The magistrate notices that a barbarian woman is in the town begging; after giving her a coin, he tells her that it’s too cold and late to be outdoors. Noticing that she’s not there the next day, the magistrate asks the gatekeeper where the woman came from, and he replies that she was one of the barbarians Joll brought in, but she was left behind the others. Further, he says that she’s blind. Several days later, after seeing the woman walking across the town square with two sticks as crutches, the magistrate gives an order that she be brought to him. When she arrives at the magistrate’s room at the barracks, he tells her that he knows she’s blind and who she is—but she claims to be able to see. The magistrate notes that she doesn’t quite look him in the eye. When he tells her to look at him, she says that she is: “This is how I look.”
The magistrate’s initial encounter with the barbarian girl seems to be more motivated by his desire to prevent his settlement from becoming a haven for beggars than by any sense of charity. Despite knowing that the girl is a victim of Joll’s, the magistrate first acts as if the girl is herself responsible for being on the streets. Here, the magistrate’s earlier fantasy about burying the barbarian prisoners in order to erase their testament to the Empire’s cruelty from history reappears, and is expressed in his desire to rid her from public sight. This conflicts with his compassion for the barbarians as well as his commitment to not covering up the truth.
The magistrate then tells the barbarian woman that they don’t allow vagrants in the town, and that, with winter approaching, she must either have somewhere to live or go back to her people. He then offers her work cleaning and doing laundry, but she tells the magistrate that he doesn’t want someone like her, trying to tell him something herself by making a gesture he doesn’t understand (gripping her forefinger and twisting it). She asks to go, and he helps her down the stairs.
The barbarian girl’s bizarre gesture might be read as a response to what she perceives as an offer for prostitution by the magistrate. As we later learn, she has already been sleeping with several soldiers in order to make money. Alternately, it might reference the torture she suffered under Joll.
After a day passes, the magistrate finds the barbarian girl (he no longer calls her a woman) again and tells her to come with him. He brings her to his room in the barracks, and tells her about the fort’s vagrancy ordinances, sick at himself for doing so. The magistrate then asks her to show him her feet, so he can see what Joll and his interrogation assistants did to her. After she unwraps both feet, she reveals that both of her ankles were broken; she says that they’ve healed and are no longer painful. The magistrate then begins to wash her feet, which quickly turns into a massage. As he caresses the girl’s feet, the magistrate slips into a kind of trance, saying that he loses himself in the rhythm of the massaging, becoming unaware of the girl and divorced from a sense of being in the present moment. Shortly after the magistrate finishes drying the girl’s feet, he stretches out on the carpet and quickly falls asleep. When he wakes up, the girl is gone.
Despite the magistrate’s sense of disgust at informing the barbarian girl of the fort’s vagrancy ordinances, he nevertheless goes through with it. Furthermore, based on what he’s said in the past about feeling sorry for the barbarians on the street—since they usually end up there because the town’s merchants cheat them—it seems like this way of treating the barbarian girl is out of character for the magistrate. This instance could be read as a symptom of Joll’s influence—perhaps the magistrate now feels that he has to adhere to the official, technical mandates of the law, whereas before he interpreted and applied them more loosely. The magistrate’s odd trance suggests that there’s something peculiarly soothing, and perhaps sexually pleasant, about massaging the girl—yet this also becomes a strange sort of ritual, a kind of “othering” and fetishizing of the seemingly impenetrable surface of the girl.
The magistrate’s narration shifts to presumably the next day; he watches the barbarian girl eat, still unconvinced that she can see. The girl explains that, while she can’t see out of the center of her eyes, she can see when she looks sideways. When the magistrate asks what Joll and his men did to her, she shrugs and doesn’t respond. He continues to watch her eat.
The barbarian girl’s need to look sideways in order to see symbolizes the effects of Joll’s torture—that she’ll never be able to see the world again the same way—but also the way her sense of sight differs from Joll’s. Whereas he looks head-on at the world as if presented with a straightforward, discernible truth, she looks at a fragmented world with an opaque center.
The magistrate describes another instance of washing the barbarian girl’s feet. This time, the encounter is more sexual: he runs his hands up and down her legs, and, when he’s finished, lays besides her (head-to-foot) in his bed, falling asleep with her legs folded together in his arms. This time, when he wakes up, the girl is still lying there.
The sexual tinges to the first massage become more pronounced this time, and the magistrate’s motivation for taking the girl in now seem even less guided by charity. Here, an aspect of the magistrate’s personality that contradicts his usual sense of civility appears: a confused and uncontrollable sexuality.
The magistrate’s narration then shifts to yet another washing and massage, this time referring to the procedure as a “ritual.” The process is now explicitly sexualized. He washes not only the barbarian girl’s feet, but now her legs, buttocks, belly, breasts, and neck. He then rubs her with oil, and again loses himself in the rhythm of his rubbing. The magistrate adds that he has no desire to have sex with her, and that it’s been a week since any words have passed between them. He says that, because of the girl’s poor vision, he can undress before her without embarrassment, baring the body of which he’s not proud. One night during another one of his rituals, when massaging her temples he notices a “greyish puckering” in the corner of one of her eyes resembling a caterpillar. She tells him “that is where they touched me.” The magistrate then states that it’s becoming clear that he won’t be able to let go of the girl until he deciphers the marks on her body.
Though the magistrate’s sexuality has already played a role in the novel during his visits to the girl at the inn, the sexual drive he presents here feels distinctly more visceral, uncontrolled, and confused, suggesting the surfacing of a heretofore unexplored side of his personality. As we see later, this side of his personality will bloom into the conflict he encounters with his sexuality—a conflict which exposes how, despite the magistrate’s sense of civility, there’s a monstrousness in his behavior that resonates with the way Joll views the barbarians. The magistrate’s fascination with the marks on the girl’s body reflects his desire to struggle with the past until its history and “truth” is revealed and becomes accessible.
The magistrate says that he’s hired the barbarian girl as a scullery-maid in the kitchen, and mentions that their relationship is no secret in the town. Then, at another time when he’s caressing her, he suddenly wonders why he’s “clutched to this stolid girl,” and can’t remember what he ever wanted from her, “angry with myself for wanting and not wanting her.” He says that he tries to recall an image of her as she used to be, but he can’t remember noticing her among the prisoners Joll detained. His first image of her is still “the kneeling beggar-girl.” Further, the magistrate says that he hasn’t had sex with the girl—that his desire hasn’t adopted that direction. He adds that, when he looks upon his and her naked bodies, he can’t believe he ever imagined the “human form as a flower radiating out from a kernel in the loins.” Rather, he’s repulsed by their “gaseous” and “centerless” bodies.
The ambivalence which constitutes the magistrate’s conflict with his own sexual drives comes to a new pinnacle here. Wanting and not wanting the girl, the magistrate’s sexuality is starting to assert itself as an alien force. Further, his desire to dredge up an image of the girl before she was tortured resonates with his desire to struggle with and uncover the history of the past, which appears here in the form of an obsession. It’s as if the “centerlessness” of the girl’s marred vision has come into a metaphorical clash with the magistrate’s desire to uncover the whole truth of the past.
The magistrate says that he interviewed the guards who were on duty when the prisoners were interrogated (to find out what happened to the barbarian girl), but they each say the same thing: they barely spoke to the prisoners, and they weren’t allowed to enter the interrogation room. Then, after noting that winter is approaching and mentioning that it’s been two months since Colonel Joll’s visit, the magistrate says that he interviewed the guards again, asking them to tell him exactly what they saw. He asks them if they know what happened to the prisoner who died while being interrogated (referring to the barbarian girl’s father, not the uncle of the boy at the beginning of the novel), and one of them replies that they heard he went “berserk” and started attacking Joll and his men, and further, that he was questioned longer than anyone else. The magistrate observes that the guard’s face is strange, and infers that he’s been told not to talk.
Even though Colonel Joll hasn’t been at the settlement for two months, his brooding sense of intimidation (especially as a representative of the faceless and seemingly all-powerful Empire) still lingers and affects how the magistrate’s own men relate with and talk to him. Thus the magistrate’s life remains divorced from its past ease and uneventful innocence. The guard’s “strange face” might be a way of quietly signaling to the magistrate that he’s telling lies fabricated by Joll; read this way, the guard can be interpreted as still fundamentally in allegiance with the magistrate, but nevertheless fearful of Joll despite his absence from the settlement.
The guard adds that, after the interrogation, the barbarian prisoner wouldn’t eat anything; he says that the man’s daughter was with him, and that she tried to make him eat. The magistrate then asks what happened to the man’s daughter, acknowledging that it’s no secret that the barbarian girl has been staying with him. But the guard insists he doesn’t know anything, nervously adding that he thinks she was beaten; ultimately, he admits that he knew the girl’s feet were broken, but didn’t find out about her blindness until a while afterwards. The other guard doesn’t add anything, and the magistrate tells the one who spoke that he needn’t be afraid for doing so.
The magistrate’s guards continue to display a fear of Joll despite his two-month-long absence from the fort. This power-play adds another dimension to the theme of blindness. Taking the guards under the sway of his own authority, Joll has tried to instill a certain blindness (the blindness of duty) in the magistrate—to create a barrier between him and the truth of his torture practices. Further, that the guard didn’t know of the girl’s blindness until after the act shows how Joll has tried to balance keeping both the guards and the magistrate uninformed.
That night, the magistrate experiences his recurring dream. In it, he once again approaches the hooded child building a snow castle, as the other children step aside or vanish in the air. This time, he circles around the child, who still pays no attention to him, until he can see under the hood. But the face he sees is “blank, featureless; it is the face of an embryo or a tiny whale,” it’s not a proper face at all, but rather “another part of the human body that bulges under the skin.” Further, it’s white, “the snow itself.” He holds out a coin.
The blank and indistinct face that appears to the magistrate can be read as the dream’s way of translating and expressing his sense that the barbarian girl is “stolid” and depthless, without any animated sense of personality, and yet at the same time an inscrutable and impenetrable surface that he cannot interpret at all.
The magistrate’s narration shifts, and he discusses how winter has arrived. He says that the soldiers on patrol in the town have the option to quit their jobs at the barracks and live in the town, since there’s so little for them to do. He adds that there have been no barbarian visitors this year, whereas they used to visit the settlement in order to trade their goods. Further, the magistrate says that he’s been spending time in his “old recreations,” reading classic literature, working on his maps of the nomad region, and sending out parties of diggers to the dunes where he excavates the ruins.
The arrival of winter has seemingly signaled attempts by the magistrate to return to his old way of life. The snow in the magistrate’s dream takes on the form of winter as a whole here, as if the arrival of winter has covered over the chaos Joll’s presence stirred into life at the settlement. This effect of winter therefore reflects the cyclical time of the rotating seasons, which the magistrate thinks is on a different register than that of human history.
The magistrate then mentions how, one morning hunting, he came across a waterbuck, “a ram with heavy curved horns.” He says that, right as he’s about to shoot the buck, it turns its head and stares at him. The magistrate, upon meeting the eyes of the buck, describes that he feels suspended in time. After this encounter with the buck—who runs off unharmed—the magistrate describes the scene to the barbarian girl. She’s unable to empathize with the situation, however. While the magistrate tries to explain that, facing the buck, he’d “had the feeling of not before living my own life on my own terms,” the barbarian girl doesn’t understand, and thinks that, if the magistrate truly wanted to shoot the buck, he would have. The magistrate eventually says that, because the barbarian girl prefers facts—“pragmatic dicta”—over the “fancy, questions, speculations” characteristic of his thought, the two are a poor match.
The magistrate’s encounter with the buck is unique because of the power which its gaze commands. Once the magistrate meets the staring face of the ram, it seems to become equally alive, no longer a mere animal to be shot unthinkingly. The power of buck’s gaze stops the magistrate in his tracks and suspends him in time. It’s as if the buck, at that moment, loses its status as an Other and becomes something immensely personal and present to the magistrate. His drive to hunt then drops away and feels like an alien force, like he hadn’t been directing his life on his “own terms.” This alien drive to hunt mirrors his sexual lust for the girl, though she never captivates him in an instant of empathy like the ram.
The magistrate awkwardly decides to interrogate the barbarian girl about why she’s with him, but she only says that there’s nowhere else for her to go. The magistrate even asks her why he himself wants her, and she unsatisfyingly replies that it’s because he wants to talk all the time. Detouring from this turn of conversation, the girl decides to finally inform the magistrate about how Joll and his torture assistants blinded her. She says that the men held her eyelids open and threatened to prick her eyes with a fork that they’d heated over burning coals. She says that when they asked her questions, she had nothing to tell them, and so they burned her eyes. When the magistrate asks her what she feels towards her torturers, she ends the conversation, saying that she’s tired of talking.
The magistrate’s quest to unravel the history of the girl’s scars advances, as she finally describes how she was blinded. Yet though the magistrate gets factual information about the girl’s blinding, he still wants to know about her own psychological reaction to the event. The magistrate’s prying, therefore, seems less motivated by impersonal facts, but rather by a desire to prove that the girl has an inner, animated world of human feeling and vulnerability that hasn’t been destroyed by Joll. It’s as if he wants to prove that no event in the present could erase the past—which is what he feels Joll’s presence did to his old lifestyle.
The magistrate describes how he’s grown weary of his attachment to the ritual of massaging the barbarian girl. He says that, one night after he’s gone through the ritual and the girl’s fallen asleep, he pays a visit to the girl at the inn. Even though he’s fully aware that she feigns to be enthusiastic and especially pleased to see him, he says he nonetheless finds it “a pleasure to be lied to so flatteringly.” Further, whereas the barbarian girl’s body is “closed, ponderous,” and “beyond comprehension,” the magistrate says that he’s able to lose himself fully in the girl at the inn’s body.
Even though the enthusiasm of the girl at the inn is likely an act, the magistrate prefers her flattery to the walled-off, unanimated personality of the barbarian girl. Whereas he feels unable to become entirely connected with, or lost within, the body of the barbarian girl, the girl at the inn does not appear as such an Other to the magistrate. The magistrate doesn’t yet seem to recognize that his own way of thinking about the girl actively frames her as an inaccessible Other.
After sleeping with the girl at the inn, the magistrate goes back to his apartment at the barracks. Returning to bed with the barbarian girl, he mentions that, as opposed to the girl at the inn, he can’t say anything certain about the barbarian girl—that “there is no link I can define between her womanhood and my desire.” He says that his erotic desire for her only manifests in indirect ways, such as his massaging and probing about her body without engaging in actual sexual intercourse. He then remarks that it’s as if the girl has no interior, and that he searches across her surface in an attempt to gain entry; he wonders if her torturers felt the same way. Ultimately, the magistrate says that he’s bewildered about his sexuality in relation to the barbarian girl.
Here, the magistrate makes a very significant connection: his manner of searching for an entry into some hidden recess upon the surface of the barbarian girl is perhaps analogous to the way her torturers treated her. Did not Joll view her body as something to be tested, with the application of pain, until she was willing to concede some secret she’d been withholding? Further, that the magistrate finds it frustrating that he can’t say anything certain about the barbarian girl testifies to the failure of his quest to unearth the truth of her history, untainted by her scars.
The magistrate begins to visit the girl at the inn regularly. During the days, when he fantasizes about her, he reminisces about the sexual life of his youth, and how his promiscuity waned with age, finding that he “needed women less frequently.” Further, he says that during the sexual act he would sometimes feel as if he were losing his way, “like a storyteller losing the thread of his story.”
Here, the magistrate reveals how his sexual drive has changed with age—and this change harks back to his philosophy about struggling with the past. Earlier, the magistrate said that he prefers to “struggle with the old story” and unearth its whole meaning, but it seems that his sexuality sometimes becomes unhinged from the “story” driving his lust.
The magistrate adds that he’s visited the girl at the inn three nights in a row, and says that, when he comes back on the fourth night, he has an internal mental fit about the barbarian girl. He still cannot understand what he ever saw in her—what about her could have possibly attracted him. He tries to recall the first time he saw her—when she was led into the barracks by Joll’s soldiers—but he’s unable to. Frustrated out of his wits, the magistrate shouts in his sleep, and the girl shakes him awake. Yet he’s unable to recall the dream that provoked his shouting. Further, he tries to summon up the image of the barbarian girl’s father, so that he might envision her beside him, when they were imprisoned by Joll’s men. Though he succeeds in envisioning the girl’s father, he still fails to remember seeing the girl.
The magistrate is still entangled in his attempts to both understand why he’s attracted to the barbarian girl and to find something in her history—a lost personality—that will justify and give spark to his desire. His desire to recall the first time when he saw her—to recall the truth of her before she was tainted by the interrogation practices of Joll—reflects his obsession with the “old story” of the past. Further, the fact that the magistrate has nightmares both during his visits to the girl at the inn and his stays with the barbarian girl suggests that neither encounter provides adequate relief from his troubles.
The magistrate then notes that a group of new conscripts has arrived at his settlement from the capital of the Empire. The magistrate invites the officer in charge, along with two of his colleagues, to dine with him at the inn. The conversation, however—while it goes smoothly at first—ultimately turns sour. When the officer mentions that there’s a rumor going around the Empire’s military brigade headquarters about launching an offensive against the barbarians—to push them away from the frontier and back into the mountains—the magistrate expresses disdain for the way the Empire conceives of and treats the barbarians. He says that the barbarians would never let themselves “be bottled up in the mountains,” since it’s their way of life to “migrate between the lowlands and uplands every year.”
The magistrate’s willingness to express his disagreement with the Empire’s treatment of the barbarians openly to the officer is a new act of defiance which speaks to the strength of his convictions. Such disagreement with someone who’s integral to the Empire’s military operations is bound to garner disrepute and whittle away at his reputation among those in power. The magistrate, however, seems bolder in the face of authority now, and is more willing to avow the barbarians’ way of life as something with its own integrity regardless of its difference from life in the Empire’s society.
The magistrate continues to defend the barbarians—though he thinks he’d better stop, he can’t help but provoke the officer further. The magistrate speaks of the injustice of the Empire’s recent raids on the barbarians, and of the unfair and demeaning manner in which the barbarians are treated whenever they visit the settlement in order to trade. Further, he denounces how the Empire holds contempt for the barbarians based on petty matters such as “differences in tables manners” and “variations in the structure of the eyelid.” Most controversially, he adds that he wishes that the barbarians would “rise up and teach us [the Empire] a lesson,” and condemns the Empire’s way of viewing the land as theirs, whereas the barbarians see the people of the Empire as visitors in their territory.
The magistrate seems to be finally unleashing all of his pent-up rage at the Empire’s anti-barbarian military enterprise. What’s most bold is his explicitly anti-Empire wish that the barbarians would counteract the Empire militarily and succeed, teaching them a “lesson.” The magistrate’s defense of the barbarians’ territory as their proper home, and as a foreign land in which the Empire is nothing but a collection of outsiders, further condemns the way the Empire “others” the barbarians in order to stake a claim to their own identity—to their own sense of belonging in the region as mere settlers.
The conversation ends on a bitter note, and the magistrate shifts to another account of his recurring dream. This time, as he approaches the hooded child, his sight of her is blocked by a “curtain of falling snow,” and the snow-laden ground slows his approach. The magistrate notices that the girl—now the barbarian girl—is building an intricate snow castle of the entire settlement, despite having her mittens on. There are no people in the settlement, though, and when the magistrate tries to tell her to populate her fort he realizes that a sheet of ice is covering his own mouth. She turns around to look him in the face, and though he expects to be disappointed with her visage—that it will present “like an internal organ not meant to live in the light”—he’s surprised by the degree of vivacity displayed in her features. He says to himself: “So this is what it is to see!” and the girl “smiles kindly on my [the magistrate’s] mumbling.”
The dream’s depiction of the snow castle as unpopulated might represent the magistrate’s feeling that the town is no longer full of life—that, since Joll’s arrival, the ease and vibrancy of the settlement’s atmosphere has devolved into dread. Further, the magistrate’s command that the girl populate the fort reflects his desire for her to re-animate his life again; but, his mouth sealed, the magistrate is unable to dictate such a purpose to the girl. Ironically, unlike his real life efforts to connect with the girl, the magistrate’s (vocal) severance from her in the dream lets the animated vivacity he longs to see in her appear upon her surface, since she can’t be told to redirect it to the fort—the magistrate’s life—itself.
The magistrate then notes that the recurring dream has firmly taken root in the life of his sleep—it’s now a nightly event. He says that every time he approaches the barbarian girl, it’s reconfirmed that she’s building a town “empty of life.” The magistrate also asks the girl about the period after her imprisonment—when she remained and lived in the town under his jurisdiction. She implies that she had to resort to prostitution in order to survive, and the magistrate realizes that some of the soldiers he works with probably slept with the girl.
That the barbarian girl continues to build a town devoid of life in the magistrate’s dream suggests that he views the social atmosphere of his settlement as lacking a certain intensity or vivacity stolen by Joll. Yet this lack of animation is precisely what he perceives in the barbarian girl. It’s as if the girl’s ability, in the dream, to build—to give life to—something without life represents the ambivalence the magistrate sees in her persona.
The magistrate gets news of the fate of two soldiers who deserted Joll’s company—they froze to death in a rough shelter about thirty miles east of the settlement. The magistrate insists on giving them a proper burial, believing that it will inspire morale among the troops, since it will quell any doubts they may have about ever being forgotten themselves.
Whereas Joll would leave the two corpses to rot without a proper burial, the magistrate insists that even deserters deserve to be buried. This can be read as a subtle gesture by the magistrate supporting dissent from Joll—that, if troops stick together, no one will lose any honor.
After the two corpses are retrieved and buried, the magistrate’s narration shifts to another moment of intimate massaging with the barbarian girl. This time, the girl asks the magistrate if he’d like to do something else—something more explicitly sexual—other than just the usual ritual of rubbing and massaging. Uninterested, however, the magistrate tells her “another time.” When the girl begins to fondle him, he pushes her away, and she tells him that she knows he visits “other girls.” But the magistrate just makes a gesture for her to be quiet. Offended, the girl starts to sob. The magistrate tries to comfort her, feeling sorry for her and empathizing with the humiliation she must feel, but ultimately tells her that it’s best that they stop being physically intimate. He says that he starts to sleep in a cot in the parlor, and the girl adapts to the new relationship and routine without complaint. Further, he says that though he sees her as very ordinary, he understands that she may have ways of finding him incredibly ordinary too.
Finally, right when the girl displays a sense of animation and vivacity in openly expressing her desire to have sex with the magistrate—just when she finally feels comfortable and involved enough to initiate such a request—the magistrate turns her away. It’s as if the unfolding of the magistrate and the girl’s desire have operated on two distinct timelines, and the magistrate has failed to be sympathetic to this. Further, the magistrate’s acknowledgement that the girl might find him to be as equally ordinary as he finds her suggests that he’s finally begun to stop othering her—that he’s begun to see her as someone as equally perceptive as himself. Yet when he does this, it’s too late; it damages, but doesn’t reinforce, his relation with her.