THEY called him old Hans, and he had once been a celebrity patient of the German Mental Health and Clinical Psychiatry field. He was Baden Baden’s Psychiatric Social Centre’s oldest patient, and certainly the oldest human in the entire building and possibly the entire region. However, nobody knew how old he was precisely; he had been found roaming and raving in the grounds of a decaying medieval abbey fifty miles to the south of Baden Baden in 1960 dressed in filthy rags of some peculiar antique clothing and without any form of identification. When found, he could hardly communicate coherently and spoke in an arcane form of Old High German.
His pathetic figure was seen wandering within the ruins of the cloisters, shouting, gesticulating and collapsing intermittently in a kind of trance of terror. Plague and the terror has come for me were the only intelligible words that came from his mouth.
He was discovered by an observant long-distance truck driver who had noticed the remote figure staggering between the stone arches of the decrepit structure many times as he drove past the abbey on the nearby motorway. Both daytime and night, the crazy person wandered back and forth and initially the driver assumed he was seeing a supernatural figure, perhaps a medieval phantom with an ancient grievance that the 20th century was indifferent to. One day he parked his truck on the service road, entered the abbey grounds and was astonished to meet a flesh and blood elderly man looking malnourished and in a state of delirium.
The authorities were called. Nurses were assigned and social workers briefed. Police missing persons files were opened and consulted. Attempts to interview him failed, not because Hans was uncooperative but because the German he spoke seemed hundreds of years old.
“Imagine you are English and speaking to somebody from Chaucer’s time Inspector,” said Dr Rolf Englehart, a professor of Medieval German at Stuttgart University. He’d volunteered to interpret for the interviews. He was speaking to Inspector Schwarz of Baden Baden Police, who’d been drafted in to identify the man and unravel his backstory.
“It wasn’t easy to follow his explanation. The obsolete vocabulary, the unfamiliar verb inflections…I had to use the context to infer a lot of the meaning, and plenty of guesswork you understand?” The professor was relishing his explanation, flavouring his words with the self-congratulation of the published specialist that made Schwarz loathe academics. Spare me the intellectual grandstanding man, he thought, and just tell me who he is and what’s happened to him. A doctor was also present in the hospital room with pen and notepaper in hand and a half-smoked cigarette drooping from his mouth. Hans was convalescing in a nearby ward being fed liquid protein drinks to regain his strength. The medics were amazed he had survived for so long out in the elements.
“He says he is a prince from a distinguished noble house.”
The doctor, an intern by the name of Klein, guffawed at this which Schwarz thought was an inappropriate response for a medical professional but he said nothing.
“And that the last memory he has is of hosting a grand masked ball in his abbey during the time of a terrible plague that barrelled through Europe in the 14th century. Although the gates of this abbey were steel and sealed shut, the infection was somehow carried into the place, infected all the revellers—I’m sure he used the word revellers—and they died.”
Klein, perhaps deprived of entertainment in his personal life, grinned, blew sceptical, nicotine-scented air through his lips and shook his head in rational surrender to the situation. Schwarz, more willing to suspend disbelief, wanted to probe more.
“Is there nothing else he can tell us?” he asked Englehart. “Doesn’t he have any family?”
“Not that he can recall. He can’t even tell me his name. He says he doesn’t remember,” replied the linguist. “Whatever happened in that masquerade, whenever it happened, left him seriously traumatized.”
“Great. I have an elderly vagrant speaking in a derelict kind of German with amnesia who believes he is a nobleman over six hundred years old haunted by a mysterious viral episode from his past. What a file this is going to produce for my commanding officer!” Schwarz was approaching retirement. Although a conscientious police officer, he wished less taxing investigations for his desk in the twilight period of his working life.
Schwarz turned to Klein. “Does he have such an infection doctor?”
“No, apart from being dehydrated, malnourished and very weak he’s in good health for a man of his age,” said Klein with his arms folded. “However, The old boy’s obviously senile. In my opinion he has dementia and it’s clear he’s going to need an evaluation and placement into a care environment for what remains of his life,” said Klein curtly. He had a girlfriend to meet, a shapely young woman he’d met at a local market, and he didn’t want to become more deeply involved in this nonsense than he had to. He’d done the initial cursory physical examination of Hans, typed up the notes, and now the orderlies and psychiatrists could take over. He wanted to clock off.
“Well, doctor, I don’t know whether this will support that hypothesis or not,” said Englehart with a quizzical frown, “But when I asked him what his fiefdom was called, he replied that it was a Reich der Illusion.”
Klein let out a low whistle, Schwarz frowned, and Englehart shrugged with detachment.
Reich der Illusion. Schwarz tossed the phrase around his mind. The enigma of this strange old man was beyond his investigative powers and the resources of his department. There was something peculiar about this episode and yet something strangely familiar about the fragment of the fantastic tale that the man had told. However hard he tried, he could not dredge the association from the dense silt of his life’s experiences and impressions. The link to a story read long ago eluded him.
After further unsuccessful nationwide attempts to identify him from hospital records of birth, and from parish records going back several centuries, Hans was finally consigned to living John Doe status and accommodated within the Republic of Germany’s community mental health infrastructure and given a place in the Baden Baden Psychiatric Social Centre.
After several inconclusive attempts at classifying him and disagreements between prominent psychiatrists vying to make the diagnosis and win the plaudits and research grant funds to write papers and later books about him, it was agreed that he had an acute form of dementia that generated an elaborate form of memory distortion aggravated by what they supposed to be Han’s very fertile imagination.
He was placed on a ward, initially, with fellow sufferers of age, infirmity and mental impairments. It was Lotte, one of the jovial nurses who named him Hans.
“Guten morgen Hans,” she’d say each morning as she collected bedpans, adjusted the less mobile patients and did checks of medication charts.
“How are you this morning?”
Hans would mutter an incomprehensible response with a giant smile displaying the abundant network of wrinkles on his wolfish face whose large aqua line nose and full moustache gave him the rakishness of an aristocrat, or so Lotte thought. She admitted that he was an attractive man, even though he was ancient.
After initially settling into the ward and interacting with the other patients in a limited way due to his incomprehensible dialect, his behaviour became erratic. He became very agitated, always at midnight, getting out of his bed and pacing the ward crying out that ‘the bloody demon, the lord of death’ was coming for him. The other patients were roused by the commotion and joined in, wailing high-pitched laments in a deafening orchestra of distress that could be heard outside the building.
“There he is!” Hans would scream, pointing to the same empty corner of the room each time as the orderlies restrained him and the doctors prepared tranquilizers. After these episodes, the psychiatrists would confer and add hallucinogenic episodes to his notes, add and subtract words to his diagnosis and recommended psychotropic medication.
Over time, Hans became calmer and his panic attacks decreased. As he interacted with the staff and lucid patients more, including an erudite but schizophrenic former professor of History, his twentieth century vocabulary developed and his grammar updated itself until he was holding colloquial conversations and demonstrating a saucy wit and a talent for puns. He briefly became a celebrity in the mid nineteen sixties when word of his story reached journalists’ ears. He was visited, photographed and even interviewed for television by one reporter after another who introduced him to the cameras with the same clichés:
Hans is the man without a past or it seems, any memory of his previous life. When he was found five years ago pacing around windswept ruins on the outskirts of the city, he did not have a name, a birth certificate or even a past. Dressed in rags, on the verge of starvation, and speaking a strange language, the only thing he could recall was experiencing a plague a long time ago. Since being admitted to the centre, he has put on weight, made friends and even joined a chess club.
However, he still cannot recall his identity despite deep regression hypnosis sessions. His claims to be an aristocrat of German noble ancestry have been dismissed as delusions typical of the form of dementia he’s been diagnosed with. However, Hans has gladly let go of the past and is focused on making the most of the present.
The report switched to a ten second talking head segment with Lotte who said that after a rough settling in period at the centre, Hans had really ‘come out of his shell’ and become a popular patient on the ward because he was jovial. It helped that he could now speak normal German, she added.
“Ja. My life before now was a bit of a blur. I just have these impressions of living a long time ago and living through something bad, but I try not to think about those times. Whatever they were, they are in the past now,” said Hans cheerily with a cup of coffee in his hand and the microphone parked under his face for the obligatory brief interview with the subject of the report. He was very relaxed and sitting in the sun on a patio outside.
“Although my memory is hazy, I think I am in the twentieth century now and I am enjoying it,” he said rounding off the interview with a crusty laugh. The interviewer was full of admiration for this old man’s positivity, and he was amazed at the man’s naturalness in front of the camera as well. He’s got star quality was the notion that ran through his mind.
Hans read books. He digested many reference works, available in the centre’s respectable library, on many topics. However, it was psychology that interested him most of all. He was fascinated by Jung and the Collective Unconscious theory. He spent hours re-reading the passages by lamplight in the private room that his special patient status now afforded him. He was flattered to have a surprise visit from Erich Fromm, a respected émigré psychologist touring his native country after years in exile. They talked privately in his room while photographers documented the visit, clasping their bulky cameras and flash bulbs outside for when the respected sage emerged to give his verdict.
“This is a highly individualized man, who has had mythical experiences,” said the psychologist while declining to elaborate on the substance of their discussion. “What we discussed is confidential, but I will tell you this,” he added as he headed for the exit. “This old man does not have dementia. His mental faculties are exceptionally sharp. He is very aware.” On the plane back to Mexico, the phrase Reich der Illusion tantalized Fromm with its imaginative possibilities.
More years passed and public interest in Hans waned. Germany had other concerns, which he followed on his television. He saw grainy footage of bombed buildings and the burnt wreckage of cars followed by a wanted gallery of severe looking men and women accompanied by a caption reading Baader Meinhof. A decade later he saw mobilized idealists chanting at a wall with candles in their hands. They swayed and then, as if cued by one of the collective impulses described by Jung, attacked the wall with picks and hammers.
Through reading and other media, he slowly assembled the jigsaw of history of this weird century he found himself reborn in as an elderly man. He had not had flashbacks of the terrible night of the masquerade ball for over a decade. Time, it seemed, had buried them and replaced them with this new life as the mysterious old man from the 1960s confined to this psychiatric clinic. He was now a forgotten relic, a curio from the past stored in this place like a discarded toy left in an attic covered by the cobwebs of neglect. However, he had no complaints; he had been well looked after and after over twenty years of residency was a mortal pillar of the institution. He was living history and evidence of its commitment to caring for the old and vulnerable.
One day in the late nineteen eighties Christina, the nurse who had replaced Lotte who’d retired, told him that he had a visitor. A stern looking, solidly built man in his seventies was shown into the room. He greeted Hans, removed his scarf and homburg and took a chair next to his bed. His face meant nothing to Hans, but from the vast catalogue of faces he’d studied in books, magazines and television programmes over the years he knew that this was a respected man. The firmness of the jaw. The calm, confident gaze. The lack of uncertainty in his presence and actions. The way he’d thanked Christina and dismissed her gave Hans the impression that he was a leader in this hospital administration. He was a man of authority.
“How are you Hans?” he said. “It’s been a very long time.”
“Good morning sir. Have you come to interview me about my unusual life?” Hans asked.
“Not exactly, but if you don’t mind my intruding on you for a short while I did want a chat. My name’s Schwarz and I was the police officer who tried to find your family all those years ago.”
“Oh! So you are Inspector Schwarz. It’s a pleasure to meet you finally,” said Hans effusively as he extended his hand.
“I was told about you of course, but we never met.”
“No. You were very weak and confused at the time and—you probably won’t remember this—you were speaking in a rather strange German,” Schwarz replied with a gentle laugh.
“Yes, I heard about that,” said Hans scratching his whiskery beard. “It’s just incomprehensible isn’t it?”
“You’re looking well Hans, I must say.”
Extraordinary, thought Schwarz. He has not aged in any way since 1960. Hadn’t any of the doctors noticed this?
“Hans. I kept my notes of what you told professor Englehart when you were admitted here,” he said pulling out a crumpled notebook. Hans watched with fascination and apprehension. Memories of his previous life were nothing but a montage of misty, decaying impressions which led by divergent paths to the same ultimate vision of a caped figure in a scarlet mask standing over him clutching his ticket to mortality. Occasionally this figure re-surfaced in dreams, appearing suddenly in the middle of weird but pleasant interludes of sleep theatre featuring his guests from the masked ball floating around the hospital on chairs.
The phantom appeared and turned them to dust just by touching them. His friends disintegrated and then the figure, whose mask had black, hollow sockets where eyes should have been, and whose garment was soaked in blood, lifted its hand and beckoned him. Hans had no desire to revisit this territory with Schwartz or do anything to summon this demon from its sarcophagus of the past.
“You mentioned that you were a prince hundreds of years ago living in an opulent palace and that you were hosting a banquet and dance for fellow nobles during a deadly epidemic.” Hans listened reluctantly, thinking of a way to steer Schwarz’s curiosity away from this topic.
“And that at an uninvited guest gate-crashed, if you will, the party and purposefully infected everybody present. Is that what happened to you Hans?”
“Inspector, these were nothing but impressions I had then, and they have changed significantly over time. They are not a very reliable guide to my past, which I have so tragically forgotten so much of.”
Schwarz nodded, sensing his interlocutor’s edginess.
“Do you think those experiences were real? Did they feel real?”
Hans shifted in his chair and screwed up his face in agitation, now uncomfortable with this stranger’s presence. He sighed and looked anywhere but into the eyes of his visitor.
“This is all ancient history really Mr Schwarz. I trust you understand that it can get a bit tiresome having to recount it again and again.”
“Yes, of course,” said Schwarz sympathetically while paying attention to his detective’s instinct that Hans had something to hide. He was holding out, shielding something shocking from the world.
“But since it is clear you are determined to talk about this, what is it that you wish to know?”
“Only what you think really happened to you Hans,” replied Schwarz. “You can understand yours was the strangest case I was ever involved in in my career. For years, I’ve wondered what really happened to you and who you are. You could say I still feel frustrated that I failed to find your family, and your name and to close your case. So, I suppose it’s a kind of final closure I’m seeking now before it’s too late.” He said this dreamily, with a wistful smile that had its desired disarming effect.
“Very well,” said Hans. He sat back in his chair, closed his eyes and reached for the terrible recollection. “I was in the prime of my life, a spoiled prince. I can only recall my father’s face; his name is untraceable. I can only recall his haughty, contemptuous laugh and eyes like an eagle surveying common, impoverished humanity’s landscape from the lofty altitude of power. He owned huge tracts of land and thousands of labouring serfs. He wasn’t exceptional, just a typical feudal profiteer of the time.”
Schwarz, unable to resist interrupting, asked: “How long ago was this? Have you tried to locate your family line in any history books?” Hans shook his head and continued.
“My father died, and my elder brother succeeded him, wearing the crown and lusting for more territory—I think he planned some wars to expand our territory but cannot be sure. The childhood period is unreachable, but I grew up trained in outdoor pursuits and military skills. However, I disappointed my family by showing interest only in debauchery and idle and sensual pleasures. I travelled Europe, staying in the accommodation of royalty, drinking the best wines and covering myself in the most luxurious cloths of the Orient. The mirror was my best friend and inseparable companion, inflating my vanity with its silent flattery.”
Schwarz listened, stunned by these details which suddenly gave him a faint sense of recognition once again of the kind that he had experienced over thirty years previously when he had been present at Han’s admittance and heard Englehart’s summary of the old man’s last memory.
“One year, the great plague slithered into our Kingdom like a serpent of death. We knew it would come eventually. It had been moving inexorably towards us since the vicious Tartar hordes flung infected corpses of the plague’s victims over the walls of Caffa during its siege. It reached our towns and villages, turning hearty, healthy peasants into pallid, moaning wrecks covered in festering sores within hours. Pyramids of bodies collected outside the towns, picked at by wolves who themselves succumbed in hours and begot other cycles of suffering and death. In this time, I held a masquerade ball in my abbey, welding the steel doors shut when the last guest had entered. Can you believe how callous this seems? I still can’t believe it.”
Schwarz was agog and under the spell of the narrative, which astonished him. It was like being given a ticket with limited time to another dimension. He’d heard radio documentaries where people talked lucidly about past lives under hypnosis. Was it possible that Hans had ‘fallen’ out of one century into another? Also, Schwarz’s sense of déjà vu with elements of this story had never been stronger. Each advance in the story’s action made him giddier.
“And the rooms. You should have seen them,” Hans chuckled. “There were six apartments and each one had a huge stained glassed window a different colour of the spectrum. When light passed through them, it created sublime chambers of colours. The most impressive chamber was the one with scarlet windows which, when illuminated from outside, gave the person within the impression of being in hell itself!” In the view of Schwarz, there was something unseemly in Hans’ nostalgic relish for this awful-sounding place. It seemed that Han’s character was changing as he told the story. He was becoming more pompous and haughtier.
“There were grotesque costumes and mummers and acrobats who performed at the clap of my hands. There were waltzes and wine by the gallon. It was magnificent revelry that helped us forget the suffering and death outside. But then odd things began to occur that spoiled the gay atmosphere, gradually and surreptitiously. I noticed that the hourly chime of the mighty clock began to impose itself on my guests, causing them to freeze, or some cases cower until the chimes were over. This went on for a number of hours, and I attributed it to either some kind of intricate, dramatic aspect of the masquerade choreographed to surprise me or just an effect of the morbid circumstances surrounding us.
Then I became aware of a commotion, which had started as a murmur. People were parting left and right as this tall figure in a scarlet hooded robe glided past them, his footsteps making no sound. Then it was in front of me. I was furious at this impertinent intrusion and reached for the figure’s skull mask.”
“And there was nothing behind it,” said Schwarz, startled by how the conclusion to the story had arrived in his mind. Hans, startled, nodded.
“I have a headache and am very tired Herr Schwarz. I would like to forget this scene forever now if you don’t mind and get some sleep.”
Schwarz left the clinic in an incredulous daze and headed home. He now had no doubt that he did know this story from somewhere. It was from a work of literature he’d read long ago, but the event or stimulus required to trigger the memory tantalized him, waiting to happen at some opportune moment when he least expected it no doubt. For the moment, all he could do was shake his head and curse in exasperation. The only certainty he held was that life was imitating art.
Sometime in the mid-1990s the hospital faced a quandary over Hans; over the decades he had been assessed and reassessed many times. The original notes made at the time of his committal were looked over and subsequent reports checked. Senior managers conferred with senior psychiatrists and ordered that Hans’ mental faculties be evaluated using newer psychometric tests. Hans did these enthusiastically and talked lucidly for hours in the series of interviews with psychiatrists that followed. The stakeholders looked at the results and concluded that Hans was indeed legally sane by the objective standards of their scientific practice.
They discussed the possibility of Hans leaving the institute to live an independent life, with government assistance naturally since he’d been a ward of the state for the past three decades and had no resources to care for himself. They discussed the matter with Hans, giving him the choice of staying at the psychiatric social centre in perpetuity if he wished. “Let’s face it if anybody’s going to live forever, it’s Hans,” joked one of the doctors, referring to their long-term patient’s mystifying longevity. Hans didn’t need to be asked twice; he accepted their offer of a home for life at the centre where he’d grown into his surroundings with his books and television.
Time swallowed up more decades and closed the eyes of Han’s fellow patients whose bodies kept their schedules with death and whose cadavers decayed underground or combusted in cremation. Meanwhile, time continued to guard Hans’ or so it seemed, keeping his body protected from decline. He simply did not age. Inspector Schwarz was found in his retirement apartment in 1999 dead from a cardiac arrest with a short-story collection open on his lap and a stunned expression fixed into place by rigor mortis.
It was in early 2020 that Hans started feeling chills in his well-heated room followed by bouts of fear so strong that they lowered his body temperature and made him feel as if his bed had been moved to the tip of the North Pole. Freezing air circulated around his bed accompanied by the sense of an intrusive presence in the room keeping an invisible vigil.
After years of oneiric peace, scenes from the night of the masquerade were returning more frequently in dreams with greater clarity. He now knew the names of the guests who perished on that lethal evening and saw the sores breaking out all over their bodies rapidly like growing fungus captured by time-lapse film. Each time the hooded intruder drenched in blood faced him, he came closer to pulling off its mask.
Hans first heard about the infectious disease bringing China to its knees on the evening news. He watched footage from a city called Wuhan of medics looking bloated in hazmat suits, people being dragged from their apartments by officials wearing modern plague doctor outfits and corpses piled unceremoniously into vans like sacks of potatoes. It reminded Hans of a time when nature had last tested humanity’s survival. There were drone shots of deserted streets, distressed families wailing into cameras and the word ‘lockdown’ making its first acquaintance with his ears. The ZDF channel reporter closing her footage stood in front an overcrowded hospital in Hubei Province and said that the infection had now spread to thirty other countries.
Then, appearing behind the reporter, emerging from over her left shoulder, was the scarlet-robed menace. It stared into him and the hollow black spheres where the eyes should have been were bottomless wells ready to drown his soul.
The virus arrived in Germany soon after and stringent hygiene and isolation measures were introduced at the clinic. Visits were forbidden and the ward reeked of sanitizer. In a matter of days Hans changed back from the calm and mentally stable patient of the last 45 years into the desperate, hysterical man found long before in the grounds of the abbey. He became hysterical at the sight of masked people, either on the television or on the internet he accessed in the centre’s computer room. He shrieked when he saw staff enter his room with face coverings.
Doctors frowned at the transformation, citing the stress and natural apprehension of being very old and in the most vulnerable category of people at risk from the ravages of the COVID19 virus. They prescribed tranquilizers.
The masked figure became more ubiquitous, photo-bombing celebrity pictures and news images he browsed online. It then started inserting itself into the documentaries that he watched, turning up randomly in crowds in footage of crowded streets, and disturbed him further by making cameo appearances in his favourite situation comedies. Shortly thereafter, it started appearing through the glass at his door. He shrieked and screamed with greater intensity, crying out in a garbled, barely coherent blend of his new and old language, that death was coming for him again.
The doctors’ attention was also drawn to the fact that Hans had become increasingly paranoid over the chimes of a large clock that had recently been installed in the corridor outside his room. Doctors watched him go into convulsions every time it sounded the hour and considered reassessments.
One evening Hans woke in the early hours of the morning to find the phantom standing at the foot of his bed.
“A curse upon you! For that’s what you are, a curse that punishes me from one life to the next,” said Hans addressing the morbid figure before him.
“I, Prince Prospero, should have hung you from the turrets when I had the chance. Before I escaped your judgement then. But before you take me, at least do me the service of showing me your face.”
The figure reached up to its mask and removed it. Prince Prospero stared into his own face. Both figures vanished, along with all memories of Hans from the minds of every person in Baden Baden he’d interacted with. The ink of his old medical notes faded into oblivion along with the digital files. The archived newspaper articles and images of him decayed instantly and fertilized more important events of history while the grainy television footage of his interviews erased itself. The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe also vanished inexplicably from all published collections of his work around the world, except for a 1955 edition languishing in a second-hand bookshop in Bade Baden which was once the property of a Mr Schwartz. In this copy, the story had developed a new ending.