Heinrich Böll Memorial Essay Writing Competition, 2009© By Gareth McNamara 2009
A spasm of pain crossed Padraic’s face.
“Come on,” I said, “Let me pull that tooth; it may hurt a bit but it must be done. You won’t be a really nice chap until its done; have your teeth put right, anyway I feel like an itinerant dentist.”
The man named Konrad Brandt moved about frantically, flitting like a sun-blinded bat around the damp dark cell. His small, round glasses kept sliding down his sweat-slicked nose and his hand reached up every few seconds to push them back into place. He crossed once more to the workbench in the corner of the room, out of my sight; I tried to ease my breathing, ears straining to identify the sounds coming from the corner. I could hear the low clunk of metal on metal and the gentle flapping of fabric. There was a soft squealing, like the wheels of a child’s toy car spinning, then suddenly Brandt reappeared in front of me, looking even more like a bat in the gray apron now covering his pristine green Stasi uniform. There were brownish-red blotches on the fabric. I knew they weren’t coffee stains.
He dragged my chair across the floor, into the corner, the metal legs screeched in protest as they scraped the bare cement, echoing my own sentiments. If I hadn’t been gagged, I’d have been screaming. Turning my neck as far as my restraints would allow, I caught a glimpse of the workbench, grimy pliers and vice-grips scattered across its surface. I could see now where the squealing had originated- a vice at the corner of the bench lay agape, open just wide enough to accommodate…
Brandt tilted my chair backwards, laying my head gently inside the jaws of the vice as one would lay an infant in a cradle to rest. Unintelligible, spit-drenched protests attempted to escape past my gag; Brandt ignored me, turning the handle of the vice. The jaws closed in, holding my head painfully in place. Tears of terror welled in my eyes. Brandt barked an order to a nameless giant of a man who had been standing at the door. The man stood at Brandt’s side and with Herculean hands removed my gag, wrenched my tightly closed jaws apart and held them open. My screams shattered the relative silence of the cell. I found the sound of my fear somehow reassuring- it meant I was still alive. Brandt leered disgustedly at me.
“You call yourself a man, defector. You repulse me.” He picked a large vice-grips up off the workbench, slowly opening its metal maw. He began moving it towards my gaping mouth.
I had had a lot of practice, I was a good dentist already and if the patient is a nice chap one goes about it more carefully than when one does a routine job, merely from a sense of duty.
The first explosion of blood and pain was a shock, but it was by no means the worst. Brandt drew the vice-grips from my mouth, holding my pre-molar before my eyes, an artist proud of work. My vision swam under more tears as I choked down my own blood, rendering the extracted tooth a white spot on the freshly red-stained fabric of Brandt’s apron. I barely heard his question over the throbbing of my heartbeat, my survival instinct screaming futilely to me to escape.
“Who was helping you? Who was aiding you and the others in your defection? Who was the truck driver?”
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. I had to leave the others some hope, some chance of escape.
“Yes,” he said, “It hurts and it’ll go on hurting for a few days until all the pus runs out.”
“It will hurt until I will it not to, “Brandt murmured, regarding me with a faint sadistic amusement, like a man considering a challenging puzzle, “I can make the pain stop, but not unless you tell me what I desire to know.”
I looked up at him, eyes full of moisture, as he readjusted his glasses again. I made a deep growling noise in my throat and, with all the force I could muster as Brandt’s ape held my mouth open, expelled a mixture of saliva and blood into my captor’s face. The red splashed across his glasses. His lips curled into a snarl as he removed them and wiped them on his apron. He threw the vice-grips roughly onto the workbench, his hand reaching for another instrument outside my field of vision. He replaced the glasses on the bridge of his nose and held another tool in front of my face- a needle-nosed pliers, gleaming in the dim light of the cell. He jammed the pliers inside my mouth, digging the sharp points into the exposed nerve where my tooth had been. I twisted and thrashed in agony, pain shooting through me. More blood poured into my mouth and I gagged again, straining to breathe.
“Don’t forget to rinse your mouth.”
By the time I answered Brandt’s questions and betrayed my allies to the Stasi, I had not a tooth remaining in my head. Back on a chair in the center of the cell, I hung my head, watching the blood dripping from between my lips, bursting forth in two-dimensional explosions of colour on the dull cement floor.
In the corner of the room, Brandt and his ape delivered the information to their commanding officer. I could see Brandt’s sneering lips moving as he fiddled with his glasses, but all I could hear were the words of Heinrich Böll, telling of a discussion in a bar in a far-off country that I knew now I would never get to experience.
“Good work,” Henry said to me, “You seem to have done a thorough job.”“One does one’s best,” I said modestly, “And I’ve got into the habit now of pulling a certain tooth for someone every evening. I know exactly which one it is; by this time I’ve become quite the expert in political dentistry and I do it thoroughly and with no anaesthetic.”
Political dentistry. Strange how words meant to convey something very different could describe so aptly this brutality. I thought of how Herr Böll would be distraught at the butchery the double meaning of his words could convey. I knew now that I would never see the sights Böll described in his Irisches Tagebuch; never walk the streets of Limerick, or the shores of Achill Island, never stand at Swift’s grave and wonder at the depth of his epitaph. I would not even reach the other side of the wall. For me, life ended with the loss of my teeth. Like Samson shaved bald, without them I was a weak, hollow and mortal man. They shot me.
So time stands still, and rivers of dark beer flow through the summer day and night, while the police sleep the sleep of the just.
Many years later, my sister’s son had grown-up and had a daughter of his own- Liesl. When the Berlin wall came down, and the headquarters of the Stasi were searched and the true scope of their paranoid mass surveillance and espionage was unveiled, a jar of teeth with my name on it was found amongst a room full of sweat soaked towels and underpants, all labeled with the name of the person they’d belonged to- their identifying scents for use by the Stasi’s tracking dogs. This jar was delivered to my nephew’s family.
On a bright summer’s morning, when my grand-niece had just begun to walk, my nephew and his wife brought her to where a piece of the wall still stood on the ground where the border had once been. My nephew carried his daughter over to the East side of the slab and in young Liesl’s hand placed a glass jar full of teeth. Liesl eyed the jars contents curiously, her star-shaped hands attempting to reach through the clear glass to reach the strange white objects inside. My nephew’s wife stood on the East side of the slab and with a mother’s smile called her daughter to her.
Slowly, toddling along, each step a carefully calculated maneuver, Liesl walked to her mother, the jar clutched tightly in her star-shaped hands. As she stepped across the invisible border, beneath the July sun, a journey that had taken over a decade was completed. It had not been an easy one. It had been a journey of pain and suffering, of regrets. Many friends had been lost along the way. My grandniece- a little child- had had to carry me those last few steps. But it was completed.
I was free.
1. Extracts from Irish Journal by Heinrich Böll, translated to English by Leila Vennewitz.
2. This is a work of fiction. I apologize unreservedly for any historical inaccuracies.