The Red Light
Even nowadays there are still spooky stories every once in a while; from the outset this assertion will occasion the crinkling of many a nose, because such things no longer occur in our age, or at most they occur in some distant corner of the world, say, Eastern Friesland, where certain people have second sight, and where one hears of somber interments in advance. But this here story, which unfolded in this country of ours, is true, bitterly true, and there are plenty of people still living who can bear witness to the following events.
It all happened 34 years ago, in the last month of the winter of 1916. February had brought in a great deal of fresh snow, in those heaping amounts that are so heartily dreaded in the mountains.
In Mitterberg, beneath the white limestone cliffs of the Mandelwände, sits the Arthurhaus, an inviting inn of the sort common in the mountains. Here along with her husband resided a doughty, capable landlady, Mrs. Radacherin. She kept both her feet firmly planted in reality; she had never been one of those brooding types who busy themselves with subtle ideas.
In any case, during this wartime winter she never would have had the time for such things, for every pair of hands had plenty to do then. Directly across from her, in the Swiss cottage, a mere stone’s throw from the Arthurhaus, from which it was separated only by the intervening fosse, a company of ski infantrymen in training had recently been billeted. But the commanding officer of the company, a first lieutenant, had taken lodgings at Mrs. Radacherin’s inn along with his subordinate officers, as the woman could hardly complain of a lack of tasks to be done.
Each day with the help of their ski-teacher the soldiers practiced their runs on the training ground, on the pasture that steeply sloped down from the Mandelwände towards the stonework Swiss cottage. The ski teacher was an experienced man; he knew his way around the mountains, and he was also much better versed in meteorology than the commanding officer, who was a city person. The mountain-dweller had not cared at all for the weather of recent days. He found the abundance of fresh wet snow almost spooky.
On the morning in question, that of February 18, Mrs. Radacherin was extremely busy in the kitchen. When in the course of her work she briefly stepped out in front of the house and looked over at the Mandelwände, she could hardly believe her eyes. There on the Mandelwände she noticed a red light, whose peculiar luster shone across the white snow, magically and eerily. She rubbed her eyes. Was she dreaming in broad daylight? Was she hallucinating? No, everything she was beholding was distinct and tangible. The pasture was glowing a deep red like that of the eternal lamp in church. Now Mrs. Radacherin fled terrified back into the house.
She hastily told her husband about what she had seen. He burst out laughing. Then the two of them peered through the window, but the red light had gone out. And yet the woman could not manage to calm down. Was some great danger not impending—perhaps an avalanche on account of all the fresh snow?
She returned to her work in the kitchen and tried to think of other things. But she could not shake her mind free of it. Her midday meal did not taste right to her, and she found it unusually hard to wash the dishes afterwards.
Time and again she gazed across the fosse at the Swiss cottage, and at the pasture beyond it. Then, all of a sudden—the light was there again! It spread across the snow, causing it glow blood red.
She screamed. Her husband hastened to her side, but by then the light was no longer to be seen.
That evening the ski-teacher was sitting with the officers in the Arthurhaus’s barroom. He briefed them on the condition of the snow and on other matters of concern. In the light of the weather situation he strongly advised them against going to the pasture the next morning.
The commanding officer demurred. “Duty is duty,” he said. “Our comrades are facing the enemy himself, so we obviously must take a little bad weather in our stride.”
“But in this case there is a chance of an avalanche, lieutenant,” retorted the ski-teacher: “your entire company is in danger.”
At this moment Mrs. Radacherin entered the room. She had heard the words just spoken by the ski-teacher, and she could no longer contain herself. She felt compelled to tell the gentlemen what she had seen; she felt compelled to urge them to vacate the Swiss cottage. She plucked up her courage and implored them to listen to her and not to laugh at her.
They all gazed at her in astonishment. Then she gave them an account of her experience, warned them, implored them, complained to them.
The first lieutenant smiled to himself. After the woman had left, the men gazed at him in anxious anticipation. Everybody noticed that he was struggling to reach a decision. But he was soon at peace with himself. Only a few minutes earlier, just after the ski-teacher had finished speaking, he had been on the point of finally yielding to the “reasonable arguments” the latter had adduced. But when the old woman had come in afterwards with her strange story, his honor as an officer had bridled against crediting such ramblings. Now there could be no question of his yielding under any circumstances!
“Old wives’ tales!” he said dismissively. “Tomorrow morning the company will report for duty and exercises in the pasture as usual!” With these words he stood up and left the room…
The morning of February 19 dawned. The company was roused from bed as usual; the day’s schedule followed; the hours of duty were announced. The ski-teacher did not show up; a substitute took over for him in leading the athletic exercises. The first lieutenant was also absent.
After breakfast the entire company marched out. Only those who were ill or had indoor chores to attend to remained behind. The company moved into the training pasture.
And then something horrible happened. The avalanche came, and nobody escaped the implacable force of nature. The colossal masses of snow buried the entire company beneath them and also blanketed the Swiss cottage. Only upon reaching the deep fissure that was the fosse did the devastating convulsion come to a standstill. The Arthurhaus remained intact.
The recovery work began. Here and there a person was rescued unharmed or pulled out in badly injured condition. But of what significance was this compared with the mighty harvest death had reaped? No fewer than 58 men must have lost their lives. Their bones rest in the cemetery in Bischofshofen.
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 457-460. Originally published on September 8, 1950 in the Salzburger Volksblatt, under the name Thomas Fabian (“Fabian” being a variant of Bernhard’s stepfather’s surname, Fabjan).
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson