Otto knew what he needed to do. He rubbed his sore jaw and squinted at his knuckles, swollen and rusty with dried blood—his own and his father’s. In the half dark he crept to the window by his bed and opened the shutter slats. His head grazed the wooden rafters. A feathery fog drifted over the cobblestones past dour buildings, their backs to the dawn. April, shroud-gray and cold. He snapped the shutter slats down. Today would do.
Otto retrieved the Gasser from under his mattress and spun open the chamber to find a cartridge in the cylinder. The weapon felt light and sure in his hand, the decision light and sure in his gut. Just one shot, standing on the canal wall. Strange how much relief the thought brought him. He stuffed the revolver into his canvas satchel.
Out of habit he pressed his thumbs into the tender of his back to push out the ache, then scratched at the burn scabs on his chest. Two years of shoveling coal for ten hours a day into the maw of a foundry kiln, and his twenty-year-old frame moved with the sore caution of an old man. Otto winced, recalling the fiery shirt-tails of another shoveler. Wearing a loose and grimy garment to fend off the kiss of sparks, a boy had moved too close to the kiln, shirt-tails dangling unguarded. Shrieking, the boy had spun in circles as flame climbed the fabric, devouring the skin along his spine. Last week a new hire had taken up the boy’s shovel. After the burning, none of them spoke of the boy, and none of them wore shirts anymore. Otto worked the oven bare-chested, dodging the tiny, molten meteorites, never turning his back to the fire. Scars and singes in various stages of rawness and infection pocked his forearms, chest, and abdomen, but burns on the back meant no sleep for days.
Otto surveyed the alcove that was his rented room—a curtained depression under a dormer. The space wasn’t much longer than his bed and barely twice its width.
For weeks now the crow had returned. She swept into his dreams merged with the form of a woman, a long garment falling from her shoulders. Like a Valkyrie she came to escort him and hovered close, her misty breath at his ear. “It is time,” she said.
His brows furrowed as he bent to the floor, and his fingertips traced the spines of the few books he owned, stacked by the bed. One small volume of Goethe, two of Nietzsche, and one copy of A Doll’s House. A small schnapps bottle lay empty nearby. It was obvious what the dreams meant, especially after last night, when he had watched Simon leave Bekka’s room. They’re bad omens, crows. Otto slid the books into the satchel and discovered a leftover bread crust from yesterday’s midday meal still in the bag. Ignoring it, he closed and buckled the satchel. All would drop with him into the Danube.
Otto imagined his parents when the news arrived, their faces as shadowed and blank as heads in a Greek chorus. His mother would drop into the kitchen chair, hands pressing a silent, resigned regret to her chest. Certainly it would be no surprise, although his father would feign shock. Otto did not exist except as a second son working to support the firstborn; that’s how his parents saw it, and Simon Rosenfeld, his father, was the second of two as well.
“A smelter’s job and a damned good one—your uncle knows the foreman,” Simon had told him, rapping twice on the kitchen table with the chapped knuckles of his polishing hand. His voice was smoky and bruised by schnapps, after a day of the usual tall visions and squat failures. He repaired pieces for a jeweler in Leopoldstadt. The sour smell of his sweat, the liquor trembling in a shot glass as the evening train passed. Otto’s mother had surrendered. She peered silently into her lap.
Otto’s breath caught in his chest, and he dropped onto the thin mattress. His taste for hope was gone. A loping disappointment had dogged him for as long as he could recall, and last night’s revelation had drained him finally of any energy to continue. A compulsion, scratching like steel wool under his skin, prodded him now.
Otto wanted to leave before Bekka came looking for him. He could not meet her eyes. He could not watch them darken with regret. She’d anticipate where he was headed and try to prevent it. He had told her of the daily dread ticking under his ribs. He said he’d work hard to change things; he wasn’t consigned to this tight hell forever. It shocked him now that he could have ever thought this way.
Simon tucking in his shirt-tails, drawing up his suspenders, his stack of coins left on the kitchen table. The image struck him hard. Otto realized that he had never known Bekka, but he knew his father all too well. The clarity of their betrayal brought home the loss of her sharply.
Otto stood, slipped down the stairs, and left through the front door.
He hurried toward the canal, past the same shops and alleys that he saw every day en route to the foundry. Today the cobblestone streets winked fresh, complicit. The clop of hooves echoed between the buildings and grew louder as a gelding, trailing a dray filled with kegs, drew near and passed, the driver oblivious to Otto although they were the only humans in sight. On Sundays most of Leopoldstadt slept past dawn.
The Taborstrasse Bridge stretched out from the bottom of the hill, its tongue of pavers flung over the Danube canal toward Vienna. As Otto approached the bridge, a slight movement in an alley caught his eye. It was a dog, emaciated from starvation or sickness. Whether the dog registered his presence Otto could not tell; he watched it collapse onto sharp haunches, pressing shadows of bone against the brick of a butcher’s shop. Ravaged by isolation and the daily crawl, the animal trembled to exhale the barest smoke of life into the spring chill.
Recognition nailed Otto to the spot. Drawn wholly into its misery, the creature would not meet his eyes, yet Otto read its condition plainly. Without taking his eyes from the dog, he fumbled open the buckle of his satchel and reached in. His hand brushed the gun and slid around the grip. Tears brimmed behind his glasses. The weapon was cool under his fingers. The dog’s gaze drifted toward him, and Otto realized he had been holding his breath. His heart drummed. He took one slow step, then another, toward the dog. It watched him with one dark watery eye.
Then, as Otto began to draw the gun from the satchel, he felt the bread crust graze his knuckles. He drew in a breath and changed his mind, bringing out the crust instead. He moved closer and crouched, stretching his hand toward the dog’s muzzle. Utterly still, he held the bread up to the animal. The dog lifted its head, sniffed at the bread, and looked straight into his eyes. Yellow teeth snapped the crust from his palm. The dog dropped onto its belly to eat, guarding the ration between its front paws. Otto backed away and turned toward the bridge.
Two marble warhorses, rearing ten meters high, guarded the Taborstrasse Bridge entrance, their open mouths shrieking. The canal ran steady and deep far below. Across the canal, Vienna hunched in the April dampness. The featureless wash of sky promised cloud cover for the rest of the day.
Otto veered down the embankment to the canal. It was steeper than he’d imagined. The land dropped off into scraggly woods, stretching down away from Leopoldstadt to a railway running along the canal. He took the slope, stepping sideways past stands of birch and naked beech, and worked his way through last year’s underbrush, the branches tugging at his trousers and jacket. The canal would be cold with the spring melt.
He came to a level space that had been cleared for the rail bed and turned to see the stone span of the Taborstrasse Bridge flying high beyond the trees, the small shapes of a few carriages and, smaller still, people crossing in distant silence.
Stepping over the railroad tracks, he headed into more underbrush. Movement winked at the edge of his vision. It is time. He imagined the Valkyrie among the trees, the branches bending away, dead leaves rasping. A bird silhouette yawed between birch limbs. She was just ahead—the flap of a blue-black wing, the pale flip of her cape drawing him on. All around him sprouted weedy trees with trunks no wider than a boy’s arm. He chased her through lichen-covered branches that would soon sprout buds he would never see.
Otto heard the slurry of water long before he saw it. He emerged from the brush, and before him stretched the stone spine of the canal wall, the water running hard and muddy. He pulled the Gasser from his satchel, his head filling with noise and flashing. His heart hammered furiously. His thoughts took up a separate life and moved about him on wings. Stack of coins on the table. Boy’s shirt-tails in flame. Bekka’s head in her hands, her skirt puddled where she sat. Dog turning its gaze on him. Terror-hewn eyes of the marble horse. The small revolver grew heavy in his hands. A sour taste rose in the back of his mouth, and the roiling of the canal softened into silence as he fell.
Otto awoke to shadows swinging over him, the sky peering down through the branches. An old man was shaking him. As sound returned, Otto realized that the man was speaking to him. He struggled to sit up. His satchel dangled from the man’s hand, vomit splattered across the canvas. Otto’s own hands were empty and red with cold.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the man said.
Otto looked hard into the clean-shaven face. He did not know him. The man helped him up by his arm and handed him the satchel. It felt heavy.
“I’ve been listening to you crashing through the woods for a while now, over the gravel by the tracks, through the bushes. You seem in a hurry, but you somehow found time to step on every dead twig getting down here.”
Otto scanned the ground for the Gasser, then slid his hand into the bag. To his relief and confusion, he felt the cold metal. An ache knocked in his head.
The man led him stumbling through the brush. Stickers of leggy wild rose plucked at Otto’s clothing. He smelled wood smoke and heard fire snapping as they approached a clearing. Flames danced like sprites in a pit the size of a carriage wheel, ringed by river rock.
“Have a seat,” the man said, gesturing to a nearby log. He bent forward, drew up his trousers at his thighs, and lowered himself onto a log draped with a small scrap that might have once been a rug. When he sat upright, he appeared taller than he had when standing. Extending his legs toward the fire, he crossed them at the ankles and lit a pipe. His dark, rough wool jacket spoke of a working man, but it was clean and cared for. Otto wiped his hands on his own trousers, torn at one knee, bitten with singes.
Puffing on the pipe, the man looked out at the canal for a time before he spoke. “Leo Eder,” he said at last, lifting his chin toward Vienna. “I live across the canal.”
Otto stared into the fire, trying to reconstruct what had happened. “I’m sorry if I disturbed your Sunday. I must have…fallen.” He almost said fainted.
Eder snorted. “Maybe you could use something to drink.” He pawed through a weathered knapsack perched next to him, pulled out a small jug, and handed it to Otto, who nodded his thanks and took a swig of beer. His boot toe nudged his satchel, tapping the Gasser. Otto winced. He had fumbled his plan, and with an audience, no less.
From the knapsack Eder retrieved a sketch pad, a pencil, and a hunk of bread. He offered the bread, but Otto declined it. Eder shrugged and took a bite, then placed the pad on his lap and began moving the pencil edgewise over the paper, looking out across the canal and back to his lap. “I can wait,” he said.
Words jammed in Otto’s throat. Under the breeze off the canal, he listened to the fire snapping and the determined sounds of pencil lead brushing against vellum.
Eder’s arm moved from his shoulder as he pushed the pencil across the paper. His sleeves were rolled up, forearms sinewy and smooth as beech. A breeze lifted a wavy strand of his gray hair. He withdrew a pale nub of eraser gum from his bag, touched it to the page deftly, and blew off the rubbings. Then he brought out a wax-paper bag printed with a deep blue script: KNAR’S MEATS. He unwrapped a sausage, bit off a piece, and flipped the sausage in his fist, so that the end stuck out like a burnished thumb. “I don’t suppose you’d like me to cut a piece off for you?”
Otto shook his head. He had no appetite.
Eder returned the sausage to the bag and continued sketching. “Where are you from? Your family?”
Otto’s teeth clenched. He rubbed his aching jaw and became uncomfortably aware of his appearance. The bloodstains on his dank shirt collar, the tell-tale scrapes on his knuckles.
A breeze raked the water’s surface. The white feathers of Eder’s hair fluttered, and his jacket billowed, freeing a flickering shirt-tail. The man made no move to straighten either. A tiny cyclone of pipe smoke whipped up behind him. In the quick of the breeze, the wax-paper bag flapped, KNAR’S MEATS waving.
Otto watched the rustling paper and undulating letters. An idea sparked. The day would mark the end of Otto Rosenfeld after all.
“It’s Rank,” he told the man, reversing the shop name. “My name is Otto Rank. I rent—rented a room not far from the bridge.” He tipped his head back toward Leopoldstadt, then filled his chest with cold air and added, “No family to speak of.”
Eder looked up from his sketch. “Sorry to hear that. Very well, then, Otto Rank, good to meet you. Call me Leo.”
More scratching of pencil against paper. Pause. Erase. Then Leo looked back up. “You’re not in any trouble, eh?”
When Otto shook his head, the man returned to the sketch, blowing off the erasures.
Then Otto realized what the man was asking him. “No, sir. No, I’m not.”
“Thought maybe you need help.” Leo’s gaze moved to Otto’s bloody knuckles.
Otto tucked his hands under his armpits. No doubt the man had seen the revolver, and Otto’s chin sported a fine bruise as well. His thoughts pivoted to his father’s betrayal of his mother. Surely Bekka was not the first. And there was his barrister brother, whose schooling Otto had bought with his back bent over coal before a kiln. Anger rose in his chest. “There is no trouble,” he said firmly.
Leo pushed out his bottom lip. “I see,” he said, his tone kindly. “You’re in gymnasium then, preparing for university?”
Heat crept up Otto’s neck and along his jaw. He looked down at his boots. “I work at Messer’s. It’s a foundry with a machine shop—”
“I know the place.” Leo flicked his hand, dismissing the need for further description. He squinted at the canal and said, “Some of your things had fallen out of your satchel. I found a notebook nearby, so I thought you were in gymnasium.” He paused and looked at Otto. “Maybe university, but you’re young. Anyway, I put everything I could find back in your bag. You should check it, though, in case we need to look for something back there.” His head jerked toward the woods.
Otto’s heart banged in his chest. He felt an urgent need to offer a believable explanation for the Gasser, but Leo had resumed sketching, seemingly unconcerned.
“I should tell you a bit about myself,” he continued. “I have a locksmith shop in Vienna. I’m a widower. Live with my son—although Max has been away studying for the last year and a half.”
Envy flickered in Otto, and he didn’t touch the question of what or where Leo’s son was studying. Instead, he asked why Leo came to the Leopoldstadt side of the canal.
The man shrugged. “The Vienna side is too…popular. No one else comes here. Usually.” He grinned at Otto. “Besides, I prefer this vantage point.” He pointed the pencil across the water, then shifted so that the sketch paper flashed in the midday light, although Otto still could not see what the man was drawing. “I love to come here on Sundays once the snow is finished, make a fire, read and draw.” He squinted at the scene across the canal. “What do you love to do?”
Otto passed a hand through his unwashed dark hair. What possible response could he offer? It seemed he didn’t love anything, or anyone, for that matter. Nothing worth caring for could grow in his world. Nor could he send out shoots, bursting green with future. He was a felled tree, the wood whittled down to a wedge, made to hold open a door that others could pass through.
“I like to read. When I can get books.”
“What do you read? I think I saw a Goethe in your collection.” Leo waved at the satchel.
“Schopenhauer. Nietzsche—he’s my favorite. And Ibsen. I tried writing poetry—but it’s terrible. Guess I’m better suited to philosophy.” Or religion, Otto thought, and made a face; faith was an unaffordable luxury. Nietzsche, his favorite. Why had he said that? Only an imbecile would talk like that. Or worse, a bore. Otto’s face reddened and he shifted on the log, picked up a twig, tossed it away.
The old man watched him.
“All of it is irrelevant anyway,” Otto said. “I won’t be using it.”
“What are you, seventeen? Eighteen?”
“Twenty.” And he might see twenty-one in a week’s time after all.
“Almost as old as Max. You’re just getting your legs—and soul work takes time.”
Leo’s voice seemed to come from a well, deep and full. Otto wanted to toss in the pebbles of his own words just to hear them land.
“Last night,” he said, “I dreamt that a crow in the form of a woman came and urged me to follow her here. To the canal. That’s what I thought, anyway.” No sooner were the words in the air than he wanted to inhale them back.
“And here you are.” Leo poked at the fire with a serious expression.
“I thought the dream meant something else. Something specific for me.”
“Hm.” Leo searched through his bag and pulled out a book. “I just finished this.” He handed it to Otto.
The Interpretation of Dreams. Otto opened the volume to the middle and let the pages fall from his thumb. Behind him a faint commotion of wings shook a straggly larch. Dread released its grasp, and he was floating, circling the fire, warmed by its heat. Then he returned to himself and the book.
“I’ve heard of Freud,” he said, trying to swallow. “Seen his work in the bookshops.” He held the book out to the man, but Leo put up an insistent hand. Otto set the book on top of the satchel. His face was wet. He tried to reach under his glasses surreptitiously to wipe his eyes. Then he removed his glasses and made a show of wiping them and his face with a handkerchief, as if the slog through the woods had left him sweaty.
Leo tamped more tobacco into his pipe and settled in for a smoke. He turned to Otto. “You can tell me if you want.”
Otto stared at his lap. His hands were shaking. Sadness rose in his throat as sudden and warm as blood, and then hunger for another day nipped at his heart, surprising him with the feeling of relief. His dark eyes brimmed, and he removed his glasses and brought out the handkerchief again. This time he did not try to hide the reason for it.
Leo remained attentive. The man was unlike anyone Otto had ever met. Here was someone who offered as openly as he accepted, who spoke with clear observation and listened with genuine interest. Otto wanted to do the same, yet the words caught in his throat. The moment deserved true words, and he did not want to fracture it.
“I got lost,” he said. He sensed the ground moving under his boots, thought he saw the canvas of the satchel tremble. “I misunderstood, I didn’t read things straight. Like the dream and…” He thought of Bekka, his father, the cursed job, the interminable sentence of his life. “I’m not where I need to be—in my mind or elsewhere—and because of it, I’m not seeing clearly.” He wiped the tears from his chin.
Leo removed the pipe from his mouth, his eyes embracing Otto. “Yes, I understand,” was all he said. They sat silently while the fire hissed and popped.
When the flames dwindled, Leo stood. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”
Otto hadn’t planned on needing another place on earth to live. But there was a rooming house on Müringgasse that might have space, and he told Leo he had somewhere to go.
Leo handed him the sketch. “I open at seven.”
Ghosts of Vienna is a novel about a troubled young man who becomes Sigmund Freud’s most unlikely and beloved protégé, until his visionary work threatens Freud’s new science. The story spans the first quarter of the 20th century, an era of seismic changes that overturned whole empires and unleashed groundbreaking ideas, art, and inventions. Searching for direction, some people turned to psychoanalysis for answers, others to the practice of spiritualism popular at the time. In Ghosts of Vienna, science and the supernatural mingle as the protagonist, Otto, and those closest to him struggle to discover themselves and their footing in a modern world.
It is 1905 in Vienna. Otto Rank, impoverished and not yet twenty-one, heads for the Danube with his father’s blood on his knuckles and a revolver in hand, bent on suicide. But he fails. Though maddening for him, this is a godsend for the still-nascent field of psychology because, as desperate as he is, Otto is also tragically brilliant and ambitious.
An elderly locksmith rescues Otto at the Danube and hands him a copy of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. The self-taught, well-read Otto inhales Freud’s book. He decides to reinvent himself and essentially rewrites Freud’s theory, believing that his paper will convince the great professor to hire him. Meanwhile, Freud is struggling for scientific credibility in an anti-Semitic medical community and persuades a young, well-connected Carl Jung to join his cause. Otto lands an interview with Freud, who recognizes Otto’s raw creative genius, hires him as his private secretary, and puts him through university to become an analyst.
As Otto’s career takes flight, so do betrayal and loss. Jung’s progressive work threatens Freud, and the two men break their alliance. Otto’s lover, a young locksmith haunted by uncanny visions, marries his closest friend and patient, even though she is carrying Otto’s child. Otto transforms his grief into a major project that Freud initially champions. But as a life-threatening illness and mounting anxieties shadow Freud, he rejects Otto’s work and accuses his protégé of trying to ruin both him and psychoanalysis. Having lost everything, a broken Otto leaves Vienna for another harsh beginning, with an unexpected turn of preternatural origins.
Ghosts of Vienna was inspired by the life of Otto Rank, whose work influenced a century of thinkers. Told through multiple perspectives and using elements of magical realism, the novel explores emotional inheritance and the flawed connections between us, examining the boundaries of what we can, and ultimately cannot, know about ourselves and each other.
Sylvia Karman is a novelist and poet whose work has appeared in Delmarva Review, Blueline, and Amethyst Review, among others. She is a contributing poet for Writing the Land, and some of her poems will appear in the upcoming book Writing the Land: Anthology (December 2021). She lives in the Adirondack mountains of New York and in central Maryland, where she hikes and writes for the love of the journey. You can visit her at www.sylviakarman.com.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021