“We need to get someone,” Margusch continued. “I can’t believe it. You’re not going to stay here by yourself with him, are you?”
“Yes, I am!” I managed to say. “I’ll – I’ll stay here. You go back!” Margusch left. I listened attentively to the steps moving away, and only when the noise had gone was I aware of being alone with the dead man. The sallow face with its high forehead, shining dully in the moonlight, still had its crooked suppressed smile, the eyes were closed, the long eyelashes cast dark shadows around his eyelids. But when the moon went behind a cloud, it seemed as if the outlines of the figure moved, again I felt as if he were looking at me. There arose in me an unbearably tense sensation of waiting and being on guard; as if in the presence of an enemy. I slid down the trunk I was leaning against, crouched down on the ground and buried my face in my hands. The thing sitting opposite me had nothing to do with the man I knew; it was something malicious, threatening, something that used the dread hovering around it against me, laughing all the while. I don’t know how long we sat like this – finally I heard voices. People with lanterns arrived. I got myself together, gave orders, I was calm and in control of myself.
They had laid him out over in the drawing room. The house was full of the bright morning sun and as quiet as if it were a holiday. I had been sitting alone in the living room for a fair while, watching the shadows of leaves flicker across the floorboards. From nearby I could occasionally hear the servants whispering. They avoided going through the room I was in, and if this proved to be unavoidable, they did so on tiptoe and turned their heads away from me considerately. They were loath to disturb me in my grief.
This grief – I watched over it the whole time. It disappointed me. I had experienced strange, terrible things, that’s why I had this enormous grief. I thought that it would be something powerful enough to throw us to the ground, filling us with beautiful, mournful words, with ardent, passionate sensations. Was it not sometimes the case that people who experienced such terrible events were unable to ever laugh again? Now I sat there and thought about trivial, everyday things. When my thoughts returned to what had occurred, then I felt a bodily discomfort, I shivered. Everything in me recoiled from the images that came, tried to fend them off. Why? None of this was my life. I had no need to experience all this. I can simply brush it off. It’s nothing to do with me. And once again my thoughts led me back to the practicalities of life, to my family’s impending arrival, to the funeral and the people who would attend, the horses that would have to be hitched to the carriages, the black crepe that would be brought in from town and that Konrad would have to sew around my sleeve. I knew I should go and see the dead man, it was expected of me. Yet I kept putting it off. Here, in the sunny calm, it was so comforting, so consoling, listening to the familiar farming noises coming in from outside, to the hum of the garden. I was surprised that I hadn’t cried. When a father dies, you cry, don’t you? But I couldn’t.
The old shepherd came to give his condolences. He clasped his hands together, said something about a poor boy with no father. I was moved by this. Then he said that I would now become the new master, that made me happy, it warmed my heart a little. However, in response I merely waved this idea off sadly.
The minister arrived. The red face under his milky-white hair was distressed and flustered. He patted me on the shoulder, spoke of the harsh fate that God had hung upon my young years, and of His unfathomable counsels. “The deceased was a noble man,” he finished up. “We all make mistakes. His eternal compassion is great beyond our understanding.”
After him, it was the doctor’s turn. His overly loud voice grated on me. He shook my hand meaningfully. “Such a tragedy,” he said, “that morphine, it refuses to let you go. Your blessed father had a few problems with his heart. It would have led to trouble soon enough.” He spoke uncertainly and quickly, as if he wished to make a quick departure. “So, he knows about it, too,” I thought, “and we’re just fooling ourselves. But it’s what my blessed father would have wanted. He would have called it tenue.”
Once they were all gone, I decided to go and see the body. It had to be done. I had the feeling that he was lying there waiting for me. I had never been in the presence of a dead body because that – last night – was no real experience, but a bad dream. When I stepped into the room where he had been laid out, my first thought was: “Oh! That’s not so bad!”
Konrad was there. He was straightening up his master’s suit. Now he moved to one side and stood there reverently with his hands together. I also put my hands together, bowed my head and stood as if praying. When I thought this had gone on long enough, I raised my head. There lay the dead man, slight and black, in his tails, in the midst of all the flowers. The face was a waxy yellow, its lines razor-sharp, rather arrogant and calm. The fine bluish lines of the lips were still a little crooked, as if in a suppressed smile. Everything was overlaid with a cool solemnity. And all around the quiet, black figure were the bright colours of late-summer flowers: wreaths of dahlias like burgundy satin, gladioli like bunches of red flames, large roses and tuberoses, an abundance of tuberoses that filled the room with their heavy, oppressive aroma. Konrad looked over at me from where he stood. Was he surprised that I wasn’t crying? I covered my face with one hand. Then he quietly left the room.
No, I wasn’t crying. But I was astonished that the dead man wasn’t terrible at all, that he had a solemn and peaceful appearance. I was able to sit down and contemplate him carefully, almost curiously, allow the heavy, cool peacefulness surrounding him to have its effect on me. How superior he lay there; just as mysterious as when he was alive, with his suppressed, arrogant smile. “Our house knows when it is ready,” I heard echoing inside me. Now I understood him. He had wanted this. But there rose up in me opposition and resistance to this lesson, just like the times when he brought up the teachings of the old Turk or spoke of good manners. No, not that! That wasn’t for me! Everything in me that thirsted for life recoiled against this mysterious repose. I felt as if the dead man with his silent smile wanted to accuse me, and life itself, of being in the wrong. He had wanted this, but I – I didn’t want it, not by a long way. I had no need to die, I rejected it passionately. Suffering, being unhappy – anything – anything but lying there so cold and silent! I got up and quickly left the room, without looking back.
Out here, the sunshine felt warmer and yellower than back there. I went over to the window, leaned right out, inhaled the hot, sweet scent of the garden. Large Camberwell Beauty and Red Admiral butterflies fluttered above the reseda beds, sluggishly, as if their coloured wings weighed them down. Far away on the horizon, a farmer was ploughing on the hill, a tiny figure outlined against the bright blue sky. Sounds and voices drifted over. Someone laughed from behind the blackcurrant bushes. The world was at work once more, merrily and brightly; it wrapped itself around me, warm and soft, and loosened everything oppressing me inside. Now I felt sorry for the solemn man in the other room who could no longer have all this, who was shut out from it all. I had to cry.
Edse, the little servant, walked along under my window. He looked up at me shyly. It was good that he had seen me crying, for it’s a hideous son who can’t cry for his father.
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Translation © 2018 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.