The Child and the City is the title of a lost novel by Franz Kafka. He began working on it in 1904, but he never finished it, and the manuscript was lost. The story below was originally conceived as a monologue.
"The Child and the City," by Franz Kafka.
There once was a boy, a timid little boy, more in love with his mother than he was with his father, a small and silent boy who was spoiled by his mother, when all he really dreamed of was to make his father smile. But his father was a mountain, his father was Mount Sinai, the boy would dream of his father almost every single night; and in these dreams his father would goad the boy into a fistfight, or starve him in a circus cage, or have him put to sleep like an infirm dog, or simply stare at the boy with the cold unyielding condemnation of fatherhood until the boy obediently woke up screaming.
One night the boy woke up crying from a dream of his father, and when no one came to tuck him in and see what was the matter, he started whining for water, even though he wasn't thirsty. It was in his mind that if he cried for water long enough, his mother would come and hold him. But he could not simply ask his mother to come hold him in the middle of the night; it was not manly, it was not done; it was trayf, it was forbidden.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the door to his room opened, and there was his father. He had his coat on. He picked the boy up from his bed and carried him outside. He carried him in his arms down the silent boulevard, and he did not say a word until they reached the gates of the City. At the Main Gate stood two small men in shiny leather coats. The boy's father went up to them and said, "He was crying." Then one man took the boy and the other man gave his father twenty dollars and a signed receipt. And the boy's father turned around and started walking home. The boy wanted to call out after him, but he was afraid that if he did, his father would not turn around and come back for him; so he waited for his father to come back for him on his own, he waited and watched until it was too late to call out, until his father had disappeared into the darkness of the wide silent boulevard.
Then the two men in shiny leather coats led the boy to the checkpoint, where they handed him over to a doctor. The Doctor took off his white gloves and bent down. "So," he said. "You would like to come live with us, yes?" And he cupped the boy's chin in his smooth warm hand. "Don't worry," said the Doctor. "You will be safe here." But he looked at the boy with the eyes of Job, he looked at the boy with the eyes of a man who knows in his heart that there is no safe place anywhere; the eyes of a man who will never complain when he sees pain and suffering, because he knows that it is against the law for life to be anything else. Then the Doctor stood up and said, "Give him a number. Give him a number and put him to work." And one of the men said, "His arm is too small." And the other man said, "We're up to eleven numbers now." "Then give him a letter," said the Doctor. "And let it be the eleventh letter." And that is how the child came into the City. The child whose little arm was once tattooed forever with the letter K.
Twenty years passed. The boy worked every day, and he grew into a man who knew the laws of the City, every one of them, by heart. And in all those twenty years, not a day went by when he did not blame himself for what his father did to him. Whenever he would look at the tattoo on his arm, the boy now known as Josef K would search his fading memory for that awful deed without a name which had made his father give him away. Because if he was not blameworthy, if his father simply sold his six-year-old son to strangers because the boy was whining for water, then there was no justice in the world. And Josef K believed in justice. He knew that his father had not acted without a reason, without some dark inexpiable trespass against the law that had forced the boy's father to punish him this way. It was the law of the City. There had to be a crime. If you were being punished, then there had to be a crime. There had to be a crime, because if there was not a crime, then there was no justice. Only punishment for nothing.
And mankind had a right to know why it was being punished. That, to Josef K, was the lesson of the Book of Job. It was not the Adversary who inflicted the punishment, but the God who allowed it, who must be petitioned to reveal the inexorable reasons behind His unfathomable actions. So Josef K questioned his God, and like Job, in his God he found no answer to the question "Why?" except a voice from the clouds crying out, "Because I said so."
One morning, towards the end of his twenty-seventh year in the city, Josef K left his Spartan lodgings and made his brooding way through canyons of indifferent stone to the office where he checked insurance claims for his department supervisors. He had never actually seen one of these supervisors, but it was common knowledge that at least once a day they pretended to be policyholders or new clients or even accident victims, in order to test the efficiency and good manners of their employees. It was even said that they one or two of them worked the floor in offices like Josef K's, when they weren't disguising themselves as secretaries or pretending to be his fellow employees.
Josef K did not know whether to believe these rumors or not; but like everyone else who worked in his department, he was wary and distant with everyone he met. Like all the other workers whom he could not bring himself to trust, he spoke as little as possible, for in the office as in the city, nothing was more sinful than the disgrace of iniquitous disquiet. So quietly he kept to himself, with the nagging feeling that someone was always looking over his shoulder, as he performed the demanding duties of an insurance claim processor. These duties were exacting and precisely quantifiable. In Josef K's job, every injury and abuse known to mankind had its precise and particular compensation. Every accident had value; every wound had a price tag; every painful ounce of suffering was worth its weight in gold. In Josef K's office, the man without an injury, the healthy untouched man, was totally worthless. Unless, of course, he was a supervisor in disguise. And that was why the only two feelings that Josef K ever had for his fellow human beings were fear, and indifference.
On this particular morning, on the stroke of ten, a blind man came into Josef K's office; and when Josef K began to read the blind man's claim form, he saw his father's name. He looked up. It was indeed his father; older now, smaller now, as frail as a tree in winter; and his eyes were blank and featureless, like two eggs dipped in milk. It was assuredly his father, and yet when Josef K read through the man's insurance forms, there was no mention at all of a son; only three daughters.
Josef K cleared his throat. "It says here that you have a son," he said. Josef K's father shook his head. "No," he said, "I have no son." But Josef K persisted. He said, "It says on your form that twenty years ago you sold your son to a doctor at the Main Gate of the City."
The old man shook his head again. "It says whatever it says," he said. "But if it happened, I do not remember it. If I did it, I can't recall."
And Josef K started to say something, he started to tell his father who he was; but the words caught in his throat, because he was afraid that if he spoke, his father would remember, and reveal at last the awful reason why he sold his son to the City. So he waited for his father to recognize him on his own, he waited and he kept his silence until his father's claim was processed, and it was too late to say anything but goodbye as the old man shuffled out of the office to the tap tap tap of his walking stick.That night, Josef K returned to the tiny room that he had made his home. He ate a frugal dinner; he smoked a filtered cigarette. He thought of how the city, like a flower, was nothing more than a collection of cells. He thought of how the eyes that greeted him every morning from his bathroom mirror stared back at him now with the look of a man who knows that it is against the law for life to be less than suffering. He thought of what his father had said; and he looked at his arm, which still bore a cloudy mark shaped like the letter K, and he wondered then, with all that he had lived through, he wondered then what kind of life it was, this life of his, that had left not a mark on anything, not even his father’s memory. And he touched the letter K on his arm, and he remembered the pain he had felt when it was branded onto him, and he knew at last that the crime was his and always his alone.
Copyright 2013 Matthew J Wells