the emblem of lives
charged with it’s war crimes
January 1876, Basel
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is sat in an armchair by the fire, pensively stroking the long, coarse whiskers of his prodigious moustache. Without breaking his middle distance stare, his left hand suddenly reaches out to the table next to him, palm down, patting the table in a jerky left-right motion.
He is searching for the source of the ringing he can hear. A slow intermittent, high pitched “briiiiiiing briiiiiing”. It takes a little while for him to realise that the sound must be in his mind, as the telephone had only just been invented and wouldn’t be commercially available for several more years to come.
Elisabeth, his sister, bustles in, destroying the moment.
“Thinking again? You’re always bloody thinking, you are. It won’t do you any good, Fred, I tell you.”
Elisabeth, Friedrich’s junior by two years and a right brassy old mare, had been looking after him since the “incident”.
She insisted on calling him “Fred”, a situation he secretly loathed but tolerated out of love for his sibling.
The “incident” had lost Friedrich his tenure at Basel university and he was therefore currently unemployed.
The general public, it would seem, were very sensitive about the welfare of their horses.
Elisabeth had noticed that Friedrich had become very quiet recently, barely moving or speaking at all, and if he did speak, it was incomprehensible muttering. She had become inured to the silence and was shocked when, out of the blue, he broke it.
“I have something I need you to write down,” he mumbled, hardly audible above the crackling of the logs on the fire.
She stopped herself making a flippant remark on him losing the use of his hands, just in time; remembering the near catatonia of her brother’s state.
As much as she may have resented being coerced into his being his secretary/carer, she knew her brother was a brilliant man and she managed to calm herself before reaching for her fountain pen.
“Go ahead, Fred, I’m ready.” she said, waiting expectantly. She licked the nib of the pen and placed it on the parchment.
“That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger,” this utterance coming out halfway between a whisper and whistle.
“Sorry, Fred, I didn’t quite catch that. You’re going to have to speak up a bit.”
A chestnut log issues a whistle and a loud “snap”, causing Elisabeth to jump.
Friedrich doesn’t react at all.
“Could you just say it again, dear?” she asks, hopefully. His magnificent moustache bristles almost imperceptibly as she says this; Elisabeth pretends not to notice.
Friedrich clears his throat before saying angrily but still no louder,
“That which doesn’t kill us, makes… us… stronger…”
The scratchy nib on the parchment is the last thing Friedrich hears before falling into a comatose sleep.
Knowing she will not be able to wake him for hours, Elisabeth remains standing next to her brother, soaking up the warmth of the fire and squinting at the candlelit parchment.
She reads out loud to herself the sentence he dictated, which, strangely, reads more like a shopping list-cum-stage directions than a philosophical master work:
“Sandwich dozen pillows, place it on her?”
The same log snaps and hisses as Elisabeth mumbles under her breath,
“Well, Fred, it’s not one of your best.”
The telephone rings. Zelda Fitzgerald thrusts herself from her armchair to answer it, nudging the table next to her and spilling her fourth pink gin of the day. It is 9:22am.
She knows it’s Francis. She’s been waiting for his call.
“Hello? The voice on the other end declares tinnily, “ Zelda, can you hear me?”
“Yeeeeah, I can hear ya…” Zelda says, the gin liberating her Alabama drawl.
“How you doing over there?” she manages, one eye partially closed.
Zelda was vaguely aware that Fitzgerald was staying with one of his Princeton chums after a class reunion at the university.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s going great here. I’m thinking of staying over at Biffy’s a couple more days. Is that OK?”
Without waiting for a reply, F. Scott barrels on,
“Listen Zelda, my love, I’ve only got Biffy’s typewriter over here and the ribbon’s just busted. Could you write something down for me?”
“Sure, honey,” Zelda slurs into the receiver, tongue on her cheek as her chubby fingers wiggle grotesquely in the pen pot before eventually retrieving one.
“Okay, honey, goffforrit…” she dribbles, pen poised over the baise of the telephone table.
“Okay, here it is… “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”
“Whaaat?! Honey, the connection’s terrible, say it again, will ya?”
The line is crackling like an empty pack of Luckies.
At this point, the free hand she’s using to support herself slips from the edge of the table and she just manages to stop herself from falling over, skilfully using her forehead and the nearest available wall to save her embarrassment.
She looks round sternly at the empty drawing room, challenging the furniture to make comment.
“Hello, Zelda, did ya get that?”
“Not quite, honey, just s-say it one more time, the line’s really bad.”
“Chrissakes woman, will you just listen for once? This is really important and Biffy and I are gagging for a martini. You ready?”
“Yeesssh…” she replies, twirling the pen between her fingers to facilitate the more traditional nib-down approach.
“In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”
The static on the line becomes so loud, Zelda holds the telephone away from her ear. By the time the static has passed, all that can be heard is the dialing tone.
Zelda, benefiting from her self-imposed best-of-three rule, finally returns the receiver to the cradle and looks down at the table.
She stares, baffled, at the sentence she has scribbled directly onto the green felt of the table top.
“Inner ear star light often sold, kisses honestly a cloth into mourning, stay outta jail?”
“Sheesh,” she turns and addresses the furniture again, “it sure ain’t one of his best.”