The spaces in-between
Adda is the only passenger, it’s the afternoon and raining. There used to be 39 metal posts, it says on a poster at the bottom station. The trip up the mountain was a trip to freedom. Today it’s just four. Its charm has been preserved, it says.
The late summer rain pelts against the gondola’s window panes, the valley soon lies under the blanket of fog, the trees hang rather than stand on the rocks, hugging the blocks with their roots. Adda pushes her middle fingers against her ears, rubs them and yawns to balance the pressure, she’s not used to it, it’s going too fast. After eight minutes she’s up the top, the strip of asphalt in front of the little building is steaming, leading into a gravel and sand path.
Europe’s second oldest cable car, the ticket collector had told her, will be 100 in a few months. The neighbours were all friends here, a magical mountain full of myths and legends. She already senses what she has heard and read. The hotel lies buried like a brown hen in a trough, lies here as if its bathing in sand and earth. Adda checks in, goes to her room, places her suitcase on the little table, pulls back the quilt. The fragrance of the outdoors, of pastures, of air. Sheets dried in the wind, feathers aired outdoors. She opens her suitcase to get changed, she has to get out into the forest, there’s just time for two hours on the circular route and three hours until dinner. That should work out.
She looks for her hiking map and a clean t-shirt. The white extends from below up the slope as far as the balcony, extends across the pastures, the larch trees tower like cathedral spires, green shadows in pastels. Her books are right on the top in her luggage. Literature that has been collecting for months on her bedside table, in the kitchen, in the hammock on the covered balcony, in the bathroom. Debut novels and award-winning books. She had stocked up for her holiday, had spent hours in the book shop on the corner browsing, being advised and getting lost. Finally she wanted to read.
She ties up her shoes, brand new, skims her hand across the room’s plaster, the subtle colours, takes her windcheater out of her bag, her rain cape, locks the door and sets off. Up on the rooftop terrace the chef is under his umbrella checking on the herbs, he carefully pulls the canvas over them to protect them from the rain again. It seems to Adda as if she has been here for ever, so open, so vulnerable, so receptive, she smells the fragrance of thyme flowing down over the walls and it stays with her on the way up on her climb.
Behind the building is a washing line that you are only really familiar with from films. And from your memories. The sheets are hardly moving, they are heavy with the wet. The line is hanging down under their weight. And once again a fragrance evokes a memory in Adda, she sees a photo in a photo album, her Mum had stuck it in at the top on the left, Adda and her brothers and sisters lined up next to each like fence panels, with the washing in the background. Her grandma had found the photo embarrassing as there was nothing but embarrassments on the line, faded pants in different sizes, baggy woollen socks, worn out aprons, torn tea towels. She sees herself running through them, feeling the damp slap in the face and hearing them fluttering in the wind. The gusts of wind taking them so that you can’t catch the washing, that was also a game, running through the spaces between them like the poles in a slalom. Mum had always hung the washing out early in the morning and taken it in at lunchtime. She threw them over the line in the afternoon and in the evening she brought them back in. She never exposed them to the midday sun. And she also never hung the washing out when it was a full moon. The full moon leaves behind yellow stripes, just like the blazing sun.
Flapping washing makes everyday life easy.
Mum’s washing was a weather forecast for the neighbours. If she hung it out to dry in the wind, then the others did too. If she took it in early, they knew it would rain soon.
Colourful washing in the wind, prayer flags worldwide.
Adda had to paint a washing line with items on it at school. She drew tights, jumpers and trousers. She didn’t think about sheets, the sheets were her white spots. The thought that sheets are stories, of being born, of joy and sorrow, of sweat and dying, that they are books, only occurs to her now.
She reaches a crossroads and makes a choice. She had never been here before, she only knows the mountains behind the fog and larch trees from postcards, but she cannot see them. She takes a deep breath and inhales the forest’s breath. She notices little houses hidden behind dark wood with shutters painted green, decorated with Edelweiss flowers and red hearts, with flowers and fruits and animals.
Adda walks into the fog. She is not afraid.
A single shoe lies on the forest floor, mouldy and damp. She picks it up, shakes it out, packs it into her backpack, a shoe for her balcony in town. A warning perhaps, a memory, who knows, a souvenir.
She started finding shoes in her childhood while others were finding mushrooms. Mountain shoes with and without soles. Recently she found a forest full of trees with red and blue writing. They weren’t markings, or any references by foresters to which tree had to be felled. They’re graffiti, someone told her. Just how the youngsters write on walls to tell you they’ve been here, some people in that village mark the spots where they found mushrooms. I was here, you won’t find anything else here. They are basically revealing their spots with these, thinks Adda. She discovers a golf ball sized toadstool. Wherever they are, mushrooms are not far away, said Grandma. But she doesn’t look around, she carries on.
Adda always finds something everywhere. Perhaps that’s why her life follows such an indirect and not direct route. Adda never had grandparents who talked about the war, she didn’t know very much. Her grandfather did not go to Heldenplatz in 1938, he said to his wife she could go but he was not going. He came from Vienna, died in 1946 before his son came home from the front, died because there wasn’t any medicine that could have saved him. She should be proud of him because he stood his ground, didn’t have a party membership book, wasn’t a Nazi. She could be proud of her grandfather from Vienna, but she isn’t. As then she might have to be angry at the other one.
The other one, a South Tyrolean, had agreed to emigrate to the Third Reich, back then in 1939. He didn’t go but he had opted to get out. He would never have gone, it was said within the family, but what could you actually know in hindsight. Later on many people said that they opted for Germany but would never have gone. Adda could believe this but she couldn’t know for sure. Memories, they’re just traces.
She carries on walking, although the rain is getting heavier. The wet pearls on her new shoes, the mud splashes her calves but her feet are warm. We are all children of the war, as are our Mums and Dads, as back then when they were at war there wasn’t anywhere without war, no everyday life without it.
It was even up here. Up this mountain where there was freedom. It didn’t kill man against man, or people against people. It took a father away from its family and carefree holidays away from children. They had spent the summer here during the war, under the trees that they wanted to shake after the rain, on the pastures with views over the bright peaks, next to the black lake and cup rocks that nobody knew what purpose they served. Occupying land, occupying minds. Sacrifices to the gods, Adda had loved that idea for a long time.
The high larch trees dressed in silvery grey horsehair lichens, the fences in the same garb. From the distance the sound of the chair lift, she had seen it when she got off the cable car. The gliding of the old-fashioned single chair over the rollers reminds her of squeaking washing lines in Venice, where they are hung and pulled from one window to another using often rusty cranks. Over the lane, over the canal, through the wind.
They had travelled there from Vienna, Mum, the kids, Dad, who was from Germany and worked there as a Foreign Office diplomat. They were guests at one of those families who were for staying in, they fancied themselves far removed from history. The other one, who the little house here belonged too, became one of the founders of the party that still has the most votes here. He was hung in Berlin on 15th August 1944. He wasn’t at the assassination attempt on 20th July, unlike his younger brother, von Stauffenberg’s Adjutant. However, he had conspired here in this quiet hamlet and just a few mountain tops further south east. Once caught, he had called the Führer an executor of evil before the People’s Court. The revolution was a moral one deliberately focusing on life. Not every command should be followed.
He had five children, one of them was baptised Adda, that’s what is documented. One of them was no longer here, one was born when he died. She had not expected this story, read such a long time ago, to move her so much now. She sits down on a bench under the trees, the water is already pooling on the narrow path, she takes her mobile phone out of her pocket to look at the time. Something crawls on her leg, a fright, the trail of a snail on her shoe. She stands up again and walks as if she has to break through a wall, as if she wants to defend herself from anything that moves her. But she doesn’t want to defend herself. She fears and loves and needs these moments of emotional battles.
She would never have painted on trees and would never have etched her name in them. She painted walls in her childhood, those in the kitchen, in the bedroom. Her Mum didn’t tell her off, she took the white paint and painted over it. After a few weeks the paint was there again, it had eaten its way through day by day. Dad then took the sandpaper and scrapped the oil chalk off the walls. Mum then painted over it again.
Grandma once told her that you have to give the wind something to eat when it blows the washing. This is not just a legend. You also have to give when you take. Adda places a few biscuits on a tree trunk, she is sure that someone lives here, invisible elemental beings. They watch over us, ensuring we cherish our memory. She is drawn to the chapel so she carries on and is then standing in front of a wayside shrine. Three people died here, it says, the Lord took them far too soon. Jesus with a Tyrolean heart. It doesn’t say how they died, Adda hopes she doesn’t forget to ask.
The fog is getting thicker, it’s pouring and the forest is dark. Adda turns around. She still has plenty of days to look for the cup rocks, the church, the ancient shrine. The stones are not going to trickle away.
Three deer give her a fright and she watches them flee. The large ones jump over the fence, the kid takes a run at it, hits it, doesn’t make the jump and starts whimpering. Adda steps back, the goat swings around, tenses its legs
and sprints towards its child and then finds another escape route with it.
She walks past the washing line, sees the sheets dripping and hanging. The line is holding although it must be heavy with what is pulling on it. It’s going to be sunny tomorrow, the weather forecast said. She goes to the café in front of the hotel, sits under the eaves outside. There is rain on the tables, they are made out of pure wood and elegant. They are so smooth that the drips splash making rings.
Her parents always travelled to Italy in the holidays. A few hours from here, in the south. They could also have gone to France or Spain. But they always came here. They like us here, Mum once said, here they don’t make you feel as if the war was our failure. We’re not despised here, she said. We have a shared past, thinks Adda, we made an agreement before the war and afterwards too, when it came to helping the Nazis flee. But not at this altitude. Or maybe here too. Wherever there are rebels there is betrayal too. Why not here.
In her room she gets changed, has a warm shower, washes the blouse, places it on a hanger and buttons it up, takes the umbrella and goes into the garden, takes a clothes peg from the heavy sheet and fixes the blouse to the line. Watches it hanging tired in the rain. Watches it fluttering and dancing and the wind pulling on it, when she closes her eyes: giving the wind her last biscuits.
Later on she takes the shoe out of her backpack and places it on the bedside table. And thinks about who it might have belonged to. Wants to know who the three dead people are and what used to be there, before the chapel. What’s so special about the healing springs. What about the Bärenbad. Whether the little house is still standing where there was still a family and freedom during the war. She takes the note pad and makes her plans. She looks out the window and the walls of fog are breaking up. It will soon be dark. She looks at the ten books next to her case. She wasn’t even going to read one of them on this holiday, five pages before turning off the light, five pages maximum per day.