Ilse Aichinger: Bound
He awoke in the sunshine. But it made him close his eyes again; the light flowed down the slope, formed small streams, swept up swarms of mosquitoes, which flew low over his head, circled, tried to land and were displaced by new swarms. It was when he moved to shoo them away that he realized he was tied up.
His chances all lay in the amount of free play in the cord. He propped his elbows up on the ground to test it. As soon as it tightened he stopped, and tried it again more cautiously. If he had been able to reach the branches over his head he’d have used them to pull himself up, but he couldn’t reach them.
In the early morning light, the animal tamer, whose circus was located on the field adjoining the village, saw the bound man coming down the path, gazing thoughtfully at the ground. He watched as the man stopped and reached for something. He bent his knees, stretched out one arm to keep his balance, and with the other picked up an empty wine bottle, then straightened up again. He moved slowly, to avoid being cut by the cord, but to the circus owner it seemed like the voluntary limiting of great speed. The astonishing gracefulness of the movement enchanted him, and as the man looked around for a stone on which to break the bottle to cut the cord, the animal tamer walked across the field to him.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present The Bound Man!" Even his opening movements drew loud cheers from the crowd and caused blood to rush to the cheeks of the animal tamer. The man rose to his feet. His own surprise was like that of a four-legged animal standing on its hind legs. The spectators found it as astounding as if they were watching a bird that voluntarily remained earthbound.
His fame grew from place to place, but his movements never changed. He had to keep practicing them during the day to keep the slack in the cord. By remaining within its limitations, it freed him and because it didn't confine him, it spurred him on and gave his leaps and bounds purpose.
Nobody knew how hard it was for the circus owner to keep the man with them or how often the man said he had had enough and wanted to move on. Later, he stopped talking about leaving. When the owner’s wife brought him his food by the river and asked him how long he would stay, he did not answer. She thought he had gotten used to – not being tied up – but not forgetting for a moment that he was tied up, and that that was all the cord would permit. She asked if it didn’t seem ludicrous to him to remain tied up, but he responded: no, he didn’t. A circus had such a large entourage, elephants, tigers, clowns – why not a man who was bound?
There were times he told her he felt as if he weren’t tied up at all. She responded that he wouldn’t ever have to feel bound if he would simply be willing to get rid of the cord. That was always an option, he replied.
One day a young wolf escaped from the circus. The owner kept quiet about it, to avoid spreading alarm, but the wolf soon began raiding the surrounding pastures and preying on the cattle. At first, people thought that the wolf had been driven to these parts by an impending severe winter. But soon they began to suspect the circus. The circus people offered the local mayors their help in the hunt, but all their efforts were to no avail.
He felt a slight elation at having lost the deadly advantage of free limbs that causes men to lose. The freedom he felt was having to adapt every twist and turn to the cord that bound him – it was the freedom of wild flowers swaying in the evening breeze.
The crowd demanded that he repeat his battle with the wolf. He said that such a thing had no place in a circus performance and the owner declared that he did not keep animals to have them slaughtered in front of an audience. But they stormed the ring and surged against the cages.
So, he had not been sufficiently on his guard against those who wanted to free him and their compassion. Had he lain too long on the riverbank? If only she had cut the cord at any other time...
He reached the river at dawn and it seemed to him as if ice floes were drifting past, and as if the first snow had fallen, taking all memories away.
(From Ilse Aichinger’s 1953 short story. Excerpt for the film "Bound," English by Chris Doherty.)