Creatures That Once Were Men
Twenty-Six Men And A Girl
There were six-and-twenty of us--six-and-twenty living machines in a damp,
underground cellar, where from morning till night we kneaded dough and rolled it into
kringels. Opposite the underground window of our cellar was a bricked area, green and
mouldy with moisture. The window was protected from outside with a close iron grating,
and the light of the sun could not pierce through the window panes, covered as they were
with flour dust.
Our employer had bars placed in front of the windows, so that we should not be able to
give a bit of his bread to passing beggars, or to any of our fellows who were out of work
and hungry. Our employer called us rogues, and gave us half-rotten tripe to eat for our
mid-day meal, instead of meat. It was swelteringly close for us cooped up in that stone
underground chamber, under the low, heavy, soot-blackened, cobwebby ceiling. Dreary
and sickening was our life between its thick, dirty, mouldy walls.
Unrefreshed, and with a feeling of not having had our sleep out, we used to get up at five
o'clock in the morning; and before six, we were already seated, worn out and apathetic, at
the table, rolling out the dough which our mates had already prepared while we slept.
The whole day, from ten in the early morning until ten at night, some of us sat round that
table, working up in our hands the yielding paste, rolling it to and fro so that it should not
get stiff; while the others kneaded the swelling mass of dough. And the whole day the
simmering water in the kettle, where the kringels were being cooked, sang low and sadly;
and the baker's shovel scraped harshly over the oven floor, as he threw the slippery bits of
dough out of the kettle on the heated bricks.
From morning till evening wood was burning in the oven, and the red glow of the fire
gleamed and flickered over the walls of the bake-shop, as if silently mocking us. The
giant oven was like the misshapen head of a monster in a fairy tale; it thrust itself up out
of the floor, opened wide jaws, full of glowing fire, and blew hot breath upon us; it
seemed to be ever watching out of its black air-holes our interminable work. Those two
deep holes were like eyes: the cold, pitiless eyes of a monster. They watched us always
with the same darkened glance, as if they were weary of seeing before them such eternal
slaves, from whom they could expect nothing human, and therefore scorned them with
the cold scorn of wisdom.
In meal dust, in the mud which we brought in from the yard on our boots, in the hot,
sticky atmosphere, day in, day out, we rolled the dough into kringels, which we
moistened with our own sweat. And we hated our work with a glowing hatred; we never
ate what had passed through our hands, and preferred black bread to kringels.
Sitting opposite each other, at a long table--nine facing nine-- we moved our hands and
fingers mechanically during endlessly long hours, till we were so accustomed to our
monotonous work that we ceased to pay any attention to it.