The miracle of the rose

Issue 2/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Naurava neitsyt (‘The laughing virgin’, WSOY, 1996). The narrator in this first novel by Irja Rane is an elderly headmaster and clergyman in 1930s Germany. In his letters to his son, Mr Klein contemplates the present state of the world, hardly recovered from the previous war, his own incapacity for true intimacy – and tells his son the story of the laughing virgin, a legend he saw come alive. Naurava neitsyt won the Finlandia Prize for Fiction in 1996

28 August

My dear boy,

I received your letter yesterday at dinner. Let me just say that I was delighted to see it! For as I went to table I was not in the conciliatory frame of mind that is suitable in sitting down to enjoy the gifts of God. I was still fretting when Mademoiselle put her head through the serving hatch and said:

‘There is a letter for you, sir.’

‘Have I not said that I must not be disturbed,’ I growled. I was surprised myself at the abruptness of my voice.

‘By your leave, it is from Berlin,’ said Mademoiselle. ‘Perhaps it is from the young gentleman.’

‘Bring it here,’ I said.

She set the letter on the table, propping it up a little way away against the water-jug.

I looked at the letter. Its white envelope frightened me. Too many letters frighten me nowadays. Not even the sight of your handwriting could restore me to a confident frame of mind.

After I had said grace, I began to eat. Salzkartoffeln, goulash, radishes. I wondered at their fresh, red colour, until I tasted them: they were bitter, woody. Mademoiselle’s goulash, which she had made from goodness knows what meat, was just as bad.

‘Is it rats you are feeding me?’ I once asked, playfully.

‘Better that the gentleman doesn’t ask,’ she replied.

Yes indeed, Mademoiselle is right, it is better not to ask what we eat and drink, for the truth may be horrifying. Luckily there has been enough food here, although the Meissen porcelain your mother loved so much has almost gone. But Mademoiselle’s conscience is troubled less by what she does for our benefit than what she does to the detriment of the porcelain, and I believe that in that respect she is probably on Our Lord’s side, who loves the living more than the dead. But if you are thinking that your future wife will lay the table with our blue china, you had better make haste to marry ….

As you see, your old father is succumbing once more to joking to escape necessities. For you didn’t write to me about a bride, no. But I would rather guide you toward marriage, advise you concerning that serious step that – in spite of everything – it is high time you should take, – a man without a wife, after all, is like a shoeless horse –, than reply to the question you now ask me. For I should be able to speak of marriage (in that matter, by the grace of God, my cup has overflowed), but when we come to matters that concern the foundations of existence in other ways, I am perplexed. But you turn toward me as if I should know, as if, as a father and perhaps not as a clergyman, I should be able to guide you in this most important matter, which is now passing over you and gives you no peace, this storm which has enveloped us all in its maelstrom. And I have no bread to give you ….

*

At that point I was interrupted. A message had come that it was necessary to change tomorrow’s plans and that the boys would go on fatigue duty. They were needed on the canal. The region chief was polite, but did not leave anything unclear. Goodbye, then, musical evening I But perhaps our orchestra will be able to rehearse later. Even their programme has plenty of singing and brass-band music, but I fear our clarinets are better at following Mozart than at bellowing Beethoven, although in a certain sence the latter would be more suitable in terms of their future. But my heart grieves, for you know your father – for him, anything but Mozart is mere noise. And noise is one of the principles of hell.

*

I went to the dunes today. The road is as it was, and I enjoy it. The late summer has been unusually dry, and I took some healthy exercise as I trudged through the sand. The birch-tree which you named Mermaid as a boy is already quite yellow. I hear two poplars have fallen at Herbert’s mill. In other ways, too, the shore seems to have pulled back toward the interior, the bony fingers of the pine-trees reach into emptiness. I walked as far as the Great Whale and saw lights at sea. I thought they were fishermen until I noticed searchlights sweeping the horizons. The coastal patrol practising. I turned away.

I came back via the Reed Sea. What a contrast! With your mother, we used to bring you here – so long ago you cannot even remember – we had a picnic basket and wine with us, and you crawled on a red blanket and we looked for you like Moses and hid among the reeds. Then there were still plenty of storks, and sometimes, in springtime, I counted thousands of geese on their way north.

I do not care much for Russian literature, but as I walked I thought of Chekhov’s Seagull and people’s fondness for things that never happened ….

*

While I remember, let me say that under a new order all warning signals and fences have been removed from the quicksand. The sand is nowadays part of the security system, so that it does not matter if cattle, hoofed or horned animals, pigs or sheep, working or guard-dogs or other domestic animals’ are lost there, for the state will pay compensation for losses. Of human beings the order says nothing.

*

As I set out on my walk, I had already read your letter. But I cannot really call it reading. I had seen your sentences, those long phrases that hurried across the paper. Your handwriting, which as a child – perhaps on account of your left-handedness – had been so beautiful, almost drawn, now twisted unexpectedly toward me. It was as if I were looking at a squid, a giant octopus, which was conjured up before us by Jules Verne’s book. Then, in the blaze of the fire and the smoke from the peat, it was exciting to fantasise, now the face of the octopus, which my son made real, expressed only distaste.

My son, you still think, in your manhood, that I am omniscient, and encountering that feeling engenders only shame. Not shame about your beliefs, not on your behalf, but shame because I have truly failed. I wanted to shield you from it, inoculate you against it, but now I realise that all of my life shows an incapacity, the same fundamental unsharingness that I have always evaded. No love, no companionship, no corporeal or spiritual union, releases us from the evil of detachment, the fact that we are always bound to secrecy, to the cancer of cowardice, which is called human weakness. A person does not wish to share his sins, be united in his evasiveness, reach out a hand in his shame. And it is precisely that foolish pride that estranges us from one another. And even at this very moment my senses whisper, no, shout, just one Single word: ‘How ridiculous!’

Your mother I loved. You know that she was beautiful, cheerful and tender. You know her virtues, her sense of justice, her courage, her lively mind, which carried her, conscious of her worth, into the valley of death. But this you do not know: that your father loved her most for one reason – she tended my wounds. Tome she meant more than Christ, whom I have preached all my life as a mender of the fractured. For she was the one who took my soul and made it into a human being. And it was she who restored to me my belief in God, which is not taught, which is banished and which is not even welcome to the stable.

It has begun to rain. The screeching of the wind-motor grows louder … I must go and check that everything is in order. When the boys return at night, they should not, according to the rules, receive anything to eat, but in secret conspiracy I have persuade mademoiselle to make cocoa for them. In the bottom drawer of my desk are rusks which I bought from the coastguards’ sale. God help us, the youngest are only twelve years old!

For three days I have not read the newspaper. Useless! The smell of rat is all-pervasive, and we cannot escape it.

But because I cannot broach the subject, I shall speak of other things.

I go for a walk early in the morning. Ever since I was given to understand that the parish did not require my services ‘because the new assistant vicar from Berlin is willing to preach the sermons which have, on account of my age and health and other tasks, been a quite supererogatory kindness’, Sundays have been repugnant to me. On Saturday evening I ask mademoiselle to prepare the meals, for I do not wish to get up for breakfast to answer her question once more, ‘Is the rector not going to church today?’ It is not that she is hustling me or is anxious about my spiritual state -although, God save me, that itself could be grumbled about –, but that she is afraid. She is too proud to say it, but her black pupils shoot warning arrows, which go straight to the bull’s-eye in which lies my duty to acquiesce on behalf of us all. There are too many kinds of obedience for one to be able to decide between them without wriggling, and this worm probably despises itself on the hook rather than lamenting its death ….

The morning was foggy. In a moment I was frozen stiff, although it was warm. The oak-trees rustled in the lane and drops of water fell from them; I had to wipe them from my But when I took a short cut through Flour Lane, Mrs Kratzer was coming out of her pigsty. I walked too briskly and without looking around me, and as she was carrying her empty buckets we bumped into one another. I had to yield to conversation with her, since she begged forgiveness so effusively for the tingling in my skin.

I do not like this Mrs Kratzer; for a baker, she is too thin, and her pig is thin, as long in the tooth and leg as a greyhound. Baker Kratzer himself, too, is a tall man, but I have always felt that it is because of the Procrustean bed in which his wife has put him rather than because of natural growth. Mrs Kratzer did not dare ask me directly where I was going, but I certainly noticed that she and hers Kratzer is one of the most vociferous – knew why ‘the rector has in recent times been so interested in local history that he uses all his Sundays in gathering materials’.

All the same, I was surprised when she suddenly decided to bring me fresh-baked bread. It was not her custom, not even given that the gift was not a large one. The cone of rolls fitted easily into my pocket and warmed my hand, but for a long time I could feel it as an irritating burning sensation against my side.

When dawn broke, I was already at the beginning of the ridge. The sun rose and was blood-red. The mist was so thick that one could stare straight into the sun. I stood still and silent and let it burn my eyes until they began to stream. It was very quiet on the ridge, only the sand sizzled beneath my feet, I could hear the snap of a pine-cone, the rustle of pine-needles.

Someone had driven before me in a waggon. The load must have been a heavy one, for in many places there were new ruts in the road. I almost stumbled, and staggered for a few paces, until I stopped dead. What I had thought was a piece of rope was in fact an adder, which for God knows what reason was coiled in the middle of the road. I retreated and was turning to find a stick with which to kill it when it raised its head and swayed as if seeking a scent. Its tongue flickered, its body rose, but so stiffly that I stayed my hand. The adder was stiff, hardly able to move, and from its eyes shone the words: ‘What, what now?’

I did not kill the adder. Should I have done? Like me, it is a creature, and in the same way I have eaten dust throughout my life. ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.’ What is more, it was frozen stiff, and I do not like killing, especially truth-tellers.

*

I have wasted almost three on my local history. Sometimes I wonder why I started the project, for I do not have any real enthusiasm for it. Local history! Old boats, cartwheels, smiths’ tools, ghost stories. All in a state of decay. Even the language tastes of frozen potatoes. Why should I respect people who are masters of moroseness? Sailors degrade into coastal pirates when one looks at them more closely. It is as if one were to be sailing on alluvial soil and imagined that it does not smell.

Poverty makes people ugly. The worst thing I know is to explain greed as respectable, ‘the power of blood, the pulse of reality’. Human beings at their most genuine …. To make a history for people who shovel shit day after day and even that only somehow or other, fighting for the seed of envy with dung, with straw. After all, they went to court over what they claimed were stolen shore reeds: Before the burning of the common land, some genius had had the idea of taking a couple of loads of reed-straw to mix in with his dung-heap, and the legal case has been going on for almost a decade. Not that dung itself is ridiculous, but all that, as it ferments, it brings to the surface: defamation, lies, revenge over many generations. And, of all, it sells well. Justice, I begin to think that those who ask after it need it least of all. But on the other hand, this is all so insignificent, petty even.

I see you wrinkle your brow, you despise what I have written. What do loads of straw matter, when it is a question of the affairs of a nation, or even of humankind. You live in the midst of debate and politics, you see lies being born, you hear the voice of violence. And I just look at crows! But are you certain that fists there are clenched for greater and more respectable reasons than in these peasant quarrels. Do not forget that many hundreds of princes once drowned in shit, which had rotted the floor of the feasting hall with their fumes. Was it the most resourceful one who escaped through the window, that I do not know, but I do know that we must all jump soon if we want to live.

It is raining. It is past midnight. I have written, and walked back and forth. The candle twinkles dimly. It will not betray the fact that I am awake. The flame is reflected in the glass of the bookcase, throws itself against the porcelain jar, the silver vase, in which your mother kept roses. I look at the map on the wall, tum over books which I have ordered and which are unread. They are like ungutted fish. Will they feed anyone? And where is the bread for sharing?

*

My history is progressing to the extent that today, at last, I visited the old chapel of Mariabetsch.

I had put the trip off for a long time, for it is more than 20 kilometres. I suppose I should have gone by bicycle, but I went on foot. The roads of the ridge are so sandy that you always have to push a bicycle, anyway, and there is no access to the headline itself except walking. It was a long journey and now I am so tired that I cannot sleep. But I suppose bodily exertion is a good thing, and numbs one in order to be able to face another week of futility.

The church was a sad sight. The water has eaten away at the headland so that it is like a forearm gnawed by a dog. The chapel, which must have been built like an apple in the palm, is now a mere ruin. The tower has long since collapsed; only a couple of vaults are still upright. There is driftwood on the threshold, the altar wall is spotted with leavings of seagulls and the only cross I saw was buried in sand up to the shoulders. Although it was almost calm, the sea sighed and groaned with a heavy swell, the air hissed.

I pressed my palm to the wall. Nothing spoke, and what I prayed was indefinite, and did not rise above the ground.

I returned to the mainland with a heavy step. Truly, He is gone,’ I thought.

Mariahilfe, Mariabetsch, the story of how Mary rejected her church, rejected the prayers of unjust, of which she had had fill. And the sea came, the storm blew, apparently taking even the bells to the bottom of the waters. But certainly someone stole them, such is the greed of people, for they were made of good brass for the of cannon. And I am afraid that God, too, will soon go; at least, He has turned His face away from us. And that is good, for in that case He will not hear the cruel prayers which people compose ….

‘But it must be remembered that only the sin of despair tempts us to believe in the existence of hell.’ Who says so? I do not understand. Once we were young and intoxicated by debate. Now we simply shout. Even him. Even them. German theology, verily! I would give up, up immediately, if it were not the denial of my talent. One must be faithful in small things, however bitter it is. And shameful.

And nevertheless, when I sat eating my sandwiches I saw from afar two people who had walked on to the headland. A man and a women, figures against the sky. They stood looking at the sea. Both were wearing the same white woollen sweaters, so they were visible at a distance, like two overgrown seagulls. They stood facing out to sea, not touching. Suddenly the man took his rucksack from his back and the two white figures moved together, merged into the whiteness of the sea, the sand, the dazzle of the sun, the light. I turned my eyes away and when I raised them again, I could no longer see them.

Did they go down among the sand dunes? I do not believe it. I do not wish to think so. I hope their escape was more beautiful, and certainly that it would not insult the eyes of mademoiselle’s respectable egg sandwiches. It is good for a person to escape the clutches of evil. And that is why the sun was created: to dazzle us.

*

I opened the window. There is the smell of the sea through the rain, and the leaves are rotting as if autumn had come. Mademoiselle’s cat crosses the courtyard. The whole world is dead. Although I write, I am dead. The boys leave at the weekend.

*

I do not know what will come of this.

Wednesday 13 October

My dear boy!

In your August letter you asked whether I believed in God, or rather, did I believe that God was just. 1 have not been able to answer, and I do not know whether I can now, either. The question itself is peculiar: it is impossible to know what one believes in. God is hidden. All the characteristics we give him are reflections. And, paradoxically enough, only God knows us. ‘I am who I am.’

But all this is, of course, in vain. We do not know the law, the gospels we do not understand, ‘too much book-making there is no end’. Man asks, man answers, whether he is the Prophet or John of the Revelations, Buddha or Mohammed. One submits, another prophesies, all are mistaken. Nevertheless, one must act according to one’s convictions, which of course is a calamity. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ But if everyone measures with his own measure, vessels begin to clatter and water is flows to waste. Even love. For there can just as well be too much of that as too little among people.

I do not even know whether it is right to answer you.

Every word is uncertain to understand. Law. Right. Justice. Wisdom. It is best to give in and be as quiet as possible, to live like water. But even that is only one wisdom.

Even Christ might say: ‘This law is not for everyone, but only for those to whom it is given.’ That passage is seldom quoted, for preachers are aggrieved at its uncertainty, because it threatens their omniscience. It is easy to abandon God, but not the fact that one can define Him in one’s own image. Therefore I do not wish to answer your question. Not in the manner of knowledge, or as your father, or as a clergyman, or as an errant human being.

But I shall answer. Simply because I know I must answer.

No, God is not just. And if He were, we should have to pray to him even more to protect us from justice. I have seen justice being realised, and I never want to experience it again. I have even forgotten what I have seen, forgotten so thoroughly that I no longer knew I remembered.

*

I have never told you about the war. I know now that it is wrong. I was afraid. I was afraid in many ways. Your childhood was insecure, full of hunger and loss. The war took everything from you, right at the beginning, your home, food, warmth. The war took your mother, too, for it was hunger that made her ill. The war crushed your mother’s father. The war broke me. And I had been a participator in it.

I went to war willingly, out of my own free will. Like everyone else. That guilt has restrained me, for who would wish to confess that they had participated -and participate’ in the construction of hell.

The war cannot be described. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but war is chaos. It does not empty, it does not fill. It does not contain anything. Ex nihilo nihil. Every description is a lie, for there is no horror that does not gain meaning through words. And it is the comprehensive unmeaning of war which is essential. War is a hole made in what is, a place which looks and does not see. No sense can reach it, and all speech is false explanation.

But I would like to tell you about one particular event. Not to free myself from guilt. Not so that it would be taken away, but because it has never been. As long as we gaze at our own image, we are guilty. Shame and anguish, the cross, the sacrificial victim. Me and me, me and once more me. Detachment makes both crime and punishment possible.

But this is all ‘abstract ravings’, with no meaning in itself. The only true thing is experience. Inexplicable. Unsayable in words. And for that very reason it cannot be kept silent.

*

I do not remember much about the war.

In my case, it lasted only a couple of years, then I was wounded. Kaputt! I survived. A glancing head-wound from a bullet, shock and loss of memory, a month or two in hospital. There are probably still fragments in my left shoulder and arm. One finger is withered. That is not much. Not even a pound of flesh!

I went to war. Your mother stood at the station.

I came back from the war. Your mother fetched me from the military hospital.

Before the war, I had just finished my studies. After the war, I continued with them. We were poor. We were cold, but we did have a roof over our heads, in your mother’s father’s house. We burned the lilac hedge and the chestnut trees in the stove. We ate the silver and the crystal. I worked. I gained my doctorate. I took holy orders. But I suppose that was not until after the war.

We lived, and millions died. Do not ask me why. Not because of justice, in any case. I was just as good a marksman as anyone else, perhaps better.

This happened in the summer that did not happen. There was not even any weather. It was just too cold or too hot, light and dark, mixed together in an incessant delirium. We advance and retreated, we climbed and dug in, we lay unconscious in the mud. All the time hell was throbbing, until no one could make out their names any more.

We were somewhere in the mountains, it doesn’t matter where, for there were none of them, either. There were merely burned forests, crushed hills, broken passes, rivers to be crossed, with corpses piled up in their narrows. There was the smell of burned flesh, flocks of flies, bloody mouths. No one wants to hear about it. A dog eats brains that have spilled out of a skull, pigs tear a foetus from a dead mother’s stomach. Mountainsides burn. And you yourself run, fire, lie, fire, spread fires, extinguish fires, are on fire. From day to day, month to month, always and forever.

And then, one day, we found a village that was untouched.

We had fought to the point of numbness. In fact our forces were scattered, but because communications were down our company did not know it. Or the vestiges that remained of us, hardly fifty men. By some chance we had remained in the shade, got lost, advanced, when we should already have been retreating. It is not worth speculating. Anything could happen at that time. And it could be that I remember wrongly.

The village is in front of us, small, almost a town. We are on the hill. It is the dark of morning. The view is so empty that it makes us suspect an ambush. Binoculars scan: a river, a collapsed bridge, rows of burned stumps on either side of the road. Opposite a high chalk ridge shines white. Here and there on the hills is unburned forest, on an island in the river the odd willow or poplar. The village itself is quiet. Low, white houses, whose roofs form a mosaic around the church. The church is astonishingly large. From somewhere nearby rises a solitary plume of smoke. Then a bell strikes. The binoculars shake in the hand, frame the other side, where there are collapsed buildings, a few walls still upright. But no sign of war, no thickened pine-wood, no glint of metal.

But from the roof of the church a golden cockerel shines.

After the death of the captain some time during the previous night, the leader was now a man called Krabbe. He was the longest-serving of all the group leaders, a docker from Rostock, a big, strong, crude man. He had no book learning. He had begun as a riveter, his arms were marked with scars left by spattering metal. He was a firm leader, decisive and unpredictable, full of cunning. He knew everything about machines and weapons and he had a soldier’s most important characteristic: the art of staying alive. Men submitted to him at once, for he had charisma. He suited war, was at home there; that was why he was followed.

I hated and feared him. I had seen him use his bayonet…. No, he did not enjoy killing. It simply did not mean anything to him. He was perfect. Inhuman. A soldier.

The day is a long one. We take up our positions as best we can. We observe, lie in wait. Like lizards in cracks in the stone. Our eardrums are alert for sounds. But nothing happens. Binoculars sweep the valley, which we have now located on the map. From here to there, from there to there, every strategic corner is examined. This is mathematics, a game of chess that tries the patience. And the bell sounds out the hours. As if it were bursting a bubble. The tiny tinkle can be distinguished like a hole, although the rumbling continues in the background. But we have grown used to that. A breath of wind between the stones, the crunch of sand, the movement of a rifle, the falling of a drop of sweat, focuses the attention, not the mill of death, which grinds its grain very fine.

We attacked after dark. We got down astonishingly quickly. We spread out into a chain. The night was clear. The moon was old enough not to provide any light. A thin sickle above the hills. We did not look at the sky. We slipped past the derelict houses, occupied them one after another. Shadows moved. Krabbe knew what he was doing. We were absolutely efficient.

There are smells in the night. Stone, straw, fresh cow-dung. A cat miaows and makes one start. One lane after another opens up. The village is old, its streets tangled. A door ornament sticks out from one building, a metal plate as a shop-sign. Some of the doors are open, a three-legged stool in the middle of the street. This is war. No sound, nothing but extinguished lamps in houses that were once people’s homes.

We wait and advance. It seems to take an eternity. Before midnight we are in the market-square, each group at the mouth of its lane. And then blankness.

‘There’s no one here,’ Krabbe shouts. ‘The village is clean.’

Just then a door opens slowly. A stream of light. A shot. Someone falls, and a bucket begins to fall down steps, from step to step it spins downward, until it stops, clattering. And from somewhere a child’s cry is heard, an exclamation.

No one returned the fire.

We formed a cordon round the church. We advanced on it. I was right behind Krabbe. I almost slipped on the blood of the woman who had fallen on the threshold.

They had settled in one of the church’s chapels, made a camp behind a low wall. A handful of women and children, lying on straw. They had a couple of lamps, from which a country smell rose. A baby whimpers at its mother’s breast, the woman is naked. Her face is sweaty and the sackcloth beneath her is bloody. I do not understand the bald figure bent over her until I see a shoe whose toe is worn as nuns’ shoes wear.

I do not want to remember it. It is a story that does not improve with repetition.

I still do not understand what stopped Krabbe shooting without scruple. The nun defied him. Or no, she merely explained things in a patient and civilised voice, as quietly and respectfully as if she had been talking to her prioress.

‘We are civilians. This woman has just given birth. We know nothing, we have been in the church for more than two days. We have nothing. Only our lives and that cow,’ she gestured with her hand toward the creature, which was ruminating in a dark corner a little farther off.

Krabbe shot the cow. It screamed horribly, until the fifth shot killed it. He gave the women until morning. Then they would have to pack their bags.

The nun says nothing. Her hands smooth and rub the linen cloth, which rustles in her hands. She pulls at her starched headdress to make it suitable for a nappy for the child. In the background a hunched old woman gets up, in her hand a bucket. She begins to milk the dead cow into it.

A thin candle flutters at the altar and casts light on the painting. The shape of a tree, a pale forearm, a running child, a suggestion of blue and gold.

‘You cannot steal it,’ the nun says. ‘It is built into the wall.’

The powder that I have planned to give them secretly falls form my hand.

We waited in the square for the rest of the night. The bell clanged. Someone spoke softly. The end of a cigarette. Krabbe slept. The sickle moon descended on to the church roof, behind the tower. For a moment it stood there like a strange horn. Then faded away.

In the morning Krabbe gets up. He stretches to his full height as if after an excellent night’s sleep. His shadow is black and tall. He goes up the stairs with a few men. They cannot kick the door open, but they pull at it and shout rough orders. ‘Out, out!’ There is no answer from the church. They shoot into the air. They shoot at the door, so that slivers of wood detach themselves from the old timber. But no one answers them.

‘Very well,’ shouts Krabbe. ‘We’ll smoke you out. Like rats!’

It is easy to break the windows. It is easy to break down the door. It is easy to pile up furniture, objects, whatever, to make a bonfire on the steps. And so we do it. But soon Krabbe notices that the old doors do not catch fire quickly enough.

‘Let’s shoot the devil’s bastards, then,’ he swears, and begins to mount the steps with strong strides. Someone follows, hesitates.

I stood farther off, by the well. The door-opening was smoky, the flames weak. But I saw it quite clearly, for the sun had already risen above the roofs and lighted up the tower.

A woman comes across the threshold. She has on a countrywoman’s bluish dress, her hair is in disarray. She appears in front of Krabbe so fast that he has no time to duck. And the sickle rises, strikes straight into Krabbe’s face. And the woman strikes, and grows as she strikes, and she goes on striking and Krabbe sways, falls into the fire. And the fire blazes up, smoke covers the door and the crackle of the flames. Someone is laughing, laughing. And then Krabbe’s head, which falls down the steps, slowly spinning.

No one fired a shot. No one moved for a long time. Only the jackdaws cried in the church-tower, and the bell rang. Its sound lit up every comer of the square, and no one could break free of it.

Much later, we went into the church. It was empty. The cow lay dead on the floor, the straw stank. On the floor, forgotten, was a child’s sock, beside it a withered flower. I picked it up. And the petals carne loose, five red splashes. A dog-rose, Rosa canina, which flowers in the mountains early in spring.

And it was the second of July, the day of the feast of the Visitation.

It seems strange that I ever went back to the village. It was, indeed, an accident, one of those incomprehensible coincidences that defy knowledge. Nothing can be proved by them. But they cannot be denied. I believe that physics and metaphysics should not be mixed. Both are metaphorical explanations of the world which have their own beauty. Science’s provability, objectivity, its aim for the truth. The spiritual and poetic description of things that cannot be spoken. One seeks truth through the repeatable, the other seeks the unique. Both exist. The conflict is merely in the mind. What would we be able to do with reality if we got it into our control? The self-confident peasant forgot the wind in his cornfields. A crude story, stupid and didactic. But what would Bohr do if he could get his hands on his atoms and his electrons? And he, too, drew his models in the form of the sun and the cross, those flowers of moving particles.

The more I explore the sciences, the little that is still available, the more I am astonished by the lack of wonder. Even Darwin said that the state of mind into which great visions previously put me and which were linked closely to my belief in God are not essentially different from what is called a sense of the sublime; and however difficult the explanation of the birth of this feeling, it can hardly be considered an argument for the existence of God, any more than the similar but indefinite feelings engendered by music. Darwin, it is true, compares himself to a colour-blind person and declares himself agnostic, but it does not occur to him to think that the god in which he is asked to believe is false. That it, or he, is finally hidden in that indefinite feeling that his conscious mind treats so coolly. That wonder itself is a god, uncertainty beautiful, uncontrollability plenty, existence maculated instead of either-or, both-and.

*

I was on my way back from Switzerland. I had cremated your mother. I was offered the opportunity to join a party that was travelling north. I do not know why I agreed to sit in their car, among strange people whose company one would not have thought would comfort me in my grief. Well, people staying in sanatoria easily succumb to a kind of freemasonry, even if they have nothing in common. Perhaps I was so lost and numb that it was a matter of indifference where I was. Perhaps some kind of masquerade attracted me, for these people were of a different race in terms of position and way of life. The death of someone close to one puts a person in an intermediate state. The protection of a role is a necessity, escape unavoidable.

We drove through the May landscape without any dear travel plan.

One of the women had an obsession with touring battlefields. She was one of those hysterical people who loves carcases. And statistics. I can still hear her voice, shrill with astonishment, reading out the number of bodies, bones of dead horses, bullets, cannon, rubber boots. She was in the grip of violent admiration for the war machine, although years had gone by since the coming of peace. Nothing else interested her. Not the smiling countryside, not the children at play, not the newly built villages, the restored cathedrals. The war had taken her husband. Now it had to be made into the world’s greatest catastrophe, in order to match her unique and important loss. She hardly noticed that I was a widower, that I had lived apart from my wife for some years, that my son suffered. ‘Never again war: she repeated, over and over, never noticing that it was her rummaging that gave life to the war.

Fortunately, the car broke down and we had to part. The shock had begun to go over. I no longer had the energy to be polite.

After the constricted travel, I felt free. I packed my bag to be sent on ahead and took with me only the bare essentials. Thus equipped, I would be able to spend a couple of nights. With a strange indifference I thought about my home and what awaited me there. But I did not have enough emotion for anything. I boarded the first local train to leave the station. I looked at towns, the hen-coops of low houses, cartwheels, laundry. Nothing human reached me.

I arrived somewhere. I took up lodgings in an inn that hung high above the village. In front of it was the largest horse chestnut I had ever seen. It looked strange with its withered flowers.

When, at evening, I sat in the garden examining the pear trees that were tied in to the wall, the magnolia that flowered in the shade, I started at the din of a group of holidaymakers. There were about ten young people, among them two girls, who had hiked across the hills. They were full of delight in the forests, the weather, the hedges. I caught their enthusiasm. After all, I had to go somewhere. Why should I not walk until 1 was tired and could forget death, which throbbed inside me like pain.

I bought a map, which later proved rather approximate, bade farewell to the innkeeper, who gave me a large number of equally approximate directions, and believed that in three days I would once more be in the realm of civilisation and fit for the journey home.

I got lost on the very first day.

It was raining. It was the kind of quiet rain that fanners like, a long shower that moistens dust and passion. The rain falls calmly, is as light and dense as a child’s hair. The rain nourishes the wheat, apples tum from blossom to fruit and bunches of grapes begin to form. The last withered petals fall and dissolve in brooklets, tum brown, crushed by the gentle hand of the sand. Spring disappears. In gardens, roses unwind their buds and people begin once more to tread steadily and purposefully.

My attitude to the rain then was not so poetic. It did not hinder my journey, it is true, merely slowed it, but above all it robbed me of the view and of a sense of direction. It was easy to wrap oneself in the fog. I tried in vain to protect my glasses from getting wet; after a moment, however, I could no longer see anything. And although the forest grew sparer from time to time and I felt I was standing on the ridge of some sloping meadow, there was nothing before me but greyness. As a result of the rain, there were not even any travellers on the road, and when at last I realised that I had passed some important crossroads, I wandered for hours without seeing a living soul.

As evening came, the weather brightened for a moment. I reached a building, but it was empty. The house was derelict, fire had destroyed it during the war, and no one had bothered to repair it; there was hardly room around it for cultivation. There was enough of a roof in the goat-shed for me to make a kind of tent in its stony comer; I ate a few of my provisions and drank. After all, there was no shortage of water.

Next morning I awoke long before dawn. I was so cold that I had to get moving. The rain had let up for a moment, but the sky was not clear. And when light came, the valleys were still covered in mist.

I was walking among high uplands. The road passed by a chalk cliff. It was only a narrow cobbled tack; it would hardly have been possible to drive along it in a donkey-cart. The cliff itself rose high before me, but low bushes covered its lower slopes: roses, brambles, gorse. Still lower was young woodland, with burned tree-stumps sticking out here and there.

I walked. My arm ached from the cold of the night. I walked. And suddenly a sweet feeling, rhythm, music, rose from my feet. It was bright and at the same time soft, modest. I was given the knowledge that we will all die in the end. I, the stems of grass, the chirruping birds, the bushes. Even stone will have an end. And the hills will loosen their grip on their selfhood, until the wind grinds them like dust. And the wind will die down, the surface of the earth will freeze, become motionless. Greyness will stretch out its arm over the world, darkness, light will flash. A leap. And energy will change form in the long fields of space.

The wind rose from the valley and began to drive the mist before it. I saw, below, another road, a crossroads, where a stone still stuck up like an extinguished candle. I hurried lightly down the slope. Water, a steam, steps flashing among the stones. I did not notice the thorns that tore at my clothes.

At the crossroads I consulted my map. A woman came out of the woods. She was carrying an empty basket on her arm. A farmer’s wife. We hardly understood one another. But she showed me the way, this herb-gatherer, and even pointed out her house, from high on the hill. Her cottage was on an island in the river, in the midst of the waters that flowed from the town.

‘There is a big road there. The gentleman should follow it and go through the forest and then the field. It is not a long way to the valley, and you can dry your clothes at the inn. Chez St Anton is the best of them, it is right next to the church. The gentleman will have a good journey, for the rain is over now, mark my words.’

It was almost evening when I reached the town. It was a little cluster of buildings around a big church. When I looked around me, I thought I saw the bank of an old wall. The bridge was new, but beside it there were still the remains of a tower. The frameworks of the buildings were old, but new floors and projections had been added. But the road led right into the heart of the town, to the cathedral, which rose, massive and excessive, above its life.

I found the inn. The inn-keeper, who spoke in dialect, was brusque. In the bar was a painting showing St Anthony herding swine. The swine were as sullen as the inn-keeper. He would have spat after me if I had not had the money to pay for my night’s stay in advance.

It was the kind of still moment between day and evening when life stands still. I had no hope of getting supper for many hours yet. Gradually the customers left the inn: the day visitors departed, and the night visitors had not yet arrived. I sat alone over a glass of wine. The wine smelled fresh and sweet, one should have been able to converse over a glass. But the inn-keeper indicated that he wanted to take a nap or have a bite to eat before darkness came. And we had no language in common, after all. Or his lack of understanding was, really, understandable.

I went out. The square was empty. Just an old well, which had been covered. And at the side of the square a church. Jackdaws cried. A bell sounded. And then I knew where I was.

I walked up the steps to the church door. They still bore splinter-marks; the door had new paint and a few holes that had been stickily mended. I stepped inside. The church was very dark. Its stained glass was complete. I walked round the church. I returned close to the door. The wall was still there. At the door of the chapel, under glass, was a piece of paper that bore some faded writing, hardly legible: The Room of our Heavenly Lady, where She appears, when it is Her Will’, I translated.

Then I looked at the painting.

It was dark. The Virgin was sitting on a tree-stump. A thorny acacia offered her shade, the pale yellow of the flowers formed her crown and her halo. She sat there stretching out her arms to the Jesus child, who ran toward the viewer with unsteady steps. She was wearing a blue robe. Her bare forearm was full and round, her hair in disarray. On the tree-trunk beside her was a sickle and a basket from which rose the stems of herbs. And in the grass, alone, shining with light, there glowed the flower of a dog-rose, like a splash of blood against the dark broadcloth. But most beautiful and most terrible of all was her face. For the Virgin was laughing as she reached for her son. And the heavenly Jerusalem, floating above in the clouds, was lost in haze and mist.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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