‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch – Part Twelve

One day, I was moved by a sympathy with her silent grief to ask him why he refused to visit the poor woman, whether he had something against her who now believed he no longer loved her.  He shot me a glance that was both wrathful and despairing and said: “That’s how it is, I no longer love her, why should I visit her?”  And when I, not without a sense of bitterness, I must admit, went on to say: “The poor woman, she’ll be dead soon,” he gave me the terrible and unfathomable reply: “As far as I’m concerned, she’ll never have lived,” at which he simply walked past me and in this manner ended the conversation.

After not seeing him again for the rest of the day, I was surprised not to find him at home that evening either; I knew that he wasn’t with Aglaia so, with some concern, I went off to look for him in his favourite spot, where he had often sat and rested during the period of his convalescence, a pentagonal fountain the size of a small pond, encircled by cypress trees.  An avenue of cypresses led downhill on one side from here, while on the other you could see distant blue mountains rising above hills of grey and green.  Most beautiful of all, though, was the way the tall, dark trees were reflected in the greenish-brown waters of the fountain; they seemed to actually enter the water, and it only became clear that these were mere images when a breeze caused the water to ripple over them.  As I had suspected, the monk was sitting there on the stone edge of the fountain, looking down, and he was so lost in his daydreams that he gave a violent start when he heard my footsteps approach.  I could immediately tell that he was in a mood where he had a soft, childish need to unburden himself, and so it was that I learned just what had been going on inside this wonderful, unfortunate man in recent times.  I may not recall exactly every word he used, but the following is roughly what he told me:

“As you know,” he said, “I was poor as a child, I had no parents, nobody, nothing, in this world.  Perhaps that’s why I had such a longing to possess something, to have something that belonged to me, of which I could say: That’s mine, my own.  And I can tell you that whenever I was given or earned something, even if it were nothing more than a dirty penny, I would kiss that disgusting coin, carry it around in my hand until it was warm and damp, hid it next to my breast so that I could feel it deep inside, even buried it deep beneath the earth, dug it up again with great effort in the darkness and, with a beating heart, took it to bed with me.  I did this with everything; but I always had to spend the money before too long, the other knick-knacks broke or rotted, or, that not being the case, the childish illusion that they could ever really be mine faded away.  And I cannot tell you how bitterly I wept when I felt that my heart remained empty; that these objects of my longing were just as remote and hard and as immune to my feelings as on the day I obtained them.

“My God, how I once loved a certain purple flower that hung, like a grape, over a thick, grey wall, waving in the manner of a slender, enchanted hand!  But I was much too small to reach it and could merely gaze at it every day from down below as it first grew riper and darker, and then gradually wilted, until it flapped around in the breeze like an old dirty-white rag.  Another time I loved a plump, rust-brown peach in some garden, juicier and fluffier than I had ever seen before;  on one occasion, a small dark-blue cloud with a golden-white edge, which seemed to me like a fine white velvety coat, over whose fading and disappearance I was long inconsolable; I cannot tell you just how many little, proud, indifferent cats and how many elegant youths I saw going off to school I fell in love with.  Eventually, I learned that nothing here on Earth can ever truly belong to us – for should not that which belongs to me remain mine eternally? – and that we should have no possessions on Earth.  If anything, be it the slightest thing, were mine, then I would have to love it, and for its sake I would love Earth and forget Heaven.

“Then she came, and said that she was mine, and I felt my heart grow warm and swell, and sensed the biting-cold loneliness inside me disappear.  My heart was a tiny, ailing bird that had been wrapped in cotton wool and now felt nothing but soft, loving, tender caresses.  Occasionally a fear came over me that the feeling of happiness to which I had grown accustomed might suddenly vanish and leave me standing alone in a cold, desolate, never-ending cave, and in certain moments I saw my illusion and madness clearly; but whenever she looked at me and I felt her gaze, right in my heart, like a kiss, heavenly peace rested upon me once more and draped me in a purple cloak of eternity and abundance.  And now she  really is leaving me.  The only thing that was mine, in which I believed, to which I had fettered my soul, is melting away in my hands like a drop of water!”  At this point, heart-rending laments poured from his lips, along with pleas and reproaches to Aglaia, such a passionate and inconceivable mess of words that I am unable to repeat them.

I uttered all manner of obvious platitudes, such as that it wasn’t Aglaia’s fault that she had to die, that she had always loved him, and still loved him, that he shouldn’t abandon her now, that she was asking for him, and many similar things.  None of this hit its mark, though, he continued to insist that he could no longer see her; her paleness, her gauntness, her suffering countenance would fill him not with pity but with hate, for these all showed him that she was slowly slipping from his embrace, in order to leave him behind, alone.  He had, while he spoke, slung an arm around me and leaned his dear head upon my shoulder, so that I now sat bent over him, a position that perhaps lent itself to the sensation of paternal mercy I felt towards him.  I held him tenderly and said that he must place hope in meeting Aglaia again on the other side.  In doing so, I was involuntarily reminded of fragments of the sermon on death and immortality that he had recently delivered, parts of which found their way onto my tongue, such as the passage where he compared a person’s death with the dying out of a song; if all instruments you could play it on were burned, if all voices fell silent, the song was still there, immortal and immutable, not just in one place but everywhere someone allowed its memory to echo in their heart.

Yet scarcely had I uttered these words when he leaped up, pushed me away and screamed threateningly: “Don’t tell me that!  Silence with your empty drivel!  I want to have her, feel her in my heart, press her to my breast, see her face, withered, wrinkled, faded, with dull eyes, old and feeble for all I care, if it can only be hers, the one I know and love.  Are your vacuous comparisons and fake images meant to satisfy a soul that is screaming for love?”  I feared he would start to rage in his wonted manner, instead he threw himself to the ground and wept.  I had no idea what else I could say or do, and I was overwhelmed by despair of a kind I had never felt before.  I sat down on the edge of the fountain and observed the beauty of the night while tears ran down my cheeks.  The sky was all black, there was just one white strip on the horizon against which the outlines of distant hills stood out.  A warm wind whistled through the bushes nearby, but the sorrowful figures of the cypresses next to me merely moved their tips up and down in silence.  I began to imagine them as giant swords, cloaked in darkness, with the hilt in the ground and their tips turned towards the sky, and I wanted to see them plunging into the water in the reflection; but the water was dead and dull in the darkness.

My sorrow gradually grew clearer and lighter, allowing me to pull myself together enough to calm Fra Celeste a little merely by virtue of my quiet, affectionate presence; he soon expressed of his own volition a desire to return home, and we walked back silently side by side.  From the way he turned his head in my direction from time to time, I felt that he was aware of my presence, and that he cared for me; I knew no other person whose moods could be perceived so physically, as if he radiated warmth or some other such force upon others.

← Part Eleven     Part Thirteen →

Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

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