He bathed in gray. Gray was the sky of the slowly weakening winter, gray the concrete of the outer parts of the town’s heart, gray the stones sealing the ground to prevent any of the stressed mood of the passing people to sicker away into the earth and infest it with this poison. But soon this color of imperfection, of undefinedness, of tiredness will have been gone, as the sun was setting behind the hills forming a natural pot in which all this people are caught for day’s work. There was still some time before darkness rises, and with it cold creeping fog like a slow, steady cataclysm drowning the people with unrestful sleep.
He was also close to drowning. A day was dying without having given birth to something that will be remembered, and as he would have already a plan to change it, Michael’s steps charged fast through the colorless streets in this late afternoon of February. There was nothing of importance where he was escaping from; there is nothing of importance where he was going to be. But being on the way was a loss of time, which at least has the possibility of being of importance.
Michael passed a street which he must have passed too often before; it felt like home, being in a certain way so familiar that he didn’t even have to open his eyes to walk through it, to know that he is currently next to a kebab take-away, a pharmacy or one of a thousand closed clothing stores. Sleet was falling from the sky like snow flakes which can’t wait to join a united death on the ground with their uncountable comrades. Here and there were other people sharing the street with him. The silent slow woman with her veil, who was surrounded by a cloud of loneliness hiding her from whoever could be in this street with her. The old man in his brown jacket and his white hair, staring angry at the woman as she would ever give in to noticing his anger. The hipster student, with beard, knitwear-cap and gigantic scarf, talking to someone in the button in his hear. His voice was the only sound impregnating the air except the dark swish of the sea of cars flooding through the highway near the town. Michael was passing them and opening his umbrella. The sleet was spoiling his coat.
By the time the streetlights went on, he has reached the tracks of the tram next to the medieval well and town hall. The shops were closing, putting shields and goods inside, just like the people are getting off the street and inside their homes, or getting inside the tram and hoping that it will bring them home this day. Nobody was meeting at the well this evening. In summer, this was the favorite place of many people to start nights of excess, of celebrating life just in case it could end soon. But summer was over for a long time. This was winter.
Michael did not intend to meet someone here. Actually he did not intend to meet anyone right now, he didn’t even know whom to meet. Instead, he was heading to the bridge, back to his little quiet place of rest from this fast paced days where he can return every evening and every weekend and calm his thirst, even if this water runs down his throat much too fast. Maybe there his day would turn into something of worth, by being maybe not a day to remember, but a day to enjoy.
The bridge over the river is almost as old as the rest of the town, and breathes history with every of this stones, although many parts of it has been rebuilt after it was destroyed by the forces of nature and men as well. Tall statues are guarding the stony way over it, almost as intimidating as the fort on the other side, watching whoever dares to cross it. Only very few lights are illuminating the passage and the dark water giggling when hitting the stones that protect the bridge and the mill adjacent to it from its forces, and the early sunset has reduced the natural light to a silent glim.
It was the horn of a truck, somewhere near the horizon, reflected by the hills, which should change the flow this day. He was looking out where the sound came from, as if it would have in any way an effect on him, or he on it. He didn’t know why exactly he was looking there, but he knew what he actually saw: a small, used-looking yellow booklet on one of the stone benches next to the statues on the bridge. At first he ignored it, walked on in the direction of his home, but then he realized that this book seemed to belong to nobody. Michael turned around, waiting for somebody to pick it up. It couldn’t have been thrown away, it was lying there as if somebody just read in it, put it next to himself to get a coffee and return. But the bridge was completely empty, he couldn’t see anyone. Michael decided to wait for a few minutes. He was too curious about this book.
But soon the cold breeze and the sleet would make him decide that this book was left back. Michael couldn’t do the same with his curiosity, so he grabbed the wet booklet in a rush, as if he would steal it, and left the bridge. After turning behind a corner, he started looking at it more closely. „Die Leiden des jungen Werthers“, a classic novel by Goethe, in a cheap edition, like it is bought by High School students. This one didn’t belong to one, it was read much too often, as he could see from the worn out paper. More interestingly, somebody crossed the name and wrote: „Lotte“. Michael was dazzled, so he searched a street lamp, and after he walked a few meters, he opened the booklet and started skimming the text. The first few pages were filled with marked sentences and little notations everywhere, in a very tidy, miniature writing. He didn’t remember much from his German classes, but one or two words reminded him to this time he regarded as the one of the most wasted of his life. He would have almost decided to throw the book away, thinking that it was the leftover of a kiss-ass student, to motivated to enjoy youth, if the notes on the paper would have not suddenly stopped in the second part of the book, being replaced by the same fat writing as on the outside, saying „Nichts ist feige daran, an Fieber zu sterben“ – nothing is cowardly about dying from a fever.
He started to look through the following pages. They seemed to contain nothing than the actual text, but then, in a little corner, there was the small writing again, this time extensively marked, somebody left there even a dog-ear. It took him some time to decipher it.
„Vermesse dich, die Pforten aufzureißen,
Vor denen jeder gern vorüberschleicht!
Hier ist es Zeit, durch Taten zu beweisen,
Das Manneswürde nicht der Götterhöhe weicht“
Right next to it, bigger letters said: „Der letzte Trunk sei nun, mit ganzer Seele, // Als festlich hoher Gruß, dem Abend zugebracht!// Hoch oben will ich stehen,// und mit der Sonne untergehen“ – The last toast shall be given with the whole soul to the evening as a salute! I want to stand high, and vanish with the sun“. The first text was a riddle to Michael, it seemed to refer to something. But the second one made him shudder. He thought if he should just ignore this scribble by an overdramatic teenager and throw the book away. On the other hand, it came just to his mind that the only place to stand high and see the evening sun is the fort over the city, which is just illuminated in bloody red from the sun breaking through the clouds and the weakening sleet. Maybe, he thought, it is worth to pass by there, even if it just proves the absurdness of this notes. After all, this little booklet was the most unexpected thing happening to him for months.
The way up led first through small streets of a residential areas, with many houses colored in a dirty gray-white, with tiny, boring gardens of brown grass, sometimes decorated with that annoying small wooden signs saying „Welcome!“. After some time, a small staircase through a forest served to escape that corner of the city and to climb through the first levels of the battlements. He passed small bastions, where once thousands of rebelling peasants where slaughtered and turned into fertilizer for the princely vineyards, until he reached the gate which opens into the court of the outer part of the fort. Although the way up was tiring, he felt in a certain way excited. He had almost forgotten how useless the day once felt, as now he was fulfilled with the sudden idea to be on the trace of something. However, when he arrived, he realized that he did not really think about what he would do up here, so he just started to stroll around without a clear destination. The court was open to one side, which is connected with a bridge over a moat towards the inner part of the fort, whereas the three other sides were large buildings once used by the servants, and still nowadays for the participants of conferences of different companies. In one corner was a former horse stable. He needed a second to realize that somebody has written on its white wall with violet chalk: „The last freedom is to jump in Lethe’s cool floods“. Michael could clearly spot from the language that this writing was by the same person; at least, it would be new to him that graffiti sprayers started to make references to Greek mythology. He thought what could be meant with the sentence. There is no water up here on the hill, however, there was the river he just crossed some time ago. There is no place from where one could jump into it, and it would maybe not be very pleasant anyway. But he did remember that at one side of the fort, there is a small broken battlement which forms almost a cliff down to the river, so steep that only one street separates the river from the rock on which the battlement is resting.
He had to enter the main court, but the door inside the gate was already closed at this time. Michael would have decided to end this game, if he wouldn’t have seen a violet pentagram on the door which is for the workers at the fort. He looked carefully around, hoped that nobody would see him and slowly pushed the handle. It did not surprise him that door did open, and behind it was a small dirty aisle, full of construction site dust, and some doors leading to rooms he couldn’t imagine. He walked fast through it, and after a few meters there was a door into the courtyard. Michael sneaked out of the prohibited entry and searched for the opening to the battlements. He enjoyed for a second the view on the city, on the fog being born from the river covering the old bridge, the sea of roofs in the heart of the city, only being broken by the cathedral, the vineyards on the hills around the city and the sinking red disc of the sun behind them. He walked along on the battlement, which was surrounding the palace. After some time, it would split up into two parts, of which one lead back to the fort and the other continued along the hill. The way on top of the latter one was broken. Micheal went down some stairs to find another way up, and after some time walking through grass and bushes, he could spot one, but it was separated from him by a fence. He walked the fence up and down, hoping to see a hole in it, but after some time he became desperate. He started asking himself why he even had the stupid idea to waste his evening walking up here, so that he had to walk all the way down now in the cold darkness. He stepped away angrily, searching for a footpath back to the foot of the hill. He pulled out the book in the intention to throw it into the moat, when he suddenly saw violet pieces of chalk placed like an arrow. He followed the direction of the arrow closely until he reached the fence again. First he couldn’t spot what was meant, but when he bent down, he saw a small hole in the fence on the ground, maybe made by a fox. The size of the hole did not really encourage him, but he felt like he went too far to let himself stop by this. He crawled through it, beat the dust and mud from his clothes and climbed up the stairs, following the already quite broken way on top of the wall. He looked down to the left, where it was going more and more steep down towards the river. Right of him was a little forest. After a short time, he reached a bastion. At its tip towards the river, he saw a small woman sitting on the breastwork, with an apparently empty bottle of wine right next to her.
The birds were singing the last song of the day while the sun was almost covered behind one of the hills of the horizon, and the cold breeze of the evening illuminated the lights of the streets and the little houses, where people were enjoying the freedom from loneliness, the cage of family. Michael had no idea what he should do. He was searching but not prepared to find. He felt like he has to do something, but rather, he was looking at the faceless, bent bag. It was covered by long, uncombed black hair, under which a slim, short and tender body was covered by a black-white striped pullover and a light blue jeans. An aura of illness was surrounding this person.
Michael, finally, found a word to say: „Have you lost a book on the bridge?“
The girl was cringing, moving the head slightly but not looking at him.
„I am sorry to disturb but I thought to read from the notes inside that the owner would be up here. The chalk signs directed me to this place.“
Again no answer. Michael felt incredibly stupid, and he was not sure if it was because he thought he was disturbing a stranger who had no connection to the book or because he was talking like a coward to a person who was clearly in the highest emotional distress. Just as Michael was daring one last step forward, the girl spoke with a trembling, tear soaked voice: „What do you want from me?“
„I want to give you back your book, and if you are okay with it, I would like to know why you were writing these things and laying these traces“
„You can have the book. Take it, go away, leave me alone!“, she shouted harshly.
„You don’t want me to leave. You left the book behind, the chalk signs and all, because you wanted to be found.“
„What do you want? Congratulations for having found me? You will leave anyway, you won’t care, just like everyone else“, she said harshly while clawing her fingers into the limestone of the breastwork.
Michael took a little step forward. „I won’t leave, not after all the chance and all the search I had to find you. I want to hear the story.“
„Which story? The story of the book? You can read? Yes? Then read it and leave finally.“
„No. Your story. This book means a lot to you, it inspired you. I think you saw yourself in it, maybe a bit too much. But I want you to tell me your very own story“, said Michael in the most encouraging voice he could get over his lips
„How does it matter. There is not much to tell about it. It starts worth- and useless, and goes on like that. It is like a candle in a dark forest far away from any village. Nobody saw it burning, so nobody will care if it goes out.“
„I saw it burning. I found your book, I read your notes, I came all the way up. You changed my day by just leaving back a piece of paper, imagine what else you can do.“
„Don’t you think I tried“, she whispered slowly. „But I have no power anymore. Not even for myself.“
„The thing with trying is that one never knows when one will succeed. But most of the times, you will succeed in the end, as you grow stronger each time. Whatever you want to change, if you try, you will achieve it. You can make a difference in your life, and other’s. Take me being here as the proof.“
Both were silent for some time. The sound of a helicopter on its way to the hospital was exciting the air from far away. Michael was for a short moment distracted by looking out for the helicopter, when the girl was turning her head just so far that she could take a short look at him. Her big beechleaf-green eyes were swollen from tears, the face reddish and slim, a tear was hanging at her pointy nose. Then she was looking down the wall.
„Why should I even listen to you“, she muttered. „You are just another gray man, another interchangeable human like all the others down there. What do you know about anything, and especially, about me? You don’t know how I live, feel, suffer. You talk to me because you feel like you have to, with the words you think you have to say, because at some point somebody taught you so or you saw it somewhere. But nothing of it means anything to you, nor do I.“
For a short moment, she was lifting her body, just to sit down again.
Michael started to get desperate. She was not wrong with all of what she said, even if he wished it different. How should he convince her? He was not prepared for this situation, he saw it a thousand times in movies, but he was never confronted with the reality, not to mention the need of doing anything else than watching. Of course he could call for help, but he was sure this would just turn her more angry, and by this, more determined to do something stupid. He also thought for a short moment about just grabbing her and tearing her down the breastwork, but it would have been just too much of a risk. The more he thought, the more he got angry about his incapability of doing anything. If it wouldn’t have been for her hesitation… And yet all he did here is standing around and spreading pseudo-clever wisdom-tweets. He knew how to calculate the yearly tax a company has to pay but not how make somebody want to live, to see the sun rise again. He felt like shouting down towards the city shining in the night: „Look up you cowards‘! Look up here, somebody needs your help, and you send me, me, the most useless person of them all! What can I tell about how precious life is? What can I tell about anything? “. The worst of all was, it was not just that he couldn’t convince her, she was actually starting to convince him. Wasn’t he also feeling more than once like being a small light in a wide, lonely darkness, seen by nobody? Did he matter?
Before Michael could control his tongue, he started to the release the pressure on him.
„Fuck it! Is that really what you want? Just to give up? Just to end everything because it is too hard for you? You want to be happy, always happy, but life is sad and hard and cruel? Yes, it is, everyday. It will be never different, I won’t lie to you. It is short, hard and there is not much hope it changes. But it is the only one you have, the only chance for you to experience every facet of it. You would see wonders and horrors, around you and in you. Or you can choose to hide from that and live in eternal gray boringness. But no, you don’t want to share the fate of humans, you want to run away, and think you are right with that, you think you are the victim. But you are not. You have a choice. Or wait… maybe that is what is making it that tempting for you? You think you free yourself with a courageous last sacrifice right? Cutting all chains, flying away, being free from the burdens which are replenishing each day. I see what you are thinking.“
The girl was staring at him, obviously quite confused. Michael was watching himself speaking, while he was walking with powerful steps directly next to her at the wall, putting the booklet out of his pocket. He was now talking directly into her face, looking into her wet eyes.
„You expect me to tell you stories how wonderful life is, how valuable, how unique. I won’t. It is not true. Life has no meaning, no value, and there are billions of it, all different and yet the same. We have to decide for or against it, and nobody can do this for us, or tell us if we are right or not. We decide, alone, at each place, at each moment.“
He threw the booklet in a long curving arc away. It fell on the street right next to the river and was driven over by a small car. Michael climbed up the breastwork and took a deep breath. The tips of his feet were pointing out in the air. Only a few centimeters separated his fate from the fate of the book. Just when he was looking out in the newborn night, the cathedral in the city was illuminated, and so was the castle. The girl started to shine in a warm light.
„We have to decide right now too. It’s up to us if we want to join the mud on the street, or fight on. It’s up to us if we are leaving more traces. We choose the end of our story.“
The girl grabbed his arm.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Niklas Götz.
Published on e-Stories.org on 03/04/2021.