Crossing the Sierra De Gredos

BOOK: Crossing the Sierra De Gredos
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You will go
will return not
die
in combat
—Latin oracle
 
 
Have pity on her
who travels on such a day
—Ibn 'Arabî
 
 
But perhaps knighthood
and enchantments nowadays must take paths
different from those of the ancients
—Miguel de Cervantes,
El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha
She wished this were her last journey. The place where she had lived and worked for a long time now always offered more than enough new experiences and adventures. The country and the region were not the ones in which she had been born, and starting in childhood she had lived in several altogether different lands and landscapes.
Raised by grandparents who were avid travelers, or vagabonds, to be more precise, who seemed to change their nationality with every border they crossed, she had pined for a while in her youth for the long-lost land of her birth in eastern Germany, familiar to her not from her own memories but rather from stories, and later from dreams as well.
After several visits to that country, she then spent some years there as a student, in Dresden or Leipzig, let us say, a good hour by bicycle from the village of her birth, and eventually, several countries or two or three continents later, she even settled there, two hours by car from her alleged birth house, by now torn down and replaced by a new building. She lived there and worked, though not yet in banking.
Later still, again after several countries and continents, after alternating between work and the vagabond life, though not the same kind as her grandparents'—almost always alone—she gradually, imperceptibly, lost track of her birthplace, and one day the image of an expansionist, overweening Germany was gone from her consciousness, whereas for a while at least some traces of her own, small-caliber Germany lingered, a stream with the shadows of water-skaters on its pebbly bed, a harvested cornfield from whose furrows bits of chaff swirled into the air, a mulberry sapling that had wandered by mistake into that steppe-cold region.
And then these traces, too, faded away. The images no longer came of their own accord. She had to make an effort to summon them. And as a
result they remained devoid of meaning. At most they turned up in an occasional dream. And eventually they, too, vanished from her dreams. That country no longer pursued her. She did not have a country of her own, or another country either, including this one here. And that was fine with her. Perfectly fine! The eternities spent in foreign parts seemed to have shaped her, enhancing her beauty, and not only the beauty of her face!
A clear, frost-cold night in early January on the outskirts of a northwestern riverport city. What was the name of the city? of the country? The author she had hired to write a book about her undertakings and her adventures had been forbidden from the very beginning to use names. In a pinch he could use place names, but it had to be made clear at once that they were usually false—altered or invented. Here and there the author, with whom she had negotiated a standard delivery contract, would also be free to toss in a real name; in any case, future readers were to confine themselves to following the larger story, and the story and the manner of its telling were calculated to make them free to forget, from the moment they turned the first page, any thoughts they might have had of hunting for clues or sniffing around. If possible, the first sentence of her book would banish any such overt or ulterior motives in favor of reading, pure and simple.
According to the contract, the same prohibition applied to names of persons and indications of time. Persons' names were admissible only when they were clearly products of the imagination. “What imagination?” (the author).—“The imagination appropriate to the specific adventure, and to love” (she).—“Whose love?”—“Mine. And indications of time only of this sort: One winter morning. On a summer night. The following fall. At Eastertime, in the middle of the war.”
For a long while now she had had hardly any relatives left. And those who were still alive were out of sight and out of mind. Somewhere —“Where?”—“How should I know?”—she allegedly still had a half brother, who allegedly rented out recreational vehicles, or was a microchip technician? or both?
Yet for many years she had made her ancestors, starting with her parents, of whom she had no conscious memories, the objects of a quiet, private, and all the more fervent cult. These ancestors, with the possible exception of her grandparents, who for a long time were entirely too present, constituted—thanks to stories, no matter how fragmentary, indeed, precisely because they were fragmentary, and then also dreams—the love
for which she wept anew, often daily, during a good “two dozen summers, and even more winters.”
Did she long for her ancestors? Yes, yet not to be with them, but merely to be able to look in on them for a moment, to comfort them, to thank them, and to bow down before them, after taking the appropriate step backward.
And then these shadowy ancestors had lost all their hold over her. And that, too, had happened ever so gradually. Some summer or winter morning she had realized that her venerated dead belonged to the gazillions of those who were no longer present, having seeped into the ground since the dawn of time, crumbled, or blown away to the four corners of the earth, never to be recalled, never to be brought to life by any love whatsoever, irrecoverable for all eternity. They still turned up now and then in dreams, but only as part of a crowd, under the heading of “also present”: this “now and then” no longer had the meaning it had once possessed of “at all sacred times.”
And this second death of her ancestors was also fine with her, like the small and large birth country that had earlier slipped away from inside her. In the meantime she had come to see as delusory the type of strength she had long derived less from the entire country than from little pockets in that country, less from the wholly successful life of an ancestor (to be sure, there was not even one life that fit that description) than from misfortune and a lonely death (which was the lot of all her forebears). Such strength, she wondered: Did it not make one tyrannical and ruthless? Did it not add to the burdens of those with whom one now passed time, lived, worked, had dealings, in the present? Such strength was accompanied by a kind of arrogance, was it not, which could thwart, even harm, even destroy the days as well as the nights of one's contemporaries, those who somehow or other got close to one? Once free of her ancestor worship, did she become receptive to other kinds of strength? impulses? No, in spite of everything, it was not perfectly fine with her when the ancestors grew meaningless and dim. It was more a question of her letting it happen, with a bitter aftertaste, and not only on her tongue.
Week after week it had been bone-chillingly cold in this region where she had made her home for a long time now. At first she wanted to talk the author out of any reference to this detail, which hardly seemed to fit the “northwestern port city” they had settled on as her place of residence, a place where the Gulf Stream moderated the climate. But then she
allowed herself to be persuaded that a “port” could also be a riverport, inland, far from the warming coast, on what was already a cold portion of the continent. Basel. Cologne. Rouen. Newcastle upon Tyne. Passau. What mattered: that her bank's headquarters were located in such a city. But the name of the bank was not to be mentioned in her story either.
On the morning of her departure she rose even earlier than usual. As before every journey, it had been a light, floating night, perhaps, too, because she had again slept in the bed belonging to her child, who had gone away. Her things were already packed—or rather, stashed in a bag purchased at the end of her girlhood and by now half as old as she was. It seemed immeasurably older, however: worn, torn, scuffed; like a relic from the Middle Ages, when travel had been very different from today; an ermine satchel? Time and again, before each of her solitary journeys, and not only into the Sierra, she had wanted to throw it away, or at least stow it in a corner. And every time it had been the one she decided to take with her—“just once more.” As a child, her daughter, long since over the hills and far away, had begged her mother, whenever one of their games came to an end, for this kind of “just one more game,” and after that “just one more”: “Please, just one more, one more!” This was no longer asking; it was pleading. The author: Could he include that in her book? She: If not that, then what? All through the trip her bag remained half open. But nothing ever fell out. And her shoes? They were old and scuffed—good for rock climbing.
It was still completely dark, and outside the frost crackled on the windowpanes. She did not turn on the light; the moon, almost full, though waning, shone through the entire house with its many uncurtained windows. Here on its periphery, the riverport city extended to the foot of a ridge, partly wooded, partly bare cliffs. The hill, black with the moon behind it and very close by, appeared to form part of the spacious house, which at the moment looked empty. In each room—and there were quite a few rooms—the near emptiness projected a different image: here the resident had long since moved out for good; here the room had been cleared out except for two or three objects and pieces of equipment, ready for work to begin; now the deserted vestibule showed signs of a hasty departure; now the table in the parlor gleamed for a meeting about to take place; there, in the kitchen's one pot, the size of a cauldron, food had been prepared for a large gathering, or for a whole week.
A sort of fullness or, rather, stuffed quality, similar to that of her bag, manifested itself only in the first of the suite of rooms intended for a toddler, a schoolchild, and a student: even the corners were filled with games, action figures, toys, standing and lying next to and on top of each other. Except that in her bag each of the items had its place, its purpose, its plan; they all complemented and implied one another. But here in the playroom, the hundreds of toys were scattered every which way and did not reveal any recognizable game. Not even the rudiments of any familiar or reproducible game could be discerned, and not merely because of the moonlight. Yet games had been played in this room, with all the things lying about on the floor, and with all of them together, at the same time, and how! Full of enthusiasm, in the sweat of armpits and the brow, amid shouts of encouragement and the raucous singing of made-up songs, play, play, nothing but play. And the play seemed to have ended not all that long ago. Any minute now it would resume.
Before setting out, a cup of coffee (or tea) at one of the windows on the south side. That was the direction in which she was supposed to go. Yet it was a long time since a southern destination had meant anything to her, as was also true of the ocean and all the other points of the compass—and that was fine—including the Himalayas and a journey to the moon. The latter was suddenly reflected in her cup and promptly disappeared again. She tried to catch it. But it slipped away each time. She sat down on a folding chair, a so-called camp chair, and wished she could sit there forever.
Now a shock: someone was eyeing her, or her silhouette, from outside, from the dark: the author, the deliveryman. A first solitary peal of the bell in the church tower on the outskirts, and almost at the same moment the voice of the muezzin from the nearby minaret, answered by the repeated hooting of an owl in the wooded hills. The first early plane leaving a flashing trail among the sparkling fixed winter stars, and now, as a third element, a match struck across the entire sky and already extinguished: a January falling star.
No, no author. And yet he existed. He was even a reason for, and one of the destinations of, the trip she was about to undertake. And it was only tangentially or incidentally for the purpose of telling him her life story or whatever. The main purpose was money. He and she had first agreed on a contract for the delivery of her book, and now they were to
sign a contract in which she and her bank—the bank and she, or at least her name, had long since become synonymous—were to have a free hand in managing and growing the author's fee.
Nowadays she did not normally concern herself with such matters. The bank had its own department for them, and by now she worked outside of and above the departments. But in this case she had to make an exception. She had got herself into this situation when she decided that she wanted a real book written about herself, instead of the endless newspaper articles and magazine features, a book about her bank, too, and its history. Of course the amount of money the author wanted to invest (or could invest) was a drop in the bucket, and not only compared to the sums her bank usually handled. And the author's personality, too, judging by the one meeting the two of them had had thus far, seemed like that of someone who would normally give her a wide berth.
How had she settled on him? Why had she not signed a contract with a journalist, or a historian, or, the most obvious choice, a journalist specializing in history? From the beginning she had insisted on a more or less serious writer, a teller of tales, or for that matter an inventor of tales, which did not have to imply that he bent or falsified the facts—just that he slipped in additional facts here and there, different, unsuspected facts, and, once in the swing of things, suppressed or, why not? simply forgot some that were obvious, not necessary to mention? “The Facts, Not the Myth”—that was what one of the historically oriented journalists had suggested as a subtitle when he offered his services for the book project. And among other mottoes, this one, this very one, had sent her off on the opposite track, or rather sidetrack, that of the author, although there came moments when she felt she had fallen into his trap.
Be that as it might, she was confident that he would smuggle all kinds of other things into the series of facts; and those things would be decisive for the story. Story? This was closer to the true state of affairs: as others might aspire to earn a place in history, she wanted to earn a place in the “story.” And it should be a story that could not be filmed, or could be captured only in a film such as no one had ever made before.
BOOK: Crossing the Sierra De Gredos
5.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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