I’m lucky. Not everyone has a favorite short story. I’m not sure how I came across it in the first place, but I know that almost as soon as I had finished reading it, probably even before, I knew that it would occupy its own peculiar place in my catalogue of things read and remembered. No other story has imprinted its colors, patterns, and pathos on me quite so strongly.
It’s by Franz Kafka, and it’s a tale within a tale, taken from his story “The Great Wall of China,” which I haven’t read. It’s incredibly short, which is part of its appeal, parabolic in nature, more vivid and memorable for being concise. (Another short-short worth checking out––“Acid” by James Kelman, though beware: It’ll wreck you.) Somehow in the concision of this story, Kafka manages to touch eternity and in doing so touch what has always, since childhood, freaked me out about eternity: that there is something mutually exclusive between humanity and eternity, which is what the Emperor seems to represent, a suggestion that unfathomable spaces must in some essential way corrode or negate what is fundamentally human.
At some point, multiplied infinitely, even gemstones become gravel, don’t they?
Here it is:
The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his death bed and whispered the message to him. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who have come to witness his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream to yourself of that message when evening comes.
Andrew Steiner (’12) is a Grand Rapids native. He’s a fiction writer with a day job at Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank. You can also find him working part-time for Ham Family Farm, pulling weeds, planting seeds, and slinging produce at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.