From Tremolo Ruins (1988)
She had always imagined the little house would be smaller and the lace-curtained windows even tinier. Her husband, a master of his trade, had built the log chalet just as she wished in the flower garden next to the large villa. It was made entirely of wood with a slate roof on oak beams. Dwarves went in and out. They had white beards.
Priska had often dreamed of this in the brothel: a small realm of her own to shelter her from all the rigors of time.
When various men lay on top of her, blind and deaf to everything around them, the thought of planed tree trunks helped her through the coarsest moments. Priska even offered milk to this or that john to still his neediness.
When the master builder showed up, mid-May or maybe August, it was already late. “I’m a hunter. I’ve gotten lost in the forest. Take me in!” he said. Priska was touched by his words and became his doe.
Together, they moved back to his region. Priska tended the garden and combed her hair. The builder constructed bigger and bigger houses and rose to ever higher office.
And yet, the rosier the future looked through the wrought iron bars on the windows, the more golden the glow of the past seemed to shine from Priska’s eyes into the emptiness of the lavishly decorated parlor. Priska longed for closeness, for proximity, for people. The builder wore a broad-brimmed hat to keep his eyes shaded.
In July of their seventh year together, Priska finally asked her husband for her own small space, a summerhouse next to the villa. Just one room with four chairs, a table and a canape, an open fireplace. The windows should be small but face all four compass points if possible. In August the house was finished.
Not long after she moved into the pavilion, Priska remembered how skilled she had been with her hands. In September she began welcoming acquaintances from the worlds of science and politics as well as handsome artists into her little house—she offered milk to this or that one to still his neediness. And she showed them a black and white photograph of a Spitzenbild, a filigree devotional picture of Saint Teresa that had reminded her of her own almost completely forgotten frivolité tatting:
She let the shuttle slip swiftly around her fingers again, then took a penknife to parchment paper and recreated the widely lost folk art of filigree pictures. In the center, uncut, was the painted miniature.
The caption under the newspaper picture Priska had framed under glass to prevent its rapid yellowing stated that Spitzenbilder like the one of Saint Teresa are intimate works of art that should be studied and contemplated with heartfelt devotion. Whether religious or secular, the filigree pictures come from their creators’ most private worlds. Yet they are also documents of the period in which they were made. It’s not just a past era’s most grandiose creations that help us understand it. We can also confidently examine small works of art for clues. And one thing will become clear, namely that the essential problems of the past are the same as today’s: it comes down to the human heart’s longing for security in God–and our fundamental yearning for love.
The first thing to appear on Priska’s cut-out pattern was a deer.
Priska never understood why the master builder could not get used to his new life in the large villa with the discreet housekeeper or why, increasingly distraught, he stared down more and more insistently from the master bedroom on the second floor at Priska’s summerhouse, which even in winter she did not want to abandon for the centrally heated mansion .–Her realm was open to him, he knew this and yet refused to enter. –Priska loved straightforwardness in people. She saved complexity for the filigree pictures she carved in her quiet hours with patient hands and complete devotion.
Yet she had not anticipated the master builder’s eccentricity. One night, as ever in high office, he scaled the highest steel pylon supporting the overhead power lines nearby to hang himself between two high-velocity wires that extended far into the distance.
Charred and shriveled, his body dropped into a reaped wheat field. Not much bigger than the dwarves outside Priska’s summer house. She wept into her antique lace and buried her husband.
The filigree picture that appealed most to the majority of Priska’s visitors–whom she no longer wanted to receive after her husband’s death because all they did was disrupt her life and work–showed an idealized landscape with a fiery heart floating in the sky above it. An epochal work, was how the electrician described it to Priska. The cut-out pattern’s internal shape was the reduced form of an oak leaf, symbol of fidelity and fertility. The painted miniature itself was surrounded by a star motif, its rays bound together by serrated fillets. –The most important Spitzenbild artist of the 18th century, who unfortunately remains anonymous and as elusive as ever, often used this pattern to frame his miniatures of religious devotional images. –Priska, however, used lace borders in her works mostly to frame love portraits: Where’er I turn, my love has no end! —This pleased her friends.
She herself was most attached to a new picture. The central cartouche mounted on lace was framed by a flowery wreath of roses and oleander blossoms. In the middle was a miniature gouache painted in soft tones of an ostrich standing in a peaceful landscape. In its beak, it held a piece of steel, which it slowly ate. Priska illuminated her favorite picture with an inscription in gold-tone:
………Virtue digests all.
Annunciation or the Year of Drone
Martha stood on a chair at the window and looked out at the forest. Smoke from a fire in the large clearing rose in a vertical column into the evening-blue sky and reminded her of Abel: And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and fled to a land east of Eden. She knew the passage by heart.
Below, in the plain, a few cars had already turned on their low beams. Two shrill whistles sounded from the railway yard. But only the smoke signals seemed intended for her. Nonetheless, she hesitantly prepared herself to jump from the chair, as violently as possible. She climbed back up and jumped again.
On the opposite side of the outer district, Keller sat at his desk. A hooked bee stinger with a venom gland on the tip lay under the microscope. Keller shifted the lamp to shine directly on the slide so there would be no trace of shadow in the picture. He adjusted the position of his rebuilt Voigtländer and carefully pressed the remote release.
He had come to bees only a few years earlier, but then he stayed with them. The bees’ industriousness had impressed him, as did their unerring sense of direction and the neat hierarchy in the hive. You could explain almost everything with bees and he tried to impart this to his students for their journey through life.
“You have to sweat honey, children,” he would advise his students each time they sat for a test. He felt a deep love for his students especially during written examinations. They appeared to him sometimes as an entire series of tidy specimens on a microscope slide the size of a classroom. And at the center of his profession, after all, was his work on human beings.
As an avid biologist and teacher he devoted, therefore, no small part of his free time and holidays to indispensable advanced teacher training. During the summer holidays, he tracked the Death’s-head Hawkmoth with small, lively groups of colleagues and together they studied life in pupation. Or they waited patiently for hours at the bees’ colorful flight holes. During the week they lodged in small inns or parish educational centers and spent their evenings together. They would draw a worker bee’s waggle dance in red pen on the round beer coasters and the colleagues sitting next to them at the bar understood immediately that it was time to order another crème caramel, beer, wine, cognac.
Keller’s electric guitar, with which he was still alarming his professors at the teachers college in the late 1950s, had stopped working from neglect. But electricity was no longer needed for the soon-to-be-legendary volleys of hiking and camp songs or gospel songs he used in his training courses. The teachers gathered in the tavern and, polyphonically and with schooled voices, abandoned themselves to singing with ever greater abandon—until the eyes of the religious education teacher lit up the valley of Jericho so ardently that it was time to let the refrain slowly fade away and break up the gathering before the walls came tumbling down and their reverence cleared the regulars out of the bar.
In one of the high beds in the inn’s small rooms, Keller blew another call to arms. It was Martha, as if he were crossing the waters towards her. She opened her arms and only became alarmed when he drove his stinger resolutely into her surprised flesh, so deep that the venom gland burst and religion was wed to realities.
The teachers returned spiritually enriched from Keller’s courses to everyday life at school. It was no mean goal he set himself and, for the most part, reached: “Finding the great in the small,” he would stress time and again, wiping his left hand over his high forehead.
He shifted his bee specimen a few millimeters on the slide and took another photograph. –Finding a remedy with the bees’ help, he thought to himself occasionally, and increased the magnification that now showed only the very tip of the stinger, as his wife called him to dinner for the third time.
After that night, Martha couldn’t quite say how exactly she had, to her own surprise, joined in the singing again on the following evening:
“Let us break bread together,” she sang, “on our knees, on our knees.” And, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, brothers, sisters.”
Confusion and inexpressible dejection did not come over her as she’d expected. After the summer holidays, she dutifully took up her teaching again. Only now and then did she have the feeling she was walking in shoes that were too big. The time of frightened insomnia only set in weeks later. Once again, she missed her period.
Martha felt her skin becoming thinner by the day. On cloudy days, the rain fell inside her. Nevertheless, she still brushed her teeth three times a day.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” she screamed in her tiny kitchen and was ashamed at the disproportion of her words.
Outside her window, the sky turned blue-red along the edges. In truth, she wanted nothing more dearly than a child of her own and yet she was ready to have it hurtled out. Every now and again she would stop short and press the flat of her hand to her forehead. Under her fingers a swelling mass grew with every jump.
A few years earlier, Martha had taken over the religious instruction in the entire school and surrendered all other subjects to her colleagues: mathematics and gym, history and German. They called her an angel and gladly accepted her devotion to her faith–at school and in her shady two-room apartment. Martha granted them dispensation and indulgence at the same time.
Indeed, nothing seemed to concern her besides biblical history and the promise of eternal life after death, which she knew how to impress vividly upon her students. In any other area, she would be envied this inevitable designation, but in her subject it only helped her keep the older students somewhat in line. She occasionally looked the other way when students were absent.
Over the course of the last winter, a sentence had caught her eye for the first time. It began to gnaw at her and she couldn’t shake it: There is a life BEFORE death. She found the increasing excitement that entered her life with this succinct declaration not unpleasant and continued her conscientious preparations. But one day she let her long hair fall over her shoulders even in daylight and enjoyed her colleagues’ alleviated approval.
On long walks in the early spring, she felt the wind in her hair for the first time and thanked God for leading her outdoors. Green burst from the buds and spread over the fields surrounding the city. Martha felt a part of it as she never had before. Spurred by her increasingly concrete love of nature, she signed up with a slight delay for the advanced training course that Keller had announced in the school circular.
When Martha looked at the forest from the window again, the smoke over the clearing had dispersed. An enormous fire blazed. The half moon stood over the dark fir trees. She jumped from the chair again, but bent lightly at the knees when she hit the floor.
She stood in front of her bathroom mirror and saw that her forehead was as smooth as ever. No blood in her pants. Life had gotten its teeth into her and she was on the verge of submitting to it.
Martha took off her school clothes and slowly washed her armpits with a damp sponge. She laid both hands on her now much firmer breasts and could feel that it did her good.
She went over in her head how much she had saved up and began to formulate, word by word, her notice of termination.
Actually, I should title it my annunciation, she said out loud and laughed at herself in the mirror.
From At the Foot of the Camel (1994)
Another point of view
Shortly before nightfall, Binswanger’s wife smoked a cigarette high up in her apple tree. Wrapped in a bathrobe, she stood on the ladder’s top rung looking to turn one last trick while her husband circled the village on his moped, delivering the evening paper after his shift at the factory, and we diligently beat up her two boys on their way home.
I am human, too, Binswanger howled. As on every evening, he had delayed his return home until the pubs closed. Feet planted firmly, he stood in the starkly lit kitchen and brandished his shotgun between the table, the cupboard and his wife. Every morning she gave him back the magazine with its six rounds, setting it next to his coffee cup on the kitchen table. She also left the tape recorder playing, to spite him, yet again, with his ranting from the previous evening before he left for his next shift.
That he would fill his mouth with water before shooting himself in the head is something we certainly never expected of him.
Mort. For M.
The hunters are on the watch
in the forests. They wait
for mercy from their quarry
Who am I to object that you called me your teacher up until the end? Although I was in fact a painter, a hunter. Nonetheless, when boozing I beat my wife and children. But of that, not a word. A man is remembered for his goodness!
Will this evocation help anyone at all? The children, the students, the wives, the prey?
At sixteen, I started my teacher training. And was already tired. No one noticed I slept through the four years under heavy lids.
What there was to learn, I learned in my sleep. I wrote my exams hands down. Once I got my certification I withdrew into the forest.
In winter I filled the forest mangers with hay, carried saltlicks into the woods, stayed upwind. I taught my students to distinguish the hooved animals, explained the difference between dictum and contradiction. I warned them about religion. I shot my bucks and sometimes a sick doe.
After a brief illness–this has been proven false. My life was one long streak of sweat, thanks to which my faithful dog always found me again.
Now I lie on the ground, facing the spring.
You saw only how much I drank, you did not know my thirst.
At the Foot of the Camel
One morning I awoke with a suitcase in my head. A porter in blue coveralls had set it down between the two halves of my brain and, without waiting for a tip or saying a single word, disappeared.
With my inborn dread of travel and my tendency to brood, I understood as soon as I woke–and even before the telegram arrived–that the suitcase was an unmistakable sign. The delivery man had deposited a tumor in my head. Without a doubt, it was my turn. I’d always seen it coming, after all.
In other words, it was time for me to put the tattered remainder of my existence in order and I would have set myself immediately to that sad task if the image of a distant caravanserai hadn’t spontaneously appeared in my mind’s eye.
At this point, I have to put on record that never in my life have I ever been anywhere near such a caravanserai, much less been part of a camel train with pilgrims or traveling merchants making their way through inhospitable terrain in regions filled with rapacious tribes.
On the other hand–and this thought flashed through my overstuffed mind–a black and white picture of my legendary uncle standing under a palm tree has been in my possession for years. Widely-traveled and round-cheeked, he poses on a double-humped camel in front of a camel rental stand for a picture taken by a traveling photographer.
At the foot of the camel stands uncle’s unmistakable suitcase, covered with colorful stickers gathered at the various stations on his journey through the world: Manhattan, Nairobi, Jokkmokk, etc.
My uncle’s luggage fits the Platonic ideal of a suitcase. And I realized with great relief that that’s what was stuck in my head.
This piece of luggage had nothing to do with a tumor. I pulled myself together.
In 1953, as we know, my uncle, weakened by rheumatism and politically suspect in our part of the world, had barely crossed Red Square and finished his visit to the mausoleum, when he precipitously decided to travel on to Egypt, where he mounted the aforementioned beast of burden and rode right through the pyramids of Giza in order to make a pilgrimage to the edge of the desert.
By the sweat of his brow, my uncle must have looked out over the stony fields and sandy plains for a long time. At that point, he must also have traded his Panama hat with one of his companions for a fez, which he wears in the photograph in front of the caravanserai. Without further ado, he peremptorily requested his suitcase be brought to a room there and he stayed for three days.
The ancient Egyptians’ primary belief in a realm of the dead far to the west of their land–the reason they called their dead “Westerners”–had made my uncle pensive. Ultimately, however, he did not want to believe in death, unlike me, his nephew, and he stubbornly clung to life.
Nonetheless, that slight evidence of my uncle’s brooding along with the photograph of the caravanserai, which he had sent to my paternal grandfather, endeared him to me.
This was no empty-headed fool, no hopeless ignoramus, as he had often been described sotto voce in our family circles, even if he addressed my grandfather as “Radio” on his sand-colored stationery.
Radio was the first one in our village, with the help of a crystal receiver, to bring the world into our better parlor and at the same time to broadcast it over a loudspeaker into the village square, where his nephew stood, ears perked up, dreaming of the wide world.
To the end of his days, Radio himself never felt he was called “Radio” in mockery, but took the nickname as a compliment. And he was delighted when over the years his nephew, my uncle, actually reached many destinations throughout the world that he had only ever heard of–or, after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, had seen in television’s blueish tones.
Three years after Giza, my uncle was lingering in the bustle of Munich, which had been spruced up for Oktoberfest. He had already set his stiff white collars down next to two one-liter steins and smiled at a beer waitress whose girth rivaled his own, when a cheerful mob from our Helvetian homeland burst into the tent and headed towards his table.
My uncle jammed his fez down onto his forehead, grabbed his collars and his suitcase and slipped away unrecognized before the inevitable swaying set in around his table.
He, who in a spacious dressing room at the Folies Bergères shortly after the War had kissed the hand of a famous Black singer three times, was understandably no longer willing to join in the foolishness of his visiting countrymen. –A bearing that speaks directly to my heart as an inveterate local resident.
He later returned from another metropolis with Louis Armstrong’s handkerchief in his suitcase. Or we can see him in À La Table du Roi. He sits with two cosmopolitan women in one of the restaurant’s elegant booths. Paris, January 1957, reads the inscription on the back of the photograph. The champagne with the widow’s face on the label is on ice. Greenland, his next destination, will have to wait.
In another picture, taken in the same restaurant, he has a mustache and beard and wears a bowler hat. Dressed as a Chancellor of the Exchequer, he toasts his queen and in the blink of an eye turns back into the world traveler that he not only appears to be, but truly is. As always with hair pomade and a close shave, his eyeteeth capped in gold.
In his more advanced years, after he’d seen almost the entire world and there was no space to be found on his suitcase for new pictures or stickers, my uncle, in the rather willful way of his that had become more pronounced with time, insisted on entering the caravanserais and eateries, the simple inns and five-star hotels only through the back entrance.
He would first check the cleanliness of the toilets and then stand, unexpected, among the disconcerted kitchen staff, before he deciding then and there whether he would honor the establishment with his presence or forever avoid it.
It was a pity that my uncle, stranded one frigid winter by an unlucky tire puncture in the heart of the Franches-Montagnes, where I was then summoned by telegram, should have carelessly collided with, of all people, the knife-wielding cook in Les Enfers.