I set off early in the morning. Klara had given me an axe, wrapped in a bag, and the keys to the shack at Kellenberg, since she hadn’t wanted to live there any longer after mother’s death. It was noon when I got out at the foresters’ station. The shack was abandoned, the windows and door nailed over with wooden planks. I drew nearer through the wet grass, my heart no longer beating but trembling. I walked along two or three paths which wound together rather haphazardly and ran apart again. I stopped on the side that in summer afforded warm shadow, where mother used to sit on a tin box among the flowers. I pulled the planks away from the windows and the door and stepped inside. I was in the cold, narrow passage. My sweaty hair hung in my eyes. Now I shall catch sight of mother, I thought, as I unlocked the padlock on the flimsy white door. She’ll be sitting by the window, like a shadow, and will turn her head, wreathed in dirty hair, when I open the door. I pricked my ears to hear her faint voice or the rubbing of her hands. But there was nothing at all. The room was dark like a cellar, the floor and walls covered with a cold, damp, grey dust. On the stove there stood a beer jug with some coffee, a big key, and a box of matches, on the wooden couch lay a comb with a tuft of mother’s hair, on the chairs were bottles, clothes, a cracked shoe. I tidied everything there was in the shack, whether worn out or old, good or bad, big or small. When I opened a drawer containing food, two mice and a rat jumped out at me.
Towards evening the sky grew overcast. This part of the camp was empty for the people had moved out and settled a couple of miles away. Some shacks were already torn down to their foundations. The grass there was overgrown and the gardens a wilderness. It was December and the air was raw and grey. In the afternoon as I chopped firewood in front of the hut, the blows of the axe echoed in the mountains. Not a soul came from anywhere. I heard only my own footsteps and the wood falling on the frozen ground and it was just as if someone else were working beside me in the cold, grey air. It was the only other sound and I was the cause of it. I kept going into the shack and coming out again under the wintry sky. Once mother had walked around this green plot and children had run around the gardens. That was in September, but the air had been still as warm as in August.
All day I saw no-one. Now and then it poured with rain but without a hint of snow. I thought I would get the smell of it from the mountains. But there was nothing but rain and an east wind, which at times blew across the plain, and the smell of wet wood from the encampment. When I had finished the necessary tasks, I stood on the balcony, a damp coat made from a brown blanket wrapped around me, and watched a small bird flying in the wind. On the kitchen table I had wedged a candle into a bottle and put one in the other room as well. When a person is alone, he sees himself as if from a distance. I noticed first my chest rising and falling, and then my hand lying on the rail. Everything around me was dead - I was the only creature alive on earth among the grass and stones. Then, after an hour or so, I noticed a man with a coat over his head running along a distant muddy path. I couldn’t make him out through the slanting rain. I watched him until he was lost in the air like a bird. Time passed. I raised my head as I felt myself being watched by the grass beneath and the mountain above. "Don’t think I am anything special", I said.
A vermilion light fell from the sky. I returned to the desolate kitchen, drank a glass of milk and ate up the sandwich I had brought with me to the camp. Things were stacked along the whitewashed plank walls, and from above the table where we had been photographed with Gritla before she went to Lausanne, I took down the brown rug which had hung there the last seven years. I made bundles of the blankets with mother’s clothes inside. From their folds came the smell of her hair and her body.
I got up and poured out another glass of milk from the tin flask. Outside the downpour stopped for a moment, but the white light in the sky was fading more and more. I stepped onto the balcony. Everything was grey under the low, prickly sky, as if the clayey earth would cover the trees and plants, the limestone boulders of the foundations and the ruined shacks, and the world would turn to stone. If just one raindrop had fallen differently from the needles of the fir branches, I would have thought there was a man in the trunk. But the drops fell as they always do in wind and rain. And behind them, on the edge of the encampment, the petrified plants and bushes swayed as they always do in wind and rain.
I was alone. At one time as a child I longed to be alone in the world. I thought: In the morning I’ll step out through the front door into the street and find all the world extinct, an empty world and empty houses as if people had never lived on earth. The houses would be grey heaps with some windows open, others closed, like caves in the mountains. I would sit down on the pavement and play, the wind would not be allowed to blow, so there would be no swaying tops of the forbidding trees, and I would not be frightened. All creation would come to a standstill for days and life would long remain immobile and silent, and I would walk up and down along the various streets to see if everything was in fact standing still and if peace reigned everywhere. Then with hard lines I would start to draw a cloud fixed in the sky like an uprooted boulder, the sun which didn’t set but darkly glows and smoulders from behind a petroleum yellow hill, birds which hang in the air and sit in the trees like grey, furry little corpses, the quiet grass, the earth’s hair, standing erect, and all creation halted in its path, like a crowd of bodies on invisible wires. And no human being would be allowed to exist anywhere at all, nor any door remain that might remind me that something like the legs and head of a human being could step through it. When all this and much else, which I still didn’t know or understand, was arrested in its growth and movement, then this would be the deepest peace and I would be able to see everythink, like God. And when I had seen everything and drawn everything, then the earth and all creation could again move about, and the first man would be allowed to approach me from the nether regions.
To be alone in the world and obedient to no-one. For it is only grass that loves man because he is not grass, and it is only man that loves grass because it is not people. And so it is with the trees, with the stones, with the plants, with the chair I sit on and the bowl I eat from, so it is with the water that flows in the rivers and seas and streams, and with the rain that comes from the sky, so it is with the sun that shines on you and me long after we have hurt each other, so it is with the stars and insects and with the clouds, with all creatures and with all creation that is not desecrated by the terror of the human soul. You come to the blades of grass, which hate each other because they are alike and you will try to love them all alike. But the blades of grass too know that people hate each other. But they will try to love them all alike in the shadow of their stalks, with the smell of their juices, with the brightness of their whispering and their quiet voices.
I set off for the end of the camp along a path that ran between the empty, ruined shacks. Everything was peaceful. I heard only my own footsteps and the rain falling on the threshholds, and in one hut, the wind was blowing the rain through the window so that the drops fell on the wooden floor of the empty room. I came down some steps to a pump where the water ran noisily. Big raindrops hung on the grey boughs of the drooping willows all around. I pressed my right hand against the handle of the big pump and held the bottle with my left, pressed the handle down, and the creaking, groaning and whining of the iron echoed across the encampment, among the trees, across the whole sky. Cold white water ran out of the pipe and the wind blew it on to the plank among the sticks and brushwood.
I returned with my two bottles of water towards the shack, the raindrops beating on my shoulders. Suddenly I looked up.
"Something has happened," I said. "Somebody has come."
I came nearer the shack and from a distance looked through the open door into the wooden, whitewashed passage with the rough plank wall at the end. The rain fell like a curtain of beads on the doorstep. It was as if ready for somebody to walk in.
I realized how alone I was. The blades of grass had wetted me through my thin socks with their red cross pattern. I reached the shack and stepped onto the balcony. The door moved in a ground draught but didn’t close for I had wedged the handle of a hoe in at the top. The boards rattled under my shoes. Now she’s heard me, I thought. Perhaps father, sitting on a chair as in the brown photograph, had also come with her.
In the kitchen, the table, chair and couch were waiting for me in the dusk. There was nobody there and nobody in the other room, only mother’s clothes in the army blankets.
I put down the bottles one after the other on the table.
"Are you there, mother?" I called into the room.
No-one answered me.
I stepped onto the balcony and went along by the shack. In August I had stuffed up the holes underneath with straw and earth, put a new tarpaulin covering on the roof and painted the chimney. The wind had scrabbled away at the earth and now was blowing under the floor to the other side. Whole sheets of rain were driven across the encampment while the sky contracted and thickened, as if I were coming into a gorge.
I made a fire and put on the stove a pan of potatoes which I had taken from the box, and lit a candle so as to have light to read an illustrated paper, which I had pulled out from a whole pile of papers on the wooden couch. Now mother stepped in again through the door and came towards me. Whenever she came in, I started to gaze at my shoes and kept on looking down until she had moved away from the sharp white corner of the illustrated paper, which hung down into the darkness like a wing, and had gone back into the other room. My shoes were wet and muddy and heavy like stony sods, but I didn’t take them off till morning.
Outside it was as black as pitch. By candlelight I was eating cheese and potatoes in their skins when I heard someone stepping onto the balcony. I raised the axe, which was leaning against the couch and waited, looking at the top of the door where the doorpost was missing. Whoever it was came out of the rain onto the balcony and slowly entered the passage. The boards of the kitchen wall at my elbow shook with the weight of his body. I felt him stop at the door and heard him getting his breath. Then he knocked, perhaps with his ring or something iron. I threw the axe onto the heap of newspapers on the couch, and pushed open the flimsy white door with my foot. A small, quiet, dark-headed figure stood by the passage wall, the light of the candle fell on his pupils.
"Who do you want?" my voice reverberated along the passage.
"You’re the son of the late Mrs. Elizabeta?" replied a hoarse, chilled voice beneath the shining pupils.
"Yes I am," I answered.
"May I come in for a moment?" he asked, without moving. Then all of a sudden he stepped inside, closed the door with his palms like a monkey, and, dressed in a coat grey like a wall, bounced towards the candle on the table. The rain shone on his shoulders and on the brim of his wet shepherd’s hat. I looked at him from in front of the couch. He was a little old chap, his head and neck wrapped up in a woollen scarf, the sleeves of a grey cardigan pulled down over his wrists, with a hole for the thumbs. I stepped to the table, where the remains of supper lay on a plate beneath the candle.
"Do you know me?" he asked in his chilled voice and looked at me, the pupils yellow in his blue-grey eyes. "Excuse me for not taking off my hat." He took off his hat.
I looked at his small, healthy-looking face with its wet, grey moustache, thick white eyebrows, and a bullet - wound scar on his right cheek. He looked up at me between my eyebrows, with an inquisitive expression on his face. Suddenly I recognised him. He was an old Ustasi butcher, a Moslem. In the summer a legless Ustasi in the Russian bar had told me about him, how he had murdered babies, slashing them with daggers or taking them by the feet and flinging them against a wall. In his room he had a big picture of the Ustasi "Führer", a squadron battle flag, and in the window little phials with spices. He worked on the weighing machine at the warehouse that stocked provisions for patients and distributed them to those too weak to walk. I saw him several times in the summer shyly calling mother to the balcony and giving her a cauliflower wrapped in newspaper, preserves and English cheese, bowing to her at the same time like a branch in an autumn breeze.
"I remember," I said.
"God be thanked. I must tell you…" His cold hand suddenly grabbed me at the back of the neck and pulled my head towards him, onto his shoulders. He stank to high heaven. He whispered in my ear with his hot laboured breath. "The Cetniks from camp N go around at night. They break in. They beat up our people, because there aren’t many of us. They killed one person… Now you’ve… God knows… because your mother, the late Mrs. Elizabeta I mean, she was banished by Tito… But you have come from there… and a friend… they can come to you as well."
He fell silent.
"Well, lad, eh?" He hid something under the quilt, took me by the arm, stepped aside and looked at me, shaking his head in a fatherly way and smiling with his burnt lips. "If I think how your dear mother, the poor thing, waited for you to come back… God rest her soul… if I remember… But now I must go, so those Serbian scoundrels don’t get me alone on the road. They could keep quiet now, for Christmas. But of course, they don’t believe in God!" He rubbed his eyes with his hand, shook me by the arm, put his hat on and slowly went to the door. He was wearing short muddy boots with the trousers stuffed into them. "They have the deuce of a lot of things, those ruffians, sir! Knives, knuckledusters, pistols…"
I lifted up the bottle with the candle and held it above my head so that he could see into the passage. He put on a fine pair of grey leather gloves and turned his bushy face towards me. "You will dream a lot here today ...about your mother, I think… Will you tell me your dreams tomorrow?" He gave me a quick look with his filmy gray eyes. "It will be interesting, what your mother will tell you in your dreams, how the lady will behave…"
I opened the door. He shivered as he stepped onto the balcony, turned up his shabby bearskin Collar, and flexed his arms a couple of times.
"I’m cold, sir .. I’ve given you an old club, I’ve got a new one. Here is my pocket… I’m old and don’t aim…" - he shook his palm - "I don’t aim so well any more. In the last resort… My hands aren’t as good as they used to be, I mean…"
I kept the candle under the passage-way ceiling so that it wouldn’t blow out. The wind carried here and there sheaves of rain which were lit up in the light of the candle, while in the bushes under the balcony the dry twigs thrashed against each other. The little man stepped out onto the boards, thrust a gloved hand into his pocket and shook my right hand with the other. "I wish you a lot of dreams, sir ... Dream a lot… Keep well, lad, and may God watch over you."
He bowed again, went quickly down the steps and disappeared into the rain.
From the doorway I looked up into the sky. Above there was nothing but the blackness of great layers of water falling down, while below, the earth was changing into a bed of deep water. I bolted the balcony door and went back into the passage. Then I closed the kitchen door and tied it up with a faded ribbon from mother’s dress, which had been hanging there since summer. Mother always used to tie it up herself, but her hands didn’t want to obey her, and then she was quite miserable, standing at the door and calling to me, "Come here, lad, and help me."
"The warehouse man was here, mother," I called into the living room, because she was obviously very curious.
I put the candle on the kitchen table by the window and pulled the heavy bundle in thick newspapers from under the quilt. I unwrapped it. It was an old English "Hayler" pistol with a wicked-looking black barrel and wooden stock. I opened the chamber; three bullets lay inside. I took aim at the top of the door. I aimed lower down, because I’d noticed in the army that I always hit the target accurately like that, but if I aimed straight, my maimed index finger always gave me trouble.
Mother was lying on a thin mattress by the door when I left for Yugoslavia. She fixed me with her eyes, which were like two small grey stones, and held me by my coat just when I wanted to run for the train. She was quite sunk in the pillows, and her mind was wandering. "You’re not going anywhere!" said Klara, blocking my way. (Klara had harsh, dry hair, which stuck into me like prickly leaves whenever she embraced me, and mother’s eyes. I read in her eyes fear of the place where I was going and fear of the people to whom I was going.) Iran for the bus, while Klara stood on the balcony, supporting mother wrapped in a blanket, with only her disfigured head showing. "Son!" she cried out and then called me by all the pet names I had ever had and which she had ever given me.I ran as quickly as I could with a suitcase on my head, so as to disappear more quickly from her sight, and heard her jump at my sister and fight with her. I ran and no-one could keep me back. And thus I went for ever out of her life.
The candle was flickering in the wind that blew through the unstuffed chinks in the boards. If it had been burning calmly, I would never have been so calm. Everything was quiet after the old man had gone. I heard only the wind across the encampment and the rain falling on the roof of this poor shack, as if a crowd of big birds were hopping across it. I had my supper by the window and then drank a quarter of the water from the bottle, for the red cheese I had eaten was highly seasoned. The pistol lay on a corner of the table and its big shadow could be seen on the wall by the stove. My shadow was big too. When I turned around on the bench, I saw it stretched right across the kitchen door.
The living room door was open. As I put the pistol in my pocket and went towards the door with a pile of illustrated magazines under my arm and the candle in my hand, I suddenly realized how solitary and abandoned the other room had been all the time that I was sitting in the kitchen, and how quietly and patiently mother had been waiting for me in the darkness with only inanimate things for company.
"Good evening, mother," I said, going through the doorway and turning towards the big wooden couch by the little window where she always slept.
"I’m a bit late. I’ve been reading these papers. Have you read "Der Stern und das Glück"?"
Mother was standing in the comer, looking at me from under her eyebrows, and playing with the belt of her long multi-coloured dressing-gown.
"Should I put a coat over your feet?" I asked and imperceptibly edged my shoulder away. "Leave me alone, mother. Don’t get hold of me like that. You know very well I don’t like it."
I put the candle on the furrier’s bench beside a little radio. "Sorry, mother," I said aloud, "but I told you once on a walk that I don’t like you holding me by the shoulder." I looked around. There was no-one in the room except my shadow, which fell on the couch, and the shadow of my dishevelled head with its fur cap falling on the wall.
"Now I shall read for a while, mother," I said to all four walls. "Can I read for a while?"
I looked into the air where she was.
"I’ll put the pistol down. Look what a club it is."
I put the pistol down on the bench.
"Now you can inspect it from all angles. If you sit by me on the couch, you can see it from really close to."
Never, never play with that murderous thing, boy. Throw it away. Don’t you see that the barrel is pointed at your forehead and that it can go off at any moment?
"Oh leave me alone, mother. I’m not a child any longer, not to be allowed to have such a thing. Mother, mother, what do you think…"
I took a magazine and put it over the pistol.
Give it to me at once… I want that thing under the paper. I’ll put it in the cupboard so that you won’t get it so quickly.
"Don’t be ridiculous, mother," I said. "Listen, how it’s throwing it down outside." I can hear it. Now give me that thing. I’ll give it to you when you’re big enough.
When you’ve grown sensible and you’re old and wise enough, you can have it back, as far as I’m concerned. Come on now, I don’t wish you any harm, child.
"I know, mother. But you don’t understand. Look, if any animal or bad man comes, you frighten them. Sure I won’t kill anybody, mother, don’t be afraid. I’ll only shoot into the air. A weapon always comes in useful. When I was in the army I always had one in my hands, and what weapons, mother."
You’re still a child, and the army is another matter. Now give me that awful monster.
I lifted the enormous pistol and put it down on the couch beside me.
"Well take it then; but be careful that you don’t let it go off."
How awful it is. I’ll look after it, don’t worry, and you’ll get it back again. But now you should go to bed and sleep, boy.
"I’d like to listen to the radio, mother, and read a story."
Alright, but see to it that you’re up early tomorrow. It’s late already; good Lord, look how late it is.
I sat with my back to the wall and opened a paper. The first page had coloured pictures of big cruisers on the blue waters of the Adriatic and pictures of sailors in the ‘sunshine bending over radar instruments. The back of one sailor took up almost the whole page, he was so near that I thought at any moment he would move and the wrinkles in his white uniform would be smoothed out. The next two pages were covered with pictures of jazz bands and Duke Ellington (King of jazz) holding an instrument and smiling. There were so many orchestras that I fancied I could hear the drums and small trumpets, my favourite music. Then in a big picture on the next page I caught sight of a young woman, like Marija, bent over a flower and fruit stall in some south Italian town. She wore a foamy white blouse and looked straight at me with a beautiful merry face, wet with drops of sweat, and tiny freckles below her clear eyes.
"Mother," I said, and looked around the room. There was no-one except my shadow and the candle, which lit up my face like the bright morning sun.
All was silent. And in the silence people moved on the edge of the muddy encampment, people who wanted to come this night to me. They rose up like a cloud above the plain and that moment when they caught sight of my head by the little window, something like a warm shadow lay across me.
I felt little black figures moving quickly like animals in the wet, impenetrable darkness and saw someone go up a little hill, run down, come swaying up to the others and go on with them towards the hut among the sparse, bare-branched trees.
"Be off!" I said. But they didn’t go away. The were coming, like the emptiness that blows out of an empty room.
A face crept across my eyes - I saw it lit up as far as the shoulders in the window pane and the room moved away and stayed behind me. Death comes like that. Then one of my hands began to move of its own accord across the paper to the other, which lay quietly on my knee. I tried to stop it, but the hand crept on, bumped against the other and stopped.
I looked at the white wall opposite with its shifting shadows, as the candle flame flickered to and fro.
"What should I do, mother?" I asked softly.
Keep quiet, boy, said her dry narrow lips with their fine white hairs right beside me. And fasten up your coat. You could have heated this room and the kitchen a bit more in the evening and it wouldn’t be so cold now.
She stood quietly beside me, between the uncurtained little window and the couch, and then slowly disappeared. I felt that weight in me slackening and slowly, one after the other pulling its shaggy black paws away from my chest. After a time mother came again and looked from the door into my face. She was happier than before, as if she realized, wherever she was, that they would not kill me. Then she was coming all the time and from all sides, tiny at first, then big, until she was beside me without any form, only space. She stood so near that I saw the red flowers on her dressing gown and she looked at my paper, while the young woman’s face in the picture changed into her bright, friendly face, and as I was turning over the pages, she was also turning over in her sleep.
She dreamt about a big shop with lots of lights and innumerable customers, who were continually coming in through the door. She was standing behind the counter in a white gown and displaying skins of Asian, African, Siberian and American wild animals, which hung on nickel-plated bars right to the real wall of the big warehouse.
And then she came again, sat down in the long grass and leaned against a tree. Gizela called out something and ran down the hill with a young dog at her heels. Mother turned her face towards me with an indescribably happy smile on her lips.
"Do you like it here, mother?" I asked.
It’s the nicest place for miles around, boy. Nobody comes here.
I switched on the radio, and at the first sound I felt mother go stooping slowly into the dark kitchen.
I slept, with my back turned towards the window, my head on my chest, my hands in the papers, and all the time I was thinking in my sleep, Now they can kill me and take everything from the hut, and I slept on. I felt people were crowding into the dark kitchen, covering the floor with their wet footprints, coming through the door and moving about the living room, looking like big, repulsive birds of prey in the red-hot shafts of the burning candle. Life suddenly stepped aside, as if it had never existed, and in my sleep death came near me from the edge of its darkness, perfectly quiet, friendly and bright, and I was ready to yield to it. because under its protecting wings there was no fear, nor people, nor earth, nor voices, but only the promise that I would be alone, calm and safe in its emptiness. Death was coming tenderly, like children’s memories in the evening, onto the blanket of my bed, and I was angry that people were walking about for such a long time, and did not come through the door and do with me what they must.
Then all of a sudden I opened my eyes, for I thought I was in Basle, in Rue de la Courronne on Christmas Eve and mother was pouring out a cup of tea for me. Father was sitting at the table, and H. F. Obrist, Klara, Karl Iselin and Gritla, who had come from a Brussels convent and sang Silent Night with her hands clasped together like a Protestant. And a big Italian had come from somewhere, he was very gay and merry, lifted me onto his broad back and showed me through the window the snow and snowed - up ships which shone outside at Klybeck.
Then I awoke. Two women’s voices had roused me, singing a movement, the end of some musical composition. I stood up and the magazines plopped from my lap to the floor and the tousled hair hung across my eyes. For a moment the little switched-on radio was silent and the light from it fell like a long luminous shadow into the square-shaped room, onto the big couch which Gizela had made, onto the clumsy tin barrel stove, the chairs and the table where Gizela’s cards lay, the dark narrow door, and onto the bundles, boxes and bags of coal and turnips.
"Was someone here, mother?" I asked aloud and looked at the things in the room and the things looked quietly back at me, unmoving and attentive as if bewitched. I didn’t dare to step towards them. I picked up the pistol. It was heavy like a short gun and my hands, which had lain disintegrated in my lap while I slept, were trembling. I felt people were approaching the shack from all sides, there were more and more of them and new ones kept on joining them from the clearing. They were on the balcony, at the door, in the little wooden passage. There were more of them than before, some standing while others crouched at the door, on the ground, like big, unmoving, loathsome birds. I felt behind the walls their hairy bodies and glittering cat’s eyes, which in a dumb and dissolute language conferred among themselves in the darkness. My candle, which was burning on the bench, turned towards my face like a bottle of medicine, was the only light for miles around and I knew they wanted to come to it.
I looked at the big, faded photograph of father that leant against the table leg.
"Did you see anyone, father?" I asked quietly, for the picture had died when he had died and now he was far away, the other side of the world, where he climbed some high mountain quite on his own, and could no longer hear me. He will never hear me any more, nor I him.
"You were often good, father," I said aloud, for I thought he could be somewhere nearby and in this way I would encourage him. But he had never been here and did not know the way here. Someone would have to show it to him. But the huts are scattered and he would not know under which roof his son is standing, in a poor room, with the candle blown out, black as a stain, tense, afraid, alone against everybody, a foreigner wherever he is. Even if he came, he would not be able to help me, because he had never fought in such a way, I thought. Yes, he would come, thin, small, bony, muddy from the rain and dirty from the furs, and he would no longer recognise me. I would say No, and move away from the window. I would no longer be able to call him back, although I walk like him and my voice resembles his. It is a long time now since we saw each other. Perhaps he could see me all the time as I was leading my own life and travelling around.
We could go together through the door and leave from the station. We two always got on well and wherever we went together, it was always a man’s world. How would we get on now, when I am older?
There is nothing to keep you here, I thought. This room is alien and will not help me; it will forsake me. This is not my home.