In Babylon Marcel Moring Winner of two major European prizes, this funny, quirky chronicle of a family of Dutch clockmakers is a bestseller in the Netherlands.Sixty-year-old Nathan Hollander is stranded in a winter blizzard with his young niece, Nina, in the deserted house of his late Uncle Herman. As they wait for the weather to improve, Nathan tells Nina the story of their forefathers – a family of clockmakers who came to the Netherlands from Eastern Europe and then emigrated to America before WWII. An extraordinary and rich family history emerges.An epic family saga, a Gothic novel gone haywire, a very human story and a chronicle of the twentieth century, In Babylon is already set to be a classic European novel. A piece of very solid, traditional storytelling combined with a very funny, sensual magical realism. A brilliant merging of the lightness of popular American writing and the depth of European literature. MARCEL MÖRING IN BABYLON Translated from the Dutch by Stacey Knecht Dedication (#ulink_e08e4324-2314-5638-bb84-1f2a9143a337) To Hanneke and my parents Epigraph (#ulink_fd18eddc-43e2-5a4a-99f7-c88028b6d383) ‘Trees have roots. Jews have legs.’ ISAAC DEUTSCHER ‘Our civilisation is characterised by the word “progress’”. Progress is its form rather than making progress one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves. ‘I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings.’ LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, Culture and Value Contents Cover (#u063b45a8-683b-59d8-b015-a24ff09714e1) Title Page (#ub1cb1973-7d2f-5bcb-bc21-b3a64d8ed205) Dedication (#u503604cc-15c5-575f-b42c-9fdc111a0bc0) Epigraph (#ueb08c766-5934-5c7d-87b6-da7aee92eb18) PART ONE (#u4010e355-bcd8-5435-ba04-e9d329505e7c) Travellers (#ue60ef271-e0a5-5fae-95ac-ad7914be1e1a) Sauerkraut (#u0b4111ed-6bde-51ac-bcec-a47464b78fec) There is a God (#u8d6fba69-98bd-5bbc-a00f-b7fd88bcd078) The Kotzker (#u0690179c-dda7-5445-93c6-22d8074922ac) Who’s There? (#uf399c963-f6f1-5af6-a058-8cbb8af845fe) A Land of Milk and Butter (#u3848041e-7fd1-5de4-ba2a-16d8d2fb34c2) Zeno (#litres_trial_promo) PART TWO (#litres_trial_promo) On Our Way (to the Middle) (#litres_trial_promo) The Second Law of Thermodynamics (#litres_trial_promo) Lacrima Christi (#litres_trial_promo) The Tower (#litres_trial_promo) Quid Pro Quo (#litres_trial_promo) This is Germany (#litres_trial_promo) PART THREE/FOUR (#litres_trial_promo) Punishment (#litres_trial_promo) A Fairy Tale (#litres_trial_promo) Long Ago and Far Away (#litres_trial_promo) Fathers and Sons (#litres_trial_promo) The Depths of the Depths (#litres_trial_promo) PART FIVE (#litres_trial_promo) Stranger (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Praise (#litres_trial_promo) Also by the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Part One (#ulink_d9477125-f0c3-5031-8317-87057fb95443) Travellers (#ulink_04da7a67-f887-5ae2-9f9c-0563d7afb500) THE LAST TIME I ever saw Uncle Herman, he was lying on a king-size bed in the finest room at the Hotel Memphis, in the company of six people: the hotel manager, a doctor, two police officers with crackling walkie-talkies, a girl who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, and me. The manager conferred with the policemen about how the matter might be settled as discreetly as possible, the doctor stood at the foot of the bed regarding my uncle with a look of mild disgust, and I did nothing. It was just past midnight and Herman lay stretched out, his white body sinewy and taut, on that crumpled white catafalque. He was naked and dead. He had sent up for a woman. She had arrived, and less than an hour later his life was over. When I got there the young hooker, a small blond thing with crimped hair and childishly painted lips, sat hunched in one of the two white leather chairs next to the ubiquitous hotel writing table. She stared at the carpet, mumbling softly. Uncle Herman lay on his back on the big bed, his pubic hair still glistening with … all right, with the juices of love, a condom rolled halfway down his wrinkled sex like a misplaced clown’s nose. His pale, old man’s body, the tanned face with the shock of grey hair and the large, slightly hooked nose evoked the image of a warrior fallen in battle and laid in state, here, on this dishevelled altar. I stood in that room and thought of what Zeno, with a touch of bitterness in his voice, had once said, long ago, that you could plot family histories on a graph, as a line that rippled up and down, up and down, up and down; people made their fortune, their offspring benefited from that fortune, the third generation squandered it all, and the family returned to the bottom of the curve and began working its way back up. An endless cycle of profit and loss, wealth and poverty, rise and fall. Except for the history of our family, Zeno had said, that was a whole other thing. Our family history could best be compared to a railway timetable: one person left, and while he was on his way, another returned, and while he was busy arriving, others were setting out on a new journey. ‘Normal families stay in the same place for centuries,’ said Zeno. ‘If they do ever leave it’s a major historical event. In our family it would be a historical event if, even after just half a generation, we associated suitcases with a holiday instead of a new life.’ ‘Right,’ said the doctor, who probably wasn’t much younger than the victim himself. ‘Let’s get to work.’ He placed his bag on the writing table, opened it, stuck his hand in the gaping leather mouth, and pulled out a spectacle case. The glasses gave him an air of efficiency, like a tailor about to pin up a hem. He went to the bed, moved the body over so he could sit down, and began poking and prodding. Then, peering into the dead man’s clouded eyes, he asked what had happened. I turned to the girl, who was still hunched over in her chair. She seemed to sense my gaze, and lifted her head. She looked extremely unhappy. ‘The doctor would like to know whether you noticed anything unusual.’ She shook her head. ‘Well?’ said the doctor. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘She didn’t notice a thing.’ The doctor frowned. ‘Are you saying he just popped off?’ I looked back down at the floor. She shrugged. Sighing, the doctor got to his feet and took off his spectacles. His eyes travelled around the room. Then he went up to the girl. He stood before her and, jabbing the air with his glasses, said, ‘What were you doing to him?’ The girl clapped her hand to her mouth and ran out the door. We heard her in the bathroom, quietly retching. It was around one in the morning by the time the four of us emerged outside, in the moonlit doorway of the hotel. A hearse glided soundlessly by. The wind rustled the tall oaks around the patio, there was faint music in the distance. The doctor and the hotel manager reminisced about a man who had once been found tied to the bedposts, the girl and I watched the police car as it turned onto the road in a cloud of flying gravel. The doctor and the manager said goodbye and we were left behind. We stood outside the door listening to the music. It sounded like Ives. ‘I think he would have enjoyed dying that way,’ I said. ‘In a hotel, with a young woman at his side.’ She started retching again. I stared into the half-darkness of the city and thought, for the first time in years, about the future, which had once lain before me and now, now that I was old and worn, lay behind me. ‘He was a traveller,’ I said. The girl turned to me and opened her mouth. The heavy lipstick was smeared along one cheek, which made her whole face look lopsided. She breathed out quick, small puffs of steam and shivered in her baseball jacket. ‘We were all travellers,’ I said. She turned away and looked at the empty street and the light that hung yellow and still beneath the tall trees. I saw her glance at me from the corner of her eyes, hurried, fearful, like someone who has found herself with an unpredictable psychopath and doesn’t know which would be better: to stay or leave, respond or ignore. There was a pale blue haze around the moon. A gentle breeze rustled the treetops. As if Uncle Herman’s soul had dissolved in the night, I thought, and now, the final matters settled, the remains of his life carried off, had disappeared in a last contented sigh. On its way, forever. And at that very moment, there, outside the hotel where Uncle Herman … had lost his life, at that moment I saw myself for the first time in maybe twenty years, and the image that loomed up out of the labyrinth of my life was that of a face in the crowd, a man nobody knows, yet is there nonetheless, an eyewitness, a stowaway in time. The fire in the hearth burned peacefully, like a flower with red, orange, and yellow petals, swaying in the wind. The mahogany claw of a chair leg jutted out of the flames, as if we had been sacrificing some wooden animal. ‘Are you asleep?’ I looked sideways, at Nina, who sat cross-legged in the big armchair next to me. She was sitting on a sleeping bag, her long red hair hanging down, and leaning on the palms of her hands. ‘No, I’m not asleep. But I might just as well be. I’ve rarely felt as old as I feel today.’ She nodded. ‘What were you thinking?’ ‘Nothing special.’ ‘Come on, N. If we’re really going to be snowed in here for the next few days I don’t want you playing the mystery man. Do your Decamerone. Give me the Canterbury Tales. You’re a fairy tale writer. Amuse me.’ ‘You want to hear fairy tales?’ ‘Maybe later. All I want to hear now is what you were thinking.’ ‘I was thinking about Uncle Herman. I suddenly remembered the last time I saw him.’ ‘When was that?’ ‘When he was dead.’ ‘Oh, that.’ ‘My God, how times have changed. You say: Oh, that. For me … it was a shock, I can tell you.’ ‘After the sixties? I thought all you men ever did in the sixties was fuck and get high.’ ‘Them, niece. Not me. I would’ve liked to. But I’m a Hollander. Nathan Hollander. A respectable man. I eat my poultry with a knife and fork, I hold my wine glass by the stem. I’ve never fucked around or used drugs.’ ‘Nuncle, would you mind not calling me “niece”? It sounds like grey woollen skirts and sensible shoes.’ We grinned. ‘But haven’t you ever …’ ‘Oh, sure. Hash. Long time ago. Not my style. I like being in control.’ She sighed. ‘The two-glasses-of-wine-five-cigarettes-a-day man.’ ‘That’s me.’ ‘And the sex wasn’t so hot either?’ ‘Nina! I’m your uncle. I just turned sixty. That’s not the sort of thing you’re supposed to ask old people.’ ‘Old people … You’re not old. What’s sixty anyway, nowadays? You’re still in great shape.’ ‘Thank you. I only said I was old to hear you say I wasn’t.’ ‘And that’s why I said it.’ ‘No, I haven’t had a very thrilling sex life. Certainly a lot less thrilling than Uncle Herman’s.’ Nina stared into the fire. It was burning low. I stood up and threw on a few more chair legs and a piece of the piano lid. When I was sitting back down again she said, ‘With all that traipsing around the world I reckoned you must have had a sweetheart in every port.’ I shook my head. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ve learned in the past sixty years. If you really want to get someone into bed, fast, don’t ever start talking to them. I talked. My mistake was that I thought you had to get to know each other first, at least well enough to carry on a conversation. By the time I had my hand on the bedroom doorknob, the women around me were only interested in more talking. I became a friend, not a lover.’ She nodded, as if she could imagine that. ‘So you were the only one in that crazy family who didn’t get enough.’ ‘Oh, I wouldn’t exactly say …’ ‘Herman did it with call girls.’ ‘Once. We know he did it once with a call girl and that was after Sophie died. I believe he was faithful to Sophie all his life.’ ‘As if that were normal! Faithful to your brother’s wife.’ I shrugged. ‘Zeno …’ I said. ‘We know he did it at least once. Had … er … sex, I mean. You’re proof of that.’ ‘Zeno,’ she said. Bitterness tugged at her lips. ‘And Zoe thrived on it.’ I sighed. ‘Manny.’ ‘My father was undoubtedly … active,’ I said, ‘but only after he and Sophie were divorced. Zelda, on the other hand, almost certainly died a virgin.’ ‘A bunch of loonies,’ Nina concluded. ‘And you? Now that you’ve defined the rest of the family in sexual terms, what’s your story?’ ‘Imagine asking a young girl such a thing, an old man like you …’ We laughed. I looked at Nina. Shadows leapt about in her face. In the firelight, her pale skin had a warm, rosy glow. Her curly red hair even looked like fire, a churning mountain stream of arabesques and garlands. Nina? No, she would never have trouble getting what she wanted. I gazed at my niece with the satisfaction of a father who sees that his daughter has blossomed into an attractive young woman: intelligent, sharp, well-dressed and well-bred. Even now, in the old clothes we had found in Herman’s wardrobe, corduroy trousers that were much too large for her and cinched at the waist with a leather belt, a jumper with the sleeves rolled up four times, thick woollen socks, even now she looked like the sort of tubercular, red-haired beauty the Pre-Raphaelites were so mad about. Her lightly rounded lips were freshly painted. There was a shimmer of rouge across her cheekbones. The green of her eyes was pure enamel. ‘We have got to eat,’ I said. ‘I’ll go and cook us something.’ ‘Cook?’ ‘That’s what I said. There’s plenty of food. Enough supplies to last us through the next world war.’ She looked at me blankly. ‘I’ll show you,’ I said. ‘But only if you promise not to be frightened.’ I picked up a candelabra and we walked out of the library. In the stone-cold hall the warmth was driven instantly out of our clothes. Nina shivered. I felt her hand in my back, and even though I was still shaky from all that sitting, I hurried to the door of the cellar. At the top of the stairs, shadows bolted into the darkness of the second floor hallway. Sofas, chairs, tables, a wardrobe, a pustule of furniture swelled and shrank as the light glided across it. Nina rushed up beside me, grasping my arm so firmly that I nearly bit my tongue. Then I opened the cellar door and went ahead of her down the small flight of steps. When my feet touched the concrete floor I stopped and waited for her to follow. I raised the candelabra and let the light do the rest. Nina was halfway down the stairs, but the last step seemed to take forever. It was as if she were suddenly moving in slow motion. She clapped one hand to her mouth and, holding closed the collar of Uncle Herman’s jacket with the other hand, looked about in stunned silence. ‘Sauerkraut,’ I said. ‘Do you have any objection to sauerkraut?’ She shook her head. I handed her the candelabra and walked past the shelves of provisions, where I chose a tin of beef sausages, a bag of dried apples, condensed milk, a jar of stock, potatoes, a packet of sauerkraut, spices, mustard, a rectangular piece of dried meat, and a bottle of Pinot Gris. ‘What …’ She was still looking around. ‘What’s all this?’ The candlelight glided over the towering walls of cans and jars. ‘My God. There’s enough here for … for …’ ‘For the next world war,’ I said. ‘Was he some kind of fanatical hoarder?’ I shook my head. ‘No. There was always an adequate supply of food in the cellar, but nothing out of the ordinary. I have no idea where all this has come from or when these shelves were stocked.’ Nina went over to one of the racks and picked up a tin. She turned it around in the light of her candle, squinting. Then she picked up another tin, a glass jar, a box, a crackling bag of pasta. ‘I’d say a year, maybe a year and a half. Not much more. Tins and jars usually have a shelf life of two to three years.’ She handed me a tin of peas and showed me the date on the bottom. Their edibility was guaranteed for at least two more years. ‘You can tell best by looking at the coffee. Here. This packet’ll be good for three more months. That means it couldn’t have been bought more than a year ago.’ ‘Smart girl,’ I said. She put back the tin and looked at me impassively. ‘Come on, I think we should go back upstairs,’ I said. ‘It’s much too cold down here. There’s a fire going in the kitchen.’ I opened the door and let her go first. With the swaying globe of candlelight before her she walked to the kitchen. There, in the pleasing glow of the Aga, which I had lit earlier that afternoon, I set out the ingredients. I handed Nina a knife and let her peel the potatoes, while I arranged the apples in a baking dish and poured myself a glass of wine. I slid the dish into a lukewarm spot in the oven. ‘What’s going on, Nathan?’ she asked after a while. I filled a large pot with an inch or two of water and placed it on the stove. ‘What do you mean? This house? The barricade? The supplies? I don’t know. I have no idea. And what’s more: I can’t imagine how any of it got here.’ I cut the dried meat in thin strips with one of the large knives from the block. The meat was as hard as a wooden beam and tasted like Bressaola, as the Italians called their dried fillet of ox. ‘Mrs Sanders?’ Mrs Sanders managed the house during Uncle Herman’s absence and played housekeeper whenever he was there. ‘Why would she bother? Uncle Herman left the house five years ago. I haven’t been back here in all that time. Besides, when we did use to come here, Uncle Herman had everything delivered fresh.’ Nina handed me the potatoes and leaned against the counter. ‘But how …’ I cut the potatoes in four, tossed them into the pan and topped them with the sauerkraut. We stared silently at the dark sky behind the kitchen window. Now and then a cloud of snow was hurled against the glass, as if someone were playing Mother Holle and shaking out a feather pillow. The water boiled, I added thyme, salt and rosemary and moved the pan to a part of the stove where the sauerkraut could simmer gently. ‘I don’t like it,’ said Nina. ‘I don’t like it one bit.’ I poured a generous dash of Pinot Gris and the contents of the jar of stock over the sauerkraut and covered the whole thing with the dried apples. ‘So I’d noticed.’ Slowly the odours began to fill the kitchen. Wine-tinged fumes curled up along the lid and droplets of steam began forming on the windowpanes. I pricked the potatoes with a fork: time to add the shredded meat. I slid it off the marble chopping board I had found in a cabinet and stirred it into the sauerkraut. At the bottom of the big cupboard, where it had always stood, was the little saucepan. I emptied in the tin of sausages and put it on the back burner. I opened the can of condensed milk, added a few heaped spoonfuls of mustard (whoever had stocked these shelves certainly knew their condiments: it was Colman’s), and mixed it all together. A dash of the wine, a spoonful of cooking liquid from the pan. I stirred and tasted. The windows were steamed up. Those farthest from the stove were already beginning to freeze over. I took two plates out of the cupboard, put them in the sink, and poured hot water over them from the kettle standing on the back of the stove. ‘This is the story of my life,’ said Nina. ‘I’m snowed-up in a haunted house with a fairy tale writer who’s writing the biography of his mad uncle, and he’s making sauerkraut and potatoes. My mother was right. I wasn’t destined for happiness.’ ‘It could have been worse,’ I said. ‘I might have been an accountant. Then what would you have done for the next few days? Read my ledger?’ ‘What do you mean: then what would I have done?’ I tipped the water out of the plates, got a dishtowel out of the cupboard, and began drying them. The towel smelled like it badly needed airing. ‘Now that we’re stuck here you’ll have plenty of time to read Uncle Herman’s biography.’ She heaved a sigh. I took some wood out of the basket next to the stove and threw it in the Aga. ‘Do we have enough firewood to last us a while?’ I nodded. ‘After we’ve eaten we’ll have to chop some more, but that barricade is so huge, it’ll go a long way.’ She looked at me glumly. Sauerkraut (#ulink_7c23e8a5-1406-5143-8eb5-792755db82d2) WE HAD ARRIVED in the winter to end all winters. That morning Nina had been standing at the appointed place, behind the gate in the arrivals hall, left arm flung around her body in a half embrace, the other raised and waving, her long, deep red curls a torch above the dark blue coat. ‘N,’ she had said, as her cold lips brushed my cheeks. ‘N,’ I had answered. In the car, leaning forward slightly to adjust the heat, she asked if I’d had a good trip, and didn’t I think it was cold, fifteen below … Had I heard there was more snow on the way? And she had turned the car onto the motorway, as the chromium grin of a delivery van loomed up in the corner of my eye. Without thinking, I jerked back in my seat. Nina straightened the wheel and sniffed as the van barely missed us and slithered, honking, into the left lane. ‘Trolls,’ she muttered. The further inland we drove, the whiter the world became. There were cars parked along the roadside, a pair of snowploughs chugged along ahead of us. Halfway there, we stopped for coffee in a snowbound petrol station, full of lorry drivers smoking strong tobacco and phoning their bosses to ask what they should do. After that the snow began falling with such a vengeance, you could hardly tell the difference anymore between road and land. The snow banked up and blew in thick eddies across the whitened countryside. Nina and I leaned forward and peered into the whorls. After more than three hours we neared our destination. The car danced a helpless cakewalk on the rising and falling country roads. Nina sat motionless, one hand clamped around the wheel, the other on the gearstick, eyes narrowed and fixed on the horizon. We were going less than twenty miles an hour. Her hair blazed so fiercely, I could almost hear it crackling. Her pale skin was whiter than ever. ‘Another fifteen minutes or so.’ Nina nodded. She turned the wheel to the right. The car drifted into a side road. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ ‘Not at all. That is, as long as it isn’t one of those filthy cigars.’ ‘That was Uncle Herman, dear girl. And they weren’t filthy cigars. He only ever smoked Partagas and Romeo y Juliettas.’ ‘It’s like setting fire to a pile of dry leaves.’ I grinned. ‘I can’t believe you still do that,’ she said, as I lit up my Belgian cigarette and blew the smoke at my window. ‘I’m too old to stop. It’s too late for me anyway.’ She shot me a sidelong glance. ‘Sixty,’ I said. ‘When this century retires, so will I.’ Nina frowned. ‘When we bid farewell to the twentieth century, I’ll be sixty-five.’ I gazed out at the picture book of white fields and paths, and smoked. Every so often we dipped down, into a shallow valley, and the akkers, the fertile slopes for which this region was famous, spread out before us, only white now, gentle curves beneath the endlessly falling snow. ‘Hey, was that a joke?’ I looked sideways. ‘About the century, you mean?’ She shook her head. ‘What you said over the phone, that Uncle Herman’s biography has turned into more of a family chronicle.’ I rested my head against the cold doorjamb and closed my eyes. Even then, I could see the whiteness slipping past us. I pulled at my cigarette and blew more smoke at the window. I knew that Nina was truly interested, not just in the family history, but also in the things I made. She was the only one of the Hollanders who had read everything I’d ever written. For several years now she had even been my European agent. As a result of her efforts my fairy tales were leading new lives. A number of them had appeared as cd-roms, a group of Scandinavian television stations had banded together to turn them into a thirty-two-part series, and in the Czech Republic a director had bought the rights to Kei. He had phoned me one night, in Uncle Herman’s Manhattan apartment, and I had listened in amazement. He wanted to film Kei as a realistic story. ‘Let us forget that fairy tales belong to the realm of fantasy,’ he said. ‘Let us accept them as an expansion of our own limited reality.’ In the nearly forty years that I had travelled the world as a fairy tale writer, he was the first to speak about my work as something that could be taken seriously. I looked at Nina. ‘A family chronicle. Almost a family chronicle.’ ‘But why put so much work into it? Fifty pages would have been more than enough.’ ‘I think Herman’s little plan worked.’ She squinted again and peered through the windscreen. This far away from town they didn’t sand the roads, or at least, not any more. The road that, a few miles back, had wound through the whiteness like a black river, was now nothing more than an indentation in a landscape that had been stripped of all distinguishing features. ‘What little plan?’ I told her. That one of the terms of Herman’s will, a biography of him in exchange for the house, had been his final attempt to lure me away from the domain of the fairy tale. That he had always thought my work was a waste of talent and, all my life, had tried to change me. ‘And now, after fifty years, he’s actually done it. I can’t get away with some fake biography. But I can’t see myself writing a real one either. The Life and Works of Herman Hollander … No. Somehow or other I have to tell everything. From Great-Great-Grand-Uncle Chaim up until this very moment. Like that story about the English explorer who finds himself in an Indian tribe in the Amazon. Never seen a white man. He and his travelling companions receive a royal welcome and that night around the fire the tribal sorcerer tells them the history of his people, from the moment the gods created the first Indian out of a crocodile, up until the moment that three white-skinned, red-headed Englishmen walked into the village.’ ‘The Creation of the World, and everything that goes with it. By Nathan Hollander.’ ‘Something like that.’ Nina sighed. We had reached the end of a long, sluggish dip in the road and were now moving slowly upward, up the Mountain that wasn’t a mountain. Conifers, heavy with snow, jostled along the narrow path. Now and then the car skidded and Nina had to shift down to get it back on course. The woods grew denser, the road narrower, until all that remained was a path that bore like a tunnel through the thick hedge of tall white firs. It twisted left to right and the car glided right to left. I looked sideways and, in a flash, saw ghosts among the trees. They were hurrying along with us to the top. Uncle Chaim, Magnus, Herman, Manny, Zeno. They dashed through the thick white forest like a pack of wolves. The road curled once more, the car wriggled, groaning, into a curve. It was as if we were driving so slowly because we were laden down with history, as if my family was indeed running along the edge of the wood, while the weight of their stories hung from the rear bumper. ‘Shit.’ With a thud, the car veered into a snowdrift. The engine screeched and died. The snow scurried around us and the windscreen wipers stuck out through the layer of down that was forming on the glass. Nina opened the door and looked outside. Then she turned to me in amusement. ‘We’re stuck.’ I rolled down my window a little and tried to inspect our surroundings through the veils sweeping by. ‘It’s not even supposed to snow this hard around here.’ ‘Yes, but when it does you get an instant seventeenth-century winter landscape.’ ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘The only thing we can do,’ said Nina. ‘Walk.’ ‘Don’t you think you’ll be able to get us out?’ ‘I can try, but it doesn’t look hopeful.’ ‘I’ll push.’ I got out. Nina started the car, put it into reverse, and slowly released the clutch. I leaned against the bonnet. The wheels churned through the snow, the car glided slowly backwards. When she had manoeuvred it to the middle of the path, about thirty feet back, I went around to her door and leaned over. Nina rolled down her window and began laughing. ‘You look incredible.’ ‘We’d better walk the rest of the way,’ I said. ‘It’ll take hours to get past that bank and I think it’ll only get worse higher up the Mountain.’ ‘What do we do with your luggage?’ ‘I can manage, it’s just one bag.’ She got out of the car. I took my suitcase out of the boot, and then got out the tow rope. I tied one end around Nina’s waist, the other around my own. She arched her left eyebrow, but said nothing. It snowed. It snowed it snowed it snowed. When we looked back after sixty feet or so, we could hardly see the car anymore. In a few hours’ time it would be a barely visible bulge in a high white bank. From where we were stranded the path went up and to the left. It was only recognizable as a path because it was fringed with trees. I had no idea exactly where we were or how much farther we had to walk. We waded through the knee-deep snow, hampered by our long coats and slippery shoes and the shrieking snowstorm. Now and then I felt Nina tug on the rope and I turned round and waited until she signalled for us to move on. After half an hour’s walking the path disappeared. In a whirling white vortex of snow, half visible, fast asleep behind the shuttered library and hunting room windows, stood the house. ‘Well, here we are …’ said Nina, her shoulders hunched in the snow-covered coat. The storm seemed to have subsided, slow fat flakes were falling, creamy tufts of white that floated down with such ease, they seemed to be saying: No need for us to hurry, there are so many of us, we have all the time in the world. I looked at the house and felt something stirring inside. Even though the snow lay thick upon my shoulders and was falling so steadily that it nearly robbed me of the view, my thoughts slipped readily into the lake of memories that encircled this place, and instead of white, white, and more white, I saw the long wooden table that had been set out in the garden when we spent our last summer here all together: the tablecloths hanging down in the tall grass, wine bottles here and there, half-empty, half-full, the flowers Zoe had strewn among the dishes and bread baskets, the gentle confusion of empty chairs around the table. At the back of the garden Zelda and Sophie, our mother, were playing badminton, Zeno lay asleep on the garden seat, smiling like a buddha, and Zoe and Alexander – I think it was still Alexander in those days – walked hand in hand in the soft twilight at the edge of the lawn, where the woods began. Bumblebees buzzed above the wine glasses, way, way up in the sky swallows were chasing thrips, and the smell of resin and dry wood wafted down from the treetops. ‘I’ll tell you what you’re thinking,’ said Uncle Herman. He blew out a grey-blue cloud of cigar smoke, a Romeo y Julietta, so fragrant it made my head swim. ‘You’re thinking, if only things could always be this way.’ We were sitting side by side on the red-tiled verandah, a table with ice bucket and bottle between us. ‘If only things could always be this way, that’s what you’re thinking. You’re such a sentimental bastard. A little sun, some wine, the family in the garden, and you think: Une dimanche à la campagne. I know you.’ He puffed at his cigar. ‘Where’s Mrs Sanders?’ I turned around and looked inside. ‘No idea.’ ‘Are you planning to stay and work here?’ A pretzel-shaped smoke ring floated off and didn’t dissolve until it was very far away from us. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘If it’s all right with you.’ ‘You didn’t get the key for nothing. And if you can keep your mouth shut I’ll even tell you a secret …’ Zoe and Alexander came walking towards us. They looked like two characters in a French film. My sister was wearing a long white linen dress, Alexander a cream-coloured suit and a battered straw hat. They were still walking hand in hand. Zoe worked for Elegance. If she was wearing this now you could be sure that the Summer-in-the French-Countryside look would be all the rage the following year. ‘Just don’t tell me you’re engaged,’ said Uncle Herman, ‘because if you do I’m going down to the cellar and staying there until everyone’s gone.’ ‘We’re engaged,’ said Zoe. ‘Une dimanche à la campagne,’ I said. ‘Need I say more?’ Alexander turned his questioning gaze to Zoe. ‘Where the hell is Mrs Sanders?’ Zoe pointed. Uncle Herman turned round and jumped when he saw that she was standing right behind him. ‘Good God, woman, don’t sneak up on me like that.’ Mrs Sanders lowered her left eyebrow. ‘The engagement cake,’ he said. ‘It’s time for the engagement cake!’ Zoe began laughing. Alexander opened his mouth, looked at Uncle Herman and from him to me and then back to Zoe, and closed it again. When Mrs Sanders had cleared the table and set out the huge cake, the coffee, and the plates and cups, I went to get Zeno. He was still lying on the garden seat, nestled in a cloud of cushions. The sun filtered through the leaves of the apple tree. His body was dappled with tiny golden flecks. ‘Raised by leopards, he was, all the years of his youth,’ I said, after I had stood there for a while watching him. Zeno opened one eye. He observed me coolly. ‘For a kabbalist, you’re far too poetic, N,’ he said. He shut his eye again and for a moment it was as if he were drifting away. I could see him lying in a paper boat, gliding away over an unruffled lake that was red with evening sun. ‘The cake’s ready,’ I said. Zeno groaned softly. ‘Is it that time again?’ He opened both eyes, so slowly I almost envied him. At the table the coffee had already been poured. Zelda turned halfway round in her chair and beckoned to Zeno. He sat down next to her and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. He was the only one who could. Uncle Herman once said that Zelda’s great tragedy was that she had been born a nun in a Jewish family. ‘Hollanders!’ cried Uncle Herman, jumping up from his chair and waving the cake knife, as if he were about to make the traditional sacrifice. ‘Here we are, all together again, as we are nearly every summer, and here is the engagement cake …’ ‘… as it is nearly every summer,’ I said. Zoe smiled indulgently. ‘As it is nearly every summer,’ Uncle Herman affirmed. ‘But why, you should be asking, Zeno, why is this day different from all other days?’ ‘Why should I be asking?’ ‘Because you’re the youngest, you moron.’ Zeno nodded at Zoe as if to thank her. ‘This day is different from all other days, because I have a few important announcements to make. A: I’m giving up the house.’ None of us were prepared for this. My mother shrank back, her right hand on her chest, mouth slightly open. Zelda gazed intently at Uncle Herman. Zeno narrowed his eyes. I looked to the left and stared up at the sky. The dying light of the setting sun caressed Uncle Herman’s white hair, ‘the Einstein halo,’ as my father used to call it. ‘I’m too old to look after the place,’ he said. ‘And for that reason: point B, I’m leaving Nathan in charge, not only of the Fatherland …’ Cheers rose. Zeno said something I didn’t understand. ‘But also …’ He held up one hand to silence his audience, ‘… in charge of the house. That is, if he’s willing to accept the responsibility. Each of you will have the right to spend time here now and again.’ There was another burst of applause. Uncle Herman didn’t move a muscle. He waved the knife, and when it was quiet he opened his mouth again. ‘And now we cut the cake, the traditional engagement cake, in the hope that this will be the last. And finally: regards to all of you from your father. To the happy couple!’ He stuck the knife in the cake and sliced it in two, so resolutely that he really did seem to be finishing off a sacrificial beast. Later, when the sun had gone down, we sat in the library, Uncle Herman, Sophie and I. The rest, Zoe and Alexander, Zeno, and Mrs Sanders, were in the kitchen, where my sisters and brother drank wine and the housekeeper plied Zeno with bread and cheese. Even though it had been a hot day, Uncle Herman had asked me to make a fire and move the large chesterfield over by the hearth. ‘Fire is good for books,’ he said, ‘as long as it doesn’t get too close.’ The glow of the flames enclosed us in a swaying red globe of light and shadow. ‘It’s been a fine day,’ said Sophie. ‘After a day like today, a person could die happy,’ said Uncle Herman. ‘Actually, I was thinking of trying to get some work done,’ I said. ‘One last glass of wine, cup of coffee …’ ‘That’s exactly why I’m leaving you the house,’ said Uncle Herman. ‘You’re such a Calvinistic bastard.’ ‘Leaving him in charge of the house,’ said Sophie. ‘Leaving him in charge. But when I die, the house is his. He’s the only one of you who has any use for it. Besides, where else would he put all these books?’ My eyes travelled from the fire to my uncle. I was aware that my mouth had dropped open. ‘You get the house, N.’ I wanted to say something, but got no further than a vague sort of stammering. ‘Herman, how can he keep up a house like this? The boy can hardly even support himself.’ Uncle Herman raised his glass and peered at the red spark floating in the wine. ‘It has always been my conviction that you should give a man bread when he’s hungry, but let him provide his own butter. Stimulates the initiative.’ My mother looked at me with a worried expression. ‘Sophie,’ said Uncle Herman, ‘if it’s the others you’re concerned about … I’m sure they’ll see reason, and if they don’t, they obviously don’t have the sense of family loyalty they should. And besides …’ He straightened up in his chair and took a gulp of wine. ‘Nathan will have to do something for me in return.’ I looked at him without saying a word. In the reflection of the flames the white wreath of hair had taken on a faint red glow. The gently hooked nose stuck out like a beak and the wilful mouth was crinkled into a benevolent smile. He wasn’t very tall, my Uncle Herman, five foot eight at most, but sometimes, like now, he gave the impression of being twice his size. Perhaps it was the coarse tweed jacket with the suede elbow patches, or his rather slow-emphatic way of moving, or his penetrating gaze. Or perhaps it was the way he spoke. The way Uncle Herman talked always sounded as if he were pronouncing judgement on the validity of the logical-positivistic viewpoint in this day and age or something similar, even if he was only asking you to put the cork down next to the bottle after you’d opened it. On the few occasions that I had accompanied him on one of his lecture tours, I’d been impressed by his talents as a demagogue. For the first time I had understood why the great minds of our time spoke with and listened to him as if he were their equal. ‘This house,’ said Herman, ‘is no ordinary beautiful house in the woods. And this library …’ He made a sweeping gesture with his arm to indicate the walls of books that surrounded us. ‘… is no ordinary library. This is a line in the sand. A boundary. The black hole through which we can navigate that other dimension.’ ‘Herman …’ I said. ‘And nothing less than that.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘No, not: okay. Do I speak in tongues? This. This. This. Here! This is your ship to the other world. You don’t know it yet, but you’ll find out.’ He emptied his glass and rose unsteadily from his chair. ‘That is, if you’re made of the same stuff as …’ His voice dissolved in a peal of laughter that rang out from the kitchen. ‘Listen,’ he said, raising his right hand, ‘they’re enjoying themselves. Fine. That’s fine.’ He tapped on the pockets of his jacket, glanced down at the table next to his chair, and then rested his eyes on Sophie. She stood up hurriedly. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let’s all laugh. This way, ladies and gentlemen, to the gas chambers. Everything’s fine.’ He offered Sophie his arm, and as they stepped into the darkness that lay outside the circle of firelight, he tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Yes. Laugh. But just remember where it all came from and where it’s going. Don’t ever forget …’He paused to enhance the dramatic effect of what he was about to say. ‘… we’re still a family of clockmakers!’ They strode off into the dusk. My mother cast a confused glance at me over her shoulder, but when I grinned back, she frowned. And so, speaking in tongues, more than a little tipsy, leaning on my mother’s arm as if he weren’t my uncle at all, her brother-in-law, but an ageing Casanova, finally at peace in the company of the woman with whom he would spend his last years, my Uncle Herman left the library, never to return, and I was left behind, staring at the slow flickering of the fire, painfully aware of the walls of books that seemed to be whispering softly, ‘You’re all ours now. It’s you and us and the house. We’ll never let you go.’ When I left the next morning Mrs Sanders was standing in the front doorway, at the top of the whitewashed stairs. She had one hand on her hip and the other raised halfway above her head, but she wasn’t waving. I waved to her, hoisted my suitcase onto my shoulder and walked down the path, towards the trees, on my way to the bus that stopped at the bottom of the hill. When I reached the edge of the forest I looked round one last time. Mrs Sanders had gone back into the house. The shutters on the first floor windows were closed and the library curtains drawn to keep out the morning sun. In the late August light, the house looked like the head of a giant whose body was the hill I now descended. I could see him, the Titan, crouched, his arms around his knees, sound asleep for centuries. Moss, grass, shrubs, and finally trees had sprung up all over his body. But there would come a day when he would feel the blood flowing through his limbs once more and his body would stir beneath the earth. The trees would shake and the thick layer of humus and woodland soil would burst open. He’d flex his muscles and rise up and look out over the lazy, elfin landscape of the East, over the rippling farmland, the slopes overgrown with broadleaved trees, the mossy banks and the drowsy little villages at the place where two roads meet. ‘Here we are …’ Nina had said, when the house came into view. The snowstorm screeched around us. Nina’s hair flew about wildly, only her pale forehead, and now and then part of her face, were visible in the stream of red flames. ‘This is it,’ I said. I crunched my way to the entrance, a green door at the top of a flight of stairs that was no more than a ripple in the snow, took the big key out of my pocket, and jiggled it in the lock. In the hall, where the air was grey with snowlight, the stale smell of emptiness leapt up and hurried towards us. I leaned over and began untying the rope around Nina’s waist. I sank down on one knee and tugged at the rope with stiff, cold fingers. I blew on my hands and fiddled with the knot, which had been pulled tighter by our struggle through the snow. Nina didn’t move. She stood bolt upright. When I looked up after a while to apologize for my fumbling, I saw her gazing down at me patiently. Several more minutes went by before I had freed her, and it felt as if I had set myself free. The warmth of her body escaped from her coat and glided around me. I was amazed, so much warmth from such a slender woman. As if she were ablaze, as if it were no coincidence that the red hair kept reminding me of fire, but the visible manifestation of a heat raging within her. I straightened up, the rope still in my hands, a hangman who suddenly lacks the conviction to fulfil his task. Nina laughed like an anaemic angel. We stood on the black-and-white marble-tiled floor and looked around in silence. The twilight hung about us like vapour, the cakes of snow that had fallen from our coats lay on the floor without melting. It was nearly as cold in here as it was outside. I took a few steps forward. ‘Welcome to Bluebeard’s Castle, Ninotchka.’ She followed the theatrical gesture with which I tried to encompass the space, our presence, everything that determined this moment. When my hand was poised somewhere above my head, her face froze. Upstairs, where the staircase ended, the staircase that plunged down from the first floor like a waterfall of turned wood and scroll-work, rose a solidified tidal wave of wood and upholstery. The landing was crammed full of cabinets and chairs and lamps. I saw a large sofa, a linen cupboard, the red plush sofa from the bedroom that overlooked the garden, the secretaire, a sideboard, chairs-chairschairs. I took another step forward, in order to see better. My right foot landed in a patch of snow and I slid across the slippery marble. As I fell over backwards, my arms flailing, I saw something black shooting through the air. Nina’s arms slipped under mine and slowly we sank to the floor. Only then, half in Nina’s embrace, my eyes still on the ceiling, did I see, looking down on us, unmoved, impassively gleaming in all its black sovereignty, the piano, the lid slightly open, and behind that lid, barely visible in the murky light of the stairwell, but I knew they were there, the grinning row of black and white keys, the rotting teeth of the music beast. ‘What …’ said Nina, ‘what … is … that?’ We scrambled to our feet and stared up at the protuberance of furniture, the piano that hung there like an ebony cloud, a Dali vision come to life. I shook my head. In the grainy light I could see the faint lines of two thick ropes that had been tied around either side of the piano and disappeared behind it by way of a hook on the ceiling. I walked up a few stairs, until I was standing under the instrument, and peered through a gap between two pieces of furniture. The ropes ran down along the wall of the stairwell and had been secured to one of the pieces of furniture that formed the front of the barricade. One tug at the sideboard, the secretaire, or the linen cupboard, and the piano would come crashing down and flatten anyone standing below it. A trap, I thought, this is a trap. Everything was so precisely wedged together that it was impossible to push anything aside to get through. If we wanted to get past this barricade, we would have to deal with the piano first. It was the only way to prevent it from crashing down unexpectedly. Someone must have dragged the whole interior, piece by piece, to the stairwell, and then, slowly and deliberately, re-arranged it all. It must have been someone who knew Uncle Herman but didn’t have his best interests at heart. I ran my index finger along the sideboard. ‘Maybe we’d better sit down,’ I said. Nina was still staring at the barricade. I took her arm, pulled her along to the hunting room, and offered her the bed as a chair. The shutters at the front of the house were closed and the hunting room was so dark that the huge four-poster bed, where Uncle Herman used to sleep, stood in the shadows like a solid block. ‘N?’ Her voice came from far away. ‘What is that up there at the top of the stairs?’ ‘I don’t know. I haven’t been back here in five years.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why all that junk?’ ‘Why haven’t you been back in all that time?’ I looked around me, at the furniture that seemed so lifeless and grey. ‘It’s not the same any more,’ I said. ‘And I didn’t feel I should come back until I’d earned it. Now the biography is almost done. Now I’m allowed.’ She was silent. I looked into the darkened room. ‘Whatever’s up there, it hasn’t been there very long.’ I lit a cigarette and blew out a puff of smoke. ‘There’s not much dust on that furniture. Someone’s been in here and … It couldn’t have been Mrs Sanders. She’s not strong enough to drag all those …’ ‘Then who? A burglar?’ ‘I don’t know. The lock was intact. He would’ve had to come in through the back … But why? Why would a burglar build a barricade?’ I held the cone of ash from my cigarette above my cupped left palm and looked around. ‘The fireplace,’ said Nina. ‘What?’ ‘You could throw it in the fireplace.’ I went to the hearth and flicked the ash into the blackened hole. ‘Listen. You stay here, I’ll check around the back. And I’ll try to find some wood while I’m at it. If we don’t make a fire in here, we’ll freeze to death.’ She stared down at the floor. ‘I’ve got to go back,’ she said. ‘You can’t.’ ‘Let’s call someone.’ ‘There’s no phone.’ She raised her head and looked at me, her face expressionless. ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ ‘You’ll never find the car, and if you do it’ll probably be buried in the snow by now.’ I walked out of the room. When I looked back through the doorway, she was still sitting, motionless, on the big four-poster bed. She was peering down at her feet, as if she could see something that simply wouldn’t let her go. The house smelled like an auditorium. I inspected the kitchen and then from the kitchen window, the white lawn with the wooden shed where the gardener kept his tools. The thermometer on the windowsill read seventeen below zero. It must have been about five below in here. None of the doors at the back of the house had been forced, none of the windows were broken. I went to the library and stared into the murky light at the flood of books. The shutters were closed, the windows appeared to be intact. When I was back in the kitchen, I opened the door to the cellar. Behind the door, one foot on the stairs, I fiddled in vain with the light switch. I took the box of matches out of my pocket, lit one, and groped my way into the receding darkness. Slowly the floor came into view, and then the walls, and glass and tin, walls of tin cans, glass jars, bottles, shelves piled high with provisions, a fat red Edam, a smoked cheese, dried meat, sugar, salt, onions, dried apples, a string of garlic, crackers, candied fruits, toilet paper, a large cardboard box with bottles of detergent, bars of soap, indeterminate tubes of toothpaste, two bottles of calor gas with burners and detachable parts, and an assortment of candles. I stared, in the light of the dying match, at the display. Outside of a supermarket, I had never seen this much food at one time. I dropped the match, it went dark. I sat down on the stairs, elbows on my knees, hands folded, and let the chilly darkness stream around me, the cool, sweet smell I remembered. Uncle Herman never kept much in stock, because he never stayed at the house for more than three months at a time, and if he was there, he had Mrs Sanders order in as much fresh food as possible. Now the shelves were filled. ‘Herman,’ I said, ‘Nuncle, what the hell is going on here?’ I struck another match, stood up, and walked on. The vaulted cellar extended over the length and breadth of the entire house, divided into rooms that were separated by white stucco walls with semicircular passageways. The first room, a kind of central hall beneath the real hall, was once filled with virtually empty shelves. Now they were crammed. I unpacked the candles and stuck a few in my jacket. I lit another and in the flickering light I inspected the vault to the left of the main hall. One half was taken up by a mountain of potatoes, held together by three partitions. In addition to that: tin cans and glass jars of baked beans, carrots, kidney beans, corn, red cabbage, beets, sauerkraut, ravioli, macédoine, pickled mushrooms, salmon, tuna, sardines, corned beef, canned brie and camembert, dried apples, condensed milk, powdered eggs, chicken soup, stock, green peas, candied fruits, herring in dill sauce. And in addition to that: packets of rice, pasta, potato starch, flour, jars of coriander, dill, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, pepper, oregano, ginger powder, chilli peppers, capers, horseradish, pesto. The vault to the right of the entrance, the wine cellar, was as I remembered it. Racks from floor to ceiling, not a single free patch of wall. Thick, white-grey shreds of cobweb, and fine dust, powdery as ash. There was no cellar book here, but no one would have trouble finding his way around. Everything was carefully arranged, white on the left, red on the right, subdivided by country of origin (France, Spain, Italy), province (Bordeaux, Burgundy, and so on), region (Saint-Émilion, Médoc, Pomerol, Chablis, Margaux) and year. A barricade at the top of the stairs and enough supplies in the cellar to survive an atomic war. I couldn’t believe that Mrs Sanders had dragged all this into the house by herself. And why should she? Uncle Herman was never coming back and I hadn’t been here in ages. But what disturbed me most was that it looked as if that huge stockpile was there in preparation for something that was yet to happen. I turned round and went back from room to room. Jars and cans, neatly in rows, packets of sugar one behind the other, as if it had all been stocked by a diligent shop assistant. I couldn’t tell whether any portion of this enormous quantity of food had ever been touched. What I did see, when I got back to the stairs, was the old transistor radio I had brought along with me on one of my visits. It was lying behind the bottom step, half-covered with a spider’s web. I switched it on and heard the soft rustling of empty ether. I tucked it under my arm, blew out the candle, and went upstairs. In the kitchen, I turned the aerial this way and that and twiddled the large dial until I picked up the sound of voices. It was the local station. I put the radio on the counter and listened to the babbling. After a minute or two there were a few bars of music and a bronzy male voice. ‘This is Radio East, on air twenty-four hours a day. We’re here for you. Give us a ring and tell us how you’re enjoying the storm!’ Then I heard a man and a woman, who took turns answering calls from people who were stranded or had something exciting to share with the listeners. A couple of people snowed in at a petrol station phoned to say they had been living on coffee machine coffee, soft drinks, and chocolate bars since the night before and longed desperately for bread and cheese. A police spokesman reported that entire villages were cut off from the outside world, columns of trucks were stranded and disbanded in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was advised against using their cars. Then came the weatherman from the airport. The snow would continue all day and possibly into the night, he said, and the temperature, for the time being, would remain at around fifteen degrees below zero. That night he expected local temperatures to drop to twenty-five below. I stood at the counter and looked out at the endless snow. We had to get wood. In the horizonless white world that was forming outside, the blizzard snarled and shrieked. I stood knee-deep in the snow. The trees were white, the sky hidden behind a curtain of flakes so thick it was impossible to look up. The wind had blown drifts nearly three feet high against the wall of the verandah. Where the logs should have been, where they had always been, under the lean-to behind the kitchen, I found only the sawhorse and an empty brown wicker basket. I went to the little gardener’s shed, to the right of the house. There was no wood, but I did find tools, an axe wrapped in burlap, a couple of rakes, a hoe and a shovel, a grindstone, and empty wooden crates that had once held flower bulbs. There were still a few onion-like skins at the bottom. I picked up the crates and the axe and went back out into the snow, towards the kitchen. I stopped briefly to take shelter on the verandah. There, blinded by the blizzard, I wondered what to do. Chop down a tree? How long did you have to wait before green wood was dry enough to burn? White whirlpools spun through the air, snow that had fallen was whipped back up and formed new drifts in other corners. I clasped the axe firmly under my arm and went inside. In the kitchen I laid the axe down on the counter and looked at the cold gleam on the blade. I picked it up and slowly turned it around. Then I lit the candle again, tucked the axe under my arm, and went to find Nina. ‘I’m home …’ I opened the hunting room door a hand’s-breadth and peered in through the crack. There was no answer. I pushed the door open a bit further. ‘Daddy’s ho-ome …’ The hunting room was empty. The yellowy candlelight glided across the walls and bed. Where Nina had been sitting the covers were rumpled, but she herself was nowhere to be seen. I walked inside and laid my hand on the bed. Cold. She must have been gone for a while now. She had probably left after I’d gone down into the cellar. Why had she left without saying anything? What could possibly make her want to sneak back through the icy wind to her car, through a forest she barely knew? I blew out the candle, put the axe on the bed, and went into the hall. In the doorway, with the wind blowing me straight in the face, I peered out at the snow-covered stairs. Not a footstep in sight. I pulled my coat tighter around me, closed the door, and walked down the path, to the forest. For half an hour I plodded through the white storm. Although it was much less windy among the trees, Nina’s footsteps had vanished. It wasn’t until I had reached the spot where we had left the car that I saw the first sign of her presence. Under the white film of snow that covered the path glimmered the tracks of a car that had backed out, turned, and disappeared, skidding, towards the bottom of the hill. On the way back my feet went numb. It was as if my shoes were full of cement. Each time I took a step I felt the dull thud of something coming down too hard. I had left Nina alone while I went to look for wood and make a fire, and God knows we needed it, but now, on my third trek through the snow, as my feet and calves got soaked for the third time, I was beginning to reach the point where one is no longer cold, but scared. If my toes, fingers or ears froze, I would lose them. There was no chance of me reaching civilization on foot. I had to warm up, fast. The last stretch I began to run, half stumbling, nearly falling, towards the house. For a moment, on the great white lawn, I rose up out of myself. I saw a tiny figure, swathed in black, fighting its way through the whiteness. The house stood motionless in the whirlpool of snow and the little man in the depths ran and ran and ran. There is a God (#ulink_c54013b4-054e-5273-82f7-cf526e340c25) IN THE LIBRARY, by the fire, we ate with our plates on our laps. The Pinot Gris was at perfect cellar temperature and fragrant as a meadow in summer. The sauerkraut was steaming hot, but we were so hungry we gobbled it down. ‘Sauerkraut with mustard sauce and apples,’ Nina said after a while. ‘This is the first time you’ve ever cooked for me.’ ‘You could be right.’ She sipped her wine, squinting slightly. ‘It’s delicious. I didn’t know you had it in you.’ I bowed my head in gratitude. ‘When I was a boy I used to cook for the whole family. I didn’t think Sophie was any good at it.’ ‘And was that true?’ ‘Was she good at it, you mean? Oh, she was alright. She’d just lost interest over the years. If you have to cook every day of the week, it’s no fun anymore.’ ‘But you cooked every day, too. You just said so.’ ‘It was different for me. I cooked so I could think up fairy tales.’ Nina had put her plate down on one of Uncle Herman’s mobile bookcases and was holding the glass of wine in her hand. ‘I think it’s time you told me why we’re here,’ she said. ‘Why we’re here? You’re here because you gave me a ride and can’t get back. Though you certainly did your damnedest to escape. I’m here because …’ ‘Not the old Uncle Herman story again. What’s going on here?’ ‘I don’t know, Nina, I have no idea.’ ‘Then let me ask you something else. What were you just doing with that cup of water? What were you saying?’ Before we sat down to eat I had filled a cup with water and poured it out over my hands, three splashes over my right hand, three over my left. ‘The blessing over washing the hands and eating,’ I said. ‘A Jewish ritual.’ ‘Never heard of it. I didn’t know you were religious.’ ‘Religious … I’m not religious. I’m a sceptic.’ She looked annoyed. ‘So what’re you saying? You pray but you don’t believe in God?’ ‘The berakhah, the blessing, isn’t praying. It’s talking to God.’ ‘Whatever. If you ask me it’s like sitting on your bike and saying vroom-vroom.’ ‘So?’ ‘So it’s nonsense. It’s illogical.’ I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Sex is nonsense and illogical, too. For the preservation of the species it’s enough just to …’ ‘Nathan, shut up. What’s the point of doing all that if you don’t believe in it?’ ‘Because I don’t believe in believing. That’s what I call nonsense. But the rituals, the washing of hands, the berakhot over bread and wine, we’ve been saying them for centuries. They don’t serve any particular purpose. We only say them because we want to say them. It’s an exercise.’ ‘Exercise?’ ‘In self-perspective. In humility. In transcendence. When you say the berakhah over bread, you’re reminded of what a miracle our daily bread really is. You didn’t make it yourself. You didn’t till the land. You didn’t sow the seeds and reap the grain. You didn’t grind the wheat and bake bread with the flour. But it’s there.’ ‘You worked for it. You bought it.’ ‘But it’s still a miracle. People in other countries work for it, too, but they can’t get it.’ ‘You’re a believer.’ I shook my head. ‘I’m a non-believer, through and through. I distrust every form of religion. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see what’s extraordinary about the world.’ ‘The world is there.’ ‘And the world is extraordinary. Such a sophisticated … machine. So many people. So much technology. So many structures and forms.’ I hesitated. ‘For something that complex, it runs amazingly well.’ I leaned over and piled up the empty plates. ‘I’ll be right back.’ Nina nodded. She lay curled up in the chair, one side lit by the orange glow from the hearth, the other bathed in shadow. In the kitchen, with only a faint glimmer of light from the chinks in the oven door, it was a while before I could see anything. As I waded through the darkness, something shot past the window. I froze. I stared at the black square above the sink, searching. For the first time today it fully dawned on me where I was: in an enormous hunting lodge in the forest, on top of a densely wooded hill in the middle of the countryside, a hill straight out of some dark fairy tale. A bird, I thought, it was a bird flying past the window. I put the plates down on the draining board and went into the hunting room to light a fire in the big stone hearth. If Nina hadn’t returned I would have wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and spent the night in the chair in front of the fireplace in the library. ‘We’re running out of wood,’ said Nina, when I came back in. ‘There are a few more of those black chunks, but not an awful lot. What is that anyway, that black stuff?’ ‘The piano.’ ‘The …’ She was remembering the piano. I could tell by the look on her face. The image loomed up deep within her of the black colossus that had been hanging above the stairs, like a guard before the barricade of chairs and cupboards and tables. ‘My God, how did you get it down?’ ‘Let it fall,’ I said. ‘Sliced through the ropes and let it fall.’ ‘Wow …’ A glittering flickered in her eyes. ‘What a shame I wasn’t there.’ ‘Yes. You don’t know what you missed.’ It had been quite spectacular. Under any other circumstances, if I hadn’t been so cold and it had been of my own free will, I’d probably even have enjoyed it. After I had abandoned my hunt for Nina, I’d staggered up the stairs like a wounded deer and immediately begun throwing things down. Fire. The word blazed before my eyes. I grabbed chairs, seizing them by the legs and hurling them to the ground. One of them smashed to pieces on the stone floor of the hall, another bounded up and down a few times like a young stag on mahogany hooves, and then broke. It was followed by a hatstand, a stool and the drawers from a sideboard. The sideboard was the first piece of furniture blocking the way upstairs, a sturdy oblong, four drawers high, old oak, wrought brass handles. I knew nothing about antiques, but it looked Dutch, early nineteenth century. On top of the sideboard was a small red sofa, covered in plush right down to its squat wooden legs. On the seat were marks left by the chairs I had already hurled into the depths. Various odds and ends were scattered over seats and tabletops: a pendulum clock, a pile of framed photographs (Uncle Herman and Enrico Fermi, our family on board the ship to America, Sophie, Molly, my first wife). To the left of the sideboard my way was barred by a secretaire, and above that, a wooden colonial-style desk chair with padded green leather seat. The space on the right was completely filled by a mahogany china cabinet, taller than I was, the colour and gleam of fresh dung. I lifted up the desk chair and flung it over the banister. For a brief moment it occurred to me that I was standing here before a collection of antiques which had not only been assembled with great care, but which was also quite valuable, and that I had judged this construction of chairs, cupboards and knick-knacks on its wood content alone. It had taken me a while to decide what to do next. The barricade was as much of a puzzle as it was an obstruction. If I removed the sofa, I’d have access to the linen cupboard, I could bash in the doors and side panel and dismantle the rest. Then I could cut through the ropes and the piano would go crashing down without hurting anyone. I reached forward, grabbed one of the sofa legs and tugged carefully. The sideboard under the sofa groaned. When I looked up at the piano, slow patches of light were gliding across the gleaming black lacquer and the sideboard began to move. The piano needed the sideboard to stay up, the sideboard needed the sofa to hold it down. I walked downstairs to gather up the bits and pieces of wood, carried them into the kitchen, lit a fire in the Aga, and went outside. It was snowing harder than ever. I had to grope my way to the gardener’s shed. There, tired and wet and cold, I rummaged through the tools. I chose a rake, a hoe and a shovel, cranked up the grindstone and placed the blade of the hoe against the grinding face. Minutes later it was sharp as a knife. I threw a hammer, a chisel, a pair of pincers, and a couple of screwdrivers into a burlap sack, tucked the tools I had set aside under my arm, and walked back. Lucky for me, the shed was only about a hundred feet away from the kitchen door and I wasn’t so tired that I’d lost my sense of direction, but even at this short distance, anyone else would have been in serious trouble. The icy wind whipped up thick whorls of snow and drove the flakes in high banks against the back of the house. If it continued snowing like this, in a few hours’ time I’d no longer be able to get the doors open on this side. I’d have to climb out the window to dig a passageway through a bank. From what I could tell, the snow was about two feet deep, much deeper in places where the wind had blown drifts. That shovel would certainly come in handy. Back inside, at the top of the stairs, I climbed up onto the sideboard and the sofa. I straightened up and, balancing precariously, raised the hoe. Night hadn’t fallen yet, but dusk hung heavy in the hall and I could barely see the ropes. It was a long time before I finally got the blade in the right place. If I cut through the left rope, the one farthest away from me, the right side of the piano would come down. The piano would land next to me on the stairs or, by the force of its own weight, tighten the rope around the left side and hang there, at least for a while. Then I could cut through the remaining rope and let the piano fall on the stairs. I pushed the hoe upward and began to make cutting movements. The blade was so sharp, it sliced through the rope in almost a single stroke. There was a loud bang, the creaking of wood, the groaning of the rope as it was pulled tighter. But the piano didn’t just hang there. It swung forcefully to the right, seemed to come to a standstill, and then, with a powerful heave, came swooping back. It was a terrifying sight, the great gleaming black instrument swinging back and forth up there from the ceiling. The rope groaned loudly and you could faintly hear the singing of the piano strings. Then the barricade began to move. The sideboard shifted. Wood moaned, slid past more wood and made the disagreeable sound of things being slowly pulled apart. I aimed my hoe at the other rope, which was quivering with the strain, and pressed down. The rope was hard as steel. I took a deep breath and leaned my weight against the handle. Suddenly, before I knew what was happening, a black beast came raging down from the heavens. I fell sideways, grabbed hold of the sofa, which began tipping, and let go of the hoe. The roar of breaking wood, a crash as if a complete symphony orchestra had been hurled into a cellar. The whole house was filled with sound, piano notes echoed from wall to wall, pieces of wood that had flown up came back down again. It was a full minute before the rustle of silence had taken possession of the hall once more. Down below, the stone floor looked like the scene of a shipwreck on a South Sea island beach. The piano had exploded in a cloud of brushwood. Only the harp and lid had survived the fall. The rest lay strewn over the marble tiles in chunks the size of a hand or a forearm. I grabbed the rake, walked downstairs, and began clearing up the mess. On the way down I saw the marks of the piano’s descent. It had hit the banister, gouged out a piece of wood, then bounced off the stairs and shattered to bits. The staircase looked as if someone had rolled down from the first floor in a tank. Downstairs I picked up the piano lid. I leaned it against the staircase, grabbed the axe, and split the wood into strips thin enough that I could kick them to pieces. When I was finished I divided up the wood between the library and the kitchen. In the library hearth I built a fire with crumpled newspaper, the remains of a splintered crate, and the thin strips provided by the bottoms of the drawers. The wind shrieked through the chimney and tugged at the front door, which was pounding wildly in its latch. I arranged a few of the larger chunks of piano on top of the little heap of paper and splinters, and lit a match. The draught in the chimney sucked up the burgeoning fire out of the newspaper, through the brittle wood, to the larger pieces. The hearths in the library and hunting room, green catafalques of Italian marble, were deep enough to sit in. You could build a huge fire in those hearths, and I would have done so, if I hadn’t already known that Uncle Herman had made the same mistake when he spent a winter here in the fifties. The heat had burst the frozen flue and they’d had to send for a man from one of the neighbouring villages to repair the damage. By the time I got back to the kitchen, it was fairly comfortable. The fire in the huge stove had driven out the worst of the cold. I picked up the basket I had found in the gardener’s shed, went down to the cellar and filled it with several bottles of wine, a box of crackers, a wedge of cheese and butter, a tin of powdered milk, jars of spices, a coffee pot and filter, salt and sugar, and a handful of candles. In the library, in front of the fire, I sat and ate. I could still hear the front door rattling in its latch. High above me, where the wind played the chimney like a flute, rose a low, plaintive moan. I imagined snow whirling around the house, curling along the windows and walls and settling in banks that grew higher by the hour. I put the remains of the piano lid on the fire and watched as the flames tasted the black wood. The lacquer began to wrinkle, here and there a tiny bluish flame danced on a splinter. Then the fire shot into one of the chunks, and then another, and another. It gave off a delicious warmth. I closed the heavy curtains, put the plate of crackers and cheese that I had prepared on my lap, and poured a glass of wine, an ice-cold Nebbiolo d’Alba. The glow of the flames lit the room. Candles stood on either side of the mantelpiece, others here and there on top of a cupboard. Slowly, I began to warm up. My joints thawed, the wooden feeling in my knees disappeared. Nina had left at around five. It was now nearly seven. I had spent about three hours in the house. I was dead tired. The cold, lugging all that wood, the chopping and splitting, had worn me out. As I sat there by the fire, my eyes grew blurred and I was overcome by a metallic feeling of exhaustion. The flames illuminated the green marble scrolls on the mantelpiece. The hearth began to look like a gateway. Beyond that gateway I saw the soot-covered wall of the chimney, the paler spots where the fire couldn’t reach and the blackened patch in which the brickwork was no more than a tar-nished bulge. The fire murmured and sighed. I heard the banging of the front door in the hall as the wind yanked it back and forth. I closed my eyes and thought about the fairy tale I had been working on for the past few months. It was as if something toppled over inside my head. The Kotzker (#ulink_cc234a9c-9054-54d2-803e-69503d1e7fb6) HE WHO WORKS his way past five mangy chickens, Yankel Davidovitz’s bony cow, and the massive stench of the rubbish dump behind the house of Schloime Kreisky, the hide trader, will be rewarded with a view of the sagging door of the Kotzker shul. It hangs in its cracked leather hinges like an unwashed dishrag, begging for a lick of paint, yammering for a little consideration, and maybe a nail or two. Around the door the walls of the shul struggle to hold each other up. The mortar between the bricks is brittle and crushed, the beam anchors rusty, the high windows black with soot. But even before his fingers have touched the door handle, a glob of snot dangling from the wood, even as he stands upon the threshold, trying to decide whether this wretched pile of bricks could possibly still be in use, his ears are graced by the gentle singsong and soft murmuring of the morning service, his nostrils teased by the smell of books, candied ginger, smoking oil lamps and the wax with which the rebbe’s wife polishes the tables, the chairs, in short, the entire shul. Which brings us to the rebbe, the Reb, or simply, Menachem Mendel, the spiritual and social leader of the motley crew that constitutes Kotzker Jewry. Thirty years ago he came here from Pzysha and has been the rabbi of Kotzk ever since, thirty long years, the past ten of which he has spent in utter solitude, in the unrelent-ing, self-imposed confinement of his study. The last his followers ever heard from him, and that was seven years ago, was a furious, incomprehensible shout. Schloime Kreisky was the cause of this outburst, stinking Schloime, doomed to walk the earth amid the reek of rotting hides, hog’s piss and mouldering bark, Schloime, who had taken himself to the place of silence to ask the Reb what it meant when a slice of bread fell to the ground butter-side down, and was told in no uncertain terms that he was a ‘stinking swine’s tit’. Inquisitive as they are, those Kotzker Jews, the last-recorded words of Menachem Mendel were discussed at length, pondered, weighed, held up to the light, sucked on and chewed over until, at the end of a long night, Yankel Davidovitz slammed his palm down on the long wooden table in the middle of the study-house and roared, ‘But Schloime is a stinking swine’s tit!’ Whereupon the deeply wounded Schloime leapt to his feet and screamed at Yankel that while he might smell a bit unusual, at least he, Schloime Kreisky, hide trader of Kotzk, didn’t have daughters who disgraced the village by flirting shamelessly with every straw-haired fat-bellied Polak and that he could swear with his hand on his heart that he, Schloime Kreisky, would never milk an innocent cow dry like ‘some people around here’, to which Yankel shrugged his shoulders and said that his troubles were his own concern and that his cow, even if, God forbid, she should die, was still too good to serve as merchandise for a certain ‘hide trader’. From that day on, the silence between Schloime Kreisky and Yankel Davidovitz had been as profound as that surrounding Reb Menachem Mendel, and would have remained so, had not the Lord of the Universe in his immeasurable wisdom decreed that Schloime’s youngest son Mendel should fall in love with one of Davidovitz’s wanton daughters. Mendel fell for Rivka like a rotting oak before the woodsman. He was young, barely eighteen and, like most lads his age, preoccupied with finding some rhyme or reason in this madly spinning world. His eyes drifted searchingly through the tops of the drooping oaks around Kotzk and sometimes, in autumn and spring, but now it was autumn, Mendel could feel his heart pounding wildly and he had to stifle the urge to sing and shout. Not that singing or shouting (in Kotzk there wasn’t much difference between the two) would be considered strange, on the contrary, but Mendel was afraid of what might fly from his lips. There was a tumult raging in his breast that he thought it might be better to suppress. One autumn morning, Mendel arrived at the watering place along the road to Worki with his daily load of bark. He had been journey-ing since daybreak, and now that the sun was up and the sky had changed from purple to red to orange, he felt it was time for bread, water, and rest. He flung his load under an oak tree, scooped up water in the bowl of his hands, drank, sat down against the bundle of bark, and fell asleep. He began dreaming, something about the pile of hides behind the workshop. They rose up and came running after him, and he fell and they started dancing around him, but then he awoke and saw that he was surrounded by seven young women, all looking down at him and smiling. At first he closed his eyes, because he thought he had been captured by dybbuks and that his life on earth was at an end, but then he realized that their faces, a few of them at least, looked familiar. ‘Wait till your father hears about this!’ cried one of the girls. Mendel opened his eyes. Before him stood Rivka Davidovitz. He had seen her once or twice in the women’s section at the shul, a hazy figure behind the wooden grating. ‘And when your father hears you’ve been talking to me …’ said Mendel, but he couldn’t think of what might happen because he had the feeling that Rivka Davidovitz’s sparkling eyes were pulling him to his feet. ‘Then what?’ Mendel swallowed. He opened his mouth and made an unintelligible sound. The girls laughed and then ran off, Rivka last of all. He watched her go, she looked back, he smiled unhappily, she waved. He sank back against the bundle of bark and raised his eyes to heaven. Mendel and Rivka had met and, as young people who in some strange way are meant for each other often do, they sought each other’s company again and again in conspicuously inconspicuous ways. They met at the watering place, outside the shul, at Aaron Minsky’s wedding, and when spring had come and summer and then a year had gone by, the whole village, except for the fathers, knew that these two were courting. This went on until Yom Kippur, the time when one forgives the sins and misdeeds of others and repents for one’s own, when the poor Jews of Kotzk felt even more insignificant than they already were. On this High Holy Day the men of Kotzk sat in the shul in their shrouds, thinking glumly about all that had happened to them and all that they had done to others. Yankel Davidovitz was among them, brooding over the feud between himself and Schloime Krei-sky. When he had brooded long enough and the silence between him and the man sitting opposite him had taken on outlandish proportions in his guilt-ridden mind, he got to his feet. He offered Schloime his hand and said, ‘I’m the miserable swine’s tit, Schloime, forgive me.’ But Schloime, who had borne the smell of hog’s piss, tree-bark, and rotting hides ever since he was a boy – his father had been a hide trader, too – could not forget the affront. He jumped up, jabbed a forefinger into Yankel’s chest and yelled that he had nothing to forgive a man who, as far as he was concerned, didn’t even exist. Yankel, whose mind was shadowed by a breathtakingly dark cloud of sin, clapped his hands together and bowed his head. As he stood there before Schloime, who was trembling with rage, a voice rose from the group of men that had gathered around them. It was Aaron Minsky. ‘Stop this childish nonsense!’ he shouted. ‘The two of you can’t even make peace, when your own children have been courting for more than a year!’ It was as if Schloime had swallowed a shovelful of live coal. He dropped down onto a rickety bench, gasping for air, his head shaking, and asked if it were true, that his son Mendel, pure as the driven snow, was courting one of those Davidovitz witches, and which one … The commotion in the shul carried on until late that evening, until after midnight, when an exhausted Schloime and a shattered Yankel stood outside the door of the rebbe’s study, shuffling their feet like two boys who know they’re about to be punished for stealing apples. For a long time it was quiet, until finally Yankel took half, not even half a step forward and softly whispered the rebbe’s name. It remained silent inside the room that had swallowed up Menachem Mendel ten years before. ‘Reb?’ Yankel asked again. Nothing happened. Schloime, who had bags under his eyes from weariness and care, shoved Yankel aside, pounded on the door, and cried, his voice breaking, ‘Open this door, you moth-eaten brushface, miserable sod, tapeworm …’ Yankel stared at him in amazement. From behind the closed door came the sound of slow footsteps. Yankel made ready to flee, but Schloime’s hand bit into his kapok coat. The door opened slowly and the amused face of Reb Menachem Mendel appeared. ‘What did you say, Schloime?’ ‘Monkey’s arse, slimy old shoelace, piece of …’ Reb Menachem Mendel looked at Yankel and, tilting his head towards Schloime, asked, ‘What’s the matter with him?’ Yankel told him what had happened ever since Menachem Mendel had called Schloime ‘a certain name’ and what he, Yankel, had said and that they hadn’t spoken to each other since, but that their children were now courting and that since it had been Yom Kippur, he, Yankel, had wanted to make amends, but that Schloime had not, and that Aaron Minsky had said they should purge the water at its source and they thought … ‘… that this was the source,’ said Menachem Mendel. Yankel nodded. When Yankel Davidovitz and Schloime Kreisky came out of the shul later that morning, a group of weary men stood there waiting for them, in silence. Aaron Minsky who, since his marriage, had grown in many ways and had emerged as the village spokesman, stepped forward, raised his eyebrows, and said, ‘Nu, Yankel and Schloime?’ But Yankel shook his head and walked straight past him, while Schloime stared at him with vacant eyes and an astonished expression and then, shaking his head, trudged off down the road. In Kotzk the days slipped by and grew shorter and shorter, until December came and preparations were made for Chanukah, the festival that relieves the long winter gloom and points hopefully to the inevitable budding of trees and flowers, the festival that brightens the Jewish year like a light in the distance when a man has lost his way and is searching desperately for a place to shelter from the cold of a winter’s night. At Yankel Davidovitz’s house, spirits were high. The kugel was browning in the oven and the gleaming menorah stood on the table. The master of the house, surrounded by his seven daughters and wife, lit the first candle. Yankel stood before the menorah and stared into the swelling flame until it had stopped smoking, and then turned to Rivka. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘to speak of you and Mendel Kreisky.’ Rivka pricked up her ears. If what she thought were true, she would finally hear what all of Kotzk had been eager to know for the last two months. ‘When Schloime Kreisky and I were at the rebbe’s …’ began Yankel. His eyes strayed to the dancing candlelight. He shook his head and sat down in the chair at the head of the table. The eight women followed him respectfully. ‘We found ourselves in a room where books were piled high, on tables, on chairs, on the floor. The bookcases along the wall reached all the way to the ceiling. Books, papers, everywhere you looked. The rebbe cleared two chairs and invited us to sit down and then came and stood before us. Behind him was an oil lamp. The light seemed to wrap itself around him, like a tallith. “So, you’ve come to find the source?” Schloime nodded, a bit guiltily. His unceasing river of abuse had run dry the moment he saw the room. “Well then,” said the rebbe, “here is the source.”’ Yankel turned to Rivka. ‘There’s no stopping the love between two people, Rivka. Even if Schloime and I hadn’t been to see the rebbe, you and Mendel Kreisky would have been allowed to marry. Even a pauper with one cow and a stinking hide trader know that much.’ Rivka opened her eyes wide. ‘What the rebbe said had nothing to do with either of you, or with that senseless silence between Schloime and me, or with any of the other trifles one finds along the way. “What gives you the right,” said the rebbe, “to drag a man out of ten years of silence?” We bowed our heads. Schloime cleared his throat. “You’re still our rebbe,” he said. Menachem Mendel shook his head. “I haven’t been your rebbe for ten years. A rebbe is a teacher, not a hermit. I have nothing to do with you. I am the billygoat.” He’s lost his mind, I thought. He said, “Do you know the story of the holy billygoat?” We nodded. Yankel looked around at the eight faces gazing back at him, glowing with excitement. ‘You know the story, too. The old man who heads for home one winter’s night and the snow is falling and the wind is blowing so hard, he can barely see the road. He walks for an hour and then stops to catch his breath. He gropes around in the bag over his shoulder and realizes he has lost his tobaccobox. He tears his hair, he beats his breast. Ayyyyy, he wails, my tobaccobox! Here I am, lost in the storm, and now my tobaccobox box is gone, too! He shakes his head and sinks down in the snow. There he sits, his head in his hands, like a weary horse that knows its end is near. Suddenly, in the distance, he hears a heavy drone, as if the very earth is shaking. The trees tremble, snow tumbles from the highest branches, the night is filled with sound. The old man looks up, and there, standing before him, is the holy billygoat. Enormous. The biggest billygoat he’s ever seen. His curved black horns reach to the stars. The man claps his hands to his eyes and starts praying. But the holy billygoat bows his head and says: Cut off as much of my horns as you need for a new tobaccobox. Trembling with awe, the old man takes his knife and cuts out a piece of the gigantic horns. He thanks the creature and runs the rest of the way home. Nobody believes him, of course, but from that moment on, each time he opens the tobaccobox, people flock around him and cry: Doesn’t that tobacco smell delicious! Where did you get it?’ Yankel stared into space. ‘Schloime and I knew the rest of the story: after a while everyone starts going to the billygoat to get a piece of horn for a tobaccobox, until finally the goat is walking the earth without any horns at all. But Menachem Mendel said: “I am that billygoat. You carve up my horns to make boxes in which the tobacco will smell as delicious as that of the first man who saw me. But has anyone ever asked themselves where that smell comes from? No one. You search, you hunt, you explore. You think: To find the billygoat, one must suffer. Or: One must be humble. Or you interpret the billygoat’s every word, every movement, and think: The world is a whole, everything is connected to everything else, or you think that seeing the billygoat is some rare privilege. Nonsense, all of it. I ask you: where does that smell come from, what is it made of?” Schloime and I shrugged our shoulders. “I’ll tell you,” said the rebbe. “That smell doesn’t come from the billygoat, it doesn’t come from its horns, it has nothing to do with the encounter between the goat and the old man. That smell is in us, we smell what we are.” Schloime shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why can’t we smell that smell, or –” and then he looked at me, “why doesn’t anyone ever smell anything but stinking hides?” The rebbe lifted a pile of books off the chair behind a large table and put them on the ground. He sat down and gazed into the light of the oil lamp. “That is because, Schloime, we only think we can smell. We walk past the house of a hide trader and what do we smell? Hog’s piss, tree-bark, rotting hides. That is also what we smell when we talk to Schloime Kreisky because he, and his father and his father’s father, have spent their lives surrounded by hog’s piss and tree-bark and rotting hides. But do we smell Schloime? Do we smell the life he leads? Do we smell his soul? No, we smell only what is around him, what he holds in his hands, what lies about in his yard. The smell of Schloime himself, which is heavenly and sweet like cinnamon, is masked by whatever else wafts our way. And we allow this, just as we allow the world to churn in our eyes, but never really see, just as we open our ears to every random scream, but never really hear.” The rebbe stared straight ahead and closed his eyes. “The secret,” he said, “is not to smell, not to hear, and not to see, and then, when all roads to the mind are closed, to open the heart and make the world anew, to see it anew, hear it anew, smell it anew.”’ Yankel looked at Rivka. She swallowed hard. ‘Rivka,’ he said, ‘never call a person what he seems. Try to hear his true voice, smell his true smell, and see his true face.’ The girl nodded. ‘And another thing,’ said Yankel, turning to his wife, ‘the kugel’s burning.’ Who’s There? (#ulink_85bcb33d-fcf0-58e0-8214-d1451796e8c7) WHEN I AWOKE, the fire had died down to a smouldering heap. I got up from my chair and began piling wood on top of the remains. There was still enough life left in the red embers at the bottom of the hearth. The chimney drew the glow through the new layer of wood, and five minutes later the room was lit red once more by a roaring fire. I did my best to keep it low, but the draw was so strong that the flames shot into the chimney on the least provocation. In the hall, the door was still rattling. I picked up a few large chips of wood and walked out of the library to go and secure it. On the threshold, I stopped. The library had been heavy with the twilight of closed shutters and drawn curtains, so I hadn’t realized how dark it was outside. Here, in the hall, the sky behind the windows above the door was blackish-grey. An ominous, dull rumble echoed. From this close it was as if the wind itself had fists and was pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. Without knowing why, I looked up, at the barricade. I didn’t expect to see anything, no translucent ghost, no wild apparition in tattered robes with streaming black hair, yet my gaze was drawn to the first floor. Then I heard a voice. It came from far away, muffled. It was a voice that no longer had the strength to cry out, yet cried out all the same. I shook off my hesitation, ran to the door, and turned the key. A vortex of snow and cold flew in, wrenching the door handle out of my hand. I was pushed backwards. The freezing air tore at my clothes, flakes whirled around my head and I heard nothing but the howling, raging, whistling and wailing of the wind. Just when I had got my foot behind the door and was about to push it closed again, a dark figure blew inside. Nina lay on the marble floor like a fallen bird. She wasn’t moving. Her lips had a bluish sheen and her face was nearly as white as the snow that caked her jacket and legs. She had no shoes on and her stockings hung in shreds around her ankles. I took her in my arms and carried her into the library, where I lowered her into the armchair in front of the hearth. Then I ran to the hunting room. There, in the big linen cupboard, I found the sleeping bag Uncle Herman sometimes wrapped around his legs when he felt like sitting outside on a chilly night. The thing smelled strongly of mothballs. Back in the library I peeled Nina out of her coat and slid her into the downy envelope. She didn’t move; she didn’t even shiver. I threw more wood on the fire, took a candle and went into the kitchen, where I pushed open the outside door, filled the percolator with snow, and put it on the back of the stove. As the water bubbled up, gurgling and sputtering, I stared out the window. Now and then there was a lull in the endless storm and I saw the garden glowing blue in the moonlight. But then the wind would scoop up some snow and hurl it towards the kitchen and the dark hole above the lawn would turn white. I leaned over the sink and peered into the darkness. The drifts under the window and against the garden house were at least three feet high by now. The water in the percolator began to turn brown. I got out mugs, spoons, and sugar and went into the hunting room. In the cupboard, Uncle Herman’s old clothes lay in neat piles waiting for someone who was never going to come back. I chose a pair of corduroy trousers, a jacket, thick woollen socks, and a jumper. Then, the clothes under my arm and mugs of hot coffee in my hands, I returned to the library. In the cabinet where Uncle Herman kept his liquor, I found a bottle of Irish whiskey. I poured a generous swig into the coffee. Nina was sitting in the chair by the fire, the sleeping bag up to her chin. Her eyes were open and her teeth were chattering loudly. I held the mug to her lips and helped her sip. I had barely had time to think since she blew in. Now the first questions started coming. How, why? How long had she been pounding at the door? Why had she left? And then returned? What would have happened if I hadn’t heard her? I put the mug down on the table next to my half-eaten meal and looked her over. ‘Cold. I. Thought. I. Was. Going. To die,’ she said. I kneeled down in front of her, unzipped the sleeping bag and pulled her feet towards me. ‘These stockings will have to come off.’ Her head sagged jerkily downward in slow, stiff arcs. Her eyes were open wide, the pupils deep holes in the sparkling green of the iris. I slipped my hands under her skirt and tugged so hard on the pantyhose that she nearly slid off the chair. She kicked feebly and wriggled her way back up. ‘Can you put these on yourself?’ I asked. I held up Uncle Herman’s clothes. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes.’ She got to her feet, shakily, stepped into the trousers and pulled them up. ‘Better take off that skirt.’ She nodded. ‘That coat, too.’ When she had changed and was sitting in the chair with a fresh mug of coffee and whisky, I took hold of her feet. I slid her right foot under my jumper, next to my bare skin, and began rubbing the left one. It was like massaging a block of ice. The foot under my jumper was so cold, I could feel it burning against my skin. Nina dropped her head back and closed her eyes. After a while I helped her out of the chair and sat down in her place. I pulled her onto my lap, laid the sleeping bag over us both, and clasped her tightly. She sat on my knee like a mannequin, cold and stiff. It wasn’t until she had warmed up and the whisky began to take effect that she relaxed. Half an hour passed before the colour returned to her cheeks. Her forehead was beaded with sweat, her teeth had stopped chattering. The scent of her body rose from the sleeping bag. Her wet hair began to dry, the dark damp streaks grew lighter. I wriggled myself out from under her, tucked her back into the sleeping bag, and busied myself with the fire. It was a fire to be proud of, large pieces of wood that burned evenly and cast a fierce heat. In the library, black shadows danced against the orangey-red glow from the hearth. ‘What’s in this?’ she asked, after I had brought fresh coffee and sat down in the chair next to her. ‘Coffee in mine, coffee and whisky in yours.’ She smiled drowsily. Her cheeks were glowing now, her eyes were slightly moist, and they glittered. ‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘I’ll get drunk.’ I picked up the plate next to my chair and fixed her some crackers and cheese. She wolfed them down with the gusto of someone who hasn’t eaten for a very long time. ‘I thought you were going to rape me,’ she said with her mouth full. I dug my cigarettes out of my jacket pocket and stuck one between my lips. ‘I always let my victims warm up first. I’m no necrophiliac.’ ‘A cigarette. I must have a cigarette.’ Her voice was unsteady, the alcohol had set her adrift from the anchor of control. She leaned towards me and stared into my face. I lit her a cigarette, avoiding the piercing black pupils that were trying to bore their way into my eyes. She flopped back in the cracked leather and blew out smoke. ‘Why did you come back?’ At first she didn’t seem to understand my question. Then she raised her right hand and drew on her cigarette. She wrapped herself in a cloud of smoke and shook her head. A shiver ran through her. ‘I was nearly at the bottom of the Mountain. I drove into a snowbank.’ ‘You walked back up? All the way to the top?’ She looked at her watch. ‘Eight o’clock?’ ‘Sounds about right.’ ‘I drove away and then … what d’you call it … walked right back. It can’t … be that late.’ ‘It took you almost two and a half hours to get back here.’ She picked up the sleeping bag, which had slid onto the floor, and pulled it around her. ‘Less. First I tried to turn the car round. I revved the engine for at least half an hour, but I couldn’t get it out of the snow.’ She stared straight ahead. Her long hair glowed in the light of the flames. ‘First it moved, but then it got stuck. I sat in the car for a while, with the engine running. To keep warm. And then I got out and headed back. Kept on falling. The whole time. The wind was blowing so hard I had to hold on to the trees. I was scared that if I lost my way I’d freeze to death.’ She took her cigarette and breathed in the smoke as if it were pure oxygen. I could picture the trek over the snow-covered paths, the light slowly turning to dusk, the wall of trees on either side of the path and the icy whirl of the blizzard. If I had had to bet on the outcome of that journey, I would never have put my money on her. ‘And then I got here and practically beat down the door, but you didn’t open it!’ ‘I was asleep.’ She shook her head. ‘Could I have another cigarette?’ I felt around in my jacket until I found them. ‘We’ll have to ration them. There are twenty left. That means we can smoke five a day.’ ‘I don’t normally smoke, you know.’ ‘Normally …’ I handed her a cigarette and lit it for her. We drank and stared into the fire. ‘Five. What do you mean, five? You think we’re going to be here for five days?’ I nodded. ‘Maybe. Three, at least. I heard it on the radio this afternoon. This isn’t just another snowstorm, this is a national disaster. Entire villages are cut off from the civilized world, people are stranded in their cars, in weekend cottages and service stations. The snowploughs won’t get up the Mountain until last. If they ever get here at all. No one knows we’re here. This house has been vacant for five years, more than five years. Why should they even be looking, and why here, of all places?’ ‘So …’ ‘So we have to improvise. And ration. And plot. And …’ She sighed. ‘As long as we’re here and it stays this cold, we’ll have to keep gathering wood and keep the fires burning.’ I stood up and threw another piece of Louis XV in the hearth. ‘This is going to be the opposite of a holiday.’ ‘Why,’ said Nina, ‘do I get the feeling that you don’t mind?’ I shrugged my shoulders, picked up the bottle, and filled our glasses. The fire licked at a gleaming, dark brown chair leg, almost as if it were teasing me about this compulsory iconoclasm, the burning of Uncle Herman’s collection of ‘family heirlooms’. A soft hiss escaped from the fire and the wood began to burn. ‘Let’s make a deal,’ I said, my eyes glued to the dancing flames. ‘You tell me why you took off this afternoon and I’ll read you my version of Uncle Herman’s life.’ She was quiet. ‘Or we could always just not talk to each other for the next few days.’ ‘You think I’m here for the fun of it?’ ‘No, I don’t think you’re here for the fun of it. You’d much rather be somewhere else.’ I tried to tear my eyes away from the hearth, but couldn’t. At the centre of the flames, a hollow formed. The room around me turned red. A tunnel of black bored through the tinted glow. I peered down the tube and saw, way off in the distance, something glimmering, a fragment, no more than a speck. The walls of the tunnel began moving past me. The red faded, the walls moved faster and faster until they were streaking past and as I stared into the half-light at the end of the tunnel something began to take shape. I squinted and leaned slightly forward. I felt my body moving sideways, as if part of me wanted to fall and part of me didn’t. When I finally looked up, Nina was staring into space. She sat as still as an alabaster statue. Total serenity, even her eyes had stopped gleaming. She blew out cigarette smoke with the clumsiness of a non-smoker. ‘Regret,’ Zeno had once said, ‘is the most destructive human emotion. You only feel regret when it’s too late. If something can be restored, there’s no question of regret. Remorse, perhaps, or guilt. But regret, what I mean by regret, is mourning for the irreversibility of things.’ I picked up my mug. As I drank, staring into the black mirror of the coffee, the image of the tunnel returned. I put down the mug and took a deep breath. The smell of coffee mingled with my fear of what lay at the end of that tunnel. I reached for the cigarettes and pulled one out of the pack. My hand shook as I brought the tiny match flame up to light it. Nina was watching me. When the match went out, I threw it in the hearth and lit another. I looked at Nina. No, not at her, at what she was. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘If we want to stay alive, it’s time to gather wood. I’ll go and pull down part of that barricade.’ ‘Bar –’ She remembered the pile of furniture at the top of the stairs. ‘I want to get out of here,’ she said. I was already at the door. ‘You’ll have to wait until the storm clears, Nina, and the way it looks now that could take several days.’ She groaned softly. ‘There’s no phone, the car’s stuck. What do we have?’ ‘Nothing. No water, no electricity. We never had gas to begin with. We’re Robinson Crusoe in the wintertime.’ She got up from her chair and started pulling on the socks that were still on the floor. ‘I lost my shoes.’ ‘I’ll catch a goat tomorrow and make you a new pair.’ ‘Very funny.’ I grinned. ‘Uncle Herman used to have a pair of those indestructible hiking boots. They’re around here somewhere. If you wear two pairs of socks, they should fit you. He didn’t have very big feet.’ ‘There’s no light in the hall, is there? Are there any flashlights?’ ‘None that I know of.’ ‘Why exactly isn’t there any electricity?’ ‘I had it disconnected, years ago.’ Nina shook her head. ‘If you’re not here and you don’t use anything, it doesn’t cost anything, either.’ I was silent. Suddenly I thought of the calor gas burner that I had seen in the cellar. It wouldn’t give much light, but certainly more than a candle. Nina could hold it up while I wrenched loose part of the barricade and threw it downstairs. ‘Was there a lamp fixture?’ she asked, when I had explained my plan. She got up from her chair and came walking towards me. ‘A what?’ ‘You use that sort of burner when you go camping. If you attach a lamp fixture, you’ve got a lantern.’ ‘I don’t know. Didn’t see any.’ Nina picked up a candelabra and followed me. There were four of us in the hall. To our left, against the staircase and the high white walls, huge, misshapen shadows walked along with us. I heard Nina shudder. ‘It really does look like a haunted house,’ she said. ‘All we need now are a couple of burning torches and some creepy organ music.’ ‘Or a corpse in a closet.’ ‘Hey! Would you stop that?’ ‘You don’t have to be scared of the dead,’ I said. ‘The living are much worse.’ ‘God. You really know how to put a person at ease, don’t you?’ In the box of gas canisters Nina found a wide glass tube and a burner with a kind of wick. ‘This is it,’ she said. ‘You attach it to the bottle and then …’ ‘… there is light.’ She observed me for a while, then smiled. At the foot of the stairs I attached the lamp to the gas canister. Nina held the candles and gave instructions. I put the canister down on the stairs, turned on the gas, and held up a match. The burner started raging and cast a blinding white light all around us. ‘Isn’t this cosy,’ I said. ‘I suddenly remember why I never liked camping.’ Nina blew out the candles, put the candelabra on the floor, and picked up the lantern we had made. I grabbed the tools, the axe and the sharpened hoe, and we walked upstairs. My shadow glided across the ceiling, the brightly lit staircase, the hole in the barricade. When Nina came and stood next to me, the black figure shot away to the side of the hall. ‘What’re you going to do?’ she asked. ‘I think we should go left.’ ‘What’s left?’ ‘Two bedrooms, two bathrooms. My bedroom and my bathroom.’ I stared at the heap of chairs and tables. ‘And this.’ ‘Not much wood,’ she said. ‘No. I’m counting on the bedrooms. If we can reach even one of them and chop up a bed …’ ‘Isn’t there any other way to get wood? There are such beautiful things here. Can’t we save any of it?’ I shook my head. ‘We’ve got to hurry. It’s much too cold here. We have to think of ourselves first. If we start lugging all those beautiful things downstairs, we’ll never keep the fire going. The only other choice is to burn up the library.’ Nina looked at me. ‘Uncle Herman’s library.’ ‘And mine,’ I said. ‘And Zeno’s.’ Her face clouded. I stepped forward and pulled a chair out of the pile that was blocking the way to the bedrooms. Nina came up behind me with the lantern. Shadows wheeled around us, patches of black leapt up between the chairs, cupboards, and other pieces of furniture, and disappeared once more. When she was standing beside me, I raised the chair, a fragile affair on slender legs, and threw it down. It crashed against the marble stairs, the sound of breaking wood ripped the darkness below us. ‘What’s that?’ whispered Nina. In the distance was a faint rustling noise. ‘An echo,’ I said, ‘the echo of …’ The rustling came closer. ‘Who’s there?’ We both ducked. The lantern went clattering down the stairs. In the sudden darkness we heard the voice for the second time, a voice from the depths of something dark and far away. ‘Who?’ A rustling like the sea. ‘Nathan?’ My heart exploded in my head. I reeled and stepped into the emptiness above the stairs. As I began falling, my right hand felt for something to hold on to. My fingers groped about in the void, where once the sideboard had stood, but found nothing. Then I felt Nina’s hand. She grabbed hold of my sleeve and pulled me up. ‘Who’s there?’ I could smell Nina’s hair. Cinnamon, I thought. ‘Nathan, for God’s sake … What …’ ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ I cried. ‘Nathan?’ A rustling like the sound of the wind in your ears as you fall and … I could feel Nina shivering beside me. ‘Zeno?’ ‘Who’s there?’ I relaxed. I put my finger to my lips. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Who?’ ‘A tape,’ I said. Rustling. ‘Nathan?’ ‘A … God. A … tape. Zeno.’ Nina was breathing heavily, in and out. She let go of my jacket and leaned back, I heard the dull groan of wood. ‘Who’s there?’ I stood up and walked down the stairs. It was a while before I found the burner: I had to feel my way along the cold marble, listening to the escaping gas. I turned off the valve and inspected the lantern – the glass was cracked, the tank dented. I let out a thin stream of gas and lit a match. The white light shot up again. High above me I heard the distorted voice still intoning its fractured sentences. Who’s there. Who. Nathan. When I got back to Nina, I saw the glistening snail’s trail of a tear along her nose. I reached out my hand, towards her arm, but she turned away. Her back was tall and straight. I put down the lantern and began furiously throwing down tables and chairs. For half an hour, three quarters of an hour I was at it and all that time I heard the questions that Zeno kept asking me from the other world. If the voice hadn’t been drowned out every so often by the sound of shattering wood, I would have fled or, in a blind rage, seized my axe and leaped into the tangle of chair legs and armrests, chopping like a madman until I had found the tape recorder. When we were back in the library – I had added more wood to the kitchen stove and the fire in the hunting room – we stood for a while in front of the hearth. ‘How long will that tape keep on playing?’ ‘No idea,’ I said. ‘We’ll just have to wait until the batteries run out.’ ‘N? What’s going on here?’ I stared into the flames and tried to remember whether she used to call me that in the past, when she was a child. N. All the members of my family did, had done, though I never knew why. No one had ever addressed Zoe or Zelda or Zeno as Z. ‘You tell me,’ I said. She didn’t answer. Only the greenish-blue gleam of her eyes, the perfectly tranquil face and the red wreath around it. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t recognize this house at all anymore.’ I saw her gaze grow vague. ‘It’s as if I’ve woken up after being asleep for a hundred years and I look around me and there are things I recognize, but everything is different, just different enough to make me doubt what I thought I knew.’ There was a silence. Now and then a piece of wood snapped in the hearth, or part of the burning pile caved in with a sigh. ‘How did that tape get there?’ ‘I really don’t know. What’s the matter? Do you think I planned all this? Nathan Hollander’s mystery weekend?’ ‘A film,’ she said. She lowered her voice slightly: ‘He’s searching for the secret of his past, but the past doesn’t want to be found. Coming soon, to a cinema near you: Nathan Hollander, the movie.’ ‘Starring …’ ‘Dustin Hoffman, as Nathan Hollander.’ ‘I’m twice his size.’ ‘Okay, Jack Nicholson then.’ ‘I don’t have those acrobatic eyebrows. Besides, then we’d need a love interest.’ She looked at me for a while. ‘I don’t know any red-haired actresses.’ ‘Hordes,’ I said. ‘Nicole Kidman. Lucille Ball. There’s also this slightly whorish, but very charming redhead I once saw in the film version of Hotel New Hampshire. And there’s a beautiful Italian woman. The same hair as you, that fan of red curls. What was her name? Domenica … She played in that Tarkovsky film and at one point she begins to unbutton her dress and you see this magnificent alabaster breast. My God.’ I stared at the fire. ‘I think we’d better forget about that love interest. I haven’t got magnificent alabaster tits and your eyebrows can’t dance. Let’s do something.’ ‘What did you have in mind?’ ‘Don’t you have anything in mind?’ I shrugged. We fell silent. ‘The fairy tale writer doesn’t know,’ said Nina. She sat down and stared into the fireplace. I smiled wrily. She drew her legs under her and settled back into the chair. Then, her face raised to me, like a sleepy cat, her eyes narrowed, she said: ‘I expected you to at least tell me a fairy tale about it.’ ‘I thought you wanted to know why we were here.’ ‘I don’t want to think about the snow. I don’t want to think about that tape. Or about the barricade. Or about all that food.’ She opened her eyes until they were so wide that it was impossible for me to miss the import of her words. ‘And I don’t want to talk about Zeno, either. Didn’t you say this was a great opportunity for you to read me Uncle Herman’s biography?’ ‘Out loud? I thought I’d just hand you the manuscript. It’s a long story.’ She smiled. ‘And a tall one.’ She nodded. ‘It’s all about arrival and departure and Zeno …’ Nina’s gaze strayed to the fire. ‘… and the atomic bomb and …’ ‘The what?’ ‘The atomic bomb,’ I said, ‘I know everything there is to know about that.’ ‘The atomic bomb … You say it the way most people would say: I know everything there is to know about cars. Or football. Books, even.’ I could feel the wine, and the glow of the hearth. ‘Are you going to keep avoiding this? I told you before: do your Decamerone, give me the Canterbury Tales, unexpurgated. You’ve promised me stories galore, but so far all I’ve had are coming attractions. Please begin. What is the beginning, anyway?’ ‘The beginning,’ I said. I went to the reading table, behind the chairs, and opened my bag. The packet of paper I had printed out the week before felt cool, almost as though it didn’t belong to me. ‘Should I get some more wine?’ I nodded. The beginning. I sat down, the manuscript on my lap, and stared into the flames. Here I am, I thought, a fairy tale writer. A memory that stretches back to the seventeenth century, though I myself was born midway into the nineteen-thirties. Son of an inventor, who was the son of a physicist, who was the son of a clockmaker, whose forefathers had all been clockmakers, ever since the invention of the timepiece. Nephew of Herman Hollander, the Herman Hollander, nephew and sole heir. Brother of Zeno Hollander, the Zeno Hollander. Son of a failed painter – my mother – brother of two sisters, one of whom fluttered through life like falling cherry blossom and the other who was born with the soul of a nun and the body of a Jewish bombshell. I was the only normal one in my family and I’m the only one, except for Nina, who is still alive. When I die, no more Hollanders. What a relief that’ll be. Travelling for centuries and finally arriving. Nothing gained, but at least, oh Lord of the Universe, peace. The end of the century, I thought, is this – the door handle in one hand, my other hand on the light switch. I look round and see the room. Soon I’ll turn out the light, shut the door behind me, walk into the hall, open the heavy front door, cross the threshold, and leave the house. The beginning. What I’ve seen in the part of the century that I’ve lived through, and what I’ve heard about the part when my parents and my uncle were alive. Those who don’t know me will think that I’ve been everywhere a person has to be if he wants to say anything valuable about these last hundred years. But that isn’t true. No one has less knowledge of people, my kind of people, the country in which I lived and the world in which I grew up, than I do. This life is a mystery to me. I close my eyes and let the newsreel of my, our history, go by – images of departing steamers (why do I remember the ship, that distant past, in black and white?), flashing neon signs in the desert, the glow-in-the-dark hands of Mickey Mouse on an alarm clock, a house like the head of a giant and Gene Kelly in Broadway Melody, I close my eyes and see nothing that kindles even the tiniest spark of light in me. This century, this life, the history of my family, it has all passed me by and left me, like a mouse in the middle of Times Square, in total bewilderment. The beginning. Uncle Chaim once said, ‘Beginning? No beginning. We’re clockmakers. One big family of clockmakers. People of time. Time has no beginning.’ If there’s one thing I do know about, it’s beginning. Although Uncle Herman didn’t share that opinion. ‘What’s this?’ he once asked me. He had taken down a book of mine and opened it. ‘This is a beginning? “Kei was in love with the miller’s daughter and the miller’s daughter loved him, but one day Kei’s love disappeared. He gazed, as always, at his young wife, but her hair was like straw, her eyes, dull grey pebbles, and her skin, unwashed linen. Kei knew this wasn’t so, but that was how he saw her. He decided to go in search of his love.” What sort of nonsense is this? In and out of love in a single line. Where’s the development?’ I had answered what I always answered (because the question was the same as the previous year and the year before that): ‘Why do I have to explain why love disappears between a man and a woman? Half of world literature is already about that. I’m concerned with the other phenomena.’ ‘What phenomena?’ ‘The obscure ones.’ ‘What obscure ones?’ ‘I don’t know, they’re too obscure.’ At that point Herman would always start tugging at his hair. (Once he pulled mine too, when I was about seventeen, but he was so sorry afterwards that he took me into town and treated me to as many books as I wanted.) Uncle Herman didn’t like obscurity. He had worked all his life towards the clarification of things that were uncommonly vague and in the wake of that pursuit he regarded every form of art, even one as trivial as mine, as an ideal way of gaining insight. That insight wasn’t supposed to boil down to the fact that things were obscure. But they are. Between ‘Once upon a time …’ and ‘They lived happily ever after …’ the fairy tale unfolds, and even though it may seem that the reader, or listener, is transported by the events between the first sentence and the last, it is these two sentences alone that do the trick. ‘Once upon a time …’ and ‘They lived happily ever after’ reflect the way in which we see the world: as an event with an obscure beginning and, for the time being, an obscure end. Between them is our story, and our limitation, and although every fairy tale tries to weave together various events in order to reach that magical moment when all will be revealed, we are always aware that what we have read, or seen, is that which was already visible or readable, the representation of something obscure. I felt the weight of the manuscript on my lap. Uncle Herman’s story, the story of the entire family, the history of departure. There’s a group portrait in my mind. Left, Uncle Herman: his white hair standing out on all sides, his eyes coal-black, glittering like mica. Herman is eighty-five years old. He’s naked, white as freshly cooked spaghetti, pubic hair glistening. (A detail I can’t seem to forget.) Then Emmanuel Hollander, my father: a cross between Walter Matthau and Billy Wilder. He’s wearing a straw Bing Crosby hat, a pair of trousers that are slightly too short, so you can see his white sports socks, and below that, ridiculous gym shoes. He hasn’t got his shirt tucked in. Manny, as he likes to be called, is seventy-one. A pencil-stub glimmers behind his right ear. It’s easy to spot, because there’s no hair poking out from under his hat. Manny was the only man in our family who went bald instead of grey. Next to him stands Uncle Chaim, our great-great-grand-uncle, although that title isn’t entirely accurate. He was born in 1603 and died of woe in 1648. Chaim has something in his hand, the right hand, but it’s hard to tell what. A small man dressed in a peculiar collection of clothes: battered boots, a pair of trousers badly in need of mending, a coat like an old dog. Magnus, Chaim’s nephew, is standing beside him. Straight-limbed, lean and alert, about twenty-five years old. He has a wooden chest strapped to his back. In that chest are his clockmaker’s tools and a small pendulum clock. Then there’s me, Nathan Hollander, who everyone, except Uncle Herman, calls N. Once I was a little boy with bristly black hair, all knees and elbows, small for my age, skinny, as only little boys can be. Here, in this portrait, I’m a sinewy man. Six feet tall. Sharp features, deep-set eyes, a face that, as time went by, grew weathered and creased. The long limbs, head bent slightly forward, always someone to lean towards and listen to. The hair, bristly and grey, an unruly tussock of rimed grass. Next to me, far right, Zeno. He’s Magnus’s age here: as old as he was the last time I spoke to him. His hair has the soft coppery sheen that I remember like nothing else in this life. The eyes, I can see them as if he were sitting here opposite me: large brown eyes with moss-green flecks that, when they catch the sunlight, shimmer like water plants beneath the surface of a murky pond. His skin has the soft gleam of wax, his lips are slightly tensed. My group portrait. I call it ‘Travellers’. Because that was what we were. Each and every one of us. We came from the East, we travelled to the West. Uncle Chaim and his nephew Magnus, my most distant forefathers, lived in the region that now forms the border between Poland and Lithuania. There, in the dense primeval forest, where the bison still roamed and wolves and bears waylaid those who travelled from one village to the next, they made clocks. Whenever my grandfather, my Uncle Herman, or Emmanuel, my father, wished to explain or justify our presence in this place or that, they would say: ‘Clockmakers, every one of us. Travellers. Came from the East, on our way to the West.’ As if to say that the East was a sort of mythical birthplace, the womb of our … line, and the West, our Occident, the destiny towards which we, sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, were headed. Travellers. Uncle Chaim journeyed through the kingdom of the night, from then to now, and later, in the company of his nephew. Magnus left the East, roamed for twenty-one years all over Europe, in search of Holland. Uncle Herman led us, my father and my mother and my sisters and I, out of the old Europe, into the New World, and never stopped travelling. Manny brought us from the east coast of America to the west, from the edge of history to its heart. I myself never had a home and Zeno, my young brother, removed himself from the face of the earth. They’re all dead. And all of them, I have known and loved. Uncle Chaim and his hazy nephew Magnus, too, even though, by the time I was born, they had been history for nearly three centuries. They’re the only ones who are still with me. I used to be awakened by voices in the night, cries that were so clear and sounded so close that they echoed in my head long after I had sat up in bed. ‘Nathan!’ My name, clear as day. ‘NATHAN!’ But no matter how often I was jolted awake, looked around, turned on the light, or didn’t, I never saw a thing. For a long time I thought it was God calling to me across the black waters of darkness and sleep. I’m the sort of person who bears such possibilities in mind. It wasn’t until I was about ten years old that I discovered why I was hearing those nocturnal cries. We were living in the camp on the Hill, in New Mexico. In our cramped wooden house, I shared a room with Zeno, who had just turned one. I was awakened by a creaking sound. When I looked up I saw an old man sitting at the foot of my bed. There was a full moon and its bluish light bounced off the hard desert ground, through the curtainless windows, into my room. One side of the old man’s body was sharply defined and I could see that he was wearing a shabby black suit. His back was slightly bent. Something glistened in his eye, a small, gleaming tube that was aimed at his lap. ‘Bah,’ he said. A shard of moonlight shot across his stubbled jaw as he turned his head to me. He grinned broadly and raised his eyebrows. The tube fell out of his eye, he caught it without looking. ‘Too dark. Can’t see your hand before your eyes. Nice clock you’ve got there.’ He shifted his gaze to my night table. I looked sideways, at the green fluorescent arms of Mickey Mouse. I didn’t have to ask who he was. He didn’t have to tell me. Great-Great-Grand-Uncle Chaim, no doubt about it. ‘How are you, my boy?’ ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Magnus here yet?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen him.’ ‘Young people …’ He winked. Because he smiled at the same time, his face turned into a bluish white wad of paper, a ball of creases and shadows. There was a shuffling noise in the receding darkness and out of the wall came the ghost of a wanderer. He emerged from what seemed, for a moment, to be a forest path, and all at once he was standing in the middle of the room. ‘Speak of the devil …’ Uncle Chaim said. Magnus looked around and scratched his head. Uncle Chaim pursed his lips, shook his head, and gave me a meaningful glance. ‘Young people,’ he said again. ‘I’m young, too, you know,’ I said. He stared at me, and then smiled. ‘You,’ he said, ‘are the eldest.’ He turned to Magnus and raised his head. ‘Have the two of you already met?’ Magnus, who was busy winding up the propeller of the biplane hanging under the lamp from a piece of fishline, jumped. ‘Nathan, isn’t it?’ I nodded. ‘Magnus Levi,’ he said, ‘Currently going by the name of Hollander.’ Uncle Chaim chuckled. I was now sitting straight up in bed, my hair, a wild shock, my face pale with sleep. ‘What are you looking at?’ Uncle Chaim asked. I turned around and saw that I was still sitting in the same place, but that at the same time, I was standing in the room looking at myself. ‘Is that me?’ I asked. I looked back at the bed and saw the little boy sitting there and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Zeno lay in his own bed against the opposite wall, sound asleep. ‘Happens from time to time,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘They’ll think up a name for it some day. No doubt that joker from Vienna could explain it.’ ‘Calling Freud a joker is not only unfair, it disclaims the great strides he made in …’ ‘Oh, Magnus, shut up.’ ‘Sorry.’ Here I was, in my room, surrounded by the things that made up my universe, the airplane with the rubber-band wind-up motor that my father had built, the Mickey Mouse alarm clock with radioactive hands, two fossilized sea urchins, a cupboard full of books, and a map of the world on which I kept track of the Allies’ progress with tiny flags, here I was and I was twice myself and in the company of ancestors who had been dead for three centuries. ‘We can go about this in two ways,’ said Uncle Chaim. He was fiddling with the copper tube that had fallen from his eye. It rolled between his thumb and forefinger, from top to bottom and back to the top and when it was on top it spun round on its axis and rolled back down again. Warm yellow patches of light shot across its surface, liquid stars that seemed to float between his fingers. ‘We decide on what this is and you tell us what you think of it, or we forget the explanation and pretend this is all perfectly normal.’ ‘Uncle,’ said Magnus, ‘I don’t want to interfere …’ ‘Have you ever noticed, Nathan, that people who are about to interfere always begin by saying that they don’t want to interfere?’ ‘… but perhaps it would be a good idea if we first told the boy how we got here to begin with.’ Uncle Chaim tilted his head to one side and looked at me expectantly. I shrugged. ‘Do you think you’ve gone mad?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Do you think that other people will think this is normal?’ I shook my head. ‘Then that’s that,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Have you seen this?’ I stepped forward and saw, for the first time, what he had been working on when I awoke. In the palm of his left hand lay an open pocket watch. I came closer and looked at the jumble of cogs. A wisp of wire, fine as a hair, was sticking up through the spokes of a tiny slender wheel. ‘Overwound. Always the same. Scared to lose their grip on time, so they wind up their watches like they’re wringing out the laundry.’ Magnus bent over Uncle Chaim’s hand. ‘An anachronism,’ he said. ‘This is a waistcoat-pocket watch, late nineteenth century.’ Uncle Chaim turned to me and said, ‘Magnus is very particular about these things.’ ‘Anachism …’ ‘Anachronism,’ said Magnus. ‘That’s when something turns up in the wrong time …’ ‘Like us,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘For example,’ said Magnus irritably, ‘if you read a story about the eighteenth century, and there’s a car in it.’ ‘Anachronism,’ I said. ‘Exactly,’ said Magnus. ‘And in a way, we are too, just as Uncle Chaim said.’ ‘It all depends on how you look at it,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Why are you here?’ Uncle Chaim snapped shut the hand holding the watch. He stretched his face into a broad grimace. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘To help,’ Magnus said. ‘Bah,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘To tell you how it all began and …’ ‘Hm,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘We were there when Herman was a boy, too,’ said Magnus. ‘Herman,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Don’t talk to me about Herman.’ ‘But Herman didn’t want us.’ ‘Herman,’ said Uncle Chaim, ‘only believes that things exist if you can pinch them.’ Magnus laughed. ‘Your Uncle Herman,’ he said, ‘believes what he thinks, but he doesn’t think what he believes.’ Uncle Chaim shook his head. ‘Isn’t that true?’ said Magnus. ‘What?’ ‘That Herman only believes what he thinks but doesn’t think what he believes …’ Uncle Chaim opened his hand and looked at the watch. ‘I’m not so philosophical,’ he said. He turned to me, the ‘me’ that was standing before him, not the little boy on the bed who sat, his hands on the sheets, staring straight ahead. ‘We’re here because we’re here.’ ‘Ah. Old Testament!’ Uncle Chaim spread his fingers. The watch leaked out in copper-coloured droplets. ‘What do you mean, Old Testament?’ ‘That’s what God calls Himself: I’m here because I’m here.’ ‘Magnus. Nephew. God calls Himself something very different – I am that I am. Which can also mean: I’m here because I’m here. Or: I am who I am.’ ‘Yes, Magnus.’ He shook his hand. The last few drops of the melted watch splattered about. ‘Talk about anachronisms,’ Magnus said to me, nodding towards Uncle Chaim’s hand. ‘We’d better hurry, Nephew. It’s nearly daylight. Nathan?’ I looked at him with, I would say now, the candour of a child with an overactive imagination. Uncle Chaim smiled and laid his hand on my hair. Magnus came closer. ‘What did you want to say, Nuncle?’ Uncle Chaim kept looking at me. I saw his eyes grow small, then large and gentle. He shook his head. ‘What a life,’ I heard him mumble, ‘what a world.’ Magnus stood beside him, nodding gravely. Uncle Chaim sighed and stared down at the floor. Just as I was about to follow his gaze to see what he saw there, he straightened up and his face turned into the crumpled wad that it had been before, all grins and wrinkles. ‘You know what we do with firstborn sons, don’t you?’ I frowned. ‘Firstborn sons belong to God, says the Torah. That you know. You’ve read it.’ I nodded. ‘But parents can keep their children by redeeming them. The father pays five shekels, five silver rijksdaalers. His debt is settled, he no longer has to part with his firstborn son.’ ‘In our family,’ said Magnus, looking appropriately solemn, ‘that has never happened. In our family, it’s become traditional not to settle the debt to God.’ ‘Probably,’ Uncle Chaim took his hand off my head and stared somewhere into the half-light of the room, ‘one of our forefathers was just too stingy, or he forgot, or, even more likely, he was too stubborn. A stubborn family, that’s what we are, Nathan. The sort of Jews that say: Yes, but …’ ‘Whatever the case, we don’t do it,’ said Magnus, ‘and that means that we, firstborn sons of the house of Hollander …’ ‘Levi, we’re Levites as well, priests …’ ‘… that the firstborn sons of the house of Hollander belong neither to themselves nor to their family.’ ‘They belong …’ Uncle Chaim hesitated. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at Magnus, then wriggled his eyebrows and leaned towards me. ‘They belong … to God.’ Magnus’s eyes rested on me expectantly. I looked around, at the little boy in bed. He looked like someone who wasn’t there. ‘Okay,’ I said. Uncle Chaim placed both hands on my shoulders, then kneeled down heavily so his face was on a level with mine. ‘Nathan,’ he said, ‘Nathan. Don’t say “okay”. It’s not “okay”. It’s not nobility. Not a privilege. Highly dubious privilege, at best. You can go back. You can ask your father to redeem you. He won’t know what it means, but if you ask him he’ll do it for you. It’s possible, you’re allowed. Think about it.’ His face was a white-grey-yellow haze. I smelled his breath, a whiff of thyme. ‘It’s okay,’ I said, after a while. Uncle Chaim shook his head. Magnus shuffled closer. They were both standing so close now that it was as if I was lying under the blankets and sawheard-smelled nothing but the hollow I had made in the bed. Magnus was hay, fresh hay. ‘We’ll be back, if that’s what you decide,’ said Magnus. ‘We’ll be back,’ said Uncle Chaim. They stood there all around me and I shut my eyes in the scent of thyme and hay and the heat of their bodies, the feathery touch of their hands on my shoulders and head and … ‘Nuncle,’ I said to Uncle Chaim. ‘Yes, child,’ he said. ‘Can you see the past?’ ‘Yes.’ A cloud slid in front of the moon. It grew dark in the room and then light again, lighter than before. It was nearly morning. ‘And the future?’ There was a very long silence. ‘Yes,’ said Magnus, ‘we can see the future. But we don’t know if what we see is right.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Okay.’ The heat from their bodies was so intense that I felt myself gliding away in the paper boat of sleepiness. ‘God,’ said Uncle Chaim, ‘why this child?’ ‘Shhh,’ said Magnus. ‘It’s okay. He’s right.’ Just before I reached the land of slumber and my body went limp, I heard Uncle Chaim sigh, ‘Oh, Magnus …’ Not that I had an image of God. Not that I even believed in such a thing as God. I was a child who read the Old Testament with the thirst of a desert traveller and the hunger of a fasting penitent. At night, when the Hill was swathed in velvet darkness, no wind, no voices, now and then the scuffling of a lizard on the roof, the crackling of stones in the desert, at night I lay in bed and looked at the green hands of Mickey Mouse, who kept the time in my alarm clock. And through my bedroom, in the space between Zeno’s bed and mine, the Old Testament caravans trekked from Mamre to Canaan. On the Indian rug that covered the wooden floor, Jacob fought with the angel and lay in his well, staring up at the starry night. I believed in stories. I was a believer of stories. The question of whether or not God existed didn’t interest me. God was the least of my worries. A family of travellers, yet I never told anyone where I went each night with Uncle Chaim and Magnus. Life was confusing enough as it was. Manny worked day and night on something we knew nothing about and when he came home he fell asleep at the table. Sophie sat during the day with the other wives at Mr Feynman’s calculators, and my sisters, Zoe and Zelda, had reached the age when they were turning from girls into women and were practically unapproachable. And so I kept silent. I kept silent and I listened and as I listened I lost the distinction between then and now, here and there, reality and fantasy. That wasn’t so bad. Later, much later, I would make it my profession to be of another time, and as a child, in an environment where no one paid any attention to me, it wasn’t so bad to be considered a dreamer. And so I became a fairy tale writer, all because of Great-Great-Grand-Uncle Chaim and Cousin Magnus. Hand-in-hand, we travelled through the forest of stories. ‘The only way to understand the world,’ Magnus once said, ‘is by telling a story. Science,’ said Magnus, ‘only teaches you the way things work. Stories help you understand.’ The only person in the family who ever opposed my choice of career was Uncle Herman. I can vividly remember the moment when he first heard what I wanted to do with my life. That was in Holland. I was about fifteen and Herman, who had come to visit, asked my mother, his sister-in-law, whether she had found a school for me yet. ‘He’s been at school since he was six,’ Sophie had answered. ‘University,’ said Uncle Herman. ‘Have you given any thought to what the boy should study?’ Sophie had looked at him in amazement. ‘Herman,’ she said, ‘young people decide for themselves what they should study. Who they marry, too.’ At that last remark, Uncle Herman had gone slightly red in the face. He turned to me and asked what I had in mind. I said that I had nothing in mind. ‘You’re not the only one,’ he said. ‘But the question is: what do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘A fairy tale writer.’ We were sitting in the sun lounge. It was the middle of summer. The doors were open and from the garden came the sound of late birds who were letting other late birds know where they were. ‘Fairy tale writer,’ said Uncle Herman. ‘Fairy tale writer,’ I said. ‘Lord of the Universe,’ said Uncle Herman. ‘I’m good at writing fairy tales,’ I said. ‘Just how do you intend to do this?’ ‘What?’ ‘Become a fairy tale writer! What are we talking about here?’ The subject made him rather hot under the collar. He slammed his hand down on the armrest of the wicker chair in which he was sitting, his lips pressed firmly together. I looked at my mother. ‘N,’ said Sophie, glancing worriedly at Uncle Herman, ‘I think what you’re supposed to do now is tell him what you’d like to study.’ ‘Oh,’ I said. Uncle Herman closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the chair. He took a deep, slow breath. After a long while he straightened up again and after another long while he opened his eyes and looked at me wearily. ‘All right,’ he said hoarsely. ‘What do you plan to study, Nathan? Are you going to university?’ ‘To become a fairy tale writer? I don’t think that exists,’ I said. ‘No, of course it doesn’t exist!’ he shouted. ‘Herman,’ said Sophie. Her mouth had settled into a disapproving frown. ‘If you can’t behave yourself, go back to your big house so you can play lord of the manor.’ Uncle Herman bowed his head and nodded. There was a brief silence, and when he looked at me again it was as if he were seeing me for the first time. I turned around on Sophie’s painting stool and tried to look interested in a charcoal sketch on the easel. ‘Nathan,’ he said finally, ‘you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, but if you do something, then do it well. What I mean is that you shouldn’t just piddle around and see if it works. Think up your own course of study, your own training, so that you can choose from different skills and won’t be restricted by some accidental talent.’ ‘Hold on,’ said Sophie, ‘talent is no small thing, I mean …’ ‘Talent, Soph, is the curse of anyone who really wants to do something. Talent is the greatest handicap you can have. Why do you think you’re giving painting lessons to frustrated housewives instead of exhibiting at the Stedelijk? All you’ve got is talent.’ Sophie looked at him with an expression that gave new meaning to the word freeze-dry. I didn’t understand what Uncle Herman was talking about. I wanted to be a fairy tale writer, because I had discovered that I could do it. What more did he want? That I should first be unable to do it so that I would want it all over again? As I thought this, I slowly began to realize the significance of Uncle Herman’s words. That was probably the most important day of my life. Not only did I learn that you had to mistrust talent if you truly wanted to discover anything, I also realized that I had stumbled upon an outlook on life which may or may not have been Uncle Herman’s, but which certainly seemed worth a try. And so I wrote my fairy tales and the longer I wrote, the deeper Uncle Herman’s strange paradox sank in and the harder it got. By the time I was eighteen I couldn’t do a thing. If I had to make a shopping list – the household chores had been divided up and I was the cook – I spent an hour at the kitchen table mulling over the correct sequence of butter, cheese, and eggs. It was the year when we ate almost nothing but omelettes and pasta with red sauce. I had long since stopped writing fairy tales by then. I cooked, stared at the pans on my stove, the sauce bubbling, the eggs setting, the garlic browning and the blue steam rising from the slow-warming olive oil, while inside me, the words formed mile-long caravans that trekked through the desert of my authorship. The fact that it turned out all right in the end, I owed to Uncle Chaim. One night I was sitting in my room, reading, when he stepped out of the bookcase and posted himself next to my chair. ‘Kabbala …’ he said after a while, breathless. ‘The Zohar,’ I said. ‘Forbidden,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Not until a man is forty.’ I rubbed my sandy eyes and bowed my head. ‘Nuncle,’ I said. ‘Didn’t you once tell me I was the eldest?’ He tore himself away from the book in my lap and looked at me. ‘A good memory,’ he said, ‘can be a blessing. And a curse.’ I closed my book and let my head sink down onto the back of my chair. ‘I know, Nuncle, I know. But it’s there and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ ‘The head,’ he said. ‘Must be covered. With Kabbala, always covered. Always.’ I nodded. Uncle Chaim waited while I stood up and got my yarmulke from the shelf of Jewish books. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘But now: why?’ ‘Why Kabbala?’ I shrugged. ‘Maybe I’m just looking for the path to enlightenment.’ I realized that I sounded somewhat bitter. Uncle Chaim had heard it, too. ‘Write, child. Don’t read. Write.’ There was a stumbling noise behind us. When we looked round, we saw Magnus standing by my bed. ‘You’re still awake,’ he said. I spread my arms. He walked towards us. When he was standing next to Uncle Chaim, he cast a quick glance at the book in my lap. He pursed his lips and looked at his uncle. ‘Write,’ said Chaim again. ‘A writer writes, he doesn’t read.’ ‘Cooks eat, too,’ I said. Uncle Chaim shook his head. ‘To keep from starving. To taste. To know. But not to while away an evening.’ ‘He can’t write anymore,’ said Magnus. ‘He’s searching for True Writing.’ ‘Isn’t any,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Just stories.’ Magnus drew himself up. ‘Flaubert said …’ ‘Shah! That’s after your time, Magnus. And before his. Nathan only has to worry about himself. He has to do, not think. Listen. Two men are on their way from one town to another. Just happen to meet. One rich. One poor. Time for the evening prayer and one of them recites the Shemona Esrei, from memory. Long. Very long. The other man puts his hand over his eyes. Recites the alphabet. The first man laughs at his companion: “You call that praying, you ignorant fool?” The other man says: “I can’t pray, so I give God the letters and he makes a prayer out of them.” That night the first man falls gravely ill. As if his life is pouring out of him. Cries out to God: “What have I done to deserve this?” He hears a voice that says: “This is because you mocked my servant.” The sick man says: “But he couldn’t even pray!” The voice: “You’re mistaken. He could pray, for he did it with all his heart. You know the phrases and words, but you’re all mouth and no heart.” He’s right, I thought. The motivation is important, too. And so, by way of a detour through the Kabbala, which I read because there was nothing more I could do, I dug out my old stories and got back to work. Two years later my first collection of fairy tales was published. The beginning. There are so many beginnings. Beginnings? Beginnings. Six. All six, somewhere else. All six, at a different moment. And for a clear understanding of our history I shall have to tell them all at the same time. Uncle Chaim’s beginning began in the spring of 1648, that of his nephew, Magnus, in the autumn of that same year. My father began in 1929, midsummer night. Uncle Herman’s beginning, I’d place in 1945, in the springtime. Zeno began when he ended, in 1968, and I myself have only just begun, this morning. Out of the plane, blinding snow everywhere, the pier a white catafalque, and the travellers shuffling, groping their way inch by inch through the wind-driven curtains. This is Holland, but the wind is Siberian and the snow, from distant polar regions. Cold, my children, cold as a terrible dream about explorers lost in the wilderness. Roald Amundsen travelling on foot to the South Pole. Nobile, stranded with his dirigible. Scott and his starving, frozen men, waiting to die. We lean into the wind, our coats held closed at the throat, and struggle through the snowstorm. Come. Come, we’re off. To the beginning. ‘I don’t know what sort of bottle this is,’ said Nina, ‘but it looks intriguing.’ It was as if my chair had suddenly shot forward, like someone sitting in the car of a roller coaster, the long-drawn moment of motionlessness at the top of the rails and then, bang! down he goes. A tremor coursed through my body, so violent that Nina ran to my side. The manuscript lay around my feet like a landscape of ice floes. ‘N?’ She laid her hands on my shoulders and bent forward, her face close to mine. ‘What is it? Everything all right?’ ‘Huh.’ I couldn’t speak. The breath sank in my chest and I leaned my head on the back of the chair. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I was lost in thought. I …’ ‘For a moment I thought you were sleeping.’ She put the bottle on the table between our two chairs and crouched down in front of me. ‘You were sitting here, completely limp,’ sliding the papers together, ‘but I could see you had your eyes open, so …’ ‘I was far away.’ Uncle Chaim, Magnus, Herman, Zeno – they echoed in my mind, they were like wisps of smoke, slowly dissolving. ‘Very. Very far away.’ I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. ‘I’m back now,’ I said, when I had opened them again. ‘N?’ She left the manuscript for a moment and put her hands on my thighs. She looked at me closely. ‘Have you ever had this before?’ ‘I’m a fairy tale writer,’ I said. ‘It’s my business to be far away.’ Nina jumped to her feet. ‘Why the hell can’t you Hollanders ever give a straight answer?’ ‘Yes. You’re right.’ I reached for the pile of paper and began putting the pages in order. When I turned round Nina was sitting cross-legged, her arms folded, in her chair. ‘I’m sorry. Yes, I’ve had it before. Many times. But it’s got worse. Has its advantages, though.’ I picked up the bottle she had brought in and looked at the label. ‘What kind of advantages?’ ‘Sometimes I get lost in a story.’ ‘What kind of story?’ ‘A fairy tale.’ She looked at me with the expression of a lab technician who can’t quite believe that this just came out of the test tube. ‘Are you telling me that you … that you drift off and then dream a fairy tale?’ ‘Daydream.’ ‘Daydream.’ I nodded. ‘I’ve always wondered where you got them from. Good thing you’re not married.’ ‘What?’ ‘Married, you know? To a woman?’ ‘You mean that I wouldn’t make a very companionable husband.’ ‘Companionable …’ she said. ‘No, I mean you’re just unconscious half the time.’ ‘Where did you find this?’ I held up the bottle. ‘In the cellar. I spent a long time poking around. It was somewhere down at the bottom.’ The bottle was grey with dust, but I recognized it immediately. It was the red Aloxe Corton I had once given Uncle Herman for his birthday. ‘The corkscrew is still in the kitchen.’ ‘I’ll go and get it.’ She was already at the door, when I called to her. ‘Aren’t you afraid, all by yourself?’ ‘Of course I am, but there’s not much point in thinking about it. And I’ve just spent about half an hour alone in that cellar. I’ve already stood the test.’ I had thought that she had been gone for five minutes. Half an hour. I had lost half an hour of my consciousness. As if someone had thrown a switch and I had disappeared from ‘now’ and sunk away into my family’s past. The line between the world of the living and the dead, I thought, is growing thinner all the time. When Nina returned with the corkscrew I cut the seal off the bottle and said, ‘This wine is nearly twenty years old. It might be past its best by now. The white …’ I began twisting the metal spiral into the neck. ‘… the white is renowned. One of the greatest …’ The cork was wedged in tightly. ‘… white wines. Charles the Fifth used to drink it, I’ve been told.’ It came out in one piece. Because the bottle had been lying in the rack for so long there was some deposit on the cork, but I saw no crystals. I picked up a glass and poured, the light of a candle behind the bottleneck. The wine was deep red in colour, not a trace of cloudiness. As I turned the glass around and looked at the liquid, I felt Nina’s gaze. I leaned over and sniffed. Then I took a careful sip. Somewhere in the distance a forest loomed up, with plenty of wood for chopping. I immediately thought of a story, ‘Blueberries’, by Tolstoy. Deep in the slow whirling of flavours and aromas I could clearly taste them: blueberries. ‘There is a God,’ I said. ‘N,’ she said, ‘you’re whining.’ Uncle Herman had good taste, completely unlike his brother, though I could certainly appreciate Manny’s preference for corned beef sandwiches with mustard and dill chips and a large glass of Budweiser. The difference was, I thought, as I drank my wine, that one sense of taste had a deeper richness, and the other, a more superficial one. When you got right down to it, I thought, that was probably the difference between America and Europe. We were accustomed to the struggle to reach the depths and, once there, to seek the things we were searching for. The Americans had brought that depth to the top and created a surface that was far richer and more complex than ours. For a moment I wondered what that meant for me, a product of both these cultures. ‘The tape is still running.’ ‘I’m not surprised.’ ‘Should I throw more wood on the fire?’ ‘Please. But be careful.’ She got a few bits and pieces and added them to the blazing pile in the hearth. ‘Now,’ she said, when she was sitting down again. ‘The story.’ ‘What would you like to hear? Everything, from the very beginning, or would you rather I choose something?’ ‘Something about yourself, then. Don’t you think that would be appropriate?’ ‘I don’t really play a part in the story of my family. I was there, that’s all. That’s my second talent: I’m always there.’ ‘Then tell me where you’ve been.’ ‘The atom bomb, for instance.’ She looked at me, and when our eyes met I saw that a trace of fearful doubt had crept into her gaze. ‘I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was there at the first test explosion.’ ‘In Japan?’ ‘No, that wasn’t the first. In the desert, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.’ ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Supposing … no, I believe you, but … would you please begin at the beginning?’ ‘The problem is, you never quite know where the beginning is, in this family …’ ‘Somewhere,’ she said, louder now. ‘Begin somewhere, anywhere, and work your way forward. Chronologically. All this jumping back and forth is driving me mad.’ I drank my wine and tried to forget Tolstoy’s blueberries. Nina sat curled up in her chair, head bowed, the heavy red hair like a hood around her face and over her shoulders. I filled our glasses, we drained them. We smoked another cigarette. Outside, the wind grabbed hold of the shutters and ran its hands along the house looking for chinks, holes, some way to get in. It wailed and moaned like a restless spirit. Around us the darkness bowed over the glow of the flames and it was as if we were sitting in a cave: the storyteller and the last member of his tribe, waiting until the fire, and finally they, too, turned to ashes. A Land of Milk and Butter (#ulink_bedd8c0c-7201-598b-8a50-54804d9c7948) IT ALL BEGAN with Great-Great-Grand-Uncle Chaim Levi and his nephew Magnus. Uncle Chaim was a clockmaker, Magnus came walking all the way from Poland, his tool chest on his back, to build a new life for himself in the Lowlands. My great-grandfather, who was also a clockmaker, and my grandfather, the physicist, prided themselves on the fact that the men in our family, since the prehistory of clockwork, had all been people of time. Whenever my grandfather was holding forth and wanted to lend weight to his argument, he would bring up Magnus. Magnus Levi had learned the trade from Uncle Chaim, who had invented the pendulum clock, an innovation that made so little impression in seventeenth-century Lithuania that Uncle Chaim had flung it under his workbench, forgot about it, and was promptly forgotten himself. According to Uncle Herman, that pendulum clock was the first example of a familial talent to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Clockmakers, that’s what we were, even in the days when time was a rare commodity. Ragged tinkers who travelled from town to village and village to town, the clocks in a chest on their back, the little tools rolled up in canvas. Always on the road and always the tinkling of the bells of the wall clocks, the faint thrumming of the rods in the mantel clocks, the chickechickechick of the pocket watches. They carried time on their backs. Time travelled with them. Time was what they lived on. And for some, time was why they died. A distant ancestor once repaired a steeple clock, somewhere in the East, in a provincial capital on the edge of a Steppe. The clockwork had run riot and every few minutes you heard the sonorous chiming of the quarter hour or the rich blur of strokes that told the hour. The smith, at risk to his own life, had tried to disconnect the striking mechanism, but had got no further than muffling the sound with an old gunnysack. By the time the clockmaker arrived, he had nearly been beaten to a pulp. In the village, no one (except the deaf sexton) had slept for two days. Men, women, children, even animals had bags under their eyes and snarled and snapped at each other. Happy marriages threatened to dissolve, many women had fled to their relatives in other villages, the cows had stopped giving milk. There wasn’t a bird to be seen for miles around. The clockmaker was received by a hoarse-voiced village elder. They shook hands, drank a glass of tea, and listened as the old man shouted out the details of what had happened. Then he plugged up his ears with wax and climbed the tower. The smith went with him. But when they reached the top, the clock would not be silenced. The two men climbed back down again, went to the village elder, and told him what was wrong. ‘We’ll just have to wait,’ the clockmaker said, ‘until the works have wound down.’ The village elder shook his head and said that wasn’t possible. Tomorrow was the annual fair and if the clock hadn’t stopped by then, the merchants would all go running. The village would lose such a large portion of their income that they wouldn’t be able to afford the sowing seed for the following year. The clockmaker looked at the smith, spread his arms, and climbed back up. There, between clock and clapper, he met his death. Uncle Chaim was a taciturn man. He sat in his little wooden house, repaired timepieces, and shrugged his shoulders. ‘History,’ he told the young Magnus, ‘is like a clock. You think it’s getting later, but the hands are always moving in the same circle. What’s on top today, is on the bottom tomorrow.’ Magnus, who often came to see him in the little house at the edge of the woods and helped him out, or leafed through the old books that lay under the bed, Magnus would think back on what had happened, when a band of Cossacks had struck off the head of Chaim’s wife because she happened to be standing outside the door with a basket of washing when the horsemen thundered past. And he also thought of the village on the other side of the forest that, one day, was no longer there – burned to the ground. Whenever Magnus was with his uncle, in the shaky wooden house, hidden among the trees at the edge of the forest, Chaim sat him down on the cracked bench beside the door and told him about the past, wading back and forth across the grey wooden floor, taking up clocks, picking up a screw here and there and putting it in one of the many drawers and boxes on the table under the window. Magnus sat down on the bench, which was so old it gleamed like dung, and listened. They drank tea out of glasses white with lime. The old man told him of the days when there weren’t any Cossacks and everything was green and fields of sunflowers bloomed just outside the village, green stalks as thick as your arm with heads as big as wheels and in those heads the black spiral that nearly sucked you in, right into the heart of the sun … Magnus listened and thought: It’s all nostalgia, regret for lost time. Great-Great-Grand-Uncle Chaim’s favourite story took place in the days when he was just a boy and lived in a town in the North, on the river harbour. His parents owned a modest house on the quay. At the end of the cart track that ran along the house, where the deep furrows branched off to the right and disappeared in the first hesitant overgrowth of the great forest, stood a small wooden structure that looked like a cowshed and was inhabited by a woodsman and his three daughters. Chaim spent nearly all his days in the woods behind that odd-looking house, where he and the eldest of the three girls would think up long, perilous adventures. ‘It wasn’t a very big forest,’ he said. ‘Maybe two days around, but when you’re ten years old you can wander about a forest like that for a week and think you’re in another country. We usually pretended we had to make a dangerous journey, on horseback, straight through the Carpathians, through the forests of Lithuania. Early in the morning I would come for Freide and we’d go to the kitchen and fill a knapsack with provisions: some bread and cheese, a bottle of water. Then we’d mount our horses, the ones we didn’t have – we were just pretending – and ride out. First a long way over the firebreak, but soon we were among the trees, where it was dark and quiet. Usually we wouldn’t be home until suppertime, when it started getting dark. I can’t remember us talking much. We rode and rode, and were especially careful when our horses had to go downhill. Such fun we had. But the best part about the forest was clearing the land. ‘At the end of the summer,’ said Chaim, ‘we’d all go into the forest. The woodsman, Freide and her sisters and I would spend the whole day gathering brushwood. We sawed down sick trees, cut back gnarled branches, cleared the paths … In the afternoon we ate in the open field, right next to the lane, and in the evening, when we were done, we brought our brushwood there and made a big fire. You mustn’t forget, it was getting colder by then. Late September. During the day the sun still shone brightly, but the evenings were cool. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and the woodsman and I built a campfire. First a pile of dry leaves, covered with twigs, then a sort of wigwam made of branches, and on top of that heavy, gnarled boughs, as thick as an arm and often still green. After a while we had a big cone of wood. We left a small opening at the bottom where we could stick in a dry, burning branch. The campfire began to burn from inside out, from little to big, from dry to wet. It usually wasn’t long before we had a huge fire, and we roasted potatoes in the ashes. Above us, and in the forest, it had gone completely dark and we sat in that clearing, lit by the flames. Shadows danced among the trees. The sparks from the fire flew up to the treetops and burst into pieces. We would sometimes feel a little scared. As we pricked our potatoes on sticks and held them in the ashes, the woodsman told us ghost stories. I wish you could have seen it.’ That’s what he always said, Uncle Chaim: ‘I wish you could have seen it.’ Magnus saw other things. One day when he arrived at Uncle Chaim’s house he found a bare patch with smouldering stumps of charred wood where the house had been. The clockmaker was nowhere in sight. Magnus walked among the half-burnt pieces of wood, through the ankle-deep layer of damp ash, but found nothing to remind him of the little house. The bench was gone, the table, the shaky wooden bed with the old books … He picked up a stick and poked around in the blackened mess. Just as he was about to leave, he saw something lying in the scorched coppice, under an oak. It was Chaim’s instrument kit, the chest he used to carry on his back when he travelled about the country repairing clocks in remote villages and towns. It had been cast aside, landed in the bushes, and been forgotten. Magnus slung the chest onto his back and set out on his journey. ‘Cossacks,’ said Uncle Chaim, when I asked him once what had happened. ‘Beware of Cossacks, my boy.’ ‘There are no more Cossacks,’ I said. ‘Not here.’ ‘There are always Cossacks.’ Here was America, where we were already living, the land where Uncle Chaim thought that people lit their lamps with a dollar bill and nobody ate potatoes. ‘Cossacks and potatoes,’ said Uncle Chaim. And he sang, to confirm his loathing for potatoes: Zuntik – bulbes, Montik – bulbes, Dinstik un mitvokh – bulbes, Donershtik un fraytik – bulbes, Shabes in a novene: – a bulbe-kugele! Zuntik – vayter bulbes. Sunday, potatoes. Monday, potatoes. Tuesday and Wednesday, potatoes. Thursday and Friday, potatoes. But on Shabbat, a special treat: potato pudding! Sunday, more potatoes. ‘The food alone should have been reason enough for me to leave that country,’ Uncle Chaim once said. I had reminded him that this would have made him an eligible candidate for the Hollander Top Ten List of Terrible Reasons to Make Drastic Decisions. ‘Pah!’ he said. ‘Don’t compare me to your father, who left Europe because he didn’t want to wear a tie. Or Magnus, who left because he was looking for a wife without a moustache.’ That was what Magnus had said, that all the women in their region had moustaches. ‘Moustaches and hairy legs.’ He had shivered at the thought. Uncle Chaim had looked at him sideways, his left eyebrow lowered. ‘Hairy legs? When did you see a leg?’ Magnus, inhabitant of the spiritual realm for nearly three centuries now, had blushed like a young girl. ‘Nu, Magnus, Nephew. Where in all those parts did you ever see a leg?’ Magnus had mumbled something about moustaches and that he had certainly seen them before and that you could only assume … His uncle’s eyebrow remained firmly lowered and it was a long time before he looked away. Finally he turned to me and shrugged. But neither hairy legs, nor upper lips, were the reason for Magnus’s departure. It was the last Cossack raid, when Uncle Chaim’s house was burned to the ground. There, among the stumps of wood and lumps of charred straw, like rotting teeth in a blackened mouth, he had tightened his belt, knotted his puttees, and left. The year was 1648. Magnus Levi, as he was still called at the time, reached, after more than twenty-one years of travelling, the easternmost part of the Lowlands. And there he stayed. Not because he was tired, which he was, or sick of travelling, which he also was, but because he arrived in a town on Market Day. He wandered among the stalls looking at blushing apples, pears as big as a man’s fist, cabbages like cannon balls and bulky rolls of worsted. He could smell contentment in the air and he felt something settling inside him, going slowly round and round, the way dogs do when they have found a place where they want to lie down. Magnus tried to resist this unfamiliar feeling, but it was strong, almost overwhelming. He jumped when a cloth merchant called out to him. ‘What’re you selling, friend?’ He could vaguely make out what the man asked, because the dialect in which he spoke sounded much like the Plattdeutsch he had picked up along the way. ‘Uhren.’ ‘Clocks?’ Magnus nodded. The man beckoned him to come closer and then gestured to him that he wished to see what was in the wooden chest. Magnus placed the chest on the merchant’s stall and opened it. Hanging among his neatly arranged tools was the little pendulum clock he had made. The man pursed his lips and nodded admiringly. ‘Schön,’ he said. He looked back at Magnus, his head slightly tilted, and asked, ‘Deutsche?’ ‘Deutsche?’ Magnus shook his head. ‘Weiter östlich. Polen.’ ‘Pol …’ Once again Magnus shook his head. ‘Da gewohnt. Nicht Polak.’ The merchant shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the pendulum clock. ‘Wieviel?’ Magnus named his price and the man on the other side of the stall began busily converting. Again he pursed his lips. Meanwhile a small group of curious onlookers had gathered around them. People asked the merchant where the traveller had come from and the merchant, who suddenly felt like a true cosmopolitan, told them the story. Just as Magnus was taking the pendulum clock out of the chest so that they could see it better, the cloud of spectators parted. A lady and her companion walked through the space they had made. Magnus, who hadn’t noticed a thing, was busy letting the clock chime. The melodious cooing of the rods and the first four lines of the song Friede always used to sing rose up in the clear spring air. He had worked for months to get the eleven copper rods just the right length that they would produce the proper tones, and before that he had slaved many, many months to build a mechanism that would allow the tiny hammers to hit the rods at just the right tempo, and in sequence. He stared dreamily at the little clock. He didn’t notice that anything had changed until he saw the merchant give a deep nod. At first he grinned, taking the nod as a sign of appreciation and admiration, but when it remained silent and everyone appeared to have shifted their gaze, he looked sideways. Standing next to him was a young woman in a dress of midnight-blue. A black crocheted shawl was draped across her shoulders. She was in the company of a servant girl in a white lace cap. ‘What song is that?’ She had dark eyes, the colour of polished, gleaming walnut, and curly black hair, tied back in a ponytail. He stammered out something that even he didn’t understand. ‘Deutsche?’ she asked. The merchant explained to her where the clockmaker had come from and then Magnus told her that he had been on the road for twenty years now and had travelled through Poland and Bohemia and Moravia repairing clocks and in one big city had even built a timepiece for the mayor. When he had finished speaking, the young woman asked how much he wanted for the pendulum clock. Magnus looked at the timepiece. The sloping sides were like the curve of a woman’s hip, the wood was the colour of … He named a price that was barely half what he had named earlier. ‘What?’ cried the merchant. ‘You told me …’ Magnus, who realized he had let himself get carried away and was about to be laughed at, picked up the pendulum clock and tucked it back into his wooden travelling case. He smiled unhappily, shrugged his shoulders, and said, in even clumsier German (if that were possible), something that was meant to explain his peculiar behaviour. The young woman leaned towards her maidservant and whispered something in her ear. Then she gave Magnus a nod and asked the merchant to measure off two yards of white linen. The group of onlookers dispersed and Magnus slung the chest onto his back. He walked between two stalls and made his way to the large church in the middle of the market square. There, in the shelter of the buttresses, where it stank of rotting vegetables and old fish, he had a serious word with himself. How could he have been so stupid? To let himself be carried away by a pair of beautiful eyes? Imagine selling Reisele for a price that wouldn’t even cover the cost of … You’re in a strange land, Magnus Levi. You’ve got to keep silent and listen, instead of bragging and swooning. When he had gone past the church the sun came out again, and in the clear spring light he walked out of the market square, into an alleyway between two large white houses with stained glass windows. Behind the glass he saw a row of plants in white and blue pots. They bore red flowers, as big as apples. He had seen many things on his journey to the West: he had been in prosperous regions, but nowhere had he seen such abundance as in this place, nowhere had it been as clean, nowhere did the brass door knobs gleam as brightly as they did here. Behind the white houses was a cobblestoned street lined with clipped trees and tidy flower beds. As he walked among those little trees he heard the click-clacking of a woman’s heels. When he looked around he saw a servant girl, who had gathered up her skirts and was running towards him. When she had caught up with him, she stood there for a while, panting. He waited for her to catch her breath, trying to look friendly. This wasn’t easy, because he was frightened. He had recognized her as the servant girl he had seen with the young woman who had been standing next to him at the market, and he was afraid she had come to tell him that he had behaved in an unseemly manner and that she would have him run out of town. That had happened to him before, somewhere in a Prussian village. He had never quite been able to discover what he had done wrong, but whatever it was, he had nearly been thrown in prison for doing it. ‘My mistress asks if you would be so kind as to repair the clocks in her father’s house,’ panted the girl. He looked at her without quite understanding what she meant. She was young, maybe eighteen or nineteen, and she didn’t seem to find him at all threatening or strange. But that still didn’t set his mind at rest. ‘Ich geh weiter,’ he said. ‘Andere Stadt. Muβ gehen …’ The servant girl sighed and shook her head. ‘They’ll pay you well,’ she said. ‘She wants you to come, sir. She’s seen your clock.’ Pride is like the sun that peeks out from between two clouds. Magnus felt the agreeable warmth of recognition. ‘Die Dame ist nicht böse?’ he asked. The servant girl shook her head. ‘You may come this evening, seven o’clock,’ she said. She told him the address and made him repeat it three times. Anyone, she said, could show him the way. Her master’s house was known to all. For the rest of that day Magnus wandered about the town. He looked at shops, peered through the open doors of coffee houses, and stood for a long time gazing at mothers as they walked with their young children across a grassy field. Ducks waddled along the banks of a pond, deer stood poised on a hilltop, a jay skimmed carelessly over his head. Everything was small and clear and still. Magnus had arrived in a fairyland. That night, in the little town in the east, Magnus was to meet the woman of his life. Her name was Rebekka Gans and she was the daughter of a prosperous cattle dealer. The shy clockmaker had moved about the house behind the Grote Markt like a cat walking on new-fallen snow. He didn’t dare sit on the brocade chairs, and he stood there clutching his travelling case for so long that the young lady finally asked if he wouldn’t rather put it down. Where? Magnus had thought, looking around the high-ceilinged room with the gleaming wooden floor. She had walked up to him, taken the chest, not flinching when she felt the weight of wheels and tools, and leaned it against the green-veined marble of the hearth. Then she had looked at him with her grave, impassive face and rung for the maid. He had examined every clock in the house that night and as he did so, had drunk tea out of cups so thin that the light from the oil lamp shone right through them and had eaten almond curls so fine and meltingly sweet that they flitted about in his empty stomach like butterflies. When he left, after an hour or two, his head felt as light as those biscuits. ‘Eyes like a moon calf,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘In love. In love? Bewitched!’ That was how it felt, in any case. And Magnus knew just when it had happened. Not at the market, where he was ‘Smitten by the sight of her,’ as he himself once said. Not when he was in the house, nibbling on those fluttering cookies and watching the flicker of candlelight under the teapot. Not when he had placed the small black-lacquered clock before him on the table. ‘Salomon Coster, The Hague,’ it said on a silver plate behind the glass door. The young lady had stood beside him and watched as he studied the movement. It was a pendulum and, as far as he could tell, one of the first applications of that technique. He had asked three questions, enough to determine that the clock was about ten years old, that it was based on the theory of a certain Huygens, who had invented the pendulum clock. At that moment Magnus had realized that Uncle Chaim had invented the very same thing fifteen years earlier. He had looked up, young Magnus, stared into the lamplit twilight, and let his eyes wander. The waste of it all. The clock that Uncle Chaim, shaking his head, had flung under his workbench after Wolschke, the German forester, had informed him that the count had called it a ‘diabolical piece of rubbish’ and didn’t want it in his house. The capriciousness of an age that allowed two, maybe even more, to come up with the same invention, yet clasped only one of them to her bosom. If Uncle Chaim had been credited with the invention instead of Mr Huygens, the history of Chaim and Magnus, perhaps even of the entire continent, would have turned out differently. And then he had met her eyes, at the end of the journey his eyes had made around the room. The oil lamp lit them from the side and he saw tiny stars in the blackness, the veil of her lashes, the soft yet clear-cut line of her jaw, and he wanted to turn away but couldn’t. Her bound hair curled rebelliously at her temples, a few strands had come loose above her left eye and before he knew what he was doing his hand was on its way to … That’s when it happened. A shadow of a smile had stolen across her face (not just her lips, he remembered later that night, as he wandered through the town, brooding and pondering, it hadn’t just glided over her lips, that smile, but over her whole face, the … the memory of a smile, a barely perceptible ‘yes,’ an ‘if circumstances were different …’) and he had felt his hand clench, had, so slowly that it seemed to last for hours, called it back (‘Here! Here, you mongrel of a hand! Down!’) and the hand came back towards his own face and – by that time his neck was damp with sweat – suddenly the hand was coming towards him at full speed. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor. He had boxed his own ear. The lady tried to control herself, but even he felt relieved when, not two seconds later, she burst into peals of laughter. Outside, under the spring moon, drifting from one alleyway to the next, he had wallowed in his shame like a pig in the mud. ‘The history of love. Write about that, a big fat book. Kings. Princes. Abraham and Sarah, ah … Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. David and Bathsheba. And one special chapter for the man who boxed his own ear,’ Uncle Chaim said. ‘And all because he was scared of hairy legs. Bah!’ By morning, Magnus had walked around the town three times and knew it as well as the village where he himself had grown up. The streets, the houses, the market square, the shooting grounds, they were all like the movement of a trusty clock. He bought bread at the baker’s and ate it on the bank of a ditch strewn with buttercups. The dew left the fields, birds flew up to the clear blue sky like tinkling bells. The smell of cow dung rose up from the ground and tickled his nostrils. A milkmaid came by with two wooden buckets on her yoke and saw him chewing his butterless bread. She put down her buckets, drew a dipper out of the milk, and gave him a drink. He thanked her in a mixture of languages he had learned along the way and she laughed like a man as she walked on. He gazed after her, the broad hips in the long striped skirt, the plump back, the full, rounded arms. A land of milk and butter. The milk he had drunk was nearly yellow with cream. He was no farmer, but even a layman could see how succulent and tender the grass was here. Halfway through the morning he tugged on the copper bell at the merchant’s house and was let in by the servant girl. She gave him milk in a mug and set a plate beside it with a buttered brown slab. The milk was sweet and hot, the slab of brown was called koek and tasted of anise. After he’d eaten he was shown into the parlour – but no one was there. The table had been cleared and laid with a coarse linen cloth. He went and fetched, under the maid’s supervision, the clocks he had seen earlier, and set about his work. Although the clocks were a different shape from those he knew, he was familiar with the works, and by noon he had cleaned and oiled two of the four. Then the maid came for him and in the kitchen, where a portly cook was stirring a pot, he was given bread and cheese. It wasn’t until he had closed up the last clock that the lady of the house walked in. The maid followed her carrying a tray with a teapot, a blue and white plate of butter biscuits, and a little tower of porcelain. Magnus cleared off the table, cleaned his instruments, and packed up his chest. All that time the young woman watched him gravely. Then she removed the cloth from the table, set it, and had him sit down again. ‘Nu,’ she said. ‘Lomir redn.’ So. Let’s talk. The maid left the room. Magnus, his mouth a carriage house, stared at the woman in amazement. They spoke. They spoke like the tea that flowed, fragrant, from the spout of the teapot, like the biscuits that crumbled between their teeth and left a buttery film on their fingertips. They spoke until the windowpanes turned grey, blue, and finally indigo. They spoke, and it was, as Magnus would later say, as if he were emptying and filling at the same time. Then the merchant came in. ‘A beard,’ said Magnus, many centuries later, ‘a beard like a cluster of bees. A head of hair – he was my future father-in-law but there’s no other way to describe it, I’m sorry – a head of hair like a witch’s broom. My heart didn’t just stop: it was no longer there.’ ‘Becky,’ the giant had said. (‘A giant, Nathan,’ said Magnus. ‘I didn’t even know that Jews could be so big. A voice like the great clock in Worky.’) ‘Becky, I didn’t know we had guests.’ ‘Tatele,’ she said. ‘This is the clockmaker.’ And Magnus had jumped up, knocking over his chair, clicked his heels (as he had learned in Germany), bowed from the hips, and cried, ‘At your service, Your Grace, Magnus Levi!’ And he thought, Tatele? Little Papa? Becky and her father had laughed like the rain: he, a gusty cloudburst of deep, sonorous tones, she, a spring shower on a velvety meadow. A clockmaker, even though he travelled about and carried all his wordly possessions in a chest upon his back, was good enough for Rebekka Gans. Her father, Meijer, a dealer in livestock, had also started from scratch. He knew that the Jews in neighbouring countries, and even in some parts of the Lowlands, lived by the grace of the good-naturedness of their local administrators. He had been in the North, where no more than three Jewish families were allowed to live in town, where Jews were only allowed to be butchers, tanners, or peddlers, and were forbidden to build synagogues. The tolerance in this region, and especially in the prosperous West, had made him a wealthy man, but he had never forgotten his own humble beginnings. That was why, even though Magnus was poor and had no home, Meijer Gans looked at the character of the man who wanted his daughter and not at his position or means. He peered into Magnus’s soul, seeking ambition and a spirit of enterprise. He was pleased with what he found. The couple were given Salomon Coster’s clock and a dowry in silver when, two months later, they left for West Holland. In Rotterdam, a cousin of Meijer Gans’s who dealt in grain helped them find a house. The widower himself – Rebekka’s mother had died of childbed fever shortly after her birth – remained behind in the East. He would miss his daughter the way a man misses an arm, yet he wished her happiness and good fortune, things that, in his opinion, were best found in the West. Magnus embarked on a new life and, as if to show how much he wanted to be and belong here, he changed his name to Hollander. He knew of no better way to stress his wholehearted devotion to this rich land of luscious grass, creamy milk, and golden yellow cheese. A son was born, one, whom they named Chaim. He became a clockmaker and met a girl called Zipporah Leib. The son married the Leib girl. They had a son, who was named after Grandfather Meijer and, scarcely three years after his birth, died of galloping consumption. Chaim thought he had provoked the Lord of the Universe by not giving his firstborn son the name he should have had, and so, seven years later, when another son was born, he was called Heijman, the Dutch version of Chaim, which means ‘life.’ The boy was strong and healthy and, like his father, became a clockmaker. He married, as had every other man in the family, late. He took Chava Groen as his wife, and when they were nearly forty she had a son whom they called Heijman. He married Lenah Arends, and from their alliance, too, came one son: Heijman Three. He took Rebecca van Amerongen as his wife, who bore him Heijman Four. The nineteenth century was two years old by then. Heijman Four and his wife, Esther de Jong, had a child at the age of forty-three. It was a son: Heijman Five. This descendant of the house of Hollander, a clockmaker, married young. He was twenty-three when he met Anna Blum and twenty-four, Anna twenty-five, when they knew the joy of offspring: Heijman Six. The tide of time (Magnus’s words) had driven the Hollanders to the West, to Rotterdam, that boisterously expanding merchant city on the North Sea coast, and there it seemed as if they had finally landed in a peaceful haven. Seven generations of Heijmans (if we count the first, who was called Chaim) grew up there. Magnus and Rebekka lived to see their children’s children, but could sense that the younger generation were ashamed of the family’s humble origins; embarrassed by Magnus’s old work-coat, the wooden chest Rebekka had hung on the wall and the modest trade in matzos, dried fruit and nuts that she and her friend Schoontje ran from a little shop in the Jewish quarter. ‘That’s the way it goes,’ said Magnus, in keeping with the analysis that my grandfather, the last Heijman Hollander, liked to make of The Journey to the West. ‘You start with a stone, a piece of rope and a threadbare coat, and you build a house so your children will have a roof over their heads, a safe place to live, but once they’ve grown, they say: Come, Father, throw away that stone and that rope and that old coat. Everyone wants a house, no one likes to be reminded of all the grief that came before it.’ The last Heijman in the series took Sarah van Vlies to be his bride. He didn’t succeed his father in the clockmaking business, but studied physics instead and eventually became a professor in Leiden. His parents had left him a jewellery shop and renowned repair studio, and enough money to enable him to take his doctoral degree. Heijman became a respected, though not exceptional, physicist. His greatest claim was the development of a standard formula for bridge construction. At a time when physics was becoming increasingly experimental, he was more of an engineer than a researcher, more of a clockmaker than a thinker. And so, eight generations of the family started by Magnus and Rebekka had been born in Rotterdam. They had lived, prospered, prayed, sung, and died there. They had seen the fishing village grow to become the second merchant city of Holland and ultimately – after the Nieuwe Waterweg had been dug and another Jew – Pincoffs – had founded the Rotterdamse Handelsvereniging and had the harbours built on Feijenoord – the largest harbour in the world. They had prospered, the Hollanders, just as the city had prospered, and, like the city, had set their sights on the West, on all that was modern and new. Together, they had opened themselves to the world, yet felt deeply and firmly rooted in that land of Holland. When, in 1939, the eighth and ninth generations stood on board the ship that was to take them from Rotterdam to New York, their departure was more than the leaving of a place. It was the resumption of the journey, the loss of the place that had allowed them to take root in the world. It was the loss of a place that was just like them, a city that, unlike Amsterdam, had never boasted about her tolerance for the Jews, yet was often more tolerant. Rotterdam had become their heart and they had felt cherished in her arms. Moving on was second nature to the Hollander family, yet for eight generations, from Magnus’s son Chaim to the last Heijman, they had been Rotterdamers, born and bred. They had all but forgot where they began. 1648 was the year Magnus slung his pack on his back, turned round, and left the region where he had been born, raised, and expected to die. Twenty-one years later he arrived in the Lowlands. ‘Twenty-one years to walk from Poland to Holland?’ I once asked him, amazed at the duration of the journey. ‘He lost his way,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Didn’t know he was going to Holland. Knew he was headed West. Took a wrong turn.’ ‘I … Things were different then,’ said Magnus. ‘I understand that. But twenty-one years?’ ‘Magnus,’ said Uncle Chaim. ‘Dear dear dear … nephew. Worthless boy scout.’ So for twenty-one years Magnus was on his way and what he did in all that time no one really knew. He himself said that he worked a bit here, stayed for a while there, turned South when he thought he was going West. A journey … If you were to try and draw the route, you would end up with a tangle of wool. Two and a half centuries later, in Rotterdam, my father and mother met. ‘The Lord of the Universe, whether you believe in Him or not,’ was Uncle Herman’s version, ‘decided in 1927, or, God knows, perhaps even from the genesis of creation, to bring together the light and the darkness, and that He would do this in the form of a marriage. That is why – pay attention! – He arranged for your parents to fall into each other’s arms during the fireworks on Midsummer Night. Good fortune, some people would call it, bad luck say those who know better. Others (by that, Uncle Herman was referring to himself) call it a disaster. He came from a family of clockmakers and physicists, she was old money. He was a promising engineer, she, a young lady who had life figured out long before life understood her. He lived in the shadow of his father, your grandfather, who placed physics above all else, and she thought that physics was merely re-inventing the wheel. She was a free spirit.’ Uncle Herman had the tendency to devote quite a bit of attention to the setting in his stories, the backdrop against which a particular event took place. Perhaps this is something peculiar to sociologists. Whatever the case: ever since he first told me his version of the downfall, I was impressed by the way in which he linked the fate of our family to the history of this century, particularly because he proved to be right. It was Midsummer Night, 1929 (not 1927, Uncle Herman wasn’t very good at dates) and above the park, rockets were flaring and fading in chrysanthemums of red, yellow, green and blue sparks. The upturned faces of the spectators and passers-by shone in the light of the fireworks, and the tall oaks and chestnut trees looked lovelier than ever. Outside the little white inn at the edge of the park, men stood with a glass of beer in one hand, the thumb of their other hand hooked in a waistcoat pocket, legs slightly apart. Women hung on their arms or whispered to one other. Each time a rocket exploded, their dresses flashed white in the darkness. ‘Hollander! Hollander!’ someone shouted. His voice was half lost in the booming of the fireworks, but my father had heard it and looked around, searchingly. He met the equally searching gaze of a young woman standing nearby. They looked at each other, turned away, and continued hunting. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. 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