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Authors: Andrés Neuman

Traveler of the Century

BOOK: Traveler of the Century
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To the memory of my mother, which echoes and echoes.
To my father and brother, who listen to it with me.
Strange old organ grinder,
Should I stay with you?
Will you churn out a tune
To the sound of my singing?
Wilhelm Müller/Franz Schubert
Europe, dragging your tattered rags,
Will you come one day, will your day come?
Adolfo Casais Monteiro
Trees have roots and I have legs.
George Steiner
Wandernburg: moving city sit. approx. between ancient states of Saxony and Prussia. Cap. of ancient principality of same name. Lat. N and long. E indeterminate due to shifting co-ord. […] Hydro. R. Nulte non-navigable. Econ. activity wheat-growing and text. ind. […] Despite accounts of chroniclers and travellers, precise loc. unknown.
-ARE YO-UU C-COLD? THE coachman shouted, his voice fragmented by the jolting of the coach. I-I'm f-fine, th-ank yo-uu, replied Hans, teeth chattering.
The coach lamps flickered as the horses sped along the road. Mud flew up from the wheels. The axles twisted in every pothole, and seemed about to snap. Their cheeks puffing, the horses blew clouds from their nostrils. An opaque moon was rolling above the horizon.
For some time now Wandernburg had been visible in the distance, to the south. And yet, thought Hans, as often happens at the end of an exhausting day, the small city seemed to be moving in step with them, and getting no nearer. The sky above the carriage was heavy. With each crack of the coachman's whip the cold grew bolder, pressing against every outline. I-s the-ere mu-mu-ch f-f-urther t-oo g-oo? asked Hans, sticking his head out of the window. He had to repeat the question twice before the coachman heard him above the din and shouted, pointing with his whip: A-as yo-uu ca-an s-eee! Hans was uncertain whether this meant they were only a few minutes away or that it was impossible to tell. Since he was the only remaining passenger and had no one to talk to, he closed his eyes.
When he opened them again he saw a stone wall and an arched gateway. As they drew closer, Hans sensed something odd about the thickness of the wall, as if it were a warning about how hard it would be to leave rather than to enter. By the dim light of the coach lantern he could make out the shapes of the first buildings, the round-cut tiles like fish scales on some
of the rooftops, the needle spires, the ornaments shaped like vertebrae. He had the impression he was arriving in a place that had just been evacuated, where the clatter of hooves and the wheels jolting on the cobblestones were producing too loud an echo. Everything was so still, it seemed as though someone was spying on them with bated breath. The carriage turned a corner, and the horses' gallop was suddenly muted—they were now on a beaten earth track. They went down Old Cauldron Street. Hans caught sight of an iron sign swinging in the breeze. He told the coachman to stop.
The man climbed down from his perch. When he reached the ground, he looked puzzled. He took a few steps, peered down at his feet, smiled uncertainly. He patted the lead horse's neck and whispered some words of thanks in its ear. The animal replied with a snort. Hans helped him untie the ropes from the luggage rack, pull back the wet canvas, then unload his case and a big trunk with handles on it. What have you got in there, a dead body? complained the coachman, dropping the chest to the ground and rubbing his hands. Not one dead body, Hans said with a smile, several. The man laughed abruptly, although a twitch of alarm flitted across his face. Will you be spending the night here too? asked Hans. No, the coachman explained, I'm going on to Wittenberg. I know a good place to sleep there, and there's a family who have to get to Leipzig. Then, looking askance at the creaking inn sign, he added: Are you sure you wouldn't like to ride on a little farther? Thanks, replied Hans, but this is fine. I need some rest. As you wish, sir, as you wish, said the coachman, clearing his throat several times. Hans paid him, refused the coins he offered in change, and bade him farewell. Behind his back he heard the crack of a whip, the creak of wood, and the thud of hooves moving off.
It was only when he was on his own outside the inn that he noticed a shooting pain in his back, sensed his muscles tremble
and heard a pounding in his ears. He could still feel the jolting coach—the lights seemed to waver, the stones to be shifting. Hans rubbed his eyes. The windows of the inn were steamed up, making it impossible for him to see inside. He knocked on the door, where a Christmas wreath still hung. No one came. He tried the frozen handle, then pushed the door open. He saw a corridor lit by oil lamps suspended from hooks. The warmth drew Hans in. From the far end of the corridor came the crackle of an open fire. He struggled to drag the case and trunk inside. He stood beneath one of the lanterns, trying to warm up. With a start, he saw Herr Zeit staring at him from behind the reception desk. I was on my way to let you in, Herr Zeit said. The innkeeper moved extremely slowly, as if he were trapped between the counter and the wall. He had a huge, barrel-shaped belly, and smelt of musty fabric. Where have you come from? he asked. I've come from Berlin, said Hans, not that it really matters. It matters to me, young sir, Herr Zeit cut in, not suspecting that Hans had meant something else. How many nights do you intend to stay? Just one, I suppose, said Hans, I'm not sure yet. Well, when you've decided, please let me know, said the innkeeper, we need to be sure which rooms will be available.
Herr Zeit searched for a candlestick, then led Hans down the corridor and up a flight of stairs. As Hans watched the rotund figure heaving himself up each step, he was afraid he might come crashing down on top of him. The entire inn smelt of burning oil, the sulphur from the lamp wicks, and a mixture of sweat and soap. They reached the first-floor landing and carried on up. Hans was surprised to see that all the rooms appeared unoccupied. On the second floor, Herr Zeit paused at a door with the number seven chalked on it. Recovering his breath, he declared proudly: This is our best room. He took a battered ring laden with keys out of his pocket, and after several attempts and muttered curses, they entered the room.
Candlestick in hand, Herr Zeit ploughed his way through the darkness over to the window. When he opened the shutters, there was the sound of creaking wood and a cloud of dust flew up. Rather than illuminating the room, the feeble light from outside seemed to seep into the darkness like a gas. It gets quite sunny in the mornings, Herr Zeit explained, because it faces east. Hans screwed up his eyes to examine the room. He could make out a table and two chairs. A camp bed with a pile of folded woollen blankets on it. A zinc bathtub, a rusty chamber pot, a washbasin on a stand, a water jug. A brick-and-stone chimney piece with a ledge that seemed too narrow to accommodate any objects (Only rooms three and seven have a hearth, Herr Zeit announced) and beside it were several tools: a small shovel, a poker, a pair of blackened tongs, an almost bald brush. In the fireplace lay two charred logs. On the wall opposite the door, between table and tub, Hans's attention was drawn to a small painting that looked to him like a watercolour, although he could not see it properly. One more thing, Herr Zeit concluded solemnly, taking the lamp over to the table and sliding his hand along the surface. It's pure oak. Hans stroked the table contentedly. He glanced at the candlesticks with their tallow candles, and at the rusty oil lamp. I'll take it, he said. He was immediately aware of Herr Zeit helping him out of his frock coat and hanging it on one of the nails in the wall beside the door—the coat stand.
Wife! the innkeeper bellowed, as if he had just woken up. Wife, come up here! We have a guest! Instantly there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. A broad-beamed woman appeared in the doorway, wearing skirts and an apron with a huge pouch over her bosom. Unlike her husband, Frau Zeit moved swiftly and efficiently. In a trice she had changed the bed sheets for a slightly less yellowing set, given the room a cursory sweep, and vanished downstairs again to fill the water jug. When she
reappeared with it, Hans drank greedily, almost without pausing for breath. Will you bring his luggage up? Herr Zeit asked. His wife sighed. Her husband decided the sigh meant she would, and so, after nodding to Hans, he in turn disappeared down the stairs.
Lying on his back on the bed, Hans could feel with his toes how rough the sheets were. Closing his eyes, he thought he could hear scratching sounds from beneath the floorboards. He drifted off to sleep, letting all his cares slide away, and said to himself: Tomorrow I'll gather my things and move elsewhere. If he had examined the ceiling closely with a candle, he would have seen the huge cobwebs between the beams. Hidden among them, a spider watched over Hans's sleep, thread by thread.
He woke up late, his stomach empty. A warm sun was dancing over the table, flowing down the chairs like syrup. Hans washed in the handbasin, opened his case, and dressed. Then he went over to the small painting and confirmed that it was indeed a watercolour. The frame seemed to him rather too ornate. When he took it down to examine it more closely, he discovered a tiny mirror on the back. He hung it up again, this time with the mirror facing towards him. He filled the basin with the water left in the jug, broke off a piece of soap, rummaged for his shaving brush, his razor and his colognes. He whistled while he shaved, unaware of what it was he was whistling.
On his way downstairs he ran into Herr Zeit, who was climbing the steps laboriously one by one. He was carrying a small notebook, and asked Hans to pay for the night's lodging before breakfast. It's a house rule, he said. Hans went back into his room and came out with the exact sum, plus a one-groschen tip, which he gave to the innkeeper with a wry smile. Down on the ground floor Hans had a look around. At the far end of the corridor he could see a large dining room with a blazing
hearth and a big cooking pot over the fire. Opposite it was a sofa, which, as Hans quickly discovered, sank in the middle as soon as you sat on it. On the other side of the corridor was a door, which he imagined must lead to the Zeits' apartment. Next to the door stood a Christmas tree that was so exquisitely decorated he could scarcely believe either of them could have been responsible for it. Out the back of the inn he discovered a courtyard with latrines and a well. He made use of one of the latrines, and returned feeling much better. A raft of smells caught his attention. He strode towards it and found Frau Zeit chopping chard in the kitchen. Hams, strings of sausages and sides of bacon hung like silent sentinels. A pot was boiling on the stove. Row upon row of frying pans, serving spoons, cauldrons and saucepans refracted the morning in whorls of light
You're late, sit down, Frau Zeit ordered, without looking up from her chopping. Hans did as he was told. We usually serve breakfast in the dining room, she went on, but I can't leave the fire now, so you'd best have it in here. On the board were laid vegetables, a basted joint of meat, the rippled skins of potatoes. A tap was dripping into a sink full of dirty dishes. Underneath were piled baskets of firewood, coal and slack. Farther off, stacked among a jumble of pitchers and jars were small sacks of beans, rice, flour, semolina. Frau Zeit dried her hands on her apron. In one swift movement she sliced through a fresh loaf, and spread jam on it. Placing a bowl in front of Hans, she filled it with ewe's milk, then poured coffee in until it slopped over the sides. Will you be wanting eggs? she asked.
Recalling how desolate Wandernburg had seemed the night before, Hans was surprised at the hustle and bustle in the streets when he went out after breakfast. Although all the activity seemed somehow restrained, Hans had to accept the evidence that people did indeed live in the city. He wandered aimlessly around. Occasionally, he thought he had lost his way in the
narrow, steep streets, at other times he realised he had walked in a circle. He discovered that the coachmen of Wandernburg avoided slowing down so as not to pull on their horses' mouths, and only gave him a few seconds to jump out of their way. As he walked, he noticed lace curtains being drawn aside, then closing again. When Hans tried to smile courteously in the direction of some of these windows, the shadows immediately withdrew. Snowflakes threatened to turn the air white, but were quickly engulfed in mist. Even the pigeons fluttering above his head seemed to crane their necks to look at him. Bewildered by the winding streets, his feet sore from the cobblestones, Hans paused in the market square for a rest.
The market square was the place where all the streets of Wandernburg converged, the centre of its map. At one end was the town hall, with its red-tiled roof and pointed turrets. At the opposite end stood the Tower of the Wind. Seen from the pavement, its most prominent feature was the square clock face sprinkling the time over the square below. Yet from the top of the tower, even more impressive was the arrow on its weathervane, which quivered and groaned as it twisted this way and that.
In addition to the stalls selling food, peasants came to the market square from the surrounding region, their carts laden with produce. Others turned up hoping to be taken on as day labourers in the fields. For some reason Hans could not understand, the traders peddled their wares almost in whispers, and haggling was carried out in hushed tones. He bought some fruit at a stall. He strolled on again, amusing himself by counting the number of lace curtains that twitched as he went past. When he raised his eyes to look up at the Tower of the Wind, he realised he had missed the afternoon coach. Resigning himself to the fact, he walked round in circles three or four times more until he found himself back in Old Cauldron Street. Night had fallen like a curtain.
Walking along the streets of Wandernburg after dark, passing mouldy arches and isolated street lamps, Hans experienced the same sensations as when he had first arrived. He could see that the city's inhabitants went home early, almost scuttling back to their houses for safety. Their place was taken by cats and dogs, disporting themselves as they pleased, gnawing at any scraps of food they could find in the streets. As he was entering the inn and reflecting that the Christmas wreath had disappeared, Hans heard the cry of a nightwatchman. He was coming round the street corner, wearing a hood, and carrying a long pole with a dim light on the tip:
Time to go home, everyone!
The church bell has chimed six,
Watch over your fire and your lamps,
Praise be to God! All praise!
BOOK: Traveler of the Century
8.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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