"In the Mountains"
by H. D. Nomberg, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Hersh Dovid Nomberg (1876-1927) was a writer and activist born in Mszczonów, near Warsaw. A protege of I. L. Peretz, he began publishing poems and short stories in 1900. Along with Sholem Asch and Avrom Reyzen, he went on to become one of the most influential Yiddish writers of his generation. The translator, Joachim Neugroeschel, was a prolific translator of Yiddish, French, German, Italian, and Russian, and a recipient of three PEN translation awards. Neugreoschel's translation originally appeared in Pakn Treger no. 26, Summer 1996. "In the Mountains" also appears in our recent anthology of stories from Pakn Treger, The Abandoned Book and Other Yiddish Stories.
— Eitan Kensky
Whenever a conversation turns to youth and health, I picture Sonya, in the flesh. She was a young painter I met in Munich several years ago. Looking at her, no one would have guessed that she was an artist. A full, curving, rosy face; a solid, powerful body; very lively, vibrant eyes—in short, a strong, muscular woman with scarcely any girlish weakness. Where in the world did she get all the softness and dreaminess that she expressed with her paintbrush? This was an enigma for many people. Her entire being was ruled by a set of qualities that overshadowed all others: her health, her exuberant youth, her highly developed figure bursting with energy.
It was only as I got to know her that I saw idiosyncratic lines in her face: raw, wild features—especially when she spoke. A bestial savagery might then flash across her expression. And in the angular corners of her splendid forehead I found a deep, native intelligence. This creature was no older than twenty, yet she was exceptionally talented. Her professors heaped praise on her. With a loving freshness she painted nature: cows, flocks of sheep, the tranquil sea and the southern sky (her father was a Jewish landowner in southern Russia).
She was free and easy in her ways, candid, sometimes brutally so, and she loved all kinds of sports—she loved light, joy, movement. Within two weeks of meeting her, I was head over heels in love, and she cared for me too—at least more than for anyone else. Neither of us took our relationship too seriously: we made few demands on each other and we lived happily. She didn’t like tenderness or affection, and she refused to be passive, even in love. She apparently knew nothing about quiet yearnings, tremulous feelings—passion would swoop down on her like a whirlwind. Now and then, as we were strolling along, she might take hold of my hand and squeeze it, and snuggle against me like a child. Or I might be sitting in her home late at night, and she would grow agitated, and that savagery would flash across her face. She would then jump up and order me to leave:
“Well, get going. And don’t come by tomorrow,” she would snap.
Before I left she would kiss me instead of responding to my protest, and push me toward the door: “I’ll drop in on you if I feel like it. Now get going—fast!”
"He says that seeing line and color isn’t enough; you also have to feel the soul of a thing. Is that so? I’ve never seen a soul; I don’t know what that is. How am I supposed to feel it?"
Around that time I also saw a great deal of a friend of mine, a Jewish student from Russia, who was half assimilated in Germany. His name was Schwarzwald. He was smart, very smart, but he had a weak, poetic character. And he was a poor, lonely outcast. A broken man. I tried to paint him, I worked hard on his portrait, but I failed to catch the “keynote” in his features, the quintessence that intrigued me. His face was gaunt and sickly, with hollow cheeks, bulging lips, and a long aquiline nose that wasn’t ugly, wasn’t typical: it seemed to poke out extraneously from all that scrawniness. And yet there was something very likable about his face, something appealing—which I ultimately failed to capture or depict. The lines in his jowls, the creases by his mouth gave him a submissive, helpless, hopeless look. . . . No, that wasn’t quite it. That expression actually lurked in his deep, gray, mournful eyes. The lines in his face contained something else—a holiness? No, it wasn’t that either. It was more like a stillness, a calmness—the calmness of a dead face. All he had to do was close his eyes and bow his head—and any trace of life, of motion, would vanish, and you would assume that he was dead. He appeared to be kneaded out of sorrow, yet even these sufferings were no longer alive: they lay dead and frozen in his face. Nonetheless, no shadow of bitterness, no sign of rancor nor sarcasm could be found in his features. I told Sonya about him, and she came over to observe him as if he were a primitive tribesman. She arrived while he was sitting for me, and she instantly began to scrutinize him from up close, full-front, in profile—without standing on ceremony and without saying a word to him. I was thoroughly embarrassed. I didn’t know Schwarzwald very well, but I knew his innate pride, which he managed to nurture despite his kind heart. Sonya, however, soon realized what she was doing, and she apologized to him:
“Please forgive me, Herr Schwarzwald, for taking the liberty of examining you like this. It’s in our nature. Nothing exists for us except line and color. Isn’t that true?”
I noticed that she had made an impression on my friend. It didn’t even occur to him to feel offended, and he answered amiably: “It’s true. Of course.”
“And you know, I’m always arguing with him.” She pointed at me. “He says that seeing line and color isn’t enough; you also have to feel the soul of a thing. Is that so? I’ve never seen a soul; I don’t know what that is. How am I supposed to feel it? What do you think, Herr Schwarzwald? He’s told me that you’re brainy and that you have clear thoughts about art.”
“Ah!” Schwarzwald exclaimed. “I’m no artist; I’m a student of philosophy. When it comes to art, I can only philosophize. And for an artist, philosophizing is superfluous.”
“I like that, and that’s exactly what I say! I don’t want to know anything, I want to see and paint. See and paint, that’s all.”
I disagreed. “An artist has to have a heart, feelings. You have to relate to the thing you’re painting. You have to have a spiritual outlook . . .”
And so we launched into our usual argument.
Schwarzwald held his tongue. Rather than listen, he gazed at the young painter who was so deeply in love with lines and colors. In the end, he sided with her:
“You’re doubly wrong,” he turned to me. “First of all for even arguing. Leave that to us philosophers. You artists should stick to painting. Secondly, seeing a thing, seeing it artistically, means seeing it with your heart, with feelings, with a spiritual outlook, with anything you wish. You’re arguing semantics.”
The three of us now viewed my work. None of us liked it. I least of all. The next day I started from scratch—and again I failed to complete the portrait. I tried yet a different pose, but nothing came of my efforts.
Sonya frequently dropped by while I was working, or else Schwarzwald would join me in visiting her and he’d spend the evening with us. And tedious evenings they were. They dragged along, slow and sad, leaving me unsatisfied, with some sort of profound and unknown anxiety. Schwarzwald sat there in silence. We were ashamed to talk—what should we talk about? Philosophy? Our ideas didn’t interest him; he had heard them a thousand times. Chitchat? Impossible: his presence cast a pall on us. Everything about him emanated a hopelessness, a dreadful melancholy from worlds that had been destroyed long ago. When he was here, it seemed as if we could think and talk about only one thing: death.
During those dreary evenings I peered at his face, studying every last line, every last crease, every quiver, every mien, every glance. And very soon a terrible secret became obvious: the poor man absolutely worshiped Sonya, he devoured her with his eyes, he was in love with her, madly in love, with the full force of his hopelessness! Whenever she spoke or drew closer to him, a bizarre change came over his face. It was as if the frozen suffering in his face had melted: his sorrows came alive, they told horrible, heartrending stories, and they were pleading, pleading. . . . Oh, how repulsive his face became at such moments! How helpless, how weak and sickly, how pitiful and foolish. Often I couldn’t stand it, and I covered my eyes with my hands. As for Sonya—she was bored. By the end of such an evening she felt sad, tired, apathetic; yet she didn’t try to find a way of breaking off with him. Quite the contrary: she kept inviting him over and was annoyed if he didn’t show up for a day or two.
“Tell me,” she said after he left, “what does a person like that live for?”
I held my tongue, but she kept nagging me as if it were my fault and my life.
“He believes in nothing, loves nothing, hopes for nothing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, matters to him! Nothing interests him, no books, no people, no art—nothing. Just how does he live? Tell me, please.”
“He lives because he lives. What do I live for? What do you live for?”
“I? I love art!” She uttered those words with such pride and self-assurance that she could have won over the greatest skeptic. The artist in her was speaking and making her eyes sparkle.
“And maybe he does love someone. You never know,” I remarked tersely.
She caught my hint, and instead of an answer, a contented smile played on her lips. That was her way of terminating a conversation. Her peculiar smile spread over her entire face, revealing the deep and boundless happiness of a woman in love with herself.
Thus time wore by, evening after evening.
She was bored by him and yet she fawned on him. She kept complaining to me about that depressing “Black Shadow” (her nickname for him), and yet she kept inviting him back, and she never stopped teasing him. She would play with his arm and ask him to touch her arm muscles to see how strong she was. And she would stand stiffly against him in her youthful freshness and thrust out her breasts. The poor man obeyed her like a child.
“Leave me alone,” said Sonya.
“I can’t sketch such faces.”
“Because they’re not beautiful.”
I was still working on his portrait even though I felt it would come to nothing. I was fed up with it—but then Sonya dropped by in a white fur hat above her rosy face. Clutching and clanging her ice skates, she brought in the freshness and beauty of a frosty but sunny winter’s day, which she so closely resembled. Schwarzwald stood up, went over, and greeted her boldly and cheerfully—which was contrary to his nature. This was one of the sickly but vibrant moments that he had from time to time, like the sudden flaring of a candle. He grew agile, merry—a new man.
“How’s the portrait doing?” Sonya asked.
“It’s not going to get anywhere,” I replied.
“Let me try. Sit down, Schwarzwald.” She pulled off her coat, grabbed a pencil, and drew a few lines. But she soon got fed up and put aside the drawing. “It’s not for me,” she said.
“No, sketch me, please,” Schwarzwald pleaded. “You have to sketch me. I’m sure you’ll succeed, you and no one else.”
“How do you know?” she asked bluntly.
“I know, I’m sure. I feel it, I really do. Sketch me.” Pleading, coaxing—that wasn’t like Schwarzwald. And it was strange; it was uncomfortable hearing him use that tone of voice.
“Leave me alone,” said Sonya. “I can’t sketch such faces.”
“Because they’re not beautiful.”
Schwarzwald was caught off guard by her curt retort, which could hardly have been news to him. How often had I heard him talking scornfully about his own clumsy appearance! Now he turned pale, his mood changed abruptly, he brooded quietly. And the frozen suffering lay dead in his face.
We all felt bad, and when he said good-bye, Sonya asked him to drop in on her tomorrow, be sure to drop in, and she looked at him with flirtatious eyes, as if everything were in perfect order.
A god left Mount Olympus and came to wake me up: Get up, you shameful sleeper, you who are drunk on life—wake up! Where is your youth?—Forgotten. Where is your happiness?—Gone. Where is your hope?—Dead. Get up, get up! You’ve dreamt a dreadful dream. I’ve come from a distant land, you mournful man! From a land where the wellspring of life splashed and gurgled in generations past. I’m from the land of everlasting beauty—to wake you up: get up!
A new day is born in the east, a new radiance is spread out on valleys and mountains, meadows and forests, and with golden edges the clouds drift across the sky to announce glad tidings to the world and to you. The dreadful dream has disappeared—wake up!
The morning air is redolent with fresh scents, soft winds waft, waking every leaf, every blade of grass: Wake up! Get up! Pure voices of clear bells tremble in the air, and the new radiance grows brighter and brighter, and the sun tears up its purple veil and emerges fresh and young and newly born. Wake up, you sleeper, wake up your good and evil feelings, wake up your hopes—the time has come. Get up!
What is waking up in me?—Your sleepy youth. Why is my blood raging?—It yearns for love and happiness. What dazzles my eyes?—Your awakened hope. Get up! The black veil is torn from your eyes, and driven away is the city of death. I pour life and pleasure into your limbs, I—the god of love! Get up!
That poem, written in German hexameters, was titled “Resurrection.” Schwarzwald brought it over and handed it to me with a bashful look.
“Here, read it,” he said, “if it doesn’t bore you.” I read it and then looked at him uncertainly. “Well, why are you looking at me like that? Do you like the poem?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s classical, which suits a philosopher. But if you don’t mind my asking—are you, so to speak, in love? You are, aren’t you?”
Slightly embarrassed, he said with a smile: “What if I am? Does it matter?”
“Not in the least.”
He paced back and forth through the room. It was obvious that he wanted to talk about something. He was in one of his cheery moods; his eyes sparkled. And suddenly he turned to me:
"You’ll probably say I’m stupid or crazy. But you don’t understand, you can’t understand. You don’t know what this apathy is like, this dead existence, without interests, without joys, without delights, without hope, without happiness."
“You do know who it is?”
“Of course. In any case, she’s worth it.”
“Are you a sincere person? You don’t lie?”
“If that’s so, then I want you to tell me the truth. Are you jealous? I want to know.”
“Nonsense, Schwarzwald! I wouldn’t dream of it! I can assure you, I’m not jealous. My relationship with Sonya is very casual. For one thing, we’re both as free as a bird. And besides—how can I put it? . . .” I very nearly said that I could rely entirely on Sonya’s healthy instincts. But I caught myself and didn’t complete my sentence. He didn’t notice.
He wanted to pour his heart out to me:
“You’re a decent person. I really like you. And you know, I’m in love, head over heels in love. I’ve never felt like this before. I can’t think about anything but her; I can’t talk about anything but her. I can’t live without thinking about her. Otherwise my blood won’t beat in my veins. . . . You’ll probably say I’m stupid or crazy. But you don’t understand, you can’t understand. You don’t know what this apathy is like, this dead existence, without interests, without joys, without delights, without hope, without happiness. . . . Am I fooling myself? Good! All I want to do is fool myself. I want to have my illusion. I can’t stand my apathy anymore, it won’t bring me a long life. . . .”
He soon left me to go home. His face was agitated. A sickly fire glimmered in his eyes; he seemed like a man who was losing his mind.
“Hey, you ought to be congratulated on your new victory,” I told Sonya that very same day. “Schwarzwald is dying of love. Read this.”
I handed her the poem that Schwarzwald had given me. She read it and then said she didn’t like it.
“Well, so you’ve conquered another heart. Be proud,” I rebuked her. “Could you possibly be jealous? I believe I’m still free.”
“Bite your tongue. Me, jealous? Of whom?” She burst out laughing, then asked:
“Is he truly in love with me? You honestly think so?”
“He’s dying of love for you.” She didn’t respond, but a smile played on her lips—her smile.
In the midst of the loveliest winter Sonya had the bright idea of going for a hike in the mountains, and she took me and Schwarzwald along. We dressed like tourists, in warm, light clothes. Sonya wore white. A white knitted jacket, which made her fresh body even more attractive, and a white fur hat perched coquettishly on her head. Schwarzwald and I put on knee-length stockings; thick, hobnailed boots; short, warm jackets; and Tyrolean hats with a feather on the side. Frankly, this playful apparel didn’t quite harmonize with Schwarzwald’s figure, but he enjoyed it like a child. As I’ve mentioned, a change had recently come over him. At times he grew excited, ebullient, and at other times he lapsed into such a deep depression that he seemed like a mournful lunatic.
We left Munich after midnight and reached Kufstein by dawn. This small Austrian town right on the Bavarian border is encircled by mountains. The Bavarian highlands stretch out on one side, while on the other you can see the enormous range called the Emperor Mountains, which stand as sentinels in front of the gigantic Alps. We relaxed at a restaurant for an hour or two until daylight. Then we strapped on our backpacks, took our long sticks, and started out.
The town was shrouded in a deep fog: we couldn’t even see the houses across the marketplace. This was no ordinary fog; it was a dense, ominous cloud that had come down into the valley and was lurking and pressing on everything and on us. People were walking through the cloud like shadows, and they seemed to be making strange motions. They kept vanishing and reemerging, swimming in from the gray ocean. We could detect no trace of the newly risen sun. Despite the fog, the air was frosty and the ground slippery. We hadn’t gotten enough sleep, so we huddled together like a frightened herd, grabbing one another’s shoulders to keep our balance. We walked quietly, wordlessly, and deep down we regretted that we’d gone along with Sonya’s crazy idea of heading to the mountains in midwinter. Even Sonya, usually cheerful, usually energetic, walked mutely, like a sinner—and indeed she must have felt sinful, especially in regard to me. If only we could have been alone; but she had insisted that Schwarzwald join us.
Struggling through the fog, we managed to reach the mountain and start hiking up. We trudged slowly for quite a while, drowsy and lost in thought. When we reached an altitude of some six or seven thousand feet, we noticed that the fog had dissipated. The air was clear, transparent, yet we could make out almost nothing around us. We were hemmed in by trees. The road cut deep through the frozen snow, and we could see only a few yards ahead of us because the road curved and twisted, constantly zigzagging as most mountain trails do.
“Well, how do you feel, dear madam?” I asked Sonya with no small measure of bitterness.
“Just fine and dandy, dear sir,” she replied coldly. “Schwarzwald? Where are you?” She turned to my friend, who kept lagging behind us.
“One minute!” he shouted and began running to catch up with us.
There’s nothing more annoying on a mountain hike than having to keep changing speed. It tires you out very quickly. I warned him, but he answered as if he were a veteran hiker:
“Don’t worry! I won’t get tired.”
And at that moment he looked younger and fresher; his voice sounded powerful and self-confident. “The god of Mount Olympus woke him, got him up . . .” I mused.
“It’s worth living and suffering for a hundred years just to contemplate this for a brief moment. Look at the chasm: imagine jumping off and dying down there and being buried in white snow like everything else around us!”
As we advanced, we started noticing splotches of light in the shadows of the trees. We looked up, and through the interwoven branches we caught patches of blue sky. All three of us suddenly grew cheerful. For a while now our bodies had not felt the cold. Our movements kept us warm, and we began striding more boldly. But the path kept snaking in and out—and it was covered by the same trodden snow as below and flanked by the same frozen snow, on and on. At times the splotches of light and the patches of blue sky vanished altogether. We had already been hiking for an hour. The climb to the very top of the mountain normally took four or five hours—unless you stopped to rest at an inn. If you did, it would take much longer—a boring prospect.
But now our path wound out of the forest, and we were suddenly immersed in a warm, bright radiance; a lustrous crystal whiteness struck our eyes from all sides. We had unexpectedly been transported to a new, white, luminous world. We looked up: the sky was clear and cloudless, gleaming and dazzling like polished glass. We were in a universe of snow. It glittered everywhere—around us, below, above, from abysses, from the deep plains, from the peaks that circled us completely. Our eyes bathed in the illumination as if in a wellspring of pleasure, a pleasure so intense that it brought us pain and tears. We stood there in sheer surprise and delight.
Our path now ran along the very edge of the cliff, and our surroundings were revealed for miles. At the foot of the mountain, the Inn River, a gray narrow strip against the white snowy background, wound through the valley, its other side hemmed in by more mountains. In a corner of the valley we spotted the cottages in Kufstein, heaped together and as tiny as houses of cards. A thin mist hovered above them, grazing the opposite mountain. This was the fog that had lurked over the town at our departure.
Around us loomed the mountains, various heights, various shapes, squeezed together or clambering atop one another. Some were terrifying with their rugged lines; some were soft and delicate, like a woman’s beautiful breasts. Everything was covered with snow and flooded with light, glittering and glistening. Off to the side we glimpsed a small cluster of mountains with three high, wild tips pointing at the sky. Having shaken off their snow, they bared their gray, naked, craggy bodies, and they recalled sleeping giants, evil monsters who would kill us all if they weren’t fettered to their places by a mightier power. . . . We recognized the Wild Emperor—a name that conjured up a horde of dreadful Tyrolean legends.
“Oh, how beautiful!” we chorused, almost in unison.
Schwarzwald nearly wept in ecstasy. His eyes moistened; his gaunt, sickly features shone with pleasure, like the face of a saint.
“Yes, my friends!” he blurted out. “It’s worth living and suffering for a hundred years just to contemplate this for a brief moment. Look at the chasm: imagine jumping off and dying down there and being buried in white snow like everything else around us! . . .” We looked where he was pointing and we saw a profound chasm, from which we were separated by a low ridge of packed snow. In the depths something was rushing and surging—a mountain stream that we couldn’t see. A wispy haze drifted from the fissures and caverns.
We walked calmly, plunging our long sticks into the snow and hardly exchanging a word. By now the sun was overhead. It was almost twelve noon. The path barely ascended here; it ran straight, leading to a second rise.
Sonya too remained silent. Only her eyes betrayed the impact made on her by the vista. The cheerful energy had left her face, and perhaps for the first time ever, I noticed a secret yearning in her eyes, a tender melancholy. Suddenly she turned to Schwarzwald and offered him her arm. They walked along together, I behind them. Half an hour later we arrived at an inn midway up the mountain. After laying out our stockings to dry, we relaxed, drinking several glasses of mulled wine and chatting with the customers, who kept coming in from the top or from the valley. The beautiful, heroic Tyroleans greeted us like good friends and spoke to us in their dialect, which we barely understood. Each man plainly felt it was his duty to gaze at Sonya for a while and tell her how beautiful she was.
“A strong girl,” one of them whispered to me, winking his eye and nodding with his patriarchal blond beard.
She took this good-naturedly and smiled, merely smiled.
“Well, forward march!” Sonya exclaimed, standing up. We got to our feet and prepared to continue our hike.
Sonya cavorted with him, and only rarely did she glance at me, as if to say, “Just look at what love is really all about! This is how I want to be loved! Like this!”
A bright, cheerful sun shone overhead again. We were intoxicated by the lustrous whiteness. We felt no fatigue even after hours of marching. Our legs moved on their own; we inhaled the fresh, pure, crystalline air, and every breath we took brought us more pleasure. Once again we spotted the three peaks of the Wild Emperor, the chasms, valleys, and plains—all blanketed with the virgin snow. The Wild Emperor’s craggy ridge was smoking, and a tiny little cloudlet was drifting very slowly, a helpless creature clambering awkwardly to a hidden nest in some crevice. The higher we climbed, the more peaks emerged, the more new valleys and plains. And far away, the Alps shimmered in the lucid air, leaning against the heavens. At times their silhouettes stood out sharply, at times they looked like a throng of sunlit clouds slowly inching along. The valley of the inn, the river itself, the town, and its surroundings—they all disappeared. We felt torn away from the gray, mundane world that we had abandoned—three people alone amid cliffs and clouds and mountains and snow. Our unusual liveliness needed an outlet, and so we began to sing, to run, to yell. And the echoes answered us from all sides.
Of the three of us, Schwarzwald was the most intoxicated. His euphoria took the wildest forms. He shouted with a voice coming from deep inside him, triggering echoes; he sang and ran, his face was flushed, his eyes sparkled like a lunatic’s. He acted freely with Sonya, like a brother, clutched her hand, straightened her hat, never left her for even a moment. Sonya cavorted with him, and only rarely did she glance at me, as if to say, “Just look at what love is really all about! This is how I want to be loved! Like this!”
As we advanced, other hikers passed us on the way down or caught up with us from below. But since the road kept veering off, we were soon alone once more. Suddenly we heard bizarre shouts that seemed to be coming from off to the side. “Sliding through! Watch out below!” The echoes responded from all around us, and before we even knew what was happening, something came hurtling down the crooked path, a small sled mounted by a red-faced man sweaty from the breakneck speed. He barely had time to swerve by means of the cord he was gripping. The sled crashed into the wall of snow; the man tumbled off and flipped over several times. Then he stood up as if nothing had happened and he spoke to us, half reproachful, half smiling: “You’ve got to get out of the way. I did shout! Didn’t you hear me?”
We apologized and asked if he had hurt himself. He explained that there was absolutely nothing dangerous about taking a spill. At worst, you keep rolling till you hit the bend in the road and then you stand up unscathed. This is a popular Alpine sport called tobogganing. We’d heard about it, but this was the first time we’d witnessed it, and we’d been alarmed at seeing the sled come blasting through. The tobogganist sat down on his sled, coasted off, and quickly vanished. But soon more sleds came dashing toward us, and we jumped out of their way. They flashed by, leaving us dizzy. Some were ridden by couples. A healthy, rosy girl in a Tyrolean costume had her arms wrapped around a man who sat in front of her, steering the toboggan. The girl leaned back to keep her balance, occasionally digging her feet into the snow in order to slow down. We didn’t have enough time to enjoy this cheerful, happy vision, which promptly disappeared. Then, from higher up, we heard more shouts: “Coming through! Watch out below!”
“Why don’t we toboggan back down?” Sonya suddenly asked me.
“You’re not afraid?”
“Are you kidding?” she said.
“What if you take a spill?”
“I’ll get up again.”
I praised her for her courage. She liked the compliment. She gave me a loving glance, squeezed my hand, and said: “I have to return to my escort. I’m sure the Black Shadow misses me. He’s so interesting today. Are you jealous?”
“Should we all ride one toboggan—the three of us?”
“If you like.”
“Great.” She squeezed my hand again and went back to Schwarzwald. Now we were overtaken by another hiker, a tall, brawny Tyrolean with a blond, patriarchal beard—the same man who had whispered to me, “A strong girl.” He slowed down upon reaching us, and we talked about the mountains, about avalanches, about mountain life. He was proud of his countryside and its natural beauty. He told us that a club he belonged to was having a private party at the next inn, and there’d be no room to spend the night; we’d have to toboggan down to the lower inn. He assured us that there was absolutely no risk. We couldn’t possibly get lost. We’d be constantly flanked by the two walls of snow. There was only one place where the wall was low and the path ran along the edge of a cliff, so an inexperienced tobogganist would have to be careful.
He advised us to walk rather than coast that stretch because an accident had occurred there several years ago.
“How deep is it here?” one of us asked. Instead of answering, the Tyrolean grabbed a handful of snow, made a snowball, and hurled it into the abyss. He listened hard, and several seconds passed before we heard the impact.
We reached the spot quickly. The Tyrolean scraped the snow away from the wall, and we saw a stone bearing the carved name of the unfortunate sledder who had soared over the cliff here and the date on which it had happened.
We peered down. The plunge was so deep that we felt dizzy, we were overcome with an instinctive fear; even the distant glare of the white snowy depths barely reached our altitude. Closer to us crags stuck out everywhere. This area was marked on our map as the Devil’s Cavern, a dreadful white abyss that was almost inaccessible. A trail led to it from the other side of the mountain, the Tyrolean informed us, but that trail was now lost in the snow. You could reach it in the summertime, but the cavern was murky even in broad daylight.
“How deep is it here?” one of us asked. Instead of answering, the Tyrolean grabbed a handful of snow, made a snowball, and hurled it into the abyss. He listened hard, and several seconds passed before we heard the impact.
“Nearly seven hundred feet,” he said.
We started feeling a bit cold; an icy, cutting wind began to blow, the sky was dull, the air dark. In its brightest glow the sun had begun trembling with terror. From far away we heard strange noises, like trees being chopped down in the forest. At times we thought a storm was brewing, with thunder rolling under the mountain. Soon the sky was entirely overcast, and the wind blasted clumps of frozen snow into our faces. An avalanche was cascading down the Wild Emperor, and the wind was bringing us a flood of snow that glutted the sky.
“It won’t take long,” the Tyrolean comforted us. “No avalanche’ll hit here.” But he did teach us how to escape if we encountered one. “This is what you do.” He raised his hands and stretched his legs as high as he could. “You swim like this,” he demonstrated. “You swim out of the snow.”
After giving us this advice, he moved on. We soon lost sight of him. Now we were nervous, afraid of being buried alive by an avalanche. How horrible it must be to slowly suffocate under the white mass! A long, ghastly death. There are lost tourists who die in agony like that, over a whole twenty-four hours. And why had the Tyrolean left us? we wondered. He must have wanted to save himself, knowing we couldn’t keep up with him! “Swim like this,” we mentally repeated. And the snow, which had only just enchanted us with its clarity, delighting our eyes and cheering our souls, overwhelming us—that same snow was now a gray, chaotic, appalling mass, created only to destroy.
But our fear was short-lived. The avalanche was gone. Less than ten minutes had passed by. We again had a pure sky, warm rays pouring from the sun. The snow glittered and dazzled, and we felt twice as cheerful as before. Our merriment became euphoric. We sat down on the snowy road and bawled out some song in our loud voices. Isolated from the lower world, we had shaken off its chains. Schwarzwald started using the familiar form with us, and we both took liberties with Sonya. We kissed her, groped her from both sides, like satyrs assaulting a captured nymph in a Rubens painting. She tore herself out of our hands, dragging us along, and suddenly she threw herself into the snow, laughing so raucously that the air boomed around us.
The craggy ridge of the Wild Emperor was still smoking, the cloud grew bigger and bigger, lower and lower, till it lay on the mountaintops that loomed underneath us when we reached our destination—an inn over eight thousand feet high. By now, the thick cloud was at our feet, blanketing all the peaks, the plains, the chasms. But the mountains above us glimmered in their white cloaks, illuminated by the loving sheen of the evening sun.
We had already rested and eaten, and a sweet weariness flowed through our limbs—like everything else around us, this fatigue was different. Instead of making us sleepy, it kept us awake, made us hear and see and move. However, a great change came over Schwarzwald. He lapsed into his deep depression, sat at the table, not saying a word, his head propped on his arm, his gloomy eyes gaping into the distance. We left him there and went outdoors to watch the sun go down. The cloud hovering below us began to redden. Purple stripes emerged wherever the sun could shine through. Soon the purple turned a flaming crimson, and the dense mass seemed to be blazing away. Closer to us the cloud was dark and coated in pale violet. The temperature plummeted. The changes all came unusually fast. The cloud turned into a kaleidoscope of pigments, altering from minute to minute, darkening and brightening. There were pale shadows of pink, red, purple, and violet flitting back and forth, darting about, displacing one another. The sun drew closer, dipping into the cloud as if trying to bathe in the sea of colors. The surrounding mountains stood out, earnest, silent witnesses to a sacred ritual. Their peaks were still brightly lit; they appeared to be admiring the cloud that had developed in their crevices, coming out into the world, spreading, then settling down and gobbling up the sun.
Soon the final sunbeams vanished, but the mountain peaks were still sparkling and glistening. The cloud suddenly darkened. In the very place where the sun had gone down a fire still burned as if on fiery coals.
Oh, how awful his face was! People only look like that the last time you see them, before death blesses them with its tranquility.
The two of us, Sonya and I, stood together mutely, her head on my shoulder. The twilight was gloomy and frosty, the colors were snuffed out, and the cloud was turning grayish black. Only the very tops of the mountains were covered with rosy shadows. Right behind us was the round peak of our mountain. When we looked back, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The peak was draped in a color that we couldn’t describe in mere words. It was a kind of pink blending with violet, soft and frail, like the hues that we see only in dreams. And farther and farther, as far as the eye could reach, the Alpine peaks glowed in the dusk; they were like a choir crooning a hushed melody that trembled and melted in the somber air.
Sonya nestled against me. I felt her breasts squeezing against my body as she slung her arm around my neck and kissed me. Hikers were standing next to us. But it never occurred to them to smirk, nor were we at all embarrassed. Our posture was as simple and lucid as the whole beautiful world around us. Then we spotted Schwarzwald: he stood there gawking at us, his aquiline nose jutted out. He was shivering in the cold. . . . Oh, how awful his face was! People only look like that the last time you see them, before death blesses them with its tranquility. I left Sonya and walked over to him.
“Are you cold?” I asked. He remained silent. “We’ll get warm down below. There’s no place to sleep here.”
“Yeah,” he grumbled vaguely.
We took two sleds, one for him and one for Sonya and me. She was in high spirits; she kept slapping me on the back, laughing and playing. She joked around with Schwarzwald and kept calling him “Black Shadow.”
“Black Shadow, aren’t you scared?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve become a boring fool.” He didn’t reply, but she wouldn’t let up. She was too elated, her mind was swirling with impressions, and now she was about to take a toboggan ride in the middle of the night, shoot down the mountain with me like the Tyrolean girls with their boyfriends. She wanted to talk to Schwarzwald, tease him.
“Are you cold, Schwarzwald?” she asked.
“And what are you gonna do if you spill?”
He kept silent again.
She was already sitting behind me on the sled. I turned and put my hand on her mouth. “Quiet! Enough!” I whispered to her. She burst into wild laughter.
“We’re starting,” I ordered. “Schwarzwald, don’t stick too close to us. If we tumble off, stop; otherwise you’ll crash into us. Well, one, two, three—go!”
Sonya hugged me, and our toboggan slowly began to slide.
“Be careful!” I shouted at Schwarzwald. “When the road bears right, brake with your right foot, and when it bears left, brake with your left foot.”
“And if you fall off, don’t forget to pick yourself up!” Sonya yelled.
It was already dark out. The murky sky was dotted with shiny stars. The mountains were swathed in gray mantles and seemed to be dozing. But the stars twinkled, merry and cheerful, following us on our ride. At first we moved slowly and gingerly, constantly braking. Little by little, we got used to it. For a minute we let the sled go, and it gained momentum. We suddenly felt warm. Then all at once, at the first curve in the road—bang! Our sled crashed into the wall of snow, knocked us off, went coasting along on its own—and didn’t stop until it hit the next bend. We rolled over a few times in the snow, I on Sonya, she on me. And before we even had time to laugh and convince ourselves that we were unhurt—bang again! Schwarzwald crashed into us, flipped, and the three of us went rolling over one another in the snow. Sonya was the first to stand up. She burst into loud, healthy laughter.
Soon we were back on our sleds—and we had another spill. But we very quickly learned how to brake properly, and our trip proceeded, cheerful and happy. Every so often we had to wait for Schwarzwald, who kept lagging behind.
“Hey, hey!” we shouted at him from far away. “Schwarzwald, where are you?”
“Here!” his distant voice replied, but we still couldn’t see him.
Sonya and I changed places. She wanted to steer, and so I threw my arms around her waist, and she let the sled whiz downward with tremendous momentum. The road kept twisting, and we heedlessly soared along one curve after another. We hadn’t heard Schwarzwald in back of us for some time. Suddenly I remembered the Devil’s Cavern, and so, using my leg, I brought the sled to a stop.
“We have to take this stretch on foot,” I said.
But it turned out that we had already raced past the Devil’s Cavern. We hadn’t realized how fast we’d been speeding. Forty minutes later we reached the lower inn, safe and sound. We got off and waited for Schwarzwald.
“Hey, hey! Hey, hey!” we yelled. “Schwarzwald! Schwarzwald!”
No response came. Only echoes from all sides and the stars twinkling overhead.
“Schwarzwald! Where are you?!” I started yelling louder, and my voice trembled. I sensed that something awful had happened. A fear was gnawing at me.
“What could have happened?” Sonya asked. Her trembling voice sounded nasty and agitated.
We doubled back to look for him.
It took a long time, and we felt more scared at each step. We were afraid to talk, to draw closer together. We had long since stopped shouting “Schwarzwald!” His name had acquired a terrible ring, leaving our nerves raw. We walked along separately, each with our dread, searching silently. In the end we found his sled in the middle of the road. Schwarzwald was nowhere to be seen.
Again we started calling, shouting, searching—in vain!
“What could have happened?” Sonya asked. Her trembling voice sounded nasty and agitated.
“I’m scared he fell off,” I said.
“Fell off?” She grabbed her hair and began yelling wildly. “Help! Help! Help!”
I began yelling too, and our voices echoed all around us. Even the mountains seemed to be trembling with fear. I tried striking match after match, but the wind blew out each flame, and my hands kept shaking. It was such a crazy idea to strike a match and light up a seven-hundred-foot chasm. I leaned over and very nearly fell in myself, and Sonya kept yelling and yelling.
People came from higher up. They had heard our shouts and had sledded down with a lantern. Soon it was obvious what had happened. One part of the wall of snow was broken. That was where he had fallen. It was impossible to rescue him. There was no way to climb down there at night—nor would it have helped. Dropping from that altitude, he must have died on impact.
And so our friend died in the mountains.
We arrived down below at the inn, frozen, exhausted, shattered. We had been unable to leave the place where the accident had occurred. It was as if the still-warm corpse of that poor man was lying near us, and all we had to do was hold out our hands and touch him. And perhaps? Who could tell? Perhaps he was still alive and begging for help? We kept walking there, back and forth. We very nearly froze to death ourselves. Eventually our survival instinct made us go back down to the inn, where we rented a room for the night. Sonya didn’t undress. She merely sat on the bed, with her head on my shoulder. I thought she had fallen asleep like that. But then all at once she began sobbing and weeping, loud and hard, and tears as big as raindrops rolled from her eyes. She cried for a long time, and her crying was as fresh and healthy as her laughter, her talking, her entire being. That’s how happy people cry when they try to wash some unhappiness from their souls. She fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. I laid her out on the bed and then went outdoors.
The night was frosty. It was filled with utter hush. The white world was sleeping, and it contained a young life that had just been blotted out.
A wild longing drew me there, to the edge of the cliff, where the depths seemed to promise peace and happiness. I sensed that if I walked up to the brink I would never come back, and so I halted, lost in thought. From the sky above the stars beckoned, and they told me that throughout their eternities it was all the same to them—joy and sorrow, happiness and misery, life and death.
And all the way back to Munich we kept talking about him. It was so strange that only two of us were sitting there instead of the three that had come. Finally I told Sonya what I felt: he hadn’t fallen off, as the newspapers reported. He had jumped.
“And you think he really loved me?” she asked. Her face lit up with that contented, that happy smile of hers.
Oh, that smile!