In the Penal Colony

by Franz Kafka
So it was all the more striking that the Condemned Man, in spite of that, did what he could to follow the Officer’s explanation. With a sort of sleepy persistence he kept directing his gaze to the place where the Officer had just pointed, and when a question from the Traveller interrupted the Officer, the Condemned Man looked at the Traveller, too, just as the Officer was doing.

“Yes, the Harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. You’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the Bed. First, I’ll describe the apparatus and only then let the procedure go to work. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a sprocket in the Inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks. When it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the Bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on the cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the Bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his throat would break his neck.” “That’s cotton wool?” asked the Traveller and bent down. “Yes, it is,” said the Officer smiling, “feel it for yourself.”

He took the Traveller’s hand and led him over to the Bed. “It’s a specially prepared cotton wool. That’s why it looks so unrecognizable. I’ll get around to mentioning its purpose in a moment.” The Traveller was already being won over a little to the apparatus. With his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked up at the height of the apparatus. It was a massive construction. The Bed and the Inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The Inscriber was set about two metres above the Bed, and the two were joined together at the corners by four brass rods, which almost reflected the sun. The Harrow hung between the chests on a band of steel.

The Officer had hardly noticed the earlier indifference of the Traveller, but he did have a sense now of how the latter’s interest was being aroused for the first time. So he paused in his explanation in order to allow the Traveller time to observe the apparatus undisturbed. The Condemned Man imitated the Traveller, but since he could not put his hand over his eyes, he blinked upward with his eyes uncovered.

“So now the man is lying down,” said the Traveller.