Austrian authors are using works of art offered at Dorotheum as their literary inspiration. The result? A fascinating series in the Dorotheum myART MAGAZINE! Following Heinrich Steinfest’s science fiction story from myART MAGAZINE no. 13, Doris Knecht guides the protagonist Judith through a fast-paced inner monologue. Old Testament, reloaded.
by Doris Knecht
Four more days. Four days left for God to intervene and save Betulia. We have run out of water. The Assyrians have failed to penetrate Bethulia’s defences, but they have cut off the city’s water supply. We will die of thirst or surrender; those are the options – if God does not intervene. For thirty-five days we have been besieged, trapped inside our city. There’s no water left for my animals, they scream day and night. The crops wither in the fields, people are desperate, moaning fills the air day and night and hope is rapidly dwindling. What are we to do? We can’t hold out much longer. We have prayed to God every day, but He has sent us no signs. He hasn’t helped us; He won’t help us. Yesterday, the wise elders presented God with an ultimatum. I heard it from my maid, who had heard it at the well, the dried out well where the maidservants gather every day with their empty jugs to moan and share fresh rumours and their stories of despair, because nothing else is left to bring back home. If God fails to save us within the next five days, the city shall surrender and along with it all its people, those were the terms. The attackers will destroy us as they have destroyed all others that have opposed them. All is lost if God does not help us now. We will be lost.
I lay awake all night that night, filled with fear. Shadows played on the walls, outside my bedroom window a full moon slowly passed across the sky, round and heavy. It was intensely hot in the room. I cast off the blanket and bared my naked skin, wet with perspiration. I thought of Manasses, my Manasses. I miss him so much. I would be less fearful, I thought, if he was by my side. It’s been three years since God took him away one day while he was working in the field. A merciless sun bore down on him as he laboured tirelessly with the crops, and eventually the heat killed him. I am alone in the dark nights with my worries now, alone with the dread that haunts us day and night. We are besieged, surrounded, trapped. We will die of thirst and starvation if God does not help us. Weary voices speak louder and louder of surrender. As if that too wouldn’t be the end of us. As if surrender wouldn’t be followed by massacre, of us and our children. As if we weren’t all dead anyway. During the day there is work to do, fields and animals that need tending to, servants and maidservants and their chatter to distract my mind. And God, whom I trust, during the day. During the day there’s still a small flicker of hope that God’s salvation might yet come. The nights, however, are dark and silent. Only the crying of children can be heard, and the moaning of the suffering animals. And Manasses is no longer here to ease my dread.
When the period of mourning ended, well-meaning people told me: You are still beautiful, you can find another man. You can still have a family, children, you are young and so very beautiful, but I didn’t want anyone else. I only ever wanted Manasses, even after his death he remained the only man for me. After that chapter of my life had closed, I started wondering if maybe there was an altogether different destiny in life for me, another task to fulfil. As my grief gradually subsided, I felt a strength starting to grow inside me which I had never known existed, which I had not dared believe existed, not as long as Manasse had been there, as long as he was my strength. Manasse’s muscles had been mine, and after he left I felt for the first time that I have muscles of my own. They grow stronger for every day that passes. I have my loyal maid too who never leaves my side.
I was awake half the night, listening to the peaceful snoring of the maid from the room next to mine, before finally dozing off myself. That was when God sent me the dream. He sent me an image: The face of Holofernes, commandeering general of the Assyrian army. I’ve never laid eyes on Holofernes, I have no concept of his features. Nevertheless I knew with certainty that the face in my dream was that of Holofernes. Stories are told about the monstrous cruelty of Holofernes, his malice, his mercilessness. But his face in my dream was soft and motionless, the skin under his black hair almost white, his mouth slightly open, the eyelids closed. Suddenly his eyelids shot open and a primal, perpetual terror jumped at me from those eyes, a black, endless abyss threatened to swallow me up. Then I woke up. As I gradually came to, another image from the dream lingered with me, that of a huge sword with a richly decorated handle resolutely held by a delicate hand. The image jolted me awake as I realized with sudden clearity: It had been my own hand. My hand, one of the fingers adorned by the gold ring that Manasses had once placed there, the ring I will never again remove. I opened my eyes, stared into the still dark grey twilight and I knew what had to be done.
I have come here to convey my dream, to explain its consequences. I brought my maid along. The wise elders have gathered, frightened and trembling like little children. Their strength has expired, all that is left is fear. They are ready to surrender, ready for submission. They have prayed to God and made sacrifices in his honour, but God seems not to have heard their calls. Faith is abandoning them, the fools, fragile as it is. Their faith is worthless. They are God-fearing, but weak. Hope has left them; how could it be any different? But I…I know what needs to be done.
I knew from the moment I awoke this morning that this would be a special day, a great day, possibly the most important day ever. I wasn’t afraid. As night turned to day, the outlines of my chamber and everything in it gradually took shape: Stool, table, bowl, jug. The maid was up already and had started a fire. I got out of bed, prayed and got dressed. When the maid came into my room, I could tell she was astonished to find me dressed not in drab everyday attire, but in my brightest festive robes. She asked no questions, and when I told her about my dream she merely nodded. I revealed my plan to her too and saw in her face no trace of fear or hesitation. She is strong, like me. She has been my confidante and pillar of support since Manasses left me. With her help I put on the golden jewellery that Manasses had bought me for our wedding day. I know he would have agreed with what I intend to do.
I stand before the wise elders now, having told them about my dream. They welcomed me cordially, surprised at my appearance before them. To them I am merely a beautiful, weak woman. I’m but a poor, God-fearing widow, trying as best she can to go on after the death of her protector and provider. They wonder why I have not yet been wed to another man. They don’t know what bubbles inside of me, they have no understanding of the strength a woman can possess. They know nothing of her fortitude of will and thought, nothing of her courage and determination.
Four days left. I will visit Holofernes today. Holofernes is a man, he is a warrior, he has been fighting for many years. Men are easily dazzled by a woman like me, warriors even more so. Holofernes is an easy target. I know what to do. I had a dream, and the dream is a command. I know what to do and I am finally ready.
Doris Knecht is an Austrian freelance columnist and fiction writer. She has written five novels „Gruber geht“, „Besser“, „Wald“, „Alles über Beziehungen“ and finally „weg“ that were all published by German publishing house Rowohlt Berlin. She lives with her family and friends alternately in Vienna and the rural Waldviertel region.
INFORMATION about the AUCTION
Auction date: Old Master Paintings auction, 22nd October 2019, 5 p.m.
Location: Palais Dorotheum, Dorotheergasse 17, 1010 Vienna
Exhibition: 12th October 2019 – 22nd October 2019
Contact: Damian Brenninkmeyer, specialist for Old Master Paintings at Dorotheum