Translation Helen MacCormac
About the book: It’s Christmas Eve 1866. Tjark Evers, a young sailor and navigation student is stranded on an offshore sandbar in the middle of the sea. The tide is rising and there is little chance of help. Caught between water and sand, between dreams and reality, the young man seeks refuge in words and sentences…. Recognizing the power of the sea, he challenges his fate and starts to write.
No trace of the boatmen. Not a sound. As if there had never been a boat, or oars, or shouts of warning when the vessel started to broach; no man from Langeroog lost in the litany of his children’s names.
The swirling fog envelops him in way that doesn’t feel real. It is too soft and vague, all of a sudden. The temperature of the air must be about one degree Celsius, the water maybe a few degrees more; but these are just numbers, they have no substance. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. His brows and lashes will be wet but he can’t feel a thing. He looks down at his boots caught in water that wasn’t there before. How long has he been standing like this? It seems like hours. Is this a dream, and he’ll wake up in a moment, back in the room he shares with two other lads in Timmel?
Tjark pulls himself together, stamps his feet hard causing the thin film of water to spray across the sand, and hunches his kitbag firmly to his shoulder. This isn’t a dream. He is here, standing on the east edge of the island, even if he can’t actually see it.
“Navigation is the science or art of directing the course of vessels as they sail from one part of the world to another. Bearing this in mind, the two fundamental problems of navigation are: 1) what is the ship’s position at a given moment? And 2) what is the most advantageous course to be steered in order to reach a given point? It is the responsibility of a practical navigator to solve these questions with certainty.” This is what it says in his textbook on navigation, and these were the words their teacher Johann August Funk had used yesterday to dismiss his class and send his students off home for Christmas.
Tjark was the only one to cross the water. He’d needed determination to reach his destination, not nautical instruments. He’d even managed without a compass – quite a feat.
The fog has grown thicker if anything, emulating the first-ever dawn before land and water were parted. Tjark needs to get going. He’ll cross the island somehow, forging his own path if he has to. It’s an hour to Westdorf village.
The sands of Osterhook rise, becoming finer, sieved by beach grass on the edge of the dunes. You can feel the change underfoot. Tjark closes his eyes as he walks, sucking in air soaked with moisture that hasn’t come from the sea and does not taste as salty. The sand starts to slope downwards, instead of rising. The tide he had not noticed before tugs at his legs, the water gets deeper, slops into his boots.
Suddenly the fog all around him starts screeching, and spits out a seagull which is gone at once. Then everything is deathly still, as if the world has lost all sound now, as well as colour. Tjark turns around and wades in the other direction. Seconds later he is surrounded by the swell of the sea on all sides. When he finally finds solid footing on higher ground where the water is still shallow, he turns clockwise, acting as his own compass. You stood dreaming too long, Evers. You’re disorientated because of the fog. You went south-west instead of straight west.
This time he counts his steps. Twenty, twenty-one. The water stays level, feels right. When he reaches forty-five it starts getting deeper, but he won’t believe it. 1845 is the year he was born, after all. Forty-eight steps and it starts running into his boots again. The water ahead is crossed with bars of black and he realises he is looking at underwater channels – five more steps and the current will tear you off your feet. Get back!
He has no idea where he started from now, and he forgot to count his steps. He makes a half turn and puts one foot in front of the other.
A couple of sharp cries sound out like tiny hammers hitting pearls: oyster catchers. He can’t see the birds, but he knows you can eat them, poach three in a jar. That used to be his grandfather’s favourite meal; he was named after Tjark Ulrichs, his mother’s father: island sheriff and a legend in his time after he prevented the village from being destroyed by the French. He has been dead and buried for four years now. Grandmother Hiemke is still alive, it’s as if death has forgotten about her, but she’s blind, and her days are dark. For a moment the fog lifts like a sail billowing in a storm and allows Tjark to see what lies ahead on this side of the island: more water. Maybe it has been conjured up just for him, maybe he drove it out of the sand and something keeps throwing it back at his feet, some demon sent to test and try him.
Back, where to? He has no idea which directions he has already gone, even the flattest parts are covered in water now; there are no footprints left. He will walk a circle as wide as he can. His feet are stiff with cold; he can’t feel his toes. He can’t tell if they move when he wants them to. But he can walk.
The circle turns into an ellipse, less than one hundred paces round. Another gull appears from nowhere and is chased by something that turns on him: Tjark thrashes out wildly, stumbles, can only just keep himself from falling. His left leg is soaked to the thigh, but the nightmare is gone, thrashed away, shouted away. Gasping, he pulls his kitbag back up onto his shoulder. Where did that come from? What does it mean?
What does this mean? Luther’s question. Years ago at Sunday school they had learnt the Small Catechism off by heart. Tjark had felt restless during those hours. Sometimes he had headed off towards Ostdorf, where people weren’t quite as particular about what children did or didn’t do, instead of going to the island church. The Ten Commandments, The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer. Each commandment, article or petition was followed by the same question: “What does this mean?” He had given the answers as long as he had to, and then put them aside. He was sure they applied, but let them be. What had stuck was the consciousness that we are all sinners, descended from Adam and therefore doomed to die, who must trust in God to soften his judgment and show mercy like a stern father and comforting mother. Tjark never could equate the angry, jealous God of Luther’s catechism – who would persecute all who disobey His commandments, and punish unto the seventh generation – with the God of grace and consolation. He believed that if he lived humbly, things would work out in the end. For him, wrath was one of the great powers of the earth, there to set limits and defend boundaries, a thing of storms, and ice, and above all: of the sea.
Tjark knows the law of the sea better than anything. Water covers three quarters of the planet. If it releases land that it has taken thousands of years to create, it’s for a limited time only. Baltrum and the other East Frisian Islands are no exception. Men may have gained the right to use those islands, but not to own them. The land has always been dominated by the sea, which has taken its toll year after year; dunes seized and torn away, grazing areas washed out and buried under sand, human lives taken like a sacrifice to heathen Gods. There were times when the sea went unbounded, destroying nearly all the houses of Baltrum, lifting ships from anchor, and cutting up the island as if it had grown too large. But during his lifetime the sea has been moderate. The last storm tide hit Baltrum in February 1825.
Tjark has only ever heard stories about it.
This place, this sand he is standing on, is not an island. It was never intended for men. But it’s still a kingdom, a place where the rules of the sea apply. Did he defy its law? Should he fear its wrath? The wrath of the sea, what does this mean? What about the dark horror released from the depths just moments ago? What about the ruthless never-ending tide? Or the confounded confusion that stopped him finding his way through the fog?
Find a way. He is a navigator; he won’t give up. He trudges on as best he can, and his ellipse gets smaller and smaller, until he is zigzagging this way and that, while his feet leave marks that fill up with water and disappear immediately. He’d write whole sentences in the sand, if he could, to delay the truth; he’s ready to wield every physical possibility, all the what-ifs and dreams people continue to dream when reality has become inevitable.
He’s going to drown. There’s not much time left. Perhaps just enough to sort his affairs. Tjark lifts the kitbag that has fallen from his shoulder out of the water and tries to untie the strings. This is difficult; his fingers are stiff and blue with cold. But then he manages to dig his hands into the bag and grabs hold of the Christmas presents at the top. He blinks away tears that keep welling up. A box of cigars for Father, a piece of good soap for Mother. Bought yesterday in Aurich, when the coach dropped him off. They’re worth nothing now. He is looking for something right at the bottom, packed away under his shirt and other clothes. At last his fingers touch the spine of his exercise book. Thick card lined with blue paper. He pulls it out. The pencil is stuck between the pages where he’d calculated spherical triangles, determined angles, and specified sine and cosine functions. A lot of work, but there are a still a few pages left for examples.
What now? You write a farewell letter. You put the book in the cigar box and commit it to the sea. It can do this much, can it not? Wash the box up onto a nearby shore where someone might find it and pass it on.
He is so alone. Nobody has missed him, no one is expecting him. His fellow students and the boatmen think he’s on the island, his parents and brothers and sisters are sure he’s in Timmel. But he is out here on a sandbar. They will be thinking of him, he belongs to them, he’s part of their lives, but they’ll have the wrong pictures in mind. None of their thoughts can find him here; no one can touch his fate. He won’t be with them until after he’s dead, until they start searching for him at the end of the Christmas holiday.
The water stands three hands high above the sand and is starting to feel heavy, like some awful dense matter used to getting its own way. The sea will have him. That is its law, its price for overstepping the mark.
Very well, he will pay for the moment when joy and impatience and a small sense of victory made him blind. He will pay the earthly God his dues and be done. He can do nothing more for his body.
Which leaves his soul. Guilty from Adam’s line, he still hopes for mercy. There is another God, one in Heaven. Not a tangible force, just a small piece of hope, but based on more than Luther’s catechism and vouched for by his father and his fathers before him, and by his mother who prays to this God for her children. He will abide by this. He can say goodbye with hope.
Tjark clamps the kitbag under his arm, opens the book and starts to write. He fills three pages with loops of beautiful writing, writing that should be set in stone:
brothers and sisters
I am here on a sandbar
and will drown I shan’t
ever see you again
nor you me
God have mercy upon
me and comfort you
I will put this book in a
cigar box. God grant that
you receive these lines
from my hand. I send you
my love for the last time
God forgive me my sins and
take me to him in Heaven
Skipper HE Evers
From Auflaufend Wasser by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler, © Steidl Verlag
Translation © Helen MacCormac