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THE BLIND WINDOW
A QUARTER OF A CENTURY, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother. I was not yet twenty and I had just taken my final school examination. I ought to have felt free, for after weeks of study the summer months lay open before me. But I had set out with mixed feelings, what with my old father, my ailing mother, and my confused sister at home in Rinkenberg. Besides, after being released from the seminary, I had got used, during the past year, to my class in the state school in Klagenfurt, where girls were in the majority, and now I suddenly found myself alone. While my classmates piled into the bus together and set out for Greece, I played the loner who preferred to go to Yugoslavia by himself. (The truth was that I simply didn't have the money for the group trip.) Another reason for my unease was that I had never been outside of Austria and knew very little Slovene, though it was hardly a foreign language for an inhabitant of a village in southern Carinthia.
After a glance at my newly issued Austrian passport, the border guard in Jesenice spoke to me in his language. When I failed to understand, he told me in German that Kobal was a Slavic name, that the word meant the span between parted legs, a "step," and consequently a person standing with legs outspread, so that my name would have been better suited to him,the border guard. The elderly official beside him, in civilian clothes, white-haired, with the round, rimless glasses of a scholar, explained with a smile that the related verb meant "to climb" or "to ride"; thus, my given name, Filip, "lover of horses," fitted in with Kobal, and he felt sure I would someday do honor to my full name. (Since then, I have often found the civil servants of this so-called progressive country, which was once part of an empire, surprisingly well educated.) Suddenly he grew grave, came a step closer, and looked me solemnly in the eye. I should know, he said, that two and a half centuries ago there had been a Slovene hero named Kobal. In the year 1713 Gregor Kobal, from near Tolmin on the headwaters of the river which in Italy farther down was known as the Isonzo, had been one of the leaders of the great Tolmin peasant revolt, and in 1714 he had been executed along with his comrades. It was he who had said--and his words were still renowned in the Republic of Slovenia--that the Emperor was a mere servant and that the people had better take matters into their own hands. Thus informed--of something I already knew--I, with my sea bag over my shoulder, was permitted to step out of the dark frontier station without showing any cash, and to set foot in the north Yugoslavian town, which in those days our school maps still identified by its old Austrian name of Assling (in parentheses), side by side with the Slovene Jesenice.
For a long while I stood outside the station, with the Karawanken Mountains, which I had seen in the distance all my life, close at my back. The city begins at the exit from the tunnel and winds down the narrowriver valley, surmounted by a tenuous strip of sky, which broadens to the south and is immediately veiled by the smoke of the iron foundries. Jesenice is a long village with one exceedingly noisy street, the side streets being little more than steep paths. It was a warm evening at the end of June 1960, and the surface of the street gave off a dazzling brightness. It came to me that what made the station so dark were the buses which stopped outside the big swinging door in quick succession and drove on. Strange how soothing the overall grayness--the gray of the houses, the street, the cars, so very different from the bright colors of the cities of Carinthia, "Carinthia the beautiful" according to a nineteenth-century Slovene song--was to my eyes in the evening light. The short Austrian train that had brought me and that would soon go back through the tunnel seemed as clean and bright as a toy train beside the massive, dusty Yugoslavian trains, and the blue uniforms of its crew, who were talking loudly on the platform, provided a dash of exotic color amid the prevailing gray. It also struck me that the swarms of people in the streets of this smallish town, quite unlike the inhabitants of the small towns in my own country, took notice of me now and then but never stared at me. And the longer I stood there, the more certain I became that this was a great country.
Now, only a few hours later, how far behind me seemed my afternoon in Villach, where I had visited my history and geography teacher. We had talked about my plans for the fall: Should I do my military service at once, or get a deferment and study? But study what? And then, in one of the parks, the teacher had read me a fairy tale that he himself had written, asked me for myopinion, and listened to it with an expression of total seriousness. He was a bachelor and lived alone with his mother, who, while I was there, kept asking through the closed door whether her son was all right and whether he wanted anything. He had accompanied me to the station and there, as secretively as if he felt someone was watching, he had slipped me a bank note. I was very grateful, but I hadn't been able to show it, and now too, when I tried to visualize the man across the border, all I could see was a wart on his pale forehead. The face that went with it was that of the border guard, who was hardly older than myself and yet, to judge by his bearing, his voice, and the look in his eyes, had evidently found his place in life. Of the teacher, his apartment, and the whole of Villach I had preserved no image apart from two pensioners playing chess at a table and the glitter of the halo over the statue of the Virgin Mary on the main square.
Fully present to my mind, however--and still fully present today, twenty-five years later--was the morning of the same day, when I took leave of my father on the wooded hill from which the village of Rinkenberg took its name. With sagging knees, dangling arms, and goutgnarled fingers, which at that moment impersonated furious clenched fists, the frail, aging man, much smaller than I, stood by the wayside Cross and shouted at me: "All right, go to the dogs like your brother, like our whole family! None of us has ever amounted to anything, and you won't either. You won't even get to be a good gambler like me." Yet, just then, he had embraced me for the first time in my life, and I had looked over his shoulder at the dewy wetness on the bottom of his trousers, with the feeling that in me he was actuallyembracing himself. But then in memory my father's embrace held me, not only that evening outside the Jesenice station, but down through the years, and I heard his curse as a blessing. In reality he had been deadly serious, but in my thoughts I saw him grinning. May his embrace carry me through this story.
Standing in the twilight, in the roar of the through traffic, which seemed positively soothing, I reflected that up until then I had never felt held in a woman's embrace. I had no girlfriend. When the one girl whom I knew, so to speak, embraced me, her embrace struck me as mischievous or defiant. Yet how proud I was when we walked down the street together, keeping our distance, but obviously belonging to each other in the eyes of the people coming in the opposite direction. Once somebody called from a group of strolling little-more-than-children : "Have you got a beautiful girl!" And another time an old woman stopped, looked from the girl to me, and said literally: "Lucky fellow!" Such moments seemed a fulfillment of longing. And then the joy, in the changing light of the movie house, of seeing the shimmering profile beside me, the mouth, the cheek, the eye. The ultimate was the sense of bodily closeness, which sometimes came unsought; even a purely accidental contact would have seemed an infringement. So perhaps I had a girlfriend after all. For to me the thought of a woman meant, not desire or lust, but the wishful image of a beautiful companion--yes, my companion would have to be beautiful!--whom I would at last be able to tell ... Tell what? Just tell. At the age of twenty I conceived falling-into-one-another's-arms, loving, being fond of one another, as a constant, forbearingyet unreserved, calm yet exclamatory, clarifying and illuminating telling, and in that connection I thought of my mother, who, whenever I had been out of the house for any length of time, in town or alone in the woods or out in the fields, assailed me with her "Tell me." Despite frequent rehearsals, I had never, at least before her illness, succeeded in telling her anything. As a rule, I could only tell unasked--though, once launched, I needed the right questions to keep me going.
And now, outside the station, I discovered that since my arrival in Jesenice I had been silently telling my girlfriend about my day. And what was I telling her? Neither incidents nor events, but mere impressions, a sight, a sound, a smell. The jet of the little fountain across the street, the red of the newspaper kiosk, the exhaust fumes of the heavy trucks--once I told her about them, they ceased to exist in themselves and merged with one another. And the teller was not I, it was the experience itself. This silent telling deep inside me was something greater than myself. And, without growing older, the girl to whom it was addressed was transformed into a young woman, just as the boy of twenty, in growing aware of the teller inside him, became an ageless adult. We stood facing each other, exactly at eye level. This eye level was the measure of the telling. I sensed the tenderest of strengths within me. And it said to me: "Jump!"
A star appeared, a constellation in itself, in the yellowish factory sky over Jesenice, and a glowworm flew through the smoke of the street down below. Two railroad cars bumped together. In the supermarket, the checkout girls were relieved by cleaning women. At a window in a high-rise building, a man stood smoking in his undershirt.
Exhausted as after strenuous exercise, I sat in the station restaurant until almost midnight, over a bottle of the dark, sweet drink which at that time substituted for Coca-Cola in Yugoslavia. Yet I was wide awake, quite otherwise than in the evening at home--whether in the village, at the seminary, or in the city--when I was always too tired to be good company. At the only dance I was taken to, I fell asleep with my eyes open, and in the last hours of the year my father tried in vain to keep me from my bed by playing cards with me. I think that what kept me awake was not so much the strange country as being in a restaurant; in a waiting room, most likely I would soon have felt tired.
I was sitting in one of the brown wooden booths, rather like a choir stall. In front of me, the bright tiers of station platforms, and behind me, the equally bright highway with its illuminated apartment houses. Behind me, full buses were still running this way and that; in front of me, full trains. Of the travelers, I saw no faces, only silhouettes; but I saw the silhouettes through a face reflected in plate glass--my own. With the help of this reflection, which did not portray me as an individual but showed only a forehead, eye sockets, and lips, I was able to dream the silhouettes not only of the passengers but also of the apartment-house dwellers as they moved through their rooms or, occasionally, sat on the balconies. It was an airy, luminous, sharp dream in which I had friendly thoughts about all the dark figures. None of them was evil. The old people were old, the couples were couples, the families were families, the children were children, the lonely were lonely, the dogs and cats were dogs and cats, each individual was part of a whole, and I with my reflection belonged to this nation, whichI envisaged on an unceasing, peaceful, adventurous, serene journey through the night, a journey in which the sleeping, the sick, the dying, even the dead were included. I sat up straight to get a better view of my dream. The one thing that troubled me was the larger-than-life portrait of the President, hanging in the exact center of the room, over the bar. Marshal Tito was unmistakably there in his heavily braided uniform with all its decorations. Leaning forward over a table on which his clenched fist rested, he looked down at me with bright, fixed eyes. I could almost hear him say: "I know you," and I wanted to answer: "But I don't know myself."
My dream went no further until the waitress appeared in the dingy light behind the bar; in her shadowy face, nothing was distinct but her eyelids, which almost hid her eyes even when she was looking straight ahead. Suddenly, while contemplating those eyelids, I saw my mother, ghostlike but very real. She put the glasses in the sink, skewered a receipt on a spike, ran a cloth over the brass. Nameless horror when for a moment her eyes, mocking, impenetrable, met mine; horror that was more like a jolt, a shift into a larger dream. In this dream the sick woman had recovered. Thoroughly alive, she bustled, disguised as a waitress, from room to room of the restaurant. Her heels peered out of her slingback shoes. What sturdy legs my mother had now, what swinging hips, what a tower of hair. And though, unlike most of the women in the village, she knew only a few words of Slovene, here, in conversation with an invisible group of men in a neighboring booth, she spoke it with ease and self-assurance. So she wasn't the foundling,the fugitive, the German, the foreigner she had always pretended to be. For a moment, I felt ashamed that this person with the brisk movements, the singsong speech, the loud laugh, the quick furtive glances, should be my mother, and then, through this strange woman, I saw her as precisely as never before. Yes, until recently, my mother had spoken in such a singsong, and whenever she had actually started to sing, her son had wanted to stop his ears. In any choir, however large, I could instantly pick out my mother's voice: a quavering, a trembling, a fervid outpouring, which totally captivated the singer, but not the listener. And her laughter had been not only loud but positively wild, a scream, an outburst of joy, of anger, of bitterness, of contempt, of condemnation. When she cried out with pain at the beginning of her illness, her screams had still sounded like the surprised, half-amused, half-indignant laughter which she tried, more and more feebly as time went on, to cover up by singing trills. I conjured up the various voices in our household and heard my father swearing, my sister giggling and weeping in the course of muttered conversations with herself, and my mother laughing from end to end of the village--and Rinkenberg is a long village. (I saw myself as mute.) Then I realized that my mother was not merely self-assured like the waitress but positively imperious. She had always wanted to run a big hotel, with the staff as her subjects. Our farm was small and her demands were great. In her stories about my brother, he was always represented as a king cheated out of his throne.
And she saw me as the rightful heir to the throne yet doubted from the start that I would ever reign. Sometimes, in looking at me, her face froze into anexpression of pity without a glimmer of compassion. I had often been characterized by someone--a priest, a teacher, a girl, a classmate; but in that silent look of my mother's I felt not only characterized but seen through and condemned. And I am sure that it wasn't after a certain lapse of time, for any specific reason, that she started looking at me like that, but that she had done so ever since I was born. She lifted me, held me up to the light, laughed inwardly, and condemned me. And later on, when I was a baby thrashing about in the grass, screaming with the love of life, she would hold me up to the sun to make sure, laugh at me, and again condemn me. I tried to think it had been the same with my brother and sister before me, but I couldn't. I was the only one who elicited the exclamation which commonly followed that merciless look: "Aren't we a pair!" which she sometimes addressed to a farmyard animal about to be slaughtered. True, at an early age I felt the need to be seen, perceived, described, known, but not like that. For instance, I had felt known on one occasion when, not my mother, but my girlfriend, had said: "Aren't we a pair!" And when for the first time, after all the years at the seminary, where no one called us by anything but our family names, I heard the girl next to me at the state school address me quite casually by my first name, I took it as a characterization that exonerated me, almost as a caress. I had a feeling of relief and I can still see the sparkle of the girl's hair. And so, once I learned to decipher my mother's looks, I knew: This is no place for me.
Yet twice in those twenty years she literally saved me. When I was transferred to the seminary from theGymnasium in Bleiburg, it wasn't because my parents wanted to make something better of me. (I believe my father as well as my mother were convinced that I would either amount to nothing at all or become "something out of the ordinary," by which they understood something ghoulish.) The reason for the change of schools was that at the age of twelve I acquired my first, and from the start deadly, enemy.
There had always been enmities among the village children. We were all neighbors, and proximity often made a neighbor's idiosyncrasies unbearable. It was the same among grownups, even old people. For a while two neighbors would pass each other without a greeting; one would pretend to be busy in his house or yard, and the other, within plain sight, would also be busy in his own way. All at once, even without fences, there would be an inviolable boundary between properties. Even in his own home a child who felt he had been unjustly treated by a member of the family would stand silent in a remote corner of the living room with his face to the wall, as though in observance of an old custom. In my imagination, all the living rooms of the village are joined into a single room of many corners, all of which are occupied by quarrelsome, sulking village children, until at length one of them, or all at once (as always happened in reality), breaks the spell with a word or a laugh. It's true that no one in the village referred to anyone as a friend--they spoke instead of "good neighbors"; but it is equally true that at least among the children there were no quarrels leading to lasting hostility.
Even before I came up against my first enemy, I had suffered persecution, an experience that had itseffect on my later life. But there was nothing personal about this persecution; it was simply a child from Rinkenberg being persecuted by children from another village. The children from that other village had a longer, harder way to school than we did; they had to cross a deep ditch and, if only for that reason, were thought to be stronger than we were. On the way home, which as far as the fork was the same for both groups, we Rinkenbergers were regularly chased by the Humt-schachers. (Though they were no older than ourselves, I couldn't see them as children. Now for the first time, as I look at pictures on the tombstones of those killed in early accidents, I am struck by how youthful, not to say childlike, they all were even as young men.) For an eternity we ran along a road (there were never any cars at that time of day), pursued by the menacing roar of the faceless, heavy-legged, clumsy-footed horde, brandishing gorilla-length arms like cudgels, wearing their schoolbags on their backs like combat gear. There were days when, hungry as I was, I would dawdle in the safety of Bleiburg until the jungle menace had passed; at such times the town was dear to me, though as a rule I longed to go home. But then came a sudden change. Once again, starting at the edge of the town, I was pursued by the howling, so terrifying precisely because it was incomprehensible. But this time I let my fellow villagers run and sat down in the grass triangle enclosed by the road and the forked path running into it. In this moment, with the enemy bearing down on me, I was confident that nothing would happen. I stretched out my legs in the grass, looked southward at Mount Petzen, which forms the Yugoslavian border, and knew that I was safe. I felt shielded by the fact that I thought andsaw the same thing at the same time. True enough, nothing happened to me. As they came closer, my persecutors slowed down, and one or two of them followed my eyes. "It's beautiful up there," I heard. "I went up there with my father one time." I looked at them and saw that the horde had broken down into a few individuals. They smiled at me as they sauntered by, as though relieved that I had seen through their game. No words were exchanged, yet it was clear that from then on there would be no more persecution. Looking after them, I noticed their sagging knees and dragging steps. How far they still had to go in comparison with me! And I began to feel a bond with them--at a distance--as I had never done with the children next door in my own village. And with the passage of time, the chaotic, dust-raising plunging and lunging, the terrifying guttural shouts of the Humtschach horde became a dancing, skipping procession, which to this day is gamboling down that childhood road like a festive tribe, for no other purpose than to live on in this image. (It's true that when they were gone I was trembling all over and was unable to leave my grass triangle for quite some time. I leaned against a wooden milkstand and silently counted out numbers.)
But with my first enemy, nothing helped. He was the son of our next-door neighbor; his mother beat him all day long, and his father all evening. (I was never beaten at home; when my father was angry with me, he slapped his own chest or face before my eyes; most of all, he pounded his forehead with his fist, so violently that he staggered backward or fell to his knees. On the other hand, my brother, though blind in one eye, was not only beaten but locked up in the potato cellar duginto the slope behind the house, where he could certainly see more when he closed his one eye than when he kept it open.) My "little enemy"--as I call him now, in contrast to the "big enemy" I had later--never assaulted me. Yet he was instantly my enemy, at first glance, which for a long time nothing followed, not even another glance. None of the usual sticking out of tongues, spitting, tripping up. My childhood enemy did not declare himself; he was simply there with his enmity. And then his enmity erupted in aggression.
One day in church, when the Gospel was being read and we were all standing, I felt a light blow in the hollow of my knee, little more than a poke, but enough to make my knee buckle. I turned around and saw him gazing into space. From that moment on, he left me no peace. He didn't hit me, he didn't throw stones, he didn't insult me--he only blocked my way at every turn. Whenever I stepped out of the house, there he was beside me. He even came into my house--in the villages it was usual for children to go in and out of their neighbors' houses--and attacked me, so inconspicuously that no one else noticed. He never used his hands; all he ever did was push me lightly with his shoulder (you couldn't even have called it shoving as in soccer); it looked as if he was trying in a friendly way to call my attention to something, but in reality he was forcing me into a corner.
Yet as a rule he didn't even touch me, he mimicked me. I'd be walking along. He'd jump out of a bush and walk behind me, imitating my way of walking, putting his feet down at the same time as I did and swinging his arms in the same rhythm. If I broke into a run, so would he; if I stopped, so would he; if I blinked, sowould he. And he never looked me in the eye; he merely studied my eyes, as he did every other part of my body, so as to detect every movement when it had hardly begun and to copy it. I often tried to mislead him about my next move, I'd feint in a wrong direction, then suddenly run away. But he never let himself be outwitted. His imitating was more like shadowing; I became a prisoner of my shadow.
Perhaps, all in all, he was just annoying. But in time this annoyance became an enmity that got under my skin. He became ubiquitous, even when he was not actually with me. When I was happy for a change, my happiness soon vanished, because in my thoughts I saw it aped by my enemy and thus called into question. And the same with all my feelings--pride, grief, anger, affection. Confronted with their shadow, they ceased to be real. And where I felt most alive, tucked away in some hiding place, I had only to make the slightest move toward something, whether it was a book, a pond, a hut in the fields, or an eye, and he would come between us and cut me off from the world. No hatred could have expressed itself more murderously than in this aping pursuit; it was as though he were driven by silent whiplashes. Since being hated to such a degree was beyond my understanding, I attempted a reconciliation. But he was not to be appeased. Not for a moment did he hesitate. Quick as a guillotine blade, he mimicked my gesture of reconciliation. Not a single day, not even a dream passed without my shadow. When I screamed at him for the first time, he didn't recoil; he pricked up his ears. My scream was the sign he had been waiting for. And in the end it was I who became violent. In fighting him at the age of twelve, I no longer knew whoI was; in other words, I ceased to be anything; in other words, I became evil. My childhood enemy showed me (and I'm sure this was just what he had planned) that I was evil, more evil than he, an evil person.
At first I only thrashed about, rather like a swimmer in fear of drowning. My enemy didn't get out of the way; on the contrary, he held out his face in a gesture of defiance. His mask was as close to me as the sidewalk might be in a dream of falling. My grabbing at it was not a defensive reflex; it was the statement, the admission, the confession the world had been waiting for: I was no better than he; at last, by my act of violence, I had admitted that I was my enemy's still more evil enemy. And true enough, at the touch of his saliva and nasal mucus, I had a twofold feeling of violence and injustice, an experience I never want to repeat. Before my eyes a mask of triumph: "You've passed the point of no return!" Then I kicked him in the behind, I put my whole heart into it. He didn't defend himself but stood his ground with an indelible grin. He had attained his aim: from that day on, I was "his aggressor," so to speak, in the eyes of all. Now he had every reason and right to hound me. Our hitherto secret enmity had blossomed into a war, which had to be fought openly and could only end in the damnation of us both. One day his father saw me beating his son. He came running, separated us, threw me to the ground, and trampled me with his stable boots (subjecting me to a long, high-pitched litany of names such as escaped my own father only when he felt the need of warding off landslides, lightning, hail, or household and garden pests).
This beating was a lucky thing for me, the only good luck, I might say, that came my way for the nextten years. It loosed my tongue; I managed to tell my mother (yes, my mother) about my enemy. My story began with the command: "Listen!" and ended with another command: "Do something!" As usual in our family, it was my mother who did something. Her action consisted in taking her twelve-year-old son, under the pretext that the priest and the teacher had won her over, to be examined for admission to the seminary.
In Klagenfurt, on the way back from the examination, we missed the last train to Bleiburg. We walked out of town and stood on the road in the rain and darkness, though I have no recollection of getting wet. After a while, the driver of a small truck on his way to Maribor on the lower Drava in Yugoslavia, stopped and picked us up. There were no seats in the back, and we sat on the floor. As my mother had told the man in Slovene where we were going, he tried at first to chat with her. But when it became apparent that her Slovene amounted only to formulas of greeting and snatches of a few folk songs, he fell silent. From this silent ride through the night on the metal floor of the truck, I preserved a feeling of oneness with my mother which remained in force at least throughout my ensuing seminary years. My mother had got a permanent for the trip; for once she wasn't wearing her head scarf, and despite the heaviness of her fifty-year-old body, her face, touched now and then by a beam of light, looked youthful to me. She sat there hugging her knees, with her handbag beside her. On the outside, the raindrops ran obliquely down the windowpanes, and inside, tools, packages of nails, and empty jerricans collided with us. For the first time in my life, I felt a kind of release, of impetuousjoy within me--something on the order of confidence. With my mother's help, I had been put on the path that was right for me. This woman was a stranger to me, I had often literally denied her and have often denied her since--the word "mother" had seldom crossed my lips--but on that summer evening in 1952 it struck me for once as self-evident that I had a mother and was her son. That evening she was not the peasant woman, the farm worker, the stable maid, the churchgoer she often impersonated in the village, but revealed what was behind all this: manager rather than housewife, traveler rather than stay-at-home, woman of action rather than onlooker.
Where the road turned off to Rinkenberg, the driver let us out. I didn't even notice that my mother had taken my arm until she turned around. The rain had stopped, and at the edge of the plain Mount Petzen rose in the moonlight, every detail as sharp as a hieroglyphic : the ravines, the cliffs, the tree line, the cirques, the line of peaks: "Our mountain!" My mother told me that down there along the mountainside, my brother, long before the war, had traveled in the same direction as "our driver," southwest across the border, on his way to agricultural school in Maribor.
My five years at the seminary are not worth the telling. The words "homesickness," "oppression," "cold," and "collective confinement" suffice. Never for one moment had the priesthood, at which we were all ostensibly aiming, appealed to me as a calling, and few of the children seemed to have the vocation; here at the seminary the mystery which in the village church had still emanated from the Sacrament was dispelled from morning to night. None of the priests at the schoolimpressed me as a shepherd of souls; either they sat withdrawn in their warm private rooms--and if they sent for one of us, it was at the most to warn, to threaten, or to pump--or else they would move about the buildings, always in their black, floor-length cassock-uniforms, acting as wardens and prefects. Even at the altar, celebrating the daily Mass, far from being transformed into the priests they had once been consecrated as, they executed every detail of the ceremony in the role of policemen: when they stood silently with their backs turned and their arms raised heavenward, they seemed to be listening to what was going on behind their backs, and when they turned around, supposedly to bless us all, their true purpose was to catch me red-handed. How different it had been with the village priest: before my eyes he had just carried crates full of apples down to the cellar, listened to the news on the radio, cut hairs out of his ears; and now in the house of God he stood in his vestments, never mind his creaking joints, before the Holy of Holies--removed from the rest of us, who thus became a congregation.
The only good company I had at the seminary I enjoyed alone, when studying. In my solitary study, every word I remembered, every formula I applied correctly, every watercourse I learned to draw from memory, anticipated my one overriding desire: to be out in the open. If asked what the word "kingdom" meant to me, I would not have named any particular country but only the "kingdom of freedom."
And to my mind the man who in my last year at the seminary became my great friend was the embodiment of this "kingdom" which thus far I had glimpsed only in study. He was not a contemporary but an adult,and he was not a priest but a man from outside, from the world, a lay teacher. He was still very young; having just completed his studies, he lived in the so-called teachers' house, which, apart from the seminary building and the bishops' tomb embedded in the hillside, was the only structure on the secluded, treeless knoll. Inconspicuous as I was to everyone else (years later, when I ran into former classmates, I always heard the same description: "quiet, aloof, self-absorbed," in which I did not recognize myself), he noticed me at once. Everything he said in class was addressed to me, as though he were giving me a private lesson; and his tone was not that of a teacher; rather, he seemed in every sentence to be asking me if I agreed with his way of organizing his subject matter. He spoke as if I had long been familiar with the material and he was only waiting for me to assure him with a nod that he was not misleading the others. Once, when I went so far as to correct him, he did not look the other way but expressed his delight that a pupil should know better than his teacher; that, he said, was what he had always wished for. Not for one moment did I feel flattered. This was something very different: I felt recognized. I had been overlooked for years, and now at last someone had taken notice of me. In so doing, he had awakened me, and I awoke with exuberance. For a time all went well with me, my classmates, and above all the young teacher. Every day in my thoughts I went over to the teachers' house after class; I passed from the stuffy religious dungeon into the airy realm of study, research, and contemplation of the world, into a solitude which struck me as glorious at the time. When he went away on weekends, my thoughts were with him in the city, wherehe did nothing but compose himself for his schooldays; and when he stayed at the seminary, the one lighted window in the teachers' house was for me an eternal light very different from the trembling little flame beside the altar of the dark seminary chapel.
In those days I never thought of becoming a teacher myself--I wanted to remain a pupil forever, the pupil, for instance, of such a teacher, who was at the same time his pupil's pupil. Of course this was possible only while distance was kept, and we forfeited this necessary distance, I perhaps in the exuberance of waking, he perhaps in the exuberance of a discovery which up until then he had only let himself dream of. Or perhaps the trouble was that I couldn't bear for long to think of myself as chosen. Something drove me to shatter the image he had formed of me, much as it resembled my own. I wanted to remove myself from his field of vision. I longed to live in obscurity as I had for the last sixteen years, hidden in the big blue cavern that was my desk, where no one could have any opinion, high or low, of me--yes, after becoming even better known to someone than to the Doppelganger who had often haunted me in the past, I really and truly longed for obscurity. To be regarded for any length of time as a model, if not a marvel, was intolerable, not because of what my classmates might think, but in my own eyes, and I longed to vanish behind a wall of contradictions. So it came about that after asking a question proving that my thought had kept pace with his, and being buffeted by a look expressing an emotion deeper than joy, I made a hideous face, which was intended only to divert attention from myself but which--I could feel it the moment he did--wounded the young teacher to thequick. He went rigid, left the room, and stayed away till the end of that period. No one else knew what was wrong with him. He thought he had seen my true face in that moment; he thought my earnestness, my love of the subjects studied, my affection for him, who put his whole self into his teaching, was a pretense; he thought I was a cheat, a hypocrite, and a traitor. While the other students talked excitedly, I looked calmly out of the window. The teacher was standing in the yard with his back to the building. When he turned around, I saw not his eyes but his pursed lips, as hard as a bird's beak. That hurt me, but I didn't mind. I was actually glad that at last I had no one but myself.
In the days that followed, the beak became even sharper. This, however, was not an enemy who hated me but a cold judge whose verdict, once arrived at, was irrevocable. And the cavern of my desk did not prove to be the refuge I had imagined. It was all up with my studying. Every day, the teacher proved to me that I knew nothing, or that what I knew was not what was "wanted." My so-called knowledge was some sort of foolishness; it had nothing to do with the subject but was entirely my invention, and in this form, without a certified formula, was no good to anybody. I stared at the cavern where once, as I warmed my forehead, the luminous world of signs, distinctions, transitions, connections, and common denominators had dawned for me, and I was alone with the black cloud inside me. Unthinkable that it would ever break up; it grew thicker, it spread, rose to my mouth, my eyes, took away my voice, my eyesight. This of course no one noticed. During common prayer in church, I had only moved my lips, and in school, since this was our principalteacher, it wasn't long before I ceased to be questioned or even taken notice of. It was then that I discovered what it is to lose one's voice--not only to fall silent in the presence of others but to be incapable of saying a word to oneself, or of making a sound or a gesture when alone. Such muteness cried out for violence; acquiescence was inconceivable. And this violence could not, as with my little enemy, be directed outward; my big enemy was a weight inside me, on my abdomen, my diaphragm, my lungs, my windpipe, my larynx, my palate, blocking my nostrils and ears, and the heart at the center of all that ceased to beat, pound, throb, spurt, and bleed, and just ticked sharply, angrily.
And then one morning someone came into the classroom and summoned me to the rector's office. The rector called me by my first name and told me my mother would be phoning any minute (he had always called me Filip in her presence, though otherwise I was invariably addressed as Kobal). I had never before heard my mother's voice on the phone, and today, though I've forgotten almost all her modes of expression, her speaking and singing, her laughing and moaning, I can still hear her voice of that morning--muffled, as one might expect of a voice from a post-office phone booth, monotonous and clear. She said my father and she had agreed to transfer me from the "boys' seminary" to a secular school, and this without delay. I had already been registered at the Gymnasium in Klagenfurt and in two hours they would pick me up at the entrance in a neighbor's car. "Starting tomorrow, you'll attend your new class. You'll be sitting beside a girl. You'll take the train every day. You'll have your own room at home, we don't need the storeroom anymore; your father ismaking you a chair and a table." I started to protest, but I soon stopped. My mother spoke with the voice of a judge. She knew me inside and out; she had jurisdiction over me. The decision rested with her, and she decreed that I should be set free immediately. Just this once, her voice rose up from deep within her, from a silence she had stored up all her life, stored up perhaps for the very purpose of enabling her, in a single moment, on the right occasion, to make a powerful statement, after which she would fall back into the silence where her people had their throne and kingdom; a light, winged, dancing, chanting voice. I reported my mother's decision to the rector, he accepted it without a word, and before I knew it, a happy little group was sailing across the open plain, the reprieved prisoner and his suitcase on the back seat, under a towering sky, in a world as bright as if the car top had been taken down. Whenever the road ahead of us was empty, our neighbor at the wheel would drive in wide zigzags, singing partisan songs at the top of his voice. My mother, who didn't know the words, hummed the tune and from time to time, in a voice that grew more and more festive, shouted the names of the villages bordering my homeward road on the left and right. Seized with dizziness, I held fast to my suitcase. If I had had to give my feeling a name, it would not have been "relief" or "joy" or "bliss," but "light," almost too much of it.
Nevertheless, I never really returned home after that. During my years at the seminary, every trip home had been bathed in the atmosphere of a great festive journey, and not only because, apart from the summer vacation, we were allowed to go home only on the major feastdays. Before Christmas, we released prisoners stormed down the hill in the pitch darkness, left the winding road at the first opportunity, climbed over the fence with our bags, cut across the steep, deserted, frozen pasture, plodded on over the water meadows and the brooks steaming with frost to the railroad station. In the train I stood out on the platform, jostled my schoolmates, whose shouts of joy rang in my ears. It was still night, an invigorating darkness encompassed heaven and earth, the stars overhead and, down below, the sparks rising from the engine, and I am still able to think of the wind blowing through this black force field as something sacred. My whole body up to my nose was so filled with the air of that journey that I felt as if I had no need to breathe for myself. I heard the jubilation, which those around me shouted, but which I myself only had silent within me, expressed not by my own voice but by the things of the outside world: the pounding of the wheels, the rattling of the rails, the clicking of the switches; the signals that opened the way, the gates that guarded it; the crackling of the whole speeding, roaring train.
Each of us left the group with the certainty that he still had the best part of his journey ahead of him, the adventurous footpath ending in a home unknown to his fellow convicts. And once, indeed, when on such a day I left the station and cut across the fields to the village, I was accompanied by something in which I saw the Child Saviour announced by the religious calendar. True, nothing more happened than that the spaces between the shriveled cornstalks by the wayside flared up as I passed. These spaces appeared to move, step by step, identical from row to row, empty, white and windy,and I had the impression that it was always the same small space that not only accompanied me but flew fitfully ahead, a puff of wind that flushed like a bird in the corner of my eye, waited for me, and then flew on ahead. A handful of corn chaff rose from a furrow in a fallow field; pale yellow leaves hovered motionless for a time, then in the form of a column moved slowly over the fields, while in the background a train, almost hidden by the fog, seemed now to stop, now to shoot ahead, as fitfully as the airy something beside me. I ran homeward, burning to tell them something which, as I already knew in the doorway, could not be told just then, and not in words. Once the door opened, nothing existed but the house, warm, smelling of scrubbed wood, inhabited by people who, unlike those at the seminary, belonged to me. My face, covered with soot from the early-morning train trip, told them all they needed to know.
The seminary had been so foreign a place that from there, regardless of whether to the south, west, north, or east, the only direction was homeward. At night, as I lay in the dormitory listening to the trains rolling across the plain below, I could conceive only of passengers on their way home. An airplane on its transcontinental route passed directly over the village. And that, too, was where the clouds were heading. The path leading to the steep descending cattle track showed the way; on the deserted, grass-overgrown paths, I was so near the goal that I seemed to hear someone say: "Warm," as in a game of hide-the-thimble. The bread truck that came once a week drove on to a place about which I knew nothing but its name, but where the light was the same as at home. Objects in the distance--a mountain, the moon, a navigational light--seemed tobe bridges through the air to the place where, as it says in my birth certificate, my parents "resided." My daily thoughts of flight were never directed toward the city, let alone toward any foreign country, but always toward my native place: a barn, a certain hut, the chapel in the forest, the reed shelter by the lake. Nearly all the boys at the seminary came from villages, and if one of them actually ran away, he was soon found somewhere near his village or making a beeline in that direction.
But now that I was free and traveled back and forth day after day between my remote village and the city school, I discovered that I no longer had a fixed place. In my eyes the village of Rinkenberg--which had hardly changed during my years at the seminary, not the church, not the low Slovenian farmhouses, not the unfenced orchards--had ceased to be a coherent unit and was only a sprinkling of houses in the countryside. The village square, the roads leading up to the barns, the bowling alley, the beehives, the meadows, the bomb craters, the wayside shrine, the clearing in the woods were still there, but they did not form the fabric in which I had previously moved as a native among natives, a Rinkenberger. It was as though a protective roof had flown away and the harsh, cold light no longer revealed meeting places, festive scenes, nooks and crannies, points of view, benches to rest on--in short, the landmarks that coalesce to form a whole village. At first I put the blame on the village, where in many instances hand tools had been replaced by machines, but I soon realized that I was the disrupter, I was out of tune. Wherever I went, I stumbled, collided, missed my aim. If someone was headed my way, I evaded his eyes, though we may have known each other since childhood.Because I had been away for so long, because I had not stayed home, because I had left my proper place, I felt guilty; I had forfeited the right to be here. Once a boy of my own age, with whom I had attended grade school in my village days, started telling me bits of local news, but broke off in the middle, saying: "You look like you don't know what I'm talking about."
I was unable to get back in with my age group. For one thing, none of the others was still going to school; some had taken over their fathers' farms, others were plying a trade, but all were working. Though legally minors, they struck me as adults. Whenever I saw them, they were either at work or on their way to work. In their farm clothes or aprons, with their faces set straight ahead, their always alert eyes, their ready fingers, they had acquired a military quality, and similarly the babbling voices of the schoolroom had given way to monosyllabic utterances, to curt nods or vacant stares as they passed on their mopeds (with, at the most, a laconic wave of the hand). Their pleasures as well were those of adults; and I as a matter of course was left out of them. With a shudder of wonderment, almost of awe, as though worshipping a mystery, I contemplated the so serious, attentive, sure-footed couples on the dance floor. This young woman with the dignified movements was the little girl who had once hopped over the chalk lines of hopscotch squares. And not so long ago the young lady who now picks up her skirt as she steps daintily onto the dance floor was showing us her hairless pubis in the cow pasture. How quickly they had all outgrown such childish pursuits! And now they were literally looking down on me. Every one of the boys had already suffered a serious accident; one had lost afinger, another an arm or an ear; one at least had been killed. Some were fathers; several of the girls were mothers. One of the boys had been in jail. And what about me? It came to me that during my years at the seminary my youth had passed but I had never for one moment known the experience of youth. I saw youth as a river, a free confluence and flow from which I was excluded when I entered the seminary. My years at the seminary were lost time that could never be retrieved. In me something was missing, and would always be missing. Like many young men in the village, I had lost a part of my body; it had not been cut off like a hand or a foot; no, it had never had a chance to grow; and it was no mere extremity, so to speak, but an irreplaceable organ. My trouble was that I couldn't go along with the others; I couldn't join in their activities or talk with them. I was a stranded cripple, and the current, which alone could have sustained me, had passed me by forever. I knew that without youth I could do nothing. I had missed it once and for all, and that made me incapable of movement; especially in the only company that would have been right for me, that of my contemporaries, it gave me a feeling of painful inner paralysis, and I swore that I would never forgive the people I held responsible for this paralysis--and those people existed.
Though I was often glad to stand apart, in the long run I couldn't reconcile myself to being alone. At first I associated with my juniors, with children. They were glad to have me, as a referee in their games, as a helper, as a storyteller. In the hour between the onset of dusk and nightfall, the open space in front of the churchbecame a kind of children's forum. They would sit on window ledges or on their bicycles, and as often as not they had to be called several times before they would go home to bed. They didn't talk much, they just sat there together while the bats circled around them, growing almost invisible to one another as the time passed. With the help of certain paraphernalia, I would try my hand as a storyteller. From time to time, I would strike a match, tap two stones together, blow into my cupped hands. Actually, I never did more than evoke sounds and sights: clubfeet walking, a stream swelling, a will-o'-the-wisp coming closer. And my listeners were not eager for a story, they were satisfied with my evocations. But not content with such marginal participation, I would sit in the midst of the children, as though I were one of them. They took me for granted, but my former playmates, who had become "big" boys and girls in the meantime, made fun of me. Once when I ran a race across the square with some children, hardly any of whom came up to my shoulders, a girl whom in my seminary nights I had often seen swathed in blue veils--I was never able to conjure up a naked woman--passed on stiletto heels. Though she hadn't even looked at me--a glance out of the corner of her eye had told her all she wanted to know about me; namely, the worst--her lip curled almost imperceptibly.
At one stroke, not only the children's company but the square itself was closed to me. Something drove me to the strip of land on the edge of the village, known locally as "behind the gardens." This area, though inhabited, was not really part of the village. Unmarried persons lived there--the roadmender, for example. He occupied a one-room house with thick dark-yellow walls,suggesting the porter's lodge of a nonexistent manor house (there had never been such a manor in or near any of the villages). I never once set foot in the house and altogether kept my distance from the man. He was the only person in the village with a secret, which, however, he displayed freely and had no need to hide. Maintaining the village streets and pathways was only his everyday occupation. But there were days when he abandoned the gravel box out on the desolate highway and metamorphosed into a sign painter, stood, for instance, on a ladder over the entrance to the inn at the center of the village. As I watched him adding a shadowy line to a finished letter with a strikingly slow brushstroke, aerating, as it were, a thick letter with a few hair-thin lines, and then conjuring up the next letter from the blank surface, as though it had been there all along and he was only retracing it, I saw in this nascent script the emblem of a hidden, nameless, all the more magnificent and above all unbounded kingdom, in the presence of which the village did not disappear but emerged from its insignificance as the innermost circle of this kingdom, irradiated by the shapes and colors of the sign at its center. At such moments, even the painter's ladder took on a special quality. It didn't lean, it towered. The curbstone at its feet gleamed. A haywagon passed, its strands of hay plaited into garlands. The hooks on the shutters did not just hang down, they pointed in definite directions. The door of the inn became a portal, and those who entered looked up at the sign and bared their heads in obeisance. The foot of a chicken scratching about in the background became the yellow claw of a heraldic animal. The road where the sign painter was standingled, not to the small town nearby, but out into the country and at the same time straight toward the tip of his brush. On certain other days, amid the blowing leaves of autumn, the driving snows of winter, the flowery clouds of spring, the heat lightning of summer nights, I had perceived the wide world as a pure Now; but on signposting days there was something more: an exalted Now, an Era.
And I saw the roadmender in still another avatar, touching up the paint on the wayside shrines. One of these was shaped like a chapel, with an inner room, but this room was so small it would have been impossible to take a single step in it. Time and again I found him at work, squeezed into this little box at a remote crossroads, visible only from his head to one elbow, which he rested on the frame of the little window that opened outward. The shrine made me think of a hollow tree trunk, an engineer's cab, a sentry box; and I had the impression that the man had carried it into the wilderness on his shoulders. The painter didn't even have room enough to take a step backward and examine his work. But his serenity, as he stood there with his hat on his head, not for one moment put off by my presence, showed that he had no need of more room. The mural he was retouching was invisible from outside; to see what it represented, a passerby would have to lean over the window ledge. Only the dominant color was suffused in the little house, a luminous blue, in which, if I kept looking, every one of the painter's movements struck me as exemplary. I resolved that at some future date I, too, would do my work so slowly, so thoughtfully, so silently, uninfluenced by anyone who happened to be present, in perfect independence, withoutencouragement, without praise, expecting nothing, demanding nothing, without ulterior motive of any kind. Whatever this future work might be, it would have to be comparable to this painting, which ennobled the painter and with him the chance witness.
It was during those years--when it was brought home to me day after day that since the premature, abrupt breaking off of my childhood there could be no renewed contact, no continuation, no permanence for me in the village--that my confused sister came closer to me for the first time. The odd part of it is that since earliest childhood I had felt drawn to all the idiots in the vicinity, and they to me. In their perpetual wanderings, they often came to the window and pressed their noses and lips to the pane. And during my schooldays in Bleiburg, the one place to which I was drawn time and again was the mental home. After school, I would regularly make the detour that took me there. The idiots would greet me through the fence by screaming and waving their arms--I also remember their hugging the air--whereupon I, intermittently screaming and waving my arms on the deserted highway, would go happily home. In a sense, the mentally deranged and feebleminded were my guardian angels, and when I hadn't seen any of them in a long time, the sight of an idiot gave me a sudden burst of health and strength.
However, I didn't regard my sister as one of the happy band of the feebleminded or insane. She had always been solitary and gloomy, and as long as I can remember I had feared her and avoided her. The look in her eyes did not seem confused to me, as I had been told, but fixed; not empty, but clear; not lost, but alwaysalert. Those eyes were constantly appraising me, and not at all favorably. And the gauge (for I regarded that fixed stare as a gauge) did not register my mistakes or misdeeds, but my basic failing: falsehood; I was not what I purported to be, I wasn't authentic, I wasn't anything, I was only pretending. And indeed, it was impossible to be friends with her; whatever I did--even if I was only looking into space--I had the feeling that I was trying to put something over on her or myself, and making a bad job of it at that. For a while at least, she had mocked me now and then with her almost pitying giggle; later she would keep a malicious silence after those crushing moments of appraisal. Consequently, I kept out of her way when possible (but then I might suddenly discover her on the balcony, where she had set her appraisal trap).
Another thing that may have put me off was that she was so much older than I. Between her and my brother there was only a year's difference; but between her and me it was two decades. When I was very little, I actually took her for a stranger in the house, a mysterious intruder, who would someday pull a pin out of her hair and stick it into me. And then, when I got back from the seminary, she did indeed take the pins out of her hair, by which I mean that she let her hair down and opened up to me. She developed a feeling for me, a kind of enthusiasm. With enthusiasm she crossed the fields to meet me when I came from the train; with enthusiasm she carried my bag; with enthusiasm she handed me a bird's feather, brought me an apple, served me a glass of cider. I had denied it all the while, and now at last I was what I was: at last she wasn't the only confused one who didn't belong anywhere;now I, too, was just that. At last she had an accomplice, an ally, and it was possible for her to be with me. Instead of blasting me, her eyes rested on me, and while hitherto they had foreseen nothing but calamity for me, they now proclaimed pure joy in my, her, our presence; but they were never obtrusive; when I needed it, they merely gave me a look that escaped everyone else, a mere hint, a sign.
To my mind, the right posture for my sister is sitting, a tranquil, erect sitting, with her hands beside her on the bench. Though every house had a bench in front of it, it was usually the men, especially the old ones, who sat there. I remember my father only as old, but I have no recollection of him seated. As for the women of the village, I saw them "always on their feet," as housekeepers were said to be: walking in the street, bending over in the garden, and indoors actually running. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that no Slovene woman could move from one place to another without running. Short as the distance might be, a Slovene woman ran from table to stove, from stove to sideboard, from sideboard to table. This running in small spaces was a quick sequence of skipping, flitting on tiptoes, running in place, changing feet, turning, and skipping some more; seen as a whole, it was a kind of clumsy dancing, the dancing of women who had been servants for many years. The young girls as well, no sooner back home from school, took to running; vying with their elders, they galloped like servants around their kitchen-living rooms. Even my mother, who was not a Slovene, had acquired the native custom; just to bring me a cup of tea, she would hop with downcast eyes and bated breath, as though I werean unexpected noble guest. Yet I can't remember any such guest ever coming to our house, not even the parish priest. But my sister, alone among the village women, appears to me seated. She sat on the bench in front of the house; there she sat for all to see, and all she did was sit. I regarded her, just as I did the roadmender, as a model. Sitting there, playing with her fingers, without the usual rosary, she transformed herself into a phantom, seen only by him whom she herself chose to see; that is, by me. Excluded like the sign painter from the dance, she, too, in her fool's freedom, embodied the center of the village. And it seemed to me that the age-old little stone statue, which dwelt, ignored by all, in a dark niche in the church wall, might have sat there as she did. Now it was reduced to a torso, a hand, and a head, and the only protuberances on the weather-beaten face were the eyes and the broadly smiling mouth, both closed. Here in the open, eyelids, lips, and the hand with the stone ball reflected the sunlight, and the whole image receded into the shimmering wall, its pedestal.
Yes, there was the moment with the children in the dusk, the moment of the painter working without witnesses, the moments when my sister and fellow conspirator was sitting in the sun. Yet all these moments could not in the long run take the place of the village I had lost.
The dream was over. Other dreams had to help out, big ones and little ones, by day and by night. But in those years I failed to make a place for myself in the city. Though I no longer felt at home in the village and instead of coming straight home after school I oftentook the last train, I remained in every respect an outsider in the city. I went neither to cafes nor to the movies and killed time drifting or sitting on park benches. It may have been partly due to the geography of Klagenfurt that I had nowhere to go. The lake was too far for walking, and this city, which seemed enormous to me, the capital of a whole province, had no river running through it, with banks to stroll along or bridges to stand on. Apart from the railroad station, the only building that offered me any kind of shelter was the school. I spent whole afternoons alone in my classroom or, when it was being cleaned, in a side room off the lobby, where unused tables and benches were stored. Sometimes there were other out-of-town students, and there, as the enormous deserted building grew steadily darker and quieter, we formed a little class of our own, sitting on the windowsills and standing in the corners. It was there that I met the girl with whom I once went to the movies, after all; she lived as far away as I did, in the opposite direction, in a village which, quite otherwise than in my days at the seminary, I conceived to be infinitely more alluring than my own. Her face glowed in the failing light of the corridor, and I fancied that she could only be the daughter of a noble house, living on a magnificent street.
With my classmates, on the other hand, it was only during our lessons together that I felt an affinity. In the schoolroom I spoke up (sometimes I was actually the spokesman for the class or the one who was consulted in doubtful cases). But after school I was left alone. The others all lived in town, with their parents or with local families. And they were all the children of lawyers, doctors, manufacturers, or businessmen. I was the onlyone who could not have said what his father did for a living. Was I the son of a "carpenter," a "farmer," a "flood-control worker" (over the years, my father had been all of these); or would it suffice for me to answer evasively that my father was "retired"? Regardless of how I concealed my origins, of how I might ennoble or debase them or pass them over, as though--and that is what I should have preferred--I had no origins at all, I nevertheless recognized what I had long dimly felt in my dealings with the children of the teacher, the policeman, the postmaster, the bank clerk in Bleiburg; namely, that I was not one of them, that we really had nothing in common, that we were not of the same world. They had social grace, I had none. I found their parties, to which they politely invited me at first, not only odd but positively repellent. Standing at the door of the dancing school, listening to the teacher counting out the time in a voice of command, I'd have said that the people in there were convicts who had actually chosen a life term in this place, and when I touched the door handle, it had the feel of a handcuff. Once at a garden party someone threw a hammock over my head, and there I sat with my knees drawn up, as in a net from which there was no escaping, surrounded by Chinese and storm lanterns, under the spell of soft music and splashing fountains, encircled by dancing or chatting couples.
Outside the classroom, I was always out of place. Wherever I turned, I was in the way; by stumbling before every sentence, I brought lively, witty conversations to a halt. While the others walked in the middle of the sidewalk with head high, I slunk bent forward alongwalls and fences, and when, no matter where, they stopped in the doorway to let themselves be seen, I took advantage of that moment to slip in unnoticed beside them (a stratagem which sometimes, as the laughter in the room indicated, really succeeded in calling attention to me). Altogether, though I alone was aware of it, the time I spent out of school with my fellow students was poisoned by my obtuseness. Years later a man seen in a streetcar recalled to me the picture I had of myself in those days: he was sitting with a group of friends who were telling jokes. He regularly joined in their laughter, but always just a little too late; then suddenly he would stop laughing, freeze, and, much too loudly, rejoin the chorus of laughers. None of the others noticed what was instantly obvious to me, the outsider. He seemed to get the gist of the jokes, but without understanding what was funny about them. Missing the double meanings and allusions, he took everything he heard seriously. During moments of silence I saw by his dismayed look that he took every detail of their stories for literal truth. And that day in the streetcar I said to myself: That is exactly the way I behaved with my schoolmates, and only an outsider such as I am now could have noticed that one of us was not really a member of the group.
Once several of us were sitting at a table, talking. At first I joined in, but then, suddenly, it was all over between me and the others, the group on one side, myself on the other. I could hear them talking, but I couldn't see them; at the most, a limb or two flashed across the corner of my eye. But that made my hearing all the sharper; I could have reproduced the intonationas well as the words of every sentence with terrifying accuracy and more realistically than the best tape recorder. They were only saying the usual things, amusing themselves. But the mere fact of their saying such things and their way of saying them infuriated me. Hadn't I just been trying to join in? Yes, but now I was sitting deathly still on the fringe, wanting them to question me about my silence. And they, it seemed to me, were talking all the more glibly past me, over my head, as though their only purpose were to show me that they were something special and that I didn't exist for them. Yes, by talking and talking without the slightest pause while I sat there reduced to silence, these sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie meant to rebuff me and my class. And even if an unfriendly word was never dropped, their way of speaking, their flat, glib singsong, was directed against me. I felt the energy that had accumulated inside me before this get-together--the urge to say something for once--reverse itself behind my forehead and strike back at me, benumbing my whole brain. That was my first experience of "loneliness," which up until then had been a mere word to me. Then and there I resolved that I would never go in for this sort of society; and wasn't it a silent triumph to be unable to join in such talk, to be different? I left the table without saying goodbye, and the talk didn't subside for so much as a moment. Later, when the story got around, it came to my ears that I hadn't had a good upbringing, as they put it, "a proper nursery," and it occurred to me that, sure enough, there hadn't been a separate room for the children in our house. These incidents left me with a habit that I had to break myself of later; when I got into an argument, I invariablyaddressed my adversary, however singular, by the second person plural.
I came to feel at home while on the move, riding in trains, waiting at railroad stations and bus stops. My daily ninety kilometers, or, counting distances covered on foot, three hours back and forth between village and city, gave me the time and space I needed to live in. I heaved a sigh of relief every time I was restored to the society of my mostly unknown fellow travelers, whom I had no need to classify and who did not classify me. During the trip we were neither rich nor poor, neither better nor worse than anyone else, neither German nor Slovene; if anything, we were young and old--and on the return journey in the evening it seemed to me that even age had ceased to count. What were we, then? In the classless local train we were simply passengers, and the same was true of the bus. Sometimes, for various reasons, I preferred the bus; for one thing, the trip took longer; moreover, it was dark; and lastly, in the bus even people I knew only too well seemed transformed. In the village or in Bleiburg I identified these people by their voices, their way of walking, the look in their eyes, their way of leaning their elbows on the windowsill, of turning their heads to look at a passerby, or by what I knew of their families or past history, but once they boarded the bus, they became indefinable. And being indefinable, they were something more in my eyes than they would otherwise have been; shorn of their particularities, they appeared at last alone and unique in the here and now; in the roaring, lurching bus, ennobled as it were by the journey together, they seemed more in their place than in the pews theymaintained in church at home. Grown indefinable, they revealed themselves. They hinted at something that I could not interpret, and this was their reality; their greetings from passenger to passenger were true greeting, their questions were a real wanting to know, and though I could not hold on to these things, I ought to have! How sheltered, as though among my own kind, I felt with these people, consisting almost always of persons alone or of a child with adults, being conveyed by a reliable driver (who at home may have been a morose neighbor) over roads and city streets, all bound together, not by some excursion or pleasure trip, but by a necessity which carried them away from house and garden to the doctor, to school, to market, or to some administrative office. And this feeling did not always need the protection of darkness. One bright morning I sat behind some women who were carrying on a conversation from side to side of the bus about the relatives they were all on their way to visit in the hospital. Their talk of illness, a distinct sequence of voices, one loud, one soft, one plaintive, one calm, each in turn setting the tone, transformed the moving bus into a stage belonging exclusively to these women, a glass cage in which the light of a whole country had accumulated, and this light, the light of another country which was nevertheless present and traveling along with the bus, dispersed and spiritualized everything that was heavy and corporeal. The women's head scarves shimmered, and bunches of garden flowers peered out of their handbags.
In very much the same way, I kept seeing the passengers who got out at the bus stops and hurried away into the darkness. These stops were also stages;the scenes enacted on them consisted solely of people coming, going, and waiting. Some, before turning away, lingered a while in the circle of light, as though in no hurry to go home (I was one of these); the others had barely got out of the bus when (like children sometimes in a dream) they vanished as though for all time. And the emptiness they left behind was marked by a warm seat beside me, condensed breath on the windowpane, fingerprints and hair smudges.
At that time, my favorite stage was the area around the municipal bus station and a side street parallel to the railroad line, with its ticket office and a long row of ports from which buses left for different parts of the country and on certain days even for Yugoslavia and Italy. Here I had the impression of being at the center of action. This action, to be sure, was only the smell of the glossy-black wooden ticket office floor, the roaring of the cast-iron stoves, the banging of doors, the flapping of posters against the busports outside, the trembling of a starting bus, the crackling and banging of another that was parking, the blowing of dust, leaves, snow, and newspapers through the windy street. And what these things were doing, or the mere fact that they were there, the faint yellow streetlights high up in the trees, the cracked supports of the ports, the rusting sheet-metal signs indicating destinations--that was enough action for me, no need for anything more to happen, that was plenty. If a face emerged from the darkness and became personally recognizable, it was too much. It was worse than a nuisance, it destroyed the magic. I couldn't help making up stories about this, and the hero was always someone who claimed to be God, or an idiotwho, ridiculed by all when he got in, avenged himself during the night ride by steering the bus off a precipice. Even my girlfriend merely cut off my view when she turned toward me as her bus was pulling out on the other side of the street. I couldn't respond to her wave until she was out of the picture and the square was empty again. Then, to be sure, the whole country was full of her; I accompanied her on her trip and she me on mine.
Yes, trains and buses, railroad stations and bus stops were my home in my days as a commuting student. The homesickness of my years at the seminary was a thing of the past; on days when there was no school, something drew me to the road with its bus shelters, which, unlike the village, deserved to be called "places." I longed to be always on the move, a vagrant, without fixed abode. My old homesickness, the most painful of all the sufferings I had thus far experienced, a torment which unlike other torments fell from a clear sky on me alone, while the whole world around me remained bright, and which, also unlike other torments, was irremediable, had given way to a carefreeness which, as long as it had no goal, I identified with boredom, but once it had a goal, with wanderlust: pleasure in place of torment.
During my commuting days, it came to me that my parents were also strangers in the village. They were so regarded not by other villagers but by themselves. Outside the house, they were respected. My father was given honorific positions (in Rinkenberg, these were almost always connected with the church). My mother was regarded as an expert in dealings with the authorities and with the outside world in general; she was akind of village scribe, who wrote letters and petitions for neighbors. But at home, once they were alone and especially when neither was working, they would grow restless, or sit and brood, as though they were there against their will, prisoners or exiles.
The memory of my father pacing the floor, rushing over to the little radio, scowling as he turned the tuning knob, makes me think of a soldier given up for lost in an advance post, trying desperately to pick up a signal telling him to come in. At first I thought this was brought on by the silence of the stable, which had emptied over the years, and of the barn, where the old farm implements had ceased to be anything more than souvenirs or junk. But then I saw that what drove him to keep on making strictly rectilinear chairs and tables, without a trace of ornament, in his old workshop behind the house, though he had no orders, was incurable rage and indignation provoked by an injustice. I'd sometimes look in through the windows and see how he worked without a glance at what he was making. Either he'd be staring into space, or he'd raise his head abruptly, and for a moment there'd be defiance in his eyes, followed by a look of prolonged resignation. When he was working, his bursts of temper, which had become legendary in the region, gave way to a sustained rage that made him trace thick, heavy lines, hammer nails ferociously, and make his corners as sharp as possible. Later on, I thought it was because, twenty years after my brother's disappearance, our house was still a house of mourning; because a disappearance, unlike an unquestionable death, leaves a family no peace; every day he died again for them, and there was nothing whatever they could do about it.
But that wasn't it, either; at any rate, not that alone.Their feeling, deforming, as it were, every corner of the farm, that this was not their home, that this village had been inflicted on them as a punishment, was much older. It was a--our only--family tradition, handed down from father to son, perhaps most clearly exemplified in a saying that had been passed from generation to generation: "No, I won't go in, because if I do, there won't be anyone there."
Our family legend was rooted in a historical event. It seems that we really were descended from Gregor Kobal, the instigator of the Tolmin peasant revolt. The story is that after his execution his descendants were driven out of the Isonzo Valley, and that one of them crossed the Karawanken Mountains to Carinthia. Henceforward, every firstborn male was baptized with the name of Gregor. The part of this story that counted for my father was not that his ancestor had been a rebel and guerrilla leader, but that he had been executed and that his family had been banished. Since then, we had been a family of hirelings, of itinerant workers, homeless and condemned to remain so. The only right we retained, in which we could find brief moments of peace, was the right to gamble. And when my father gambled, even as an old man, he hadn't his equal in the village. As he saw it, another aspect of the sentence of banishment was that in his home he was obliged not only to give another language precedence over Slovene, which had after all been the language of his ancestors, but to ban the use of Slovene altogether. As he regularly showed when talking to himself, often very loudly, in his workshop, he himself spoke it in his innermost consciousness, but he felt forbidden to let it out or pass it on to his children. Thus, it had been no more thanjustice when he married a woman of the hostile, German-speaking nation. He behaved as if a supreme will, more powerful than that of the Emperor who many years ago had ordered the execution of our ancestor Gregor Kobal, decreed that after the disappearance of his eldest son, the last of that name, he must suppress any Slovene sound in his house. Thus, when others were present, his language escaped him only in curses or in moments of overpowering emotion. He spoke it freely only when gambling, when drawing a card, when bowling, when imploring a curling stone to slide straight to its goal. At such times he felt entitled to speak Slovene as much as he pleased, and then he, who otherwise never opened his mouth, spoke more than anyone else. Otherwise, when he was not totally silent, he spoke German, a German free from the slightest tinge of dialect, which he passed on to everyone else in the family and for which, in every part of the country, I was later upbraided, as if I were speaking a forbidden foreign language. (I must own that my father's way of speaking German, serious, graphic, laboriously pondering every word as though intimidated by the presence of foreigners, still sounds in my ears as the clearest, purest, least garbled, and most human-sounding voice I have ever heard in Austria.)
It should not be thought that my father accepted the condemnation of the Kobals, their exile, their servitude, and the suppression of their language with resignation; to him it was an outrage. But he did not seek redemption in insubordination, let alone resistance; he sought it in his variety of violent, scornful, contemptuous obedience to the unjust commandment, which, he hoped, would bring it to the attention of the onecompetent authority, who would then at last intervene. With all his strength, especially the strength of his obstinacy, he was intent on redemption for himself and his family. As his outbursts of temper and his cruelty to animals showed, he was determined to win it by the force of his impatience--and this seemed implicit in his yearning; he had no hope, no dream, no idea, and never uttered any proposal to us concerning the form the redemption of his family here on earth might take. For this he blamed the two World Wars, the first of which he spent exclusively on the banks of our legendary home-country river, the Isonzo, while the second, as the father of a deserter, he had waited out in Rinkenberg, his place of banishment.
My mother, however, the Slovene by marriage, the foreigner, took an entirely different view of the clan tradition. To her, it was not a sad story of unsuccessful struggle and banishment but, in a manner of speaking, an attestation of the family's aim and aspiration, a promise. And, unlike my father, she did not expect salvation from any outside agency. She demanded it of ourselves. Whereas my father, always in vain, put his trust in God and in blind acceptance of fate, she was resolutely godless and wherever possible lived by her own law (which she, too, derived from her experience of the two World Wars). And this law decreed that her family, by which she meant her children, had for centuries had their home on the other side of the Karawanken Mountains, and would someday, by their own efforts, make good their claim to it. There they must go, to the southwest, to take back their land, whatever it might amount to. And that would wipe out the disgrace that had once been inflicted on "us" throughthe murder of our ancestor by the authorities. (My mother, the foundling, the foreigner, used the most imperious "we" for the family that had given her asylum.) And she epitomized the revenge we would take on the Emperor, on the counts, the powers that be, in short, the "Austrians"--for this Austrian woman an expression of supreme contempt--in a pun on the name of the village in the Isonzo Valley, where we were supposed to have originated. After our return home, our resurrection from a thousand years of servitude, this village, called Karfreit in German but properly, that is, in Slovene, Kobarid,1 would be renamed Kobalid, to which my father replied scornfully that this name could also be translated "To clear out on horseback," and she should kindly, as befitted the likes of us, let it go at Karfreit, or at least at Kobarid, which can be interpreted to mean an aggregation of crystals or a cluster of hazelnuts, and my mother would counter by asking whether he, who seemed to have degenerated once and for all into a subject, had forgotten that the last news of his son, the resistance fighter, had come from the celebrated "Kobarid Republic," where in the midst of the war a single village had proclaimed itself an anti-Fascist republic and for a time had remained one; to which, in turn, my father replied only that he knew nothing of any such news or any such resistance.
The two of them, it is true, would meet time and again in front of the only picture we had (except for the enlarged photograph of my brother in the crucifix-and-radio corner): it hung in the entrance and was a map of Slovenia. But here, too, my parents usuallystood and argued. My mother, ordinarly so godless and blasphemous, would lift up her voice and chant names from the map, syllable after syllable, on a hovering, tremulous high note, while my father shook his head at her pronunciation of the foreign words when he didn't curtly and gruffly correct her. Though her lips twitched like a rabbit's and her tongue froze, she persisted in her Slavic litany, chanted Ljubljana instead of Laibach, Ptuj instead of Pettau, Kranj instead of Krainburg, Gorica2 instead of Görz, Bistrica instead of Feistritz, Postojna instead of Adelsberg, Ajdovšina (the sound of which I awaited with special eagerness) instead of Haidenschaft. Unlike her other singing, strangely enough, my mother's litany of place names, however faulty her pronunciation, sounded beautiful to me. Each of these names struck me as an invocation, as all seemed to merge in a single, tender, high-pitched entreaty, which my father, as far as I can remember, did not contradict, but responded to in the role of the people--the common people; and the entrance hall, with its wooden floor, its banister-framed wooden stairway leading to the cellar, and its door opening out on the wooden balcony, became a nave, more imposing than the nave of the village church had ever been.
Yet my mother had never been across the border. The Yugoslavian towns were known to her chiefly from her husband's stories, and to him these names still embodied nothing but the war. Actually, he spoke much less of towns and villages than of one and the same rocky hill that kept being stormed, lost, retaken, and so on, over the years. According to him, the World Warhad taken place on just such a bare, chalk-white mountain ridge, with a front line that moved a stone's throw forward or backward from battle to battle, and if other veterans in the village were to be believed, that was how they had all seen it. My father was always shivering, but he seemed to shiver still more when he spoke of the deep clefts in the mountain, which even in the summer were full of snow. He had known many kinds of fear, but his overriding fear had been and still was that he might have killed a man. He showed his numerous wounds, in the shin, the thigh, the shoulder, with indifference; it was only when the conversation turned to the Italian at whom he had leveled his gun when ordered to do so that he lost his composure. "I aimed over his head," my father said. "But after my shot went off he jumped up in the air like this, with his arms outstretched. And then I didn't see him anymore." Wide-eyed, he came back time and again to this one moment; for even after thirty, forty, fifty years, the man kept jumping up in the air, and it would never be known for sure whether he had let himself drop back into the trench or had toppled into it. "Stinking mess," my father cried and repeated the sentiment in Slovene--"Svinjerija"--as though that language were better able to express his hatred of history, the world, and all earthly existence. Be that as it may, he had seldom seen a town or village during the war; at the most he had been "near" or "on the road to" one. Only Gorica meant something more to my father than a battlefield. "Now that's a city," he said. "Compared with it, our Klagenfurt is nothing." But if questions were asked, his only answer would be: "There are palm trees in the parks and there's a king buried in the monastery crypt."
What in my father's stories was no more than the heartbreaking and infuriating names of battlefields stimulated my mother's inventiveness. What with him was a curse--"damned Ternovan Forest!"--she transformed into a place of promise. From mere place names she created, for my benefit (my sister wouldn't do), a country that had nothing in common with the reality of Slovenia; it was built up exclusively from the names of the battles or scenes of misery mentioned casually or with horror by my father. This country, which consisted entirely of towns with magical names such as Lipica, Temnica, Vipava, Doberdob, Tomaj, Tabor, Kopriva, became in her mouth a land of peace where we, the Kobal family, would at last recapture our true selves. Yet this transfiguration may have resulted not so much from the sound of words or the family legend as from the few letters received from my brother when he was in Yugoslavia during the years between the wars. Often he would prefix with a word of praise the very place names through which his father had cursed the world as a whole: "The holy [Mount] Nanos," "the holy [River] Timavo." From the start my mother's fantasies, remote as they may have been from experience, made a stronger impression on me, the second, late-born son, than did my father's war stories. When I think back on the two of them, I see one weeping and one laughing storyteller, one standing aside, the other center stage, asserting our rights.
The household's present, however, its daily life, was dominated by my father's prisoner mentality. His being a stranger in the village made him a domestic tyrant. Because he was nowhere at home, he bullied the restof us; he drove us from our places or at least poisoned them for us. When my father entered the living room, the atmosphere became unpleasant. He had only to stand at the window for the rest of us to be seized with a nervousness that made our movements spasmodic. At such times, even my seated sister could not assert her power; peace of mind gave way to a breathless rigidity. And his uneasiness was contagious: a small man walking in circles in the big room; around him, more and more eyes, heads, limbs began to twitch. Often this twitching would infect us if he merely opened the door, let his look of injured hopelessness rest on the members of his family, and disappeared, or if we sensed that he was standing motionless in the hall, as though waiting at once for his savior and for the landslide that would bury him along with his house and garden. Once he was back in his workshop, we breathed easy, but even then we could hear his cries of rage, and though we had got used to them over the years, they still gave us a start; not even in his place of work, where he might have felt independent and free, did my father feel at home.
Even on Sunday, apart from the afternoon card game, the peace associated with the day visited our house only on our return from Mass, when he put on his glasses and opened the weekly Slovenian church gazette, the only newspaper he read. He moved his lips soundlessly at every word, as though not only reading but studying the lines, and in the course of time his slowness engendered a calm that surrounded him and filled the house. During this reading period, my father at last found his place--in sunny weather on the bench in the yard; otherwise, on the backless stool by the eastwindow, where with a childlike, scholarly look he studied letter after letter. As often as I evoke that image, I feel that I'm still sitting there with him.
To tell the truth, we didn't even eat together at that time. As though my father were still working outside, his food was brought to him in a tightly closed mess kit, either at the house of the mountain peasants or at his place beside one of the mountain torrents; my mother ate at the stove while cooking; my sister, as befitted a confused person, spooned her food out of a bowl on the doorstep; and I ate wherever I happened to be. We all longed for the arrival of the card players, and not only because my father regularly won: his calm as he sat there, carrying off one daring coup after another, gave rise to a merriment which encompassed the losers as well as the winner. Whenever the so uncommon, neither malicious nor commiserating but simply triumphal laughter of the player whose daring had brought him success erupted, all were glad to join in. And the others were my father's friends, underlings like himself, village notables, natives, who all became equal at the card table, talkers, storytellers, with no one over them. But friendship lasted only as long as the game; when the game was over, they broke up without delay, and all went home, as isolated as ever, mere neighbors, acquaintances, villagers known to one another chiefly by their weaknesses and oddities--the skirtchaser, the skinflint, the sleepwalker. And my father, though he stayed at the table holding a deck of cards in one hand and counting his winnings with the other, had again lost his place. When the lamp over the card table was turned off, the light in the house seemed to flicker and threaten to go out at any moment, for inthose days before the whole country was electrified, our region was supplied with a feeble, uneven current by a small power plant on the Drava that wasn't even as big as a water mill.
Though my father--mason, carpenter, and cabinetmaker in one--had built the house with his own hands, he was not its master. Because this self-driven laborer was incapable of stepping back from his work and contemplating it for so much as a moment, he could not regard himself as its creator. Though he took a certain pride in other construction he'd had a hand in--the roof of the church tower, for instance--he never so much as glanced at anything he had made in his own home; while putting up a wall with the utmost care, he would stare blindly into space; and instead of stopping to look at a stool he had just finished, he would busy himself with wood for the next one. Still a young man, my father slaved for years, building, almost unaided, the first house the Kobal family had owned in more than two centuries. And yet I cannot conceive of his climbing to the edge of the forest and looking proudly down on the village of Rinkenberg with the house he had built for himself and his family in its midst; I cannot even conceive of a housewarming with Kobal, the proud owner, lifting a mug of cider.
More than anything else, it was this incapacity of my father's for living in his house that spoiled my homecomings in my last years at school. Even if my walk from the railroad station or bus stop had gone well, even if, still full of my journey in the midst of unknown, warmth-giving shadows, I had overcome the obstacle that was the village, I was seized with a malaise on entering our property: my scalp itched, my armsstiffened, my feet felt bulbous--and there was nothing I could do about it. Not that I had conjured up some image on my way, not that I had been daydreaming, drunk as it were with self-absorption; well, to tell the truth, I had been daydreaming, but only about the things around me, the night, the falling snow, the rustling in the corn, the wind in my eye hollows, and all this, because my journey was still going on in my mind, more clearly than usual, paradigmatically, symbolically. The milk can on the stand became a sign; the successive puddles gleaming in the darkness joined to form a line. But near the house the signs lost their force, objects their singularity. Often I stood for a long while at the door, trying in vain to catch my breath. What had been so clear became confused. No longer able to dream, I could no longer see. The elder bush, which on the path rose from limb to limb like a Jacob's ladder, disappeared in the garden, becoming a mere part of a hedge; the constellations overhead, each decipherable only a moment before, were now a meaningless glow. With the help of my sister, who had come to meet me, I might possibly cross the threshold safely; she distracted me like a dog or cat; like a dog or cat, she fitted into my dreamlike sequence of signs. But, in the hall at the very latest, I seemed to hear my father's morose pottering in every room, a mood which instantly spread to me, not so much sobering me as infecting me with such gloom that my only desire was to go to bed then and there.
It was only when my mother fell sick that my father learned to live in the house. In the course of those months, the house became a home for the rest of us as well. They kept her in the hospital after her operation,and it was then that he moved, as it were, from his workshop to the house. He no longer worked in wordless fury for himself alone--every gesture an expression of despair that no one understood him and no one could help him anyway. Now he would pause for a time, say what was on his mind, and even ask for help in his distress. Throwing off the clumsiness which, because of his impatience, had always overcome me when asked to help him, I worked beside him with as sure a hand as if I had been alone. And my sister, overlooked and shrugged off until then, but now suddenly treated as an equal by her father, proved to be the soul of reason; all she had needed was to be spoken to and taken seriously. Just as a word can suffice to make a person stricken with paralysis for some unfathomable reason jump up and run, our father's "Do this, do that" transformed my confused sister from one minute to the next into a young woman who was far from stupid. She understood him without his having to explain, she was transformed from a bothersome bystander into an active human being who didn't see through me and look on the dark side of everything but rather foresaw what would be needed and did what had to be done. She still sat most of the time, but now she sat by the stove, over the cabbage pot, at the bread oven, next to the currant bush, and our father would sit beside her, often doing nothing. Even when working, he didn't seem solitary or possessed; his work was done with the same thoughtful deliberation as his reading, in harmony with something which as I saw it was the light shining into the house, the luminous brown of the windowsill, or the color of his own eyes, which only then became clear to me, a deep blue suggesting the backgrounds of wayside shrines.
Though my father was strictly orthodox in his religious beliefs, there was something superstitious, as I see it now, in the almost grim deliberation with which he performed certain routine actions, as though each one were calculated to combat my mother's illness--the tying of a knot to strangle it, the driving of a nail to stop it from spreading, the plugging of a barrel to shut up the pain, the propping of a branch to give her strength; when he dragged a sack through a doorway, it was to bring her out of the hospital; when he cut a rotten spot out of an apple, it was ... and so on.
Once my father "made himself at home," life in the house became natural for the first time. Every time I returned from school, I slipped easily into our family life, while my sister, who for years had been immured in her love story, the collapse of which, attributed to my father, had supposedly been responsible for her confused condition, forgot all about it and became a social animal, even when she was not working. She challenged the champion card player to game after game, lost every time, and invariably grew as angry as only a person of sound mind can. Biting her lips, even bursting into tears in her anger--her grief was forgotten--she appeared perfectly sane, and to me, the adolescent boy, it seemed that we--the young woman sweeping the cards off the table, my triumphantly laughing father, and myself--were all the same age.
Of course this daily life of ours was marginal. We were like stand-ins, who in all their activities never cease to wait for the regulars to come back and take things in hand. The house regained its center only when my mother was brought back from the hospital. After that,the regular workers were not some mere strangers but our very own selves; the stand-ins gave themselves a jolt and became, each in his accustomed place, regulars. We had been told that the patient hadn't long to live, but how were we to know? She was free from pain and lay or sat up in her bed, hardly noticeable, quite unlike the healthy woman who, while doing certain kinds of work, had moaned and groaned for no reason. It never occurred to me that she was going to die. Nor, apparently, to my father and sister. My father, who since retiring some years past had scarcely stirred from the farm, now took to going farther and farther afield, first walking to the neighboring villages of Rinkolach and Dob, which for a man of his stamp amounted to crossing a border, then actually to the north, across the Drava "to the Germans," where to his mind the innermost circle of "foreign parts" began. My sister dressed with care, kept herself and the house neat and clean, and most of all functioned as the experienced cook who conjured up still nameless dishes that had never been seen in our house before. And this, too, seemed to suit the bedridden woman in the center. She let my father tell her--it was late spring--about the progress of the fruit blossoms, and the grain, the level of the Drava, the thaw on Mount Petzen; let my sister, who was at last good for something, wait on her, as though this were what she had been longing for all her life, and devoured the ceremoniously served dishes with shining eyes (for a brief moment the smell of the cooking made us forget the smell of my mother's medicines). And what about me? I, too, had my role in the ceremony--and God help anyone who muffed his part--the role of storyteller. At last I was able, without being questioned,to sit down beside her bed--at the middle, because, as the superstition had it, the angels of death stood at the head and foot--and tell stories to drive them out of the house. And what did I tell my mother? My wishes. And when her eyes mocked them, that only made me start over again, start further back, circle around them in other words. And when word and wish became one, a warmth invaded my whole body and suddenly something akin to belief would appear in the eyes of the incredulous listener--a quieter, purer color, a glimmer of thoughtfulness.
But the leading role in this ceremony was played by the house. Every hitherto sullen, uncomfortable corner of it now proved to be livable, the right place for such thoughtfulness. The wood and the walls had a tone; the space between bed and table, window and door, fireplace and water tap widened. My father had built a house where, whatever part of it one moved or sat still in, it was good to be, a house where hitherto inconceivable things became possible. He himself proved it, for instance by playing us a concert of classical music on the radio, and calling each instrument by name as it emerged from the farthermost corner of the room, in such a way that I distinguished their different sounds as I would later in a concert hall. And then he surprised us by doing something in the daylight that he normally did only in church by candlelight. Coming home from one of his forays, he threw himself on his knees, both knees at once, and for a long time touched his forehead to my mother's. Often in later years I saw this grouping of man and wife in two mountains of the Karawanken range, the pointed Hochobir and the broad Koschuta.
It was only at night that the ark which sheltered us during those months broke apart. Especially in the hours before dawn, I would start up, awakened by a soundless bursting, and lie awake with the others, who, I knew as though there had been no walls, were also lying awake. My mother hadn't moaned. No mirror had shattered--there were no mirrors in our house; no owl had hooted in the woods behind the house. No clock was ticking--there were no clocks in the house; and no train was rumbling across the Jaunfeld Plain. Nor was it my own breathing that I heard, but only a whispering, arising, it seemed to me, from the troughlike valley deep down in the plain where the Drava flowed. My sister lay downstairs in the former dairy, where the drain still gave off a sour smell; my father, with wide-open eyes and toothless mouth, lay beside my mother, who alone was asleep or at least had not been awakened, and the slightest creaking resounded through the house like the crack of a whip, to which other sounds, which unlike the strokes of the church clock could not be counted, responded echolike from indeterminate directions. And when my father, before the first birdsong, went out on one of his rambles, I felt that he was running away from his dying wife and leaving us alone in his nightmare house.
During one such night I dreamed that we were all walking back and forth in the dark, deserted living room, and that my brother was standing in the middle, shedding tears of gratitude because we loved him. Looking around, I saw the others weeping, too, and my father in a corner weeping because he had finally been found out, exposed as someone who loved his family and no one else. And it was only thus, weeping, movingback and forth with dangling arms in the deserted room, forbidden to approach one another, forbidden to touch one another, that we Kobals could be a family, and that only in a dream. But what did I mean by "only in a dream"?
Because the day before I left for Yugoslavia I saw with waking eyes the truth of my dream vision. I should already have boarded the train; I had an unsuccessful, distraught, unfeeling leave-taking behind me, but after an hour alone at the Mittlern station I decided to go back and spend one more night at home. I left my sea bag with the men at the ticket office and turned back eastward, first along the railroad line, then through the sparse Dobrawa pine woods, the largest coppice in the country. It was an early-summer afternoon, and the sun was behind me. In the woods, where I knew the places to look, I found the first mushrooms of the year: small, firm chanterelles, almost white in the gravelly Dobrawa soil; then boletes, each a perceptible weight in my hand, more and more of which beckoned to me as, while walking, I, ordinarily none too sure of my sense of color, began to distinguish the colors more clearly; and finally, at the edge of the woods, jutting out from the grass, its tall, thin, hollow stalk swaying in the wind, a single parasol mushroom, visible from far off. I ran to it as though I had to be first to reach this king. Its cap, as large as a shield and domed in the middle, extended beyond the palms of both my hands but weighed less than the thinnest wafer.
After wrapping my mushrooms in my brother's enormous handkerchief, which like various articles of his clothing had been forced upon me for my journey,I approached Rinkenberg and the house, where I was sure of finding my mother lying with her face to the wall, my sister on all fours about to relapse into her confusion, and my father sitting down among the ashes like Job.
Not at all. The house stood open and empty, my mother's bedclothes hung out of the window, airing. I found the three of them on the grassplot behind the house, with a fourth person, a neighbor, who had helped my father carry my mother out of the house in an armchair. She was sitting there barefoot, in a long white nightgown, an old horse blanket over her knees, and the others were sitting around her on the grassy bench provided by a slight hollow in the plot. At first it seemed to me that I had surprised my family in some secret, as if they were glad at last to be among themselves without me, able at last to let themselves go. For, though quiet, they seemed exuberant; my sister was amusing herself making faces in all directions, imitating the expressions of various people, challenging the others to guess who; one of these various people, the most laughed at--by my father as well, whose hat was on crooked--I recognized as myself. (I had many times felt myself to be unwanted, an intruder, a spoilsport, and often enough I really was.) But when they noticed me, the grassplot was suffused with a radiance which now, a quarter of a century later, brightens this deserted place for me. My ailing mother gave me a smile of infinite kindness, a smile such as I had never known, and it lifted me off the ground.
I sat down with them, the family was complete. My sister quickly prepared the mushrooms, and even I enjoyed them, though as a rule I was keener on gatheringthan on eating them. Though no table was set up, no cloth laid, it was a banquet, and our neighbor, who had just been leaving to answer the call of work, took time out for it. From then on, all I remember is sitting there for hours without anyone saying a word. Long, narrow eyes, bent at the corners like boat keels. From that unaccustomed vantage point--we seldom sat on this grassplot, ordinarily our washing was spread out there to bleach--my father's house seemed to stand alone, not in the village named Rinkenberg, but in an unknown and nameless part of the earth, under a strange sky. In the rooms, a breeze that could be felt out here in the soft meadow grass. A pear on the espalier wobbled and fell. The boards of the long-abandoned apiary showed their colors, which taken together disclosed a face, and that face was repeated in the white of the cat half hidden under the dark green box tree. The barouche in the shed, superannuated like the farm implements, stood out from the other vehicles and parts of vehicles with its festive unweathered gloss; one last time it drove out of the shed and over the countryside alone, followed by a flock of birds which proceeded to dive through the air like dolphins. But we were not in an enterprising mood; we had been seized with a kind of timidity, along with a confidence that was all the stronger because there was no reason for it. Only my sister disturbed the order of things with her activity, coming and going, talking, combing my mother's hair, washing her feet. True, in disturbing the order she also reinforced it; her activity was needed to make the order cogent and enduring; and whenever she touched the woman in the armchair, took hold of her, turned her around, she did so officially, so to speak,as our representative. In my recollection, it is not a group of people sitting there in the sun, but only the usual dazzlingly white sheets, spread out on the grass. Someone is sprinkling them from a watering can, the sound of water is a sharp crackling, the little puddles on the sheets evaporate quickly, and the grassplot is an inclined plane from which everything else, including myself, has vanished, slid away.
That is the story of those hours. But what of the event that made me turn back? Was it just a momentary impulse? Why, to begin with, had I gone to the Mittlern rather than the Bleiburg station? I had missed the midday train and had so long to wait until the afternoon train that I decided to kill time by walking two stations and ten kilometers westward. But incapable as I was of dawdling, of walking slowly, of making a detour, I was still much too early. The Mittlern station, built of undressed gray stone, lies outside the village, at the edge of the Dobrawa Forest, and is a massive, imposing edifice for the Jaunfeld Plain, where almost everything--the houses, the trees, even the churches--and the people tend to be rather small. For an hour I walked back and forth outside it. Not a sound but for the crunching of the black gravel under my feet and, on the other side of the single-track rails gleaming in the sun, the occasional sighing of the wind in the pines, which with their thin trunks and small dark cones I now regard as the emblem of that whole countryside, along with the whiteness of the isolated birches (even the surface roots are white) which fringed the forest and at that time had not yet been moved into parks as ornamental plants. The stationmaster lived on the secondfloor; the window curtains were torn and in the window boxes grew the inevitable gleaming-red geraniums, the smell of which had always repelled me at home. Behind the windows, no sign of life. At intervals, petals shot downward, somehow reminding me of insect wings. I sat down on a bench in the shade, facing one end of the station. The bench stood beside a bush on which hung, instead of the present scraps of white paper, greenish condoms. At my feet, almost submerged in grass, a circular stone. An old foundation? I raised my head and saw in the end wall of the station a rectangle--a blind window the same whitish-gray color as the wall, but set in from it. Though no longer in the sun, this window shimmered with reflected light from somewhere. In Rinkenberg there was only one such window, and it happened to be in the smallest house, the roadmender's, the one that looked like the porter's lodge of a nonexistent manor. It, too, was the color of the wall--yellow in that case--but was bordered with white. Whenever I passed, it caught my eye, but when I stopped to look, it always fooled me. Nevertheless, it never lost a certain undefined significance for me, and I felt that such a window was lacking in my father's house. Now, at the sight of the Mittlern blind window, I remembered: one night in January 1920, forty years ago, my father carried my brother, a child barely able to walk at the time, here in a wheelbarrow. The child was suffering from "ophthalmic fever" and my father was taking him to Klagenfurt to see the doctor. His nocturnal effort was in vain, the eye was lost; in the picture in the radio-and-crucifix corner there was nothing in its place but a milky whiteness. But this memory explained nothing. The significance of the blind windowremained undefined, but suddenly that window became a sign, and in that same moment I decided to turn back. My turning back--and here again the sign was at work--was not definitive; it applied only to the hours until the following morning, when I would really start out, really begin my journey, with successive blind windows as my objects of research, my traveling companions, my signposts. And when later, on the evening of the following day, at the station restaurant in Jesenice, I thought about the shimmering of the blind window, it still imparted a clear message--to me it meant: "Friend, you have time."
Translation copyright © 1988 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. All rights reserved