Mirror Images of an Earlier Life

by Christoph Peters, author

Sometime after the end of childhood, of youth - both of which when seen from today lie way back and are, anyway, hardly distinguishable from one another – probably after the ultimate departure from there, where it began, from the village that lies on the Fjord (on one of the few Fjords of Funen, and which otherwise offers no reason for a special luminosity of memory), sometime after this departure a feeling of loss spread. It had nothing to do with a lack of something great or singular, on the contrary, everything in the village was what one calls “commonplace”, if it doesn’t sound that derogatory, it could have been a thousand other villages in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, possibly even Germany, Holland or Poland. The most that can be said is that the nothing-special there had reached a perfection that again singled it out, although such paradoxes lead to nothing. It is certain that nowhere else in the world, at any place, at any time, with any people, did that thing ever come again, which at that time, after the end of childhood, of youth, of the final farewell, began to be missing; at first almost imperceptibly, like a quiet disappointment that laid itself as a shadow upon each place, each moment, each encounter – so that eventually even love, whenever and in no matter which form it appeared, with all its highs and lows, heavens and hells, seemed strangely pale. And also, the village itself was, after this void had grown, no longer that which it had been before. The causes for this lay neither in the altered viewpoint that comes from the flight to vibrant metropolises and foreign lands, nor in the changes to which the village was subjected: like everywhere in the countryside most businesses, cafés and bars had one day closed, because the old died and the young moved on, on account of work and in search of ‘real’ life with people who had more immaculate skin and more meaningful feelings, and who drank Italian wine in smartly-furnished apartments. Around the village the fields had, under the pressure of economic necessity, grown ever larger and they were farmed by ever fewer farmers with ever more powerful machinery. The cows no longer grazed in meadows, but were stabled in huge sheds, cared for and milked by fully automated systems, and no three-legged dog strayed through the streets in search of everything and nothing. The vacancy had spread even to the familiar house of the parents who lived there still, though none reproached the other for past omissions or spoiled the time spent together with long-held bitterness. And nevertheless: the smell of Brunsviger cake in the oven no longer transformed the dark winter days into a holy time – too many older pictures thrust themselves in front of the Christmas duck with red cabbage, so that in plain view it became but memory. From one moment to the next mother and father aged by decades and the forbidden question of death crept in.

There were perplexed wanderings through the house, despite the certain knowledge of which position on the sofa was the most comfortable, despite the familiar books, the record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, from which the percussive beat of a scratch had dug such a deep groove in his memory that later any undamaged recording seemed to be lacking.

In unobserved moments, the clandestine openings of cupboards, of cellar doors – that was actually no longer fitting – only to be sure that everything was still there, or at least to have the certainty that some thing, one decisive thing that had once secretly bound everything, was irretrievably gone. It was not to be found outside, either - neither in the shed, between lawn mower, shovels and rake, nor in the garage under the tools. In the view from the garden over the fields and groups of trees, the old church, the water in the fjord below appeared to be no more than the usual strip of blue, grey or silver – depending on the position of the sun – and the knowledge that it was an offshoot of the entire huge sea, that someone could travel out across it into the world, already had a thousand years before to Iceland and from there further on to undiscovered America, changed nothing.

Thus the farewells were ever more final, heavy with gratitude and foreboding. At the same time, however, with every return to the hundred-kilometer distant capital that was also, after so many years, not entirely familiar – sharper images appeared. They began to be illuminated from within and thrust themselves in front of the emptiness, more real than the past and clearer than any memory, for memory deceives and the past itself remains behind elsewhere. In the images, however, the certainty that nothing that has once been is ever lost noticeably took shape. Everything was still there, in formations of ordered light that raced to the edges of the universe and beyond until the end of time. They bear witness to every moment, and if, in a thousand or a million years, someone were to look out across from that vantage point, he could still see them:

The still surface of the water in the morning, embraced by two tongues of land – one forested, the other vaguely used for warehouses, a wind turbine. In between, the way out onto the open sea, threat and escape route in one. From here the storm tide surges in and devours the land, and at the same time from here the way leads out into the distance, where the unknown awaits, full of future promise. The undulating lines of the receding tide in the sand bear witness to the unceasing transformation of everything, even if it seems to be that every movement comes to rest, every noise falls silent. On rotting rope, knotted loosely to a pile years ago, slimy algae blow yellow bubbles and trap oxygen, until the next surging tide, the next winter storm, bursts them. A red buoy indicates shallows, perhaps also someone has simply forgotten it, and further out by the entrance to the bay sometimes a sailing boat sets anchor, patiently awaiting the end of the doldrums, because its owner has long been underway without destination.

On the way back from the sea, whitethorn hedges run the length of the decaying asphalt road, in which partridge eggs and the crucified mice of the red-backed shrike are hidden. Power masts stride across the landscape with sagging cables, feign order and let them fall; the cry of a gull before endless blue; peacock eyes, swallowtails. And then, while the sun dazzles and the stubble of the harvested wheat fields scratches the calves, a noise swells in the west, approaches at super speed, becomes so loud that it’s no use pressing hands tight to ears: two fighter jets, in such a low daredevil flyby that you see the huge goggles of the pilots, their fat ear defenders. And that must really be something, to stalk across the landscape in such steel darts – who wouldn’t want to do that? The Russians, who in their dark eastern empire have grown evil and threaten war, will hold back should they see this. There are many dangers. To expose oneself to them can be bravery or naked unreason – to distinguish between the two is difficult – but he who fails will break limbs or drown. Such warnings are written down, for a while, then they are forgotten, for life almost always proves itself to be kind, and if here and there someone dies, that’s part of it.

Sundays stand out a little for the family visits and lean meat, are eagerly expected, for then idleness is allowed – and hated, on account of the tedium and trousers that are never allowed to get dirty. Sometimes there are car trips to the town of Odense, to the biggest railway museum in the north; to the Hans Christian Andersen house, from where the little mermaid came, and the ugly duckling. Or to Faaborg harbor, for by its ships one recognizes what a country is, and perhaps also (because despite everything it’s good to know) that beyond the sea there’s this other world in which the news plays out, where people of progress fly to the moon with rockets and racing drivers win world championships. One can head out there, and probably it’s not a bad idea, one day, to do so for a while. Above all, when one has learnt enough, one can return. – The incredulous surprise when cars, even huge trucks, disappear into the gaping mouths of ferries that set sail with long siren calls, that part the tide and leave foaming waves behind them, before they then vanish as spectres in the haze, as a glittering point between water and heaven.

Such are days in the light. Everything appears simple and clear, ordered by the seasons, weather conditions, the cycles of plants and animals. The first green like moss down, then straw witch burning on St. John’s Eve, later in autumn the clouds are almost black, then tractor prints in the snow. And in between, all of the people working, partying, complaining and watching TV.

But every day is followed by night, and although the wolves may be gone – even at full moon they do not howl – as soon as the darkness is there, in the shelter of the sea fog, disembodied and inexorable, gloomy uncertainties gather. They penetrate through window cracks, through loose shingles into the house, creak boards, whistle eaves, wind themselves about sleep. What then unfurls was never seen out there, and yet is so real that the cold sweat runs in streams and one freezes beneath the blanket. Sometimes a cry breaks out, when from somewhere beyond the end of the sea the ferries, the daytrip steamers, return - shadow ships steered by spirits who have silently jettisoned the cargo and smothered the people in the fog. Barely audible lamentations whisper from afar, in an unspoken language whose meaning none of the living understand. They coagulate into lines and surfaces, in the light from a last streetlight mirrored in puddles, the edge of a low-hanging cloud, sparsely illuminated by the moon, settle as dull dew on the window panes of long abandoned houses, from whom only the spectres of their former inhabitants now look out. All this is to be seen in these inner pictures from the village on the fjord that no longer, and perhaps never, existed. And so – as it is there – it belongs from now on also to us.