Englische Übersetzung (Auszug)
Sample translation from Jenseitsnovelle [Next World Novella] by Matthias Politycki
Translation: Anthea Bell
Opening pages 7– 31 of German edition
If only there hadn’t been that smell! As if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers, as if their stems had begun to rot overnight, adding a sweet-sour aroma of decay to the air. Schepp caught it at once, that subtle sense of something Other waiting for him in the middle of ordinary life, slightly skewing the morning itself. From the opposite end of his room, to be sure, autumn sunlight still came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow – the chaise longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour. Later, they’d have to open a window to let all that light out again. Schepp stood there, squinting at his world gently flowing around him, a world made of stucco moulding and decorative wallpaper, book-lined walls, chairs with silk covers. As he checked the way his hair lay over his bald patch, feeling it from the back of his head, he was able to assure himself that he was a happy man.
Not least because of Doro, whose pinned-up hair, mingled black and silver, he could see above the back of the chair at the desk, and from one side he also saw part of the kimono she liked to wear when she sat in that chair, proof-reading what he had written the day before. Now that the children left home, she had finally felt like trying to pick up her own career again, and he had been glad of that. Not only did he go to bed late at night, he also got up late in the morning, so if Doro had fallen asleep over her proof-reading, wedged at an awkward angle between the desk and the chair as she was today, he often just shook his head, because he couldn’t have put all that he felt into words.
But oddly enough, regularly as he used to find her here earlier, he had written almost nothing since his operation, so was there anything to be proof-read? I’m still dreaming, he told himself as he moved quietly over the fishbone pattern of the wooden parquet flooring towards the sun and the desk, the big vase with the decaying gladioli in it standing on the floor, and Doro.
Before dropping a kiss on her neck he had stolen up quietly, like a man newly in love, while a few of the little wooden boards in the parquet creaked slightly, and a fly was buzzing somewhere, but even that sounded familiar and homely, before he bent down to Doro, to the little mole at the base of her throat that he knew so well – any moment now she would wake with a start and look at him askance, half indignant, half affectionate – and for the fraction of a second he registered a stack of paper on the desk, her reading glasses, a packet of aspirins, a water glass that had been knocked over and a dark mark on the leather surface set into the desktop, with her fountain pen beside it. Once again she had forgotten to put the cap on it. He was about to pick it up when he remembered, and no, he wasn’t dreaming any more, remembered the new barmaid who had given him such a long, intent smile as he left. Schepp was standing directly behind the chair where Doro sat so still, only the wing of the chair-back kept her from tipping over sideways, and he smiled at this thought for a few seconds. Well, Hinrich, he told himself, grinning towards the place where he thought he detected a last reflection of the night before, you may be sixty-five but the ladies still look at you. Then he bent down to Doro. Once again the smell hit him, an entirely strange smell now, a sweetish aroma mingled with the smell of sweat and urine and – he shrank back, his mouth wide open.
Swallowed, gasped for air.
How he had made his way around the desk he didn’t know. He clung to it with both hands, hardly venturing to raise his head. Doro? She sat there before him, her features relaxed, entirely at peace, her skin grey. The left-hand corner of her mouth drooped, with a thread of saliva emerging. It had dried where it ended on her chin. Her lips were slightly open, her tongue lolled rather clumsily in the corners of her mouth, looking swollen. But worst of all were her eyes, almost but not entirely closed, so that you could see the whites of them and the beginning of the irises, as if she had pulled down her lower lids at the last moment.
I don’t understand, thought Schepp, understanding.
It’s not true, Schepp decided.
Everything will be all right again, Schepp assured himself, and at the same time was overcome by a certainty that he was choking.
“Do at least say something,” he finally whispered. “Just one word.”
He wanted so much to take Doro in his arms, hug her until she was gasping for air and stopped playing this game. But there was nothing he could do now, he saw that, he felt it, he knew it. He couldn’t even pluck up the courage to whimper softly, he stayed there motionless and kept his breathing as shallow as possible.
At least it hadn’t been the rotting stems of flowers that he had smelt when he came into the room, he realized that. Propping himself on his arms, Schepp looked into what could still be seen of Doro’s eyes. He dared not close her lids. How long, he wondered, had she been sitting here dead, waiting for him? He tried to take her pulse, he had to start again several times, because he feared the chilly sensation of her wrist so much that he flinched away as soon as he touched it; he was sure, in any case, that there was nothing to be felt now. Should he call a doctor all the same? Ought he to call a doctor?
His glance wandered away over the parquet flooring and into the great void, he saw himself standing beside his mother’s deathbed, motionless because he could not bring himself to touch her in farewell, he saw himself finally placing his hand on her forehead without a word – and that immediately brought him back to the oak-hard presence of the desk on which one of his manuscripts did indeed seem to be lying. Obviously Doro had been proof-reading it and, as usual, writing a few remarks on the pages, summing up her impressions; the top sheet of the stack of paper was three-quarters covered with her firm handwriting. Or rather, only the first lines showed that familiar script clearly, then the characters visibly slipped sideways. Schepp bent down closer to the page; the letters were very untidy, Doro would never have set them down on paper like that, not in full possession of her senses. Soon whole words were sliding away from her, here and there the paper had absorbed water from the glass she had knocked over, and the ink had run. Schepp almost reached out to pick up the manuscript and put it somewhere dry. And only then to embrace Doro, warm her, perhaps put her to bed and sit beside her until she woke up again. But the sight of her kept him at a distance, the sight of her face frozen into a mask, alarmingly peaceful and already alarmingly unfamiliar, smooth and with almost no wrinkles, surprisingly like the face of her sister who wasn’t fifty yet, how strange. To think, reflected Schepp, trying to hide in the shelter of his hands, to think that you grow younger in death. Then his throat constricted as a great weight of misery came over him.
When he could next move again, the clock in the Church of the Good Shepherd was striking eleven. He hesitantly touched Doro’s right hand, and once more shrank from the cold skin and its waxen feel, like a layer of varnish over it. Finally he took her left arm, which had slipped off the top of the desk, holding the sleeve of her kimono and carefully putting the arm back where he thought it belonged, beside the manuscript. Her hand was swollen and purplish red, her forearm a shade of violet. Schepp stared at the pale pressure marks that, despite his caution, he had left on Doro’s arm, and the longer he looked the more blood already seemed to be flowing back there. Gently, the room full of silence closed around her again. With awe, Schepp breathed in the smell of death.
Finally he turned his eyes back to the stack of paper that Doro had left behind for him. Yes – it was like a sudden revelation – that was what he must do now before anything else. He had to read those pages, to find out what her last message to him was. How relieved he suddenly felt! As if there were some kind of hope to be drawn from that. It never entered his head that, in view of the fact that he was looking at a dead woman with whom he had spent half his lifetime, there might be other things he should do.
At first it looked as if his shaking hands were holding a long, unusually long set of comments. Beneath the top sheet, where the lines of handwriting soon became crooked and agitated until finally all the writing was in the middle of the page, there were many other sheets of paper, meticulously filled with Doro’s familiar handwriting. Under those there was a typewritten manuscript, the first page at the bottom and untitled; only after leafing forward and back for a while did he realize that this was a fragment he had thrown out long ago, anything but a serious work. How had Doro found it, even thought it worth proof-reading, as she had obviously been doing for days – this, old, forgotten text of his? He hadn’t concealed it or destroyed it, he had just forgotten when he last had it in his hands. The longer he thought of it, the more certain he felt that Doro had been looking for something, something else. Schepp fell into all kinds of speculations, he hardly noticed the sheets of paper slipping out of his grasp and falling on the patterned wood of the parquet floor. The throbbing in his throat, however, grew worse and worse, and there was a rushing in his ears that was beginning to make him dizzy.
Once he had opened the window he felt better. He tried not to shrink from the cold presence of Doro waiting for him on the other side of the desk, smelling in a way that would certainly have embarrassed her very much when she was alive. When you’re dead, she had once whispered into his ear before going to sleep, you can’t smell anyone else any more, isn’t that sad? Schepp felt ashamed on her behalf, and whispered to her in an undertone that there was no need for her to feel ashamed, he loved her all the same, perhaps he loved her even more now for her inviolability and the stillness that she radiated, had radiated even in life, had he ever told her that?
Then he put the top back on her fountain pen, stood the empty glass up, picked up the scattered sheets of paper from the floor and stopped again , staring at the last page of Doro’s comments. They ran:
... turns to the opposite, above the gentle breeze, below the lake, a cheerful sight now: “Crossing that great expanse of water will be good.” But not with you, Schepp, you must understand, not with you. For all I care, and I say so now, you can go to hell! Along with
Hanni and Nanni and Lina and Tina and
whatever the rest of them are called, I’m sorry, my head
back when I
Had Doro really written that? The spaces between the words became larger and larger, the rest was illegible, or no, at the bottom of the page on the right-hand side there was a little more in a shaky, entirely unfamiliar hand. It took Schepp some time to decipher it.
and now this too
well we can
talk about it
Doro’s last words – they blurred before his eyes! And the pattern of the parquet floor extended to the bookshelves all around, which held Schepp’s own publications and special impressions as well standard works and volumes of commentaries, and on which all the little things he had brought back from lecture tours and guest professorships were arranged, together with photographs of the children, Pia radiant just before her wedding, Louisa looking sulky because he never had time in the evening for anyone but his “silly old Chinese people” – it was all there, but it had moved so far from him that he saw none of it any more, he felt that he had been left alone and desperate. He had only the sheets of paper that Doro had written for him.
But written in what kind of confusion, and by which Doro? Obviously she hadn’t been entirely in her right mind; he’d never known her to sound so out of control, so wild, so forceful. What on earth had come over her? Doro, that fragile little woman whose discretion he had always admired! He would have liked to start reading at once, from the beginning – “For all I care”, no, something wrong there, “for all I care you can go to hell,” and when had she ever addressed him by his surname? Was she making fun of him?
It was no good, he had to read it. Yes, maybe he ought to have let the children know first, but did a few more minutes make any difference now? Yes, he ought to have called a doctor to make out the death certificate. But which one should he have called, when Doro wasn’t even registered with a family doctor at all? And then it really would all have been over, they’d take even what was left of her away from him, and instead emptiness would move in, first taking over her favourite places, soon even the most remote nooks and crannies – no! There was time enough for that in what life he had left. Gesticulating at the room, forefinger and little finger of his right hand outstretched, as was his way during lectures when he was in full swing, talking himself into true lecturer’s mode, Schepp strode up and down, punching accentuated reprimands into the air with his right fist, until he came to a halt by the window and saw that life outside was still going on as usual.
He would just stand here, then, stand here until he finally fell over, or woke up, or at least until the world came to an end. Standing like that also meant that he didn’t have to look at Doro. What had she died of, anyway, when she had never been really sick? As if her reservations about conventional medicine had kept her healthy. Apart from two or three migraines annually, she had managed very well indeed over the years without all the medical check-ups and aftercare that kept her sister happy. “No tumour, no infarction,” she had been told when, after one of her migraines, her brain was scanned by computer tomography, “Everything in good order.” And these days people didn’t just drop dead at the age of fifty-six!
Although she herself had thought of that very thing every day. It was how he had come to meet her in the first place, before he had full lecturer’s status. and when she was already acting as an assistant in the Faculty. Out of the blue, she had told him her fears, her fear of the shores of the cold, dark lake where you found yourself as soon as you had died, going there only to die a second time. Or whatever dying would be called when you were dead already. He had almost let slip a stupid remark, but he saw the tears in her eyes just in time.
So now it’s happened, thought Schepp, now she really has set off for the place she’s dreaded all her life. And what about me? I always promised to hold her hand as she went, and I failed her. Had she already reached the lake? Was she standing on its banks searching the surface of the water for an island, the island that, all their lives, he had wished she would find there? Perhaps she had already taken her first steps into the water, bravely and without much fuss, in her usual way. Perhaps she was swimming, with calm and steady strokes, towards a second death? No, no, Schepp was sure that whatever Doro was doing there on the other side, at least she wasn’t doing that, she had always promised not to.
It had been in the winter semester of 1979 to 1980, and he had already adored her from afar for two years, the young woman who suddenly moved into the room opposite his, and ever since then had been chiefly occupied with studying the I Ching when he brought over a pot of his green tea for her: he in his mid-thirties, just completing the thesis on the ancient written language of China that would qualify him as a full lecturer, and well on the way to becoming number one in Germany on that subject, because there was no number two working in the same field; she nine years younger, not yet with her doctorate but already intent on getting an appointment as a lecturer. She was the constant subject of conversation at the Institute, she might make it to the Free University. Dorothee Wilhelmine Renate, Countess von Hagelstein, whose forebears had made their fortune importing Chinese art, also acquiring a rather dubious reputation under the Third Reich; Dorothee Wilhelmine Renate, Countess von Hagelstein, courted by everyone in Faculty II, Sinology, including the professor himself, who had created the post of assistant for her in no time at all, and even had her giving seminars on “The History and Theory of Feng Shui”, and “Women’s Poetry during the Tang Dynasty”, and of course also, every semester, on the subject of her own dissertation: “Three Thousand Years of the Prophetic Wisdom of the I Ching”; “The Flowing Together of All Things in the I Ching”; “The Dark Lines of the I Ching”.
When Schepp crossed the corridor to leave his pot of tea beside her in silence, she was usually sitting over the commentaries of the emperors and philosophers of ancient China, surrounded by the sixty-four signs of the old oracular book. She had hung them on the walls of her room, although in an order which placed the water signs at the centre – yes, even a scholar strictly interested in philology, like Schepp, knew his way around the I Ching, not so much because it was regarded as sacred by soothsayers, and probably by Countess von Hagelstein, as because the entire intellectual life of ancient China had been concerned with its interpretation. It was a subject to which grave and serious statesmen and scholars had put their minds, even Confucius, whom Schepp venerated. He suspected that the little countess, who in spite of her youth seemed entirely absorbed in research and scholarship, was interpreting it in mystical terms. Sometimes she briefly emerged from her abstraction with a start when he came in, usually she didn’t even notice him standing beside her for a few minutes, gazing at her wide-eyed. What could she have seen behind the thick lenses of his glasses anyway, except a couple of sparkling pinheads? With his extremely poor eyesight, Schepp was lucky to get out of the room again without bumping into everything. No, for a man like him no way led to this perfect young woman, he was sure of that. He had managed to pass even his school-leaving exams only because the teachers recognized his talents, and his studies had been financed by a foundation for the highly gifted. It was his place to be grateful and not ask for more than his due.
But one day in the late autumn of 1979, when he was still addressing Doro formally as Fräulein Dorothee, although she had specially asked him to drop the “Fräulein”, she had raised her head and, even more surprisingly, asked if he had ever formed an idea of the next world? Here in the Faculty, that was considered the business of the Kyung Tse specialists, but she was more inclined to associate it with Taoism. What did he think?
On that subject, in fact, Schepp agreed with Confucius, who held that it was not worth while dwelling for very long on what we could not know. But of course he had formed an idea of the next world, he said as forcefully as possible, in fact a very precise idea of it. There wasn’t one. He didn’t want to live for ever in any case, he defiantly added, there’s an end to everything, a sausage even has two ends. Next moment he would have been prepared to declare himself a convert to Tibetan Red-Hat Buddhism, but Fräulein Dorothee just looked at him with her dark eyes, and the conversation was over.
Curiously enough, however, she went on with it next day exactly where she had broken it off. As soon as Schepp appeared in her doorway she asked him, sounding quite anxious, almost imploring, how, as a thinking human being, he could say such a thing. All the cool, objective distance that made up not a little of her magic was gone; she was pleading with him as if he were a friend who must be preserved from some great error. There must be something after death, she said, anything as beautiful as life surely couldn’t come to an end just like that? There were actual tears in her eyes. Then, as soon as Schepp had agreed with her, nodding vigorously, her eyes grew even darker and she said, as softly as if she had lost sight of him again, as if she were alone with herself, that of course it didn’t go on in such a beautiful way as before, far from it. In the Southern Commentaries on the I Ching, she said, she kept coming on passages in which the sign for “lake” was curiously ambivalent, as if – unlike, for instance, the signs for “wind”, “mountain” or “sky” – it stood not for the cheerfulness usually pointed out by the commentaries but also for its opposite, something dark that must be overcome. However, none of the commentaries said how that could be done, as if the lake – ah, well, she didn’t suppose the mystic side of it would be of any interest to a linguist.
Schepp was easily able to dispel that illusion. And so it was that, while for two years he had known nothing about his new colleague in the faculty apart from the rumours circulating around her, he now learned her most secret fears in the course of a single afternoon.
After death, she said, if she understood the Southern Commentaries correctly, of course the process of dying goes on, and the soul is judged and purified. Sooner or later you come to a lake that lies before you, never moving, in the middle of a bleak landscape. From a distance it may be reminiscent of a mountain lake, only bigger, much bigger, and the opposite bank can be only vaguely sensed in the diffuse light. Indeed, all the light in that place is muted, she said, there are no colours left, no smells, not a breath of wind, not a sound, and that is terrible enough, but worst of all you are entirely alone with yourself and yet you must go into the cold water and swim across. Swim to the opposite bank, where perhaps life goes on somehow or other, but that makes no real difference, for you have no chance at all of reaching the bank, your powers are bound to fail by the time you reach the middle of the lake at the latest, everyone’s powers fail. Then you let yourself drift for a little while, getting colder and colder, and at last you are drawn down into the depths as if by a great hand, and ...
No and. Then you are really dead, and it’s all over.
For ever. And the lake, she said, was so dark and cold, and she was afraid of it.
But who says, suggested Schepp, that you have to go into the water? You could just stay on the bank. Or walk around the lake if you really want to reach the other side.
Oh, said Fräulein Dorothee, and there were tears in her eyes again, the lake exerts a magic power of attraction, and although you know you’re sure to find your end in it, it shimmers promisingly like a new beginning, and you can’t escape it.
Schepp briefly thought of responding with a knowing grin in anticipation of her own smile – for surely she couldn’t have meant all this seriously – but found that he was listening to himself as his ironic objections spilled out of him. Surely, he said, the lake must be full by now, full to the brim, and in fact if all the people who had died over thousands and millions of years had drowned in it, Doro probably wouldn’t have to swim at all when her turn came, she could walk over the water dry-shod. Next moment he could have bitten his tongue off, but Fräulein Dorothee just looked at him briefly, and again the conversation was over.
After that not a day went by when Schepp didn’t think of the lake and its inhospitable banks, and the fact that Dorothee Wilhelmine Renate, Countess von Hagelstein, shuddered at the thought of having to undress there. Sometimes he wondered out loud whether she could go into the water fully dressed, or whether at least he could swim from the opposite bank to meet her. He didn’t get much further with her like that either. He could make no headway against that cold, dark lake. When the winter was almost over again, he had formed a very clear picture of it, even featuring the outlines of the surrounding landscape as pieced together by his own imagination, the vague shape of a stunted pine tree, a wan sky over it with lightning flashing in the distance. He was very surprised when Fräulein Dorothee, still in her outdoor coat, came into his room, although since that last conversation she hadn’t even deigned to give him a glance when he came along with his pot of tea, silently asking her forgiveness. Her hair was a little tousled as she stood there before him, a faint film of sweat gleaming on her forehead and upper lip.
Could she show him something, she asked? She knew he didn’t believe in it, but now, now she could prove it. Prove that it existed. The lake. Scarcely an hour later they entered the great glass cube of Berlin’s New National Gallery, which was flooded with light. The little that Schepp had found out from Fräulein Dorothee on the way amounted to the fact that on one of her visits to the museum she had discovered a picture that a week ago, she could have sworn, hadn’t been hanging there, a picture that as far as she knew had been missing since the end of the war, and now had suddenly turned up again without any fuss, although its mere reappearance should have been a sensation. And as for the picture itself, she had been deeply moved when she was so suddenly confronted with it, the original had a power at which the prints in circulation merely hinted, it had a shattering finality. It was the proof.
Purposefully, she led him to the basement of the building – grey, carpeted floor, functional atmosphere – and suddenly began walking on with a reverent air. Soon she stopped in front of a gilt-framed painting, which was perhaps one and a half metres wide by just under one metre high. And in the picture ... here the surprised Schepp turned his head to his companion, but she was already gazing in silent fascination, and he had to come to terms by himself with the fact that the painting showed not a cold, dark lake but a huge island, a monumental, towering wall of rock, a rocky curve around a group of cypress trees with a flickering violet-tinged sky behind it. In front of the island, as Schepp’s eyes grew used to the gloomy hues of the picture, he even saw a boat making for the island, with a white, muffled figure standing in front of a coffin covered in white. He could also make out various steps and openings in the rock, portals in the archaic style. Just to make sure, he glanced a the title of the picture; he had realized, anyway, that a few strokes of the oars would bring a new corpse to the island, to be placed on a plinth or in one of the burial chambers. Yes, the island impressed him, there was something about it so fundamentally desolate that he imagined the peace of the dead reigning in that place as a dignified form of despair. What fate as dark as those cypresses awaited the newly dead on arrival there?
Only then did Schepp concentrate on what little the painting showed of the cold lake itself – water so calm that it reflected the vertical walls of rock without any tremor on the surface, motionless all the way to the horizon, which was nothing but a straight line. An endless, dead sea.
How, he finally asked Fräulein Dorothee in a whisper, did she know it was a lake? She seemed unwilling to come out of her mood of rapt attention.
Anyone could see that, she said.
Then he let it all burst out of him, hardly able to maintain the muted whispering tone suitable for a museum. Lake or not, he said, it certainly wasn’t empty, there was even an island in it, a place where life went on for the dead, as it were. Wasn’t that prospect worth something?
“Forgive me, please,” Fräulein Dorothee interrupted him, without taking her eyes off the picture, “but it’s not an island.”
They stood in front of the painting for a long time, so long that one of the attendants wandered over to confide, in affable tones, that this was his own favourite picture too. After he had turned away to observe the other visitors, who lingered only briefly in front of a picture here and there, Fräulein Dorothee explained.
Anyone could see, she said, that it was a surreal painting, it had skilfully kept its real subject away from the centre of the viewer’s attention, the island was really nothing but a reflection, an illusion that the painter had added by way of consolation, the boat, the ferryman, the muffled figure were all concessions to the taste of his time. The whole thing might be just reflected light from the depths of the lake, designed to lure us into the next world. “But oh, Hinrich,” she said, the words wrenched out of her, “I don’t want to go there.”
At that moment it happened: it because Schepp himself was not quite sure what he was doing when he began to speak, telling told her that he wasn’t afraid of death, he would simply die before she did and sound out the terrain for her.
“Would you really do that for me?” asked Fräulein Dorothee, after a while.
Schepp nodded, mutely, he could not even begin to feel certain of the full import of her question, but then he added: if he could manage to die first, he’d wait for her there – and again it was certainly not Schepp himself growing increasingly bold and reaching for Fräulein Dorothee’s little clenched fist, clumsily squeezing it – and then, he said, he’d take her hand and go with her, they would make it to the opposite bank together. Or at least to the island. If the island turned out to be real.
Next moment he could have sunk into the ground. Fräulein Dorothee took a deep, audible breath, but she was looking at him, and not even in surprise, or with amusement, or indignation –
“Or we’ll sink there together,” she said, letting out her breath again, also audibly. “At least that’s better than sinking separately.”
And still she did not withdraw her hand from his. As he slowly turned to her, cautiously looking at her through the thick lenses of his glasses, she seemed to him a hallucination who might dissolve into thin air if he looked more closely, almost transparent, untouchable, a creature from another star, and yet, and yet she left her hand in his for an extraordinary length of time during which nothing happened, she stayed at his side smiling at him, as if released from great stress.
And that decided the matter. In the same year Dorothee Wilhelmine Renate, Countess von Hagelstein, became Doro Schepp, rejecting even the possibility of a double surname, and instead of fulfilling the hopes of the East Asian Seminar at the Faculty she also soon became a mother, abandoning her dissertation and, to the horror of the entire teaching body, the promise of her glittering career. And nothing much became of now fully qualified Dr Hinrich Schepp, number one in the field of ancient Chinese writing, because his professor was at least able to stand in his way there. –
Schepp found that he was sitting on the floor, propped against one of the legs of the desk. If only he could go on sitting like that, losing himself in his memories, maybe even dropping off to sleep, dissolving into the past, discreetly disappearing. If only there hadn’t been that smell. Schepp turned away from the sun; his eyes couldn’t take such bright light since his operation, and since as he did so he moved around the leg of the desk without rising from the floor, he was now looking at Doro’s legs, while the kimono hung down below her knees – almost at once he was wide awake, and slid closer. Looked at Doro’s swollen calf. Oh no, how fast it was changing, marbled in shades of pale violet, she would have hated that. Schepp groped in her direction, finally grasped one of her legs, then brought up his other hand and pressed cautiously, trying to banish those ugly marks of livor mortis from her calf, that was its name, wasn’t it, livor mortis, discoloration after death, but where to make the marks go? First he tried upwards, then he pressed just as hard down towards her slipper, there was a dull sound, in his alarm Schepp hit his head, and saw Doro’s hand dangling in front of him. This was going too far. Schepp took the hand and held it firmly until it stopped moving, and most of all until he himself had calmed down, held it as he had held it before, twenty-nine years ago, and as he had promised he would if the worst happened, and now at last he was doing just that.
“I’m here with you,” he promised Doro’s hand as tenderly as possible. “I’m holding you tight. Even if you can’t really feel it any more, we’ll make it.”
A little later he was standing beside her, moved to tears by his own solemnity, and placed her left arm back on top of the desk. However, it immediately slipped off again; first Schepp had to straighten Doro’s torso. That was difficult; it was almost impossible to correct the angle of her throat and neck. But though he had to push and pull harder, he kept trying to comfort himself with the thought that he was helping Doro, even with these pitiful efforts – just as she would help him some time. From now on she would wait for him on the bank of the lake, ready to reach out her little hand energetically as soon as he found himself there with her. On their wedding day she had told him she would do for him exactly what he had said he would do for her.
If she were the first to die, she said, she would wait there for him, it would be better to go together, whatever happened, much better.
She had renewed that promise on every one of their wedding anniversaries, and although Schepp was as sceptical as ever about the existence of the lake and all the rest of it, he did not tell her his doubts, and indeed saw it as a reassurance that like this their marriage would last for ever.
Curiously enough, today Doro’s idea of the next world did not seem to him at all ridiculous but perfectly credible, indeed consoling. He was glad he could cherish one last hope of seeing her again. A lake was better than nothing. How frail she already looked! Only now did it strike Schepp that she could no longer disguise her frailty with the radiant smile he had always loved. She sat in his chair at the desk like a porcelain doll, her nose a little sharper than usual, her cheeks visibly paler, as pale as – but here Schepp couldn’t help thinking of the new barmaid, the look she had given him when he settled his bill last night and her captivatingly pale face.
He forced himself to turn all his attention to his wife. She was a little less familiar to him than before with no colour in her cheeks, or rather she had become irreversibly distant and strange to him even during her lifetime, in spite of her daily presence. Perhaps because of his origins in the lower middle class, which left him unable to feel really at ease in an eight-roomed apartment with such elegant furnishings. Or perhaps because of her ikebana flower arrangement sessions and her meditative silences. She talked to plants and caressed objects in her mind, her intuitive nature was not only quick to understand human relationships but also went straight to the heart of the inanimate world. Everything whispered its meaning to her, a meaning that still eluded Schepp, meticulous philologist though he was.
For him, her powers of attraction probably lay in that very attitude. She did not need cheerful company, she was in constant touch with higher and more profound things. Bringing up the children, looking after an independent Sinologist scholar who was rather remote from daily life, seemed to link her with everything in the pitiful present world this side of the grave to which she could be linked. In the evenings she usually sought the company of the I Ching, arming herself for the challenges of the future and no doubt of the next world as well. Before every important decision she sought the advice of the ancient signs. Usually the outcome was good. However, as the years passed by she had become ever quieter, more fragile and transparent. She did not often smile at Schepp now, or take him in her arms to tell him about the cold, dark lake. Or was that just her way of avoiding the conversations that husband and wife should really have held in a marriage? Schepp could no longer touch the heart of what, maybe, was her lifelong secret, as he had on the day when contemplating the Isle of the Dead had decided both their lives. He was forced to admit that he had at best a very vague idea of the exact nature of Doro’s fear of the next world. Probably because as a man who did not know much about mysticism he was bound to ask the wrong questions, inevitably adding some of his own slight distaste for the idea, or the derision that would be hard for him to suppress, or his categorical doubts, and of course Doro sensed that. At least, she never wanted to discuss the matter with him.
How different from when she came to praising or criticizing what she found in his essays! Schepp’s glance passed over the top of the desk, going to where there was nothing now between Doro’s hands but a dark mark on the leather surface – and then he remembered what it was that he wanted to do. He found the manuscript, with the last page that Doro had added to it on top. Sorting it out quickly, he glanced over her notes in the margins and between the lines, without really understanding them. At last he had all the sheets of paper in the right order, with Doro’s postscript at the bottom of the pile, and he could begin reading.
However, that very thing now seemed to Schepp completely impossible. Who could read in this situation, beginning at the beginning, reading it word for word? In addition, there was the fact that the pages began with his own text, the work he had thrown away long ago. It was absurd. Schepp kept looking through them to the place where Doro’s closing comments began – how familiar her writing was! At least he could cling to that.
But as soon as Schepp began reading here or there, the mere sight of her handwriting filled him with a sense of uneasy perplexity. And also, increasingly, with perplexed uneasiness, and soon with undisguised discontent. How could he bear what she wrote on that final page? Doro had probably not been responsible for her own actions when she wrote it, so close to her end. Schepp quickly put that sheet of paper aside, but his eyes lingered on one of the last pages: “I am under some pressure, because I must write my farewell letter tomorrow.” Oh God, what had she intended to do? Had she guessed her own death was coming? Or as she wrote that, had she even – even anticipated going to meet it? No, out of the question, Doro would never have done such a thing.
Or would she?
In his distress, that morning Schepp, grinding his teeth, turned himself back into what he had really been all his life, a patient scholar in search of sources. At the end of his typescript, Doro’s notes began with a question mark in the margin, and on the back of that sheet she had written an abrupt, “As if he would have said such a thing in that situation.” In the text itself, she had crossed out the name of a bar and substituted the name of the bar that he, Schepp, regularly patronized – what was the idea of that? Equally puzzling was the question mark in the margin a little closer to the beginning: “Why don’t you just call him Hinrich?” Schepp leafed on to the conclusion again. “Don’t pretend to me any more, that’s never the end of the story.” Good heavens, it all sounded as if he would have done better not to read anything.
But he couldn’t grasp it all at a glance, he must read it, read it from the beginning, or it would be far more difficult for him to endure.