A Whole Life

Robert Seethaler
Excerpt

9780374289867

On a February morning in the year 1933 Andreas Egger lifted the dying goatherd Johannes Kalischka, known to all the valley dwellers as Horned Hannes, off his sodden and rather sour-smelling pallet to carry him down to the village along the three-kilometre mountain path that lay buried beneath a thick layer of snow.

A strange intuition had prompted him to call on Horned Hannes in his hut, where he found him behind the stove, which had long since gone out, curled up under a heap of old goatskins. The goatherd stared at him out of the darkness, emaciated and ghostly pale, and Egger knew that Death already crouched behind his eyes. He picked him up in both arms like a child and placed him gently on the wooden frame, padded with dry moss, that Horned Hannes had used all his life to carry firewood and injured goats on his back over the hillside. He wrapped a halter around his body, tied it to the frame and pulled the knots so tight that the wood let out a crack. When he asked him if he was in pain, Horned Hannes shook his head and twisted his mouth into a grin, but Egger knew that he was lying.

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The first weeks of the year had been unusually warm. The snow in the valleys had melted and in the village there was a constant dripping and splashing of meltwater. But a few days earlier it had turned icy-cold again, and the snow fell so thickly and incessantly from the sky that it seemed softly to swallow the landscape, smothering all life and sound. For the first few hundred metres Egger didn’t speak to the trembling man on his back. He had enough to do keeping an eye on the path, which wound down the mountain in front of him in steep hairpin bends and was barely discernible in the driving snow. From time to time he felt Horned Hannes stirring. ‘Just don’t die on me now,’ he said aloud, to himself, not expecting an answer. However, after he had been walking for almost half an hour with only the sound of his own panting in his ears, the answer came from behind: ‘Dying wouldn’t be the worst.’

‘But not on my back!’ said Egger, stopping to adjust the leather straps on his shoulders. For a moment he listened out into the soundlessly falling snow. The silence was absolute. It was the silence of the mountains that he knew so well, but which still had the capacity to fill his heart with fear. ‘Not on my back,’ he repeated, and walked on. After each bend in the path the snow seemed to fall even more thickly, relentlessly, soft and entirely without noise. Behind him Horned Hannes stirred less and less frequently, until at last he didn’t move at all and Egger feared the worst.

‘Are you dead?’ he asked.

‘No, you limping devil!’ came the reply, with surprising clarity.

‘All I mean is, you have to hold on till we get to the village. Then you can do whatever you want.’

‘And what if I don’t want to hold on till we get to the village?’

‘You must!’ said Egger. He felt they’d talked enough now, and for the next half-hour they progressed in silence. Almost three hundred metres above the village, beside the Geierkante, where the first mountain pines stooped like hunchbacked dwarves beneath the snow, Egger strayed from the path, stumbled, landed on the seat of his trousers and slid some twenty metres down the slope before he was stopped by a boulder as tall as a man. It was calm in the lee of the rock, and here the snow seemed to fall even more slowly, even more quietly. Egger sat on his bottom, leaning back slightly against the wooden frame. There was a stabbing pain in his left knee, but it was bearable and his leg was still in one piece. For a while Horned Hannes didn’t move; then suddenly he began to cough and eventually to speak in a hoarse voice so quiet he could barely be understood: ‘Where do you want to lie, Andreas Egger?’

‘What?’

‘What earth do you want to be buried in?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Egger. He had never considered this question, and in fact in his opinion there was no point wasting any time or thought on such things. ‘The earth is the earth; it makes no difference where you lie.’

‘Maybe it makes no difference the way nothing makes any difference in the end,’ he heard Horned Hannes whisper. ‘But there will be a cold. A cold that gnaws the bones. And the soul.’

‘The soul too?’ asked Egger, and a sudden shiver ran down his spine.

‘The soul most of all!’ answered Horned Hannes. He had stretched his head out as far as he could around the edge of the frame and was staring at the wall of fog and falling snow. ‘The soul and the bones and the spirit and everything you’ve been attached to and believed in all your life. The eternal cold will gnaw it all away. That’s what’s written, because that’s what I’ve heard. People say death brings forth new life, but people are stupider than the stupidest nanny goat. I say death brings forth nothing at all! Death is the Cold Lady.’

‘The … what?’

‘The Cold Lady,’ repeated Horned Hannes. ‘She walks on the mountain and steals through the valley. She comes when she wants and takes what she needs. She has no face and no voice. The Cold Lady comes and takes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole. And in the last patch of sky you see before they finally shovel the earth in over you she reappears and breathes on you. And all that’s left for you then is darkness. And the cold.’

Egger looked up into the snowy sky and for a moment he feared something might appear there and breathe in his face. ‘Jesus,’ he muttered, through clenched teeth. ‘That’s bad.’

‘Yes, it’s bad,’ said Horned Hannes, and his voice sounded raw with fear. Neither man stirred again. The silence was now overlaid by the quiet singing of the wind as it swept over the ridge, dusting up wispy pennants of snow. Suddenly Egger felt a movement, and a moment later he tipped over backwards and lay on his back in the snow. Horned Hannes had somehow managed to loosen the knots and, quick as a flash, clamber out of the frame. He stood there, spindly beneath his ragged clothes and swaying slightly in the wind. Egger shuddered again. ‘You get straight back in,’ he said. ‘You’ll catch something else otherwise.’

Horned Hannes paused, his head craned forward. For a moment he seemed still to be listening to Egger’s words, but the snow had swallowed them. Then he turned and began to run up the mountain in great leaps. Egger struggled to his feet, slipped, fell again, cursing, onto his back, pushed himself up off the ground with both hands and got to his feet once more. ‘Come back!’ he yelled after the goatherd, who was bounding away with astonishing speed. But Horned Hannes could no longer hear him. Egger slipped the straps off his shoulders, dropped the frame and ran after him, but after only a few metres he had to stop, gasping for breath: the slope was too steep here, and with every step he sank up to his hips in the snow. The scrawny figure ahead of him quickly diminished until at last it dissolved entirely in the impenetrable whiteness of the blizzard. Egger put his hands to his mouth like a funnel and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Stop, you stupid fool! No one has ever outrun Death!’ To no avail: Horned Hannes had disappeared.

• • •

Andreas Egger walked the last few hundred metres down to the village to revive his profoundly shaken spirits with a bowl of greasy doughnuts and a glass of homemade Krauterer at the Golden Goat inn. He found himself a spot right beside the old tiled stove, placed his hands on the table and felt the warm blood flow slowly back to his fingers. The little door of the stove stood open and the fire crackled inside. For a brief moment he thought he saw the face of the goatherd in the flames, staring out at him, unmoving. Quickly he closed the door and knocked back his schnapps with his eyes screwed tightly shut. When he opened them again a young woman was standing in front of him. She just stood there, hands on her hips, looking at him. Her hair was short and flaxen blond, and her skin shone rosy in the warmth of the stove. Egger was reminded of the newborn piglets he had sometimes picked out of the straw when he was a boy, burying his face in their soft bellies that smelled of earth, milk and pig muck. He glanced down at his hands. Suddenly they seemed strange to him, lying there: heavy, useless and stupid.

‘Another one?’ the young woman asked, and Egger nodded. She brought a fresh glass, and as she leaned forward to put it on the table she touched his upper arm with a fold of her blouse. The touch was barely perceptible, yet it left a subtle pain that seemed to sink deeper into his flesh with every passing second. He looked at her, and she smiled.

All his life Andreas Egger would look back on this moment, again and again: that brief smile that afternoon in front of the quietly crackling guesthouse stove.

• • •

Later, when he stepped back out into the open, it had already stopped snowing. It was cold and the air was clear. Scraps of fog were creeping up the mountains, and the peaks were already glowing in the sun. Egger left the village behind him and trudged home through the deep snow. A group of children were playing by the mountain stream a few metres beyond the old wooden footbridge. They had tossed their schoolbags into the snow and were scrambling about in the bed of the brook. Some were sliding down the frozen watercourse on their bottoms while others crept across the ice on all fours, listening to the quiet burbling beneath. When they spotted Egger they ganged up and started shouting, ‘Gammy Leg! Gammy Leg!’ Their voices rang out bright and clear in the glassy air, like the cries of the young golden eagles that circled high above the valley, plucking fallen chamois from ravines and goats from the pasture. ‘Gammy Leg! Gammy Leg!’ Egger put down the wooden frame, broke off a fist-sized chunk of ice from the overhanging bank of the stream, drew his arm back and flung it in their direction. He aimed far too high, and the chunk of ice sailed well over the children’s heads. For a moment, at the highest point of its trajectory, it looked as if it would just hang there, a small celestial body flashing in the sun. Then it plunged down and disappeared soundlessly in the shadow of the snowbound fir trees.

• • •

Three months later Egger was sitting on a tree stump at the exact same spot, watching a yellowish cloud of dust darken the mouth of the valley, from which, moments later, the construction team of the firm Bittermann & Sons – consisting of two hundred and sixty labourers, twelve machinists, four engineers, seven Italian cooks and a small number of unspecified auxiliary staff – emerged and approached the village. From a distance the throng resembled an enormous herd of cattle; only by squinting was it possible to discern, here and there, a raised arm or a pickaxe carried over a shoulder. This group was merely the vanguard of a convoy of heavy horse-drawn vehicles and trucks loaded with machines, tools, steel girders, cement and other building materials that proceeded along the unpaved road at walking speed. For the first time the muffled rattle of diesel engines reverberated through the valley. The locals stood silently by the side of the road, until suddenly the old stable hand Joseph Malitzer snatched his felt hat from his head and flung it into the air with a shout of delight. Now the others also began shouting, cheering, yelling. For weeks they had been waiting for the onset of spring, and with it the arrival of the construction team. A cable car was to be built. An aerial cable car powered by direct-current electricity, in whose light-blue wooden cabins people would float up the mountain, enjoying a panoramic view of the whole valley. It was a massive undertaking. Cables twenty-five millimetres thick and intertwined like pairs of mating adders would slice through the sky across a distance of almost two thousand metres. There was a difference in altitude of one thousand three hundred metres to overcome; there were gorges to be bridged and overhanging rocks to be blasted. With the cable car, electricity too would come to the valley. Electric current would flow in along buzzing cables and all the streets and houses and barns would glow with warm light, even at night. People were thinking of all this and much more as they threw up their hats and sent their shouts of delight up into the clear air. Egger would have liked to cheer with them, but for some reason he stayed sitting on his tree stump. He felt despondent, without knowing why. Perhaps it had something to do with the rattling of the engines, the noise that suddenly filled the valley. Nobody knew when it would go away again, or whether it ever would go away again. For a while Egger remained seated: then he couldn’t hold out any longer. He jumped up, ran down, joined the others by the side of the road and shouted and cheered as loudly as he could.

• • •

As a child Andreas Egger had never shouted or cheered. He didn’t even really talk until his first year at school. With difficulty he had scraped together a handful of words that at rare moments he would recite in random order. Talking meant attracting attention, which was never a good thing. He arrived in the village as a small boy in the summer of 1902, brought by horse-drawn carriage from a town far beyond the mountains. When he was lifted out he stood there, speechless, eyes wide, gazing up in astonishment at the shimmering white peaks. He must have been about four years old at the time, perhaps a little younger or older. No one knew exactly, and no one was interested, least of all the farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, who reluctantly took receipt of little Egger and gave the carriage driver the measly tip of two groschen and a crust of hard bread. The lad was the only child of one of his sisters-in-law; she had led an irresponsible life, for which God had recently punished her with consumption and summoned her to his bosom. At least there was a leather pouch around the boy’s neck with a few bank notes in it. For Kranzstocker, this was reason enough not to tell him to go to the devil, or leave him at the church door for the priest, which came to much the same thing in his opinion. So now here Egger stood, gazing at the mountains in wonder. This was the only image he retained of his early childhood, and he carried it with him throughout his life. There were no memories of the time before, and at some point the years that followed, his early years on the Kranzstocker farm, also dissolved in the mists of the past.

In his next memory he saw himself as a boy of about eight, skinny and naked, hanging over the yoke of the plough. His legs and his head dangled just above the ground, which stank of horse piss, while his small white bottom jutted up into the winter air and received Kranzstocker’s blows with the hazel rod. As he always did, the farmer had bathed the rod in water to render it supple. Now it hissed briefly and sharply through the air before landing with a sigh on Egger’s backside. Egger never screamed, which only spurred the farmer on to thrash him harder. Man was formed and hardened by God’s hand to subdue the earth and all that moves upon it. Man carries out God’s will and speaks God’s word. Man creates life with the strength of his loins, and takes life with the strength of his arms. Man is flesh and he is earth and he is a farmer and his name is Hubert Kranzstocker. When it pleases him so to do he digs his field, grabs a full-grown sow and hoists it onto his shoulders, begets a child or hangs another over the yoke of the plough, for he is the man, the word and the deed. ‘Lordhavemercy,’ said Kranzstocker, and brought the rod whistling down. ‘Lordhavemercy.’

There were reasons enough for these beatings: spilt milk, mouldy bread, a lost cow or an evening prayer wrongly stammered. Once the farmer cut the rod too thick, or had forgotten to soak it, or struck with greater fury than usual, it was hard to say exactly which: at any rate, he struck, and somewhere in the little body there was a loud crack and the boy stopped moving. ‘Lordhavemercy,’ said Kranzstocker, lowering his arm in astonishment. Little Egger was brought into the house, laid on the straw and brought back to life by the farmer’s wife with a bucket of water and a beaker of warm milk. Something was out of place in his right leg, but as it would be too expensive to have it examined in a hospital the bonesetter Alois Klammerer was sent for from the neighbouring village. Alois Klammerer was a friendly man with unusually small, pale pink hands, but their strength and dexterity were legendary, even among woodcutters and blacksmiths. Once, years ago, he had been summoned to the Hirz family farm where the farmer’s son, a monstrous young man with the strength of an ox, had crashed through the stable roof, drunk as a lord. He had been rolling around for hours in pain and chicken shit, emitting inarticulate noises and successfully deploying a pitchfork to defend himself against every intervention. Nimbly dodging the fork thrusts, Alois Klammerer approached him with a nonchalant smile, stabbed two fingers unerringly into the lad’s nostrils and with one simple movement forced him to his knees, setting first his stubborn head and, immediately afterwards, his dislocated bones to rights.

The bonesetter Alois Klammerer also eased little Egger’s broken thigh back together. Afterwards he splinted the leg with a couple of thin wooden laths, lubricated it with herbal ointment and wrapped it in a thick bandage. Egger had to spend the next six weeks on a straw mattress in the attic, relieving himself lying down, in an old cream bowl. Many years later, long after he had grown to manhood and was strong enough to carry a dying goatherd down the mountain on his back, Andreas Egger thought back to those nights in the attic and the stench of herbs, rat droppings and his own excreta. He felt the warmth of the room below rising up through the floorboards. He heard the farmer’s children moaning softly in their sleep, Kranzstocker’s rumbling snores, and the inscrutable sounds of his wife. The noises of the animals drifted up to him from the barn, their rustling, breathing, munching and snuffling. Sometimes, on bright nights when he couldn’t fall asleep and the moon appeared in the little skylight, he tried to sit up as straight as possible to be closer to it. The moonlight was friendly and soft, and when he contemplated his toes in it they looked like small round lumps of cheese.

When the bonesetter was finally called back six weeks later to undo the bandage, the leg was as thin as a chicken bone. It also jutted out crookedly from the hip and seemed generally to have turned out a bit twisted and awry. ‘It’ll sort itself out, like everything in life,’ said Klammerer, bathing his hands in a bowl of milk fresh from the cow. Little Egger bit back the pain, climbed out of bed, dragged himself out of the house and a little further, to the big chicken field where the primroses and leopard’s bane were already in bloom. He slipped off his nightshirt and let himself fall backwards onto the grass with outstretched arms. The sun shone on his face, and for the first time he could remember he thought about his mother, whom he had not been able to picture for years. What must she have been like? What must it have been like for her, lying there, towards the end? All small and thin and white? With a single, trembling patch of sun on her brow?

Egger regained his strength. His leg, though, remained crooked, and from then on he went through life with a limp. It was as if his right leg always needed a moment longer than the rest of his body; as if before taking every step it first had to consider whether it really was worth the exertion.

Andreas Egger’s memories of the childhood years that followed were frayed and fragmentary. Once he saw a mountain start to move. A jolt seemed to pass through the side in shadow, and with a deep groan the whole slope began to slide. The mass of earth swept away the forest chapel and a couple of haystacks, and buried beneath it the dilapidated walls of the abandoned Kernsteiner farm, which had been empty for years. A calf, separated from the herd because of an ulcer on its hind leg, was thrown high up into the air along with the cherry tree to which it was tethered: it gawped out over the valley for a moment before the scree surged in and swallowed it whole. Egger remembered people standing in front of their houses open-mouthed, watching the disaster unfold on the other side of the valley. The children held hands, the men were silent, the women wept, and everything was overlaid with the murmur of the old villagers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. A few days later the calf was found a few hundred metres down the mountain, still tethered to the cherry tree, lying in a bend in the stream with a swollen belly, its stiff legs pointing at the sky and the water washing round it.

Egger shared the big bed in the bedroom with the farmer’s children, but this didn’t mean he was one of them. For the whole of his time on the farm he remained an outsider, barely tolerated, the bastard of a sister-in-law who had been punished by God, with only the contents of a leather neck pouch to thank for the farmer’s clemency. To all intents and purposes he was not seen as a child. He was a creature whose function was to work, pray and bare its bottom for the hazel rod. Only Nana, the farmer’s wife’s aged mother, spared him a warm look or a friendly word now and then. Sometimes she would place her hand on his head and murmur a quiet ‘God bless you.’ When Egger heard of her sudden death, during the haymaking — she had lost consciousness while baking bread, toppled forwards and suffocated with her face in the dough — he dropped his scythe, climbed wordlessly all the way up past the Adlerkante and looked for a shady spot to cry in.

Nana was laid out for three days in the little chamber between the farmhouse and the cattle shed. It was pitch dark in the room: the windows had been blacked out and the walls were hung with black cloths. Nana’s hands were folded over a wooden rosary, her face lit by two flickering candles. The smell of decay quickly spread throughout the house; outside the summer was sweltering and the heat penetrated through every chink. When the hearse arrived, drawn by two enormous Haflingers, the farmer’s family gathered around the body one last time to say goodbye. Kranzstocker sprinkled it with holy water, cleared his throat and muttered a few words. ‘Nana’s gone now,’ he said. ‘We can’t know where to, but it’ll be as it’s meant to be. The old die, making way for new. That’s how it is and how it’ll always be, amen!’ The body was hoisted onto the cart and the funeral procession, in which, as was the custom, the whole village participated, slowly began to move. They were just passing the smithy when its soot-covered door suddenly burst open and the smith’s dog shot out into the open. Its fur was jet-black and between its legs its swollen, scarlet sex shone bright as a beacon. Barking hoarsely it hurtled towards the horses drawing the cart. The coachman flicked his whip across the dog’s back, but it seemed to feel no pain. It leapt at one of the horses and sank its teeth into its hind leg. The Haflinger reared up and kicked out. Its enormous hoof hit the dog’s head; there was a cracking noise, the dog yelped and fell like a sack to the ground. In front of the cart the injured horse staggered to one side, threatening to drag the carriage into the meltwater ditch. The coachman, who had leapt off the box and seized his animals’ reins, managed to keep both cart and horses on the road, but at the back the coffin had slid and got stuck sideways. The lid had only been provisionally closed for transportation and was supposed to be nailed down at the graveside: it had sprung open, and the dead woman’s forearm appeared in the gap. In the darkness of the viewing room her hand had been snow-white, but here, in the bright midday light, it appeared as yellow as the flowers of the little Alpine violets that blossomed on the shady banks of the stream and withered the instant they were exposed to the sun. The horse reared up one last time before coming to a standstill, flanks quivering. Egger saw Nana’s dead hand dangling from the coffin, and for a moment it seemed she was trying to wave goodbye to him: a very last ‘God bless you’, meant for him alone. The lid was closed, the coffin pushed back into place, and the funeral procession was able to continue on its way. The dog stayed behind on the road where it lay on its side, shuddering convulsively, paddling in circles and snapping blindly at the air. The clacking of its jaw could be heard for quite some time, before the smith dashed its brains out with a peening anvil.

• • •

In 1910 a school was built in the village, and every morning, after tending to the livestock, little Egger sat with the other children, in a classroom that stank of fresh tar, learning reading, writing and arithmetic. He learned slowly and as if against a hidden, inner resistance, but over time a kind of meaning began to crystallize out of the chaos of dots and dashes on the school blackboard until at last he was able to read books without pictures, which awoke in him ideas and also certain anxieties about the worlds beyond the valley.

After the deaths of the two youngest Kranzstocker children, who were carried off one long winter’s night by diphtheria, the work on the farm became even harder as there were fewer arms to share the burden. On the other hand, Egger had more space in the bed now, and no longer had to scrap over every crust with his remaining stepbrothers and stepsisters. He and the other children hardly came to blows any more, in any case, simply because Egger had grown too strong. It was as if Nature had been trying to make it up to him ever since the business with his shattered leg. At the age of thirteen he had the muscles of a young man, and at fourteen he heaved a sixty-kilo sack through the hatch to the granary for the first time. He was strong, but slow. He thought slowly, spoke slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where, in his opinion, such marks were supposed to be.

One day after Egger’s eighteenth birthday (since no precise information could be obtained about his birth, the mayor had simply assigned a random summer date, namely the fifteenth of August 1898, as his birthday, and issued the certificate accordingly), an earthenware bowl of milk soup happened to slip out of his hands during supper, and broke with a dull crack. The soup, with the bread he had just crumbled into it, spread over the wooden floor, and Kranzstocker, who had already folded his hands to say grace, slowly rose to his feet. ‘Fetch the hazel and put it in water,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you in half an hour.’

Egger fetched the rod from its hook, put it outside in the cattle trough, sat down on the yoke of the plough and dangled his legs. Half an hour later the farmer appeared. ‘Bring the rod!’ he said.

Egger jumped off the yoke and took the rod out of the trough. Kranzstocker brought it hissing down through the air. It flexed smoothly in his hand, trailing a curtain of delicately glittering water drops in its wake.

‘Drop your trousers!’ the farmer ordered. Egger folded his arms in front of his chest and shook his head.

‘Well, look at you! The bastard wants to contradict the farmer,’ said Kranzstocker.

‘I want to be left alone, that’s all,’ said Egger.

The farmer thrust out his chin. There was dried milk stuck in the stubble of his beard. A long, curved vein throbbed in his neck. He stepped forward and raised his arm.

‘If you hit me, I’ll kill you!’ said Egger, and the farmer froze.

In later life, when Egger looked back on this moment, it seemed to him that they stood like that the whole evening, confronting each other, he with his arms folded across his chest, the farmer with the hazel rod in his raised fist, both silent, with cold hatred in their eyes. In reality it was at most a few seconds. A drop of water ran slowly down the rod, trembled free and fell to earth. The cows’ muffled chomping emanated from the barn. One of the children laughed inside the house, then the farm was quiet again.

Kranzstocker dropped his arm. ‘Get out of here,’ he said, in a toneless voice, and Egger went.

• • •

Andreas Egger was considered a cripple, but he was strong. He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling. He was as good with a scythe as he was with a pitchfork. He turned the freshly mown grass, loaded dung onto carts, and lugged rocks and sheaves of straw from the fields. He crawled over the soil like a beetle and climbed between rocks to retrieve lost cattle. He knew in which direction to chop different kinds of wood, how to set the wedge, hone the saw and sharpen the axe. He seldom went to the inn, and he never allowed himself more than a meal and a glass of beer or a Krauterer. He scarcely spent a single night in a bed; usually he slept on hay, in attics, in small side rooms, and in barns, alongside the cattle. Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

By the time he was twenty-nine Egger had saved enough money to purchase the lease on a small plot of land with a hay barn. The patch of ground lay just below the tree line, about five hundred metres above the village, and could only be reached via the steep, narrow path to the Almerspitze. It was virtually worthless, steep and barren, littered with countless stones and scarcely bigger than the chicken field behind the Kranzstocker farm. But a little spring of clear, ice-cold water bubbled out of the rock nearby, and in the morning the sun stood on the ridge of the mountain half an hour earlier than in the village, warming the earth under Egger’s night-damp feet. He felled a couple of trees in the surrounding forest, worked them on the spot and dragged the beams to his hay barn to prop up the crooked walls. For the foundation he dug a hole and filled it with the stones from his plot, which rather than decreasing in number seemed to grow back night after night out of the dry and dusty ground. He gathered the stones, and because he got bored doing it he gave them names. And when he ran out of names, he gave them words. And when at some point it became clear to him that there were more stones on his plot of land than he knew words, he just started again from the beginning. He needed no plough and no cattle. His plot was too small for a farm of his own, but it was big enough for a tiny vegetable garden. Right at the end he erected a low fence around his new home and put in a little gate, with the express intention of being able to hold it open one day for some potential visitor who might come calling.

All in all, it was a good time. Egger was content, and as far as he was concerned things could have gone on like that forever. But then came the incident with Horned Hannes. According to his understanding of responsibility and justice, the goatherd’s disappearance was not his fault; nonetheless, Egger told no one about what had happened in the thick of the blizzard. Horned Hannes was believed to be dead, and although his body was never found, not even Egger doubted it for a moment. Yet he could not forget the image of that spindly figure slowly dissolving into fog before his eyes.

There was something else that, since that day, Egger carried inextinguishably within him: a pain that, after the brief touch of a fold of fabric, had sunk into the flesh of his upper arm, his shoulder, his breast, finally settling somewhere in the region of his heart. It was a very subtle pain, yet it was more profound than any Egger had encountered in his life so far, including Kranzstocker’s blows with the hazel rod.

Her name was Marie, and Egger thought it the most beautiful name in the world. She had appeared in the valley a few months earlier, looking for work, with trodden-down shoes and dusty hair. It was good timing, as the innkeeper had told his maid to go to the devil just a few days before, for unexpectedly falling pregnant. ‘Show me your hands!’ he said to Marie. He inspected the calluses on her fingers with a satisfied nod and offered her the vacant position. From then on she served the guests and made the beds in the handful of rooms furnished for seasonal workers. She assumed responsibility for the chickens, helped out in the garden and in the kitchen, slaughtered animals and emptied the guests’ toilet. She never complained, and she wasn’t vain or squeamish. ‘You keep your hands off her!’ said the innkeeper, stabbing Egger’s chest with a forefinger that gleamed with freshly rendered lard. ‘Marie’s a girl for work, not love, understood?’

‘Understood,’ said Egger, and felt again the subtle pain near his heart. There are no lies before God, he thought, but there are before an innkeeper.

He waited for her after church on Sunday. She was wearing a white dress and had a little white hat on her head. Although this little hat looked very pretty, Egger thought perhaps it was slightly too small. He was reminded of the rootstocks that protruded darkly here and there from the forest floor and on which, from time to time, a single white lily would bloom, like a miracle. But perhaps the little hat was just right; Egger didn’t know. He had no idea about these things. His experiences of women were limited to church services, during which he would sit in the very back row of the chapel listening to their high, clear voices, practically anaesthetized by the Sunday scent wafting from hair that had been washed with soap and rubbed with lavender.

‘I would like…’ he said roughly, and broke off in mid-sentence, having suddenly forgotten what it was he actually wanted to say. They stood for a while in silence in the shadow of the chapel. She looked tired. Her face still seemed veiled by the twilight of the church’s interior. A yellow speck of pollen clung to her left eyebrow, quivering in the breeze. Suddenly she smiled at him. ‘It’s getting chilly,’ she said. ‘Maybe we could walk in the sun for a bit.’

They walked side by side along the forest path that wound up from behind the chapel to the Harzerkogl. A little stream trickled in the grass and the treetops rustled above them. Everywhere in the undergrowth they could hear the chirping of robins, but whenever they came too close the birds fell silent. They reached a clearing and stopped. High above their heads a falcon hung motionless. Suddenly it flapped its wings and tipped sideways; it seemed simply to fall from the sky and vanish from their sight. Marie picked some flowers and Egger hurled a stone the size of a head into the undergrowth, on impulse, just because he had the inclination and the strength to do it. As they were crossing a rotten footbridge on the way back she grasped his forearm. Her hand was rough and warm like a piece of sunlit wood. Egger would have liked to place it against his cheek and simply stop and stand there. Instead he took a big step and walked swiftly on. ‘Be very careful,’ he said, without turning to look at her. ‘You can easily twist an ankle on this ground.’

They met every Sunday, and sometimes, later on, during the week as well. As a small child, climbing over a rickety wooden fence, she had fallen into the pigsty and been bitten by a startled mother sow. Ever since, she had had a bright red scar across the nape of her neck, about twenty centimetres long and shaped like a crescent moon. It didn’t bother Egger. Scars are like years, he said: one follows another and it’s all of them together that make a person who they are. Marie, for her part, wasn’t bothered by his crooked leg. At least, she didn’t say anything. She never mentioned his limp, not with so much as a word. But then the two of them didn’t talk much. They walked alongside each other, contemplating their shadows on the ground before them, or sat on a rock somewhere and gazed across the valley.

One afternoon towards the end of August he took her up to his plot of land. He bent down, opened the little wooden gate and stood back for her to enter. He still had to paint the cabin, he said; wind and damp gnawed through wood before you knew it, you see, and then you could forget all about being snug. Over there he’d planted a few vegetables, celery for example, already almost as high as your head. The sun shone more brightly up here than down in the valley, you see. Which wasn’t just good for the plants; it warmed the bones and the spirit, too. Not to mention the view, of course, said Egger, with a sweep of his arm; you could see right across the whole region, even further when the weather was good. He wanted to paint inside as well, he explained to her, with masonry paint. You had to dilute it with fresh milk instead of water, of course, to make it last. And the kitchen still needed to be properly equipped, but at least the essentials were already there, pots, plates, cutlery and things, and when he had a chance he’d sand down the frying pans as well. He wouldn’t need a shed, incidentally, because he didn’t have either the space or time for cattle; after all, he didn’t want to be a farmer. Being a farmer meant spending your whole life crawling around on your clod of land with your eyes lowered, scratching at the earth. His kind of man needed to lift up his eyes and look as far as possible beyond his own small, limited patch of ground.

In later life Egger couldn’t remember ever having talked as much as he did the day Marie first visited his cabin. The words simply tumbled out of him and he listened to them in astonishment as they lined up, seemingly of their own accord, to create a meaning that became apparent to him with surprising clarity only after he had spoken them.

As they descended the narrow, winding path to the valley, Egger fell silent again. He felt strange and a little embarrassed, without knowing why. They stopped for a while at a bend in the path, sat in the grass and leaned their backs against the trunk of a fallen beech. The wood had stored the warmth of the last days of summer and smelled of dry moss and resin. All around them the mountaintops rose up into the clear sky. Marie thought they looked as if they were made of porcelain, and although Egger had never seen porcelain in his life he agreed with her. You’d have to be careful walking there, he said; one false step and the whole landscape might crack, or shatter straight away into thousands of tiny landscape-splinters. Marie laughed. ‘That sounds funny,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ said Egger. Then he bowed his head, not knowing what to do next. He would have liked to stand up, grab a rock and fling it somewhere at random, as high and as far as possible. Suddenly he felt her shoulder against his shoulder. He raised his head and said, ‘I can’t stand it any longer!’ He turned towards her, took her face in both hands and kissed her.

‘Goodness,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you strong!’

‘Sorry,’ he said, alarmed, and drew back his hands.

‘It was nice, though,’ she said.

‘Even though it hurt?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Very nice.’

He took her face in his hands once more, this time as gently as you would cradle a hen’s egg or a newly hatched chick.

‘That’s right,’ she said, and closed her eyes.

A Whole Life

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Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966 and is the author of four previous novels. He also works as an actor, most recently appearing in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. He lives in Berlin.

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the U.K. before becoming a literary translator. She previously translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

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