Marianne Hauser's short fiction is a literary documentary of exile, the other-worldly travelogue of an imagination permanently displaced. These accounts of expatriates and lost children situate us in foreign realms, between the titillating intimacies of strangers and looming brutalities we can never quite see. A narrator recalls Strasbourg during WWI, the entangled thoughts of her childhood in a territory forced to change flags too many times: "My political universe was confused, reflecting that confusion of tongues in our home where French might alternate with German or Alsatian, a patois harsh and Alemannic through which French idioms flitted like clever birds." It's as though even parents and bodies and dreams had turned out to be alien impositions. In retrospect the narrator's naive literalisms, her half-literate attunement to puns and double entendres, still infect each recollection, creating a linguistic haze in which her past both vanishes and returns.
In Hauser's fiction, expatriation is not a historical accident but a condition as essential to humans as breathing or speech. A young boy's suicide in "Heartlands Beat" or a child's vision of her piano teacher's corpse invoke the permanent dislocations that adulthood can never overcome. "Absorbed in a dubious adventure that tasted of the iniquitous and forbidden, I would stare at the vibrating lump of flesh, quite unlike a face and yet more inexorably human than any I had ever known." It is as though birth were, for Hauser, the great forced migration, an incomprehensible banishment from some homeland every child can remember.
Her characters gaze in bewilderment at the crude and violent landscape that, through preposterous twistings, they have come to occupy, wondering how they could have ended so incongruously, unable to imagine any dwelling but here.
Beautiful fabrications from the writer about whom Anais Nin remarked, "she deftly weaves the strange, the unknown, the unfamiliar, the perverse, into a fabric of human fallibilities that draws drama and farce close to us."
"An artist desperate for approval from his wealthy, sadistic father narrates nonagenarian Marianne Hauser's (The Talking Room, etc.) spare but engrossing novella, Shootout with Father. James, a sculptor, tries to make sense of the daunting man who has brought him so much misery and frustration. Through a series of recollections and forbidden letters, a portrait of James's father emerges: an avid collector of priceless armor, a brilliant businessman who abused and neglected his wife and son. But most illuminating is the discovery of his father's long-ago infatuation with an older male mentor and the heartbreak he experienced as a result. Hauser's insight and sharp wit make for a captivating read." —Publishers Weekly
"Hauser has a sharp eye and sure words." —Time
A Lesson in Music
Perhaps Miss Stolz should have set the time for my weekly piano lesson at a brighter, less subtle part of day, say from three to four in the afternoon. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour, that peculiar stretch between flattening light and rising darkness, which disturbed me from the start--the telegraph poles, suddenly harder against a translucent, glassy sky as I waded through the fallen leaves up the long street to her house. Fragmentary sounds--a bird's distant cry, the singsong voice of a mother calling home her child--held an ambiguous meaning I could not fathom. So I walked on in a mood of worried introspection. There was almost the memory of light on that front porch--and inside, the gradual, ominous transformation of her room during seemingly endless moments before she rose to place a lamp on the scratched mahogany of the piano. Step by step to the slow beat of waning light I felt myself drawn into a bleak sadness, as once when I had seen a dog dead and bloated in the street.
There had been an element of the strange unquiet at our very first meeting. But if a vague fear had touched me, I had been quick to forget it. Of course my first visit took place in plain daylight, on a Sunday morning, when nothing terrible can happen, and besides, I was not alone with her. My mother was with me. An ash-colored old lady, inexact and wavering, the other Miss Stolz--I think she must have been her sister-showed us into the music room, where there were two grand pianos. The real Miss Stolz rose to greet us. She herself was quite old, taller and heavier than my mother and dressed in the kind of clothes I had seen on the legless ladies in our family album. As we shook hands, an electric current seemed to pass through me, and suddenly I noticed that Miss Stolz's figure vibrated from top to bottom in a thin, continuous quiver, as if a small motor, hidden underneath the bulk of her clothes, was throbbing ceaselessly, so that her body trembled and her head performed small eager nods in rapid succession. I stared at her, open-mouthed. Then, queerly embarrassed, I looked away and down at what resembled a rose or a face in the threadbare Persian rug.
"Don't let that sheepish look of hers mislead you, Miss Stolz," my mother said, giving me a friendly nudge. "From the way she sits here you wouldn't believe it, but she is a bit wild. Quite willful. You'll have a task on your hands, making her practice."
"Oh, she'll work," Miss Stolz said. She laid her hand on my arm, and another current shot through me, more disquieting than the last, since I had anticipated it the moment she bent in my direction. "We'll enjoy working, won't we?" she said, stroking my sleeve. "I understand you have had lessons before. For how long a time?"
"Two and a half years, wasn't it?" my mother answered for me. "We had to stop a year ago. We couldn't make her practice."
"She has grown a year older meanwhile," Miss Stolz said in a kind tone.
"Twelve," I said stupidly.
Both laughed and I was glad they did, for it made me laugh too and gave me a chance to shake off Miss Stolz's hand. I felt instantly relieved and myself again. And anxious to prove that I wasn't the meek child I had acted, but really "quite willful," I leaped to my feet and suggested playing a piece for Miss Stolz.
"Something by Bach," I announced. My mother folded her hands in resignation while Miss Stolz adjusted the piano bench to my size. I took my seat and let loose the only piece I knew by heart, a prelude, cherished by me for its resonant left hand chords which made it sound harder to play than it was. Through a corner of my eye I could see Miss Stolz nod diligently with the music.
"Thank you, my child," she said when I had ended. And turning to my mother: "I'm afraid we'll have to start rather from scratch. But she does have a nice understanding for music. She plays with expression." I believe she also added something about my soul, about putting it into the music, though I am not sure of this. Whatever she may have said, I had the impression that it concerned my soul exclusively. And transported by a delightful sense of importance, my mind somersaulted into the serene sphere of all the music I would soon be able to play.
"I can take you on Wednesdays from seven to eight in the evening," I heard Miss Stolz say. The hour suited me. Its being at the end of the day seemed something of a distinction and privilege.
I had left for my first lesson earlier than was necessary and had found myself ringing Miss Stolz's bell fifteen minutes ahead of time. She let me sit in the music room and wait for my turn while one of her pupils, a boy, younger than I and infinitely more accomplished, performed small miracles on the keyboard. This waiting period, fortuitous at first, soon became an institution. I made it a habit to appear a quarter of an hour too soon; I timed it that way on purpose. It became the inevitable prelude to each lesson. I would tiptoe to a high-backed chair in a far corner of the room, and safe in the shadow, reassured by the odd idea that I must be invisible, I would watch Miss Stolz. The boy, curly-haired, fair-skinned, would play. She would sit on a stool next to him, her face well in the light. Under a thrill of wonder and horror I would explore it endlessly: the irregular tremors of loose, coarse skin, purple with the intricate pattern of enlarged veins; the flexible contours of nose and cheeks, seemingly boneless, made of flesh only, porous, spongy, resilient. Absorbed in a dubious adventure that tasted of the iniquitous and forbidden, I would stare at the vibrating lump of flesh, quite unlike a face and yet more inexorably human than any I had ever known. I would dig my eyes into each detail, my fascination heightened by the thought that she must assume I was listening, not looking.
It was the same, week after week. After a quarter hour of relentless observation, I would begin my lesson, and in a spirit of tense expectancy and growing gloom await the darkness which fell more rapidly as the season advanced.
"All right, my child. Let's see what we have learned since last week." The boy, so clean in his white blouse, so clear-skinned and graceful, had packed up his music, bowed, and left. The buttoned leather seat of the piano bench was still warm from his body. Miss Stolz's hands, bluish and scarred as though frostbitten, directed my fingers on the keyboard. The edge of her lace collar tickled my nose. "Let's see what we have learned, my child." My palms began to perspire. I played stiffly. "Loose, loose, little girl." I tried to relax my shoulders, but they were held in a vice. The adagio which I had carefully studied at home came off awkward, wooden. I bit my lips. The sun had gone down and the room lay in a speechless aftermath of day.
"Why don't you give it a little expression? Remember when you played the prelude that Sunday? You put meaning into it, remember? Why don't you do it again?"
I could not do it again. Never again, not in Miss Stolz's music room whose walls, covered with countless photographs, began to dissolve slowly, slowly, till I was isolated in a backwater of dying gray.
"Don't you feel anything? Doesn't the music mean something to you?"
I had no way of answering that. How could I explain that each single note I struck in her presence took on a significance quite outside its musical order--the meaning of a clock ticking in the night, of woodwork moaning into the half sleep of dark houses? Oh, yes, I did feel, I was guided by feeling alone, but it was not of the sort Miss Stolz had in mind.
The room had lost all color. I remained tongue-tied.
"Move over a bit. I'll play it for you." This was the moment I had hoped for and dreaded most. She kneaded her fingers and sat down at my side. "Now, listen closely."
As always when she played for me, I could not really follow the piece. I was too concerned over the manner in which she controlled her tremor, subjecting it to a disciplined beat, making it part of the music. It was like watching a rope dancer. I took in the suspense, the exacting hiss of her breath as she breathed in a steady rhythm. The china vase on the window sill gave a brief, ringing sound.
"There now. You see?" She had stopped in the middle of a bar. "It's very simple technically. And yet so profound. I once heard Paderewski play it." She sighed and looked into space.
"Paderewski?" I asked for no other purpose than to make sure I had not lost my speech.
Her hands were placing mine back on the keyboard. "Try it again. And do make it sound right."
"I'll try," I said although I knew at this point that I could not even risk trying. If I let one atom of feeling slip into the music, I would surely burst into tears. My muscles hardened. I played worse than before.
Miss Stolz looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. "We have been at it for so many weeks," she said, and detachedly added, "I wish I would see some progress."
There was no progress. I still practiced, though more and more mechanically, except on Wednesdays when, an hour before leaving the house, I would with sudden fervor go through the pieces I had been told to study. The slightest cold would provide me with sufficient pretext to stay away from school, but I remember how despite my mother's protest I dragged myself to Miss Stolz with a badly infected throat and a temperature. I would not miss a single lesson. And to what end? To sit glued to the bench and suffer? To hammer down the sonatas and Etudes crudely, as if I did not know a forte from a sotto voce, joy from sadness, triumph from longing?
But perhaps I was waiting for a miracle. The sky above the street that led to her house was golden. The gold smelled of overripe apples, of withering chrysanthemums. The coat of paint on the low wooden fences had paled to a quiet turquoise. The sidewalks were carpeted with the curled leaves of chestnut trees. In my path dropped ripe chestnuts, delightful to touch, moist and silken-young and tender as the fleece of colts. I picked them up and gathered them into my coat pockets. "My dear Miss Stolz," I thought. "I know exactly how the adagio should sound. Maybe once I've talked to you and asked you about a number of things, I'll be able to make it right." Yes, I invented a letter. My dear Miss Stolz. Dear Martha Stolz. Dearest. The leaves crunched under my feet. Already the gable of her house was visible, suspended behind cobwebs of light. I stood still and shut my eyes, met by a momentary vision of her room, by the specter of countless photographs in square, in round, in oval frames; of countless pictures painted on jars and vases, carved into chairs, woven into cushions and draperies-a profusion of small, independent scenes and faces that died with the dying light.
A chestnut, still in its bristly shell, dropped at my feet with a dull thump. "My dear Miss Stolz: I am very unhappy." I composed a bold letter, high-flung with phrases I would never dare put into writing. "There is no end to my misery . . . . I could throw myself at your feet." Deeply moved, I saw myself on the carpet before her, imploring her help.
"It's no use." For the first time, Miss Stolz's voice, always so mild, was curt, preoccupied. I stopped in the midst of a trill, keeping a finger pressed down on one key. With a senseless concentration I listened to the tone, fading away. "You play far worse than you did a month ago. Take your finger off that key!"
I obeyed. Twilight was settling behind her hunched shoulders. The purple filaments on her checks began to float like the bugs in that drop of water I had observed through the microscope in school. "What in the world is the matter with you? From the way you act one would conclude that you don't like music. That you loathe it."
The notes on the music sheet were getting blurred. I gazed about me. At my right, the other piano sat squatting in the dusk, shaped like a gigantic kidney. This was the time when Miss Stolz would switch the lamp on.
But she did not seem to think of it now.
"The trouble is that you don't react. In no way at all. I am puzzled. How am I to explain your attitude?"
How I wished to tell! I was heavy with a sorrow that cried for expression. "I don't " I said. My voice sounded strange and fluty to me.
"You don't what!"
"Loathe music. I don't. I--" A rope was tightening around my throat. I touched it and swallowed. If I should break into tears now, they would never cease flowing.
"What on earth is the matter with you!" She raised my chin with the back of her hand. Its vibration soared up my temples and like an insect, caught in a glass jar, began to buzz inside my head.
"Now, take Manfred. You know, the little boy who has his lessons ahead of you? He is younger than you. Well, you heard him play, didn't you!"
I hoped ardently that she would not turn the light on just yet. If it was quite dark, I might be able to speak.
"You hear him every Wednesday." She had gotten up and was reaching for the piano lamp. "You always get here sufficiently ahead of time. Quite early." She turned the switch and I found myself exposed in a sharply defined circle of light. "I can't say that you have ever been late for your lesson. In that respect you are my most reliable pupil."
I thought she gave me a curious look, and all at once I was obsessed with the notion that my regular appearance fifteen minutes ahead of time bad aroused her suspicion and that she demanded an explanation. The blood rushed to my face. As if surprised in the act of peeping through a keyhole, I was seized by an acute sensation of guilt. She had found me out, I felt certain of it, and the knowledge that I must defend myself at any cost filled me with a strength which seemed handed to me from the outside like a weapon.
"I come early on purpose, so I can listen to him." I sat upright and to my amazement was able to look straight into her eyes. "I enjoy watching him play."
I never had watched him. I had found no time for it, being so intent on watching her. Yet my voice shone with sincerity. Secure in my lie, fully disguised by it, I smiled and crossed my arms. "Maybe you think I play badly because I don't care. But I do. I care a lot. When Manfred plays I can hear the angels sing." Of course, I never had heard them sing. I narrowed my eyes. The shapeless semi-darkness beyond the disk of light held no more threats. Its mystery was pleasantly exciting. "I can hear them sing when he plays. That's the truth," I said earnestly. "But to try to play like that myself doesn't seem right."
Miss Stolz listened, her head bent sideways. "When I hear, say, a decrescendo, it makes me lonely and sad. It makes me want to cry." I could say this confidently, without any fear of bursting into tears. There simply was nothing to cry about now.
"Sad?" Miss Stolz asked carefully. "Music makes you sad?"
Terribly, terribly so," I asserted with all my heart. And I invented for Miss Stolz a tale of grief that scarcely resembled my own cramped miseries, but was grand and noble-mournfully splendid like the wings of a large dark butterfly.
"Strange little girl." Miss Stolz had put her arms around me, drawing me close till I rested safe against her bosom. Back and forth I rocked gently in a dreamy smell of camphor. "My poor little girl," she said, rocking me and kissing me on the forehead. "If you were older I would think you were in love."
I went home that night in a festive mood that stayed with me all week. By whatever means, I had passed the test. I felt purified, saintly almost. When my mother, eying me across the dinner table, remarked I reminded her of the cat who had swallowed the canary, I smiled at her distantly, from a cloud of superior knowledge. Right below my hairline I could feel Miss Stolz's kiss, a seal of approval. I no longer thought of her in terms of vague presentiment and self-pity, but with gratitude. A bond had been formed between us and the delicious prospect of the coming lesson set the rhythm to my daily task. I spent much time at the piano and indeed it surprised me that I did not play with the same accomplished ease as Manfred. My faulty playing was like an accidental mishap, a wrinkle in a freshly laundered Sunday frock. I practiced doggedly, anxious to perform the adagio for Miss Stolz with all the expression of which I was capable.
Out for a clean start, I wrote down a list of virtuous resolutions which included the promise to be exactly on time for my lesson. "Must not be fifteen minutes too soon. Must not watch her. It's bad," I wrote, though it wasn't precisely that which prompted the decision. Meeting Manfred was really what worried me most. The mere thought of him sent a quick shock of guilt through me that threatened to mar my newly won peace of mind. Instinctively I sensed that I must avoid him.
In fact, the following Wednesday, on my way to Miss Stolz, I thought of little else. Impatience had made me leave the house earlier even than usual, and I was forced to wander about in a thin dull rain for half an hour, along the railroad track among the stalks of beheaded sunflowers, and down by the stocky church, determined to keep away till I could be certain that Manfred had left. Twice I came in sight of Miss Stolz's house, drab as old shoes in the rain, and twice I turned back for another detour. The leaves on the pavement had lost their crispness. They were flat and soggy and stuck to my soles. When I ventured at last through the gate and up to the front porch, I heard no music. Manfred must have left. It seemed safe to ring the bell.
He had not left. I did not see him immediately, for he was not at his accustomed place in front of the piano, but in a distant corner, my corner, seated on the chair from which I had for so many weeks indulged in my secret, painful vice. There he sat, bright amid the somber colors of the room, his finely made face angelic above a spotless Eton collar, his bare knees gallantly crossed, his pale blue eyes focused on nothing in an expression of wisdom or boredom.
My confusion must have been written all over me, for Miss Stolz took my arm and in the manner of one who has just made a gift of some rare special thing, said, "Surprised, aren't you? I've asked him to stay for your lesson."
I stood dumbfounded, incapable of a reply. "This time he will listen," she continued with gentle triumph. "You'll make it worthwhile for him, won't you?"
For a moment I could think of nothing, except that I must leave. I would feign sudden illness. I would wince as if in pain, mumble an excuse, and dash out of the room and the house. Yet instantly I knew that I could not get away, that I was caught between Manfred's faraway, unconcerned gaze, and the pressure of her trembling arm. Tricked, ridiculed, trapped, the elation of the past days was shrinking into a tight, hard lump. Abruptly I pulled my arm out of hers and slammed the briefcase with the music down on the bench. "There's no sense in his listening. I didn't practice all week."
"You can't mean that. I don't believe you." Miss Stolz lowered her head, addressing me in a confidential, bewildered whisper that excluded Manfred. For the first time I noticed her ears. They were incongruously small, with a few gray hairs sticking up from the inside. "I don't believe you," she said again in the same low voice.
Loudly, cruelly, I repeated that I had not practiced. "But why? Why?" she whispered, the short cape around her shoulders fluttering like a bird's wings.
"Because I didn't feel like it," I said with an insolent shrug. "I had lots of other things to do." I made a point of looking at Manfred. Lips parted, hands relaxed, he sat in an attitude of perfect rest.
"Well," Miss Stolz said. "Well, if you didn't--" Quite at a loss, she shook her head, then averted her face and gazed out of the window into the rain.
With shame and hate I stared at the round back, the swollen hands, the deformed silhouette of her large body. There was no doubt in my mind that she had spoken to Manfred about me and told him of my heavenly reactions to his music. "She is ugly ugly ugly," I thought in a fury of bitter revenge. "Ugly as a witch, as a monster--" If I could only shout it out loud, scream into her worm-eaten face how revolting I thought her, how hideous!
"Very well, then." She had suddenly stepped past me, and with unexpected resolution pulled a longish, dog-eared volume from underneath a mass of sheet music. "You will play four hands together," she said in a tone of quiet finality. However her tremor had grown more accelerated and the volume shook vehemently in her hands. She was not really calm. I registered it, and with sudden, angry logic I reflected that she, not I, was helpless. The discovery gave me a lift. It did not disperse my resentment, but made it bearable, and in a roundabout way almost something of an asset. Manfred had walked over to us, smiling at me. I smiled back slyly. Not that I had a plan. It seemed that a plan had been laid out for me and would disclose itself soon.
"You'll do the last movement of this Haydn symphony," Miss Stolz said, avoiding my eyes. Placing the music on the rack, she explained that Manfred was to take the lead, while my own part in the bass would be easy enough to do, little more than an occasional simple chord. We took our seats at the piano. Miss Stolz signaled with an accentuated nod, and the music began.
"--two three NOW!" he suddenly sang, his foot pressing down on the pedal. I started and lined up my fingers in a hustle.
"Just a moment," Miss Stolz said. "Let's do this over. And have your fingers arranged ahead of time."
Manfred repeated the passage, his fragile torso writhing curiously with the intensity of sound. Outside the dripping pane, a windblow smashed the rain into a fleeting spray. Wet branches, blackish-blue, swayed upwards, stray leaves sailed high. And next to the liquefied window glass Miss Stolz sat nodding to the string of swelling sound, nodding, nodding till the walls reeled and the photographed men and women slid out of their frames and grotesquely joined in the mad ritual of motion. My heart jumped, and instantly, propelled by boundless, irrational mirth, I saw myself leap through the air past the jingling, quivering chandelier onto the steep bookcase, doing a toe dance atop its towering height, alarmingly close to its edge, well nigh in midair. The fancy was so real to me, its absurdity so uproariously comical that, unable to sit still for another moment, I swung my feet off the floor and broke into loud laughter. At first, Manfred continued with the music. Then as my laughter grew riotous, he stopped playing and turned his face at me.
"What in the world has come over you?" Miss Stolz asked, stupefied.
I gasped, breathless with laughter. "It's the way you-the way you..."
"The way I what!" Miss Stolz demanded sharply.
"It's--oooh--it's too funny--the way you--" I was shaken by another frenzy of laughter which I had no desire to control. To my extreme pleasure I noticed that Manfred was beginning to giggle too. His eyes grew moist and his cheeks puffed and red, as though he were battling a painful cough.
"Please--please! Now, really! What are you laughing at--" Her voice was suddenly unstable, tainted with a hidden terror. "Tell me," she said in a timid, belated effort to take it all sportingly in her stride, "tell me what makes you so happy, so I can laugh too."
By now hysteria had taken absolute possession of me. Even if I had wanted to, I could not have stopped my laughter. It threw me about frantically, viciously. "The way you--nod!" I cried at Miss Stolz whom I saw through a fog, remote, chimerical, of fluid substance. "The way you nod!" I bellowed, raising my arms as if pleading for mercy. "Nod nod nod, with every note--All the time nod! But all the time! It's too funny-too too funny! It's killing me!" My laughter leaped out of me idiotically in froglike jumps. Through a vacillating prism of tears I saw Miss Stolz rise silently and step to the piano. She removed the volume from the rack and placed it back on the pile of music. Then she shut the lid.
"I think you had better go home, both of you," she said, turning her back to us.
There was the sound of a door, closing irrevocably. Miss Stolz had left us. I was alone with Manfred, run out of laughter, run dry, drained for a moment of any feeling other than the apprehension that Manfred would reproach me and that I must not let him. Yet, "I'm afraid we offended her," was all he said. Somehow the incident had not really touched him. He was sorry, yes, sorry the way you are if you step on someone's foot by accident but beyond a gesture of momentary regret he appeared unruffled.
His aloofness, his inability or refusal to grasp what had happened, made a justification of it seem only more urgent to me. I wanted him on my side. I wanted him to assure me that he quite understood my laughing, that he himself had felt like laughing at her many times.
"Well, she does keep nodding and nodding, doesn't she? I don't see how a person can stay serious," I argued heatedly. We were by now out in the street. The rain had ceased.
"I guess it's nerves," he stated reasonably. "Something's wrong with her nerves." He had stopped under the prickly light of a street lamp to tie a shoelace that must have loosened. Stooping over, his brown curls took on a copper glow.
"Sure it's nerves. A child would know that," I replied superciliously. And in a belligerent tone I added, "Even so, it makes one laugh. You laughed too!"
"I always do if somebody else does. It's catching," he said, walking on.
A rough wind shook the trees, blowing a gust of raindrops against our faces. "I bet you you don't cry if somebody else cries!" I said with a nervous grin.
He moved a sleeve across his face to wipe the rain off. "Oh, no, that would be silly." And presently, with an animation that showed he was now getting at the one thing foremost in his mind, he exclaimed, "I'm going to take lessons at the conservatory. Think of that! Of course, Miss Stolz isn't a bad teacher. But she can't compare with the famous teachers they have at the music school."
"But she has decided to stop teaching!" he said. "Didn't you know?"
Something that had been groping aimlessly within me was suddenly quite still. I was alone in a quiescence whiter than light and vaster than sleep, alone in a vacant, unbounded dream. And yet, I did not stop walking, but moved on at Manfred's pace, queerly aware of small details along the road-the crooked curve of a bough, tossed into a chaos of leaves by the storm, the angular glare of damp oilcloth as a man in a raincoat passed us swiftly, head bent low as if he could not believe that the rain had ceased the ghostly pallor of a handkerchief, soaked and limp on the curbstone. I saw it all precisely, magnified through the immense lens of stillness. I even stooped for the handkerchief and held it up at Manfred. "Look, somebody has lost a handkerchief," I said and dropped it. Then I said abstractedly, "Stop teaching?"
"But haven't you heard?" And when I shook my head emptily, he said, "I'm sure she meant to tell you tonight."
"Tonight?" I said, and tonight was far away, forever lost beyond a thousand frozen doors. A desire to reach for Manfred's hand, to walk with him, hand in hand, went through me like a slow and almost sweet pain. It flowed into my stillness and I thought to hold his hand was all I had ever really wanted.
There was the whistle of the evening train. A red glare lit the clouds and vanished. "Maybe she's too sick to go on teaching. Or maybe she's just too old," he said in his clear, untroubled voice.
His footfall resounded evenly from the wet pavement. I did not dare touch his hand. "Old," I said. "Yes, very old." And unthinkingly, as though some other person whom I had never seen was making me say the words, I added, "She reminds me of death."
Startled, I turned my head and gazed behind me. The street was deserted. No one followed me.
"Death?" Manfred asked, the word coming from his lips like the name of an obscure herb or insect. "Death? I wouldn't know."
No, I thought. You wouldn't know. But I do. I must have known all the time. And suddenly it was as if within the shell of this short reflection lay the answer and end to each past torment. I took a long, deep breath, my lungs sucking in the rain-washed air. I unbuttoned my coat and walked more rapidly, a step ahead of Manfred. He was chattering about the conservatory. They would make him work there. But then, he didn't mind. He wanted to be an artist, a concert pianist, he announced brightly.
Had I really spoken those words about death, or merely thought them? "Let's run!" I cried. "Come on! Let's have a race and see who gets to the corner first!" And thrusting my body forward, off I started in an ecstatic joy of wind and speed and muscles, up the shining black into the light of many houses.
The Collected Short Fiction of Marianne Hauser
The Collected Short Fiction of Marianne Hauser