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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 20

I was tired and was on the point of dropping off to sleep. Then a bright light flashed and I saw the smiling face of the photographer. My first Communion long ago in thirty-three. I was wearing a white dress made especially for the occasion and white shoes. "Don't be afraid, Lisa, it's a flash. Haven't you ever had your picture taken with a flash?" Of course not. It was the first time and I was sad, because I would look scared in the picture and my eyes would be closed. When I saw the photograph a few days later, I could hardly believe my eyes. I looked quite calm, a little stiff and solemn, but there was no trace of any startled movement, and my eyes were open. For a long time afterward I wondered how the photographer had managed to touch up the photograph so well, and often when there was thunder and lightning I remembered this scene from my childhood.
.... Flash after flash of lightning and loud thunder drove away my drowsiness. I liked watching the rain during the night. I sat by the window, trying to penetrate the darkness with my gaze. All I could see were the shapes of trees. The tops of the pine-trees were swaying in the wind, the sodden branches were heavy, and the fir-trees were no longer elegantly slim, but drooping limply.
.... That night I felt the burden of loneliness and I longed for a friend, a soul-mate, someone to confide in and exchange thoughts with. And I found what I was looking for. We made friends and grew to love each other: raindrops were gliding down the window-pane, as if hurrying to reach the wooden window-sill, to merge with the puddle of water there and be lost in it, losing their shape and their tiny identity. A small drop, only half as big as a pea, stood there all alone, as if waiting for something. Down below it was swelling and growing bigger and bigger. I waited for it to move, but it hesitated, as if it meant to tease me, or perhaps just to stay with me as long as possible. "You're so small, yet so persistent. I'd like to see how long you'll hold out." To its left and right, big raindrops raced by, meandering down their odd little paths, and just when I thought they would hit my little drop, they turned aside. "You're laughing at me, aren't you, you're happy because you don't know what's in store for you. Your peace will come to an end, too, I'm sorry to say. As soon as a big drop touches you, you'll disappear and be gone."
.... A big drop was staggering left and right, and I was afraid. It was heading straight for my little drop, about to attack it, swallow it up, and drag it down into the dirty puddle. My hand flew to the glass to hold back my little friend, but in vain, I was quite helpless, because all this was happening on the other side of the glass. The big drop hesitated and passed by my little friend in a gentle curve. In the window-pane I could see the reflection of the smile on my face.
.... If only it would stop raining. Then there would be more hope for my little nocturnal friend. In the morning, at sunrise, I would see the colours of the rainbow melting into each other on her fat little tummy.
.... The rain didn't stop. I was blinded by every bolt of lightning, but only for a moment, and then I would again see the heavy sodden pine branches in front of the window. My gaze rested on the window-pane. Yes, she was still there. I was glad she hadn't gone. If we had to part, I wanted to wave good-bye to her. Her tummy grew bigger and bigger, sagging at the bottom, and I waited for her to move.
.... She moved slowly, as if she was sorry to say good-bye. We had grown used to each other, we had grown close, and it was as if we both wanted it to last a little longer. She moved hesitantly, stumbling on her meandering path, stopping for a moment as if she wanted to catch sight of me again before she disappeared. I followed every movement with apprehension and was filled with dread every time she moved. I raised my hand to wave to her, and my hand stayed there, hanging in mid-air.
.... A big drop was gliding close by her, it touched her, she swelled a little, and disappeared into the puddle on the window-sill, from which a thin stream of water flowed down into the muddy puddle beneath the window.
.... It had stopped raining, and the clouds in the sky were floating off to the east. Here and there a rift appeared in the clouds and then the moonlight flashed out for a moment. But the moment it shone forth, darkness fell again; it reminded me of the light from a light-house. It was already late July, but there were no hot days as in the old country. I liked this climate, it was pleasant, there was neither the heat in which you could hardly move, nor the cold that made your teeth chatter. Oh, there was the moonlight, it lay on the damp tree-tops as if someone had sprinkled the branches with silver. What was it like on the Moon, was it really so cold, and then suddenly so very hot? That sequence had to include a moment when it was pleasantly warm. It was Monday, the 21st of July. Today, man would set foot on the moon for the first time. Perhaps Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon at this very moment. Did he feel lonely? He was alone on a whole planet, so to speak, and yet he was not lonely, he knew that millions of people were with him. I was on a planet where people were as numerous as ants, yet I was utterly lonely.
.... A flood of memories from my student days rushed into my mind, when we had discussed the meaning of life with so much self-confidence. We mingled quotations from the writings of philosophers with our own ideas, we thought we knew so much, and, full of our own importance, we expressed the most daring opinions. With how much youthful self-confidence had we denounced the "decadent" ideas of the Western philosophers of all the "idealist" schools, because only Marxism was the real thing, a doctrine full of ideals and large promises of equality and freedom for all the people in the world! How we despised Nietzsche, deriding him as the forerunner of Nazism, yet how much beautiful poetry there was in his ideas! We argued about the idea of nirvana and had long discussions on Buddhism, on the tenets of Schopenhauer, on the uncertainty of any truth, yet how well I now understood Schopenhauer's opinion that "life is constant pain and suffering, and the greatest sufferer is man". We try to lessen that suffering, and our efforts are often in vain.
.... Those ideas of the philosophers had sunk into oblivion, and life now seemed to me to be a multitude of pictures forming a sequence. Some were in colour, others black and white with shades of grey, ever since the first day I could remember, the first games around the chestnut trees, my first schooldays, my first feelings of unrest, my first hopes and desires. I often found it hard to eat while they were playing tag outside, especially if I knew that Boris was there. Then one day a young officer turned up and upset my peaceful life. I remembered the evenings we had spent together playing cards, when our hands would touch, and the ever firmer squeeze of his hand filled the emptiness and gave a new meaning to my life. It had all passed so quickly, in a series of flashes, and now here I was, waiting here alone, gathering together all these crumbs and hoping that the biggest event of my life might be yet to come. I might meet him, if only for a moment.
.... At least I had to try: there was a possibility that he was around here somewhere and that he would respond if I contacted him. Robert was still longing to meet his father, to see him just once; he said, "If only I could see him in passing."
.... I was awakened by the shrill whistle of a train. I leaped up and strained my ears, listening, while my heart beat madly. The lighted windows of the passenger carriages flew by, the lights flickering through the branches, then disappearing into the darkness. How fast the trains went here!
.... At the end of the park, the last row of pines and firs threw shadows that bobbed up and down on the railway track as if playing tag. Some clashed together angrily, while others approached each other cautiously and touched gently. Why was that slim shadow all alone? I wanted to go down there, to join it. Was it waiting for the train? It seemed to be raising a hand, waving to me. Wasn't it Alma?
.... Whenever I was alone and felt depressed, I thought of Alma. It was as if I could hear voices under the window, saying, "Poor Alma, she was so young and beautiful..." And then again, for the umpteenth time, that scene: as soon as I recognized Alma's dress, I stopped... It was as if I could see her lying there on the stone embankment, and several meters further on, between the tracks, I could see her hair...
.... No, I won't come, Alma, don't call me! I have to make the attempt!
.... I was standing behind the kiosk, excitedly leafing through the newspaper. There it was: "Alfred, write to me. Code: Fur Elise, 1943." Was that what I had written? Of course I had, I remembered it well.
.... I fumbled with the envelope; why did my hands refuse to obey me? He suggested that we meet in the town on the main square. What if the letter had been written by some confidence trickster? The square was full of people, there was nothing to be afraid of. Should I go, or should I let him know I couldn't come? The doctor had forbidden me to get out of bed. If only I didn't have a fever and a headache, I would go to the rendezvous; if I didn't go, I might lose him forever.
.... I set off hesitantly, and then I began to hurry. It had started to rain. Should I turn back? How could I let him see me, bedraggled like this?
.... A man in a wheelchair stopped next to the newspaper kiosk. He took out his wallet and rummaged in it. Several coins dropped out of his wallet and rolled to my feet. I hurried to pick them up, approached him and handed him the money, gazing into his eyes. His long gaze made me feel a little confused. Men! As I was handing him the money, our hands touched and I gave a start. Those eyes! Suddenly I had the feeling that I had seen them before. Those restless flickering irises, full of melancholy and languor, which seemed to conceal a mysterious depth at the bottom of which there was a soft reflected glow, as at the bottom of a deep well. We looked at each other for a few moments, and then I roused myself and rushed away, anxious to disappear in the crowd. When I thought I had gone far enough, I turned round and looked back in his direction. Those eyes were still following me. I mustn't let him go. I started walking back towards him, but he had turned his wheelchair around and was moving away in the opposite direction; then he was lost in the crowd. What was I to do? I couldn't run after him with my hair all wet, and my dress clinging to my body and making me feel colder and colder.
.... I went back to my cold room. Perhaps he would contact me again in some way? But how? He didn't know my address. I'd ring him up and apologize... No, I wouldn't ring him up. I'd be able to explain things better in writing. I was already tired, and I thought I should wait until the fever had gone down a little first. I'd write the letter and then I'd lie down. My legs were as heavy as lead, and I felt strangely faint, as if the floor was swaying beneath my feet, and why was I trembling so?

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