All that Glitters

By Marie Gamillscheg

Translation Johanna McCalmont

Everything is asleep. Not night, but day hollows out the houses. Empty, black holes during the day. Some are burnt out. Someone has been on a rampage here. Someone has burnt the old mattresses, and now all that is left are just more bare box springs lying around. At night it’s possible to believe that people sleep here, that they get up the next morning, get into their cars and drive to work. But since the journalist was here, a lot of people have moved into the city and Susa now rents out her rooms at the low season rate all year round. People still tap the plaque on the ground in front of the church: GRANTED TOWN STATUS IN 1857, as though to check it is still there, set in the ground. The plaque remains. They can still officially call it a town. Only the cats linger when night falls. They have chosen the old tourist office; it is their territory. They lie along the shelves, curl themselves up tight into balls, vomit grass between the piles of scrap paper. They drag dead moles in through the cracked open door.

The red button in the mine museum doesn’t work anymore, and it won’t be repaired. When you push it now the blue, purple and white lights that illuminate the rockface don’t go on, the voice that recounts the Blintelmann legend doesn’t start, and the cave remains in darkness. The mayor says, “Who knows if it would be worth it. To get the red button to work again, make Blintelmann speak, and turn on all the lights again, you would need to replace all the wiring, and who knows whether it would be worth it. Just imagine,” says the mayor, “you replace all the wiring and suddenly, just then ? of course it would be at precisely that moment ? a load-bearing shaft wall is blown up, or disintegrates from the vibrations, and a shaft collapses, and another one, and then another one, and the debris from all the shaft walls causes the entire village to crack open, the houses fall down, everything goes up in a cloud of dust, just the way the journalist described it.” They remember the newspaper from back then. There had been an image on the front page showing an outline of the mountain, carved into a wooden plate, eaten away by woodworm. The way children carved potatoes at school and printed tablecloths with them: on one side there was a steep, smooth slope, on the other side the slope ran slightly further down into the valley, there were trees and houses at the foot of the mountain.

Passageways, pits everywhere. Caves. Shafts and tunnels.  Smaller tunnels are already collapsing when blasting takes place, the newspaper said. Floors are already collapsing, stones trickling down to the lower levels, and if it continues like that, the mountain will be entirely hollow one day. For centuries, shafts had been mined into the mountain at different levels and from different sides, they had simply mined deeper and deeper, following the ore. It was only later that anyone attempted to draw plans, but the network of shafts was too extensive, too intricate. Time and again new crossings were made, new caves and air pockets in the earth, and no one knew which shaft they belonged to.

Had they heard about the mining accident in Lengede?
About the gas explosion in the Donetsk mine?
Why are China’s coal mines so dangerous?
There are occasional reports on TV.

Perhaps there will be a huge bang. Or perhaps it will happen very quietly. A rushing sound, like a wave sweeping into the valley. That you hear first, and then see.
A rushing sound that you can see!

That is how they imagine it. As they stand at the holy water font in the church. As they sit at the bar in the ESPRESSO, watching Susa clean glasses, or as they stretch their hands out into the well water, or just as they take a closer look at the mouldings on the houses on the main square.

The journalist is wrong, everybody in the village agreed. The mayor knows that too. “Nevertheless,” he says. Of course they think about it. Susa’s cat once got a new hip joint, and the following week Susa found the stiff-legged cat propped against the wall of her house. Someone had run over it, and the vet was still able to use the hip replacement in another cat. Susa got some money back, but not much. Susa thinks about that.

In the past, people often met at Susa’s in the evening, in the ESPRESSO: the old folks and sometimes the younger ones, too. Back then, they sat around the small tables, not all at the bar. The journalist also joined them when he was in the area back then, ten or fifteen years ago. He came down to the bar in his slippers. The old folk didn’t think anything of it. He asked about life in the village, about plans of the shafts, about archives; he drank schnapps and beer and then more schnapps, he always drank along with everyone else and understood how it went: knew when it was time to get up and get another round for everyone at the bar. He talked about himself too, he had a daughter and he enjoyed hiking, but his daughter didn’t, so that made the summer holidays difficult, because her mother also preferred to head south or go to New York; it was complicated.

She had never liked him, Susa says.

He always left the towels on the floor of his room, every day, and he was never really drunk, always restrained, and he always pushed his plate away when he finished eating, as though it disgusted him. She had known right away, says Susa. But Susa only mentions this later.

Anyone who passes through this place knows: Something is happening here. Or rather: Something has happened here. People don’t greet each other in the street. The red button is broken. Since the journalist was here, tourists have stopped visiting, and the red button in the mine museum won’t be repaired. No one remembers what happened exactly: if the red button broke while the journalist was here, or if it had already stopped working before that and wasn’t repaired because the journalist was here. At any rate, he had something to do with it. Now, the cave remains in darkness, and you can’t see the walls glitter, how all that glitters contains so many colours, and you can no longer wonder what came first, the glittering or the colours.

***

How it glitters! Teresa is sitting in front of the bedroom door, her hands held up close to her face. She had moved her hand whilst painting her index finger and the silver nail polish had gone over the edge of her nail. She found herself thinking about the identical twins in the documentary, the ones who die at the same time. Who also have children or make major decisions at the same time, even though they live on different continents.

“They say there are identical twins who are both getting on well or struggling at the same time, even though they don’t know what the other one is doing, or where they live,” says Teresa aloud. To her sister Esther, to the door, through the door behind which Esther is still staring at the white ceiling, lying on her back on the bed, her hands still balled up into tight fists.

Later, hardly anyone will care how it happened exactly. Whether Martin skidded off the road at the second or third hairpin bend. Whether for a moment he felt like he was taking off, whether that moment even exists before impact. Whether the car rolled over several times, or just once. Whether he died immediately or was still briefly conscious. Whether he had seen the village ahead of him one last time, upside down. Had the sun already risen behind the mountains?

***
There’s one thing that the lorry driver who finds Martin’s car hears above all else: the engine of the lorry he is driving, how it gets louder when he accelerates, then quieter when he changes gear. The ventilation fan when he turns off the engine, the sound of the hand brake, how something then cracks in the car, the plastic in the dashboard perhaps. It takes him a while to realise it’s a car lying across the road in front of him.

The sound of the door opening, how the door handle on the inside snaps back, how the door slams shut, then just the birds, the wind, his footsteps on the tarmac. It is very early in the morning, so early that everything is still bathed in a bright, grey-blue light, the contours are too sharp. So early there aren’t any softer colours, so early it takes him a minute to realise that someone might still be in the car. He tries to turn the car over, but only manages to get it to rock. Then he calls the police.

He stands at the edge of the road, at an almost sheer drop down to the next hairpin bend, to the mountain terrace below. He looks down into the valley and doesn’t turn around until he hears the police arrive.

He starts by telling the policeman what he heard: the engine, the crackling, the door, the rocking of the car, the silence that followed. The firemen lift the car with a portable crane and turn it over. The windscreen is shattered, a fireman cuts the driver’s door open with metal cutters. The lorry driver gets goose bumps; the metal, the paint, the plastic interior fittings, nothing but a crackling. The roof is dented, the side has been cut away and paint scratched, yet you can still see that someone must have taken good care of the car.

Someone has cleaned the number plate and wheel rims. Someone didn’t leave anything on the back seat.

He can take the rest of the day off – that’s what the lorry driver’s boss tells him on the phone. He should take the lorry back, a colleague will cover his shift, or maybe not, who knows how long the road will be closed. He shouldn’t worry. He looks back down over the hairpin bends he has just driven up, down into the valley, he watches the school bus drive along the right-hand side of the valley beside the main road, make a stop and then drive on. He sees the hairpin bends below him, flowing down into the valley like waves, cutting a light-brown trace into the orange-red mountain, like age rings exposed in a tree trunk. To his left, a few bends further down, the road winds its way around a turquoise reservoir that has formed in a basin between the terraces. In front of him the village, hemmed in on both sides by the green slopes of the valley. From up here, it looks like the only colours are red and green; the green hills, the carmine rooftops around the main square, the orange-red stones from the slag heaps he was currently standing on, a vast expanse of vermillion at the end of the valley: the old workers’ housing. From up here, it looks like there is only a single road in the entire valley, the federal highway that leads straight out into the distance. From up here, the village looks like it always has. From up here, you can imagine that a lot of people go to a market every Sunday, that there are festivals where people hammer nails into a tree stump, and that afterwards children collect confetti from the ground and colour their tongues with it.

The lorry driver sees the light go on at the newsstand and hears the church bells. Down there, this accident on the road up here hasn’t happened yet. He thinks of all the stories about the mountain and this place. He thinks about how he will drive home and then get back into bed.

“Heavens above,” says the policeman. “It’s Martin.”

Martin is now just a limp body as they pull him out of the car where he had been trapped between the steering wheel, seat and roof.

Until that moment, the policeman had been standing with his arms folded, now he tucks his shirt further into his trousers and pulls them up. He is the only one from the area. The others ? the lorry driver, the firemen, the paramedics ? are from neighbouring villages, to them he’s just a young man in a shiny, dark blue sports jacket, zipped right up, a young man with thin, straight hair who is hanging limply and heavily in the firemen’s arms. But they hold their breath for a moment, too. He is young and looks like someone you would say has his whole life ahead of him, and they can’t understand how something like that can happen precisely to someone like him.

One of the firemen is the first to break the silence.

“He was wearing his seat belt, that’s important,” he says, “that needs to go in the report.”

They lay him on the ambulance trolley, the paramedics bend over him, as do the fireman and policeman, even though they don’t need to, but from that moment on, it’s as though they all belong together somehow, as though it is their shared task to bend over Martin and check his pulse. Then the doctor arrives. It’s not long before he pulls the blanket up over the body and gets back into his car to write the report. The paramedics remain standing. They all nod at each other.

In the valley, something is starting: a Monday.

The policeman and the lorry driver stand at the side of the road and look down into the village. The policeman remembers that last weekend he had seen Martin and Esther sitting in the car, in this same black car that now no longer has a windscreen or a driver’s door, that they had driven past as he waited for the bus so he could personally ask the driver why he was arriving later each day; there had been complaints. Esther and Martin had probably driven into the town or to the next village, the sort of thing young people do on the weekend. Young people who have a car. He knows that during puberty Martin had been the kind of child you worried about: always on his own, his jacket zipper always in his mouth. He often lay on his stomach in the street and drank out of puddles of rainwater when he was really too old for that sort of thing, he climbed trees and hid there until his parents called the police when they couldn’t find him.

And he always had that zipper in his mouth, always nodded, without saying anything, as though he was stuck, levelled out, but then Esther came along, and he stopped climbing trees, he got a job and bought himself a car, this big, black car, and drove into the town or next village with Esther at weekends.

“And what are you doing up here so early in the morning?” the policeman asked the lorry driver. Looking at him side on.

The lorry driver hesitates briefly, holds out a crushed packet of cigarettes to the policeman, “demolition work,” he replies. He lights a cigarette. The policeman doesn’t take one.

“I thought the young people were all long gone,” says the lorry driver.

The policeman shakes his head. Then the lorry driver shakes his head too.

“It’s crazy,” he says, “you always worry that the mountain will kill you, and then it actually happens, but,” he shakes his head, opens his breast pocket, closes it again, “it happens in a different way.”

The view has now cleared. The sun must have risen somewhere behind the clouds. The stones, the forest, the roofs now have their true colours.

“Well, I’d better go,” says the lorry driver, but doesn’t move. “I have to go back to the office,” he says, looks at the policeman, looks down into the village, at the car.

“If it’s okay for me to leave, that is,” he says.

“Yes, yes,” says the policeman, and the lorry driver opens the cab door. The policeman has turned around and readjusts his trousers.

“The good families, they stay,” he says.

Alles was Glänzt, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, der Verlagsgruppe Random House, © 2018.