Author: Jörg Bernig
Translator: Steven Lawrie
The Hunter was approaching the last place on earth. All hope of still finding Theres had drained from him after a search which had lasted over a year. As he came closer and closer to the village in the evening haze, traversing an area which could only be described as no man’s land, what he did not know was that less than twenty-four hours separated him from her, what he did not know was that on the evening of the third of September nineteen forty-six he would briefly encounter Theres once more and that, contrary to his intention, he would kill her.
He had roamed through the whole of Bohemia and Moravia, had felt himself driven onwards ever since that day in May nineteen forty-five when he had come tumbling out of a mine shaft and into the daylight where he was greeted by a soldier wearing a wholly unfamiliar uniform. The soldier gave him something to eat but was prudent enough to restrict him to a small portion. The soldier had once caused the death of a man already half dead with hunger by giving him too much to eat. But how could he have known, he who before becoming a soldier in a world war had done nothing other than man a workbench and on the way home in the afternoon make eyes at the girl behind the counter in the greengrocer’s, how could he have known that in cases of malnutrition a sudden diet of rich food could be fatal? Why should a man of little more than twenty years of age be expected to know that?
The soldier met him and would not have been able to state the age of the man stepping out towards him from within the earth. And yet the Hunter was the same age as him.
Since leaving the mine shaft the Hunter had been on the move throughout the whole country in his search for Theres, who had constantly occupied his thoughts throughout the time which now lay behind him and which he wished had never existed. And now, two summers later, the Hunter was approaching the village and was uncertain how he had made his way there and why he had allowed himself to be driven off course towards this little nook near the border with its village, whose existence was no longer known to anyone. The only thing he was clear about was that he would use this excursion to abscond from the unit of the Revolutionary Guards to which he had belonged since the end of the war.
That was what he planned to do: to abscond, vanish, detach himself after he had failed to find Theres and all hope of ever finding her had ceased to exist. During the previous years he had repeatedly imagined what would follow his disappearance—in the Revolutionary Guard they would call it desertion. Yet his speculation about life after his disappearance had always included Theres. Without her there was no ‘afterwards’. He had not sketched out any plan for an afterwards which was restricted to his own person. As a result, at that moment only one thing was certain and only one thing had to be done: to abscond from the Revolutionary Guard.
The Hunter would have to be quick, as he knew, for if he himself had found his way here then it was probable that the unit of Revolutionary Guards would likewise find its way to this spot, even if he had left no tracks and had drawn a map for the unit which was no real map.
The Hunter belonged to them—used to belong to them, he thought—that made him a Hunter. He did not hunt game. He hunted people. He acted as the unit’s scout and therefore almost always reached the scene of impending events a day ahead of the others. The Hunter had appointed himself scout—that had been in May nineteen forty-five and even a few days with the Revolutionary Guards had provided him with enough experience—and this role allowed him to be constantly ahead of the others. He wanted to reach Theres before them, if only by an hour, wherever she might be. Wherever she was. He wanted to spare her from what would happen to her and to those who were living in the same place when the Revolutionary Guards appeared.
It was a matter of absconding. He would have to be fast.
Carefully, the Hunter made his laborious way through the evening hours.
He did not have much time until darkness fell completely. His compass provided orientation as did the routes along watercourses, hills and crumbling cliffs.
For over a year he had searched for Theres and had wholeheartedly believed that he would be able to find her. Now, however, as the Indian summer of the year nineteen forty-six began, that belief had deserted him. The reason was that scarcely any of that group of people to whom Theres belonged were still in the country. When long columns of them were still being sent on foot to the border he had not connected that with his search. However, when thousands were taken to the border by train and subsequently only small or tiny groups of those remaining, or even just individuals, were driven away, it had seemed certain to him that the woman he was looking for had long since gone, that along with the others she had vanished from this country and from the life which was now progressing without them. Deportation, expulsion, the country cleansed of them: they had been driven across the border. Presumably, that was basically the way they had wanted it. Otherwise they would have behaved differently. But what concern was that of his? Let them explain it to their children. And with that he ended his fruitless brooding.
He had looked for Theres. On many a day fear had gripped him that she might no longer be alive.
The landscape stood empty. It stood empty as a result of the emptied villages. It was the task of the Revolutionary Guard to cleanse the villages and towns. The inhabitants deserved nothing better. Even if they were not all criminals individually, had not crimes been committed by members of their families? How was one to start differentiating? There was no avoiding the deeds which had been committed in the past. And that applied to those people, too, who had had nothing to do with those deeds. The experience of fear, of being both defenceless and at the mercy of others—that was what they should take with them across the border and pass on to later generations. Even their children and their children’s children should feel that melancholy only ever experienced by someone who is aware he is not at home.
The Hunter had searched for Theres in one village after another. Whenever one of the columns of people passed him on the road he had surveyed it quietly for he knew that Theres’s bright hair would be visible from a distance. Or he had made enquiries about her whereabouts, had described her appearance while sketching out her image in his mind again and again. More than a year had passed in the meantime.
In his mind the Hunter had mapped out his plan with great care. Just as careful was his plan to act as a scout in the Revolutionary Guard and consequently always be first on the scene, ahead of the others. He would need the precious time which lay between himself and the others. His hope had been that once he discovered Theres he would disappear with her, leave at once and go off somewhere where they could settle without being asked about their origins. Australia, he had thought from time to time, would be just such a country. He knew he would succeed in escaping with her without being seen by any of the units. He was a scout for a good reason. These had been his hopes.
And now the Hunter was approaching a settlement whose existence was nothing more than conjecture on his part, for the settlement did not appear on any of their maps. And yet: he was a scout and was led by his instinct. He felt that, once this night had passed, stepping out of the overgrown meadows and the rank growth of the forest, he would be faced with the contours of a village. As if from out of nowhere and put there only for his benefit, the houses would rise up before him.
He would have been happy had he known that only this one single walk through this one single night separated him from Theres.
As the Hunter approached the last place on earth he was unaware that this was the very place where more than a year earlier the deserter Antonín Mrha had been washed up as if shipwrecked.
In the capital city the President worked until late in the early hours of the third of September nineteen forty-six. There was so much to do since returning from exile and he had great plans. He wanted to place his country at the heart of Europe. He wanted to belong to neither one side nor the other. He wanted to employ them for his own ends, the allies of yesterday who, to the west and to the east of his republic, now faced one another in hostility. The hour had struck in which nation, state and people would be identical. He had learnt that from the first president of the republic, had learnt that this had to be the highest political goal to which to aspire in the muddled world which was the creation and legacy of the Austrian monarchy.
That’s what they’ll get, a clear-cut separation! These were the President’s thoughts even when still in wartime Britain.
The President worked late into the small hours that night and perhaps he believed that he was recording his name in the annals of history. Bold strokes! That was the only way. Even if that meant driving three million people out of the country. The country’s borders, indeed the borders of all countries, should correspond to the distribution of peoples, of languages and to different ways of living. This was a unique opportunity. Bold strokes! It had already started, and even before he returned, the hunt was on in the streets of Prague: Hunt them out! Find them! Kill them!
The President had achieved what he had wished. He had travelled around the country and proclaimed that soon, very soon, no foreign people would inhabit the reinstated republic. He had issued decrees which legalized what needed to be done. He had appended his signature to laws so that no one would ever be called to account for his actions in the period of the expulsions, of the cleansing.
A country at the centre of Europe. Those on one side had watched and approved of all that happened. Those on the other side had only raised weak objections and then turned their backs on events. They had turned their backs on events, too, when news arrived of the cleansing in Brno and from the Pohořelice internment camp.
The President had not achieved what he had wished. The country had not become the centre of Europe. It had become the property of the East.
He had returned from exile and had set to work. In the early hours of the third of September nineteen forty-six he granted himself little rest.
Antonín Mrha slept badly that night, woke up often. He rose and walked to the window. The street down which he could look during the day had gone. A blackness cloaked the window pane which was as black as the blackness which cloaked his blind eye. By holding a hand over his seeing eye he could establish whether a night was dark or whether it was what he simply called ‘black’. If someone said to him that it was so dark that you could not see your own hand in front of your face, Mrha rocked his head gently from side to side. The gesture matched the authority which the inhabitants of the village had less offered him than offloaded on him. He was the first to have made his way to this village. That had been shortly after the end of the war and the former inhabitants of the village had gone off into the four winds. Or been driven off. By those such as the Revolutionary Guards who roamed around in squads in the border areas.
Antonín Mrha stood at the window and looked sullen. If he had slept so badly then there had to be a reason, something had to be afoot, he thought. He was on the verge of getting dressed and going to see his friend Lípa, but the utter blackness at the window prevented him from doing so. Lípa did not live far from Mrha’s house, but Mrha was not inclined to struggle through the pitch darkness, given that he had sight in only one eye. Additionally he could scarcely have told Lípa he had dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night because he had a peculiar feeling, as if they were all soon to be faced with something that they could well have done without.
Antonín Mrha sat down on the chair he kept positioned by the window and waited for the day to break. From time to time he enjoyed just sitting on this chair and looking out of the window. Most of all he enjoyed the evening hours at the end of warm summer days when he could sit in the twilight with the shutters open before falling asleep, could listen to the calls of the swallows and sniff the scents of the growing night. Now he sat and waited for it to become light enough to go to see Lípa.
Bohuslav Lípa slept as soundly in the midst of his ever recurring nightmares as if he had been felled by a blow or as if he had taken a sleeping tablet. Every night as his eyes grew heavy he hoped he would be able to dream of the Invisible Woman, of her gentle voice, her walk, her hair, her eyes, her touch. He never succeeded. In the early summer of nineteen forty-five, as soon as he, the Invisible Woman and Mrha had recovered from the events which had tossed them by chance into this village and which had nearly cost them their lives, it was already starting: the affection which gained the upper hand between him and the Invisible Woman and against all else. They spoke with one another, they looked at one another and their glances showed their pleasure, they touched each other’s arms, stroked each other’s hair. He loved her and she loved him. That provided them with a sense of security which caused them to treat time carelessly. They thought they had all eternity in front of them.
‘The preacher tells us that there is a time for everything,’ Mrha often heard his friend Lípa say when Mrha broached the subject of the Invisible Woman. Whereupon Antonín Mrha usually declared that they were situated in a place which was not located in time, which was outside time or which was in a completely different time and certainly not in the time from which they had all fled to the village, from which they had stumbled or been cast out. And he explained to Lípa his concerns that the absence of time would presumably not be permanent and could not last eternally, if such a thing existed: eternity! At the very latest this was the point when Lípa would scratch the back of his head like a schoolboy who could no longer follow the words of his teacher.
Gabriele Mohaupt sat by her son Frieder’s bed in the early hours of the third of September nineteen forty-six. In his dreams Frieder had to undergo a visit to the doctor again and he was unable to wake up. It was as it always was when he dreamed about the doctor.
Come along now lad hey come on nothing to be scared of and you madam would be best waiting outside hey nothing to be scared of wee fellow we just want the best for everyone yes just wait outside if you keep hold of the boy then he’ll never calm down what do you mean he’s scared of strangers I’m a doctor but, mum, when you leave he always shakes his head like this always always like like like this this this makes me stand in the middle of the room until I start to shiver because my clothes the nurse takes them away throws them across the chair as if they were dirty you always dress me in my best clothes when the doctor expects us and we have to go, mum, the nurse handles them as if they were filthy stand still lad the doctor is strict yes the doctor is strict and he measures my head with a piece of cold iron and he walks around me and he studies me, mum, it’s freezing walk to the door says the doctor until I say stop and he makes me walk and doesn’t say stop but I stop at the door because I don’t want to bash my head in I’m not daft or what does he think I am and he curses he curses did you hear anything he says did you hear anything—
Frieder, wake up!
—it’s freezing I’m cold why don’t they give me my clothes those are the best and smartest clothes I have and mum dresses me in them when we have to go to the doctor and he’s never said but what nice clothes you have lad never once said it and neither has the nurse keep going go on do this and do this and he holds up a picture it’s full of coloured circles look for the number there he says well you don’t seem to see it but I’m so cold, doctor, can I put my clothes on they’re the best ones I have mum gave me them this morning but he looks at the nurse and she always nods that way when he looks at her she nods like that what do you see in the picture he asks and I tell him what I see and that the colours turn into a meadow—
Frieder, wake up!
—I’m about to show him the meadow by pointing when he pulls away the picture with the coloured circles ah he says ah well nurse what do you say to that deardear she says deardear she says again and nods again like this lad count for us you can do that can’t you eh come along don’t be scared we want the best for you well count for us I can do that, doctor, oh yes I can do that I always practise that with dad and mum they can count right up to the end of all numbers go on then lad count I’m so cold may I get dressed, doctor, and help me with the first number I always forget it but then it’s like automatic I like counting most when no one’s listening help me won’t you, doctor, with the first number!—
Frieder, wake up, we’ll count together, and it all starts with one, Frieder, wake up!
—now I’ve got it, doctor, one one one that’s how it goes may I at least put on my shirt enough lad now be quiet I’ve stopped speaking, doctor, he says here look nurse interesting these rings already blue red even though it’s not that cold here and look the feet that’s a convincing corpse-white the nurse nods again like this she nods like a horse and her teeth point outwards squint like this wonder if I should tell her should I tell her—
Wake up, Frieder, wake up!
—may I get dressed I want to leave the room, doctor, doctor, I need to go be quiet lad how many times do I have to doctor now he’s peeing here in the room screeches the horse see nurse the doctor says and it would only go on like this—
Frieder, wake up!
—mum, where were you the doctor was here again and the nurse, mum, you should’ve heard what they said you should’ve heard what they said—
The Invisible Woman lay flat on her back, as she did every night, and the plaits of her red hair surrounded her head as if with light. Ever since she had wakened from the pain on that occasion only a few hours after the end of the war when a bloodthirsty crowd had almost kicked her to death because she was her father’s daughter–her father whom as time progressed she had understood less and less, who had increasingly puzzled her–ever since then her dreams had stopped, she had not experienced a single restless night, and instead each night she lay as lifeless as all the objects in her house. She slept without making the slightest movement, her hair spread loosely around her, and the only thing that appeared to move in the house was the pendulum of the wall clock.
All of them lay in bed and were asleep or were not asleep because they were battling with their dreams, because like the unpublished writer who had also ended up in the village they were writing, only to collapse afterwards with exhaustion; or like Antonia Mende they hoped to decipher some language from the noises made by the animals in the stable; or because they lay unconscious in sleep like Prochaska who had arrived in the village from Croatia and then given himself the name Prochaska.
If the old woman Palacková could not sleep then it was likely that this was as a result of her painful limbs which frequently caused her a lot of trouble. Then she would sit on the edge of the bed and massage her legs with alcoholic liniment and wrap them in woollen scarves.
Old Bernat slept a sound, restful sleep in the early hours of the third of September nineteen forty-six, for he had read until midnight, just as had Ulrich, the teacher, whose wire-rimmed glasses lay, as always, within reach on the bedside table.
The infant in the Nádvornik family, a family who had not come to the village until they were forced to flee at the beginning of the year, head over heels and without any clear notion of their destination—who were forced to flee from that part of the government which was becoming increasingly influential, beginning to reach for exclusive power and which decried people like the Nádvorniks as members of the bourgeoisie and threatened them with the work camp—the infant in the Nádvornik family, as it transpired the last child to be born in the village, was at last able to sleep free from the stomach pains which had tormented it in the first months of its life, and the exhausted parents were able to sleep too.
Josef Kirsch, the joiner and master craftsman, was sound asleep, having undertaken his customary evening walk through the workshop and established to his satisfaction that everything was in its proper place so as to allow work to recommence immediately the following morning.
And Siegfried Thielemann, who had no idea that this would be his last night in the village, slept and drew in breath with a regularity which seemed to follow the beat of a metronome.
The village. Remote. Forgotten. Stuck in the small northern border area. The foothills of mountains, coming from all the directions of the compass, ran into one another here as if this was a meeting place that had been agreed upon. Or as if their common starting point lay somewhere in this landscape, a landscape which reached away into the distance in the form of hills, whole chains of hills which became far-off mountain ranges which came to an abrupt end after a few perilously steep basalt peaks which stood haphazardly on the landward side and preceded the plain which lay beyond. There the village. As if laid out by mistake, a mixture of farmyards, small houses, some larger ones too, such as could be encountered elsewhere in the rural suburbs on the edges of cities. The village was strung out along a road which curved at the centre of the settlement. Besides this central road, smaller paths, generally cobbled, crossing one another and zig-zagging behind the houses, running between them and the walls and fences. Bulges pressed through the roof tiles of some of the buildings, the roofs grown thin like an old skin. The ridges of the roofs protruded and in the slanting evening light they seemed like the spinal columns on the emaciated bodies of strange animals.
Since the end of the war no road had led to this village. Everything seemed to come to an end before the village. It was a place on the border situated in the wilderness, and beyond the wilderness lay another country. The road which had once existed had sunk into a crater just after the end of the war when the newly appointed District Chief Constable ordered that the ammunition which had been stored in a nearby quarry be detonated. Presumably to speed their escape, retreating soldiers had left behind case upon case of cartridges, bullets and mines. The Chief Constable, who enjoyed a good explosion, did not let the opportunity pass him by and he prepared for the detonation. He ordered that the surrounding area be cordoned off and he observed the explosion from a safe distance and from within a likewise abandoned armoured vehicle. Once the dust had settled and the quarry came back into view the Chief Constable realized that the edge of the quarry had collapsed, dragging down with it the road above.
The Chief Constable knew the village to have been abandoned weeks ago. There was no one there to drive off across the border only a few kilometres away. He therefore noted in his report on the explosion that damage to a road had occurred but that this was of no import as the road came to an end anyway not far from the quarry. He repeatedly emphasized having neutralized a dangerous situation.
In his district the world henceforth ended at the crater of the quarry, and the nettles which shot up rapidly, the golden rod and the ferns which grew from all sides soon concealed the fact that the road had once continued beyond the crater.
As if he had appeared from nowhere, at dawn on the third of September nineteen forty-six the Hunter looked upon the houses in the last place on earth.
He turned his inner clock to zero. He set off swiftly.
From Niemandszeit (Munich: DTV, 2002) © Jörg Bernig
Translation © Steven Lawrie