Ralph Roger Glöckler
translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
Ludwig, a boy from the North, had always felt drawn to the edges of the continent. There, he thought, this fearfilled life must have an end, because the land stopped and the sea began. Before bed he gazed at the photographs in his geography book, and when he turned out the light, he took the rocky coast along with him into the night. Then he saw himself standing at Europe’s westernmost point, windwrapped, gazing over the headland’s barren hills, gazing at the sea and letting the waves carry him off. At the end of the continent and the beginning of the sea, he dreamed, he would lose his fear of his father, yes, all his fears would blow away in the wind, it would all be much easier for him. Bad grades would suddenly be crushed beneath the boulders the surf bit out of the coast; and he wasn’t dumb the way the harsh man claimed, he drifted off in school because his parents’ fights haunted his thoughts, always forcing him to think of the ugliness at home.
Up here, on the headland of his dreams, he stopped racking his brains for some way to placate his father, that big, indignant man he would have loved to look up to, as to a pillar of heaven... But when he woke up the fear ate its way back into him and he walked to school very slowly, staring at the ground in front of his feet, covered with dry leaves even in summer, and so he was late, not just dumb but lazy too.
One day, now a young man, working at a downtown shop, he walked over to the window in a quiet moment to look out at the busy square. Streetcars passed, cars, lots of cars, filled with lots of strangers. But he was tired of feeling nothing but yearning and picturing what it would be like to be free, strong, yes, a real man. The rocky coast, the headland of his dreams! There his trepidation had dissolved in the wind, shattered by boulders and swallowed by the sea.
What if he travelled there, this very day, right now, hopping on the next train, with no money, no suitcase, hopping on an airplane, into all the cars in the world, to leave this fear behind him, fanning the flames of his yearning till they grew to wild stallions that galloped through his soul with hooves spraying sparks, why, why did he have this yearning that no one else shared, and if anyone did, he’d thought just now, it was only the bad people. If he did travel there, what then?
Ludwig wasted no more time thinking. A mysterious voice lured him out of the shop – the angry yells of the manager, whom he’d brushed past without a word as he stepped out onto the street, disintegrated behind him into thin air like migratory birds’ hasty droppings – lured him across to the train station, to all the tracks where the long distance trains left, drawing the glowing line of their windows faster and faster through the plains and taking off, airplanes, radiant comets.
Ludwig, quite out of breath, had landed on the headland at last. The wind had ruffled his hair, reddened his eyes and cheeks. Flocks of birds, grasping the urgency of his mission, had scattered to let the traveler travel freely. The mountains had followed his spring flight with eyes of snow, winking at each other, whispering like the adults when a young one, fully fledged, flutters off all at once as though knowing all the world’s destinations. Ludwig wiped the dust from his eyes to see better, but at the sight of the rocky coast, the steep drop to the sea, he hid his face in alarm, as though he could not trust his eyes, could not believe how wild and dangerous the boundary of land, sea and sky was.
Waves gnawed the cliff, bit into boulders and heaved them about, crashing and booming. Gulls darted through the wind the sea blew up along the coast and cried hoarsely. An invisible finger touched Ludwig’s ear, turning it toward the ocean. There something seemed to announce itself, something without a name, a pull that slowly turned to sound, softly, very softly, that turned to a voice calling him: Ludwig, Ludwig, turn around, look across the land to the mountains, and go there, go to the forest of Sintra.
Ludwig looked around suspiciously. He couldn’t see any forest, nor did he believe there to be one here. Forests that called attention to themselves so softly existed only in the fairytales that no one told these days, but before he knew what was happening he had passed the squat lighthouse whose arms of light would flail through the night, and whose shadow smelled of rotting algae and kelp, a smell of earth and water at the broken-off edge of the continent from which those promised woods might really grow one day, and was walking down a path that wound its way across the headland between rocks, outcroppings and blossoming aloe.
At last, sweaty and exhausted from a long uphill hike, Ludwig spotted a sign pointing to Sintra. Sintra, he gasped out, Sintra, glanced up skeptically at the sun, which hung old and red and round above the sea, with a beard of clouds falling down to the water. Sintra. A strange word. What had put it into his head? What did it mean? Was it the name of a forest, or a place he could reach only by hiking through the forest? He paced fearfully down the path, following his shadow on a farmyard wall that ran along the road, cast upon it by the setting sun like a dark companion. At one point it stretched forward from his feet; another time, when the road curved, it slunk along behind him. It was as though he, Ludwig in the flesh, were sprouting like a curious blossom from a rosette of black leaves. The voice whispered soundless in his ears, encouraging him to look around, for the tall, ivy covered trees were the gate to the enchanted forest. He lifted his head and took a deep breath. The air was pungent, filled with unaccustomed aromas, animating him, awakening him to another kind of perception. At this hour the trees seemed to shine from within, transcending themselves in their gigantic growth, just as he suddenly seemed to glow and outgrow himself, seized by something that had just woken from profound slumbers, from some imperative thing that had lured him here and left him all alone, yes indeed, so that he failed to notice how deep in the forest he already was.
The leaves of the eucalyptus trees trickled over the mighty arms of the pines, but it only looked that way because the fans of the ferns played a game that baffled the senses, blossoming orchids, or were they dainty birds that in their song had turned to blossoms, lighting hanging lamps before they fluttered away, hummingbirds hovering in the air now here now there, wings whirring, sprouting dark red, white, manycolored leaves that changed back into feathers again.
Lovely, isn’t it? said a voice. Ludwig turned around, startled. He had completely forgotten that there were other people in the world besides him. But no one was there.
Don’t be afraid, said the voice. I’m Givdul. An old friend.
Ludwig stopped in his tracks. Suddenly he saw a black tomcat. He had one green eye and one blue eye, and his fur was dark as the night, its sheen darker and silkier still than the night skies over the headland of dreams. Ludwig was speechless. He stared as a fuchsia blossom fell into the creature’s fur, instantly changing into a colorful warbling bird that pecked the cat’s ear, or was it a fish paddling through the water with strangely curved fins?
You aren’t ready to understand that yet, said Givdul, smiling as the fish-fuchsia dissolved into thin air.
The cat gave Ludwig a friendly glance, trotted on for a few steps, then stopped and turned his head.
Aren’t you coming? he asked. Ludwig twirled his moustache, doubtful, not daring to follow the creature. Givdul sat down, very straight, wrapped his tail around his paws and looked at Ludwig.
Look here, he said after a while, emphasizing his words with a wave of his right paw, you know your old friend doesn’t mean any harm. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. And if you follow him a bit further, he’ll prove it to you.
The cat’s queer voice unsettled Ludwig, but he had to admit that the strange transformations unfolding before his eyes, or were they unfolding from within him, into him, really were lovely, marvelous, delightful in their astonishing unpredictability. A smile flitted across his lips, and he stopped twirling his moustache.
He examined Givdul. There really must have been some old, lost friend, yes, quite right, and suddenly it seemed that he remembered and had found him again. Joy seized him, and a globe glided forth, a bluish earth in the glimmer of space, emerging from a darkness more radiant than the night skies over the headland. The globe revolved in the cosmic direction of the heavens, which were round, all sides in each moment. Givdul jumped onto his friend’s shoulder and stood up on his hind legs to catch the bluish globe and return it to his empty eye socket.
The tomcat had lured Ludwig deeper into the woods. The path wound its way uphill and ended at a clearing. The light of the fading sun colored the sky. Givdul jumped up onto a rock and pointed his paw at a little house whose white walls shimmered reddish.
Go inside, he said once it had grown completely dark. The door is open.
Ludwig hesitated. He wanted so much to go inside, and he knew he would, but not quite yet, because he was afraid, afraid of something monstrous. He looked at Givdul, who licked his paws and his fur and made no reply to his friend’s mute question. At last the cat jumped down from the rock, had a good stretch, and walked slowly toward the open door of the house, as though from now on things were unfolding of their own accord.
Ludwig followed the creature, stepped inside the house. He found himself in an empty room. The ferns’ fanned-out shadows fell through a wide crack in the opposite wall, weaving a filigree web over the floorboards in the nocturnal light. There was a table, a lamp casting a bright circle of light on its top. The cat jumped onto a chair in the middle of the room, and his shadow flitted up the wall. Wind brushed Ludwig’s face, cool, fragrant wind, forest breath, suddenly transformed into the clattering noise of a propeller plane, and he discovered that the house had no roof and nothing over it but the night.
Steps approached. Ludwig strained to hear where they were coming from. Gravel crunched under the stranger’s shoes, twigs cracked. Cold sweat broke out on Ludwig’s brow, his heart pounded, he was terribly afraid. There, a ray of light! The stranger had switched on a flashlight, lighting the crack in the wall from top to bottom. Then he put one foot through. Ludwig held his breath, finally making out a boot, laced up far past the ankle. A man forced his way through the crack, pushing it apart with all his strength until the walls gave way with a groan and he stepped into the room. The stranger was wearing a flight suit, grey gloves, an aviator hat and goggles.
Good evening, he said. You here?
Ludwig gave him a nod, not knowing what to say, but reassured by the man’s pleasant manners. The stranger stepped forward, brushed the dust from his flight suit, removed his gloves, laid them on the table, removed his goggles, eyed Ludwig in astonishment and stretched out his hand.
I’m Wiglud, he said.
The stranger’s face was neither young nor old, neither handsome nor particularly masculine, merely the face of a friendly man who had climbed through a crack in the wall and looked around as though he’d come from another planet.
Glad to meet you, said Ludwig, feeling the stranger’s hand in his, soft as the cat’s fur, and if Givdul hadn’t been sitting on the chair, he would have thought he was clasping his paw.
At last, said the stranger, stepping up to him. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.
Ludwig colored up to his ears, lowered his eyes, stared at the ground in confusion.
But you don’t even know me, he said softly.
Yes I do. I know you well. Even if we’ve only just met.
I don’t understand that.
You’ll understand in a moment, said Givdul from up on his chair, examining his paws.
The stranger kissed Ludwig on the mouth. Ludwig recoiled, wiped his lips in fright, but at once a pleasant warmth flooded him. Was this was what he had been afraid of? Was it really this feeling of vitality, of safety in living closeness?
The stranger opened his flight suit. Ludwig wondered at the hair that spread across his chest like a branching tree. He had never seen anything like it.
You can go ahead and touch me, he said.
Ludwig touched his body, but quickly withdrew his hand. Then he threw himself into the stranger’s arms with a sigh. A green wave seized him, bore him up into unknown heights, warm and sunny. Givdul leapt onto the shoulder of his charge, stood up on his hind legs, and with his other eye socket captured the wave that had borne Ludwig up and transformed into a precious stone. As soon as the stone had sunk in and changed back into a green eye, Givdul dissolved into thin air.
Ludwig and Wiglud put down roots that burst the house apart. Their bodies united and transformed, grew upward, stout trunk of a pine that spread sweeping branches in the openness of the night.
Ludwig stood in front of the royal palace in Sintra. It was cool down here on the palace square. The sun lit only the sky and the mountain peaks. The morning breathed out mist from the wooded hills surrounding the palace. It drifted over the facades of the summer houses scattered on the slopes, billowed uphill, evaporated in the sun.
Ludwig stretched. The cool air banished sleep. He felt strong, free, felt like a real man. The memory of the past night had slipped away with his sleep. A cock crowed, crowed again, until others woke and transformed the morning cry into a strident wake up concert. Already the hens were ruffling their feathers, running up squawking to eagerly satisfy the rooster’s desires.
Yes, thought Ludwig, I’ll fly sunwards, turned on his heel, walked over to the plane, parked between all the cars. Dew beaded on the wings, rolled down the propeller, dripped on-to the ground. Ludwig patted his airplane. It was immaculate. Then he pushed it out onto the square, folded down the wings, put on his cap, goggles and gloves, and was about to swing himself up behind the control stick when he spied one green and one blue glass marble on the seat.
He stared at them in surprise, wondering who could have put them there. Of course, what else. Children forget what they’ve been playing with. The first ray of sun made the little globes gleam.
Then Ludwig slipped the two marbles into his pocket, sat down in the pilot’s seat, strapped himself in, checked the instruments, revved up the motor, which burped, sputtered, puffed and made lots of ugly noises, just like the burghers when they got up, until at last it spun evenly. The racket of the motor rebounded from the houses, resounded across the palace square, echoed between the mountains.
All the bedroom windows were flung open, the burghers shook their fists and cursed the disturber of the peace. Their faces were so comical that Ludwig burst out laughing.
You know what you can do, he yelled, waving at them. You can kiss my ass. You can’t keep me from starting up, taking off and flying! Not you!
He screwed up his eyes to avoid being blinded, accelerated his plane, roared past the burghers, lifted off and flew up into the sunny morning sky.
Ludwig swerved, heading for the sea. Suddenly, flying over the forest of Sintra, his eyes on the band of the coastline, he remembered the marbles in his pocket. He would have to do justice to the headland of his dreams, which seemed always to have been reality, the sea, the wind that held sway up there and all around, before he could fly sunwards and wherever else he pleased.
The shadow of the airplane flew on ahead of him, rippling over the valleys and the hills that stretched down to the sea, suddenly fluttering like a flag from an enormous pine tree that jutted up over the forest. Gulls rose up from the rocks, swarming about, welcoming the metal bird.
Ludwig repositioned his airplane to glide more easily through the winds that built up against the breast of the continent. But they were friendly winds, hurling themselves at the bold aviator, greeting him with gusty hands, scaring up still more gulls from their nesting places, making the flocks wheel like a cloud around the lighthouse on the west-ernmost point of the continent. Ludwig began to spin on the tip of a finger of air and landed on the headland with a jolt.
The gulls settled on the wings, perched on his head, his shoulders, chattering at him until they had all greeted him personally and he had gotten out of his plane. They accom-panied him to the farthest point of the headland, where they settled behind him on the low wall. Suddenly they were silent. Even the winds held still. The waves smoothed, the water sparkled in the sun. There was no hum to be heard. Not a sound. Nothing. Lost in thought, Ludwig gazed out at the sea, up at the sky.
Farewell, he said, farewell, reached into his pocket, took out the green-blue marbles, but hesitated for a moment. A gull fluttered up, snatching him from his thoughts. Then he hurled the marbles out into the elements from which they had formed, gave them back for someone else who would need them one day, this very day, at once.