Past Years’ Questions, a novella by L. Landsteiner
A body remains at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by a force.
-Newton’s First Law of Motion
Where there is no imagination there is no horror.
‘A Study in Scarlet’ (1888) ch. 5
Question 1: It isn’t autumn yet, or is it?
Children were laughing outside, playing with the carcass of a dead dove. They were running in the streets, piercing through a translucent curtain that hovered over criss-crossing roads. Some girls clad in thick attires were having a stroll while laughing with their petite mouths concealed behind their petite hands. The weather was cold and foggy when it ought to be pleasant.
That was why I didn’t want to leave my warm, sacred dwelling-place I called my room. This is where my rickety wooden table feels better than the most firm, luxurious pillow in the whole world. I buried my face under the little mountain of local periodical literary publications bestrewn over my table. It was much warmer here. This pretty little mountain, growing and growing with time, didn’t help much to make my decrepit little room look less crammed. I backhanded my ringlets of carroty hair back and buried by head deeper in. A dusty November 1894 ‘Fantastic Voyages’ caught my nose. I sneezed.
“Mary-Alice,” Mama was calling my name from the kitchen, shattering my siesta and my mood. Once I’m stuck in the flow, no force on Earth could get me off my chair—but fret not, I’m my mother’s little angel. “Coming, Mama.” I got off my chair and dashed off to the kitchen. If she had a chore for me to help with, better make it quick… and painless. I wasn’t in the mood for chores right now.
“Mary-Alice!” Mama called again, this time in a louder and a harsher tone. ‘Mary-Alice’… I like that name. It’s a clever combination of my parents’ first names, Marianne and Alistair. I, myself, am a peculiar mixture of my parents’ features. I had my mother’s curly hair (though mine’s a fiery variant) and my father’s bright green eyes… And freckles. Ah, freckles. They make my face look more severe… severe to the point of appearing to be unapproachable at first sight.
“Alice, there you are!” Mama spotted me quickly just as I stepped into the kitchen. The air smelled somewhat fruity. “Would you like to help me with something?” she asked me while tying her copper-coloured hair in a small bun.
I nodded—obediently, of course.
“Give this to Fritz,” said Mama, handing me a hand-woven fruit basket, “and send my regards to Aunt Louisa!”
Oh, Fritz! I had not seen him for quite a month! This might be a good opportunity for us to meet again, and have a nice conversation over his mother’s mouth-watering biscuits. Biscuits are so much better than chores.
“All right, I’ll go!” I fetched the basket from the dinner table and sprinted for the front door.
“Wait, Alice! Where do you think you’re going in those clothes? Where’s your coat? You’ll catch a cold outside in your sorry red dress!” I stopped at once and went back to my room to look for a coat and a shawl.
Layers of heat-insulating clothes later, I skipped to Fritz’s house, five houses away from mine—but as I walked closer, something that I heard halted my pace. An irate man’s voice.
Noises plagued my ear—his voice, broken glasses, a mother’s pleading cries and rebellious shouts of a boy. Sometimes, the boy would groan a little in pain. I walked even closer to hear the ‘conversation’ amongst the noises.
“You insane good-for-nothin’! All you do is givin’ me more and more problems, one after another! I should’ve sent you to the asylum, but what will people think? What will the neighbours say? I ‘ave an insane son that’s not even mine! An insane son that’s not even mine!” Chuck growled.
“I’m not insane!” Fritz shouted back, in a strange blend of British and Austrian accent. “Why can’t you understand?”
Suddenly, the door was slammed open, accompanied with a loud thud.
“Don’t you ever show up again, you blasted good-for-nothin’!” Chuck roughly drove Fritz out of the house and even pushed him down the doorsteps.
“Well,” Fritz got up on his knees and brushed himself. “If that pleases you.”
“Good, now leave at once!”
Fritz left the house with a piercing stare and these three words:
“I hate you!”
Then, he ran away.
“Wait, Fritz, I-“I called out to him, but to no avail.
What’s left for me to do? So, without further thinking, I ran after him, abandoning my basket of apples on the ground.
Friedrich Feuerbach, who we lovingly addressed as Fritz, is the only son of an Austrian immigrant couple. I could no longer remember how we met, but my parents told me that the story was something like this:
My mother and father were having a good time playing with me, aged three, when they heard something strange outside. It sounded like a sob, and sometimes a sigh. At first, nobody bothered about the noise, but it was my father who investigated. He opened the door and saw a boy crying in front of our house. His ash-white skin dirtied with soot, his caramel-blond hair ruffled, and his trousers around the ankles was singed a little. The boy was somewhere around my age, and he looked as if he had just escaped from a burning building, unharmed. Even now, at the age of fifteen, what had happened to him is still a mystery.
“Oh dear! Look at you! Are you alright?” my father asked him with a kind voice. The boy just gave him a blank stare, his huge bright eyes flickering.
“He’s still in shock, maybe. Try asking his name.” my mother gave her opinion.
“What’s your name, dear?” my father tried.
“Wie bitte?” The boy asked him back.
“Goodness! He spoke German just now?” my father turned to my mother.
“Well, I can only speak English, my dear.”
My father scratched his head. How can he help the boy who came out of nowhere and spoke German? He searched in his head for some rusty German gathered from factory work. Only a few Germans were known to migrate to our place, but my father had encountered enough of them at work to pick up a few phrases, like—
“Dein Name, bitte?” my father asked confidently, anticipating a positive result.
“Mein Na—me?” the boy pointed at himself.
My father nodded enthusiastically.
“Fritz!” he grinned.
Wait—Fritz? That name rang a bell in his head. Fritz, Fritz, Fritz…
He immediately ran into the house and searched for something in the newspapers while my mother was still outside, accompanying the boy. After a loud “Aha!” he ran back outside and flashed a newspaper page to my mother. In a triumphant pose, he announced his findings: “Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Feuerbach, a missing son of an Austrian immigrant couple, lost for months!”
So, he was returned to his family by my parents. The couple was very glad to have their child back into their arms. “My little treasure, my darling child—I knew you’ll return!” Louisa Feuerbach lifted the boy and kissed him in the cheek. “Thank you for returning my child. I don’t know what will happen to me if he—“
“Thank you, thank you very much!” Hermann Feuerbach shook my father’s hands. Tears welled in his deep blue eyes. “I don’t know how will I ever repay you!”
“There is no need for you to repay me. It’s my duty as a fellow citizen to help others.” My father said humbly and heroically—at least that’s what he said in his own account.
For his benevolent swift actions, my father was rewarded by a new job with Herr Feuerbach, a wealthy Austrian merchant, where he would be paid thrice of his present pay. For me, things went quite differently. Fritz had no friends. Since I was around the same age as his, Aunt Louisa wanted me to be his playmate. From that day, I was a regular face in the Feuerbach household. Together, we would play with toy trains, as we lay the tracks all around his erstwhile mansion, and sometimes we would play in his beautiful garden where we would climb up some poor, ill-fated trees. Bad things would happen when we play with toy blocks, as I would toss or hit one on his head. Oh, those childhood days!
Unfortunately, this happiness did not last long enough when the ship Herr Feuerbach boarded to America sank in an accident. He was never to be found again. Poor Fritz, he was only five and a half years at that time!
That was the beginning of his nightmares.
My thoughts were broken when I arrived at the Founders’ Park. My eyes scanned the surroundings for Fritz. I was very worried about him. Look at the sorry state he was in!
“Fritz, where are you?” I shouted.
“Fritz?” I called out his name again.
Only silence remained. The leaves of tall trees swayed in the air, but something was strange… really strange. It was not autumn yet, but a tree in the far right of the park had only brown leaves at its branches, and a heap of fallen leaves lay under it.
“Fritz? Is that you?”
I approached the strange tree and brushed away the leaves from the ground, and found poor Fritz, buried under them, his face stained with tears.
“I thought whose corpse is this!” I remarked facetiously.
“Let me perish, buried.” He took my joke too seriously.
“Silly boy! No one ever died being buried underneath a heap of leaves!”
“Well then, let me!” he shifted his gaze upwards. “I’m going over the skies.”
His deep-set, brilliant china blue eyes were bloodshot. Usually his eyes eclipsed his petite features, but today those eyes were lacking in lustre, his thin lips were almost white and his straight nose was marked by scratches from his previous fall. Fritz had a tall, gracefully slender frame clad in a light white shirt and dark brown trousers. Brown leaves were tangled on his mess of matching chestnut-coloured hair. Stark in contrast was his pallid, consumptive-like complexion—presumably coveted by upper-class women. All in all, a breakable twig in autumn.
The morning breeze blew as time seemed to freeze for both of us. I sat patiently waiting for his mind to clear. My wait was not in vain when he began to shoot up from the heap of leaves and rubbed his eyes. He tossed his messy chestnut forelock back and dragged his hand down to his neck with a deep exhalation. I was relieved for a moment for I thought that I had lost him.
“It happened,” his hands spontaneously fiddling the lush green grass, “and it might be that I was the trouble all along.”
“No, you’re not. It wasn’t you. It’s him.” I said, contemptuous.
“Maybe he’s right. What if I am insane?” he buried his face between his knees. “What if the words they say are true?”
“You need not to trouble yourself for others’ prejudice, Fritz.” I tried to comfort him.
“How does it concern you?” he glared at me.
“I’m your friend, remember?”
“Indeed!” he grunted. “But, I have to break free from this problem. Now I must find a cure!”
“A cure? What is the problem you want to cure? I see no problem in you.”
“A problem deep within?” he raised his thin eyebrows. “It’s beyond your field of vision.”
“You are mistaken!” I strengthened my stand. “You don’t have to-“
“Think, my dear Alice, where should I stay now? My home is no longer mine. How can I live with a dark fate on one shoulder, and a flaw on another?”
I lowered my gaze and realised that fact. I should not be so rough to him. But it was not his fault that he was treated like this. It was the callousness of the people around him. How they treated him back then at school, how the children in the neighbourhood used to ridicule him—he never received any better treatment. Should I let him settle this problem his way? Should I let him try to convalesce by his own will? Maybe I should give him a chance. As a friend, I should.
“If that is what you fancy, whatever that brings joy to you will bring joy to me, too. I’ll let you go your own way, but whatever happens, know that I’m always by your side.” I reconciled with his feelings, and played the part of a faithful listener. “So, how will you solve it?”
“Brilliant!” he stood up. “A final solution, that is!”
A final solution? That phrase could be anything. Had he surrendered to the darkest corners of his mind and—
“By the way, Alice, do you remember the doctor who we loved to ridicule so much, each time we pass by his asylum?” his eyes lightened, “That Cumbersome Cumberland, as people called him. As a proclaimed master in the problems of the mind, he might help to cure me!”
“If you’re looking for a place to stay—do stay at my house. Our doors are always open for you.”
“Thank you! That’s very nice of you, Alice! Will I not be a burden to your family?”
“No, not at all. We’re like a family, right?”
Fritz was a tad delighted, but I was still irked by the fact that he kept branding himself as someone insane. Still, I just let him go with the flow—unless he got too far, then I have to come to his salvation. A little excursion would help to ease his pain and be a chance to relive our childhood memories of leg-pulling with the poor doctor. That should make him better, maybe? Then, he will stop rambling about his ‘insanity’.
What was the problem that others like to dismiss as insanity?
It was his hyperactive imagination.
He’s always seeing things. Every day, he’ll claim seeing strange things like a flying cat descending the roof on one day, and a cloud of butterflies carrying him up the roof on another. The latter was what he said when his stepfather found him sitting on the roof, legs freely kicking in the air. With a little help from the neighbours, he was finally brought down. Just as he got back inside the house, he received a sound beating from his stepfather. At that time, he was seven.
Many similar incidents happened, too many that I cannot even write them down now. When it comes to those, people around him had only one word: insane. Little Fritz had been declared that hideous, malicious word for so many times that it had left a mark of disgrace on him. Since no heart in this world was willing to understand him, or see through this eccentric exterior—Friedrich Feuerbach was humiliated, ostracised, ridiculed, battered. Even through these storms, each morning he would still greet me with his best warm smile, while his skin was ornamented by bruises and cuts. However, the smile had long since faded, and he no longer had the ability to give one. If he did smile, that moment was very rare.
This incident, this very morning, was the peak of a life-long persecution.
Why, I ask, while Fritz is the most presentable boy I had ever known, and so much different from any other boys? He never hurt anyone and never lied to anyone. He had decent manners too, despite his awkward, naïve demeanour. For a boy who believed in ‘happily-ever-afters’, he is naïve… and special. But no one ever noticed that.
No one ever noticed the qualities that make him special—in particular this one quality of his that had captured me.
His eloquence—or to be exact—his flair as a storyteller.
One day, when we were eleven, we sat by a lake in the Founders’ Park. Fritz was stretching out his legs in the open, while I clutched mine close to me. We had been staring on that little swan swimming around in the lake for God knows how long, and now getting weary of it.
“Any brilliant ideas?” I asked in a dropping tone.
“Wait,” he was dabbing the painting in the black sketchbook he held.
“Wait for what?”
He took out his brush and added some finishing details to the picture, “Almost done!”
I was getting more bored than ever until I heard a loud shout of “Behold!” from Fritz.
He showed his painting to me. Believe me, it was a very irksome idea to paint a view that I even got tired of staring at… but with Fritz’s fine touch, it turned out amazing! The glory of the young swan captured in watercolours. I marvelled at the painting for a moment.
“What a lovely thing!” What a compliment.
“This,” he pointed at the painting, “reminds me of something. My father once had bought a book—a good one—and I had never forgotten it ever since. It was an adult’s book, of course, but it had captured my interest.”
“About a swan?”
He nodded. “Quite a swan.”
“What do you mean by ‘quite’?” I asked.
“Want me to tell you a story?”
Fritz loves to tell stories, though I am his sole audience since the first time we met. He would mesmerise me by the tales he told for his eloquence never failed to bring a story to life. What a storyteller! Never mind his Austrian accent, there was something British about his manner of speech. The melody, the tune… they were absolutely British. Though raised by Austrian parents, he grew up here, where the Queen’s English is used in everyday life.
“Why not?” Oh, why should I resist that?
He began to describe a poignant story to me. About an ordinary commoner who ascended through dire circumstances as a king. He was loved by his people, wise in rule and victorious in battle. However, a revolution took place, and in the end, he was finally overthrown—before being mercilessly slain by the revolutionaries. His body was later disposed in a lake in the castle’s garden. The novel? Undeniably, “The Swan Song” by famous author Madeline Eden.
His expressions, those vivid gestures, the graphic details—all these made this story very real. I could even see the king strutting before my eyes, walking and talking in front of us. It felt so real, yet I was very sure that it was only in my mind. Reality and imagination were spliced into one in a strange way. His stories had always been powerful, but certainly not as strange as this one. An uncanny feeling crept into me. Oh, goodness! I must be seeing things, I thought. What were they? My mind was welled with confusion. Were they passing pictures generated by my imagination or something I could not comprehend? Were they an aftermath of Fritz’s detailed descriptions, stirring my feelings this intense that I nearly screamed when the king’s corpse was tossed into the lake (that lake) by the revolutionaries? Splashes of water formed small rainbows in mid-air. I gripped the grass in my hands firmer. I was petrified.
Perhaps I was overcome by his vivid story that I gave my imagination a full, free reign—but only when he finished the story had the imagery all vanished at once.
And not at my will.
“Are you coming with me?” Fritz’s voice brought me back to reality.
I had a loss of words. I could not make up my mind. Why he should even bother to go visit the asylum? (Though he just wanted an advice from the doctor, not applying as a new inmate!) That puzzled me a lot. I was truly perplexed!
Think, Mary-Alice, think!
Let an experienced psychiatrist calm him down and assure that he’s perfectly fine and there’s not a single thing wrong with him. Then, he’ll regain his self-confidence!
Be rational, Alice!
There was one fact I have to consider too. Maybe he’s tired of being persecuted and craved for a better change in life. If this is the only way for Fritz to have a better future, and for him to smile again, I shall try my best to help him. Besides, he is, to me, like an older brother (by 3 months and a day).
Now, a firm decision was made.
Worry not, Fritz, I’ll try to fix you.
“Say you will,” He stared at me, his eyes imploring as he spoke.
A/N: This is my half-baked attempt at writing a fanfiction. DISCLAIMER—the characters of this story are not mine! They are inspired by characters from various shows I loved. I give you a hint: Dib will show up. But not now as I’m saving the best for last!XD
Hope you enjoy the story, and its highly traumatising title.