanek grabbed her hand, wanting to say “Don’t leave.”
In response to his silent plea Elise said: “I’m not leaving you for long.”
Bardanek responded with a note written on his bed spread: “No, but I am leaving you.”
On his desk, sat his final story that had not been touched by Lonna yet. The first line read: “The prolonged decay of a man; a truly pitiful one-act play.”