August the 21st
Oh, this wonderful dream life, a life outside common laws and constraints.
It is a strange evening, a strange night and a strange day that I have just experienced. At the Daahlens, we were sitting, as usual, on the veranda, drinking glasses of ‘cold duck’. Spall was being extremely entertaining. He was constantly cracking jokes and making the old man laugh. Claudia also laughed, a somewhat forced, raucous laughter. She was restless, walked up and down the veranda, stopped for a while and looked up at the moon – then suddenly she became serious – something tense, almost fearful could be discerned in her pale face. She held a small batiste handkerchief and wrung it fiercely as if wishing to tear it to pieces. Spall and Daahlen started a game of chess. I went over to Claudia. It was remarkable how her excitement transmitted itself to me. Yes, my very nerves obeyed the vibrations of this relative stranger. My voice sounded tentative as I said:
“We haven’t seen the pond in a long time.”
“Yes, let’s go down and see it again,” was Claudia’s friendly reply.
We walked down into the garden. To begin with, we spoke randomly about anything and everything, the roses we passed by, the toads that sat fat and wrinkled on the well-lit paths. For a time we simply walked beside each other silently. In the darkness beneath the trees I said:
“You seem more cheerful today,” – and in my mind I pulled her close to me, that slight figure trembling with excitement and torment.
“Wasn’t I cheerful before?” Claudia asked.
“Well – the last few days, I don’t think you were all that cheerful.”
“I’m not sure if I am cheerful,” Claudia continued thoughtfully. “Does that happen to you occasionally, too? A fatigue comes upon one – a never-ending idleness that makes it impossible to carry on living. When I was a schoolgirl, I had a similar feeling whenever I had put off my French essay until the very last moment, and then, along came that idleness, I just wanted to sit – to sleep – even die and enjoy the peace of my grave, anything to avoid writing that essay on La cruche va à l’eau tant qu’elle se casse.”
“But the essay eventually got written, anyway,” I remarked.
“Yes, it got written.”
“Such moods usually come over us,” I remarked, and I felt the importance of saying the words, even though I felt that my voice hadn’t quite found the right tone for them: “Such moods usually come over us in those moments in which we are ready to live life with all of our energies.”
“Oh – do you think so?”
We had come to the pond. The Danaïde stood brightly illuminated in the black water and stretched her handless arms out in front of her nonchalantly.
“She’s at rest now, that’s what you said, isn’t it?” Claudia asked. “Our hands are gone, we must rest.”
“They come over us,” I began again. I couldn’t fathom it, somehow I was finding it so difficult today to get the words out. I needed to say something impressive now, but it all seemed forced, and a little fake.
“Imagine a rosebush covered with buds, plump, red buds that are all ready to burst into bloom at the same time. Right! It stands there in the moonlight, laden down with buds, tired and despondent: ‘Oh, it’s time to blossom yet again. If only I could have some peace!’ That doesn’t stop it, though, from standing there the next morning covered in red roses.”
Claudia looked up at me searchingly.
“That’s rather pretty. You’re a bit of a poet.”
“Me? My God, not at all!”
We had left the pond behind us and were now walking up the narrow walkway of trees. “You, naturally,” Claudia said, and I could hear a touch of mockery in her voice, “you’re no stranger to such moods, you’re a Lebenskünstler, after all.”
This angered me.
“Don’t say that, what kind of Lebenskünstler am I really? I wait, like anyone, for the hand that will bring something of value into my life. We all depend on one another to make something of our lives.”
“How prettily you say that. If you can say it all so prettily, then I believe you don’t really need to experience it. Don’t you think? But as for waiting for another – what if some bungler comes along?”
Again, that strange, morbid laugh that rang out harshly into the gloom. Above us, a crow flew off with a rustle. Somewhere out in the darkness, hesperis flowers exuded a sultry fragrance.
“Please, don’t laugh – not like that,” I let out in anguish. She fell silent, stopped, leaned against a tree trunk. I stood before her. I didn’t understand what was happening and was consequently self-conscious and at a loss. Then I heard a faint sound.
“Are you crying?” I asked.
“Oh – it’s nothing,” Claudia replied. “Just my nerves. It happens now and then. Just give me a moment.”
I waited. I stood there and listened to the gentle sobs, it was almost as if my breathing took on the same slow, intermittent rhythm of her tears. Now, I told myself, but I said and did nothing. Why? I understand it all now. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything to this child sobbing helplessly before me – not like this. But were another similar moment to arise, then what had to happen would happen. I could see it, this moment – I would silently take her hand – a cool hand, wet with tears – and we would head up to the veranda and present ourselves to the old man and tell him: “We can’t help ourselves” – and the sweetness of our love would be adulterated by the bitterness of our cruelty, and our sympathy.
“I feel better now,” Claudia said, “let’s go on.”
We went on our way.
“Thank you,” she continued. “Such silliness. Let’s not say anything to the others. No, I would have felt ashamed in front of anyone else – but you, you’re like – just like an aunt.”
“An aunt,” I said indignantly.
“Yes, so comforting, so reliable –“
I was silent. I was hurt. Now, though, I understand. She was angry with me because I had spared her. It was only natural.
As we were walking past the flower beds on the terrace, Claudia tore a rose out, just the damp, red petals, and used them to soothe her eyes. Daahlen and Spall sat on the veranda by the light of the candles in their glass containers. From down on the terrace, we could hear Spall telling stories in his loud, cheerful voice. Daahlen laughed. Claudia stopped.
“Look at them sitting there,” she said, and then, as if relating a complex thought: “Do you know what sympathy is? It’s people who don’t know how to avoid us on the street. Isn’t that right? The suffering of others, suffering that won’t let us pass by.”
I was happily surprised that she had the same thoughts that had come to me down amongst the trees!
“Yes,” I said. But we must pass by if our path leads us that way”
She bent her head back and looked up at the moon. How pale her face was, on her beautiful mouth a strange, unforgettable smile. She raised her right hand and moved as if in triumph the hand in which she had crushed the red rose.
“Oh yes, we must pass by,” she said quietly. Then she walked quickly up the stairs to the veranda.
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Translation © 2019 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.