Friday, December 23, 2016

A Translation of "Von sieben Tannen und vom Schnee...Eine märchenhafte Weihnachtsgeschichte," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

Of Seven Fir Trees and the Snow…
A Christmas Fairy Tale
Every year on Christmas Eve I would walk the long walk over to St. Brigitten in order to fetch the nativity candles for our Christmas table from a white-haired, kind-hearted woman.  “This one is for protection against fire, this one is for protection against need, and this one is for eternal life,” the old woman would say before wrapping all three up in a linen rag and sticking them in my little bag, which I carried on my back.  Then she would give me a few sugar-sprinkled crescent moons and stars, smile, and shut and lock her front door, while I trudged back home through the deep snow...
It had been exactly seven years since the world had inherited me.
A good hour separated me from Henndorf, which lay in a broad valley extending all the way to the lake, and in which it sometimes got so cold that even the frostwork in the windows would freeze.  Not long after the sun had vanished behind the hills, the moon was already wandering above the dark spruces.  Every now and then a light from a room in somebody’s house would emerge from the plain of fog, or I would hear a crow cawing from the edge of the frozen-over pond.  The crystalline snow crackled under my firm footfalls, and my breath turned to steam in the moonlight.  I swelled my chest and counted the stars that were lighting up in the sky, but in the end there were so many that I no longer knew where I had started counting and where I had left off.  At the horizon a white expanse of infinite extent mirrored a million terrestrial suns that combined to form a single light that irradiated the entire world.
At that moment I may very well have been thinking about heaven and about all the people who didn’t believe in it.  At that moment I may have been very happy and content and hearkening to thousands of things that were within me and all around me: the deep night!
And when I looked up at the treetops and still farther and farther upwards, I also realized that eternal life, the same eternal life that the old woman had told me about, was the most exalted of all emotions in the eyes of Being…
I stopped in front of the little chapel with the painting of the Madonna.  And because I always paid her a visit when I was passing by, I beat the snow off of my shoes and stationed myself beneath the deep blue vaulted ceiling.  I clasped my hands, but I did not pray, for when happiness and revelation are so close by, one simply has faith and submits.  Three saints were standing behind the iron grate: the first in a gold cloak, the second in a yellow one, and the third in a brown one.  All three were made of centuries-old ash wood.  Their partly merry and partly serious faces had been blanched by the sun.  But the longer I contemplated them the larger they became.  Their hands began to move; their eyes lit up, and after that it even seemed as though they were speaking with one another.  Perhaps the grate sprang open as well?  But a choir of hundreds of angels was singing…for a long time I followed them as they walked, followed them through the icy winter, ever deeper into the silence of the night.
The three saints led me to the edge of the forest, where the newly fallen snow lay so deep that only the very tops of the young firs were visible above it, and where everything was so calm that nothing but our footfalls could be heard as we pressed those large, dark holes into the white sheet we were traversing.  From time to time one of the sagging boughs would tremble, or some snow would fall from some of the branches, as though a deer had just stepped into the clearing.  Here and there a star seemed to crackle.  The Great Bear shed thousands of scales of dandruff on to our heads…
“Come,” said one of the saints, “we are going to the seven firs that symbolize the world.”
“The world?” I asked.
“Yes, the entire world…” affirmed the shortest of them, whom I knew to be named Anthony; and the third one was already far ahead of the rest of us.
My footfalls grew lighter and lighter, and eventually I was soaring above the entire forest just like the moon.
“This way!” said Andreas, who had a wondrously beautiful face and deeply luminous eyes.  I was astonished that he was unaffected by the cold, for on his feet he was still wearing nothing but a pair of thin-soled sandals.  But his beard alone seemed to keep him quite warm enough…
In the midst of the snow, not far from a short hill, stood seven fir trees.  The first was the tallest, the seventh the very shortest of all.  They could scarcely remain standing for all the snow that was weighing down their tops.
“There they are…,” said one of the three, “all seven of them.  They live very retired lives, Beauty, Truth, Purity, Reason, Faith, Hope, and…”
“…and Love,” said the shortest one, to whom the moon was doing a terrible injustice in attesting to his baldness.
“Love fares the worst of all of them; it just can’t catch up with the rest,” all three of them said pensively while shaking their heads.  Then there was complete silence.
“Why can’t it catch up?” I asked after a while.
“Well,” they reflected, “because…because it’s so sickly…”
“It should be nurtured by somebody.  After all, there are people who know how to tend to it.”
“Nobody takes the trouble to administer to its needs.  None of them has any time…”
“Any time?”
“Ah,” I said, “then perhaps it will waste away…”
I shook the tree so roughly from all sides that all the snow on its frail boughs fell off—and then I actually felt as though it was taking in deep breaths of air.
Truth leaned forward.  But Hope, which was almost as short as Love, was at that moment illuminated by the moon in such a way that one might have thought that it was made of pure gold.
Everything was wondrously beautiful beyond all measure.
But the three saints just stood there, and were at a loss for any advice.  All four of us were now sinking ever deeper into the snow, and every now and then the oldest saint would pluck down one of the stars, which somehow hadn’t gotten any smaller, and warm his hands with it.  And at length I cried out with downright ardent zeal: “Then I will nurture it!  I will…”
A heavy hand had fallen on my shoulder.  My father was standing behind me.
“What have you been up to all this time?” he asked, and his breath was warm and ascended like down into the night air.  I meditatively walked down the narrow pathway with him.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“And what is this thing you intend to nurture?”
“Love, father…Hope and Love…,” I whispered, and of all the people in the world I was the happiest.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 466-469.  Originally published in Demokratisches Volksblatt [Salzburg], December 24, 1952.

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