Fear is the price we pay for crime.
Did I read this aphorism in a book? Did someone recite it for me? Or was it an invention of my own making? I don’t remember any more. So much happened during the two months when the epidemic was raging, that it was hard to be precise about anything. The fever carried off a third of the population of Lotingen. Like the rude cry of a hungry crow, those words echoed in my head whenever I saw the first signs of illness on faces that I knew and loved.
Lotte burst into the kitchen one morning, eyes wide with fright. The baby was in a dreadful sweat, she said. His eyes were open, but little Anders was unable to wake. Hour after hour we sat beside his cot, Helena and I, while Lotte kept the house and watched for signs of illness in the other children.
The doctor came and went, shaking his head. ‘Nervous fever’ was his diagnosis. He could offer no prognosis. The child was in the ‘slow’ phase, only time would tell what the out come would be.
Anders responded to no-one. Not even to his mother. The fever was raging, it continued to rise while his pulse grew weaker. Within two days his face had altered beyond recognition. His once-blue eyes sank deep inside his skull, losing their colour and freshness. His pupils became opaque at last, his gaze fixed. Each bone in his body grew more pronounced. He had been a chubby baby, but now he was a rasping skeleton. His breathing was irregular, some times racing, at other times almost absent. He seemed to slowly fade away. ‘Consumed’ was the word I would have used, if only I had had the courage to pronounce it. The illness seemed to eat the baby up, and, when it had had its fill, his breathing stopped.
Fear took the place of every other emotion.
Fear for my wife, fear for my children, fear for our friends and neighbours.
…the price we pay for crime.
The phrase rang like a death-knell in my head. But what was the crime we were paying for? And who had committed it? The baby had been too young to sin, yet he had paid with his life. Nor were we the only parents to have lost a child. The fever carried off individuals of every age – from the youngest to the very oldest. Was Lotingen to blame, then? Had the town been condemned to pay for sins unknown and unconfessed?
We buried the baby on the second Thursday of July.
A week later, the worst of the epidemic was over.
But the crime, whatever it might have been, had not been paid in full. Fear persisted, death still knocked occasionally, it would not set us free. I was alarmed by every little upset. Nor could Helena be cured of it. And then, I heard the noise which would come to epitomise my fear that summer, though it had nothing to do with death, or with dying.
A long, low, whooping howl.
I was in my bed, but I was not asleep. I had been half-awake for a long time, lying still, trying not to disturb Helena. My wife needed sleep and the restoration of her spirits after the bereavement. All was quiet in the house, and in the garden, too, but then I heard that noise. I shifted my foot beneath the sheet, searching for the foot of Helena. Her skin was warm and soft; she did not respond to my touch. She was fast asleep. No dream had frightened her that night, or driven her from our bed.
I laid my head flat upon the pillow, straining to hear.
All was silent and still.
Had one of the children made that noise?
I drew the sheet aside, slipped down off the high bed, and made my way barefoot onto the landing. I felt a choking in my throat, as if I could neither swallow nor breathe. Had one of the children caught the fever? They had seen their baby brother die, while they had been spared. Had the nightmare struck again? I would not wake Helena before I was absolutely certain.
I opened the nursery door. A glance was sufficient. All three were sleeping peacefully in their beds beneath the shaded nightlight. And it was in that instant that I heard the low, rumbling howl again. It was coming from the garden, not the mouths of my children. Nor from any human mouth.
I closed the door, darted down the staircase, keeping close to the wall, avoiding the third stair which cracks like a musket being fired.
In the entrance hall, I froze.
On either side of the stout oak door, there is a narrow honeycomb of tiny glass octagons set in a lead frame. I pressed up close to the honeycomb window, staring out.
There were five dogs in the garden.
Almost invisible in the dark, except for the shining red lights of their eyes, they were no more than a yard from my front door.
Seeing me, they bared their fangs and began to growl.
I had heard one voice before. Now, it was a chorus.
Wild dogs had taken possession of my garden, laid siege to my house. If hungry, why had they ignored the compost-heap on the kitchen side of the house? I had seen Lotte drop the remains of a boiled chicken out there that afternoon. Had something else drawn them to my front door? The gleaming panes of glass, perhaps? I had forgotten to close and lock the shutters.
Were they trying to enter?
As I pressed my nose to the glass, I could see the dogs more clearly. They leapt forward, snarling, saliva dripping from their tongues. Their fangs were yellow, pointed. The growl became a howl, as they jostled for position in front of the window. They were not afraid of me. They might have been baiting me, daring me to open the door and let them in.
My thoughts flew back to the epidemic.
Packs of stray dogs had been reported at the time. At first, the idea had been dismissed as nonsense. When we are subject to an enemy that we cannot see, we find an object which is evident to every man. All hate turns upon that object, all of our energy is consumed in condemning it. The fever was invisible, deadly; stray dogs were a visible threat. They could be shot. Then, Hans Hube was killed. Up at dawn to quarter a calf; they found the butcher’s body several hours later. The doctor had been hard put to say which bones were his, and which belonged to the slaughtered calf.
These thoughts were dashed from my mind in an instant.
One of the dogs leapt at the window, breaking a pane of glass.
I jumped back, suppressing a cry that would have awakened the whole house. I had seen the dog rear back, but had not expected the attack which followed. Only the lead frame had repulsed it. I had never seen such aggression. A hungry hound is abject, eager to please. It will carry a pheasant to the hunter and accept a biscuit as a reward. This animal, instead, was bold. Savage. Its snout caught the moon light as it smashed the glass. A spraying black fan of blood was torn from its nose, splattering and dripping on the remaining panes of glass.
The dog fell back, denied.
A moment later, it was charging for the gate. And in its wake the other dogs careered. It was as if the house had withstood the test. The dogs had tried to enter, and they had failed. Colliding in a pack at the narrow exit of the garden gate, they yelped and snapped among themselves, forming some predestined order of withdrawal.
In a matter of seconds, the danger was over.
A cloud passed from the face of the moon, silver light fell on the grass, dark shadows loomed from overhanging trees and bushes. The garden was empty, though I heard them in the distance howling, the sound diminishing as they charged away.
I stood there, unable to move or think until I heard them no more.
Nothing moved inside the house. Helena, Lotte and the children had slept through it. Suddenly, a gasp erupted from my throat. Sweat dripped from my forehead and ran down my back in rivulets, despite the night-time chill.
The dogs had returned to Lotingen.
When the fever was at its height, they had been drawn to town by the all-pervading smell of death. I stood guard by the broken window for quite some time, ears straining to catch the slightest sound, the smallest hint that the beasts had returned.
My bare feet ached with the cold.
Had the dogs smelt death that night in Lotingen?