In the early hours of September 21st, 2007, I spilt around 200ml of coffee over my intrusively ringing mobile. It had demanded to be answered so suddenly and I had been so taken aback by the withheld number that I hadn’t had time to put down my mug. Irritated that my work had been interrupted, it took me a few seconds to realise who I was speaking to. On the line was a police officer, who, without beating about the bush, told me that my parents had died in a car accident the night before. ‘Died?’ I asked, although I had understood immediately. While I continued to stare at my article about vector spaces and saw the complex scalar products dance before my eyes, the police officer told me what had happened: the red Audi, whose registration plates had been used to identify my parents, must have veered off the road last night and surged like a mud slide across a gravel track to come down near the Syhrntal. The strange thing was, the officer said, that neither of them had any wounds or bruising. Although part of the car was damaged as a result of hitting the crash barrier, there was a lot to indicate that this hadn’t been the cause of death.
After the impact, the vehicle must have slid towards the slope infinitely slowly, rolling lazily into a supine position like a dying insect, eventually gliding, gently grating, across the ridge into the darkness below. The slide, hidden from the other drivers on the Semmering Pass by thick fog, had met its presumably silent end in an oak tree, said the police officer.
I was sitting in bed in my pyjama bottoms and bra, laptop open on my knees with the script of my inaugural address, and suddenly found myself in the middle of a painting with all the wrong perspectives. The alcoves of my flat, the parks outside my window, every chair, every shelf started to move, creaking, wedging themselves against one another. The man on the phone continued unperturbed, bringing his message to an end: it was, therefore, clear that it was not the impact that had led to their death, nor did (he emphasized this bit) the roadworks explain this tragic accident. The pathology report in a few days would give complete certainty as to the cause of death, the man said, and I could tell from his tone, which fluctuated between that of a traffic officer and that of a detective, that he too faced a situation like this for the first time. But by this point we had both mechanically said goodbye to each other and hung up.
I remained in my nightwear for an endless morning, shifting from my side to my back to my front, then back again. From my bed, I watched the signal phases of the traffic light, like a metronome, until I increasingly lost any hope that something would fundamentally change inside me. Instead I was overtaken by a notion which gradually became conviction: I had clearly long been part of a plan, a ceremony that had been determined before my birth, which would now unfold. A cosmic barrel organ had started up. All the parts had been assigned, the cogwheels meshed together, all the cylinders in the mechanics waited to be summoned for grief duty: obviously, I would arrange a funeral.
No sooner had I had this thought than I was able to take action. I got dressed: the new tights gleamed silkily when I removed them from the packet. I made coffee and opened an Excel document. Over the next hours I listed things that needed to be done, assembled people who would have to be informed in a mailing list, gathered the addresses of undertakers and selected allegories for the condolence cards. I got things moving and postponed my professional obligations. This meant first cancelling my lecture and deferring a meeting with my postdoctoral thesis supervisor.
‘No problem, Ruth, I will send out the confirmation of your compassionate leave straight away,’ the secretary at the institute said gently. ‘We’ll let the students know that your lecture will be a week later.’
Meanwhile it was twelve o’clock and, because it was Friday, the students from the Neue Institutsgebäude opposite rushed out and goose-stepped their way to the trams, suitcases with dirty laundry ready to be dumped for their Upper Austrian or Styrian mothers to put in the washing machine a few hours later. I on the other hand felt confined, as if my silent flat had constricted around me. I forced my breath into a rhythm, closed my eyes for a few minutes and waited until my pulse stabilised. And yet, pressure was released: I cried, loudly but briefly, thought of my parents, of my father’s tight hugs, my mother’s perfume, sitting together at the table all those years, singing carols at Christmas time, of the disagreements – a thousand little moments poured over me completely randomly while I propped myself up on the bed. This all lasted for just a moment. As if my body was not able to hold the pain just yet, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, and emptiness took its place. Once again complete silence, except for the ticking of the gas heater.
It became imperative to do something about this feeling of being unwell. I took two Xanax from the mirrored cabinet in the bathroom, lay down on the sofa and wrapped myself up in a blanket. I was so exhausted from the last few hours that I finally drifted off: the sofa seeped blurrily into the living room wall and into the cloudy grey mood of the early afternoon.
When I came to, I could feel something pressing down on my back and moving. Hands went up and down my shoulders and attested to the fact that I’d had a shock. Indeed, I recalled: I’d opened the door to my aunt and two of my cousins, who had received the news shortly after me. Each of them had fastened their hair tightly in a bun at the back of their head and was dressed in black, so that all three of them looked completely identical. My aunt had placed her arm around me and put some food on the table that she’d brought with her, probably assuming that I hadn’t eaten all day.
‘Ruth, you know we can help you with the household and everything else. It’s the least we can do.’ My aunt was facing me, and yet it was as though there was a delay in her speech. We were soon engrossed in an earnest conversation about the funeral arrangements, when I dropped a glass that someone had filled with orange juice during my mental absence. I watched the liquid run unchecked beneath my sofa and couldn’t do anything to oppose it. The table slid away beneath my hands, I did not recognise the furniture, although it was mine. The tissues my cousins had pulled out, the constantly vibrating mobile phones, the solar disc wandering across the sky, the rhythmically falling tears from my and others’ tear ducts set the tempo, the bellows of my lungs activated into the empty room. The sequences had been broken from their logical proportions, I thought. You’ve had a shock, one of the cousins repeated pointlessly and stroked my hair going the wrong way – into my line of vision, instead of out.
Between trumpet blasts from her nose, full to bursting, my aunt explained that it had been my parents’ constant and indisputable will to be buried in Groß-Einland. ‘Groß-Einland,’ I repeated several times so as to recall this name that had slipped my mind for the longest time: ‘Groß-Einland, Groß-Einland, Groß-Einland.’ ‘Groß-Einland,’ the aunt declaimed as a final Amen, and then I jumped to my feet.
(Groß-Einland: I had last heard this name twenty-five years ago and rediscovered it that evening in a tingling déjà-vu that set my nerves racing. Like many people who have worked their way up from modest beginnings, my parents had spent their life trying to hide their rural background. Of course in their case this went much further than with most other people: as far as I could remember, we had never visited my parents’ home town – and as my aunt, my mother’s half-sister, had grown up in Graz and my father’s relatives had broken off all contact from the start, I didn’t know a single person who had ever been to Groß-Einland.)
I explained that I needed to set off straight away and that I would deal with everything else in Groß-Einland. I would go alone, immediately, and it was not up for discussion, I told my aunt. I wanted to find out if it would be possible to obtain a grave in the graveyard they had specified, otherwise it wouldn’t even be possible for their bodies to be transported. A restaurant needed to be organised, a level-access guesthouse for the older generation, doubtlessly also a small brass band and marble cherubs, I concluded and determinedly pushed the two cousins towards the door. I felt the urgent need to be alone. I was held by my shoulders, but I wriggled out of their grasp and uttered reassurances that immediately fizzled out.
‘Please call us tomorrow morning, otherwise we’ll worry about you,’ was the last thing I heard and then my aunt and her entourage disappeared down the staircase. I immediately started packing for my trip and ignored my incessantly ringing mobile. Lots of relatives wanting to express their condolences or extract information about the circumstances of the death, until, after about the fifth call, I decided to switch it off. Night, already approaching, was blurring the contours of the parquet floorboards on which I was piling my clothes. My luggage consisted of the following: five shirts, two blouses, two dresses, four pairs of trousers (one pair of shorts), a coat, seven pairs of socks, five pairs of knickers, four bras, two towels, sneakers, running shoes, high heels and knee-high boots, a laptop, Xanax, phenobarbital, modafinil, oxycodone, an MP3 player, ten books (Wittgenstein, Serner, Max Brod, Tristan Tzara, six textbooks) as well as a bag of toiletries. This was everything I would have with me for the next three years. At that moment, I wanted to cast off my flat like a pair of old shoes. I took several steps at once, hurried from the fifth to the ground floor and got in my car. This was how it had to be, I thought feverishly as I switched on the engine, it was my duty to arrange a dignified funeral right away.
As I left Vienna, I was seized by an incredible feeling of relief: a dull pressure had lifted from my chest. The fact that a large valley opened up before me near Alland seemed to be a coincidence, and I spiralled ever deeper into the blackened scenery. I briefly considered whether I should tell one of my friends about the events, but the notion was abhorrent. The streets were empty, and by 2 a.m. the motorway was nestling into the landscape which, given the surrounding darkness, I could of course only guess at. It was only when the mighty stone wall of the Semmering massif rose up before me that a shift took place. Like diving under a blanket: an ethereal, unfathomably green smell of conifers enveloped my brain. I had wound down all the windows and felt my car swell with the autumn air. It smelt so good and clean that the vanilla aroma of the air freshener suddenly bothered me – I tugged it off the mirror and threw it outside.
I took a haphazard left turn: I had no idea where I was actually headed. But yes, I did know: Groß-Einland, except I’d driven off without the faintest idea where Groß-Einland actually was. For support, I turned up the radio with Janet Jackson blaring out, but she was soon drowned out by the noise of the airflow that surged into the car. The air, saturated with moisture, whistled through the window; in the blackness that had descended, I was vaguely able to discern that the treetops were bending over. I had never been the best of drivers and now struggled to control the ancient Ford. I must have accidentally driven onto a logging road, as, from time to time, my wheels slipped as if I were travelling across bare earth, but there was not enough space to turn around. And then I did get back onto a tarmac road and I briefly thought I could see a signpost, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a large branch, and then I was heading down a gentle incline again. I felt hot, chased by the masses of land which displaced each other in an undulating movement. Then the road twisted up a hill. For the first time the whole truth hit home: both dead, both at the same time, on some bloody road to nowhere.
The more alpine the surroundings, the more detailed the waves moved through the craggy rocks, the steeper paths, the forests, even coarser now. I could see little wave ridges appear all over the fields, break, and then disappear again. The wind seemed to push the forest, the forest pushed against the fog, and the fog against the grasslands, which built up towards the clouds, putting them under pressure. And I was no less gripped by this than nature herself was: something that had kept me in this world up to now had been turned upside down. The entire land rose up beneath me; I was driving across the wave train of a liquid mass. My hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel, and the contractions of my tense body made the car lurch dangerously from side to side. I had to escape the grasp of the land, and the fact that I saw a sign for a lay-by at that moment was a stroke of fate.
As soon as I drove onto the paved area, the bizarre impressions stopped. This public convenience – the most banal of all places – led me back to reality. Behind the still almost opaque wall of rain, I made out a fixed table and benches, covered in used tissues and plastic cutlery. This man-made structure, although disgusting (half-eaten sausages, well-thumbed porn magazines and tampons had been thrown away on the pathways trodden through the hedges to answer calls of nature), saved me in this moment. The world had stopped swaying.
The engine had only been off for a minute before I started shivering, and because I assumed that the toilet block was heated, I grabbed my sleeping bag and waded through the soggy field to the little building. No feeling of disgust, disturbance or displacement. All that remained for me to do was to wedge myself on to the toilet seat and drift off to sleep.
When I sat up the following morning, only a moment seemed to have passed, but someone was kicking the door so hard that the entire place was shaking. It took a few minutes before I could feel my legs again, a few more to remobilise my seized-up spine, and a few more to venture towards the door, beyond which several voices were ranting. Finally, I unlocked the door. A burly man dressed in blue dungarees pushed his way into the cubicle so forcefully that I was quite simply thrown off track and immediately left the building. There was a massive queue; what’s more, I’d spent the night in the gents. I made my way to the car amid whistles and shouts – my neck was stiff, last night now only a strange memory in my head.
Even so, the air was mild, and while I wondered about this sudden surge of warmth, which mingled with the smell of freshly watered fields, I realised that I was in the forest. Surrounding the toilet block where I’d spent the night, in the midst of an otherwise heathery landscape, there were small groups of trees that merged on the horizon to form an ocean. The Wechsel mountains, I suddenly realised; and indeed, when I finally retraced last night’s odyssey on the map, I discovered that I must have landed in a gorge near Feistritz. The car had taken a bit of a battering – the exhaust and bumper were visibly damaged and were now held only inches above the ground by two narrow wires. I dug out the road atlas from the side door to find out where I needed to go. Groß-Einland was not listed in the index, and it seemed I was already too high up to have an Internet connection. I carefully went through each of the detailed maps that contained the Wechsel region once again, but this was no good either. So, a phone call: the operator gave me the number of the Lower Austrian state government, who then gave me the number of the local council. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for a district called Groß-Einland in the Wechsel region.’
‘Groß-Einland?’ the lady said and forcefully typed the letters into her device. ‘No, there is no district under that name in Lower Austria.’
‘That can’t be right.’
‘But the Wechsel region borders on Styria – maybe the district is in their state. I’ll give you their number,’ the lady suggested. So this time I phoned the Austrian federal administration to pose the same question, but no, this town was not listed in her directory the lady there told me.
‘A consolidation, an incorporation perhaps?’ I asked hopefully. Pause. ‘No, the town of Groß-Einland never existed in Austria.’
I hung up without replying and sat silently on the car bonnet for a while. It was only now, when I needed to find it for the funeral, that I realized how little I actually knew about Groß-Einland. I only knew that it had to be somewhere in the Wechsel region, that much I had heard my parents tell others when they asked. But I hadn’t actually spoken to them about it for many years. Not because it would have been awkward for me, or off-limits: the past simply didn’t seem relevant to us. Holidays were the opportunity to dash off, ideally to flee the continent in an aeroplane with one’s eyes closed – but never to go back to one’s roots or to go skiing like everyone else, whom we secretly despised for it.
It was what was shared between the lines that dawned on me most clearly: I remembered how my mother had told me that you could climb down a ladder underground in Groß-Einland. ‘In a damp cave, at least ten or fifteen metres high, there were old aeroplane parts, which we made into dens as children. Metal doors, bulletproof glass, and in between wing panels that you could bounce up and down on,’ she had said.
And a no less magical story told by my father: when I was in primary school, we huddled together in front of the shadowy crackling fire in the woodstove in our living room and he talked about a man called Lumberjack Hans, who had bought a shed next to his parents’ house. It was winter, and whenever he raised the cup to his lips, my father dribbled a bit of his tea into his beard, which dripped onto my legs like from a stalactite.
Lumberjack Hans locked himself into his shed each night at ten o’clock sharp. My father had whispered into my ear that he collected the hearts of all kinds of mammals there – all lined up one next to the other in formaldehyde jars and among them a human heart – no one knew where it had come from. ‘And when we were boys,’ he said, ‘we threw stones at the window, silently dreading but also really excited at the idea that Hans would appear there with one of his preserving jars in his hand.’
It was the first of the rare moments that I would hear him talking about his own childhood, but what does a horror story like that actually reveal? I was completely lost.
Excerpted from Raphaela Edelbauer, Das flüssige Land (Klett-Cotta, 2019).