She ran down the hill, down through the trees, past the sign reading “General Store.” She stumbled over a plank. Her shoes were soaked.
“Come…quickly…” shrieked Ottilie, an awkward, thirty-year-old creature, “she is dying…”
The puddles were multiplying; her shoes kept splashing straight into the middle of them; with every step she trod into uncertainty, quite without forethought, yet sharply and forcefully.
“She’s near the end…” stammered Ottilie. Rose could barely stomach the word “end.” What was near the end? A life? What life? The life of Theresa, the old schoolmistress with the gold-rimmed spectacles. The nice old lady with white hair… it had been springtime when she last set out from there and hiked across the burgeoning meadows, stooping all the while, her head cocked slightly to one side. Rose heard her voice; she could sense her warm hand, her peculiar, spasmodic breathing…
“Up there!” ordered Ottilie. They ran up one of the village’s many long, narrow flights of steps. All of them creaked the same way, had the same handrails, the same smell…
The walls reeked of putrefaction and apples, of dampness and pigs…
When they got to the narrow door, they saw Anna, the dying woman’s sister, emerging from the house.
“Psst!” she hissed, “psst...quiet…”
“Will she die?” asked Rose.
“Yes, she’ll die...in an hour...maybe today, maybe tomorrow…”
“What has she been saying?” inquired Rose.
“She’s been saying she wants to die right here and now...she’d rather not wait even another day.”
The three female figures were absolutely motionless. The fragrance of candles sat on their foreheads, as did the fragrance of flowers, of skin, the stench of sweat, pears, dust…
“What has she been thinking …” asks Rose.
“Thinking? Her? She hasn’t been thinking anything.”
“Is it very painful?”
“Dying,” said Ottilie in a subdued and peculiar tone.
“Dying?” asked Anna. And then she seemed to be pondering the question for a few fractions of a second. And her eyes were spellbound; they were like the eyes of a hunted animal that in the midst of the despair of a winter night suddenly beholds a flicker of light…
The old woman inside was lying as if in state, exactly as though she had already been dead for a few hours. A single candle illuminated her face. Somewhere on the wall Rose caught sight of a shadow…she held a finger up to her lips. Her breast emitted no cry, but merely a long drawn-out, hideous note.
And then they went in. The person lying on the bed with stiff hands, an equally stiff head, and leering eyes, was no corpse. The old woman stirred.
“Who’s there?” she asked. A thousand-fold loneliness cowered in her eyes.
“Who’s there?” a second time, more loudly, peremptorily.
“Yes, Miss Therese.” She said “Miss Therese” because she had never heard her called anything else. She had taught hundreds of people how to read, write, and do sums.
“How is it going, Rose?”
“Enough of the ‘Miss’,” said the excruciated voice. “I am a dying old woman…I won’t live another day. I have already, as everybody will say, ‘passed away.’”
The old woman sat up. She made a hand gesture. Rose drew quite near to her.
“Are you happy?” asked the old woman.
Rose nodded. Whereupon the old woman gently shook her head.
“I am no longer anything but some kind of…” said the dying woman suddenly, “no longer anything but a stone falling into the water…can you see that, Rose?” she said tenderly. “Don’t I hear bells ringing…?”
She breathed as sparingly as she could, but time was melting away beneath her sweaty fingers. Her chest seemed to be paralyzed. The world…Grab hold of it one more time and crush it in your hands…Now, quickly…but everything she clutched at turned to ashes. Her heart was beating right on up to the end, after seventy years.
She had something else to say.
“You must surely want to have a child,” she said and pulled Rose up to the bed.
“It’s the most terrible thing in the world when you haven’t got a child…when you’ve reached the end, the last day of your life, and there’s no child standing and weeping at your deathbed…”
She sank back on to the bedclothes. “Can you even understand me?” she brusquely asked. “I have known you since the first day of your life…the school, do you still remember it?”
“Yes, the class…you were bitterly poor; that was why I adopted you, like a helpless creature…and also because you didn’t have a mother…”
Rose wept without knowing that she was weeping. And then she laughed, and then she wept again.
“You really became my child…” begged the old woman. And Rose nodded.
“One day you will learn that the older a person gets,” she cried, and tore at her shrunken chest, “that the older a person gets, the more beautiful life becomes…at bottom…but I am dying…”
The two other women stepped back. They could hear the clock ticking, voices beneath the windows. A peculiar whispering…
“If you can’t get a child, you mustn’t be unhappy, not you…you are young.” Her voice failed her. Rose propped up her head, shoved the pillow under it.
“Listen,” said the old woman. “Adopt a child, a poor child…but do it completely, do you understand? Then I won’t be worried about you…a woman who hasn’t had a child hasn’t lived…But having a child means having everything.” Her breathing was labored; each time she inhaled the room was filled with a lyrical din, a curious sucking sound. It smelled of medicine, of bodies and roses…
“…always be a good person, and be brave…” She closed her eyes. “Be brave,” she whispered. The three women waited; they waited, but they heard not a single further word from her mouth, which was now merging into her slowly and uncannily expiring face; that mouth that was now submitting to the statutes of this earth, like everything in this world that has a name, a description, a good will, or any meaning whatsoever. Rose kissed the schoolmistress’s forehead. A wondrous world was coming to an end with her, but a new, perhaps even more wondrous world was dawning. The room was swelling with the sound of children’s voices…with the peals of bells…
The three women gazed unblinkingly at one another. They soundlessly took their first steps back into the new world; they listened out, they listened out and listened out into the distance, into some faraway place, but they heard no reply…not today, not tomorrow.
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 475-478. Originally published in Demokratisches Volksblatt, February 21, 1953.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson