A Winter’s Day in the Mountains
From the very first days of my life onwards I felt at home there. Detours drove me to leave, but my hopes and worries kept driving me back: back into the landscape of the sylvan pathways, of precipitously plunging torrents, into the solitude of a montane village. In winter it is the snow which casts an imperishable spell on human beings, which gets the better of everything by which it is elsewhere confined amidst the burgeoning houses of the city, where life is unrelentingly being buried hour after hour and one’s worthiest thoughts are forever being trodden flat by the muck of a bitter existence between walls with whose fissures one has been well acquainted from the beginning.
You are well acquainted with the morning, when the canopy of clouds dissipates and the fog ascends above the frozen pond. You are well acquainted with the tree that stands hunched over outside your window. You are well acquainted with the village. And when you step out up to the centuries-old gate in the shadow of the church tower and take a breath, the world behind you is one that you have never loved. But when you now walk, onward, with a swift, vigorous gait, the way your fathers and grandfathers walked, you are struck by its simplicity. Everything is simple; the whole of life is simple and grand.
You walk to the cemetery, with your collar turned up, your cap pulled down over your ears, and trudge your way between the graves. There lie your brothers and sisters, covered in a meter-thick layer of snow, and the crests of snow on all the crosses are full of gaiety. There is no grieving for the dead here. When a person dies here, he nevertheless remains a part of our little community. They don’t just bury him in some field for the masses; no, they carry him out and pay their regards to him every Sunday when they go to church. For all their poverty, the people in this area—mountain farmers, cottagers, shoemakers and other artisans—believe in the fertility and resurrection of the created world. And when in church they sing along to the playing of the organ, and their warm breath ascends into the icy air, when the altar boys ring their little gilded bells, they all feel: we are not alone in our loneliness.
What pains you about this place is that although by way of this road you are rediscovering your homeland, the people here regard you as a stranger. They can see: he isn’t wearing a coat sewn by our tailor. He isn’t wearing a hat; we wear hats. He has different shoes. He has a different face…and then when you greet them, and they greet you in turn, you stick your hands in your trouser pockets just like them. It is too late. You are no longer one of them. You have become different. Who made you into what you now are? Why have you become like this?
The road passes through the village and leads up to the mountain. Here stand primevally ancient suntanned wooden houses. Within them you see little children pressing their warm noses against the frost-work on the windows. Did you use to do the same thing? And then you wander along the trails left by the sleighs that have preceded you uphill along the same path. You feel like a newborn, as though your life had been completely pointless until now. The stream running alongside the path is steaming and rippling below and is overhung with snow. As a boy you used to take a running jump and leap over it—and back. No, now you can’t do it. Why can’t you do it?
The hay-barn is the same as it was years ago. A long time has passed. Back then it was summer. If you step up quite close to it, you can smell the fragrance that seeps through the fissured joists. You used to spend the night on a haystack, when the night caught you off guard. You used not to care about having a bed. It made no difference to you. You must have been very young.
You can wander around for hours here without running into a human being. People would force themselves upon you during the war. There were too many people who were worried about you, who wanted something from you, who scrutinized you, investigated you, who forced you into their ranks, because you didn’t play along. It was a bitter world chock full of human beings. And that was why you became anxious in their presence. But here there is nobody, although now and then a deer steps into the road, a hundred meters from you, stands still and waits, beautiful, noble, in the divine snowy landscape, and its eyes look at you, if you approach it, as if they had just opened for the very first time.
Now the sky is clear above the mountains. Now you behold the gigantic crag; your gaze wanders over a hill on which larches from which a shower of gold once fell are growing…on the one side the Heukareck casts its mighty shadow over the deep valley through which the highway, which you cannot see, meanders; on the other, the Hochkönig towers into the blue. But that is already enough—not to have to describe anything, but merely see it. Just as the flowers of summer are destined to blossom before your eyes, so is the snowy landscape of the mountains destined to make its appearance.
After putting three hours of snow and ice, splitting trees, planks, and haystacks behind you, you espy a house. The color of its wall is barely distinguishable from that of the snow. Its roof is white; its clothesline stretched between two trees is hung with frozen-solid laundry. In front of it a young woman is sitting on a sleigh. Perhaps she has never left this place. Cocooned in wool, she greets you with a laugh, runs up to you, and goes with you into the house. Before entering, you knock the ice off of your cruel shoes, take another look back at the road that you hail from, but the fog is already cloaking it quite near the firs. A real Christ child might have actually touched down here a few days ago…
“Isn’t that true?” you ask.
The girl nods. They sit in the little front room, in the midst of their poverty. The mother is cutting slices of home-baked bread from a loaf; the father is warming himself at the stove. So you ventured out into the cold, they ask, and the question makes it obvious that they regard this city boy as a weakling. Ventured out? They work themselves breathless, haul wood down from the mountains through the snow on weekdays. A harsh life. They have little, a roof over their heads and butter and milk and a pocket calendar that you present to them; you contemplate them with kindly eyes. They spend their entire existences working up here, in seclusion—their cries are inaudible even at the nearest farm—and they mostly die on the mountainside, under a tree trunk, rarely in bed, except the mother, because she brings her children into the world in solitude.
The walk back is long and the night catches you off guard. By and by you see the stars. They shine above you and beneath the snow. You are freezing. From time to time you are alarmed when a branch snaps, when a bird screeches, but by and by the village lights are coming towards you, and just like in the old days, years ago, you race downhill along the well-trodden path. Although you are hungrier here than you have ever been anywhere else, this night in the mountains, this “being left entirely to your own devices” on the darkly shimmering earth, imparts to you an intimation of endurance and eternity.
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 489-492. Originally published in Demokratisches Volksblatt on January 13, 1954.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson