The war had not yet come to us. We lived in fear and hope and tried not to draw God’s wrath down upon our securely walled town, with its hundred and five houses and the church and the cemetery, where our ancestors waited for the Day of Resurrection.
We prayed often to keep the war away. We prayed to the Almighty and to the kind Virgin, we prayed to the Lady of the Forest and to the Little People of Midnight, to Saint Gerwin, to Peter the Gatekeeper, to John the Evangelist, and to be safe we also prayed to Old Mela, who during the Twelve Nights, when the demons are let loose, roams the heavens at the head of her retinue. We prayed to the Horned Ones of ancient days and to Bishop Martin, who shared his cloak with the beggar when the latter was freezing, so that they were then both freezing and both pleasing to God, for what’s the use of half a cloak in winter, and of course we prayed to Saint Maurice, who had chosen death with a whole legion rather than betray his faith in the one just God.
Twice a year the tax collector came and always seemed surprised that we were still here. Now and then merchants came, but since we didn’t buy much they soon went on their way, which was all right with us. We needed nothing from the wide world and gave it no thought until one morning a covered wagon, pulled by a donkey, rolled down our main street. It was a Sunday at the beginning of spring, the stream was swollen with meltwater, and in those fields that weren’t lying fallow we had sown the seed.
A red canvas tent was pitched on the wagon. In front of it crouched an old woman. Her body looked like a bag, her face seemed made of leather, her eyes looked like tiny black buttons. A younger woman with freckles and dark hair stood behind her. But on the coach box sat a man we recognized even though he had never been here before, and when the first of us realized who he was and called his name, others too realized, and soon many voices were calling from all directions: “Tyll is here!” “Tyll has come!” “Look, it’s Tyll!” It could be no one else.
Leaflets came even to us. They came through the forest, the wind carried them, merchants brought them—out in the world more of them were printed than anyone could count. They were about the Ship of Fools and the great priestly folly and the evil Pope in Rome and the devilish Martinus Luther of Wittenberg and the sorcerer Horridus and Doctor Faust and the hero Gawain of the Round Table and indeed about him, Tyll Ulenspiegel, who had now come to us himself. We knew his pied jerkin, we knew the battered hood and the calfskin cloak, we knew the gaunt face, the small eyes, the hollow cheeks, and the buckteeth. His breeches were made of good material, his shoes of fine leather, but his hands were a thief’s or scribe’s hands, which had never done work; his right held the reins, his left the whip. His eyes flashed, he greeted this person and that.
“And what’s your name?” he asked a little girl.
She was speechless, unable to fathom that a person of such renown should be addressing her.
“Well, tell me!”
When she stammered that her name was Martha, he only smiled as if he had always known it.
Then he asked intently: “And how old are you?”
She cleared her throat and told him. In the twelve years of her life she had not seen eyes like his. There might be eyes like these in the free cities of the Empire and at the great courts, but never before had anyone with such eyes come to us. Martha hadn’t known that such strength, such agility of soul could speak from a human face. One day she would tell her husband and then much later her incredulous grandchildren, who would consider Ulenspiegel a figure of old legends, that she had once seen him in the flesh.
In the meantime the wagon had rolled by and his gaze had glided elsewhere, to others on the roadside. Again there were shouts of “Tyll has come!” along the street and “Tyll is here!” from the windows and “It’s Tyll!” from the church square, onto which his wagon now rolled. He cracked the whip and stood up.
With lightning speed the wagon turned into a stage. The two women folded the tent, the young one tied her hair into a knot, put on a little crown, threw a piece of purple cloth around her, the old one stood in front of the wagon and began to sing droningly. Her dialect had the sound of the south, of the big cities of Bavaria, and wasn’t easy to understand, but we did glean that the song was about a woman and a man who loved each other and were cruelly separated by a body of water. Tyll Ulenspiegel took a blue sheet, kneeled down, flung it, holding on to one end, from him so that it unfurled with a crackle; he pulled it back and flung it away again, pulled it back, flung it, and the way he kneeled on one end and the woman on the other and the blue billowed between them, there really seemed to be water there, and the waves went up and down so furiously that it seemed no ship could sail them.
When the woman straightened up and looked at the waves, her face rigid with fright, we suddenly noticed how beautiful she was. As she stood there and stretched her arms toward the sky, she all at once no longer belonged here, and none of us could look away. Only out of the corner of our eyes did we see her beloved leaping and dancing and bustling around and brandishing his sword and battling dragons and foes and witches and evil kings, on the difficult journey to her.
The play lasted into the afternoon. But even though we knew the cows’ udders were hurting, none of us stirred. The old woman performed hour after hour. It seemed impossible that someone could memorize so many verses, and some of us began to suspect she was making them up as she sang. Tyll Ulenspiegel’s body was meanwhile never at rest, his soles seemed hardly to touch the ground; whenever our eyes found him, he was once again elsewhere on the small stage. At the end there was a misunderstanding: The beautiful woman had obtained poison to feign death and not be forced to marry her evil guardian, but the message to her beloved explaining everything had gone astray and when he, her true bridegroom, the friend of her soul, at last arrived beside her motionless body, the shock struck him like a bolt of lightning. For a long time he stood there as if frozen. The old woman was silent. We heard the wind and the cows mooing for us. No one breathed.
Finally he drew his knife and stabbed himself in the breast. It was astonishing, the blade disappeared in his flesh, a red cloth rolled out
of his collar like a stream of blood, and he let out a death rattle beside her, twitched, lay still. Was dead. Twitched once again, sat up, sank back down. Twitched again, lay still again, and this time forever. We waited. So it was. Forever.
Seconds later, the woman woke up and saw the body lying beside her. First she was stunned, then she shook him, then she comprehended and was stunned again, and then she wept as if the world could hold no consolation. Then she took his knife and killed herself in turn, and again we admired the clever device and how deep in her breast the blade disappeared. Now only the old woman remained and spoke a few more verses, which we hardly understood because of the dialect. Then the play was over, and many of us were still weeping long after the dead had stood up and bowed.
But that wasn’t all. The cows would have to keep waiting, because after the tragedy came the comedy. The old woman beat a drum, and Tyll Ulenspiegel piped on a flute and danced with the young woman, who now no longer looked especially beautiful at all, to the right and to the left and forward and back again. The two of them threw their arms up, and their movements were in such harmony that they seemed to be not two people but mirror images of each other. We could dance fairly well, we celebrated often, but none of us could dance like them; watching them, you felt as if a human body had no weight and life were not sad and hard. We too could no longer keep still, and we began to bob, jump, hop, and spin.
But suddenly the dance was over. Gasping for breath, we looked up at the wagon, on which Tyll Ulenspiegel was now standing alone, the two women were nowhere to be seen. He sang a mocking ballad about the poor stupid Winter King, the Elector Palatine who had thought he could defeat the Kaiser and accept Prague’s crown from the Protestants, yet his kingship had melted away even before the snow. He sang about the Kaiser too, who was always cold from praying, the little man trembling before the Swedes in the imperial palace in Vienna, and then he sang about the King of Sweden, the Lion of Midnight, strong as a bear, but of what use had it been to him against the bullets in Lützen that took his life like that of any mere soldier, and out was your light, and gone the little royal soul, gone the lion! Tyll Ulenspiegel laughed, and we laughed too, because you couldn’t resist him and because it did us good to remember that these great men were dead and we were still alive, and then he sang about the King of Spain with his bulging lower lip, who believed he ruled the world even though he was broke as a chicken.
In all our laughter we realized only after a while that the music had changed, that it had suddenly lost its mocking tone. He was now singing a ballad of war, of riding together and the clanking of the weapons and the friendship of the men and standing the test of danger and the jubilation of the whistling bullets. He sang of the soldier’s life and the beauty of dying in battle, he sang of the whooping joy of each and every man who rode against the enemy on horseback, and we all felt our hearts beat faster. The men among us smiled, the women swayed their heads, the fathers lifted their children onto their shoulders, the mothers looked down at their sons with pride.
Only old Luise hissed and jerked her head and muttered so loudly that those standing near her told her to go home, which, however, only prompted her to raise her voice further and shout: Didn’t anyone understand what he was doing here? He was invoking it, he was summoning it!
But as we were hissing and waving dismissively and threatening her, she waddled off, thank God, and by then he was playing the flute again, and the woman was standing next to him and she now looked majestic like a person of rank. She sang with a clear voice of love, which was stronger than death. She sang of the love of parents and the love of God and the love between man and woman, and here something changed again, the beat became faster, the notes sharper and sharper, and suddenly the song was about carnal love, warm bodies, rolling in the grass, the scent of your nakedness, and your big behind. The men among us laughed, and then the women joined in the laughter, and the children laughed loudest of all. Little Martha was laughing too. She had pushed her way forward, and she understood the song very well, for she had often heard her mother and father in bed and the farmhands in the straw and her sister with the carpenter’s son the previous year – in the night the two of them had stolen away, but Martha had crept after them and had seen everything.
A broad lewd grin appeared on the face of the famous man. A strong power now stretched between him and the woman, he was impelled toward her and she toward him, so forcefully were their bodies drawn together, and it was hardly bearable that they had not yet touched. Yet the music he played seemed to prevent it, for as if by accident it had changed, and the moment had passed, the notes no longer permitted it. It was the Agnus Dei. The woman folded her hands piously, qui tollis peccata mundi, he backed away, and the two of them seemed startled themselves by the wildness that had almost seized them, just as we were startled and crossed ourselves because we remembered that God saw all and condoned little. The two of them sank to their knees, we did the same. He put down the flute, stood up, spread his arms and asked for payment and food. Because now there would be a pause. And the best would come, if we slipped him good money, thereafter.
In a daze, we reached into our pockets. The two women went around with cups. The coins jingled and jumped. We all gave: Karl Schönknecht gave, and Malte Schopf gave, and his lisping sister gave, and the miller’s family, who were usually so stingy, gave too, and toothless Heinrich Matter and Matthias Wohlsegen gave an especially large amount, even though they were craftsmen and thought they were better than everyone else.
Martha walked slowly around the covered wagon.
There sat Tyll Ulenspiegel, leaning his back against the wagon wheel and drinking from a large stein. Next to him stood the donkey.
“Come here,” he said.
Her heart pounding, she stepped closer.
He held out the stein to her. “Drink,” he said.
She took the stein. The beer tasted bitter and heavy.
“The people here. Are they good people?”
“Peaceful people, help each other, understand each other, like each other, is that the sort of people they are?”
She took another sip. “Yes.”
“Well, then,” he said.
“We’ll see,” said the donkey.
In her fright Martha dropped the stein.
“The precious beer,” said the donkey. “You damned stupid child.”
“It’s called ventriloquism,” said Tyll Ulenspiegel. “You can learn it too, if you’d like.”
“You can learn it too,” said the donkey.
Martha picked up the stein and took a step back. The puddle of beer grew and then shrank again, the dry ground soaked up the wetness.
“Seriously,” he said. “Come with us. You know me now. I’m Tyll. My sister over there is Nele. She’s not my sister. The name of the old woman I don’t know. The donkey is the donkey.”
Martha stared at him.
“We’ll teach you everything,” said the donkey. “Nele and the old woman and Tyll and I. And you’ll get away from here. The world is big. You can see it. I’m not just called donkey, I have a name too, I’m Origenes.”
“Why are you two asking me?”
“Because you’re not like them,” said Tyll Ulenspiegel. “You’re like us.”
Martha held out the stein to him, but he didn’t take it, so she put it on the ground. Her heart was pounding. She thought of her parents and her sister and the house in which she lived, and the hills out beyond the forest and the sound of the wind in the trees, which she couldn’t imagine sounded quite the same anywhere else. And she thought of her mother’s stew.
The famous man’s eyes flashed as he said with a smile: “Think of the old saying. You can find something better than death everywhere.”
Martha shook her head.
“Very well, then,” he said.
She waited, but he said nothing more, and it took her a moment to realize that his interest in her had already died away.
And so she walked back around the wagon and to the people she knew, to us. We were now her life, there was no longer any other life for her. She sat down on the ground. She felt empty. But when we looked up, she did too, for we had all noticed at the same time that something was hanging in the sky.
A black line cut through the blue. We squinted. It was a rope.
On one side it was tied to the window grille of the church tower, on the other to a flagpole jutting out of the wall next to the window of the town hall where the reeve worked, which didn’t happen often, however, because he was lazy. In the window stood the young woman, she must have just knotted the rope; but how, we wondered, had she stretched it? You could be here or there, in this window or in the other, you could easily knot a rope and drop it, but how did you get it back up to the other window to fasten the other end?
We gaped. For a while it seemed to us as if the rope itself were the trick and nothing more were required. A sparrow landed on it, took a small jump, spread its wings, changed its mind, and stayed perched there.
Then Tyll Ulenspiegel appeared in the church tower window. He waved, jumped onto the windowsill, stepped onto the rope. He did it as if it were nothing. He did it as if it were only a step like any other. None of us spoke, none shouted, none moved, we had stopped breathing.
He didn’t teeter and didn’t try to find his balance, he simply walked. His arms swung, he walked the way you walk on the ground, except it looked a bit mincing how he always set one foot precisely in front of the other. You had to look closely to notice how he absorbed the swaying of the rope with small movements of his hips. He took a leap and bent his knees for only a moment when he landed. Then he strolled, his hands folded behind his back, to the middle. The sparrow took off, but it only beat its wings a few times and perched again and turned its head; all was so quiet that we could hear it cheeping and peeping. And of course we heard our cows.
Above us Tyll Ulenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly – not like someone in danger but like someone looking around with curiosity. His right foot stood lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees were slightly bent and his fists on his hips. And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was. We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people.
“Take off your shoes!”
We didn’t know whether we had heard him correctly.
“Take them off,” he shouted. “Everyone, your right shoe. Don’t ask, do it, it will be a lark. Trust me, take them off. Old and young, woman and man! Everyone. Your right shoe.”
We stared at him.
“Haven’t you been enjoying it so far? Don’t you want more? I’ll show you more, take off your shoes, everyone, your right shoe, go on!”
It took us a while to get moving. That’s how it always is with us, we’re unhurried people. The first to obey was the baker, followed by Malte Schopf and then Karl Lamm and then his wife, and then the craftsmen who always thought they were better than everyone else obeyed, and then we all did, every one of us, with the exception of Martha. Tine Krugmann next to her nudged her and pointed to her right foot, but Martha shook her head, and Tyll Ulenspiegel on the rope took another leap, striking his feet together in the air. He jumped so high that he had to spread his arms when he landed to find his balance – only very briefly, but it was enough to remind us that even he had weight and couldn’t fly.
“And now throw,” he cried with a high, clear voice. “Don’t think, don’t ask, don’t hesitate, this will be a great lark. Do what I say. Throw!”
Tine Krugman was the first to do it. Her shoe flew and rose higher and disappeared in the crowd. Then the next shoe flew, it was Susanne Schopf’s, and then the next, and then dozens flew and then even more and more and more. We all laughed and screamed and shouted: “Watch out!” and: “Duck!” and: “Heads up!” It was terrific entertainment, and it didn’t matter that some of the shoes hit people’s heads. Curses rang out, a few women scolded, a few children wept, but it wasn’t bad, and Martha even had to laugh when a heavy leather boot only barely missed her, while a woven slipper sailed through the air to land at her feet. He had been right, and some even found it so exhilarating that they threw their left shoes too. And some also threw hats and spoons and jugs, which shattered somewhere, and of course a few threw stones too. But when his voice spoke to us, the noise faded away, and we listened.
We squinted, the sun was low in the sky. Those at the back of the square could see him clearly; for the rest he was only a silhouette.
“You halfwits. You crumb-heads. You tadpoles. You good-for-nothing beetle-brained oafs. Now fetch them again.”
“Or are you too stupid? Is the word fetch too much to penetrate your skulls?” He let out a bleating laugh. The sparrow took off, soared over the roofs, was gone.
We looked at each other. We had been derided, but then again his rude mockery was not so sharp that it couldn’t have been meant in jest. He was famous, after all, he could take that liberty.
“Well, what is it?” he asked. “Don’t you need them anymore? Don’t you want them anymore? Don’t you like them anymore? You dolts, fetch your shoes!”
Malte Schopf was the first. He had felt ill at ease the whole time, and so he now ran to where he thought his shoe had flown. He pushed people aside, forcing and jostling his way through the crowd, bending over and rooting around between their legs. On the other side of the square Karl Schönknecht did the same, followed by Elsbeth, the widow of the smith, but old Lembke blocked her and shouted at her to be off, that was his daughter’s shoe. Elsbeth, whose forehead was still hurting from being hit by a boot, shouted back that he was the one who should be off, because she could certainly still recognize her own shoe, Lembke’s daughter by no means had such beautifully embroidered shoes as she did, whereupon old Lembke screamed at her to get out of his way and not to disparage his daughter, whereupon she in turn screamed that he was a stinking shoe thief. Here Lembke’s son intervened: “I’m warning you!” and at the same time Lise Schoch and the miller’s wife began to quarrel, because their shoes really did look alike, and their feet were the same size, and Karl Lamm and his brother-in-law also exchanged loud words, and Martha suddenly grasped what was happening here, and she crouched down on the ground and started to crawl.
Above her there was now shoving, rebuking and jostling. A few, who had found their shoes quickly, slipped away, but among the rest of us a rage broke out with the force of long-pent-up grievance. The carpenter Moritz Blatt and the blacksmith Simon Kern pummeled each other so ferociously that someone who thought they were fighting over shoes could not have understood, since he would not have known that Moritz’s wife had been promised to Simon as a child. Both were bleeding from nose and mouth, both were panting like horses, and no one dared break them up. Lore Pilz and Elsa Kohlschmitt were locked in terrible combat too, but then they had hated each other for so long that even they had forgotten why. It was very well known, however, why the Semmler family and the people from the Grünanger house lashed out at each other; it was because of the disputed field and the unresolved inheritance that went back as far as the days of prefect Peter, and also because of the Semmler daughter and her child, which was not her husband’s but Karl Schönknecht’s. The rage spread like a fever – wherever you looked people were shrieking and punching, bodies were rolling, and now Martha turned her head and looked up.
There he stood, laughing. Back arched, mouth wide, shoulders heaving. Only his feet stood steadily, and his hips swung with the swaying of the rope. It seemed to Martha as if she only had to look more carefully, then she would understand why he was so delighted – but then a man ran toward her and didn’t see her and his boot struck her chest, and her head hit the ground, and when she inhaled it was as if needles were pricking her. She rolled onto her back. Rope and sky were empty. Tyll Ulenspiegel was gone.
She struggled to her feet. She hobbled past the brawling, rolling, biting, weeping, battering bodies, here and there still recognizing their faces; she hobbled along the street, hunching her shoulders and bowing her head, but just as she reached her front door, she heard the rumble of the covered wagon behind her. She turned around. On the coach box sat the young woman he had called Nele, next to her the old woman crouched motionless. Why wasn’t anyone stopping them, why wasn’t anyone following them? The wagon passed Martha. She stared after it. Soon it would be at the elm, then at the city gate, then gone.
And now, when the wagon had almost reached the last houses, someone was running after it, with effortless long strides. The calfskin of the cloak bristled around his neck like something alive.
“I would have taken you with me!” he cried as he ran past Martha. Shortly before the bend of the street, he caught up with the wagon and jumped aboard. The gatekeeper was with the rest of us on the main square, no one held them back.
Slowly Martha went into the house, closed the door behind her and bolted it. The billy goat was lying next to the stove and looked up at her questioningly. She heard the cows bellowing, and our shouting rang out from the square.
In the end we recovered our tempers. The cows were milked before sundown. Martha’s mother came back, and besides a few scratches not much had happened to her, her father had lost a tooth, and his ear was torn, someone had stepped on her sister’s foot so hard that she limped for a few weeks. But the next morning and the next evening came, and life went on. In every house there were bumps and cuts and scratches and sprained arms and missing teeth, but by the next day the main square was clean again, and we were all wearing our shoes.
We never spoke about what had happened. Nor did we speak about Ulenspiegel. Without having arranged it, we stuck to this; even Hans Semmler, who was so severely injured that from now on he was confined to his bed and could eat nothing but thick soup, pretended it had never been otherwise. And even the widow of Karl Schönknecht, whom we buried the next day in the churchyard, acted as if it had been a blow of fate and as if she didn’t know exactly whose knife it had been in his back. Only the rope still hung for days over the square, trembled in the wind and was a perch for sparrows and swallows until the priest, who had been roughed up especially badly during the brawl, because we didn’t like his boastfulness and his condescension, could climb up the bell tower again to cut it down.
At the same time, we didn’t forget. What had happened remained between us. It was there while we brought in the harvest, and it was there when we bargained over our grain or assembled on Sunday for the Mass, where the priest had a new facial expression, half wonder and half fear. And it was there especially when we held celebrations on the square and when we looked each other in the face while dancing. Then the air seemed heavier, the water different on our tongues, and the sky, where the rope had hung, not quite itself.
It was a good year later before the war came to us after all. One night we heard whinnying, and then there were many voices laughing outside, and soon we heard the crash of doors being smashed in, and before we were even on the street, armed with useless pitchforks or knives, the flames were flickering.
The soldiers were hungrier than usual, and deeper in their cups. It had been a long time since they entered a town that offered them so much. Old Luise, who had been fast asleep and this time had no presentiment, died in her bed. The priest died standing protectively in front of the church portal. Lise Schoch died trying to conceal a stash of gold coins, the baker and the smith and old Lembke and Moritz Blatt and most of the other men died trying to protect their women, and the women died as women do in war.
Martha died too. She saw the ceiling of the room turn into red heat above her, she smelled the thick smoke before it seized her so tightly that she could make out nothing more, and she heard her sister cry for help, while the future that had a moment ago been hers dissolved: the husband she would never have and the children she would never raise and the grandchildren she would never tell about a famous jester one morning in spring, and the children of these grandchildren, all the people who now would not exist. That’s how quickly it happens, she thought, as if she had penetrated a great secret. And as she heard the roof beams splintering, it occurred to her that Tyll Ulenspiegel was now perhaps the only person who would remember our faces and would know that we had existed.
Indeed the only survivors were the lame Hans Semmler, whose house had not caught fire and who had been overlooked because he couldn’t move, and Elsa Ziegler and Paul Grünanger, who had secretly been in the forest together. When they returned at dawn with rumpled clothes and disheveled hair and found nothing but rubble under curling smoke, they thought for a moment that the Lord God had punished them for their sin by sending them a mad vision. They moved west together, and for a brief time they were happy.
As for the rest of us, we can sometimes be heard here, where we once lived, in the trees. We can be heard in the grass and in the chirping of the crickets, we can be heard when you lean your head against the knothole of the old elm, and at times children think they see our faces in the water of the stream. Our church is no longer standing, but the pebbles polished round and white by the water are still the same, just as the trees are the same. We remember, even if no one remembers us, because we have not yet reconciled ourselves to not being. Death is still new to us, and we are not indifferent to the things that concern the living. For it all happened not long ago.
From the book Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, to be published on February 11, 2020 by Pantheon, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation copyright © 2020 by Ross Benjamin. Originally published in hardcover in Germany as Tyll by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbeck bei Hamburg in 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbeck bei Hamburg.