She moves this girl that is pretending to be me: moves between forest and street without effort. Sometimes she is even here beside me. I see her at the corners of my eye: an image, a shadow, a face. She looks like me. When she smiles it is not a kind smile, but a sad taunting one. With the face comes lies. I will not take him, she says, or this will not hurt.
She sews like I sew. Her stitches point the same way and her needle catches the light in time with mine. When my customers talk to her they think they are talking to me. Wonderful work, they say, and she simpers. Maybe I simpered too.
My mother brings her my books and when she has finished my work she receives the kisses that should be mine. They are light things, resting like some brilliantly coloured insect on my head. It will not hurt she says, and strokes the skin behind my ears. This does not hurt she says in a voice that I know. But the insects sting. They bite tiny holes and inject their poison. And she holds down my arms.
Hoffmann inspects Angelika’s work: the blister she applied a few days ago has worked well. The skin behind Hannah’s ears is red, raw, the top layers coming away like bark from a felled tree. He pats her shoulder then turns to his desk to where Jacobi’s equipment is unpacked and waiting. He pulls a cloth band from a box. It is supported by a collar of wire so that it makes the shape of a shallow coronet. A length of wire is swept over the top and where it joins with the cloth a series of metal junctions leads eventually to two rod-shaped electrodes.
Come, she says, pulling me so I cannot refuse. This will not hurt. Around me, so many leaves, so many branches. She pulls me forward, pushes me down and I become entangled. From the twigs come crawling insects seeking out their friends. She holds me there. She makes a crown from thorns and presses it over where the insects lie. They sting again. This will not hurt. A man’s voice now. If I could peer through the leaves I would see him. Not Kurt. You would not do this. You would kiss my hurt away. The leaves are turning into soil. I can smell them: brown and blonde like her hair.
'This will not hurt.' Wearing gloves, Hoffmann accidentally touches one electrode with another. There is a spark and a short sharp whiff of burning rubber. Hannah’s scream jerks her head away so violently that the complicated headress is dislodged. She shuts her eyes, screws them up, so her eyelashes are almost hidden in the folds of her lids. She clenches her fists and thrusts them down hard on her lap.
'Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad...'
'What is she saying, sir?'
Hoffmann finishes readjusting the headress and listens. “Hebrew. Some sort of prayer.” He looks at the girl. She seems paler than ever. His hands hover uncertainly over the electrode near her ear. But Jacobi has claimed some success with this method. He shifts position slightly, so he is standing directly in front of her , squatting slightly so he can hold her eyes level in his.
'Hannah, look at me.'
Her eyes do not open. Instead her voice becomes louder
'V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha,' Her voice rests a while on each syllable.
'Hannah!' The doctor's voice is louder.
Her eyes open. For a few seconds he knows that she sees him.
'You know that I am trying to help you?'
She nods, her face white and rigid.
'Good. Now listen to me, this treatment will make you feel better. It is a little frightening maybe, but if you will just sit still, this will all be over very quickly.'
'But the Devil was laughing in my ear! It must be the Devil. Only He would do such things.'
'Nonsense.' he tuts, turning to examine the connections to the pile.
'He sent insects to sting me, and then He... '
'Just sit still.' Then holding the girl’s shoulder steady with one hand with the other reaches for the electrode and draws it closer to her head. 'This will not hurt you.'
I see his face. When I close my eyes I see his face. It is not like the face I have seen the Catholics draw, but something paler. This demon is not from a hot place but from somewhere cold. He parts the leaves with long nailed fingers. He breathes the scent of burning hair and from his eyes come sparking needles. I hear my father chanting. His voice becomes mine. My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, fashioned it and breathed it into me. You constantly safeguard it for me...
But this demon will not be chased away with words. He clutches me to him. He covers me in layers of his own, fine and sticky like spider’s webs. He wraps me in them again and again, turning me over. I shall love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul...The words come louder and faster until they stop. There is nothing there. Just an emptiness that sucks me in like the heated glass of the physician’s cup once drew in my flesh and then blood. I call for Jehovah and then I call for you. No one answers. The emptiness pulls everything away. As the small lacerations of the physician’s scarifier once yielded their precious fluid so this cap draws me away now. There is nothing of me left.
As the electrode is finally hooked into position her lips stop, the jowls of her cheeks twitch and the skin that covers them stretches like cotton drying over a frame.
Angelika finds herself holding her breath. 'Is she all right sir?'
'Of course she is.' Hoffmann’s hand hovers over the electrode. Jacobi has not recommended a precise time in his notes. He squats down to inspect her face. Her eyes are closed again, stretched up into her forehead as if someone is pulling them there, and her mouth is open, the teeth clenched in a cadaver-like grimace. He wills himself not to reach out, not to touch. It is too early to stop the experiment just yet. Hannah’s mouth gives a sudden little gurgle.
The doctor tuts. This assistant’s fussing is irritating his nerves. 'Angelika, if you cannot be quiet, you will have to wait outside. The patient is quite comfortable. There is no need for alarm.'
How did I fall here? I do not know. It is the place where leaves turn to soil, where nothing lives except the white small fungus that grows from dead things. There is no need to move. No need to search for a way out. If I lie still enough the fungus will consume me too. The leaves fall and make no sound.
For a few seconds after the gurgling stops he doesn’t move. He pretends he doesn’t see Angelika’s eyes flick from his face to his patient. He is almost certain that Jacobi recommended at least five minutes in his last communication. He passes his hand in front of the girl’s mouth but there is no movement of air, no sensation of warmth. His hands leap quickly then to his gloves. He hurriedly shoves just one onto his right hand and then fumbles at the electrode at the hook at the top of the pile.
'I think it’s worked sir, look.'
But when Hoffmann looks at the girl it seems to him that she looks back at him with the face of an idiot. All her anger, fear and spirit has been replaced with a void. She has slipped further down Griesinger’s slope of symptoms: from melancholia to stupor. When Angelika offers her her hand she takes it meekly and rises to her feet. Her pulse is weak, slow, a distant flutter and when Hoffmann tips back her face and examines her eyes he feels that he is falling into such a bottomless place that his hands reach out to feel the solidity of her chair.
Hanna is a German Jewish girl apparently suffering from 'nymphomania', which in 19th-century Germany means she has had a premarital relationship with a man. Assigned to treat her is Dr Heinrich Hoffman, whose efforts to get her to talk about her 'problem' meet with failure - until he starts to tell her about his other patients, like schizophrenic Robert, who hears voices (Flying Robert) and Lise, who cuts herself with scissors (Little Suck-a-thumb). As Hoffman opens up, gradually revealing the unhappiness in his own life, Hanna begins to speak about the love affair that led her to the asylum. But as her confidence grows it is Hoffman who begins to depend emotionally on her, to equate her pain with his grief at the absence of his troubled son, and to question what he has achieved in his life - the only thing that seems to have lasted is a children's book of silly rhymes and pictures - surely that can't count for anything?
“... an unsettling, weirdly evocative novel, evidently superbly researched...the novel’s images of the dawn of modern psychiatry and its portrait of doctor and patient struggling together towards the light remain memorably poignant.”
Jon Barnes, Times Literary Supplement, November 5th 2004