Years Later

Cover to the German edition <em>Wir fliegen</em>
Cover to the German edition Wir fliegen
A short story by
Peter Stamm

Wechsler had driven for two hours when he saw the looming shape of the mountain on whose slopes the village nestled and from which it took its name. From the distance its mass had always suggested to him the body of some enormous beast that had once come down to the plain, and had gradually been overgrown with grass and forest.
It was more than twenty years since he had left the place where he had grown up, the village where he had married, and worked on his first jobs as an architect. After the marriage with Margrit broke up, Wechsler had moved into the city, and begun a new life. He had met with success and his memories of living in the village faded.
February had been unseasonably mild, but a few days ago there was another snowfall. There was still a little snow in the vineyards that covered a large part of the slope. The regular rows of vines might have been cross-hatching from one of Wechsler’s sketches. The landscape was immediately familiar to him. Only as he drew closer to the village did he see how much had changed in the time he was away. There where corn and sugar-beets had been planted now stood monstrous industrial buildings, painted in all kinds of colors, sprawled self-importantly over the plain. Wechsler remembered his first little restoration jobs in the village. At that time he had spent months arguing with the planning authorities about the color of some shutters. Now it seemed people were free to build just exactly as they pleased out here.
Wechsler parked his car in the market place he had once crossed to go to school. Sometimes he had sneaked off to the butcher’s after class, and watched him at his work. He could still remember the apprehensive eyes of the calves, tethered in the open, waiting for it to be their turn. The butcher’s shop no longer existed, now it was a lingerie store. Round the square, ugly new buildings had been put up, office blocks, a shopping center, even a hotel.
It was almost noon. Wechsler went into a restaurant he remembered from long ago. The inside hadn’t changed. It was paneled in dark wood, and the tables were set, but Wechsler was the only person there. The waitress asked him if he wanted lunch, and sullenly took his order for coffee. She was just bringing it to him when the cook came out. He was wearing a stained apron, and for a moment Wechsler thought it was the landlord of the old Linde, who had let them drink beer in his pub, even though they weren’t yet sixteen. It must be his son, who wasn’t much older than Wechsler. Twenty years ago, he had been a good-looking ladies’ man. Now he was pale and fat, and had the puffy face of a drinker.
The cook stepped up to Wechsler’s table and shook hands with him, as seemed still to be the custom in these parts. Wechsler asked after his father. The cook looked at him suspiciously and said his father had been dead for many years.
Wechsler explained he had used to live here once, and he asked after some of his old friends. The cook gave him what information he could. Some of Wechsler’s friends had moved away, others were dead. A few of the names the cook had never heard before.
“But you do remember Wechsler, the architect? And his wife, Margrit?”
The cook nodded, and made a vague gesture, as if to say it was all a long time ago. His face looked suddenly tired.
“The divorce was a bit of a scandal,” said Wechsler. “To begin with, the wife contested it. Hodel was the lawyer in the case. I’m sure you remember.”
Hodel had since become a notary, said the cook, he ate lunch here every day. Then he excused himself. He was needed in the kitchen. Wechsler called the waitress and said he had had a change of heart, he would have lunch here after all.
At twelve o’clock the bells in the nearby church began to toll, and the restaurant started filling up. Most of the clients came in small groups, and greeted the waitress by name. Wechsler had the feeling that these people, whom he didn’t know, had taken possession of his past. He had moved away, and others had replaced him. The old village existed only in his memory.
Hodel entered the restaurant. He stopped in the doorway and looked around, as though the place belonged to him. Wechsler recognized the lawyer right away, even though he had grown old and bald, and seemed shrunken. Their eyes met, and when Wechsler half got to his feet and smiled and nodded to Hodel, the latter came over to his table.
“Please forgive me,” he said, with a questioning look in his eyes. “I meet so many people ...”
Wechsler introduced himself. Hodel’s face brightened, and he said: “Well, well. A revenant. How are you?”
The men shook hands and sat down. After a glance at the menu, Hodel ordered casually, as befits a regular. The waitress smiled when he asked her to bring a bottle of wine, the barrique, not the house wine.
“Even the wine’s improved,” Hodel observed.
He had kept seeing Wechsler’s name in the paper, he said, people in the village were proud of him. The indoor pool he had built ... The outdoor pool, you mean, Wechsler corrected him. What was it that brought him back to the village, Hodel asked, and nodded when Wechsler said the Cemetery Chapel was being renovated. He had come to have a look at it. He wasn’t yet sure whether to apply for the commission or not. Hodel grinned and said the business with his wife had long since been forgotten and forgiven. Today, divorces were almost part of the bon ton. Suddenly Wechsler wished he had gone to a different restaurant. He didn’t want to be reminded of his early years. Time had passed, he had remarried, had become a father, and was expecting the birth of his first grandchild. He was happy with his life.
“I’ll walk you to the cemetery, if you’ve no objection,” Hodel said over coffee. “The exercise will do me good.”
All through lunch, he had talked only about himself, his work, his wife and two sons, who were living in the city. Wechsler would have liked to be rid of his old friend, but he didn’t want to be impolite. He was tired after the food and the wine, and everything disgusted him. Hodel insisted on paying for lunch. That was the least he could do, he said, after all he had made quite a bit of money off him. Besides, without knowing it, Wechsler had helped him into an amorous adventure.
Did he have any recollection of his first wife?, Hodel asked, as they strolled along the busy street going to the cemetery. Of course I do, said Wechsler. He was going to say something else, but refrained. A young woman with a stroller was coming the other way, and Hodel stepped aside, walking so close behind Wechsler as though he meant to jump on him.
“She will have known why she didn’t want to grant a divorce,” he said. “Tongues were wagging. She was told she was no longer wanted in the church choir. Who could have guessed ...”
Margrit came from a devoutly religious family. Her father had been opposed to her marrying to a man of a different faith, and the divorce was a calamity as far as he was concerned. He threatened his daughter, even though she was innocent, and at that point Wechsler was already living in the city with another woman. Margrit had been a highly emotional woman, sometimes almost wildly so, but she couldn’t shift her father. Wechsler left the conduct of the case to Hodel, and gave him free reign. He had never heard what it was that had changed Margrit’s mind. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know now.
“Rumor travels quickly here,” said Hodel with a brash laugh. “If she’d been found a guilty party in the divorce, that would have brought disagreeable financial consequences with it.”
At that time, he hadn’t been too particular about the way things got done, Hodel said, but that was long ago, and he had no cause to feel shame any more. By now he had become a respected citizen, and was on Du terms with all the people that mattered.
“It might be that one or other person doesn’t greet me on the street, but anyone who doesn’t make enemies in this business must be a complete incompetent.”
They had reached the cemetery now, and had come to a stop in front of the chapel. When it was first built in the 1960s, its progressive style had divided opinion, now it just looked seedy, and the facade was grimy with dirt.
It was colder inside than out. There was a smell of chemical cleaner and candle wax. Wechsler looked around, and took pictures of the interior with his digital camera, even though he was sure already that he wasn’t going to bid for the contract. Hodel didn’t budge from his side. He was silent now, except once to clear his throat.
“Just one after another,” he said when they were outside again. “Do you want to look at the grave?”
Without waiting for a reply, he led the way down the row of graves. He stopped in front of an unobtrusive white marble. Wechsler joined him, and for a while the two men stood silently side by side, hands in their coat pockets, staring at the stone, on which only Margrit’s name and dates had been carved. Hodel sighed deeply.
“This is the worst,” he said. His voice sounded altered, quieter, cracking. “I’m not saying I was a better person when I was younger. But getting old is no fun at all.”
He had turned around, and gestured at a workman who was just in the process of excavating a new grave with a little bulldozer. “You never know it’s not your turn next,” he said. “If only they could at least dig the graves by hand ...”
Wechsler suddenly felt an urge to cry. But in Hodel’s presence he restrained himself. He shook his head and walked on. He sat down on a bench under a group of fir trees at the edge of the cemetery. Hodel had followed him. He stood in front of the bench, and looked over at the cemetery wall, behind which the railway line ran.
“If you fall, she said to me one time, then at least make sure you fall hard,” he said quietly. “There was something going on between her and the cook of the Linde. When he got rid of her, she started drinking. Maybe she was drinking already. After that, she had, let’s say, various relationships. I think she loved you more than you thought.”
He had helped Margrit out a couple of times, said Hodel, not out of pity, he freely admitted. Desperate women were the best lovers. You could do anything you liked with them, they had nothing left to lose. Even when she was already on the bottle, Margrit had still been a good-looking woman. It was only at the very end that you could see the disintegration.
“Why didn’t you call me,” Wechsler called in a sudden fury. “I could have helped her.”
“She said she’d written you a letter,” said Hodel, smiling cautiously. Wechsler raised his hands and let them fall against his thighs. He had always worked so hard, he said, he hardly had any time for his children, or his second wife.
“The usual stories,” said Hodel. A train passed the other side of the wall, and he stopped until the noise went away. Then he said he had paid for the stone. In the village people were still scratching their heads about where the money had come from, but the mason was discreet. He was another of Margrit’s admirers, incidentally.
“We’ve gotten so ugly,” said Hodel, shaking his head. He said he had to go now. Wechsler should let him know ahead of time when he would be back. He held out his hand to Wechsler without looking at him, and left.
The snow wouldn’t lie for long, thought Wechsler. The air was cold, but the sun had some force. He sat on the bench a while longer, then he got up. He stopped in front of Margrit’s grave. He thought of the girl she had been when he first met her, her happiness, her lightness, and how he and Hodel and others had wrecked her life. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t. He squatted down, and plucked a few dry leaves off the plants that were growing on the grave. Then he stood up and walked out of the cemetery without looking back.
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Excerpted from WE’RE FLYING.
Copyright © 2008 Peter Stamm
Translation Copyright © 2010 Michael Hofmann
To be published by Other Press LLC