They’d been walking for two hours now. Before that, they’d taken the train a short way, then caught a local bus to the last village in the valley.
Where are we going? asked the boy. It was the first time he’d posed the question. His face was pale; he hadn’t seen enough sunlight this year.
You’ll see, said the man.
The boy nodded. He didn’t speak much. No one had taught him the things it’s possible to talk about.
Shall I take your rucksack? asked the man.
The boy shrugged.
I can carry it myself, if it’s not much further.
All right, said the man.
The path led to an alpine pasture that wasn’t yet in use for the season. The cattle wouldn’t be brought here until May, to the higher meadows even later. The man was counting on this. He panted as he walked, spitting occasionally.
Shall we stop for a bit? asked the boy.
No need, replied the man. We’re nearly there.
The winter had left its mark. At one point the path crossed the bed of a small stream, but an avalanche or sudden torrent had swept away the wooden bridge that had stood there. The splintered remnants were caught in the trees lining the gravel streambed. Now, the flow was a mere trickle.
Not long till the meltwater, said the man. He was gazing up at the mountain peak visible above the broad swathe the stream had cut through the forest. The boy had stopped too.
What’s meltwater? he wanted to know, and the man explained it to him.
They crossed the streambed, the man holding the boy’s hand. Whenever they came to running water, they jumped. The distances weren’t great; it was the stones that were more dangerous, rolling easily out from under their feet. The sun beat down on their heads, but as it wasn’t much further it made little sense to stop and fish their caps out of the rucksack. The man had remembered to bring them; he’d even bought one for the boy.
We’re nearly there, he said. The boy looked up sceptically. Perhaps he was wondering what awaited them there.
It was a steep climb out of the streambed. The boy slipped a couple of times, but the man’s grip on him was firm. The small hand in his felt cool and dry, while he kept having to wipe the sweat away from his own forehead and neck.
Is it much further? asked the boy, once they’d clambered back up and re-joined the path that soon led back into the trees.
I can carry you for a bit if you’re tired, the man suggested. He studied the boy with an expression of mild concern, perhaps, though not with anxiety. But the boy shook his head; he didn’t want to be carried. And as soon as they were in the woods, he found the going easier again.
Look, whispered the boy. He’d stopped and was pointing at a lizard sunning itself on top of a rock. The man had stopped as well, and stood silently beside the boy. The lizard didn’t move. It looked as though it was staring at them, too. But it was impossible to tell.
Quietly, the man told the boy what kind of creature it was.
Does it bite? asked the boy, but as he was speaking the lizard darted away and vanished behind the rock.
Every time they heard a noise (usually birdsong, or a rustling in the undergrowth) the boy wanted to know what it was, and the man would explain to him what type of bird had just called or what kinds of animals lived in the forest.
Have you never been to a zoo? he asked. Or seen stuffed animals in a museum? The boy shook his head. Then they walked on in silence.
As they emerged from the forest, they saw the huts. They stopped and stood there for a while. All the shutters were closed and there was no sign of either animals or people. That’s good, thought the man.
The grass at the base of the pasture was shot through with stones and the flowers known as cow’s footsteps, and a fence separated it from the woods. They came to a five-bar gate that was chained shut. Next to it was a narrow opening with a turnstile, which squeaked as they passed through it. The boy laughed and spun around in it a couple of times. It was the first time he’d laughed since they’d set off.
Then they were at the huts: three smaller ones with lean-to cowsheds, the upper floors of which were haylofts, and a larger wooden house with a stone terrace that served as a restaurant in summer. A gravel track leading up from the other side of the valley ended in front of it. There was electricity, too – the power lines went all the way up to the house. And a cable car for goods, which was used to transport milk, cheese and butter down to the valley in summer, leftover hay in the winter.
Is that a hotel? asked the boy.
Something like that, replied the man, easing his heavy rucksack down beside the terrace. The boy followed suit. Then he ran to the front door and rattled it.
No one’s here.
I know, said the man.
Does that mean we have to go back? asked the boy.
No, I have a key.
Is it your house, then?
It belongs to a friend who said I can stay here.
Does he know I’m with you? asked the boy.
Yes, the man replied, but this was a lie. He had worked here for a couple of summers, but then had a falling-out with the owner. At the time, he’d had the key copied, and every now and again he spent the night when he was out on one of his longer hikes.
Have you been before?
The man nodded. But it was a long time ago, now.
They ate ham and fried eggs for supper, sitting at one of the few tables in the restaurant. The man had brought the food with him. The larder was stocked with various tins, jars of preserved fruit, crates of drinks. The fridge was turned off, but the man had plugged it in again and filled it with the groceries he’d brought. He’d opened a bottle of beer to go with the meal; the boy drank lemonade.
Taste good? asked the man.
Mmm, said the boy, chewing. He ate hungrily and quickly, then wiped his mouth and asked if he was allowed to watch TV.
There’s no television here, said the man.
The boy: Then what are we going to do?
We could talk, or play cards.
The boy frowned. I can’t play cards. And what should we talk about?
It wasn’t particularly late, but darkness had already fallen when they went back outside. After supper they had washed up together, and then the man had got a pack of cards out of a drawer and explained the rules. The boy had caught on quickly and ended up winning more hands than he did. Now they were looking at the mountains and the sky. The man had lit himself a pipe and told the boy what the peaks were called. The boy listened and repeated the names, pointing to each one.
He’d sat down on the bench beside the man. He’d been cold, so the man had fetched a blanket from inside the house and draped it over his shoulders. It was completely silent. Not a sound drifted up from the valley. Only occasionally did they hear the screech of an owl.
Does she know where we are? The boy spoke into the silence.
Yes, lied the man. I rang her.
The boy referred to his mother by her first name, but when the man had asked him why, he hadn’t been able to explain. They sat there for a while longer. The boy swung his legs, his feet not yet touching the ground.
You can call me Charly, said the man.
I thought you were called Karl.
My friends call me Charly.
Am I your friend?
I’m looking after you.
It got even colder, so they went inside. The man locked the door, gave the boy a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap, and told him to have a wash.
The water’s far too cold, complained the boy.
You’ll sleep well afterwards, replied Karl.
Hello, he’d said, I’m Karl. I live in the building opposite. We can walk home together, if you like. It had only been a couple of weeks ago, but that was how they’d got to know one another. The boy hadn’t said much, had followed him without hesitation.
Erik, he’d said, when Karl asked him his name. After that, they’d walked together occasionally at first, but eventually every day. Karl had initially made their encounters look like a coincidence. In the mornings he’d be standing near the entrance to the building, just leaving the courtyard or waiting at the traffic lights further down the road. Cars, cyclists, mopeds and buses hurtled past. It was a through road, and there were two crossings to negotiate on the way to the after-school care centre. In the afternoons, Karl had waited for Erik in the vicinity of the care centre and told him he’d just been to the library near by.
Do you go to the library every day? Erik had asked when Karl had been waiting for him on the following days as well.
Yes, most days, he’d answered, and the boy hadn’t asked any further questions. At first Karl had been anxious about accompanying him. Someone could ask who I am and what I’m doing with him, maybe imply I have certain intentions, he’d thought. But no one in the neighbourhood, not even the people living in the same block of flats, seemed to know Erik. Perhaps they think I’m his grandfather, thought Karl. Or they don’t think anything of it at all.
Erik hadn’t said much. When Karl asked him a question, he mostly answered with yes or no.
His mother worked in a shop, he’d said. But Karl knew that wasn’t true. Erik’s mother spent all day at home; she slept until midday, sometimes even until the boy came back.
Karl didn’t think much of Erik’s mother. She drank and took drugs, just like the men who came to visit her and took turns staying overnight. Karl had made a habit of watching the flat where she and the boy lived. Every morning he saw Erik come into the kitchen and make himself breakfast, which consisted of a bowl of milk and something he shook out of a packet. He was already dressed by that time and had probably had a wash, too. Nothing about him looked unkempt. His hair was neatly combed, and his clothes appropriate for the weather. He even made himself a sandwich, which he put in a plastic box and tucked away in the little satchel he always carried. He appeared in the kitchen at the same time every morning; Karl could have set his alarm by him. Which in fact he had done – since retiring, he’d been sleeping in now and again.
Erik’s mother still wasn’t up when the boy left the flat. She slept on the sofa in the living room, next to whichever of her night-time visitors was there. Once, Karl had watched as Erik opened the door to the living room after breakfast and surveyed the scene dispassionately, then closed it again almost immediately.
Outside, another tawny owl hooted. Hoohoo-hoohoo. Karl closed his eyes. Erik was breathing noisily through his mouth, a gurgling sound. What if he was ill? He could have caught a chill in the cold evening air.
What will we do tomorrow? thought Karl, but before an answer could come to him, he’d drifted off to sleep.
Excerpted from Eva Schmidt, Die Welt Gegenüber (Opposite the World), Jung und Jung 2021.