It seemed to me that I was spending a great deal of useless and stuffy time in the mysterious salon, whose north window offered a view of a false lake with artificial fjords. Nothing there held my attention and attracted me but the presence of the beautiful, suspicious lady, whom I took to be a sinner. I sought in vain to see her face as it really was, just once, that face that swayed imperceptibly among loose dark hair and consisted solely of pallor. Otherwise, there was nothing. Her eyes were perhaps dark brown. I felt inner reasons to expect something like that. But then her eyes would not match the face that my look wanted to read from the indeterminable pallor, whose shape I knew rested deeply in inaccessible layers of my memory.
Finally something happened. The two young men entered. They greeted the lady with exquisite manners and were introduced to me. Monkeys, I thought, and became angry at myself because one of them had a reddish-brown jacket tailored in a nice and stylish fit, and it put me to shame and made me feel jealous. It’s terrible to feel such envy toward irreproachable people, toward free and easy, smiling people! “Control yourself!” I exclaimed softly to myself. The two young men shook my extended hand with indifference — why had I even offered it? — and with sneers on their faces.
It was then that I sensed something was wrong about me, and I felt an irritating chill begin to rise up my legs. As I looked down, I turned pale when I saw that I was standing only in my stocking feet without shoes. Once again those dreary, deplorable, paltry obstacles and restraints! Nobody else ever had experiences like appearing naked or half naked in a salon before people of irreproachable and correct manners! Pathetically, I tried at least to cover my left foot with my right. In the process I glanced through the window and saw the steep, wild, blue banks of the lake, threatening in false and gloomy tones and seeking to become demonic. Distressed and in need of help, I looked at the strangers, full of hatred toward these people and full of greater hatred toward myself — I was a nothing, and nothing ever turned out right for me. And why did I feel responsible for that dumb lake? Indeed, if I felt that way, then I was responsible, too. Imploringly I looked at the man dressed in the reddish-brown jacket. His cheeks glowed and revealed how healthy and well groomed he was, and I knew full well that I was placing myself at his mercy to no avail and that he could not be moved.
Just at that moment he noticed my feet in the coarse dark-green socks — oh, at least I could still feel grateful that there were no holes in them — and made a nasty smile. He nudged his friend and pointed to my feet. Then the other one also grinned, full of derision.
“Just look at the lake!” I cried, and pointed toward the window.
The man dressed in the reddish-brown jacket shrugged. It did not occur to him in the least to turn toward the window, and he said something to the other man that I only half understood, but it was aimed at me and had to do with fellows in socks whom one should not really tolerate in such a salon. When I heard the word salon, it smacked of beautiful and somewhat false elegance and worldliness, as it had during my childhood.
Close to tears, I bent over to see if there was anything I could do to improve my feet and saw that they had slipped out of large house shoes. At least, a very large, soft, dark-red slipper lay behind me on the floor. I picked it up, not knowing what I should do with it, and I held it in my hand and was still on the verge of tears. Then it slipped out of my hand, but I caught it as it was falling — it had become even larger in the meantime — and now I lifted it by the toe.
As all this happened, I suddenly felt emotionally relieved and realized the profound value of the slipper, which was flapping a little in my hand, weighed down by the heavy heel. It was glorious to have such a red limp shoe, so soft and heavy! As an experiment, I swung it several times through the air. This was delightful, and joy flowed through my entire body to the roots of my hair. A club or a rubber tube was nothing in comparison to my large shoe. I called it calziglione in Italian.
When I gave the man in the reddish-brown jacket the first playful blow on the head with the calziglione, the irreproachable young man tumbled onto the couch, and the rest of the people, the room, and the terrible lake lost all their power over me. I was big and strong. I was free, and with the second blow to the head of the man in the reddish-brown jacket, the fight had all but ended, and I could let loose and not worry about self-defense. Instead there was pure rejoicing on my part, and I felt myself the lord of my own whims. But I did not hate my defeated foe in the least. He was interesting to me. He was precious and dear. I was now his master and creator. With each good blow of my strange shoelike club, I shaped his unripe and apelike head, forged it, built it, composed it. With each blow that formed it, his head became more pleasant, more handsome, and finer. He became my creature and work, something that satisfied me and that I loved. With one last tender forging blow, I drove his sharp head down so that it was sufficiently flat on top. He was finished. He thanked me. He stroked my hand.
“That’s all right.” I waved with my hand.
He crossed his hands over his heart and said shyly, “My name is Paul.”
Wonderfully strong and happy feelings swelled within my breast and gave me some space. The room — forget calling it a salon! — retreated with shame and crawled away until it became nothing. I stood by the dark-blue lake. Steel clouds pressed on the somber mountains. In the fjords the turbid water boiled with foam. Sultry spring storms strayed compulsively and anxiously in circles. I looked above and stretched my hand out to signal that the storm could begin. A bolt of lightning exploded clear and cold out of the hard blue sky. A warm typhoon howled straight down to the ground. In the sky, gray forms blew apart and branched out into veins of marble. Enormous round waves rose terrifyingly out of the whipped-up lake. The storm ripped the tips of the foam and the clapping bits of water from the backs of the waves and threw them into my face. The black petrified mountains tore open their eyes full of horror. Their cowering and silence sounded like a plea.
In the middle of the glorious storm, hunting on gigantic horses, I could hear a timid voice nearby. Oh, I had not forgotten her, my pale lady with long black hair. I bowed over her. She spoke to me childishly—“The lake is coming.” It was impossible to stay there. I kept looking at the gentle sinner. Her face was nothing but a silent pallor in the wide dusk of her hair. Then the breaking waves were already beating my knees and my breast, and the sinner floated helplessly and silently on the rising swells. I laughed a little and placed my arm under her knees and lifted her up to me. This, too, was beautiful and liberating. The woman was unusually light and small, full of fresh warmth, and her eyes were affectionate, trusting, and horrified, and I saw that she was not a sinner at all and not a distant enigmatic lady. No sins, no mystery. She was simply a child.
I carried her out of the waves and over rocks and through the royally dismal park made dark by rain to a place that the storm could not reach. Nothing but soft beauty spoke from the bowed crowns of old trees, nothing but poems and symphonies, a world of noble presentiments and charming cultivated pleasures, lovely painted trees by Corot and noble rustic woodwind music by Schubert that mildly enticed me with a fleeting upsurge of nostalgia to the beloved temple. However, it was in vain. The world has many voices, and the soul has its hours and moments for everything.
God knows how the sinner, the pale lady, the child, took her leave and vanished. There was an outside stairway made out of stone. There was a house gate. There were servants present, everything dim and murky, as if behind an opaque glass, and other things, much less substantial, much dimmer, figures blown there by the wind. A note of reproach and reprimand directed against me made me angry at that storm of shadows. Nothing remained of it except the figure of Paul, my friend and son Paul, and in his features an infinitely well-known face revealed itself and concealed itself and still could not be named, the face of a schoolmate, the face of a legendary nursemaid from ancient times, nurtured from the good, nourishing memories of the fabulous early years.
Good ardent darkness, warm cradle of the soul, and lost homeland — all this opened up. All this opened into the time of existence unformed and the first indecisive undulation on top of the ground of all things, beneath which the primordial time of the ancestors sleeps with dreams of the primeval forest. Just feel your way, soul, just wander about, burrow blindly into the full bath of innocent twilight drives! I know you, scared soul, nothing is necessary to you. Nothing is so much food, drink, and sleep for you as the return to your beginnings. The wave roars around you, and you are wave; the forest rustles, and you are forest. There is no more outside and inside. You fly, a bird in the air; you swim, a fish in the sea; you absorb light, and you are light; you taste darkness and are darkness. We wander, soul, we swim and fly, and smile and tie the torn threads again with ghostly fingers and blissfully drown out the destroyed pinions. We no longer seek God. We are God. We are the world. We kill and die along with others. We create and are resurrected with our dreams. Our most beautiful dream is the blue sky; our most beautiful dream is the sea; our most beautiful dream is the bright starry night, and is the fish, and is the clear happy noise and the clear happy light — everything is our dream. Each one is our most beautiful dream. We have just died and become earth. We have just invented laughter. We have just arranged a constellation.
Voices resound, and each one is the voice of our mother. Trees rustle, and each one rustles above our cradle. Roads divide in the form of a star, and each road is the way home.
He who called himself Paul, my creature and friend, was there again and had become as old as I. He resembled a friend of my youth. But I did not know which one, and therefore, I was somewhat uneasy with him and kept a polite distance. He drew power from this. The world no longer obeyed me, it obeyed him. Consequently, all previous things had disappeared and had collapsed in meek improbability, shamed by him who now ruled.
We were at a square. The place was called Paris, and in front of me was an iron beam standing straight up high. It was a ladder and had narrow iron rungs on both sides. You could hold on to them with your hands and climb on them with your hands. Since Paul wanted to climb, I began, and he was next to me on a similar ladder. When we had climbed as high as a house or a very high tree, I began to feel frightened. I looked over at Paul, who did not feel afraid, but he perceived that I was scared and smiled.
For one split second, while he smiled and I stared, I came close to recognizing him and recalling his name. A gap in the past was ripped open and kept splitting until it receded to my early school years when I was twelve years old, the most wonderful time of life, everything full of fragrance, everything ingenious, everything with an edible aroma of fresh bread and with an intoxicating shimmer of adventure and gilded heroism — Jesus was twelve years old when he shamed the scholars in the temple. By twelve, we have all shamed our scholars and teachers, have shown that we are smarter than they. Memories and images stormed in convulsions upon me: forgotten school notebooks, detention during the noon hour, a bird killed with a slingshot, a jacket pocket filled with sticky stolen plums, boys splashing wildly in a swimming hole, torn Sunday pants and a very bad conscience, fervent evening prayer about earthly cares, wonderful heroic feelings of splendor while reading poetry by Schiller.
It took only a second, a flash of lightning, an avid rushing sequence of images without a focus. The very next moment, Paul’s face looked at me again, tormentingly somewhat familiar. I was no longer certain of my age. Perhaps we were boys. Farther and farther below the narrow rungs of our ladders were the masses of streets called Paris. When we were higher than any tower, our iron poles came to an end, and each ladder was crowned with a horizontal board, a tiny platform. It seemed impossible to climb upon them, but Paul did it with ease, and I had to do it, too.
Once on top I laid myself down flat on the board and looked down over the edge as though I were on a small high cloud. My gaze fell like a stone and did not hit a target. Then my friend pointed somewhere with his hand, and my eyes became glued to a marvelous sight that hovered in midair. All of a sudden I saw a strange-looking group of people in the air suspended over a wide street at the same level of the highest roofs but still very far beneath us. They seemed to be tightrope dancers, and indeed, one of the figures walked back and forth on a rope or a pole. Then I discovered that there were many, and most of them were young girls. They seemed to me to be gypsies or nomadic folk. They walked, lay, sat, moved at the height of the roofs on an airy scaffold made out of the thinnest planks and poles similar to an arbor. They lived there and were at home in this region. Beneath them one could sense the street. A fine whirling cloud extended from the ground until it almost reached their feet.
Paul made a remark about this.
“Yes,” I answered. “It is touching — all those girls.”
Of course, I was much higher than they were, and I clung fearfully to my post while they floated lightly and fearlessly, and I saw I was too high. I was at the wrong place. They were at the right height, not on the ground and yet not as hellishly high and remote as I was; not among the people and yet not so entirely isolated. Besides, there were many of them. I saw clearly they represented a bliss that I had not yet attained.
But I knew that I would have to climb down sooner or later from my gigantic ladder, and the thought of it was so oppressing that I felt nauseous and could not bear being up there one second longer. Full of desperation and shaking from dizziness, I felt beneath me for the rungs of the ladder with my feet — I couldn’t see them from the plank — and I hung for some horrifying minutes at that terrible height suffering from convulsions. No one helped me. Paul was gone.
In profound dread I made some dangerous stabs with my feet and hands, and I felt myself enveloped by something like a fog. I felt that it was not the high ladder or the dizziness that I had to experience and endure. In fact, I lost perspective and could not determine the shape of things. Everything was foggy and uncertain. At one time, I was still hanging on the rungs of the ladder feeling dizzy, and then the next thing I knew, I was crawling, small and fearful, through dreadfully narrow underground shafts and corridors. Then I was hopelessly wading through swamp and dirt and felt the filthy slime rise up to my mouth. Darkness and obstacles were everywhere. Terrible tasks with serious yet concealed meaning. Fear and sweat, paralysis and cold. Hard dying, hard being born.
How much night surrounds us! How many dreadful, awful paths of torment we take! Go deep into the shaft of our run-down soul, eternal poor hero, eternal Odysseus! But we go on, we go on. We bow and wade. We swim and wade. We swim and suffocate in the slime. We crawl along the smooth treacherous walls. We weep and despair. We moan fearfully and sob loudly in pain. But we move on and bite our way through.
Once again images arose from the turbid vapors of hell. Again a small stretch of the dark path was illuminated and formed by a modest light of memories, and my soul pushed its way out of the primeval world into the familiar sphere of time.
Where was this? Familiar things confronted me. I recognized the air that I breathed. A large room in half darkness, an oil lamp on the table, my own lamp, a large round table somewhat like a piano. My sister was there and my brother-in-law. Perhaps they were visiting me, or perhaps I was at their place. They were quiet and worried, full of concern about me. And I stood in the large dismal room, walked back and forth, stood still, and walked again in a cloud of sadness, in a flood of bitter, suffocating sadness. And now I began searching for something, nothing important, a book or scissors or something like that, and I could not find it. I took the lamp in my hand. It was heavy, and I was terribly tired. I soon put it down and then picked it up again. I wanted to search, search, although I knew that it was in vain. I would find nothing. I would only confuse everything even more. The lamp would fall out of my hands. It was so heavy, so painfully heavy, and so I would continue to grope and search and wander through the room for the rest of my miserable life.
My brother-in-law looked at me anxiously and somewhat reproachfully. They realized that I was going mad. I thought quickly and picked up the lamp again. My sister came over to me, quietly, with pleading eyes, so full of fear and love that I thought my heart would break. I could say nothing. I could only stretch out my hand and wave her away, to ward her off, and I thought: Just leave me alone! Just leave me alone! You certainly can’t know how I feel, how much everything hurts, how terribly much it hurts. And again: Just leave me alone! Just leave me alone!
The reddish light of the lamp flowed dimly through the large room. Outside the trees sighed in the wind. For a moment I believed I felt and saw the night outside deep within me. Wind and wetness, autumn, bitter smell of foliage, scattered leaves of the elm tree. Autumn! Autumn! And once more, for a moment, I was not myself but saw myself like a picture: I was a pale, lean musician with flickering eyes, and my name was Hugo Wolf, and on this evening I was on the verge of going insane.
Meanwhile I had to continue searching, hopelessly searching and lifting the heavy lamp on the round table onto the chair, onto the heap of books. And I had to protect myself with imploring gestures when my sister looked at me again sadly and considerately, sought to console me, to be near me, and to help me. The sadness in me grew and filled me to the point of bursting, and the images all around me were impressive and eloquent in their clarity, much clearer than reality is otherwise. A few autumn flowers in a glass of water, a dark red-brown dahlia among them, glowed in such painful, beautiful loneliness, each thing, even the shining brass base of the lamp, was enchantingly beautiful and infused with a fateful loneliness, as in the pictures by the great painters.
I sensed my fate clearly. Yet another shadow in this sadness, another look from my sister, another look from the flowers, from the beautiful spiritual flowers — then it would overflow, and I would sink into madness. Leave me alone! You certainly don’t know! On the polished side of the piano a ray of sunlight was reflected in the black wood, so beautiful, so mysterious, so filled with melancholy!
Now my sister stood up again and went over to the piano. I wanted to beg, ward her off with all my might, but I couldn’t. No power whatsoever emanated from my loneliness that was sufficient to reach her. Oh, I knew what had to happen now I knew the melody that now had to express itself and had to say everything and destroy everything. Enormous tension compressed my heart, and while the first hot tears sprang from my eyes, I threw my head and hands across the table and listened and felt with all my senses and with new senses as well, the text and melody at the same time, Wolf’s melody and the verses.
What do you know, dark tops of trees
About the beautiful olden days?
Home lies beyond mountain peaks,
How far it lies, how far away!
With this song, the world glided apart before me and within me, sank away in tears and tones. Impossible to say how it all poured out, how it flowed, how good and painful it was! Oh tears, oh sweet collapse, blissful melting away! All the books of the world full of thoughts and poems are nothing in comparison to a minute of sobbing, when feeling surges in waves, the soul feels itself profoundly and finds itself. Tears are the melting ice of snow. All angels are close to the crying person.
Forgetting all causes and reasons, I wept my way down from the heights of unbearable tension into the mild twilight of everyday feelings, without thoughts, without witnesses. In between images fluttered: a coffin in which a person was lying, someone very dear and important to me, but I did not know who it was. Perhaps it’s you yourself, I thought. Then another image came to me from a far pale distance. Hadn’t I at one time, many years ago or in an earlier life, glimpsed a wonderful sight? A group of girls living in the air, nebulous and weightless, beautiful and blissful, swaying as light as air and as melodious as string music.
Years flew between, pushing me gently and firmly away from the picture. Oh, perhaps the meaning of my entire life had only been to see these noble floating girls, to approach them, to become like them! But now they vanished in the distance, unreachable, uncomprehended, unredeemed, tired, and surrounded by the fluttering of despairing nostalgia.
Years fell to the ground like snowflakes, and the world changed. Distressed, I wandered toward a small house. I was feeling very miserable, and a dreadful sensation in my mouth seized hold of me. Anxiously I touched a loose tooth with my tongue. Immediately it moved sideways and fell out. Then the next one fell out as well! A very young doctor was there. I complained to him, I held the tooth up to him imploringly with my fingers! He laughed cheerfully, waved me off with a deadly professional gesture, and shook his young head — it’s nothing, quite harmless, happens every day. Dear God, I thought. But he continued and pointed to my left knee: That’s the problem. That’s something else and not a joking matter. I grabbed my knee terribly fast — there it was. There was a hole into which I could thrust my finger, and instead of skin and flesh, there was nothing to touch but an insensitive, soft loose mass, light and stringy like a wilted plant. Oh, my God, this was decay, this was death and putrefaction! “There’s nothing more you can do?” I asked, trying to be friendly.
“Nothing more,” the young doctor said, and he was gone.
Exhausted, I walked toward the little house, but I was not as desperate as I should have been. Indeed, I was almost indifferent. I had to go into the little house where my mother was expecting me — hadn’t I already heard her voice? Seen her face? Steps led up to the house, crazy steps, high and smooth without railings, each one a mountain, a peak, a glacier. It was certainly too late — she had perhaps left already, perhaps she was already dead? Hadn’t I just heard her call again? Silently I coped with the steep mountain of steps, falling and crushed, wild and sobbing, I climbed and pushed onward, supporting myself on my breaking arms and knees, and was on top, was at the gate, and the steps were again small and pretty and lined by box trees. Each one of my steps was sticky and heavy as though I were going through slime and glue, barely moving forward. The gate stood open, and inside my mother was walking about in a gray dress, a little basket on her arm, silent and steeped in thought. Oh, her dark, slightly gray hair in a little net! And her gait, the small figure! And the dress, the gray dress! Had I completely lost her image all these many, many years, not really thought about her at all? There she was. There she stood and walked. She could be seen only from behind, exactly as she was, completely clear and beautiful, pure love, pure thoughts of love!
Feeling lame, I furiously waded through the sticky air. Weeds wrapped themselves around me more and more like thin strong ropes. Hostile obstacles everywhere. There was no moving forward! “Mother,” I called — but I had no voice.… There was no sound. There was glass between her and me.
My mother walked on slowly, without looking back, quietly absorbed in beautiful caring thoughts. She brushed an invisible thread from the dress with her hand that I knew so well. She bent over her little basket of sewing material. Oh, the little basket! She had hidden Easter eggs in it one time. I screamed in despair, unable to make a sound. I ran and could not leave the spot! Tenderness and rage tugged at me.
And she kept walking slowly through the garden house. She stood at the open back door and stepped outside. She sunk her head a little to one side, softly and attentively, deep in her thoughts. She lifted and set down the little basket, I noticed a note that I had found in her sewing basket one time when I was a boy. She had lightly written her plans for the day on it, what she wanted to remember: “Hermann’s pants frayed — put away laundry — borrow book by Dickens — Hermann did not say his prayers yesterday.” Streams of memory, cargoes of love!
Bound and chained, I stood at the gate, and beyond it the woman in the gray dress walked slowly away, into the garden, and was gone.