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Authors: Hans Erich Nossack

An Offering for the Dead

BOOK: An Offering for the Dead
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Post amorem omne animal triste.

It was raining again. Or still. I had no power over it.

So I stood up and went back. I told the people: "I will find a road." Not that they asked me to do so. They were lying around like lumps of clay; a few rolled over, sighing. I only said it because at that moment it struck me as the right thing for them. But it was a lie; for I knew that the road could not possibly be where I was heading. And that was why I hesitated after a few steps; perhaps I would have done better to add: "If I do not come back, start off as fast as possible in the opposite direction." I could also have left them something of mine, to reveal that I could no longer be counted on. But I had already vanished behind the curtain of rain. Besides, my words would have made no sense. The people had no inkling whatsoever that I was returning. They had lost all sense of direction.

 

So I went back to the city. It was a big city.

And I came back. Yes, I am standing among the same people again. It is possible that they did not even notice my absence; for they are still lying there and appear to be sleeping. I looked at them to see whether there was anyone to whom I could tell everything. But I found no one. So I will not speak to them.

Nor will I speak to myself as I did earlier. I used to pace up and down for whole nights, talking to myself. At that time, I had a name with which I did not agree. But now it is different.

One can hardly assume that books will ever again be printed as we were accustomed to seeing. And there will be hardly any readers who would be interested. But throughout these events, which I would like to speak about, I have been haunted by some utterly irrational verses, which I must have once heard somewhere or other:

 

Why were we ever granted a voice,

If we do not also sing by the abyss?

When Was a voice ever lost then?

 

I have forgotten the last line. I tried to reconstruct it with the aid of the rhyme; for that last line might perhaps enlighten me about what these verses have to do with me, and in what way they were a kind of help. You see, now I might almost assume that I would have perished without those verses. They virtually immunized me against the events, so that I never fully participated in them, and they found no weak point. Indeed, those verses must have served as a cloak of invisibility. In any case, I cannot find the last line.

I speak to a being that I believe will be here some day. I have the certainty that this is not only a morbid wish to flee my loneliness among the helpless sleepers. At times, the figure of this being stands quite clearly in front of me, and I name it: You.

Yes, I want to address it as "You"; it is then at its most visible. But then I promptly start doubting whether it is not just an image drifting up from my memory, from what lies behind me and must be regarded as lost for good. An image that wants to just barely live a bit longer and is therefore trying to attract me. In this way, you see, we are surrounded by dangers.

Is it a friend or a woman? If it is a friend, then the situation is such that one visits him in the evening, when darkness falls. He has not yet lit the light. He has mulled over something in the twilight of his room. Oh, it is you, he says, and one instantly feels one is intruding. And even though one really ought to leave, one remains all the same and sits down with him. A few indifferent words are exchanged, about the weather, about events of the day, or what not. One has to make an effort to find something new to keep the conversation afloat. Why does he not turn on a light? That would make everything much easier. But he apparently wants to stay all by himself. Eventually, one gives up, and the two of you merely sit together. Meanwhile, it has become fully dark. One no longer sees the friend, but this simply makes his presence more and more palpable, yes, and gradually so tormenting that one scarcely dares to breathe, and there seems to be too little room for a second person here. So one has no choice but to become completely one with the other. This other sits facing the window. The curtains have not been drawn. He gazes at Orion, which is in the sky. It must be winter. He gazes precisely at the place where the great nebula is located. And he sees this nebula not as a tiny spot, but as an overwhelming cloud landscape. These clouds of cosmic dust, star clusters, and solar systems appear to be standing inalterably still. Yet they move faster than we can imagine. Here and there, one sees denser points and coalescences, which try to stand out individually in order to blossom momentarily, in the knowledge that: I am. And the friend stands in front of this landscape and wonders: "What is the difference here between what moves and what is moved?" And, astonished, he then turns back to the earth and thinks: "We are not exactly at the center of our own system. That may be why we view all events as something warped and unsatisfactory." Now one suddenly starts to speak and one does not stop until everything has been told.

But if it is a woman, then it can only be at midnight. It is very still in the house, as still as if there were no house around this room, in which there are two people. All that can be heard is the steady whispering of the narrator. This makes all solid things weightless, all boundaries are eliminated. He does not raise his voice as might be required by one passage or the other in his account. His hands make no explanatory gestures. He sits on the edge of her bed. They are both naked, but no longer heed it. Any agitated strangeness has disappeared from them. At first, she was startled to notice that his eyes were glued to her, but that he did not see her. Why is he telling me this, she wonders. Perhaps she does not understand everything because he expresses himself unclearly. Or perhaps she is not very interested; after all, what he is telling her is not very entertaining. But then she feels that his talking to her brings him closer to her than ever, and she yields to the joy of listening. And when he falters for an instant to light a cigarette, she quickly says: "Why don't you keep talking?" And then he keeps talking. Or else not, since it is no longer necessary.

You — I mean this being — had best ask me if you do not understand something. I know I am talking about things that have no validity now. I still have the words for them, I was part of it all, but they may no longer be quite apt. And there is much I will not talk about; I am not allowed, for it is too dangerous. One can think it and one can experience it. But if one uses words about it, then all existence becomes inauthentic.

At any rate, I went back to the city. I walked through the suburbs. The streets were as hushed as they used to be only in the two or three hours before daybreak, when life was still divided into yesterday and tomorrow. Indeed, they were even more hushed; for I cannot imagine that the breathing of hundreds of thousand of sleepers could not have made a sound. Except that in those days, no one stayed up to listen for it. And many people certainly talked in their sleep.

At first, I made an effort to tread loudly on the pavement. It was embarrassing to come so unnoticed and perhaps frighten someone. My lonesome steps ought to have aroused echoes from the empty building walls. But this did not happen. I was the only ear that heard me. It is not good to know that. It makes one very quiet.

It must have been around noon. The shops were open. In front of them stood baskets of food for sale and also carts that were about to be unloaded. And at each house door, a pail, a broom, and other things that did not use to be there at night. People had always been quite tidy about those things to avoid stumbling over them in the dark or simply out of fear of thieves. There were also toys lying around. A small yellow bear was leaning against a house wall, and next to it stood the small wooden wagon in which the bear had been brought here. The windows were open everywhere, laundry hung in front of some. But no smoke emerged from the chimneys.

Since the windows were open, it must have been summer. This occurs to me only now. I did not notice everything, I was too indifferent. Thus, I could not say whether there were flowers on the balconies. Indeed why not? But I did not perceive them as flowers. Earlier, by the same token, the trees on the streets of a city were perceived not as trees but as ornaments or as protection against sun and rain.

I entered various houses and mounted the stairs. I expected nothing special, but I did it all the same. I would turn back on the second or third floor. Quite simply because it was not the right thing. I realized this because it was an effort to go up any further. Nothing smelled. No food, no unventilated clothing, no basement. There were no smells at all. Only I smelled of rain and of myself.

Nor was it dark on the staircases or wherever it should have been dark. It is difficult talking about the colors. Nor am I reporting in sequence. There was no darkness and there was no light, it was simply clear. A boring clarity, which crept into everything. Perhaps places that should have been dark were merely somewhat less clear.

Earlier, when there used to be a moon, the situation was similar. One ought to picture the moonlight as five or ten times more intense. I do not even know if I am understood when I say "moon." That was something that had nothing of its own. To avoid being lost, it clung flatteringly to other things, absorbing color and character like a sponge and then acting as if it were all that itself. Something like that is worse than an enemy. It dazed everything with cold, blood-sucking light. The creatures utterly failed to notice that it was their own light that it had stolen from them. They thereby lost all reality.

Perhaps I am doing the moon an injustice. Oddly enough, most people felt more at home in the wan reflection of their being than in what they really were. Did they fear the light because it revealed their darkness? And what compelled them to deny their darkness? I keep asking myself that, although now it may make no sense to ponder it. It was their sickness.

However, there were things that retained their color and even increased in brilliance. Or so it seemed to me, because those were the only colors. The baskets in front of a produce
store contained huge white cabbages as well as radishes or other pale roots. They looked very comfortable, spreading out so broadly that they were practically bloated with coziness. A bit further on, a store window and the street in front of it were virtually illuminated. The source was a group of big yellow cheeses on display there. But the most terrible part of it: all was to pass the butcher shops; the pale meat of rows of slaughtered animals hanging in the stores appeared to be the only living thing.

There is no need to talk about those disgusting things; one night just as well forget them. Yes, I would rather assume that I was mistaken; after what happened, and given the situation I was in, how could I claim to have an accurate sense of judgment? Perhaps I was still thinking in yesterday's familiar terms and not in terms that were adequate to the present state of t Dings. But later on, in a different part of the city, I saw something that I cannot forget and will not forget. It was in the window of a jewelry shop. I mean the pearls. For gold and polished stones, any of the things that can gleam and glitter in light, were outshone by those pearls. I do not feel I am mistaken: they were living and breathing. They must have been enormously valuable; but I had been no connoisseur even earlier. Except that it is important that they now caught my eye and that I do not care to forget them. Gray and milky pearls. But that says nothing. Their gray had a memory of all the colors that no longer existed. What a delicate refuge! Or an inkling of all colors as they are to be born some day. I stood in front of the shop for a long time, I could not tear myself away. I am still standing in front of it mentally. I should have taken some of the pearls along to give them as presents. For if it is a woman to whom I am telling this, I believe that any woman,
tomorrow and always, would be delighted. Who could have prohibited me from simply taking the pearls? After all, everything was mine. But it never even occurred to me.

The only shop I entered was a bakery. There was a bell on the door. I waited for quite some time; such is upbringing. Then I took a roll from the counter and left. For a while, the bell shrieked and yelled after me; it was happy to be heard by someone. The roll was fresh, I ate it on the way. Not because I was hungry. Granted, I must have been hungry; but I ate in order to have something between my teeth and not to get lost.

I knew precisely: there was no chance of my encountering anyone. Not even a dog. Nor was I scared of that. But now, looking back, I wonder what might have happened if I
had
met someone. Can there be any doubt? If it had been a human being, I would have killed him on the spot. I am not very brave, nor very strong or skillful. I have always cravenly avoided fistfights and have never killed anyone. Or have I? I now recall that I occasionally had to dream that something was lying in the cellar or buried under a bush in the garden, not very deep — no, not under a bush, but under a heap of moldering, slippery boards piled up along a wall: a corpse. It haunted me, and I lived in unrelenting fear that it might be found. At one point, they must have discovered it, for I was to be executed. It was on the outskirts of the city, in the midst of allotment gardens. Several well-dressed gentlemen were present. Not too far away, the suburban houses stood like a wall. In a beseeching voice, I informed the prosecutor of what I had already accomplished. I cannot say what I meant. And I informed him of what I would still accomplish. What a ludicrous scene! What a wretched lack of pride! I can still see him shrugging and my defense attorney glancing at me and imperceptibly shaking his head. What I felt at this slight movement is not to be described. Ah, to think that one cannot say precisely: I did not do this or that. For perhaps
I did
do it after all, but simply failed to realize it. Yet it is suddenly obvious that one is by no means the person who always lived according to everyone else's customs and took pains to behave no differently from what was demanded of him. Then the whole sham collapses, and one stands there with nothing to hold onto. But that would take us too far afield. If I keep talking about this, then even the name of the corpse will come to my lips. That would be dreadful.

BOOK: An Offering for the Dead
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