Author: Bernhard Strobel
Translator: Mandy Olson
The suspect climbed over the fence Wednesday night, a few minutes after ten o’clock. I saw a shadow move in the half-darkness along the wall of the house next door. It was foggy, so I couldn’t make out much, and the figure — I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman — at least had the presence of mind to clamber over the fence away from the glow of the nearest streetlamp.
My first thought was that this was a burglar. I admit that I was nervous. I trotted back and forth for a whole minute thinking about what to do. It took at least that long, a full 60 seconds, maybe longer, for the figure to come down the other side of the fence. That seemed strange to me, but then again not that strange. I had never seen an intruder at work and didn’t think I was in a position to judge this person’s criminal proficiency.
I came to the conclusion that it made the most sense to wait out the next few minutes. I set myself rules to determine my next move. If the shadow moved towards the entrance, I would do nothing. If it disappeared around the back, and no lights came on in any of the windows within a few minutes, then I would call the police.
It ended up being scenario number two, and I did what I had resolved to do. I called the police to report what I had witnessed. I was a little flustered, but the call didn’t last long all in all. The officer on the phone thanked me and said someone would come by and see to the situation right away. I remember I smiled: “see to the situation.” I hadn’t heard that expression in some time.
Not even five minutes later, they drove up. No blue lights, no sirens. Still no light had come on in the house across the street. I had no idea what the proper protocol was for police officers in a suspected burglary. Would they ring the bell? And risk that the bell would give the burglar enough time to get away over the back fence? Were they allowed to just go inside the house?
I was so agitated I was trembling. I stood at the window and watched them. I saw them stand at the front door and press the doorbell, many times. No lights came on. An eternity passed before they decided to head down the narrow path along the wall to the back of the house. The dark of night and the fog combined must have made it very difficult for them to see. Now I’m surprised that they didn’t use any flashlights. Or maybe they did have them, and I just didn’t see.
Finally, a weak shimmer of light appeared. A yellowish glow cut through the fog from the ground upward. The light must have come through one of the long, narrow basement windows. It illuminated a small section of the path between the house wall and fence, hardly noticeable if you weren’t looking closely. The basement, I thought, someone broke into the basement.
Shortly after that, the police officers returned. I saw them walk slowly along the side of the house and step through the gate to the street. They stopped next to the police car and exchanged a few words. Then, sort of indecisively, they crossed the street and rang my doorbell. They must have seen a light on and a person at the window, me. I let them in. It was a man and a woman.
“Excuse the disturbance,” said the woman.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“You called the police a little while ago?” she said more than asked. After I confirmed, she wanted to know: “What exactly did you see?”
So I told them what I had seen, a figure climbing over the fence at the neighboring house and disappearing in the back. They wanted to know if the person climbed over the fence right away or if they had first tried to go through the front of the house like normal. I answered that I had seen exactly what I had told them; I couldn’t provide any information on anything that had happened before that.
“And it was the first time that you had seen him doing this?”
“Him?” I asked
I noticed her discomfort at having involuntarily given something away like this, a rookie mistake. But she didn’t let it faze her and corrected: “They. The person.”
“Yes, this was the first time. And it was pure coincidence.”
“Do you see your neighbor often?”
“Not very often, no,” I answered. That was the truth; more precisely, I practically never saw him. In fact, I could think of no more than three occasions on which I had seen him, and in each case, we had coincidentally come out of our houses at the same time. The truth is, the presence of the police triggered a feeling of discomfort in me, a feeling of guilt. After all, as it turned out, it was not an intruder but rather my neighbor himself who had broken into his own house. He surely had just forgotten his house key or lost it, and I can imagine how little I would like it, should I ever forget my own house key, if the police got reports about me from my own neighbors. It was a misunderstanding, a false alarm, all because of my call.
“Then you probably aren’t aware of the rumors either?”
“Rumors?” I asked, surprised. “Since when are the police responsible for rumors?”
The sentence sounded more accusatory than I’d intended, it just slipped out. It must have been the surprise, paired with the tension that the evening’s events had triggered, tension that continued to build.
“What you saw fits a certain image, if you will. That’s why I asked.”
“What kind of rumors?” I wanted to know.
The man stepped in, “The police are not responsible for rumors.” His smugness when he said this rubbed me the wrong way. They were the ones who had brought it up. But that’s how it is with the police, they can do things no one else can.
“By the way, is it against the law to climb over your own fence?”
The question came out before I could stop it. In the same instant, I heard how foolish it was, and what followed was the only fitting response:
“And yet, that’s why you called the police. Imagine if the police were called out every evening just because a person set foot on his own property in an unusual way. You understand that’s not an option.”
I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. Partly because of the police, just the fact of their presence, their questions—most people do feel uneasy around the police, it’s mainly a question of power, the juxtaposition of power and powerlessness. I wasn’t any different. But it was probably largely because of my guilty conscience. A new, additional guilty conscience, if you can put it that way. I knew virtually nothing about my neighbors, and to be honest, have always welcomed this ignorance. I live alone; not exactly a hermit, but alone. I knew nothing about the people in the area and they knew nothing about me. That’s how it was, and I liked it that way. But now I was suddenly overcome with doubt about whether there wasn’t actually a little cruelty, inhumanity, in this way of living. You read again and again in the news about people, mostly elderly, who lay dead in their apartments, undiscovered until the smell of decay becomes unbearable. Is that really how I wanted to live? Did I want to be left for months until I’d half-moldered to dust?
I suddenly felt so lonely, almost self-pitying, even. After quite unexpectedly becoming a widower two years ago, I had decided to move, as far away as possible, to a small town far outside the city. That’s how I ended up here. By chance. The house was up for sale, and I bought it. It was that simple. The house didn’t even cost that much; it ate up less than half of my wife’s life insurance. I’ve lived here since then, alone—if you can call it living. Now, though, because of this alleged break-in, this business with the neighbor, something from outside had seeped into me and sparked a glimmer of hope—or more of a curiosity. Yes, because I was curious. Curious about the neighbor and the rumors. “It fits a certain image,” the officers had said. But what kind of image does climbing over your own fence fit? The other thing that occurred to me was that I felt bound to my neighbor in a way; yes, I thought that I was even a little indebted to him. Well, maybe not quite indebted, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Even so, after the officers had left, I decided to go over to his house the next morning.
He came from the back side of the house after I had rung the bell several times, pausing in between. He was wearing a robe, on his feet slippers so worn that he was practically walking on bare heels. An unappetizing sight, yellow toenails, skin full of cracks and deep grooves.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” I said.
He laid his hand on the gate latch but didn’t push it.
“I … it’s,” I stammered, even though I had already prepared in advance what I’d say. Maybe it was because he came out looking so disheveled.
“It is a little uncomfortable for me to have to tell you this, but I wanted to let you know that it was me who called the police last night.”
He didn’t respond, so I went on.
“Had I known it was you…I’m not the kind of person who calls the police at the drop of a hat. I’m sorry, anyway, if I put you in a difficult position.”
“Thanks,” he said.
There was a pause that was a little awkward and that he, because he apparently had something to say, ended with the words:
“I’d ask you to come inside, but it’s not possible.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“See you around,” he said.
“See you,” I said, as he took his hand from the latch and turned around. Again, he went not through the front door of the house, but along the side of the house to the back.
It was a little odd when you think about it. Why didn’t he go through the front door like a normal person? And what was he doing behind the house all the time? Even though we’d already said goodbye and there was no reason for me to stay standing in front of his house any longer, I did just that. What was I waiting for? Why was I standing here and waiting as though the encounter hadn’t happened yet? I didn’t know. Or maybe I did know, but not until I was back at home and a kind of disappointment washed over me. I felt a sense of relief because the apology was behind me, but at the same time, I was disappointed, as though I’d expected something more. I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it was.
I made coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. I didn’t even feel like leafing through my gardening magazines. What did you expect? I said to myself. What on earth did you expect? I was beating myself up. Did I actually believe that just because I’d rung his bell one time to make a polite apology that he’d confide his life story in me? And is that even what I wanted? Was I suddenly so desperate to connect with another human that I would grasp at straws like this? It was not a pleasant feeling—I’d have liked to just shake it off. I knew, of course, that there was more behind this sudden sense of dejection than mere disappointment over a conversation that hadn’t happened or the fact that I was excluded from local rumors. That was merely a consequence of the life I had chosen and, yes, the life I had successfully resigned myself to for quite some time. Granted, it was not entirely voluntary on my part—what happened to my wife would have thrown most people for a loop. Nevertheless, I felt so acutely alone that my stomach tensed up. You have to see to it that you get out a little bit. Maybe you could go to the pub, I thought. There were three establishments in town, and when I realized all at once that I had not seen a single one of them from the inside since moving here, I said to myself in earnest: Today you will go to the pub!
I admit that hidden behind this spur-of-the-moment decision was also the hope that I would meet him there. I thought that would be a good beginning. I’ve never set great store by rumors, but it did make him all the more interesting. And if not him, who else? I didn’t know anybody. I would be part of the world again, at least a small world. This was, as far as I was concerned, not just a spontaneous decision, but a transformative one.
I met him in the pub at the train station. As I walked into the dimly lit, run-down place, an unease overcame me. It had nothing to do with the state of the pub — I have nothing against a dive, and if I had to choose, I’d rather spend my time there than in some fancy restaurant — it was the curiosity with which my arrival was met. I felt like I was on a stage, an impression that was intensified by the dark, greasy floorboards. I thought to myself that it was probably normal in such a small place to enter a bar and have all eyes on you. The difference being, I suppose, that those eyes would quickly turn back to other things, or rather other people. That was not the case with me. I had their undivided attention. I’d have liked to spin on my heel — I felt my courage escape like air from a tire. It was the neighbor,of all people, who helped me out of the situation. He waved. He was sitting alone at a table in the corner, and I went over to him.
“Thanks. You rescued me,” I said outright.
“That remains to be seen.”
He invited me with a gesture to take a seat at his table. I gladly accepted the invitation.
“We’re two mice in a rat hole,” he said, obviously having noticed what I had noticed.
“You too?” I asked.
He smirked before saying:
“I’ll put it this way: If you were hoping to make friends in the village, you would have been better off sitting at a table by yourself.”
“Well then, thank you kindly for waving me over,” I said.
“Consider it payback for calling the cops on me,” he said with an entirely unreadable expression. Did he really mean that? If this was his way of giving me a glimpse into his character, he was certainly succeeding. My utter bewilderment caused another smug grin to stretch across his face.
“A joke,” he said finally, “just a joke. No hard feelings. You looked so helpless when you came in.”
At that I said nothing. Although he seemed to be waiting for me to say something in return, I preferred to not immediately give him another opportunity for affront. It turned out he didn’t even need to be given such an opportunity, because he suddenly said openly:
“People think I’m crazy.”
“You mean I do, or they do?” I asked, indicating the other people in the room with a roll of my eyes visible only to him.
“Not just them,” he answered. “Everyone. The police too.”
I almost felt sorry for him, how he sat there and laid bare his reputation in the village. I wondered if I could ask him why he came here, when he obviously didn’t feel welcome, and didn’t instead spend his time at home. Or was that too personal a question? I asked him anyway.
“It’s no better at home,” he answered somewhat cryptically. I wanted to ask him why, but he beat me to it. There was a strange look in his eyes, a sort of impishness mixed with hope, if you can say that. Although this look alone signaled something was coming, it struck me by surprise when he suddenly asked:
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
He saw the expression on my face and added:
“Maybe now you understand why you’re still being stared at.”
He said this with a smile, but one that was not without pain. In his situation, whatever that may be, a little gallows humor might be considered healthy, but he didn’t quite succeed. I wasn’t sure what approach to take with him. It was somehow both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time to sit there at that table with him. I have nothing against directness, the bluntness that comes naturally to some, but he did seem a little more extreme in this regard.
“It was a serious question, by the way,” he said.
“I understood as much.”
He nodded. When I didn’t say more, he drank from his beer. Only then did I realize no one had come by the table yet to take my order. One might interpret that as impolite, and at the very least bad business sense, but there was no waiter in sight. But then apparently someone did turn up, because the neighbor made a gesture over my head, from which I gathered he had also ordered a glass for me.
“And? What’s your answer?”
I had hoped I wouldn’t have to answer the question anymore, but no such luck. He didn’t seem like a crazy person, at least not like the kind of crazy you usually imagine—a really crazy person, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The truth is, I had often asked myself about the existence or non-existence of ghosts and had come to what was, for me, a satisfactory conclusion. But I never would have thought to discuss it with a stranger. Maybe that’s where he was crazy. So I decided, since we were being so open and direct, that I would try to answer him as honestly and clearly as I could.
“I believe in memories,” I said. “I believe memories can be so powerful or so real that they seem like ghosts. Memories of people. And if those people are dead, then yeah, they especially might appear to us to be ghosts. I mean, however people imagine ghosts to be. I sometimes see my late wife, talk to her even. But I know that it’s the memories. In other words, the brain. I believe, actually, I’m convinced that what happens with ghosts is the same as with gods: they come into existence out of a combination of fear and not knowing. If you asked a six-year-old what thunder and lightning are, the child would probably tell you that they are a weather phenomenon that occurs under certain conditions in the air. Two thousand years ago or so, people believed that some god was swinging around his hammer or trident, because they didn’t know any better. And because the weather scared the wits out of them. I’m fairly certain that the belief in ghosts came to be in the same way, only through the phenomenon of memory.”
He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms, kind of sulking, like a little kid. I waited for his insult, but then it went the other way.
“That was a really nice little speech, thank you,” he said. “Do you also want to tell that to the ghost that’s been driving me mad for two years straight?”
I’m sure I don’t need to mention that his tone was full of sarcasm. I was a little irritated. Although I’d actually expected such a tone and was even prepared for worse, I found it to be uncalled for, nevertheless. He had asked me something and I had answered with utmost sincerity. I said that to him in precisely those words.
“Don’t be offended, it’s the desperation,” he apologized. “I live in the basement.”
I really didn’t know what to think of it all. I was even less sure how to react. He wasn’t stupid, he knew I felt uneasy about what he had told me. After all, there were these rumors going around about him, and the fact that people were the way they were with him—according to his own account—he certainly carried some of the blame for that. He must have been very naïve if he thought it would be different with me. Or was it simply indifference, resignation? Probably the latter. What I had observed, he told me, and what had prompted me to call the police, was his reaction to the “circumstances,” he explained, and that was how he said circumstances, with quote marks. It had gotten so bad again recently that he entered the house through the back door and went from there straight down to the basement.
“The first floor and upper floor belong to the ghost,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen, which is why I climb over the fence. I am aware that this cannot be a long-term solution. The last two weeks alone are enough. It started when I … no, let’s leave it there. My personal life is really none of your business. That someone would notice me climbing around sooner or later is no surprise, but so what.”
“What did the police say about it?”
“What do you think they got out of me?”
“No idea. What do you say in such a situation?”
“Definitely not the truth,” said the neighbor.
“But the police know the rumors, too,” I pointed out.
“The rumors are one thing. It’s another to hear such a truth from the mouth of a grown man. I’m afraid such a story wouldn’t be safe in the hands of the police.”
“And is it safe with the others in the village?”
“They have no authority.”
On that point—well, there was no arguing with that.
“Besides, I can’t stand the police,” he added. “Just by being the police, they are automatically the good guys. That’s the shitty thing about it. They can be sadists, dumb as a bag of rocks, hate everyone—if they are also police officers, then they’re still the good guys. Then they can make decisions about other people. If civil war breaks out overnight, or a dictatorship takes hold—as police or, as far as I’m concerned, soldiers, they’re in the clear. They have nothing to fear. It’s maddening, don’t you think? And they just chose this for themselves, you know? These custodians of the law are not people with high moral standards or a strong sense of justice, they just made a decision to do this, that’s all. Other people decide to become bakers, carpenters, scientists, whatever. Does that give them authority to order others around? No.”
I couldn’t stop myself from saying:
“Now you gave me a little lecture.” He smiled, and I added: “No harm intended, I agree with you. I had to deal with the police some time ago and never felt good about it. Although they actually had good intentions.”
“You too?” he asked.
“When my wife died.”
At that he just nodded. This information had obviously left him feeling awkward. We both drank our beer. Because I was sitting with my back to the bar and could hardly see any of the people there, but also didn’t want to turn around, I had no choice but to read the atmosphere in the bar through his eyes. I don’t think I’m mistaken when I say that even he was surprised by the curiosity paid us. Something in his eyes told me so. Unexpressed hostilities, you could call it.
“So what does it do, your ghost?” I allowed myself to ask. “And what do you plan to do about it?”
“What can I do?”
The question went unanswered. I didn’t think I could offer a solution he hadn’t already thought of himself. The only thing I could think of that made sense was to ask why he hadn’t long since moved.
“Because the ghost would move with me,” he answered matter-of-factly, as if he were talking about a pet that couldn’t simply be left behind. “It’s not a household ghost—I mean it, well, she actually—doesn’t belong to the house, she’s tied to me. To something that I did.”
“Which brings us back to the memories.”
He responded with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Whether you believe it or not, I was a normal person once,” he said now, kind of apropos of nothing, without looking me in the face. It wasn’t clear to me what he hoped to accomplish with this statement, if anything. Or if maybe he expected me to say something about it. Then a question occurred to me that I wanted to ask him:
“So do the rumors have to do with your ghost or with what you did?”
“No one knows what I did, no one!” he shouted. That is to say, he didn’t really shout, but hissed the words from between his teeth. Had his mouth been open, it would have been a shout.
How I was supposed to react to this outburst, I really didn’t know. Whatever he’d done must have truly tormented him, but whether it tormented him as a memory or in the form of a ghost—well, who knows?
Indeed, I myself was also tormented by a notion. Was I sharing this table with a criminal? With a criminal who got away with it? Although such a notion was deeply disturbing to me, especially me, I could hardly wait for him to confide in me, of all people, and besides, another question had occurred to me:
“If you are so sure, by the way, that it—or she—would haunt you no matter where you go, then why not in the basement too?”
I didn’t expect an answer and I didn’t get one. But I suddenly had a thought that made me grin: a ghost that was afraid of basements. I knew there were people who were afraid of basements—my wife was one of them. It’s common knowledge that people are afraid of the strangest things, but a ghost without the guts to go into the basement?
“What are you laughing at?” the neighbor asked.
“Nothing, I just had a thought,” I answered. And because I had no intention of revealing exactly what that thought was, I said: “If you don’t mind me asking, do you plan to keep climbing over the fence from now on? I could imagine it might get you even more frequent visits from the police if you do.”
It was a little awkward for me to say so—he wasn’t an idiot and surely knew that such behavior would alarm the other neighbors sooner or later, but I saw it as my duty, in a way, to point this out.
We had both almost emptied our glasses, and although the conversation hadn’t been uncomfortable at all up to now—surprising, but not uncomfortable—it was quickly coming to an end. I admit I wasn’t unhappy about this, I didn’t feel very at ease in the place. It may sound strange, but I told him that if he thought of a way I could help, to let me know. I said this as though I were actually in a position to drive away spirits or something. On the other hand, considering the things I’d heard that day, maybe it wasn’t actually so strange.
After finishing our glasses more or less in silence, we quickly said our goodbyes. I went home, he stayed. It’s quite possible that he was also ready to go but had no desire to spend the fifteen-minute walk together with me. I wasn’t unhappy about that either. We’d talked, quite a bit actually, when you think about the fact that we’d already been neighbors for two years and before this had exchanged hardly three words with one another. The walk home together could prove to be rather awkward under the circumstances. Although I couldn’t deny that I thought he was interesting. Or more precisely, that I, for whatever reason, had taken an interest in his life.
The weather was nice, a little windy, but that didn’t bother me. Not anymore, I should add. It was a particularly windy area I had ended up in, and it had taken time for me to get used to it.
I expected that as I walked my mind would already be flooded with thoughts of this encounter, but it didn’t happen until I reached home. As I walked, with the wind in my ears, I thought of virtually nothing—it literally blew all thoughts away.
Once at home, though, I had to sit down then and there. My neighbor’s face suddenly appeared to me as if out of nowhere, as though he himself were a ghost. Oddly, and more terrifying yet, in black and white, almost like a drawing. It was as if this encounter in all its, how to put it, significance, didn’t really hit me until then. This thing with the ghost and the memories. I didn’t believe in ghosts, I never had. But I believed just as little that memories stopped at a basement staircase. I was confused, to put it mildly. I had never asked myself why, after the murder of my wife, I had ended up here of all places. And just what bad thing had the neighbor done?
Then it happened. On Saturday morning, two days after our encounter in the pub. I got up at the same time as always and immediately heard that something was going on outside. I went to the window and discovered the blue lights of several emergency vehicles. It wasn’t completely light out yet, but the entire section of the street in front of the window was lit up blue. Three police cars and the ambulance blocked the way on both sides. And people had gathered, mostly neighbors from the street, as far as I could tell.
I considered whether I too should go out but decided against it. It would be a lie to say I didn’t know what had happened. Of course I knew. The emergency workers had gathered in front of the house and were looking at a spot on the ground directly in front of the wall facing the street. And: one of the windows on the upper floor stood wide open. I even caught a brief glimpse of the body lying on the ground. It was the neighbor.
I remember what my first thought was: the ghost. I said it several times to myself, for whatever reason. Maybe to convince myself that it was true?
A few more days passed before they showed up. I expected them sooner. After all, I was likely one of the only people who’d had some kind of contact with him before his death. They came in without asking. After a whole run of questions, primarily my personal details, they finally came out with it. More precisely, they didn’t actually come out with anything, but rather asked me dozens more questions.
“How well did you know your neighbor?”
“Not very well.”
“Did you have contact with him?”
“You mean when you were seen together with him at a table in the pub by the train station?”
“And after that?”
“Are you sure?”
“Would you say that under oath?”
“Were you ever in his house?”
Each question was followed by a nod from one the of the officers—there were three—and the man asking the questions, a man in plainclothes, wrote something in his notepad.
“Did you know that he was a wanted criminal?”
“Did you know?”
“Then how could I have known?”
“Because, for example, you saw what we saw when we searched his house.”
“I told you I was never in his house.”
“You said that, yes.”
Things continued this way for a while until the conversation turned to my own past. They had found out what happened to my wife, how she had died, said something about a composite sketch, a rather fuzzy black and white drawing that unfortunately never would have led to solving the crime. I knew all of this. God knows they didn’t need to tell me. Well, I knew it, but they evidently had not known about it. Finally the conversation turned more explicitly in the direction the officers had taken from the start.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Well, before recently, I didn’t believe in them.”
“Us either, you see,” said the plainclothes officer. And last but not least, the question it all came down to: “Where were you on Friday night?”
From Bernhard Strobel, Nach den Gespenstern, Literaturverlag Droschl, 2021.