As fast as a person walks
When you suddenly google your first love, it’s in response to the sound of knocking you hear just before you fall asleep and hear even louder the moment you look in the mirror in the morning and catch sight of the deep vertical crease between your eyebrows. You’ve tried, in vain, to locate the source of the knocking; it seemed to come now from inside, now from outside—up in the attic / inside your skull—but you could never pin it down. The knocking comes more and more frequently, ever more inexplicably, and here it is again, this late Friday evening in January.
As always, after a week in nursery school, the children were exhausted and overwrought; through the entire early evening they’d either been arguing or crying and later, because it was time for bed, they screamed like lunatics. They’re finally asleep and for a moment it’s completely quiet; even the dog is lying motionless on her blanket under my desk. I stare at her black fur until I can see her ribcage rise and fall. I breathe a sigh of relief and the knocking sets in, loud. Short, sharp hammer blows at first, which then alternate with longer blows. I draw dots and dashes in my notebook. Not that I know much about Morse code, but I study the chart until I can make out something halfway sensible. Halfway. SMOKE. TIME. KID. Well. (The alternatives were EUMOR. NATE. TEDD or IAOGN. TITN. NDNE. I don’t know of any language in which those would make the slightest sense, and so I settle for smoke, time, kid.) Silence.
My husband, I assume, is busy in his room working his way through the week’s emails, something he does every Friday evening before calling out weekend! just before midnight. For a long time now, we’ve been planning on doing something together again. Anything. Sometimes he has no time, sometimes I don’t. Smoketimekid! flits through my mind. I snap my notebook shut, and on the computer, open a new window. In the search box I type Petrus, the name of my first love. I’m prepared not to find a single thing and to give up, resigned.
I’m also ready for references to a wife and kids. Why shouldn’t he have started a family by now? I am even prepared for photographs. But not for this. Not this. Still, Petrus had alluded to it on the first night we met. He had talked of flying, something humans can’t do and how profoundly sad that made him. He started talking about falling and then quite suddenly changed the subject to walking; and because I asked: Walking? he added: Just one step, one single step into the void and it’s all good. He spread his arms as if he wanted to fly, looked at me and smiled.
My husband walks into the room without knocking or saying my name, which rarely happens, only when we’re fighting, when he’s really angry, in a rage, or completely beside himself. Are you busy? he asks. No, I say and swallow the rest: I just learned about Petrus’s death.
You’re out of breath, he says.
Yes, I—I have no idea why, I’m just sitting here. Maybe that’s the reason.
He hesitates. He looks like he wants to say something. He takes a breath, looks away quickly and listens for something, for what, I have no idea. He starts to pull the door shut behind him.
Did you want something? I ask, but he answers, nothing that can’t wait. He closes the door.
I open the drawer with the postcards and find what I’m looking for right away. An enormous, bearded St. Christopher in a brown cloak with disproportionately long legs and a tiny, doll-like Savior on his shoulder. On the back it says: Depiction of St. Christopher (ca. 1400) in the St. Peter Mistail Church.
I run my finger over St. Christopher’s cloak, grab onto one of its brown folds, close my eyes and let myself be carried away. Back to that first time. It’s winter, our first winter together. Petrus and I are visiting Marc’s parents over the Christmas holidays in 1992, at their vacation home in the mountains.
Snowflakes fall, depending on their wetness, as fast as a person walks. I don’t have winter boots and certainly no shoes that would be suitable for a long walk in the snow. I’ve got on the pumps I wear all year long—for miles, even if my feet hurt. It doesn’t snow in the university.
Elfi looks at my shoes. Child, do you have any idea where you are? I nod, Lenzerheide. Elfi’s son, Marc, and his Lisa are in the same seminar as I am and they also wear the same shoes every day and everywhere, but unlike mine, theirs are hiking shoes. Here, now, on the front porch of the vacation home, they have pulled on knee-high snow boots. Freshly oiled and with extra lining, Marc explains, eyeing my pumps. I’ll just stay here then, I say and glance at the fire in the fireplace, the rattan rocking chair and the sheepskin Elfi draped over it, and at Urs—that’s what I call him since I’ve forgotten his name—who, immersed in his history book, doesn’t hear a word we’re saying. He is sitting in his black leather chair, the book on his lap, and every now and then he pushes his glasses up onto his forehead, where his hairline used to be. But they keep slipping back down. The Idea of Switzerland: Identity—Nation—History 1291–1991. He was given the book as a Christmas present last year. Marc suspects he is memorizing it. Today is December 31st. Early afternoon. This evening, there will be fondue.
But first you’ve got to earn it, Elfi says and takes her crossword puzzle book and reading glasses from the sideboard.
Earn? I think of money because I don’t have any.
Yes, Elfi says, with a walk to St. Peter’s in Mistail. She wants us out of the house, her son translates for me, hugs his Lisa and kisses her passionately. Petrus takes his down jacket from the wooden peg and puts it on. He squats and ties his Timberland boots. He gave me a small book for Christmas. Dialogue in the Void. It’s in English. I’ll need time and a dictionary to read it. Come with us, Petrus says. My eyes turn to the fireplace. The sheepskin is alluring. There’s a dictionary on the bookshelf across the room. Come on, Petrus says, they don’t want you here. Elfi swats at him with her puzzle book. You’re impossible, I never said that!
Elfi gazes up at Petrus who is over six feet tall. Her Urs, who may well have a different name—but not very different—is only five and a half feet tall. Her son Marc is just an inch taller than his father and she is two heads shorter than Petrus. You’re someone to look up to, she says slowly and solemnly, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. Petrus comes from an old, wealthy family with a fortune only their closest circle knows the extent of and a family tree that can be traced back more than seven hundred years. Elfi had sensed it immediately, as she would say later. Nooo! Really? she exclaimed when she found out from her son, who outed their guest at our first dinner together with: Born rich, this one. Petrus opened his mouth, stared at his bread and cheese without a word, took a bite and chewed it thoroughly. They all looked at me. I was meant to confirm it. I took a gulp of Elfi’s cloudy homemade apple juice and pretended to choke on it. Petrus had never offered me money for warm clothes or shoes. And I never would have accepted.
Come on already! Petrus, Marc and his Lisa call in chorus, ready to go out. And, after setting her puzzle book down on the sheepskin, Elfi presses a pair of sealskin boots into my hands and says: Here, these will keep you warm and snug. Sealskin! Like the ones our mothers supposedly wore in the seventies. Silvery and shimmering, real sealskin boots!
Too small, I tell her. Thirty-eight, Elfi says. I wear a thirty-nine. Elfi: They run big.
Everyone watches in anticipation as I stick my right foot into the sealskin boot and before I’ve even zipped it up, they say: They’ll do. You see. Wonderful. Too tight, I say but Petrus, Marc, and Lisa are already outside. They’re throwing snow at each other, and Elfi says in parting: You really don’t need such thick socks, the boots are warm enough. She closes the door. A snowball hits me right in the left eye, I see flashes, I hear thunder, then Petrus yells: Sorry! and lobs the next one in my direction. Hep, hep—Marc claps his hands. Let’s move! Petrus reaches me in a few long strides, grabs me and throws me over his shoulder. What on earth did you eat? he groans. You weigh at least a ton. Marc carries his Lisa piggyback and neighs as he gallops away with her.
Panting under his ton, Petrus hurries after them down the small lane to the village street, throws his head back and, barely two hundred meters from the crossroad, he collapses dramatically, dropping me on my back and landing heavily on top of me. We both moan. Where is this church? I ask and Petrus laughs. Marc, we yell together, is it still far?
No, no, Marc says and adds that it’s worth the few kilometers walk, the church is unique.
A few kilometers?
Don’t worry, he walked there when he was only five, he reassures us, it’s a pleasant stroll uphill.
My feet hurt. The sealskin boots are too short and too narrow. Even with the zipper undone, my feet feel like they’re being squeezed in steel vices. On my instep I can feel my pulse hammering hard against the unyielding leather. We’ve pushed our way forward along the main road of Lenzerheide village, past all the hotels and sporting goods stores, in a column of hundreds of winter sports enthusiasts, wearing ski boots and carrying skis on their shoulders.
Whenever one of them turned around, his skis would hit the person in front or behind in the head. This was followed by swearing or laughter, occasionally both, one right after the other. We kept silent. I stayed close behind Petrus, my eyes glued to his heels, and I counted out each step with gritted teeth, as if it might take some of the pressure off my feet. After the village limit, Marc led us further up a smaller road to a dairy farm, where the watchdog barked furiously and lunged against his chain, working himself into a frenzy. Behind the farm, we reached the hiking trail.
A rest. I grab Petrus’s sleeve for support, but he drops to his knees without a word and offers me his back. After a determined hop, I wrap my arms around him from behind, until he says, No choking, please. And Lisa says, Brr, brr, whoa. Stand still, horsey. Marc obeys and lets her climb on his back.
The men wished hiking were more popular so the trails would be better worn. With us on their backs, they sank, side by side, up to their knees in the snow with every step. After just a few meters they were already staggering from the effort, but they still managed to carry us past the lumber mill and the carpenter’s shop, past the golf course and all the way to the mountain pasture, where the path turned abruptly into the forest. I can’t anymore, Petrus says. Finally, Marc answers. They groan as they set us on the ground at the forest edge and stretch out spread-eagle on the snow. I want to take off the sealskin boots to check my feet, which I can no longer feel. Don’t do that, Petrus says, you’ll never get them back on. Then he winks and lifts his arm toward the sky. Snow is starting to fall.
We could no longer make out the path in the forest above the mountain pasture. The snow was deep, icy, and perforated from rain showers during the day and frost at night. We broke through the surface with a crack and sank up to our hips, and the snow was compacted into ice under the weight of our steps. I managed exactly 123 steps, then I tore the boots from my feet, pulled them over my hands and walked on in damp socks, my feet numb but liberated. The first few steps were the most pleasant I’ve ever taken in my life. I kept counting out of habit and again stopped at 123. The cold was making my feet even more numb than the pain had.
I tried to wiggle my toes but couldn’t feel any movement aside from a painful throbbing that shot up my legs in waves and almost made my knees buckle. We’re just about there, Marc yelled from a distance and Petrus, who had stopped a few steps ahead of me, yelled back: Admit it, Marc, you have no idea where we are!
Marc yelled back that he has known this forest since he was a kid, the snow won’t confuse him, he could find the way blindfolded.
Petrus turned to face me. It’s beautiful! Come over here, let’s sit down. He smiled gently. I looked at him and, as so often, I didn’t know if he was joking or not. We’ll just stay here. He collapsed into the snow as if hit by a bullet. Lie down close to me! It won’t take long before you don’t feel the cold anymore, you’ll see. Marc and Lisa had gone on ahead and were already out of sight. After a while, Petrus stopped answering me. I heaved myself up, lunged toward him in my icy socks, grabbed his hand, pulled him onto his feet and dragged him behind me through the lightly falling snow, following the deep, vertical footsteps that Marc and Lisa left behind, even though I wasn’t really convinced they would lead out of the forest and eventually back to somewhere warm. The right boot must have slipped from my hand on the way. I only noticed it was missing when we were standing, what seemed hours later, in front of the St. Peter Mistail Church.
Marc jiggled the church door. He threw himself against it. With a stream of threats and curses—he had an impressive number of both in his arsenal—he went at the door until his arms hurt so much he had to stop. Lisa stared blankly at the ground. I tried to catch Petrus’s eye; he was standing off to the side, watching attentively. Then, with the authority of someone four years older, he slapped Marc on the back. Come with me! Let’s see if—
If? Marc rubbed his forearm.
If there’s a window open somewhere, Petrus said.
What nonsense, a church window left open, Marc groused in response. But he started to move anyway. We followed Petrus around the church. The snow was now falling in thick flakes, landing heavily on our hats and, after a few moments, it had turned us into a group of grizzled seniors. Petrus, as was fitting, looked like the oldest and most distinguished because he had a hat with ear flaps and a scarf over his face, and they turned into a head of white, wavy hair and a stately full beard. Petrus the apostle, I said. Fat granny, he shot back.
We stand before a chapel-like extension and peek through an opening at hundreds—I start counting—thousands of carefully stacked bones, femurs and skulls, bare, clean, and tidy, like the perfectly arranged piles of firewood you see in front of every house here.
What we are now, you will become, what you are now, we once were is written on a wooden sign propped up in the middle of the bones.
A bone house, Petrus whispers. Take a look at that.
You don’t need to whisper, they can’t hear you anymore, Marc says in an intentionally loud voice, and they both laugh.
I reach for Petrus’s hand. My feet! Can we go now? Lisa stares at my socks in horror.
It’s all fine, I say, I just can’t feel anything.
From One Another. Used with permission of Persea Books. Copyright © 2019 by Tess Lewis.