I. The Wild Man
A door, as wide as Hans is tall. Behind it music, voices, laughter. Light falls through the cracks, through the windows in the brick wall. It is painted black, as is the door Hans is knocking on, beating his fists against, throwing his entire weight at. He braces himself into it, mustering his full force, braces with one leg bent, the other stretched, pressing into the ground. Slips down. Picks himself up, switches legs. One more go. The door creaks, but stands firm. Hans eases off, swearing. He has invented the swearwords himself, words which allow him to curse at the top of his voice without actually swearing. Because otherwise, he realises, that would not be polite. A window opens above him. A girl looks out. Then another, and another. They laugh.
“Lea,” he shouts over the racket.
“She’s not here,” someone shouts. Hans raises his fist.
“Catch,” someone calls, pushing her way to the front, and throwing a can of beer down to him. It is Lea, his sister. When she was little she was proud of Hans because he was the tallest of all the men she knew. Now, ever since the neighbours’ children taught her that her brother was abnormal, when someone asks her who they saw her with yesterday in the middle of the street, arguing – or saying nothing – she says, “I don’t know.” Or says, “that wasn’t me.” Behind her stands her boyfriend Herbert, with his arm round her waist as if she were his property. The can of beer falls to the ground, explodes.
“Thanks,” Hans says. Kicks the split can. It lands in the gutter. The window shuts and the noise is shut in.
Hans goes away. Not far. As soon as he is out of sight he sits on a bench. Plays dead. This is his safety valve, because as long as he doesn’t move, the birds’ twittering stays stuck in their throats – and his rage too. Till finally it breaks out through his narrow windpipe, wordless but loud, rising up to resist the onslaught of everything going against him. It doesn’t matter what he does; it’s no use.
“What did you say?” a passer-by asks, standing still now.
Hans looks up, stands up, walks over to him, not too close, and says: “I was talking to myself.”
“Did you understand what you were saying?” the man asks.
“Yes,” Hans says. “I said, there’s no point in me saying anything. I don’t want to say anything, I said. I just want to be by myself, then go home.”
“Do you know the way?” the passer-by asks.
“There is no way,” Hans says. “I have no home.”
“Where are you going to sleep then?” the passer-by asks, and is unsure if he is doing the right thing, getting involved in things which aren’t his business.
“I don’t know, maybe I’ll go to my flat,” Hans says, stepping from one foot to the other, starting to walk, now he has remembered how to do it.
“So you do have a home,” the passer-by says.
“No,” Hans says, turning round before he goes. “My flat is not a home, it’s a dump. There is nowhere you can put your foot without treading on something, things that are in the way: shoes, broken cups… There is no-one waiting there for me, not even an animal.”
The passer-by walks on. “What does he want from me?” Hans asks. Out loud. But by this time the man has vanished into the crowd, where every person is the same as the next, everyone following the same rhythm. For Hans, who has different music playing in his head, the other’s music doesn’t count. He follows his own rules. Sometimes he stumbles into one of the posts growing out of the asphalt here and there. When the thing he stumbles into is a human being, he often gets a deliberate shove or a nasty look. When it starts to rain, umbrellas open everywhere around him; hoods are drawn up over heads: measures which put an end to the game of glances. The unprotected ones walk with bowed heads, faster than before. A few of them dive for cover, making use of anything available: a porch here, a bus shelter there. Hans keeps going. He feels good. He isn’t bothered about getting wet. The rain runs down his face, under his collar. He stands still, throws his head back, opens his mouth and flares his nostrils. This is what the wild boy did, who lived like an animal in the woods somewhere in southern France a long time ago. Hans saw the boy in a film, saw how he received rain like a gift, thunder and lightning with joy – even later, after he had been caught, washed, clipped, trimmed, clothed and sent to school. I like rain too, Hans thinks, and takes his glasses off so he can see the world as it was meant for him; not the way the others’ corrective measures have shaped it for his benefit, but the way it is to him and only to him. Now he can barely see a thing, only the glow of the streetlight above his head, blurred – but what a great way to see it! In this spreading, softly fluctuating light, the night looks like a pleasure garden. “Like the Tivoli,” Hans says out loud. “Do you remember?” he says to himself, and recalls the tree of lights, full of red hearts, the crazy roller coaster, reflected in the lake and stirring up the water from top to bottom, and, eclipsing all the slighter memories, the eternal snowstorm in the ghost train, which wasn’t cold, instead made of light, a whirlwind within another, and another.
When he wakes from this dream, remote from the people rushing past him, he puts his glasses back on, so that no-one can mistakenly glimpse what they shouldn’t see: the thoughts condensing in his head, clustering together then flying out. This is a theatre which belongs to him alone. Sometimes he acts something to himself, physically, wherever he happens to be, pretending to be Mack the Knife, for instance, or a shark. But as this is the wrong thing to do in public, it causes more displeasure than amusement. In certain delicate souls it can even provoke fear. This can lead to difficulties. And so he contains himself and postpones the play till later, till he has a stage where no-one can see him. Leaning on a wall, he stays standing till the rain has stopped. He shakes himself, makes one determined stride, then another. Forgets himself, hesitates, then decides to walk through the night – not just in any direction, as he usually would, but towards the brightest light he can see at any one moment. The result is that his feet trace a labyrinth though the city, making their way to the traffic lights and then to the illuminated fountain and from there straight towards a car. Blinded by the headlights, he leaps aside now, and trips over himself. The man in the car winds his window down and rails at Hans, his main point being that he takes no responsibility should Hans have hurt himself. Hans says nothing. The man is not satisfied. As, however, Hans continues to stare at him fixedly, he is left to deal with his dissatisfaction as best he can. He now makes a wordless gesture too – shaking his head – winds the window back up and drives off. Hans examines his left knee. It hurts. But, Hans says to himself, it’s nothing.
It is nothing, and doesn’t make him limp as he walks now, straight to his bar. This is where his nights mostly end, or, you might say, where his life begins, night after night. His refuge is called The Dog in the Bush. No-one knows why it is called The Dog in the Bush because as far as Hans can see there was no reason in the slightest to turn the proverbial bird into man’s best friend. But Hans has learned that there are things which no amount of contemplation can explain, because they are inexplicable. In the same way there is no explanation for why his sister Lea has shut him out of her party, which is no doubt still in full swing, there where he tried to barge his way in, there where he has known everyone since they were children. And now, although he has hands and feet just like them, they treat him as if he was not a human being but a creature best steered clear of. In his bar, on the other hand, everyone greets him when he enters. He isn’t at home here either, because he isn’t allowed to stay any longer than the others. But he can sit at the bar in peace and listen to the music rippling down over him from the ceiling, woven note by note into the reddish, flickering light. “A beer,” he says to Susie, who would be his girlfriend if only she wanted to. And his money buys him a beer. He gets a free smile too. And on top of that a question:
“How are you?”
He cannot answer it straight away. The thing with Lea doesn’t concern Susie. “Not like you,” he says finally, once he has finished his first drink and can see the second standing ready in front of him. This helps him control the confusion, impossible to penetrate or describe, which has held him captive.
“How am I then?” Susie asks him.
“How should I know?” Hans says. “I can’t see what you’re like inside.” Susie has a diamond nose stud. It wasn’t there yesterday.
“Thank God,” she says. “If everyone could see what people were thinking, where would we be then?”
“In paradise,” Hans says. The people there are transparent; he learned that from his father, who read it in the book he always reads when he has nothing else to do. The book is to his father what The Dog in the Bush is to Hans; he is at home in it like a badger in his burrow. Susie starts to wash the glasses. “The way it works in paradise is…” Hans continues. But she isn’t listening.
Hans has to go now. Everyone has to go. Mostly in pairs. Hans walks up the hill alone. That’s where he lives. Alone. Standing at his front door he realises he has lost his keys. What can he do? There’s no point in ringing. He isn’t in, so he can’t open the door and welcome himself home. He is locked out and there is no-one who would take him in this late at night. Having thought for a while, which gets him no further, he takes a log from the stack of wood resting against the wall under a tarpaulin, lies down in the porch with the log as a pillow for his head, and falls asleep.
Hans, the wild man, has let his beard and his hair grow till he can no longer see out. Beneath the thicket of his moustache, his mouth has become a red-edged wound, but it mustn’t be allowed to get overgrown, because even though Hans speaks less these days he still has to eat and drink: that is what keeps humans alive. And Hans is without doubt a human being, even if he would rather be a tree. A tree can be as shaggy as it wants. Unlike Hans it doesn’t have to listen to people – including his mother, who claims to love him the way he is – saying that no-one should be allowed out in that state; he should be cropped and scrubbed, or locked up. The effect is achieved anyway, because people give him a wide berth when they see him. Which is fine by him, because while they might think he stinks, as far as he is concerned they stink too, in a different way, a way sensed in the mind, which has a nose of its own and can tell who is rotten under their shiny skin, and who isn’t. It isn’t just his hair which disgusts people; his hands are red and chapped. When he has to get a grip on something, doing up the buttons on his jacket for instance, he starts to jitter. Specially when he puts his gloves on. So he throws them away. But not his jacket, although it is frayed and grubby; he needs it against the cold. His trousers end a good two inches above his heavy shoes – which have lacked laces for some while. This means Hans cannot lift his feet when he walks; he can only shuffle, dragging the shoes along with him – slowly; left… right… It’s the way he walks. It works.
Ideally he’d rather go somewhere he actually wants to go. Or stay in bed. But every so often, though increasingly seldom, the orderly person within him speaks up, telling him he should be in a certain place at a certain time. That means: go to work. In the nursery. That means get up early. That means hurry to the station to be on time. The music in his head now reflects his struggle to get up and out. It has disintegrated, no longer music, just noise, blunt like the foghorn blast a ship uses to announce its arrival when it sails into a harbour in bad light and needs everything out of its way. That’s the kind of ship I am, Hans thinks. His legs don’t really want to obey the helmsman in his head; they rebel, continually straying from the straight and narrow. This annoys the more fleet-footed of his fellow citizens, as he discovers when they tell him so. He deliberately doesn’t reply to these remarks, and they usually look away as quickly as possible. But by then it is too late; the unflinching gaze with which Hans scrutinizes them, as he does everything which gets in his way, stays with them even when they have long turned the corner. And not without reason, because when Hans looks at something, he looks unsparingly, seeing everything there is to see, noticing not just that someone’s eyes are two different colours, but mercilessly observing every spot and every awkward hair. When he stops looking for anything in particular, the face he is gazing at turns into a full moon. That means it conveys nothing to him, no matter how brightly painted. The mouth is no longer a cherry; it is a red mark, soon just a stain, then a gap. And the skin is no longer white as snow; it is a crust, far from flawless, which holds what is under it together and hides it.
So it is hardly a surprise that Hans does not want to touch a woman, not even with his eyes, although he knows that this would be expected should the occasion ever arise. As his love-life to date has been played out solely in the subjunctive – aside from the kind of intimacy which can readily be purchased – the occasion has never arisen; in reality – an incident, a stroke of luck, and afterwards life is different from before… He can only satisfy his wilder desires through commercial transactions; usually by going to the street where the addicts solicit, where the other wild men look for their women. Now and then he finds a woman there who is wild like he is. He can be on a level playing field with her, and not only because a price has been agreed for services rendered. He can speak to her without having to remember that the wild ones’ way of speaking is like a foreign language to the tame, whose compensation for their lost freedom is that they call the tune when it comes to speech, because they are swimming in a torrent of words, whereas the wild men, and the less common wild women, must make an effort with every word, and once they finally have the words, they do not flow effortlessly from their lips; they piece themselves grudgingly together, one after another: stone on stone, the yes, yes, no, no of the bible. That has its advantages. In both novels and real life, speech often rushes ahead of thought to cause confusion, escalating with every sentence and spiralling out of control. These situations don’t occur between Hans and the wild women. For as long as the mutual understanding lasts, all is well with the world. If only it would last longer for once. But that will never be, Hans knows. Because these spellbound girls have made a deal with death. Every day death helps them get through life, offering an artificial heaven for a few hours as long as they give it the remains of their time, a little more each day, until finally it refuses to release them at all.
Although Hans is a wild man and finds his women on the street, he sleeps in a bed – well into the daylight hours after long nights. But although sleep is what it’s called, he doesn’t actually sleep. He lies there, immobile, so that the bed beneath him doesn’t collapse as it has been known to when he rears up and tosses himself from one side to the other, overcome with restlessness. He does this trying to sleep, something you can’t try to do; you can only let it happen. And so he gives up trying and stays wavering between day and night. This is where the dreams live, and he is happy to accept them, as long as they mean him well. He likes them best when they surround him with kindred spirits, when they are populated by wild folk living in the woods. The people there survive on berries and wild honey, on beetles, snails and crickets, taught the skills they need by the wild boy, who Hans has never forgotten since he saw him in the film. Because he is that child. If only he could live like that, without clothes, he thinks; if only my hair and my beard were so long that I could wrap myself up in them like a coat, my soles so tough I wouldn’t feel the hard pebbles when I walk barefoot through a stream. When the wild boy is cold he creeps into his cave and covers himself with earth and leaves, Hans remembers. Like an animal, he thinks, for as long as he has his eyes shut. And when he opens them again, the child is clearly a human being, because although he can’t speak, he has language in his head, and thinks – like me, Hans realises. And he knows that, even though there are very learned people who think otherwise, just as he mostly knows that his hand is his hand. When he no longer knows that, things have gone wrong.
When, continuing to dream, he thinks of the woman who found the wild boy while looking for mushrooms, he remembers that he has heard that mushrooms are neither plant nor animal but something else, something in between, which very few people know exists, which gives a name to mushrooms’ neither-nor status, which positions them in the natural scheme of things, where every plant and every creature has its place. And earth and fire and water and air. Hans has read in one of his nature books that mushrooms’ shared characteristic is that they are connected under the earth by an extensive network known as mycelium. And that, consisting almost solely of water, they need a lot of rain, from which they build the strange forms in which they emerge from the ground over night – alone, in clumps, in groups, in mysterious rings: the poisonous Fly Agaric, the Horn of Plenty, the red-bloomed Saffron Milk Cap, and the delicate-shaded Shaggy Ink Cap, which, no sooner has it appeared, melts away into a slimy, dark mass. Where mushrooms like to grow, so does moss. Close up, rocks overgrown with moss look like forests. As if spellbound. And when you look up, the grey lichen strands dangling down from the branches seem enchanted too; they are the beards of the wild men, Hans says, half awake, and, disturbed by the curious humanity of nature, closes his eyes again.
And returns to dreaming, although he is actually awake. In this dream, the fairy-tale story is that the wild men are vindicated. Which he is delighted about. And his dream is now as vivid as life itself, lucid and vibrant. Under their hides, the wild men wear robes of velvet and silk, so they are always ready should their hour come to peel off their skins, each in his way a prince – with clear eyes, but no beards. When they come into the world for the second time, in their real form, they are all without exception the sons of kings. And the idiots who have scorned them till now throw themselves to the ground when one of these wondrous new-born creatures looks their way – out of fear one of the powerful gentlemen might revenge himself for what was done to them when they were still bear-skinners and you could kick them if you felt like it. There is no danger of this, because the princes are not thinking about what happened back then but about what is happening now and what is coming next: the princesses, who will appear on the horizon without fail when they catch wind of a prince. The most beautiful takes Hans by the hand and leads him to her castle. She has been promised to him for all eternity, for she is the embodiment of a fairy tale. Hans knows that in the castle everything will be fine, and turns to the wall in his sleep, to avoid the light which seeks to banish his dreams and usher in the day. Or something else will come, and that will be fine, he thinks, as he passes from one dream room to the next now: out of the frying pan into the fire, from water to flames and then over the mountains into a cool, green valley.
And Hans dreams, offering the princess a green rose which he found in his sleep. As the princess goes to take the rose, he wakes up. This time there is no going back. No more dreams for today. With much difficulty, he decides to get up and begin the day, which, being grey, does not entice him. Nor would it if the sun were to shine, as bright as it can, because it hurts the wild men even when it just glances off their noses; it continually reveals that the world is not made for them, not the way it is now, everything always over straight away, and how can you get your bearings when nothing stays as it is? Instead yesterday’s grey hairs are red, the good weather bad, and the woman who smiled at Hans in his dream has already forgotten him. He gets up, takes a few steps with closed eyes and, when he finally, reluctantly, opens them, sees someone in the mirror he doesn’t recognise. He will have to climb into this person before he puts his clothes on and then he is what he was before his vindication; a stranger in his own skin.
From Muster aus Hans by Eleonore Frey, © 2009, Droschl Verlag, Graz
Translation © Steph Morris