Read by Ben Church.
This story first appeared in der Freitag in both English and German in 2015.
The House of Surrender
Not far from here and many lifetimes’ journey away, there is a place called Sanctuary where they grow almonds and avocados and the weather is a perpetual late Spring. The town and its hundred thousand happy folk are watered by a wide, grey, treacherous river, and in that river is an island where no trees grow, and on that island is a house unlike any other.
It has had many names, but the people of Sanctuary have forgotten them. They call it the House of Surrender.
To get to the House of Surrender, you must cross the grey river, although there are few boat captains brave enough to make the crossing, not for all the gold and silver in your purse. The river is full of hidden currents and sudden whirlpools that appear to suck down unseasoned swimmers and sailors to an icy grave in the grimy water. And besides, nobody has used money in Sanctuary for a century and more.
The people of this town take what they need and give what they can and answer to no ruler but the common good. So there is no law to compel any sailor to take you to the island in the river where no trees grow. If one of them takes pity, you may pay your passage with a promise, a gift or a secret, although those who travel to the House of Surrender have too many of those and precious few worth sharing.
Pull yourself up to the jetty and climb the steps cut into the cliffs. Walk half a mile over the rocks and you’ll find the House. Its walls are thick stone. Whether that’s to protect those inside from the outside world or whether it might be the other way round is a question nobody here cares to answer.
The heavy doors are not locked. Walk the halls. Nobody’s going to stop you.
Here you will find the worst and weirdest of men and women, strange and dangerous creatures who cannot live among their fellow humans – or else their fellow humans will not have them. This one is a rapist. That one poisoned her husband and infants in a fit of madness after the twins were born. This one beat his wife until the teeth flew from her head. That one cheated his neighbours of all their harvest until the children sickened and starved.
Had they stayed in the Sanctuary, these people would have had to face their neighbours’ justice. Instead, they come to the House of Surrender, where nobody will harm them, and they can reflect on their transgressions in all the safety stone walls can offer, which is less than you’d think, as most of them bring the terror with them across the grey river.
In my two score years as warden of this place, I have known them all – the wicked and the warped, the tortured and the repentant and those too far beyond the sphere of decency to contemplate redemption.
But none were as strange as Robert Schmidt.
He arrived one cold June morning, courtesy of a boatswain who had been too shocked at his appearance and obvious distress to consider turning him down when he begged passage. The coins he offered her, which he also tried to press upon me, were as strange as he was – different shapes and shades of corrosive metal, all emblazoned with the faces of stern men, great buildings and motifs of war and conquest that were chilling to look at, though I did not look away. I took one as a gift, a silver that he said was called a quarter, although its shape was perfectly round.
He was a thin, frayed string of a man, this Schmidt, his skin pale as boiled fish, so much so that anyone who saw him knew that he had come from far away. That was all we knew at first, as he would not speak to us beyond demanding to be released, and no records could be found of his birth or previous life – only the report we had received from the assembly of the village that sent him here.
We took him to room fourteen, where he yelled for three hours. First he yelled to be released. Then he yelled, in his strange foreign accent, for his mother. Then he just yelled.
I could hear the screaming from down the corridor as I went over the morning’s reports. I gritted my teeth at the dumb-beast noise and decided to do something about it.
The corridors of the main asylum were light and airy, even on a cold winter morning with the sun floundering in an ash-grey sky. Below the wide wooden walkways, some of the other wardens were setting out bowls and spoons in the communal area, ready for breakfast.
The murderer in room thirteen put his head up to the grill of his cell as I passed.
“Can you ask him to stop?” he whispered.
“I’ll try,” I promised. “Do you want music?”
The murderer, who had strangled his own brother in a rage twenty years ago, nodded hard – yes, he did want music.
I fingered my tablet. A few seconds later a gentle, rhythmic tune started spooling from the speaker in the corner of his cell. He smiled and closed his eyes, and started to rock gently back and forth on his sleeping pallet. I took a deep breath in front of the door to room fourteen. Then I pounded on the grill.
“That’s enough,” I yelled. “You’re upsetting your blockmates. If you don’t control yourself, there will be consequences.”
The screaming stopped. Two blissful seconds of quiet, heavy breathing.
“Let me the fuck out of here,” Schmidt said. “You people have no idea the mistake you’re making.”
“I’m sure there’s been no mistake,” I said. “But if you’ve got an issue to raise, why don’t you talk to me or one of the other wardens about it, instead of screaming?”
I heard a shuffling noise as Schmidt dragged himself up to the speaking-hatch. Then his face appeared.
I stepped back, alarm fisting up through my guts. I had forgotten quite how strange-looking the Schmidt truly was, with his wild beard and ice-blue eyes.
“I don’t know why I’m being kept here,” he said, in his languid, long-ago accent. “But when someone works out who I am, you’re going to be in a world of trouble. So I suggest you open this door right now, if you value your job.”
“I can’t open the door,” I said.
“On whose authority am I kept here?”
I was truly confused. Where had this man come from, to ask such a thing?
“On nobody’s authority,” I said. “Nobody has the authority to keep you here against your will. You chose to come here, for your own safety and others’.”
“Then why am I locked in?”
“You aren’t locked in. I can’t open the door because it locks from the inside. If you want to get out, you’ll have to unlock it yourself.”
“There’s a bolt underneath the door, and another one up top. They’re a little stiff sometimes, but I promise you, you’re free to leave. I must warn you, though,” I said, a little louder, “that if you try to harm me or anyone else in this building, I’m going to have to use my shock-stick on you, and I don’t want to do that.”
Silence. Then the slow, resentful thunk-thunk of two bolts drawing back.
“Can I come in?” I said.
“My name is Gorman Rayne,” I said. “I’d like to come in and talk to you, but I need to know you’re not going to attack me, because I don’t want to have to hurt you. It has been a pleasant morning so far, and I don’t want to end it with your vital fluids on my shoes.”
“Come in if you want.”
I came in, and sucked in a breath through my teeth.
The man in room fourteen had overturned all his furniture, and thrown his food tray across the room. There were dabs of blood on the walls where he’d been pounding. He sat curled like a question-mark in one bare corner.
“Is there any way I can help?” I asked.
“I need you to tell them,” he said, “that I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“If there’s been a misunderstanding, I’m sure you can explain yourself.” I said. “But there’s rarely misunderstanding in cases like yours.”
What reason, after all, would the girl have had to lie? I could see that Schmidt was going to be difficult to reach.
“Do you even know who I am?”
“Only what you’ve told us, and what you told the people of the village you came from. Your name is Robert Schmidt. You say you are a scientist. But there are no records of where you practised, or where you were born.”
“I’m from here,” Schmidt said. “I’m from here, three hundred and thirty years ago.”
I took a deep breath.
“So how did you come to be here now?” I asked.
“In a time-machine. I AM a scientist. Well, a researcher. It’s one of the first multi-century journeys my lab has made, and I need to be allowed back to the place I came through.”
“So I can tell them it worked.”
I asked a junior warden to keep a subtle eye on Schmidt for the next few days to check that he wasn’t hurting himself. Inside, I was cursing my own foolishness. I had clearly made a mistake in my initial diagnosis. I had assumed that Schmidt was merely uneducated and lacking in empathy.
He appeared instead to be quite mad.
I wanted to help him, this young man. I wanted to know the ghosts that haunted him so that together we might banish them and find him some measure of peace. I am old, and in forty years I have tended so many lost creatures on this abstemious rock, and most I have been able to stretch out a hand to, though not all come here hoping for peace.
My place is not to judge them, but to help them, to protect them, whatever harm they have done in the lives they left behind. This is my work – has been the work of my life, since I came here on my own rickety midnight boat so long ago – to reach the unreachable with soft words and offer them a bridge back to the world.
I felt certain that however Schmidt had transgressed, however mangled his mind by suffering I could not guess at, I could help him.
Perhaps I was arrogant. I see that now. But there was more.
What I did not, could not admit to myself, was that Schmidt frightened me. And the most frightening prospect was the idea – remote, but impossible not to consider when you looked at that strange white face, heard that odd, high voice – that he might be telling the truth.
The next day I returned to speak to Schmidt. I brought fresh rolls and coffee, and we took breakfast together. He had restored order to his room during the night, and perhaps it was in repentance for his previous rudeness that he answered almost immediately when I asked if he was feeling better.
“I’m not crazy,” he said, “you must see that.”
“It’s not my place to pass judgement on how you see the world,” I said, which was quite true. “I’m merely anxious that you cause no further harm to yourself or any other citizen.”
“I’m not like the lunatics in here,” he said. “I didn’t even hurt that girl. It was a misunderstanding.”
“They say that you violated her autonomy,” I said. “They sent a report.”
“It wasn’t like that,” he said. He was looking away from me, and eviscerating his roll with his hands. “Besides, it seemed so primitive here, I assumed – I don’t know what I assumed.” He started in on a second roll. “I suppose I was excited to be in a new place.”
That night I re-read the report that had arrived with Schmidt, on the solar tablet I reserve for official communications. It was long enough that the village assembly had clearly thought it important to inform the house of the full facts.
“He came to us in the last week of May,” it ran. “He appeared at the door of a farmstead, badly bleeding and disoriented. The people of the house, after they had tended his wounds, brought him to the town square, where he explained that he was a traveller from another time. We have heard news of such things happening, but we would not have given them credit were it not for the strangeness of his behaviour.
Schmidt was from the start rude and unsocial, which was put down at first to his evident foreignness. He insisted on being brought to the head of our community, and it took some time to explain to him that no such position exists. He thinks in an extremely hierarchical manner, and though he claims to be a scientist he cannot seem to credit the evidence of his own senses. For this reason many of our young people remain convinced he was playing a practical joke on us.
Schmidt spent a great deal of time in the tavern and also in the library as his strength returned, taking notes on parchment, which he used freely from the central stocks, apparently unaware of its great expense. He was from the start dismissive and unsocial towards the female and non-binary among us, seeming unable to hold true conversation with them. One of our young men offered to have intercourse with him, at which point he became angry and violent. The young man was injured, and Schmidt had to be restrained.
One young woman in our research team took an interest in Schmidt’s work, gifting him freely with her time and attention to help further his studies. She reported to us that she woke to find a drunken Schmidt attempting to have intercourse with her. She communicated clearly that she did not want to be part of intercourse with him, but he did not appear to understand. In his culture, a signal of interest by a woman permits the man to use her body to relieve himself of his need at any time thereafter, and this is what Schmidt proceeded to do, using his strength to force her submission. Thereafter-”
I clicked the tablet shut. I had read enough. Schmidt had clearly fooled this rural assembly into accepting his wild story of time-travel to avoid taking responsibility for his own empathetic defects. He would not fool me. I would reach him, even if he was determined not to be reached.
It was autumn and high harvest; the time when everyone with the strength and skill to farm lends themselves to the almond groves.
A fresh breeze trembled from the plantations and I long to be among them, to drink hot cider and taste roasted almonds at the the evening celebrations after the gathering-in – but I have not joined the harvest since I came here to work at the House of Surrender.
No one could compel me to stay away, just as no one could force the people of the town to bring in the fruit before it rots on the trees. There is an awkwardness, though, among those who know my duties. Sanctuary is not a large community, and after a while everyone’s business is the subject of common gossip.
Instead, I walked about the grounds with Schmidt, sometimes talking, more often in silence.
We had come to an agreement: for the time being, he would stop demanding to be released and complaining that he did not belong here, and in return I would behave as if I believed his time-travel story. In truth, I was not sure whether he believed it himself. Still, I allowed him to question me as if he were truly from a long-ago world with laws and customs alien to our own.
“Why do you do this?” he asked me once. “Why do you work here, if you don’t have to work at all?”
“Most people work if they can,” I said. “We do the work we feel we’re best suited to.”
“There can’t be a lot of applications for this place,” said Schmidt.
“Not too many,” I admitted. “It takes a certain mindset. Most people worry about being around antisocial, violent individuals all day.”
I closed my eyes. Looked down at my broad, blunt hands – so much like my father’s, though I have kept myself from using them to hurt another human being.
“Of course,” I said. “But even more, I believe that those who can’t live with others need a place to go. Rehabilitation, if it’s possible. Asylum, if it isn’t.”
“What about justice?”
“What about it?”
“For the real monsters here. Not like me. The murderers. Their victims, and their families. Won’t they want to see them punished?”
“Perhaps. But would that bring their loved ones back?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point? Sometimes the families will demand amends. Sometimes, when the inmates return to their communities, they work the lands of those they have wronged. Or find some other way to prove themselves reformed.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then they lead very lonely lives. Or they come back here.”
“And you think that’s acceptable.”
“Most people think being shut out of the community is punishment enough. Otherwise we’re no better than-”
I held his eyes. “Than the world you’re from, yes.” Schmidt was certainly from another world, if only in spirit.
“You think you’re better than me.”
“No,” I said. “I think you can be better than you are.”
“What if I don’t want to be?”
Visitors, especially official ones, are an unusual event on the island. So when a science-history councillor from Sanctuary itself arrived by barge, along with not one but two assistants, I knew the matter was of utmost importance.
“I’m here about Schmidt,” said the councillor, whose name was Sophia. She wore well-cut overalls and could not have been more than thirty-five, but she wore her hair in the half-shaved style traditionally adopted by those who have already rotated through the senior levels of the science councils and have the authority of learning.
“Thank you for coming all this way,” I said, pouring coffee for us both.
“Not at all. Robert Schmidt is of great interest to the science council. I’d been meaning to make a personal visit. Is he settling in well?”
“We had some problems at first,” I said. “He claims that he is no foreigner, but is in fact from here, many centuries ago. He does not seem delusional, merely troubled.”
“It’s perfectly true,” said the councillor. “It’s been happening more and more, these people arriving from the first era of time-jump technology. Back when there were no guidelines.”
I felt a bubble of excitement expanding beneath my ribcage, and buried my face in my coffee mug to contain it.
“Schmidt is the first from his time to appear on the West Coast, however,” said Sophia. “We were dismayed to learn that he had been obliged to Surrender,” Sophia continued. “Dismayed, but not surprised. The time from which he comes- well. There was a great deal of savagery.”
“He does not seem like a savage man,” I said. “After he learned that he was free to leave, I’ve found him courteous, if a little strange.”
“Have you begun his therapy?”
“Yes,” I said “He’s very receptive, although still in deep denial of why he had to come here.”
“That’s to be expected,” said Sophia. “The moral codes of his culture were very different from ours.“ She pursed her lips over her coffee cup. As a young man I might have desired her greatly, a woman of such wit and elegance. I reprimanded myself for thinking such coarse thoughts about someone who was, however briefly, my superior.
“A decadent society,” she went on, her bright black eyes holding my own. “A violent, authoritarian world of class, racial and sex hierarchies. A culture that drove itself to destruction in pursuit of profit for the very few. We can’t just understand it through the lens of our own society.”
I nodded. Now I had been given permission to believe Schmidt, it all made sense.
“That, in fact, is the substance of our visit,” said Sophia. “Schmidt could help us a great deal in understanding the culture and technology of his time. But for his safety we feel – the council feels – that it would be better for all concerned if Schmidt were to remain here, in the House of Surrender, on a permanent basis.”
“Are you saying that Schmidt is in danger?”
“I’m saying that Schmidt is dangerous. And there are people who would, if it came to it, judge him too dangerous to live as part of this society.”
“Because of what he did?”
“Because of what he is,” said Sophia. “Through no fault of his own, he happens to come from the most frightening place imaginable.”
“What place is that?”
I was silent.
“You must ensure,” she said, “That Schmidt does not come to any harm. Break the news to him gently.”
“Can he not be returned to his time?” I asked.
“Impossible,” said Sophia. “We cannot return a time-traveller to a culture without any sense of the common good. His leaders set their future on fire before the first leap engine was even in use. Who’s to say he wouldn’t do the same?
“He needs to be kept somewhere out of the way, or who knows what he’ll do. Or what might be done to him.”
Or, I thought, what he might do to himself.
When I told Schmidt that he would not be allowed to return to his own time, he said nothing. He did not rage or argue as I would have expected. Instead, he locked his door, and did not emerge for three days.
Eventually, I had the guards break down the door. There was blood everywhere. He had tried to open his wrists with a broken spoon, and failed.
He could not bring himself to end his life, not alone.
“I understand now,” he kept saying. That was all he said. Poor soul. There could never be peace for him here.
I wrote to the science-history council, but received no reply.
So, I have made my decision.
Tonight I will go to room fourteen and bring Schmidt his supper in person. We will eat together, and talk together, and in the course of our conversation I will mention, casually the small cove, hidden between the rocks on the north side of the bare island, where I keep my own boat.
The boat that took me here forty years ago, when I came to this place to surrender, after I woke in the night to find my hands, the thick blunt hands I had from my father, closing around my lover’s neck.
I had planned to return one day, when I could be sure that I was old and frail enough to be of no more danger to anyone I cherished. Now I know that I will never leave this place.
Schmidt, though, will choose what he will choose.
Perhaps he will go down to the cove and take the boat out on the grey river and cast out on its treacherous waters, all alone, towards the land.
And perhaps the currents will not pull him down. And perhaps the people of Sanctuary will spare him. Or perhaps they will give him what he could not give himself.
Not forgiveness. Redemption.
They will know, of course, and they will want to come for me. But what can they do?
I will take my bunch of keys and find a door to lock behind me.
There are always more rooms in the House of Surrender.