Slow Homecoming

Peter Handke; Translated by Ralph Manheim

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Slow Homecoming
The Long Way Around
Then, as I stumbled headlong down the path, there was suddenly a form ...
One /
The Primordial Forms
Sorger had outlived several of those who had become close to him; he had ceased to long for anything, but often felt a selfless love of existence and at times a need for salvation so palpable that it weighed on his eyelids. Capable of a tranquil harmony, a serene strength that could transfer itself to others, yet too easily wounded by the power of facts, he knew desolation, wanted responsibility, and was imbued with the search for forms, the desire to differentiate and describe them, and not only out of doors ("in the field"), where this often tormenting but sometimes gratifying and at its best triumphant activity was his profession.
At the end of the working day, in the light-gray gabled wooden house at the edge of the mainly Indian settlement in the Far North of the other continent, which for some months had been serving him and his colleague Lauffer as both laboratory and dwelling, he slipped the protective covers on the microscopes and binoculars he had been using alternately and, his face still distorted by the frequent changes from short view to long view and back, passed through the episodic space created by the sunset light and the hovering woolly-white seeds of the dwarf poplars, an after-work corridor, as it were, to "his" beach.
A clay platform so low that he could have jumped off. There began the immense realm of the glittering river, extending to the whole circle of the horizon, flooding the continental shelf from east to west and at the same time meandering northward and southward through the sparsely settled but to all intents and purposes uninhabited lowlands. Narrowed, because it was the dry season and the glaciers had stopped melting, behind first a broad bank of gravel and shale and then a muddy slope, the river at Sorger's feet sent long, light sea waves beating against the land.
Another thing that made the valley look like a body of standing water was that it reached out to the horizon on all sides but that, because of the river's meanderings, the lines of the horizon were formed not by streams flowing from east to west but by dry land, by the banks of that bend in the river surmounted by dwarf poplars and the tops of primeval conifers, which, though in reality sparse and stunted, seemed from a distance to form serried files.
True, this apparent lake, bounded on all sides by land that looked to be flat, flowed at a speed hard to estimate, silently and quite smoothly except for the bathtub-like lapping of the waves on the muddy beach--one might have said a foreign body, filling the entire plain, mirrored yellow by the sunset sky, perceptible at first glance only as wetness, dotted here and there with island specks and sandbanks, they too lying flat in the hazy evening air. Only the eddies that formed over unseen depressions in the sand-and-gravel riverbed, swiftly circling funnels in the otherwise metallic yellow surface, were not yellow but, because of their sharper angle to the sky, a remote daylight blue from within which, amid the almost silent flow, soft brooklike gurglings could be heard.
Sorger was buoyed by the thought that the months he had spent observing this wilderness, learning (approximately) its forms and their genesis, had made it his own private domain. Destructive as they may have been (and still were) in the objective world, the forces that went to make up this landscape, in becoming present to him along with the great flowing water, its eddies and rapids, without mental effort, through the perceptive process alone, were transformed by their own laws into a benign inner force, which calmed him and gave him strength. He believed in his science, because it helped him to feel whatever place he was in; far from putting him off, his consciousness of standing on a flat beach while the opposite shore, miles away and scarcely visible through the islands, was slightly steeper, and of being able to attribute this strange asymmetry to the rotation of the earth, gave him the feeling that the planet earth was a civilized, homelike, intelligible place, a feeling that made his mind playful and his body resilient.
This state of mind was also favored by the fleeting thought that while poplar seeds were drifting through the air, the pebbles on the riverbed were at the same time shifting unseen, rolling or slowly leaping over one another, enveloped in clouds of mud and propelled by waves deep below the surface which he could sense rather than infer. Wherever he was, Sorger tried to experience minute burlesque processes of this kind, which sometimes merely amused him but sometimes aroused him and filled his whole being.
For some years--since he had been spending most of his time alone--he had felt the need to sense the place where he was at the moment: to know distances, apprehend angles of inclination; to gain some idea of the composition and stratification of the soil he was standingon, at least down to a certain depth; to supply himself, by measurement and delimitation, with spaces which were hardly more than "forms on paper" but which, for a short while at least, enabled him to construct himself and make himself invulnerable.
Sorger needed nature, but not only in its "unspoiled" state; in big cities, for example, he was satisfied to gain awareness of scarcely perceptible asphalt-covered humps and hollows, gentle rises and falls in the pavement, of church floors or stone stairs, worn with the steps of the centuries; or, visiting an unknown high-rise building, to fancy himself passing vertically through all the floors from roof to basement, and, finally, to daydream its granite foundations--until, in the end, orientation and the breathing space (and hence self-confidence) indispensable to life engendered each other.
He had the ability (not constant, to be sure, but sporadic and accidental, though his profession made the accident possible and gave it some constancy) to call upon those parts of the world to which he had become accustomed in his work for help, or merely to conjure them up for the entertainment of himself and others, with all their specifications, their degrees of longitude and latitude, their light and wind conditions, their planetary conjunctions, as eternally peaceful images, belonging to everyone and no one, and betokening events still to be imagined.
In every new scene, which might at first sight seem surveyable in its uniformity or picturesque in its contrasts, but in either case intelligible, this moment of naive familiarity was followed, often definitively, by a bewildered sense, akin to a loss of balance, of once again confronting a mere stage set, and a familiar one at that, further intensified by a sense of guilt at being, here too, "out ofplace." In the course of time, it had therefore become a passion with Sorger, while enduring this first feeling of emptiness, to win back these quickly squandered places by observing and taking notes. Unable, because he had long been nowhere at home, to recapture his self within his own four walls after such touristic humiliations by regions of the earth, he saw each new place as his only hope; if he did not (often reluctantly) commit himself to it through hard work, there would be no refuge for him in the scenes of his past--but then with luck, in times of exhaustion, all his localities joined together, the particular, freshly conquered one with those that had gone before, and formed a dome encompassing heaven and earth, a sanctuary, which was not only private but also open to others.
After his initial irritation with a nature too quick to promise itself and even quicker to withdraw, Sorger was obliged, on pain of losing himself, to immerse himself in it. He was obliged to take the environing world seriously in the least of its forms--a groove in the rock, a change of color in the mud, a windblown pile of sand at the foot of a plant--as seriously as only a child can do, in order to keep himself, who scarcely belonged anywhere, who was nowhere at home, together, for whom he had no idea; there were times when this cost him a furious effort at self-conquest.
For whom was he keeping himself together? Sorger knew that in devoting himself to his science he was to some extent practicing a religion. It was his work that enabled him, time and again, to enter into relationships, to choose and be chosen. By whom? No matter, as long as he was choosable.
Indeed, his study of the earth's forms, carried on without fanaticism but so intensely that little by little hegained awareness of his own form in the process, had thus far saved his soul by differentiating him from the Great Formlessness and its dangerous moods and caprices.
And what of others? Thus far in his profession Sorger had done no work expressly useful to anyone, let alone benefiting a community; he had neither drilled for oil nor predicted an earthquake nor even contributed to a construction project by testing the solidity of the subsoil. But of one thing he was sure--without the effort he made to endure the strangeness of every region of the earth, to read the landscape with the available means and give an orderly account of his reading, he would not have been fit company for anyone.
He did not believe in his science as a kind of nature religion; on the contrary, his always "measured" practice of his profession (in the eyes of the chaotic and often charmingly erratic Lauffer, Sorger's work was always "made to measure") was at the same time an exercise in trusting the world, for the measured quality of his technical manipulations but also his personal, everyday movements resided in his constant attempt at meditation, which sometimes made him fumble majestically about in such places as bathrooms, kitchens, and tool sheds. Sorger's faith was directed at nothing; when successful, it merely enabled him to participate in "its object" (a stone with a hole in it, or perhaps only a shoe on the table, or a thread on the lens of his microscope) and endowed him, who at such times was able, despite his frequent anguish, to feel like a real scientist, with humor. And then, caught up in a gentle vibration, he would simply look at his world more closely.
At such times of selfless tenderness (in his fleeting moments of hope he thought himself a fool) Sorger was not godlike; he just knew, for a brief moment--but onethat could be perpetuated with the help of forms--what was good and beautiful.
He longed, it is true, for a faith directed at something, though he could not conceive of a God; but in moments of distress he noticed that he positively thirsted--an automatic compulsion?--to share in the thought of God. (Sometimes he tried to be pious--he did not succeed; but then he was sure that "the gods" understood him.)
Did he envy the unflagging believers, the hosts of the already saved? In any event, he was touched by their freedom from moods, their easy transitions between gravity and good cheer, their enduring, benevolent, good extroversion; often enough he himself was simply not good, and to this he could not resign himself; too often he greeted some new object with loquacious enthusiasm and almost immediately thereafter turned away from it in silent revulsion--instead of responding to it once and for all with overarching humor.
Nevertheless, he could not hobnob with believers. He understood them, but he could not speak their language, because he had no language or because in his exceptional states of credulity he would have spoken a language foreign to them; in the "dark night of their faith," where there was no speaking in tongues, they could not have understood him.
On the other hand, for all his conviction, Sorger never ceased to regard the linguistic formulas of his science as a hoax; the rites in which it apprehended the landscape, its conventions of description and nomenclature, its conception of time and space, struck him as dubious. Having to use a language that had grown out of the history of mankind to describe the different movements and formations of the earth still made his head swim, and often he found it quite impossible to take account of time alongwith the places he had set out to investigate. He suspected the possibility of an entirely different schema for representing the correlation between time and geological formations, and saw himself smiling craftily, as the over-turners of systems have always done (that had struck him in all their photographs), and he foisted his own little hoax on the world.
And so Sorger, his thoughts made playful by his after-work elation, was able, while contemplating the yellow wilderness, to sense the desolation of a man who, without faith in the power of forms or rendered incapable of such faith by ignorance, might find himself, as in a nightmare, confronting this part of the world alone: his horror face to face with the Evil One at the irrevocable end of the world, unable to die of loneliness then and there--since there would no longer be a then and there--or even to be carried off by Satan--for even such names would have ceased to exist--but doomed to die of horror, for time, too, would have ceased to exist. The fluvial plain and the wide, flat sky over it suddenly looked to him like the two shells of an open bivalve, emanating the terrible, the poignantly voluptuous seduction of those who have died since the beginning of time.
Involuntarily, wrenched away from his play, Sorger--as though he had been his own double, as though exposed for all time to whirling emptiness on his outcropping of clay, marl, and possibly gold dust--turned toward the civilized hinterland, where the bushy light-colored tails of watchdogs could be seen wagging in the shrubbery, where tufts of grass growing on the earthen roofs of Indian huts glittered, and where the "eternally other"--his name at the moment for his colleague Lauffer--in mud-caked high boots and characteristic multi-pocketed jacket, a sparkling magnifying glass hanging from his neck (hehad just come in from his fieldwork), was standing on the topmost wooden step outside the gabled house, his face and torso still in the sun, in the first perplexity of return to a place where he only happened to be living, for a time stiffly and awkwardly imitating Sorger's stance, like Sorger looking out over the great fluvial plain, smoking a cigarette--a strangely helpless figure, with the same pinched look on his face as the row of Indians lined up outside.
The familiarity between these two friends expressed itself not in chumminess but in a politeness that was almost diffident. Subject as they were to moods, the outburst of moodiness that might occasionally have done them good was not possible. Though they were obliged to share their workroom, it was only at first that they felt in each other's way; in the bedroom as well--the house consisted only of those two rooms--each had his place without need of planning. A certain neighborliness was taken for granted, yet it seemed accidental when they did anything together; each went about his own affairs and even in the house each had his own itineraries. They didn't really eat together; one might be eating a regular meal; the other would sit down with him, and the first would issue an invitation: "Won't you have a glass of wine with me?" If one wanted music, the other wouldn't leave the room; he would stay, showing no express interest and gradually perhaps begin to listen, or even ask to have a piece repeated.
Lauffer was a liar; Sorger, for all his impenetrable calm, was unstable to the point of indifference or even disloyalty. Both suspected, or tacitly recognized, what was bad in the other (sensing it perhaps more uncannily than the person against whom it was directed), both were shrewdly aware that they were capable at any time of behavinglike scoundrels to someone else, but--so precious had their companionship become to them over the years--never to each other. Each with his friend thought of himself as kindly, never as wicked.
They were not "a couple," not even by contrast; but in the course of time, even when separated, they had become partners, a team, though not unconditional allies; each remained capable of friendship with the other's enemies.
True, Lauffer, the liar, had no enemies; his lying was noticed only by occasional women, who then, however, as though privy to a tragic secret, would ally themselves with him to the death, claiming him exclusively for themselves and excluding all others from their relationship.
Everyone liked him, though he made no effort to ingratiate himself; everyone called him by his first name even in his absence, and not only here on the American continent, where this was customary. True, his friends ran him down, but always in the tone of one deploring the shortcomings of one's hero; they would never have allowed an outsider to attack him. Despite his physical bounciness--when he forced himself to sit still in the presence of Sorger, who was often deep in thought, he gave the impression of a jumping jack on its good behavior--his massive bulk, which struck one as more jocosely fraternal than athletic, suggested a happy unity, a restlessly mobile center in which others were eager to participate; liar or not, there was something reliable about him: people were always relieved, or perhaps just glad to see him, even when he looked in only for a moment.
He didn't lie to please himself; lying was his response to the hopes of his well-wishers--everyone wished him well--who expected him to draw them into his center,hopes which of course he could not fulfill for long but could not bring himself to disappoint. In this situation he would lie shamelessly, obscenely. The fact is that, without meaning to, Lauffer collected misfits and for that reason found himself condemned to a blandness in which he did not recognize himself. He was not sexless and not without passion, but in secret--a hero to himself in an entirely different way than to those who called themselves his friends--he pursued the dream or delusion of greatness.
"I would like to be dangerous like you," he said, while sitting in the house with Sorger, at an evening meal which as usual had come about by chance.
The table stood by the screenless window, at the center of which, traversed by river and the evening sky, was a rectangle with long, dark stripes; above and below, a deepening black (cloud bank and dry land). Now and then, a mosquito would come in, reeling rather than flying. But the mosquitoes had stopped biting; they would just settle on the back of your hand and stay there.
The meal consisted of light-brown mushrooms gathered "in the field" (they had absorbed some of the dampness of the soil, and tasted rather like Chinese mushrooms); whitish chunks of salmon bought from the Indians; and the last oversized potatoes from the somewhat disorderly garden on the east, lee side of the house. They drank a wine bought at the Trading Post, as the settlement market called itself, so cold that its sweetness, in conjunction with the bitter mushrooms and the fish, was pleasant for a time.
This was one of the first days of autumn in a house whose absence of mystery, the practical anonymity of its furnishings and utensils, made for an easy, homelike feeling. It was only when looking out, even absently, intothe open that one was likely to know the exalting yet terrifying sensation of flight into the Great North; and even without looking out, as you sat eating and drinking, a strange light might fall on the corners of one's eyes and play unceasingly on the objects roundabout, yet their intrinsic glow was manifested only by the incredible inner jolt you felt when it came to you that you were "far, far away," on another continent.
The black-and-white spotted cat that came with the house settled on the table after eating the leftover fish--the wooden walls were too thin to allow of a window seat--and looked out at the bushes on the riverbank, which were blowing furiously in the evening wind; now and then, its otherwise motionless head or paw would follow a contrary movement in the bushes.
The surface of the water was still yellow. The wind was blowing upstream, stirring up ripples that moved eastward as if the river were flowing in that direction; only at the edges of the picture was the real current visible in great, compact, night-black swirls, which looked as if someone had thrown a mess of tripe into the water. Far below in the west, now half in the shadow of the bank, a dark shape rose up from the surface of the water, rose and fell with a rhythmic, creaking sound that invaded the house and filled the entire countryside. The water level was falling, and this was one of the last days on which the Indians could operate their big wooden fish wheels, which, driven by the current, filled with salmon overnight.
Beyond the wheel, where the river pursued its northward meander, a jagged line of stunted virgin pines seemed to form the arc of a lagoon. Since the tops of the few taller trees towered above the long, flat horizon, one had the impression, when looking into the distance beyondthe lagoon formed by the river islands, of seeing the spires of Venice against a cloudless sky. In this fully darkened city, the details of which could be seen only in the reflection of the light-colored river water, rifle shots would sometimes ring out, or a lost dog might bark. But perhaps these were mere echoes, carrying village sounds back to the village, where the dogs, for the most part kept in packs, barked until late into the night.
A boat, in which no one could be seen because the occupants were kneeling or crouching, glided from the darkness of the lagoon into what remained of the light, trailing an inky-blue wake. A rifle shot fired across the water, as though from ambush, grazed but barely ruffled the smooth surface, then ricocheted into an island thicket, flushing a few crows.
Early in the night, Sorger drove Lauffer's jeep along the rocky shore on his way to see the Indian woman, who never expected him but ministered to him, sometimes with good-natured irony, and sometimes even with a certain dignified satisfaction. Ahead of him in the potholes lay a row of no longer sparkling but still pale-bright puddles, which seemed to merge with the likewise pale-bright surface of the river. And this surface itself, broken here and there by sandbanks, was not self-contained but melted without perceptible dividing line into the luminous strip of sky which covered the whole distant horizon as though to symbolize the Arctic Circle. The thin black ribbon of cloud in it might equally well have been the farthermost islands in the fluvial plain, and the last stretches of bright sky framing the clouds might have been the westward-flowing river.
Sorger stopped; he wanted to capture this event in space and hold it fast. But already there was no morespace before him, only a gently rising openness without foreground or background, not empty but ardently material. Alive to the pitch-black night sky above and behind him and to the deep-black earth beside and below him, thoroughly aroused, Sorger tried to prevent this natural phenomenon and the self-forgetfulness it engendered from passing, by frantically thinking the contradictory details out of the picture--until perspective, vanishing points, and a pitiful loneliness set in. For a moment he had felt the strength to propel his whole self into the bright horizon and there dissolve forever into the undifferentiated unity of sky and earth. Driving on, he sat stiff, dissociating his body from the mechanism of the car, and barely touched the top of the wheel, as if it had nothing to do with him.
Roads without names led past huts without numbers. Some of the windows were already covered with sheepskins for the winter. The elk antlers over the front steps looked enormous and very white in the beam of the headlights. In the dark space under the huts, which were raised on wooden blocks, moved the shadows of the miscellaneous objects stored there. The airstrip along the edge of the forest, a rocky field that narrowed in the headlight beam, lay deserted, edged on both sides by short-stemmed red marker lights. A stray dog raised gleaming eyes from a hole in the ground. In this lost outpost, which could not be reached by road--or by ship for that matter, but only by plane----there were nevertheless any number of roads that went a little way into the forest and broke off when they came to the swamps. At least one car went with every house, even for the shortest distances the inhabitants used their cars, zigzagging in and out of the bushes at top speed, hurling great blobs of mud fromthe roads, which never dried out, against the trees and the walls of the huts. In this country, which though flat derived each day a rough, bony, cutting quality from all its objects, plants, animals, and people, the Indian woman (as Sorger always called her in his thoughts, even when he was with her) took on for him an inviting, coolly-bright smoothness. "Smoothness" might have been his pet name for her.
In the season when there was virtually no dark night, they had met in the bar attached to the market and she had asked him to dance. At first, as she showed him the movements, her wide, unexpectedly delicate body (he didn't know where to put his hands) had troubled him and aroused him in a way he himself had not wanted; she, on the other hand, found everything about him normal. In any case she accepted him; her smoothness was alluring, her indulgence contagious.
She was determined to keep her relations with the outsider secret from the members of her tribe--actually, there were hardly any tribes left, only relics drinking beer and listening to cassette music in the huts, and in the woods behind them the great grave mounds of the old cemeteries. As a Health Department nurse, in sole charge of the settlement's supplies of medicine, she would otherwise have lost the confidence of her people; she would "get body odor," "frogs would jump out of her cheeks" and infect the village with mysterious diseases, and if that happened, they'd have to kill her "with stone scissors." Her husband, a nonswimmer like so many inhabitants of these latitudes, had been drowned while fishing in the river; time and again she dreamed of pulling a feathered mask out of the water.
Outside her house stood a totem pole, bright with color in the beam of the headlights: her two children's bicyclewas leaning against it. Through the curtainless window he first saw her round forehead, which he interpreted as so intimate a greeting and welcome that without waiting for her signal he went right in, sure that the children were already asleep.
The one child, sexless in its deep slumber, had gently closed its mouth on the crook of the other sleeping child's elbow, and the large, half-darkened but not somber room seemed separate from the rest of the house, a place accessible only to them. The shadows of the waving bushes outside moved over the walls. And nevertheless--watching her, giving in, resolutely transforming himself into her fantastic machine (as she did into his), and, more than "making her happy," sharing in her durable pride--he did not regard himself as a deceiver, but saw the deception as an ineluctable phenomenon for which he was in no way responsible.
It was not only that with her he had to speak a foreign language (foreign also to her), in which he had another voice than his own. More fundamental than this particularity, which perhaps concerned them alone, was the discrepancy between inactive desire--here he knew himself and his partner to be in a state of perfection--and its physical accomplishment, which had to end one way or another, with the anticipation of a triumph that always failed to materialize. Each time it seemed to be the one thing that counted, and then it counted for so little. The anticipated union did not prevent desire, but reduced it to an abrupt, unstable instantaneity, and through its very weakness made for a guilty conscience, followed by a total lapse of conscience. In other words, he did not love her; he knew that he shouldn't have come to see her, and when he was with her his indecision made him actbrusquely. How was it that he could not see himself embracing anyone, but always alone?
He would have liked to love her in his language and through his language, but instead he merely stared at her menacingly, until after the first surprise--and not just to please him--she felt afraid. He toyed with the thought of killing her; or at least of stealing or breaking something; after all, no one knew he was there. "I hate this century," he said finally, and she answered slowly, as though reading his future: "Yes, you are healthy and perhaps you are doomed."
She didn't know where he came from and laughed at the inconceivable notion that there might be another continent. Had the stripe in the sky at last disappeared? The generator hummed in its tin shelter behind the house, and in a placeless darkness, beyond all degrees of latitude and longitude, puddles of water trembled and whirled around in a circle. White yarrow blossoms curled in the frost; clumps of yellow camellias became aerial photographs of burning forests. From deep within Sorger, an alarm bell signaling disorientation passed through the dark silent lowlands, farther and farther northward--which way was north just then?--as far as the alluvial tundra, where it shattered a cone of ice that had formed a thousand years before but could not be recognized as ice under its sheathing of sand and gravel; and now a crater would form with a lake in it, as if there had been a small volcano up there, so close to the pole. The river behind the house flowed only on the surface; just below, seizing and quickly encapsulating the flowing branches and leaves, a smooth sheet of ice filled the riverbed from source to mouth, giving the water the appearance of glass. The foreheads of many people lay on the cool enameledge of a washbasin, and that night these children in bed would not turn over again. Lauffer, standing, reading a letter--hadn't this been mail day?--holding the paper more with the pads of his palms than with his fingers, a slightly tilted basket of fruit on the sofa beside him, glanced now and then at the cat, which didn't let him out of its sight but finally dozed off. The wind roared over the empty beer cans in the bushes outside, and at the same time the primeval wind, which had gathered the soil on which the hut was now standing, set up an Aeolian roaring in his head. Sorger could literally taste the unreality compounded of so many simultaneous irreconcilables, which condensed around him and would soon blow him away; and again it would be his own fault. "I have to go home. I have to sleep." He struck his head with his fist: a prayer, of sorts, which actually worked. The hallucination passed; his spatial sense came back. "What do you see?" the Indian woman asked. He felt a liking for her in the corners of his eyes. He hugged her and meant it. She held him close, and when he looked up he noticed for the first time that the expressionlessness of her face, in which he foresaw a beautiful old age, was perfect sympathy.
While she was ministering to him, Sorger listened to a long story about someone who seduced a sleeping woman by giving her copper to smell. She saw him to the door and then, in a good humor, he drove home through the friendly Arctic night. His premature fatigue, which had burst upon him "like a deviation from the vertical," brought on in part by the effort of speaking a foreign language, had never been. The gabled wooden house glowed in the darkness. From a distance he transferred its color, shape, and material to himself in the form of energy (the riverbehind the embankment had become a soft plashing). Entering, he felt enterprising, filled with a passionate urge to investigate nature, though all he actually did in the deserted laboratory--Lauffer was already asleep in the other room--was to settle down with a glass of wine and, holding the cat in his lap, project a vision of order and clarity into the near-darkness without and within.
At length, letting himself go in his own language, he said to the cat: "Revered demonic animal, giant eye, eater of raw meat. Fear not. No one is stronger than we are, no one can harm us. On the other side of the window, hostile water is flowing, but we sit here in our element. We have been lucky up until now. I am not entirely weak, not entirely powerless. I am capable of freedom. I want success and I want adventure. I would like to teach the landscape to be rational and the heavens to mourn. Do you understand that? And I am restless."
They both looked out into the night, the cat far more attentively than the man, the orifice under its upraised tail turned toward him like a burning eye. A wind unusual for the region thundered outside, and inside made the wood of the silent house creak. Sorger sat motionless until he felt he was weighing his brain with his skull--scales designed to make what they weighed weightless. A nervous flutter circled his head as though wings were beating under his skin; and then came a total calm, in which everything could be said with the words: "Night--Window--Cat." The cold and the wind outside were a blessing to Sorger's lungs.
He lifted the cat by the forepaws, making it stand stretched on its hind legs, and put his ear to its mouth: "Now say something. Stop pretending, you sanctimonious quadruped, you parentless monster, you childlessthief. Make an effort. Everyone knows you can talk."
He held the little round skull pressed to his ear and stroked the body more and more violently, until his hand was stroking the skeleton through the fur.
The distressed cat didn't move; it scarcely breathed; its eyes became round and glassy, and the man's image appeared in the slits. After a long while, it began to pant and finally, along with a puff of warm air, poured a brief plaint into Sorger's ear, expressive not of pain but of desperation followed by appeasement; that done, it patted him on the face with one paw, almost like a domestic pet.
"Absurd beast," said the tormentor, "satanic creature of the night, slavishly available metaphor."
The cat scratched him; then, when he let it go, used his knee as a jumping-off place and crawled under the carpet, forming a motionless bump.
At first Sorger had a sensation of coolness on his cheek; a little later the scratch began to bleed. Behind the fugitive animal the furniture was still creaking. On the table in front of Sorger the brown tip of a compass needle trembled, and in the adjoining room, tossing and turning in his bed as though unable to find his place, the other man was talking in his sleep. Or could he be singing? But what was there to celebrate? How easy it was to give oneself away. How ready one was to speak. How beautiful by contrast was the cat's reserve. Be silent, man. Dawn, age of silence.
Beside the compass lay a letter for him from Europe, which he had not yet opened. (To see what smoke arising from what country?) And how much else had he missed in just this one day? A sense of inexpiable guilt more played with him than took hold of him, but since it was only a vague intimation he could not repent or makereparation. "Never again," he said. This was the hour of sleep-heavy night resolutions: "That was the day when for the last time he ..." He what? A heat so stifling that it almost stank weighed briefly on the room and on the man still sitting obstinately awake; it was the consciousness of insatiable privation and infinite incapacity. He had no right to his scientific instruments; no right to look at the river; and it was dishonest of him to let himself be embraced. Now Lauffer was really singing in his sleep. "Comical fellow man, ridiculous self, laughing witness." Something was wrong, always had been, with all of them; they were cheats without exception. The night became a solid body pressing against the windowpanes from outside; and now Sorger saw himself as someone really dangerous, because he wanted to lose everything and himself as well.
Of course he had long been acquainted with these no-man's -land states; they were dispelled by sleep or the next day's fresh air; besides, the cat came out from under the carpet and, while Sorger was getting ready for bed, ran across his path several times in token of affection. "As you see," he said to the cat, "I'm going to bed." And he added: "Rejoice, dear animal, that you have a home." In the storm the house flew through the darkness, and Sorger looked forward to the morning light. "If only I could live for a while with animals. They don't sweat, and they don't whine about their condition ..."
But, along with the need for silence, wasn't there such a thing as joy in a spontaneous outcry, in the pure act of crying out? For not only did it demonstrate absence of guilt; it also restored the radiant innocence that one could live with forever and ever.
Sorger had no outcry to make, not in any language. In his half sleep it became clear to him that another dayhad passed in which he had postponed something that it would soon be impossible to postpone any longer. A decision was due, and that decision was in his power, or perhaps not--in any case, it was up to him to bring it about.
Breathing deeply--without moving, he saw himself striking a pose--he felt a longing for such a decision, an almost indignant expectancy and impatience; and the strange, for Sorger unprecedented, and at the moment of falling asleep not at all funny thing about this phenomenon was that in it he did not feel alone but for the first time in his life felt that he belonged to a people. In this moment, he not only represented the many but committed himself to their demand--the demand that united them and gave them life--for a decision.
For a moment he even saw the uniform window patterns of whole complexes of high-rise buildings as congealed expectation machines which had been let into those barren walls for this sole purpose and not to admit light or air. Unusually for him in his half sleep, he had before him no uninhabited landscapes but instead, very close to him, many passing faces, sorrowful, and not at all plebeian. Not a single one of them was known to him, but taken together they formed a living multitude, to which he belonged.
Was he prepared for a decision? He didn't know; and would never find out unless he took the leap.
But what decision? Now almost asleep, he saw but one answer: a silent picture of himself sitting in a small room in a tall building, a round-shouldered, hardworking public servant; and the composite window fronts beckoned to him from beyond a large body of water, which separated him from everything.
A strange desire came over him to exert himself to thepoint of exhaustion; and he saw himself, in the event that he lacked the strength, disappearing into an arcade which led him on into a refuge, still closed at the moment. A great deal was at stake, but something very different from life and death.
Warmth spread through his whole body, and he found himself in the hollow of his limp open hand. Contented, he was aware of his male organ, but without excitement; at the same time he felt hunger and greed. The cat jumped up on the bed and lay down at his feet; "an animal in the house." The narrow cot was just right for him. In the next room Lauffer was laughing in his sleep; or was that he himself? The wind outside became a cloud. Doubled up in her bed, the Indian woman was forgetting him, forgetting everyone, even her children. (And now she, too, was right for him.)
During the day, in the "township" (as his chosen terrain, the square of wilderness that had become his "field of operations," was called), his work made him one with himself and the landscape, but at night, asleep on his iron cot, Sorger remained alive to his remoteness from Europe and his "forebears." What he perceived then was not the unthinkable distance between himself and another point but himself as a distant one (guilty of being far away). His sleep was disturbed by no image of this other point, only by a constant awareness of not sleeping in his own bed. Conscious in his sleep of being wrenched out of place, he never, though years had passed since his change of continents, enjoyed a quiet, homelike sleep; immediately on closing his eyes (a moment against which he invariably struggled), he began to gravitate, growing steadily heavier and more clodlike, toward a magnetic horizon. And what happened then?
A group of screeching, drunken Indians were standing around a fire on the riverbank. One reeled back and fell, still clutching a bottle, into the smooth swift current and sank; but instantly the dreamer jumped in after him. He didn't come up again, and no one paid attention to his disappearance.
Seen in bird's-eye view (from a low-flying helicopter, for instance), the river was so transparent at its surface that below it, as though framed in clear, still water, the brownish-yellow clouds of mud became a self-contained image of turbulent power pulsating upward from the riverbed, rolling westward, and filling the whole breadth of the stream.
Over these clouds, but just below the transparent surface, drifted, unrecognizable from the shore, dark tree trunks, for the most part birches, stripped and blackened by the current, occasionally veiled momentarily by a surge of mud. Clearly visible from the bank were singly drifting dwarf pines, weighed down at one end by their roots, so that the tops would intermittently rise above the surface and dive down again.
A few tree trunks, diverted to the shallower spots, anchored their roots in the bottom, so that only their spreading crowns could be seen.
No more cries; in the gray of dawn, the river arched, becoming a quiet bay in an otherwise turbulent ocean. Occasionally, breeze-blown ripples crept darkly in all directions.
A dead pink salmon had been washed up on the sandy shore, a faint color in the rigid recumbent darkness, over which, strictly separate, lay a pale sky with a colorless moon that seemed to have fallen over backward. The fish, which lay lopsidedly bloated on the sand made muddy by the dew, as though tossed at random into the coldearly-morning landscape, seemed to form a companion piece to the bloated mounds enclosed by white wooden fences in the Indian cemetery on the far side of the huts, whose black and gray walls gave no sign of life except for the humming of generators; the abandoned fire on the riverbank was still smoking.
Many of the countless paths that traversed the settlement did not even connect the huts with one another but merely led around clumps of trees or into the woods, where they broke off or led into tunnels that might be fox earths. The village was surrounded by wilderness; and indeed the whole region, including the village, was largely wilderness. The area had never been cleared; fields and meadows were unknown, as were all other features of civilized landscape; apart from construction sites, the natural relief of the earth's surface had rarely been tampered with; even the wider roads followed the irregularities of the terrain, which seemed flat only when seen from the air (except for the landing strip, the only level space of any size was the short, wide gravel road, formed by alluvial deposits, which was off-limits to the civilian population and led to an army base in the swamps). And since most of the huts were raised on blocks, the original contours of the earth had been preserved even in the built-up areas, in the little hollows, ditches, and humps under the houses.
As though adapted to the rugged, primeval landscape, the houses scattered through the woods showed no systematic relation to one another; they were placed higgledy-piggledy, without regard for their neighbors, and many not only were far from the road but also faced the other way. An overall view of the colony was nowhere obtainable, though it was known to be the only settlementfar and wide. Each dwelling seemed to appear out of the void, as though nothing came after it.
Only from a plane might one have unexpectedly discovered the design of an almost charming little town between river and virgin forest, a rectangular network of streets traversed by a diagonal avenue, a kind of Broadway--an ideal spot, civilized yet elemental, with here and there a brass doorknob sparkling in the morning light while at the same time mist arose from the measureless light-brown pine forest.
True, this friendly, fertile-looking valley--the bushy little conifers might have been grapevines--showed no sign of field or meadow (their absence seemed incredible at first sight), and the great overland road leading into the horizon was also absent. (Seen from the air, most of the huts, surrounded as they were by beaten-up cars and rusty electrical generators, were transmuted into vandalized garbage cans.)
Except for the white wooden church, the gabled house was the tallest structure in the region; it alone had an attic, which the present tenants occasionally used as a darkroom; the gable was useful as a landmark, because even within the village area it was only too easy to lose one's way among the swamps and thickets.
Sorger got up early, eager to be doing something. The sun had not yet risen, but the smooth pebbles on the shore road where he was standing were already glistening and a nearby sandbank, marked with swollen lines composed of leaves, bits of branches, and pine needles, showed how the water level had fallen overnight. There was a nip in the air, but he wasn't cold; all kinds of weather made him feel good, as long as he could be out in the air and active.
Even in his work, he preferred drawing to photography,because it was only through drawing that he came to understand the landscape in all its forms; he was invariably surprised to see how many forms revealed themselves in what seemed at first sight to be a dull and monotonous vista. A place took on meaning for him only when he drew it line for line--as faithfully as possible, without the schematizations and omissions that had become customary in his science--and it was only then that he could claim with a clear conscience, if only to himself, to have been there.
As usual at that time of year, the river valley was deserted, yet on that morning, which might have arisen out of the depths of the earth, it seemed everywhere to have caught fresh fire from that short period at the turn of the century when, traveled by side-wheelers, parceled out by trading companies, swarming with gold diggers, it had made its mark on history: all that had passed irrevocably into plastic sieves from the phony Trading Post, into miniature dog sleds carved by Indian home workers, and inscriptions on tombstones, effaced more quickly than in other regions by the radical extremes of the weather. But in this moment it formed a conscious, eternal current in the timeless, unconscious river. In perceiving it, Sorger felt cheered and comforted and eager to accomplish something.
The firm, smooth paper of his drawing pad; for the alternation of thin and thicker lines, a drawing pencil sharpened to an asymmetrical cone; the beautiful first glow of a cigarette; a windless day, in which the smoke did not fly away but sank slowly to the ground.
The first colors in the landscape were objects in their own right: a gravel red, an oil-drum blue, an ash-leaf yellow, a birch-tree white. Little burst puffballs in the grass. Elsewhere a hairy poppy stem, whose flower wasnot red but a wonderful silken yellow. The locusts--bushes rather than trees--had dark thorns all over them. The flaming-red rowan berries, icier than snowballs inside; you can feel the sting in the palm of your hand. The brick-red willow bark, as though to bind a book with. The brown shaggy bearskin nailed to a shed.
The first movements were the clouds of mist just over the river, drifting eastward. Sand martins darted out of holes in the clay embankment and soon turned back. The black mongrels, rooting about in the shore rubbish, proved to be giant crows, which rose into the air with a whirring of wings, circled around the man, and flew away with raucous cries; one came back again, this time without a sound, and flew over the standing man, so low that its wingbeats sounded like a flapping fan belt.
Almost all the fish washed ashore during the night had been eaten; here and there the picked-out eyes had left their imprints in the soft sand. A stray dog ambling down the beach was silvery gray, its head white from the bluish eyes down: a real face. He dragged a dead sea gull back and forth over the sand, crunching it--that was the only sound far and wide--with his side teeth. The chained village dogs emerged from their underground kennels and ran as far as they could, whining and yapping with still-tamed violence.
Then came the usual sounds of morning traffic: not a single car driving over dry land, but several small planes rose above the bushes, and the hum of others could be heard from beyond the river. "You must know that no one ever abandoned himself to such an extent in this life that he might not have abandoned himself still more."
Whom was he to honor? Wasn't that what he needed--someone to honor? Didn't he want to be independent?Where was the person for whom he could do something? Where was he at this very moment?
The beer cans, which in addition to being crushed flat had been ground into the road, seemed to demonstrate extreme violence and a despair, which he had never known but could now suspect, over an insurmountable privation and a stony absence, that had set every last dog in the village to howling with murderous fury.
His colleague Lauffer, already uniformed in his coat of many pockets and his high boots, was trotting back and forth in the background, playing basketball with himself with the help of a windblown net that had been fastened over the door of the house. Sorger started running, snatched the ball from his friend, and joined in the game.
Far away in the flatlands, the sun rose slowly, darkening the landscape with deep shadows: a darkness, or rather a gloom, which would persist all day, with barely shrinking and barely moving pits of shadow among the trees and bushes; and on the spot, from the moment when Sorger joined in the game, time transformed itself, as on an open stage, into a dimly sunny space, without particular events, without day and night, and without self-awareness, a space in which he was neither a doer nor an idler, neither an actor nor a witness.
He had just jostled his opponent, sniffed at the ball, breathed in the other's sweat and then his own, had once been grabbed around the waist and easily thrust aside by the powerful Lauffer. By then, only a few stray swallows, abandoned by their flock, white of belly, fatter and much smaller than elsewhere, were flying from their recesses on the shore to far beyond the middle of the river, from where they darted back as though from a secret boundary.They would repeat this long-short two-stroke movement all day long and day after day, occasionally meeting a gleaming-white eagle flying along the river, and going a bit of the way with it.
This was a time of constant presence, constant wherevemess, and constant habitat. The presence was an omnipresence, shared by the once-beloved dead, in which the most distant loves were sheltered and of good cheer in an accessible next-door; the whereverness was a foreign country, where no one forced you to run away home or to emulate the habits and customs of the natives; and the habitat was the home-and-workshop quality of the whole region, where it was possible to live in privacy, free from servitude to habitual inner partitions.
The autumn sun might be watery or hot, or it might shimmer only on a distant spot in the plain--in every case it was something more than the usual indifferent source of light behind one's back or before one's eyes. Leaves fell on dishes that lay on tables in the open, or blew down the river in colorful swarms; or they were not leaves at all but birds that flew back into the bushes from the grass, or stopped in midair and whirled about in a flock, or turned into land animals and scurried away in an entirely different direction; now they were frogs' heads peering through the layer of leaves on marshy black puddles, or hares scampering off into the lowlands and somersaulting to the sound of shots; or perhaps, after all, they had only been leaves (just as the dead birds falling from the trees had only been bits of bark broken off by the wind).
At the time these phenomena were something more than the eccentric delusions of someone who happened to confuse his details. They were unmistakable signs implicit in nature itself (just as they could transform eachseason into the annual cycle as a whole) and had the power, regardless of who the observer might be, to convert themselves into great and diversified happenings in space--delusions only at first glance, then welcome as metamorphoses in the deeper area of vision, where, in a way that is always unique, plants coalesce with animals and even with humans, and absence merges with presence. In fusing Sorger's individual history with the movement of the northern autumn, the landscape was in turn transformed by this human history into a temporal vault in which this self-forgetful man, without a destiny but also without sense of loss (freed altogether from fluctuations of feeling), was still present.
In this landscape there was one particular place (which Sorger sketched each day) where this promising history, in which nothing violent or abrupt ever happened, was clearly revealed to him. The place was not conspicuous as a scene or site; it took shape through the prolonged effort of sketching, which alone made it describable.
It was the middle ground of a quite commonplace segment of the landscape, chosen by Sorger because of an earthquake fault in the foreground and a fragmentary shelf of loess far behind it. Through no intention of his, this center, which disclosed no particular surface form, not so much as a small swampy depression, and which only a sense of having to fill up his page led him to sketch, gradually took on a decided individuality. It was a smooth bit of meadow, almost entirely bare of trees or underbrush, with a few huts and a straight path in the foreground demarcated on the far side by the sparse virgin forest, which, however, was so close that the sketcher could look into it, while the foreground with its many perceptible details suggested a gardenlike fringe, distinct from the wilderness in the background. Between thesetwo zones, which were clearly set off from the landscape as a whole, lay the formless middle ground. Though on a plane with them, it gave the impression first of a meadow that had formed in the course of the weeks and finally of a human valley in a possible eternal peace.
The Indians who traversed this sunny autumnal scene passed every day, driving left to work or right on their way back home, while their children passed one by one on their way to school and at noon in homeward-bound groups. Here their lives unfolded without the usual incidents. In every instance, the person who entered the stage from one side complemented the one who had just left it on the other side; those who met on the road stood together for a while and then separated; they were only on their way to farms, always in the same village area, and the howling packs of dogs on the trucks were their household pets, which they were taking for an outing.
Otherwise than in the market, town hall, or bar, the people who kept passing through this middle ground presented the picture of an indestructible, lively, and often 3exuberant community; and Sorger knew that he could trust this picture, which had freed him from several obsessive beliefs. Up until then, the Indians had indeed been a hostile race and he an undesirable intruder on their land, which moreover belonged to his Western world only in the most superficial sense. Formerly, he had been able to think of a Great Indian Nation--but now that the "intruder" and the "alien" had at last been swept away, he was not afraid to think of them with sympathy or simply to take them for granted; and then it turned out that their anti-white slogans and curses had hardly been directed against him after all.
Throughout the past months, they had ignored Sorger.They looked straight ahead when he passed, or jostled him slightly and possibly looked around, but more as one looks at an obstruction in one's path, wishing to know what sort of thing one has bumped into. But now, perceiving them as members of a village community, he saw that through this very fact he had become noticeable to them and that it had been in his power not to be ignored by them. At present, to be sure, they did not in passing turn their heads in his direction as he stood there with his instruments, deep in thought, and nevertheless, relieved of his old misconceptions, he was sure of their closeness to him; he now no longer disturbed them, and their unabashed merriment was in itself an attention, an expression of friendliness.
It seemed to Sorger that his first sight of Indian children at play had been in this spot, as though this had been his first experience of children in the Far North; and as though even the adults had become so friendly that whatever they did in his presence--even if it was merely to rush past in their cars--they seemed to be playing for his benefit. He overcame his inhibitions--and they began to play.
And in the evening he actually sat down in the bar among them, huddled in close-packed rows as in the half darkness of a movie house. He looked at no one in particular (always taking in several figures at once), nor did they look expressly at him; but their movements around him were always attentive, almost like dance steps. A threatening face might approach him, then would withdraw with a look of contentment, because the threat, but not the face, had been disregarded in Sorger's first answering glance. (If the drunk persisted in his threatening attitude, because he couldn't bear to meet anyone'seyes, an Indian woman, usually of a certain age, would draw him away to a long, sad dance of appeasement, from which he would not return.)
Sorger did not belong to the Indians as one belongs to a tribe, but he was one with them when he met them in the bar, in the village, or anywhere else in the district; he had not forgotten the color of their skin, but when with them he was no longer conscious of his own. Sometimes he could even see himself adopted by one of their clans and staying there for good; or rather, this autumn with its thoughts and perceptions had the effect of a natural daydream going beyond Sorger's personal world; as though for this man, who was contentedly present and no more, nature itself was a transpersonal history. He would live with his family in the village, which of course included church and school, and with his work he would even make himself useful to the community. Church, school, family, village, offered the possibility of an entirely new life, and to Sorger the smoke that arose each day from the huts in the middle ground was something new; of course he had seen such smoke before--but where? when? Freed from where and when, he was relieved at no longer having to think that the people here were lost souls in a godforsaken hole "where there was nothing." Actually, everything was there.
Now he met the Indian woman without secrecy; he even introduced her to Lauffer, though ordinarily he kept his dealings with women to himself: "This is my girlfriend"; and after that she came to the gabled house now and then with her children, or by herself in the evening to make a third at cards. Sorger actually longed to show himself with her, though he couldn't have said to whom. Formerly he had not felt concerned by the gaze of her strange eyes, with the black pupils barely visible in thedark irises; now he trusted her--and welcomed her gaze (which had not changed). While with her he was just absent enough to feel constantly at one with her, and he no longer had guilt feelings about her, only a feeling of pleasure, which now at last was just the kind of pleasure he wanted and no longer upset him. (It was as though he first experienced the weight of the world through her. One night they seemed to be lying on a high plateau, which was suddenly too small for them; they grew and grew until, incredulous with pleasure, they became the world to each other.)
Long ago Sorger had thought himself capable of happiness. This took the form of a brotherly light-headedness, which sometimes communicated itself to others. Since then he had ceased to demand states of happiness; in fact, he avoided them like the plague. Still, it had surprised him now and then to see how easily others could be happy with him; for a short time this had given him the certainty of being able to live an acceptable life even at cross-purposes with the times, but aroused guilt feelings because he made no attempt to make anything last. At present, however, he promised no future; he had ceased to be anything more than a stimulus; in his thoughts he saw the woman and himself nodding to each other and going their way; being together as they were now was to be united forever.
In taking his leave, he moved at ease in the foreign language, but made no pretense, by using slang or homegrown intonations, of being native to it. In speaking, he lost his awareness of his own voice; just as his being had merged with the autumn landscape, so his speech now seemed to blend with that of the people around him. Altogether, he found a new pleasure in foreign languages and made up his mind to learn several more. He said:"In my native country, I couldn't even conceive of belonging to the country and its people. The words 'my country, my people' meant nothing to me. Can it be that the wilderness has helped me to form an idea of what a village can be? Why is it this strange land that has first given me the thought of permanence?"
And with Lauffer it was very much the same. Though he ordinarily yearned for his Europe--going to bed early and lying abed late like a child at boarding school, "so as to think about home"--the region had become his "geological garden," which he tilled with an almost peasant-like devotion.
He often got up before Sorger and with bottles, planks, and strips of metal fashioned devices with which to measure the wind and water erosion on the riverbank, the movements of slopes (underground "creep" or "flow"), and the frost in the ground.
Lauffer, the student of slopes, even forgot in the end to lace himself up in the stiff professional garb that gave him, it is true, the look of a scientist, albeit a strangely uninspired one, and converted himself, with a checked flannel shirt, wide suspenders, and light linen trousers baggy at the top but tapering toward the ankles, into the rather bulky sort of figure one was likely to meet in this region.
What he built was chiefly "sand traps" of different kinds, horizontal with juxtaposed compartments (with which to measure the horizontal movement of the sand), and vertical, on several levels, with which to measure the lifting power of the wind. He also made use of a "sand bottle," which he buried in the ground, so that nothing protruded but a sand-catching device attached to the neck, with the opening turned toward the ground wind. To avoid the admixture of secondary debris, whichwould have masked the true movement of the slope, the conscientious Lauffer attached long plank gutters to the rubble boxes he placed at the foot of the slopes. And in order to register the "heel clicking," as he called it, of the stones in the subsoil of the slope, he sank strips of lead vertically into holes in the ground, which he had made with a drill the exact size of the strips, and then measured the movement of rubble by carefully uncovering the strips and observing their inclination. Having planted the area with these devices, he stalked about like a trapper, waiting for results.
But his special interest was the ground under the raised huts, where the miniature geological formations, sheltered from the effects of precipitation, differed from the originally related but subsequently ruined forms in the outside world.
This little discovery had greatly excited him: here civilization, instead of destroying natural forms as usual, had preserved them almost entirely from the action of time. Conversely, in a South American desert where there had been neither wind nor rain nor dew for more than a century, human footprints and the marks of horses' hoofs dating from a time long past had remained untouched by nature. (The rocks in that desert had weathered to so dark a color that the heat radiating from them served as a barrier against the wind.) Lauffer was planning to write a paper comparing the two phenomena: "It won't be a study," he said. "More like a description of pictures."
Sorger said: "Sometimes when I try to form an idea of the age and genesis of different forms in the same landscape and their relation to one another, the incredible diversity of this one broad canvas starts me daydreaming. I'm not a philosopher, but at such times I know that it's natural for me to philosophize."
Lauffer: "I'm sure your thoughts in the matter are not what the professors would ask for, and there would be no place for us in a discussion among professional philosophers. I for my part can boast only momentary bursts of philosophical imagination, and these exclusively for my own benefit. My science gives me daydreams that no one else could equal even in his sleep."
Sorger: "Then you should have things to tell me."
Lauffer: "About the landscape?"
Sorger: "About the landscape and about yourself."
Accumulation of passion; enjoyment of order (of a rectangular table, for instance); the joy of just living somewhere; rediscovered pleasure in study; enjoyment of my body, its needs, even its mere activities. Nothing more to desire; no harm in that. Nothing supernatural about fulfillment. Not thought out of existence, but stripped of individual meaning. A feeling of constant warmth in my head: no personal or purposive or predigested thoughts, breathless ("Help!") and then breathing deeply ("Thanks to whom?"). No thinking that is not a "thinking with." Thinking the earth with the earth as a thinking world without end. The earth whose circling begins with my circulation, with me, the finite object of thought, the only remaining object of thought. No more blood, no more heartbeat, no more human time: only a universal transparence, pulsating mightily and trembling with my pulse. No more century, only this season. From lying to standing; from standing to jumping or running. The joy of talking and arguing. Loath to play, but glad to watch others play. Strong wind, but not a leaf falling from the birches. Moment of stillness; then a light breeze and the leaves fall to the ground in swarms. On a dead arm of the river, a serried flock of gulls, drifting as slowly as acloud. White crow droppings on dead fish stuck with red willow twigs. Empty cartridge cases in the gravel, shots elsewhere. In the house a shirt is hanging on a chair; the low-lying sun shines through the topmost buttonhole. The room cowers in the shadow of a passing bird (or airplane). "Greetings, ye smiling dead": but only my own memory smiles, behind my forehead, too weak to bring back the dead, which turn up for a moment in the form of lopsided sacks. River. House. (Outcries.) Just back from work, my friend is standing outside, in the open window frame. Leaves circling in the puddles. Blades of grass--they, too, look like fallen leaves.
The day preceding Sorger's departure from the northern lowlands was a holiday, the anniversary of the discovery of the continent. It was almost mid-October. In the morning the water clicked against the narrow frieze of ice growing out of the riverbank; bristling snow crystals lay on the ice; the many little lumps of snow on the surface of the water were drifting gulls.
Beside an abandoned, tumbledown hut there was a birch tree; the basketball net fastened to it had been blown over its iron frame by the strong wind. In the fine-grooved river landscape, dark wind spots moved like wandering underwater sandbanks. Later on, spots of shadow on white tree trunks would remind Sorger of the cat, which, with its head buried in its fur, lay on the table by the window, as at peace with the world as only a house cat can be.
Lauffer was still asleep, his head buried like the cat's; he had got up in the middle of the night and wandered about the living room. Questioned on his return, he had only mumbled with thick, heavy lips (which reminded Sorger, who was sitting up in bed, of his brother) andno tongue, shutting his eyes for a moment (and not just flicking his lashes) at every syllable, as he sometimes did when telling a lie. Only then did it dawn on Sorger that his friend had been sleepwalking.
Now it looked as if he would sleep a long while; and meanwhile, the wind piled up sand in his sand traps. Gazing at him and the cat at the window, Sorger recovered his (so lightly forgotten) feeling for the passage of time, and realized that it had been absent from his weightless existence of the last few days, which seemed to have passed from him "after his time." In all the images which had played without violence on a middle ground without birth or death, he had lacked not the feeling of himself but awareness of himself as the feeling of a form. And this he acquired now, for at the sight of his friend lying doubled up in bed he became aware of his own beholding, saw it in the oval of his own mortal eyes, which had just begun to capture the essence of the pictorial--consciousness was the feeling of this form and the feeling of form was gentleness. No, he had no desire to cease to be.
Sorger had gone outside with the cat, which was following him and seemed that day "to know a thing or two." On the beach, sticks of driftwood had been set down, or perhaps been accidentally washed ashore, in a circle. It occurred to him that the Indians might have made these circles to demarcate themselves from this holiday and what it commemorated, and at that point the whole settlement struck him as a secret magic circle in which he, now initiated, was making his last rounds.
And true enough, totemic signs had been painted here and there along the military road. The tire marks in the mud might also have been signs in a secret Indian picture script; and the wide-spreading elk antlers at the top ofthe wooden privies may have been there to mock the foreign intruders. "Yes, we are open"--on a national holiday this conventional formula on the door of the market had a strangely unconventional meaning. A passing police car (never before had Sorger seen a police car in the area) paraded the closed, anonymous faces of an occupying power, at which the natives merely encouraged their dogs to bark. "Rounds and maunderings," said Sorger to the cat, who was following him at a distance, stopping now and then.
The children were in the schoolhouse; he saw them sitting behind tinted glass in the long, low building, but he couldn't make out their faces, only rows of round, deep-black head tops, which were suddenly very dear to him. Someone played an American Christmas carol on a flute, not practicing, but evidently bungling it on purpose. A child came to the window and popped his bubble gum as Sorger looked up at him. Turning into a town hall, he leafed, as he had often done, through the warrant book chained to the wall. Many of those wanted were used to living in the open and were tattooed with the words: "Born to lose."
He turned to the cemetery. Almost all these people had died young. The ground was bumpy with fallen pinecones and spotted with clumps of white mushrooms. He stepped into the wooden church to rest. Leaves had blown between the chairs and even over the lending-library volumes spread out on the table; a book of music lay open on the harmonium; clouds of breakfast bacon blew in from the adjoining room, where the pastor lived. At the next bend in Sorger's path he caught sight of Indians' clothes, all dark, hung up to dry. Behind the windows of the huts, he saw the silhouettes of the inhabitants, who were so small that even standing they could be seenonly from the neck up. And so, in going away, he managed to take leave of them.
The wind was so strong that it unbuttoned his coat as he walked, but warm, interspersed with icy gusts that tasted like snow in his mouth. The cat stopped now and then and the movement of its head followed the shadows inside the houses; when Sorger picked it up, it arched its back and blew cold air in his face; it disliked being carried when out of doors.
Followed by the animal, he returned to the riverbank, completing his circuit (at the end, his brisk walk had turned to a run). He thought: Today for the first time I've seen the yards around the houses and discovered that the village has a circular road around it.
The water level had fallen so far of late that a number of small ponds had formed between sandbanks, and the water whirled about in them as though churned up by a captive fish: "Here, too, in a circle." Though there was no one to be seen on the river, echoes of human voices came to him from all sides (along with the cry of a lone sand martin and the empty scraping of unmanned boats against the gravel bank). And Sorger saw the village population, a Great Water Family, gathered, as it were, head to head at the bend of the river. This whole river valley from source to mouth--"nowhere else but here" was a river valley worth mentioning; this, indeed, was "the only place worth mentioning in the whole world"--and that was the message of the lines which the sinking water seemed to have written in the sand (the opposite shore was already "beyond the last frontier").
The sounds that echoed from the river were Indian sounds, yet it seemed to Sorger (though he did not understand a single word) that he was listening to his own language, indeed, to the dialect of the region where hisforebears had been at home. He crouched down and looked into the eyes of the cat, which shrank back from him; and when he tried to caress it, it seemed to find this so repellent, here away from the house, that it fled with movements rather like those of a fleeing dog.
The dried shore mud at his feet had broken up into a far-flung network of almost regular polygons (for the most part six-sided). As he examined the cracks, they began little by little to work on him, but instead of fragmenting him like the ground, they joined all his cells (a void that he hadn't noticed until then) into a harmonious whole. Something that rose from the split surface of the earth struck his body and made it warm and heavy. Standing there motionless, looking out over the pattern, he saw himself as a receiver, not of news or a message, but of a twofold force received on the two levels of his head. On his forehead, he felt the bone disappearing, simply because he had no other thought than to expose this obstacle to the air; and the surface of his face from the eyes down seemed once again to acquire the characteristics of a face; human eyes and a human mouth, each for itself but not separated by consciousness; and he actually felt that his lowered lids had become receiving screens. His head bent lower and lower, yet the meaning was not despair but determination: "The decision rests with me." Raising his eyes, he was prepared for anything; with every look, even into the void, he would have met other looks; indeed, he would have created them.
The murmuring of the stream--and once again the bushes were murmuring as gently as on the summer day when he arrived and gained his first intimation of the river landscape.
The man who rose from the ground was not ecstatic, only appeased. He no longer expected illuminations, onlymeasure and duration. "My face an unfinished sketch--when will it be complete?" He could say that he enjoyed life, accepted death, and loved the world; and now he saw that, correspondingly, the river flowed more slowly, the clumps of grass shimmered, and the sun-warmed gasoline drums hummed. Beside him he saw a single yellow willow leaf on a flaming-red branch and knew that after his death, after the death of all mankind, he would appear in the depths of this countryside and give form to all the things on which his gaze now rested. The thought gave him a blissful feeling that raised him above the treetops; only his face remained behind, now a mask "representing happiness." (And then there was even a kind of hope--disguised as a feeling that he knew something.)
Seizing the moment, Sorger, "the hero," dropped the stone that he had meant to put in his pocket as a memento, and ran through the grassy meadow to the gabled house. The spotted cat, which was sitting out in front, had forgotten him again. Why had Lauffer once said that he would "probably live here for quite a while but go back to Europe to die"?
As Sorger stepped into the house, Lauffer greeted him with an almost mischievous look of superiority--meaning that he was staying in the place his friend was leaving. He was wearing white woolen socks and a bunched-up shirt. A checked handkerchief and a pair of gloves were dangling from his back pocket--he might have been mistaken for a native. All Sorger's ideas dispersed, he would somehow have to take his leave, and that dismayed him. If some people could go away while others were sleeping, why wouldn't it be possible to go away without consciousness, in one's sleep? Then suddenly this thought: Tonight we shall celebrate my departure, and in the grayof dawn, while you are still lying in bed, I shall take the mail plane.
It was decided that they would work together that day; or rather, one formally invited the other to participate in his activity, and in the end they agreed to take aerial photographs together.
The rented single-engine plane flew so low over the river valley that even the outlines of the dark little ice lentils under the surface vegetation were visible. Though Sorger had often observed the region from the air, it took on a special form for him now that he was about to leave it. He saw the essentially shapeless plain as a body with many limbs and a unique, unmistakable face that was now turned toward him. This face seemed rich, eerie, and surprising--rich not only because its forms were so varied but also because they seemed inexhaustible; eerie because innumerable forms, which always reminded him strangely of (or foreshadowed) a human world and seemed to cry out for names, were in large part nameless; and surprising because every time he looked at it, there was the rolling stream; every pre-vision was a mistake; the wideness of the river was always a new event, even if one had looked away for barely an instant; it was truly unthinkable.
What made Sorger, who soon forgot about photography, regard the river as a feature in a face was the palpable gratitude and even admiration he felt toward the territory that had been his place of work for the last few months. Horseshoe lakes, saucepan springs, trough-shaped valleys, lava cakes, or glacier milk from glacier gardens--looking down on "his" landscape, he understood these conventional terms, which had often struck him as unreasonably childish. If he saw a face here, whyshouldn't other observers, in other parts of the world, see dream edifices with columns, gates, stairways, pulpits, and steeples, furnished with bowls, basins, ladles, sacrificial vessels, situated--why not?--in a trumpet-shaped valley and edged about with flocks of hills; and at the moment he felt like adding friendly epithets to the scientific names of all these formations, for the few names on the map were derived either from the region's brief history as a gold miner's mecca (Phantom Gulch, Hard Luck Lake, Chilblains Hill, Half-Dollar Creek, Four-flusher's Island) or they were mere numbers (Six-Mile Lake, Nine-Mile Lake, Eighty-Mile Swamp). The few Indian names had an archetypal ring: The Great Crazy Mountains to the north of the Little Crazy Mountains, or the Great Unknown Brook that ran through Little Windy Gulch and ended in a nameless swamp.
Although the river was forbiddingly cold even in summer, Sorger suddenly had an image of himself happily bathing in it, swimming and diving under. Hadn't rivers been embodiments of the gods in olden times? "Beautiful Water," he said, and realized that he had given the river a name. (Down below him, the truncated meander arms danced like garlands.)
He would never have expected to love this landscape, or landscape in general--and along with his surprising affection for the river he felt his own story, felt that it was not ended, as his nightmares and even opinions might have led him to suppose, but was going on as patiently as the flowing water. As he gazed at the richness of this landscape, the realization that he himself was immeasurably rich awakened him like a cannon shot, and urged him to give of his riches now and forever, for if he didn't, he would suffocate.
His next thought was that he would now be able tohandle his long-planned dissertation "On Spatial Configurations," and he said to Lauffer, who had explained his aerial photography camera to the pilot and to whom the pilot was explaining his flight instruments: "I'm going to treat you to a telephone call to Europe when we land."
The public telephone was in a windowless log cabin built in one corner of a sheet-metal hangar on the side of the airfield. As though meant to be lived in, the cabin was furnished with a table, a reading lamp, a bed covered with wolf hides, a shelf of books, and a small cast-iron stove (it took a long time to put a call through). The telephone, which had a distinctly public look, hung on one of the two sheet-metal walls formed by the hangar; the key to the cabin could be obtained in the market at the other end of the village.
In the early days Sorger had often driven the jeep here, in part because he enjoyed sitting at the table in the dark cabin, waiting. Just before the line was at last opened to him and he could hear the bell ringing far across the seas, a satellite crackling set in and with it an image of oceanic distances. As he was preparing his mind for the conversation, this brief sound threw him into a state of indescribable excitement in which he literally "called" the person "at the other end of the wire." After that, even in the middle of the conversation, he was often enough merely bewildered; clearly as it might come over, the other voice seemed to recede farther and farther as it spoke, and to make matters worse, there were never any background noises (music, dogs barking, or even a plain voice); at his end of the telephone cable Sorger felt excluded, his own voice echoed in his ear; and his dizziness as he hung up had all the earmarks of unreality.
Consequently Sorger, who was nevertheless attractedmore and more by the strange room, had gradually got into the habit of taking Lauffer to the phone and of drinking wine and playing chess with him while waiting. It had even become customary for Sorger to invite his friend to a phone call, whereupon Lauffer would invite him to come along and listen.
In Europe it had long been day, while here they sat in the little cabin, in the hangar, in the far-flung night. The only sound was an occasional clicking inside the phone, which, however, was meant for someone else in another "township," another numbered square of wilderness.
When the call came through, Lauffer became absorbed in asking questions, answering, or reporting events; Sorger didn't listen to his words but just saw him wedged into the corner, clutching the phone, all speaker or all listener; at such times his friend cast off his almost bashful one-man-to-another attitude and gave him a hint of who he was.
This last night in Eight-Mile Village (it was eight miles north of the Arctic Circle) was to prove adventurous for Sorger, though nothing in particular happened. Thoughts rose up which had long been turning over in the back of his mind but now became more distinct. They concerned a duty--not a neglected duty, but one that had gradually fallen due; and because this duty would call for actions that he was still unable to imagine, it seemed to him, though without precise images, that this was the first night of an adventure.
Sorger, who sometimes felt drawn to cooking, made dinner for himself, his friend, and the Indian woman. Afterwards the three of them sat around the table playing cards with a new, fresh-smelling deck that the womanhad brought as a farewell present. The figures on the cards were ravens, eagles, wolves, and foxes; the joker had an Indian face in the middle, and all those animals formed a circle around it.
In the gabled house there was a chandelier with long, thin glass pendants, in the light of which each one examined his bright, tranquil hand of cards. The doors to all the rooms were open, including the one leading to the attic darkroom, and the lights were on all over the house. The cat was sitting glassy-eyed on Sorger's packed suitcase, twitching its ears and from time to time moving its tail from side to side; it displayed its claws, as if they were fingernails, drew in its forepaws, and finally fell asleep.
Lauffer's chin shone. He had on a white silk shirt and a black velvet vest with gilt buttons; elastic armbands gathered in the wide sleeves; and for the first time since his arrival he was wearing the low shoes he had brought from Europe, which could occasionally be heard creaking under the table--up until then they had been occupied only by shoe trees. He had snipped the hairs in his nostrils and was sitting up straight, never throwing cards but always setting them down gently. He took an innocent pleasure in winning, and lost with grim dignity. He seemed perfect, with his inner composure and outward splendor.
Though they were sitting at a table without beginning or end, their circle seemed to start with the Indian woman. She was not to the left or right of the men; no, they were at her sides; the initiative was with her. Her movements in playing resembled those with which she distributed medicines when at work; a deft, nonchalant, continuous, many-handed giving (while the gathering-in of what was coming to her was always done in guise of thanks). The way she had made up and decked herselfout (a jade amulet hanging from her neck), she was no longer an Indian but a dark, dangerous machine in radiant human form; as soon as she lowered her human eyes to a card, the eye of the machine stared from the black-rimmed vault of her eyelid and held the room in its gaze.
"Yes" (with this one word Sorger finally accepted as an obligation what for so long he had only mused about). At times Lauffer had really been his friend, and recently he had been one with the woman in their true, screaming, and clutching bodies--but what presumption in him, the "Stranger" (the name of an emetic fungus), to importune these two with the claims of a "friend" or "lover."
Sorger did not foresee that these two would come together, he saw their union before him in the present: the perfect couple, the consummate student of earth forms and the divine beast.
No one asked why he was laughing--they knew. And the next moment placed Sorger, who mechanically went on playing, in the midst of a prehistoric event that was just taking place. In the river there was a narrow, gently sloping island with a small, rounded hollow in the middle, where the conifers, which were sparse and stunted everywhere else, grew dark and dense. This hollow had probably resulted from an underground cavern, into which Sorger--while his fellow players, who at that very moment were on a level with his eyes, rose to the upper edge of his field of vision--sank all at once, as slowly as in a dream. Already moss was growing in the pit and dark bears rose up between the trees.
As though in triumph, Sorger went out into the open. He moved in the glow of the windows; outside, there was no other light, not even the dot of a star. At first he saw the two of them sitting at the table; then thebushes merged with the receding bright rectangle, as though the panes had been smeared with dirt. "Please forget me." He saw so little ahead of him--now and then, a lighter-colored stone silhouette--that he had to feel his way with his feet and elbows. Not even a splashing; only a soft scraping from time to time.
Then nothing more stood out from the darkness; at last, no more images. A short while before, all distinct surfaces, regardless of color (wasn't there such a thing as a wedding color?), had reminded him of dead people, as though he were staring at those who had died there. Then he saw the river flowing in the darkness: thick anthracite against thinner black; and these forms, as a painter he admired had said, were now his "performers"; able to "perform" in his place because they were unabashed, free of his embarrassment.
Once all recognized techniques had been applied to the description of a phenomenon, Sorger's science called for one additional, ultimate technique, which he called "comprehensive vision"; here, in the face of the black-on-black Arctic night, such comprehensive vision was achieved, though it had not been planned and the requisite composure was lacking; a different sort of calm took hold of him (he literally experienced center and depth) and at the same time reached out beyond him; it warmed the palms of his hands (and his gently spreading fingers), arched the balls of his feet, made him conscious of his teeth, and transformed the whole of him into a body which became a radically extroverted organ of all the senses. Seeing himself in strips of darkness, he was overpowered by the calm of a savage--which could be expressed only in the one word "beautiful."
Not merely turning his head, but nimbly twisting his shoulders and hips on their axis, he recognized in thedarkness that his life would inevitably become dangerous. He did not see the dangers; he had an intimation of them; he could not go looking for them, they were necessity itself; he had an intimation of necessary solitude and continued remoteness; and all these intimations crowding in on him, but forming no clear prophecy, added up to a feeling of adventure, as if he had just gone away from all his dear ones with no possibility of return; and, his head whirling with the intoxication of being forever alone, he rejoiced out loud: "No one knows where I am. No one knows where I am!" (For a moment the moon appeared, and he hissed at it.)
And then he heard a whimpering beside him in the darkness, as of an abandoned child. Or was it the breathing of some large animal?
But it was only a human, standing beyond reach but fairly near him, clearing his throat to show no harm was intended. And between these two, who could not see each other, the following words were said: "Hi, stranger. How are you feeling this evening?" Sorger: "Fine, thank you. How are you?" The speaker: "Short autumn. Run out of fuel." Sorger: "Isn't there a woodpile down by the river?" The speaker: "Good river. Fine summer. Long winter. Could you spare a quarter, mister?" (A hand, warm like Sorger's own, took the coin.) The speaker: "God bless you, man. Green northern lights, yellow around the edges. Where you from?" Sorger: "Europe." The speaker: "I'm going to tell you something. Never look at the snow too long. It can make you blind. That's what happened to me. Want me to tell you something else?" Sorger: "No, thank you." "You're welcome, friend. Don't eat too much fish. Enjoy the rest of your stay here. Take care. Have a good time. Pleasant trip. Touch home soon."
Sorger heard the speaker--whether Indian or white, man or woman, he couldn't be sure--moving off in the darkness, and sure of the way, sure of his direction and his body, he ran back to the village and the gabled house. The other two were standing at the window but didn't turn their heads in his direction, as though they hadn't even noticed his absence, or as if he had already been so forgotten that he would have to breathe at them. Over the Indian woman's shoulder, two glassy fox eyes stared at him.
No more talk; for a last time the smooth woman drew him to her with both her hands, pushed him away with a little laugh, and grazed him with a look of astonishment in which her whole face seemed to expand, though no part of it moved; but Sorger had thrown his arms around his friend, who had taken his place beside her in the goodbye line; and in the end gone dutifully ("the mail plane and all that") to bed in the next room, which was suddenly (but not for very long) freezing cold.
In his sleep, Sorger kept waiting for someone who didn't come. Once he woke up and saw the cat crouching in the corner of the room. "Monumental little beast." Quietly addressing the cat, he coaxed it to him. It came and laid its head on his knees. The cat wanted to live: and Sorger wanted to be forgotten by his best friends and perish. Unthinkingly he addressed the cat as "child," loved it (his arms grew strong with love), and named his loved one with its color: "Black-and-white."
In a dream, Sorger's brain became a map of the world, and when he woke up, he was a mound of earth with a lot of stones in it. In the gray of dawn, Lauffer was lying in the supposedly empty room, a malignant grimace with closed eyes. Hauling his suitcase, Sorger passed the absentlystaring cat, which now gave no sign of knowing him. He left many possessions in the house. "Let's get out of here!"
At sunrise in the mail plane (he was sitting in back with some Indians who had already dozed off) Sorger saw the yellow foliage of a lone birch smiling out of the endless virgin pine forest, thought of the Indian woman ("There's a sweet woman down there"), and sat up straight with directionless curiosity, which soon changed to a feeling of hunger, not for anything tangible, but for whatever might be coming. Without images, he anticipated "the future." In the midst of his imageless fantasy, he saw the pilot turn around and read from his lips the words: "We have to turn back."
The reason for turning back was the first snowstorm of the winter on the high plateau beyond the southern mountain ranges, where the larger settlement (formerly a gold-mining center), where one could change to a jet, was situated. Even as the pilot was looping back, the landscape changed its face. A round swampy lake became a hypnotic stare; meandering little rivers took on so dense a covering of aquatic plants that a sparkling of water could be seen only here and there, and the long gullies on the hillsides, long, straight stripes etched into the rubble by the spring thaw, curved in all directions. The plane would not be able to leave again until the following morning.
After landing, Sorger stood motionless at the edge of the little airstrip. There he and his suitcase loomed as in a fun-house mirror, with short fat legs and a great long neck. He hadn't been gone very long, just time enough for a short plane ride, but the whole village seemed to have turned into "premises" closed to the public. Sittingdown on his suitcase, he turned "village" and laughed at himself, Sorger. Never had he come home to such unreality. How was he to avoid being seen? He stood up, started walking, and, shrugging his shoulders, changed direction. Play was no longer possible: the phony colors of the empty housefronts, the disenchanted water of the phony river--and through this utterly threadbare world, with an affectation of hail-fellow-well-met-ness, zigzagged not a face but the grin of a simpleminded dupe.
Not knowing where to go, he became dangerous--not as an aggressor, but as a potential victim.
A man of no particular age was walking ahead of the irresolute Sorger on the narrow path; moving as slowly as Sorger, he was not deep in thought, but neither was he looking at anything, and as a result the slowness of his walk gradually took on an air of viciousness. He didn't look around, but from time to time showed a bit of eyeless profile, as dogs sometimes do in running past. At length he stepped to one side, pulled a tire chain out of his pocket, and, clutching the heavy thing in his fist, came straight at "me!"
Just as he had no age, the man seemed to belong to no race. Bright eyes without a center. Whenever his knees threatened to crumple, he twisted his lips, but did not smile. When he ("actually") hauled off with the chain, neither of the two had a face left; in that moment the whole world contracted and became tragicomically faceless.
"Dear brother." The drunk brought the chain down on the suitcase, which burst open, and fell on top of it, dead to the world.
Sorger pushed the inert body away and, taking his belongings under his arm, went straight to the gabled house, which greeted him with its earthly beauty. Bythen he was so furious and hated everybody so intensely that all his movements had become angular. The door was locked, and he sat down on the wooden steps in front of it. A falling leaf touched the back of his head like a paw, but the cat was inside the house, strolling about the deserted rooms, now and then making a play movement, wholly absorbed in its own reflexes, which helped it to pass the time, whereas the man on the steps outside was humiliated by his forced idleness. The boot scraper at his feet--which reminded him of the floorboards in a bathhouse--and the basketball lying beside it seemed to add insult to injury.
The assault had humiliated rather than hurt him; more than violence, it had been an expression of contempt for his person and belongings, as though a voice had shouted: "You and your photographs! You and your drawings! You and your scientific papers!" Only then did Sorger hit back--with his fist in the air. There was no more Far North, only the weather, which was cold and gray, as it had always been for an idler who, in the space under the huts, saw not Lauffer's "small static earth forms" but only rusting junk; while in the meantime his work, whose secret, he had thought, was known to him alone, was being done by some anybody, effortlessly, with one among many simultaneous manipulations. For a moment, when that creature lifted his chain to strike, Sorger had been dead; now he was alive again, but the formlessness was still there; the next moment of formlessness was already pulsating in the immensity of time; as in dire pain, he felt at once minute and limitless, an intolerably heavy dot and an intolerably weightless immensity. Once again the Indian woman was the "other race," and whatever might happen in the interim, she was sure in the end to plan his destruction. "And you, Lauffer, if you lie toother people"--said Sorger, grown abusive in his formlessness--"it's because their company, whoever they may be, makes you miserable--but on the other hand you don't want them to know it, because you're an amiable, kindhearted, compassionate sort, yet basically morose."
At this point the angry orator, becoming aware of himself as a formless creature with, somewhere, too small a breathing hole, looked up and saw the surface of the water, as though it were gazing at him. This level ground was much too quiet; Sorger expected an eruption; he felt the need to see a mountain coming into being that minute, or at the very least a boulder breaking off from a cliff. He jumped up and kicked the ball against the wall of the house, so violently that, in rebounding, it whistled in his ear; then he went on playing without catching his breath until the pebbles before his eyes sparkled like flowers and he felt creepy, playing by himself.
When he stopped, he saw the rows of low clouds behind him over the water. They were pale-bright and motionless, not flat underneath as usual, but rounded. A gust of wind blew from deep within the landscape, and suddenly great snowflakes were falling, whirling darkly on the horizon like a swarm of locusts, not from all the clouds at once, but from one after another at short intervals, breaking loose from the clouds and rushing downward like a series of avalanches, until at length a brief but powerful squall descended with a dry crackling sound on the house and the man standing in front of it, while not a single flake was falling on the great fluvial plain.
Just then, under the uniformly gray sky, a dense, windless, slow snowfall set in which tickled the lips and turned the surroundings of the house into a fairyland. Radiant joy! Delicious sweat! Unable to breathe only a moment before, Sorger ran into the recaptured air; a bundle oflife, he ran several times around the house, shouting as in eternal childhood. Soon his dear colleague (visible at a distance in the flat tundra) turned up and was not a little surprised. So the hours passed in a new, sad, and formally perfect friendliness, until the next day, when Valentin Sorger, equipped with a different suitcase, flew from that nameless neck of the woods, where already the wintry dusk was taking over (but in which two pairs of eyes belonging to Lauffer and the Indian woman were clearly discernible), into the world of names. In the university town on the west coast of the continent where he had once spent a few years, there was a wide street, lined for the most part with gas stations and shopping centers, named Northern Lights Boulevard.
Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in German in three volumes, under the titles Langsame Heimkehr, copyright © Suhrkamp Verlag 1979; Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire, copyright © Suhrkamp Verlag 1980; and Kindergeschichte, copyright © Suhrkamp Verlag 1981