‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’) by Ricarda Huch – Part Three

THREE

All the while, the sculptor, Mr. Must, worked hard on the golden calf that he had promised to present in all its profane splendour and beauty.  He was a man who enjoyed universal confidence, instilled by his firm, rugged frame, his broad face with its impressive nose and his small, blinking eyes; furthermore, he was known to be selfless, for he had always been satisfied with a low wage for the numerous fountain statues and church decorations that he had provided the town with, and had undertaken the task of sculpting the golden calf without requiring any remuneration.  Once the beast was finished, it was decided after a brief discussion to install it in the park where the Worldly Ones were wont to celebrate their orgies; this place, along with an imposing manor house, had been abandoned by its religious owners, and abandoned to nature.  With great exertions was the heavy sculpture then moved to the top of an artificial hill in the park, whence a view out over the beach and the sea was to be had, and officially unveiled before a great crowd.

In the first moments, nothing could be discerned other than a blinding, golden colossus, reflecting the rays of the midday sun in all directions, providing an impression both cheery and majestic; only on lengthy examination did the idol reveal the evil nature with which the sculptor had through astonishing artistry imbued it.  The overall form of the monster could be compared to that of a hippopotamus or a dragon in the sense that it was broad and hulking, yet despite the awkwardness there was a certain elasticity to the bulging body, and it was clear that the pillar-like legs, which broadened considerably as they approached the feet, could be raised as quick as lightning to pound their victims into the dust.  What aroused the most horror, though, was the wide countenance with its small, long, slitted eyes, which appeared to be looking out in all directions at once in a foolish, savage, malicious manner.  There was an ambiguous expression on the broad maw, making it impossible to tell whether it was offering up an animal laugh or opening in preparation for a howl or a murderous bite.  There was something in the creature’s stance to suggest that it was waiting for the moment when the people would kneel down with bowed heads in prayer so that it could leap down upon them, to pulverise and devour them.

As differently as each person present might contemplate and interpret the idol, it nevertheless inspired revulsion and dread in everyone, and very soon all sorts of tall tales made the rounds, for example, that it was ill advised to look the beast directly in the eye, otherwise it would bewitch you and never release you, what’s more, rumour had it that at night, whenever the moon illuminated its golden back, the creature came to life, at which time many people claimed to have heard a sniggering cry, like that of hungry hyenas.  However, this, along with the damage to the surrounding area that was often noticed in the morning, most likely came from the boisterous antics of the Worldly Ones, who, although for the most part poor rogues, danced around the monster playfully and joyously.  Their leader in all this was the Pleasure-Seeker, who gradually degraded himself further and further, calling himself the Priest of Baal and, his grey head adorned with flowers, worshipped and gave up offerings to the idol.

As a philosophical observer of human foolishness, I mixed with both the Children of God and the Worldly Ones, more often, however, with the latter group, and indeed mainly from a paternal affection for the twins, whose circumstances I learned from Droplet’s confidential dribbles and splashes.  The fact that it was the children of Old Misery Guts himself who were counted among the most dangerous of the fiendish Worldly Ones naturally aroused great disconcertment and irritation; but less for this reason than from my concern for the helpless children, stumbling in the dark, and for their father, my friend, did I set off one day to open his eyes to their situation.

At that time Pastor Wolke was rarely found at home since he was invariably occupied with preaching, teaching, comforting and helping, but on this day, luck was on my side, as I could tell, even from quite a distance, from the vehement discussions that rang from the open windows of his house.  As I approached, to my astonishment I saw a series of silver plates, dishes, bowls and pots come flying out of the window one after another, some of which were of unusual size and weight, forcing me to creep alongside the house walls in order to avoid being struck.  It seems that certain taunts had reached the ears of my dear friend, namely that his own wife could be counted among those who, while the pious divested themselves of all earthly things, stuck to their own possessions with undiminished greed and thus, enthroned upon sinful riches, ridiculed her husband and his followers.  Thereupon he had stern words with his wife and, in all kinds of chests and boxes, discovered the treasures of his home, which despite the cries of his wife, he flung out into the street with well-aimed tosses.

He refused to be distracted by my arrival and only stopped when his weak old arms fell exhausted to his side, at which point he turned to his wife to address her curses.  “You buffoon, you blabbermouth,” she wailed, “you’re nothing more than a simple-minded tyrant who wants to shape everyone in your own miserable form.  If you were a dance teacher, you’d have everyone dance, if you were a grave digger, you’d curse anyone who wouldn’t let themselves be buried, and just because you happened to be born a fool for God and a misery guts to boot, you want to lock up in a convent anyone living a more useful and enjoyable life.”  I interrupted her by saying that she should not doubt the greatness and devoutness of her husband, by contrast I reproached him, saying that it was high time for him to concern himself with his children, whose souls God had generously entrusted him with and would soon demand back.  In this manner, the two of us talked him down in turn until he humbly requested that I lead him to where his children were, which I immediately did, whereupon his wife, with the assistance of her maid, gathered up as much of the silver as had not yet been carried off and brought it back into the house.

Along the way, I explained to the old man what his children had been up to and how they, in order to experience the joys of the world at least once before its end, had flung themselves into wild, foolish dissipation, which devoured them without providing them with pleasure.  At the sight of Old Misery Guts, the Worldly Ones thought nothing more than that he had come to convert and redeem them, and looked forward to the coming entertainment; but the image of the old man as he caught sight of his lost children and tentatively stretched his arms out towards them from a distance, nodding to them with his small, white-haired head, touched this careless mob to the extent that some among them even signalled to the twins that they shouldn’t keep their father calling and waiting so long.  The pair first stared horrified for a while at the old man, then they suddenly took each other by the hand and ran off post-haste in the opposite direction like a couple of children caught in the midst of a forbidden prank.  However, they soon returned, for in truth they were glad to be prevented from continuing with their pointless activity, and tired and weary enough to allow everything to come to an end.

This end actually announced itself in the form of a terrible catastrophe that occurred just eight days before the end of the world.  For several days already the heat had been unusually unbearable and the air thick and heavy, giving the impression that you could wipe it off your body with your hands or, if you exerted yourself, simply shake it off; it was just that nobody had the energy to exert themselves in this manner.  The sky had now taken on a blurry grey-brown colour such as that seen just before a hailstorm strikes, the sea lay black and lifeless as a damp cloth, with only the anxious, twitching flight of the odd seagull close to the surface.  Few doubted now that the end of the world was nigh, and Old Misery Guts was so urgently implored to address the topic seriously in his church that he was unable to refuse, even though all his enthusiasm for the matter appeared to have vanished, indeed, one might have detected a certain confusion in his ideas if this incoherent speech were to be compared with his earlier performances.

Amongst all his audience he had eyes only for his children, who were seated directly beneath the pulpit and responded to his searching gaze with wan smiles on their pale countenances.  Even his words seemed directed at them only, that is to say, they had nothing to do with the end of the world but rather with happiness and where it could be found, if there actually was a coherent thread to his talk.  “When they sat in the meadow as young children and plucked starflowers, was happiness not plain to see in their shining eyes?  Did they not laugh like sainted ones?  Yes, they were in Paradise!  It pains me that I ever offered them the apple of knowledge!  Shouldn’t they have simply laughed and played for all eternity, seeing as children are, after all, like angels?”

Since he also carried on in a broken fashion and at frequent intervals buried his head in his hands, his audience would probably have eventually taken offence at this curious offering if a sudden, fearsome crashing and shaking hadn’t brought an end to it once and for all.  As it happened, this terrifying event turned out to be the harbinger of an earthquake that unleashed itself at that moment and shook the church so violently that a section of the wall collapsed, along with several of the pillars.  The falling rubble killed several people and wounded many others, and as luck would have it, Snowflake happened to be among that latter group and was struck so heavily on her hip and leg that while she escaped with her life, she was almost certainly destined to remain crippled.

From this moment on, the Pastor altered his conduct completely and henceforth placed importance on nothing but the well-being and appearance of his injured daughter.  He was often to be seen with a contented smile on his face, working like a labourer – for given the sad condition of our town there was more than enough work to be found – just to earn a few shillings to buy her flowers or random little gifts that might make her pale face light up.  The Pastor’s neglected flock was now at such a fever pitch that he was not especially missed, for the time had finally come for the great collapse to occur and for the consequences of contempt for the world and greatness of the soul to be tallied up.

← Part Two     Part Four →

Translation © 2019 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’) by Ricarda Huch – Part Three

    1. CourseofMirrors – Thanks 🙂 I’m very much a hobby translator, though, so I doubt it. This is the third piece I’ve translated here, following a story by Karoline von Günderrode and an Eduard Graf von Keyserling novella last year.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Reading this story you translated, I’m convinced you underestimate your skill, and, as I see it, your passion for translating. I could not be an expert, English being my second language, but I’m convinced you should seek relevant feedback. I wrote a novel in English, and am writing a sequel, with the help of a wonderful editor friend. It has been and is a wonderful journey. I occasionally translate poems by Rilke and Goethe into English and have come to the conclusion that translating has its very special rewards.

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