Kafka and the Castle by Austin Shirey
Franz Kafka stopped his car on the side of a country road as torrential rain smacked against the windshield like it was trying to break in and assault him. He grasped the steering wheel and peered through the passenger window.
Lightning revealed a castle looming darkly a couple hundred yards away, tall and wide, and crowned with pointed spires and crenellations.
Thunder boomed. A violent wind swept through the trees on either side of the road.
Kafka sighed. This would have to do. A pang of guilt blossomed in his chest as he thought of Felice, worrying and waiting for him to come home. He wondered if she might believe he was truly deterred this time, or if he’d already wrung that particular excuse for all it was worth. Images of the evening’s indiscretions with Grete—sweet, succulent Grete—swirled through his mind. He could still taste her on his lips.
He shook himself from his thoughts and grabbed his coat from the backseat, preparing himself for the storm.
Kafka threw open the door, holding his coat above his head, and hopped over the guardrail. He ran through a field of tall, wet grass, and in moments he was soaked, his coat useless.
Lightning bloomed in the sky and a cannon-blast of thunder shook the teeth in his skull as he approached the castle’s front steps. The flash of brightness revealed a black, stony exterior covered in snaking vines. Two great wooden doors bulked over him, each studded with a grotesque knocker in the center. Kafka leaned forward for a closer look, wiping rain from his eyes. The knockers were shaped like monstrous black beetles, their antennae moving as if they were alive.
Kafka shuddered as he watched the knockers, then attacked the doors with his fists.
No one answered.
He pounded again and again, then waited. Cold rain seeped into his bones.
“Of course,” he said, turning away.
The castle’s doors creaked open behind him.
Kafka spun around to find a man standing in the doorway, silhouetted by a nectarine aura of fire- and candle-light. In a flash of lightning, Kafka saw the man was very old: time had carved its name in his face; a long white beard trailed down to his dirty slippers; his teeth were crooked and yellow. Once the lightning passed and the old man was a silhouette again, Kafka realized he hadn’t seen the man’s nose.
“Yes?” the old man asked, speaking over the thunder. His speech had a Russian lilt to it.
“Um, hello,” said Kafka. “My name is Franz. I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but the main road has flooded, and it’s completely impassable. I’m going to sleep the night in my car, but I was wondering if I could use your telephone to call home. I can pay, if that would help.”
The old man peered over Kafka’s shoulder at the car, idling behind him in the road. Another burst of lightning gleamed in his rheumy eyes.
“Yes,” the old man said. “Come in.”
“Oh, thank you, Mister—”
“Thank you, Mister Gogol, thank you!”
Kafka stepped into the castle. The sitting room was enormous and warmed by a large, central fireplace. A crystal chandelier twinkled from the ceiling high above, casting shadows across the stones.
“There is covered garage behind castle,” Gogol said. He stood unmoving in the doorway, staring out into the storm at the idling car, his back to his guest. A gust of wind blew through the door, drenching him with rain, but he did not move. “You may wait out storm there; I move car while you warming up.”
“No, that’s all right. I’m troubling you enough as it is.”
“No trouble. Good to stretch legs, breathe fresh air. When dry, you find telephone in first room just upstairs. I only be moment.”
“I really can’t thank you enough,” Kafka said.
“Is nothing,” Gogol said, and then he ventured into the rain, shutting the doors behind him with a thunderclap.
After warming himself to the point that his bones no longer remembered the wet cold that had earlier infused them, Kafka made his way up to the room for the telephone. The stairs ascended steeply to a second-floor hallway lit by ensconced lanterns. It seemed to stretch on into eternity, broken up only by the wooden doors that dotted the length of the corridor, like a honeycomb made of wood and stone.
He entered the first room, the one the old man had indicated, at the very top of the stairs: a beautiful, candlelit room with two blue-curtained windows and a big, inviting bed. There were shelves built into the stone walls, filled with dusty books and old candles and other knickknacks, and the closet was bursting with clothes.
But there was no sign of a telephone.
“Odd,” Kafka muttered. He was sure Gogol had said the first room up the stairs. He sighed and made his way to the door, stopping to take one last look at the room.
A telephone sat on the nightstand by the bed.
It hadn’t been there just a moment before… had it?
He moved to the nightstand, picked up the telephone, and dialed the switchboard.
“Operator,” a cheery voice answered.
“Yes,” said Kafka, “could you connect me to—”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the storm’s knocked out the switchboard.”
“Oh. Um, I suppose I’ll try again in the morning, then.”
“Very good, sir! Goodnight, sir!”
After a few moments of hesitation, Kafka replaced the telephone back in its cradle. He wasn’t sure what to make of his interaction with the operator: if the storm had “knocked out” the switchboard, how was the operator even answering? Why wasn’t the line just… dead?
His thoughts returned to Felice. She’d be beside herself now, the poor thing. And she’d have realized he was having an affair with Grete, despite all his protestations to the contrary. She was anything but stupid—perhaps a bit naïve, and quick to trust, but not stupid. If he’d really gone to visit Max as he’d said he was, he wouldn’t have gotten waylaid halfway between their home in Josefov and Grete’s apartment in Berlin; Max was only about an hour outside of Josefov, after all.
Kafka wandered toward the door, lost in his thoughts. What was it that he wanted, really? He loved Felice; they were to be married within the year. And yet… the feel of Grete’s body, the scent of her salty skin in the afterglow of love, awoke something in him, something verboten, something that—
He stopped on the threshold of the bedroom.
Something was wrong.
The hallway had… changed.
The stairs were gone, and the corridor was completely dark. An eerie wind blew past him, moaning down the hall, and he felt very alone. Somewhat dizzy, even.
Kafka stepped back into the bedroom and shut the door. Was he ill? Could the cold and the wet have gotten to him so quickly?
He shook his head, squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again. After taking a few deep breaths, he decided to take one of the candles with him, then opened the door—
To find the hallway changing before his eyes.
The stones twisted and folded in on themselves at impossible angles, and an intense wave of vertigo slammed into Kafka, nearly knocking him flat.
He reached out an arm to grab the doorframe, steadying himself on shaky legs and fighting back nausea as he watched the hallway change into a cavernous ballroom lined with row after row of pillars. Torches crawled down them like creeping metal insects on innumerable legs, setting themselves into their assigned places about halfway down each column and flooding the chamber with light.
When the sensation of the floor moving beneath him had passed, Kafka noticed a red door at the other end of the ballroom.
He hesitated. Should he shut the door to the bedroom again? If he did that, what were the chances he’d open the door onto the first hallway—the one he actually wanted? Would the castle keep rearranging itself every time he opened this door?
He looked across the vast chamber at the red door on the other side. It seemed so very small from this distance. What if he got to it, and it remained the same size it was now? He’d never fit through.
Unless he got smaller as he walked toward it…
Kafka’s stomach revolted and he vomited upon the cold flagstones at his feet.
He had to get a grip on himself. He just had to keep a level head, and he’d be all right.
Taking several deep breaths, Kafka gathered his courage and moved toward the red door. It was better than constantly opening and closing this door and praying that he got the right hallway—at least this way he was doing something.
He walked forward, the candle shaking in his hands. Time seemed strange, seemed to
expand and contract around him. He felt like he was passing through thick, oily spiderwebs, and then suddenly he was at the other end of the chamber, standing at the door. It towered over him like a bloody, gaping mouth.
Kafka steeled himself and opened it.
A roaring wind of screaming voices enveloped him, snuffing out the candle in his hand, sucking him forward through the doorway. He saw nothing below him but a swirling, abyssal darkness.
At the last moment, he grasped for the doorframe—and missed.
Kafka screamed, his voice drowned out by the harrowing cries howling around him, and he tumbled into nothingness.
His last thought was of Grete.
But when Kafka awoke in another room of the castle, very much alive, his first thought was of Felice.
He could not say for certain how long he wandered the castle. Time was an abstract thought in this place. No sun shone through any windows he found, and neither moon nor stars.
The castle seemed to stretch on into infinity, filled with thousands of doors and windows that all led nowhere. Every window he looked out, and every door he opened, revealed that same cliff he’d found behind the red door, dropping off into that same unending darkness; and if it didn’t reveal the abyss, it revealed another room or hallway.
There were rooms containing vast libraries where Kafka spent lifetimes reading books that had never been published; there were chambers where he himself changed shape as he passed through them—vague, dream-like images impressed upon his memory were all that remained of his time as a giant vermin, a plush reading chair with a high, golden back, even a book of census data.
His back bent with age, and his beard grew into a curly, white blanket that hung past his knees. He supported himself with a pearl-handled cane he’d found at some point in his long imprisonment.
And always, his thoughts hovered around Felice. Though he had moments—bursts of memory—of his passionate infidelity with Grete, lust was soon replaced with an overwhelming weight of loss and sorrow as he fought to remember every detail of Felice’s face.
Kafka resigned himself to the fact that he would never be free of this infernal, infinite castle. He’d given up on death, on dying of the hunger and thirst that seemed to shrivel him up like a wet towel wrung free of water. He’d tried to end his miserable existence several times on his own: slit his wrists with the glimmering shard of a broken mirror; hung himself with his clothes; cut his own throat with a knife he’d found wandering through a kitchen that contained no trace of food; set himself on fire; impaled himself on candelabras; swallowed broken glass; broken his neck throwing himself down spiraling stairways; even tossed himself into the screaming abyss a few more times when he’d chanced across it again.
But it never took.
He’d only open his eyes again in another room of the castle, completely intact, as if nothing had ever happened.
And so he wandered about, waiting for the castle to be done with him, hoping it was soon, knowing that that day would probably never come. He knew, deep down, that he deserved this fate, this unending cycle of punishment, unending life, unending death.
His only regret was that he could not beg Felice her forgiveness.
At some point, as Kafka passed along a serpentine corridor intersected by another hallway that ended at a pair of heavy black doors, his tired mind was roused awake by the sound of frantic, panicked knocking.
Could it be? Or was this one more trick of the castle, meant only to torment him?
Kafka hesitated only a moment: when Felice’s cherubic face blossomed like a bright flower in his mind, brighter than it ever had been during his stay in this stone-walled prison, his choice was made for him.
He hobbled as quickly as he could to the black doors, his pearl-handled cane tap-tap-tapping along the stone floor, echoing in his hairy ears like laughter.
When he reached them, he threw his cane down with a crack and pushed the doors open.
Rain blew into the castle, pelting him like cold pinpricks. The air, so fresh. So alive. It smelled like wet pine and electricity. He stood for a moment, sucking in the freshness, the cold, the life.
A well-dressed man shivered in the rain on the front steps, his slick, dark hair thrown back from his face by the wind.
“Disculpe, señor,” the man said in a thick Argentinian accent, almost shouting over a cracking peal of thunder, “mi nombre es Jorge Luis Borges; la tormenta inundó el camino y debo capeare la noche en auto. Puedo entrar y usar tu teléfono?”
Kafka looked over the man’s shoulder: his car idled in the road.
The Argentinian followed Kafka’s gaze, then pointed at the car and nodded, gesturing to indicate the storm overhead. He mimed holding a telephone to his ear.
“Of course,” Kafka said, welcoming the Argentinian into the castle with a flourish of his gnarled hands and a yellow smile. “Please, do come in!”
Austin Shirey has been telling stories ever since he read The Hobbit as a kid. If he’s not writing, he’s probably reading or enjoying time with his wife and daughter in Northern Virginia. His fiction has been published in Stonecoast Review, Blind Corner Literary Magazine, and The Dribble Drabble Review.