The air of the small room was noticeably cooler than my skin. In fact, each breath was a steaming stream of pale blue. The only sound was the soft “tick-tick-tock” of the ancient grandfather clock standing between the two floor-to-ceiling windows at the foot of my bed. It was a narrow bed, piled deep with feather-filled comforters yet still barely adequate against the cold. The house had no central heating only the fireplace in the main room, and it was two rooms away. The warmth reached not here.
Sounding out the seconds, minutes, the hours, the clock proclaimed a lateness my body didn’t feel despite the vigorous walk we’ d had earlier, over 20kms around and about the village and through the huge forest. We had crunched through the snow each taking turns to recite poetry. I had enunciated one of my favorites, “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening”. (“Whose woods these are I think I know….”)
My mind was still restless despite the bottles of wine shared, the memories, the emotions that had come pouring out over board and cards of tarot. At one point, from one person´s expressions of hopelessness and searching, we had all been moved to tears, embracing in a supportive group of individuals who had all become closer than blood over the potato pancakes our host had cooked up for an impromptu dinner. I should have been exhausted, yet I feel no desire for sleep. It was all so special, so magical somehow. I didn´t want it to end. My thoughts still flowed.
I fought against a childish feeling of terror whenever I looked towards the ragged opening in the wall to my left. Perhaps once a door had covered it, but it appeared more a forethought for another exit or entrance. What it led to, I knew not. Partially blocked by a plastic curtain, the filmy length rustled occasional lifted by some frigid draft.
To the right, a door opened onto the bath. A door whose timbers, having swelled imperfectly, would never again be truly united with its jamb. I shivered imagining some stealthy apparition, some curling ghost twisting round the broken knob, drifting across the floor to hover over the unaware sleeper….But enough of that, I childed myself. I made myself get up and look through both openings, before subsiding back onto the bed. No ghosts, no apparitions. In fact, the spirit of the house was completely peaceful. A feeling of calm pervaded ever panel. Despite the fact that many other people´s memories were in evidence all around, the faded photos, the wooden children´s toys were all draped with cobwebs, there was no restlessness on the supernatural plane regarding this space.
The bed, soft and cold yet having the potential of being warm and enveloping if I might bring myself to subside beneath the layers and allow my body heat to localize, was not to be my place yet. We only had one night here and I wanted to be awake as long as possible to experience it. I rose again and padded over to one of the windows. The snows of earlier had finally stopped, and the sky was clear with that special brightness countryside places can have away from overwhelming city lights.
The small backyard was surrounded by a stacked wood fence inside which a lone gnarled fruit tree twisted in one corner. Tied to its trunk was one end of a hammock whose other end was supported by ties to a metal staub. Bowed in a smile of icicles, the fabric moved slowly rocked slightly by a lone breeze before subsiding back into hiberation. Beyond the yard were long fields of snow, now blue in the moonlight, sprouting little tufts of dark grass and shrubs here and there into the distance. And far away, or only a house length, it was hard to tell, was a single light to indicate other habitants in this world. The long low structure, solid and hard-edged, was the one I’d been told was a main house for a pig farm. Our host had laughed. This was a place to visit in the winter where the smells of so many porcine bodies and their by-products were faint. In high summer, he lived in the city.
So I began to think about that light and who had turned it on, and who might shut it off and when and why. It reminded me of the Longfellow poem: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”
This was truly such a night. And this scene outside the window looked like a painting. And I wanted to open the door and step outside barefoot as I was and feel the deeper cold chill my body. I wanted to run across the field and go hide in the forests where we’d walked. I wanted to creep into hollows and find the rabbits sleeping in their dens or spy the wolf flitting from shadow to shadow, or sitting motionless in the dark watching me.
The tick-tock of the clock returned to my ears as my awareness settled back in the room. A pause, a soft cough and sigh as the clock’s gears wound up and silently puffed off twelve notes, before subsiding back into it’s former pattern. I turned to look at other things in the room, in this curious house.
The house itself had been given to my friend. It’s former owner’s parents had been part of the Nazi regime he’d found out later and wanting nothing to do with Germany or Germans anymore, he’d given the house and everything in it, everything he owned randomly to my friend on the sole condition he not sell or take anything away. Having previously been homeless, that suited my friend fine. Therefore the condition of things. The man who turned his back on Germany had moved to Thailand and never been heard from again.
In this room, along the walls were drawings, some of the original plans of San Souci, worth several hundred thousand euros very likely. Many of the items in the house I’d noticed were rare and valuable. Looking at the place from the outside, you’d never have guessed. It was a seventeenth century building, wood and stone, and except for the bathroom which was magnificent and smelled of the cool woodsy tones of Hugo Boss cologne, was minimally updated.
I could have happily lived there in contemplative meditation the rest of my life. My friend lived in his special eccentric madness. His family had survived World War II, had not emigrated. He’d never been close to his parents although he was their lone child. He said he felt no bond or closeness to them. But, ironically, he did to Jews. He said he understood their humor. He loved their personalities and lifestyles, their pragmatism and insistence on questions. He revealed to us, that on his father’s deathbed, his sire had admitted they were indeed Jewish. His father and mother had lied, had forged documents, had renounced their people to save themselves. My friend had laughed wildly then, anger lacing the notes. He hated them. He sank back into quietness then refilled his wine glass deeply. My roommate, previously mentioned in other journal entries, didn’t quite know what to say. Again it reminded me of a poem, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”.
I replayed the earlier scene in my mind as I finally succumbed to the inevitable and climbed onto the bed, settled beneath the downy folds. Some people have said modern Germans have not paid enough for what their parents and grandparents did or didn’t do to the Jews and others during that war. Some say they try or have forgotten it, but that is not true. I know it’s not. They do not speak to many outsiders about it, but it’s in the glance if you really know them. It’s in the action they choose or don’t choose. It’s in the things they don’t say. It’s in their demands on tolerance and their refusal to participate in wars.
It’s in the houses we walked by in the small village and forests, many still broken and bombed out which are constant, daily reminders of what happened, the enormous losses, the unimaginable evils committed. It’s everywhere in the land, but just like in places of the Americas, you cannot dwell in the past. You acknowledge, you do what you can, but you must move on or you’ll die.
This memory was from January 2004. I’ve not been back to the house since. They found my friend dead inside it in 2006. He’d committed suicide. They found his body surrounded by thousands of newspapers and stacks of documents where he’d began an exhaustive search for the names of his relatives who were likely killed in concentration camps while his parents had lied to stay alive.
I wonder if the clock is still there ticking away the hours, watching people come and go. Who now dwells in the house if anyone? Is it yet another standing empty and alone until it crumbles to dust?
Notes: I’ve utilized this particular memories in a couple of my writing projects, as that night greatly influenced and impacted me. A number of scenes in my contemporary drama “The Agony of Joy” are set at this location and house.