Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
If only he could stop and rest, at least long enough to catch his breath! Nothing had changed since he was a boy, but this was no time to reminisce; the situation was really quite desperate. How had he come to be so old and fat that he could barely drag himself up the path? Just the other day, he had been young and strong; now Robert was making a fool of him. Nothing had changed; he knew every twist and turn by heart; the very sigh of the wind was familiar to him. Never to come back, never to struggle up the trail, never to hear the pine trees whispering overhead …
Nonsense! Pull yourself together, his wife Clara would say. Thinking of her, he smiled in spite of himself. What was she doing now, his little mouse? Smoking cigarettes to her heart’s content and talking to the Germans from the Matterhorn Suite. Her idea, to spend the summers here. Austria was still crawling with Nazis, no doubt about that: just the other night, he had heard two of them talking in the cafe.
Listen to those old relics, he had said under his breath. Clara had studied her plate, poker-faced.
Always the same Spinnerei, she concluded at last, slowly turning her head towards Grundlesee.
They’re just as full of themselves as ever. That’s what amazes me.
Your childhood is here. No one can take that away from you.
Fifty more steps, 100 at the most. He could already see Robert leaning against the rock and drinking from a little tin cup. He didn’t stop counting until he was bending over the trough and slapping cold water onto his face.
We’re making good time, said Robert, stretching his arms. We left at 7:10 and it’s not even 9:00.
Nothing to it, Hans panted, straightening up. A swarm of black specs troubled his gaze: he rubbed his eyes vigorously and they flew away.
Sun tan lotion, Robert muttered, squatting by his pack. When we get higher …
What have you got in there?
A map, a compass, a first aid kit …
Dump all that out. Leave it behind a tree. Nobody will take it. You can pick it up on the way back.
I never go hiking without the proper equipment. All the books say …
Any food? Hans interrupted. Food is worth taking along.
Nuts, raisins and Traübenzucker. But that’s not all. I’m also carrying a survival suit. It’s made of the same material as the ones the astronauts wear. In case of a sudden drop in temperature …
Only an American or maybe a German would carry something like that. No Austrian would dream of it.
Suddenly everything about Robert irritated him, from his red flannel shirt to his hiking boots. There was something stingy and squeamish about the whole generation! He wouldn’t mind writing a short essay on the subject. But before he was able to finish his thought, two young women appeared from behind the rock and stepped into a pool of light.
His daughter Eva. How much like Clara she looked! But her nose and chin were too pointed for his taste; he wished she would put on a little weight. As for Cynthia, she was still as thin as a rake: there was no sign that she was pregnant except for the patches of red on her cheeks.
How are you bearing up? he asked, patting his stomach once or twice.
I’m fine, Cynthia shot back, tightening her braid.
Doesn’t want to be treated any differently: that’s the fashion these days.
Don’t strain yourself, he told her nonetheless.
There’s no reason for a pregnant woman to shy away from exercise, Robert intervened. He looked at Cynthia approvingly.
You know best, Hans said with a shrug. It’s your line of business, after all.
His American guests suddenly reminded him of a pair of white geese; they had the same pink rims around their eyes. It was easy to think of Eva as a bird too; she had a habit of tilting her head to the side, and her gaze was steady and thoughtful, like an owl’s. When he looked at her, he had an impulse to tell a joke, but at the moment, nothing came to mind.
What has become of your boyfriend? he asked.
He wanted to be alone so I went ahead.
Sensitive man, he said, raising his hands in the air, as though to stop an imaginary invader. Eva smiled.
Just then a fifth figure appeared at the bottom of the small incline that led up to the water trough. He looked up at them absentmindedly, lost in his own thoughts. Preoccupied with himself, Hans reflected: most young men are. Eva was still standing by his side, but he could feel her attention slipping away. So ist das Leben, Clara would say, nodding her head. There was a mountain song they used to sing:
Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht.
Er fiel auf die zarten Blaüblumelein:
Sie sind verwelket, verdörret.
What time is it? she wondered, squinting at the sky. The sun was stuck inside a ditch. All morning long she had let herself drift; now she had to hold fast to the falling ground. A tin can was lying at her feet: she kicked it gloomily down the path. Turning the bend, she came upon a bench perched on a granite shelf. A name and a date had been carved into the purplish wood: Gretta Rosenfeld, gest. 1927. She sat down, gazing into the valley below. The meadows and lakes seemed pitiful, nestled among the indifferent rocks. Something fluttered in the corner of her eye. She looked across the gorge and saw Robert and Cynthia standing on another ledge, stick figures suspended in the rising mist. Robert was taking something out of his pack and handing it to Cynthia, who examined it and put it in her mouth. Then mountain and gorge seemed to contract, becoming sharper and more definite, and she knew Shem was coming, even though she couldn’t see him yet. She didn’t want him to think she was waiting for him, so she sat without stirring, listening for his steps. When he was close enough to touch her, she turned towards him.
Was my father far behind you? she asked.
I saw him a few minutes ago, he replied, sitting down next to her. His breath was steady and even and his hand was resting on her knee.
You never walk with me anymore, she complained. What have you been thinking about?
He stood up and started to walk away: then he came back, raising her to her feet. She laughed in confusion as he caught her in his arms and then he released her, sauntering off again, and she sank back into her seat.
The wind whistled around the rim of the gorge and three birds shot past on a jet of air. It could have been minutes or hours before her father appeared, counting under his breath. His shirt had come undone, exposing his chest; again she noticed the milky color of his flesh, spotted with freckles and covered with swirls of silver hair.
I’m not the man I used to be! her father called out. She waved to him.
You shouldn’t stay behind on my account, he said upon reaching the bench, lowering himself with a sigh of relief.
For your information, I’m exhausted, she lied.
Then we’ll keep each other company, he said, mopping his face with a bedraggled handkerchief. Can you see the brown square that looks like a piece of chocolate floating in the middle of that field? That’s our hotel. And do you see that clump of pine trees by the lake? Just behind it is your grandfather’s old summerhouse—if you look closely, you can even see a curl of smoke. What a fool Papa was not to buy it back after the war!
Who lives in those cabins we passed a while ago?
You mean the shepherd’s huts? I doubt that anyone uses them anymore. Lovers had trysts in them when I was a boy—we used to spy on them. He hummed a tune under his breath and smiled to himself: then he sang a string of German words to the same tune in a faltering voice. You understand the German of course? he asked when he was done, looking down his glasses at her.
She shook her head.
“Auf – der – Alm – da- gibts – ka- Sünd.”
What does that mean? she asked, to humor him.
“In the mountains there is no sin.” Typically Austrian!
Laughing fondly into his laughing eyes, she pictured him as a little boy, and then a feeling of dread came over her.
What’s the matter? her father asked. You look a little pale. Mountain climbing makes one a little dizzy now and then. They even have a word for it here: Almenrausch. Alm means meadow, a meadow in the mountains, as you know, and Rausch means intoxication. Come on, you’ll feel better when you reach the mountaintop.
Resting his hand on her shoulder, he rose stiffly to his feet.
Picking his way among the rocks, he came to a crack in the low-lying wall that formed the outer edge of the path. Thoughtfully, he got down on his hands and knees, inhaled sharply, exhaled, and looked. Something like water rushed down the cliff, disappearing into the chasm with a terrific shout. He closed his eyes: when he opened them again, the chasm lay curled around the foot of the cliff and the air was perfectly still. He lay down on his stomach with a sigh of relief. Hugging the ground, he studied the scarred walls of the cliff until a pang of hunger brought him to his feet. One more hour to get to the top: twice the time to get down again. As soon as they got back to the hotel, he would order a frankfurter and a beer and the sweet mustard he liked so much.
An elderly couple was coming down the path. The man was wearing lederhosen and a green felt hat with an ornament resembling a shaving brush stuck inside the band; the woman was wearing a peasant skirt and a blouse that exposed her shriveled chest. Although their hair was as white as snow, they were descending at a swift pace. The man was swinging a cane made of the antlers of a mountain goat: the movement of the cane was as steady as a metronome.
Grüss Gott, they said in unison, inclining their wizened faces towards him.
Grüss Gott, he replied, and immediately regretted it. Long after their footsteps had died away, he imagined they were mocking his accent. Meanwhile the path twisted higher and higher, carrying him to a ledge that overlooked the entire valley. The sun streamed out from behind the clouds, turning the mist into a radiant haze. Light was falling through the soft, close air and collecting in ridges, planes and hollows. He weighed the thickness of every color until the valley seemed to disappear. Then he noticed another ledge far below with two figures sitting on it. Probably Eva and her father, he thought. A wave of restlessness passed over him. Time to go, he told himself, but he stood rooted to the spot. What were they talking about?
Then he heard a thin, plaintive voice and, looking up, he saw Robert and Cynthia coming towards him. Cynthia’s face looked pale and drawn.
Where are you going? Shem called out.
I’m tired, Cynthia wailed. I want to go home.
I’m not altogether convinced that’s true, Robert said, pausing on the ledge and contemplating the view. In my opinion this is just a mood, possibly the product of some hormonal change.
Let’s go, said Cynthia, tugging at his sleeve.
Robert glanced at Shem significantly; then Robert and Cynthia disappeared.
In the corner of the valley there was a rectangle of green with small white cubes strewn across it. Chalets, Shem thought, picturing them. He saw the white stucco walls and the sparkling glass and the windowboxes bursting with flowers and the dark wood of the doorways and balconies. A smiling couple stood in front of every house and they all looked vaguely like Robert and Cynthia, only they were wearing lederhosen and peasant skirts. All the couples and all the houses looked the same; everything had been done by the book. A gentle breeze seemed to pass over the valley, turning it several shades lighter than before; the cubes turned into flashing holes.
He turned his back on the valley and set out for the mountaintop. Too bad there wasn’t a restaurant there, he thought: some food would do him good. He had been told there was nothing up there but a big metal cross with a guestbook chained to it. Grüss Gott: God’s Greetings. Why had he said that? A cross on a mountaintop, a rip in the sky, a crack with nothing behind it, not even a different shade of blue.
Overstrained, off-balance, and out of breath, he tried to see things in a philosophical light. He had grounds for being pleased with himself: he had made good progress, considering. The final stretch was terribly steep … if worse came to worse, he would crawl on his hands and knees.
After you, he said to Eva with a crooked bow, indicating the path that led to the spring. They found Shem sitting on a rock staring at the walls of the recess.
My hat’s off to you, he said to Shem’s back. Shem said nothing in return. Hans frowned and stepped into the dripping chamber.
Come, he beckoned Eva. There’s room for both of us. He leaned his forehead against the rock and closed his eyes, letting the water run down his chest.
How much longer until we get to the top? Shem asked. Hans pretended not to hear.
How much longer? Shem repeated, without raising his voice. Reluctantly, Hans opened his eyes.
It all depends, he said. Prodding Eva into the choicest spot, he stepped out of the chamber, pondered the clouds and pursed his lips.
Are you a good climber? he said at last. Shem shrugged, stepped into the chamber and stole Eva’s place. Hans stared gloomily at the walls of the recess. Then he noticed a familiar face in the rock. One by one, its features rose to the surface, the hooked nose, the twisted mouth, the turban. When he was a boy, he believed that spirits were trapped inside certain rocks. This particular spirit had haunted him; he had drawn it in the margins of all his notebooks, carefully crossing it out when he was done.
Look, he said to Eva. Can you see the face? He went up to the rock and traced its outline with a stick.
Yes, said Eva, craning her neck. Then she turned to Shem. Can you?
I don’t know what you’re talking about, Shem said, without bothering to look up.
Eva tilted her head to the side; then she backed out of the chamber and walked away. Hans was running out of patience, but he restrained himself. He simply announced, in a quiet voice, that a storm was coming. Eva stopped in her tracks, scrutinizing Shem from the corner of her eye.
Should we turn back? Shem asked uneasily.
Possibly. Rain alone would be disastrous, considering the final stretch.
What’s so special about the final stretch? Shem wanted to know.
People have died on it, Hans said gravely. Seeing Shem’s eyes widen with fear, his spirits rose.
There was one case that I’ll never forget, he went on. I knew the girl—her name was Gretta Rosenfeld. Her younger brother Victor was a classmate of mine. They came to Grundlesee every summer, just like us. Gretta was a tomboy; her ams and legs were always scraped up. But when she reached a certain age, more than one boy fell in love with her. Victor and I did everything we could to make the lives of her admirers miserable. One of them seemed especially stupid to us, a fellow by the name of Helmut. I remember putting nettles in poor Helmut’s shoes while he was swimming in the lake. When he put them on, his eyes glazed over and his cheeks puffed out so that he looked exactly like a blowfish.
Shem chuckled; Eva glanced at him disapprovingly.
Gretta seemed embarrassed by the attention the boys gave her, Hans went on; she always begged us to stay with her when they came around. Then one day she met a local named Karl and everything changed. Karl was rather ugly as I recall, but terribly authoritative; Victor and I were completely in awe of him. He knew the region inside out, and he went out of his way to avoid the public trails. Victor and I quickly discovered that it was useless to try to follow Gretta and Karl into the mountains, but every now and then we would find one of the ribbons that Gretta had started to wear tied to a tree or held down by two stones, and then we would know that we had stumbled upon one of their secret paths. One night Gretta and Karl got it into their heads that they had to see the sun rise from the top of the Backenstein. Victor and I left the house with Gretta at 3:00 AM; Karl was waiting for her at the edge of the forest. That was the last time Victor and I saw either of them; three days later, their bodies were found lying at the bottom of the cliff. No one knows if they fell going up or coming down, but everyone seemed to agree that they couldn’t have fallen so close together unless they were holding hands.
They should have stuck to the path, Shem said, picking the pebbles out of the ridges of his boots.
That’s not why they fell, Eva said heatedly.
Then why did it happen?
Because they were in love, and they weren’t afraid of dying for each other.
Because they were stupid, Shem said, returning to his boots.
Hans didn’t like the way Eva was talking; it didn’t make any sense. Her eyes were shining and her voice was slightly shrill; Clara used to get the same way when she had too much to drink.
White boulders were stacked in sprawling piles as though they had fallen from the sky; shadows collected underneath, creeping across the broken ground as secretly as the hands of a clock. She could see her father far below, a flat figure stuck to the spiralling path. She closed her eyes and saw the figure again, only now it was composed of broken lines that were dissolving into the glare of the sun. One by one the boulders fell, and she was quietly watching the avalanche when she heard the panting of an animal and woke to the sound of her own startled breath.
Dazed and sluggish, she started to climb, clutching onto roots and stones. Her grip was weak: more than once, she lost hold. She imagined Gretta Rosenfeld racing up the mountainside: she could see her torn clothes and tangled hair and the light burning in her eyes. A blackbird cackled overhead.
Then a clattering sound came from across the gorge. Raising her eyes to where the rock was lit by the sun, she saw a deer sliding down the sharp incline and coming to rest at the tip of a promontory. Three more deer followed the first. The little ones were the last to come, scrambling down the ridge on spidery legs. Standing in a row, the deer froze, gazing across the gorge at her. For several minutes, she hardly breathed: then she shifted her weight and they veered up the hill, disappearing into a cave.
With the deer gone, the mountainside seemed more barren than before. Two dark forms were visible on the path below. The first one was in the light and the second one was in the shade: a few moments later, it was the other way around. Had their positions really changed? As far as she could tell, the distance between them had remained the same. From where she stood, they looked like shadows or stains: which one was her father and which one was Shem? Shem was younger, she reasoned, so he would be the first. Then again, he was always stopping to stare at his shoes or to inspect a stone. Her father was just the opposite, rushing forward until he was dizzy and out of breath, a method that forced him to make innumerable stops. Taking their handicaps into account, there was no way of telling them apart. If she knew which one was which, they might not seem so far away: as it was, it seemed as though their paths would never intersect with her own.
She continued on her way, no longer as tired as before. White ridges of rock broke through the soil like bones; she felt as though she was crawling through the skeleton of a half-buried animal. Someone below was calling out her name, but it didn’t occur to her to answer them. The higher she went, the more weightless she became. It crossed her mind that Gretta Rosenfeld had been weightless when she fell, dissolving into the mountain air as easily as a drop of water.
Ribs of white rock were sticking through the thin black soil: the winding path had disappeared. He was tired of climbing: he wanted to lie down. There was no place to hide from the glare of the sun. To make matters worse, his stomach was growling, and there was a buzzing sound in his ears. No one would care if he went back down to the hotel. Eva and her father were probably sitting under the cross, eating all the chocolate. Bittersweet tablets dissolved on his tongue … Clutching a root with both hands, he pulled himself up the naked rock.
Mechanically he grabbed onto roots and stones, swallowing thin air and dust. Finally the ground levelled off, and he was standing in a maze of blackish shrubs. He made his way up one last slope and then he found himself ambling downhill again. Had he already passed the highest point? Why hadn’t anyone waited for him? At last he made out two lines of silver at the edge of a sharp drop: as he drew closer, he saw Eva and her father lying in the grass. Before they saw him, the wind carried their voices to him.
This little flower is called Teufelsbart, he heard Eva’s father say. I’ve always been very fond of it. And this one you’ve heard of: Edelweiss, just like the song.
Shem wished that Eva’s father would go away. He talked too much; he was always explaining things.
Ah, there he is! Eva’s father said just then. Shem said nothing and kept walking, stopping a few yards away. They would have to try harder if they wanted to convince him that they had been waiting for him.
Would you like some chocolate? Eva asked. We saved some for you.
No, said Shem out of pride, turning his back on them. A vast range of mountains rose out of the deep, unfolding like an accordion.
You are looking at das Tote Gebirge, Eva’s father said. Dead Mountain Range in English. Isn’t it extraordinary?
For some reason, the voice of Eva’s father sounded flat and strange. Turning to look at him, a shudder passed over Shem.
Although the older man’s face was heavy and flushed, his features seemed to be dissolving into a series of broken lines. Shem turned to Eva, who was gazing out at the mountain range. Her expression was dreamy and faraway; she seemed to be standing on a threshold, about to disappear. Every detail of her face was painfully vivid to him, as though he were seeing it for the last time. All at once she turned towards him with a smile, crossing back into a room known only to the two of them. When she looked down at the flowers in her lap, the walls of the room quietly fell away, and he remembered where he was.
Vivian Heller is a New York fiction writer and essayist who teaches literature and writing workshops at Bennington College.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.