Marcel Möring – Eden
I was born in a forest without borders, as old and as barren as creation itself, where the bison roamed and the trees were older than everything alive. There were wolves and bears and when winter came the snow lay so thick that any thought of travel was vain and villages were closed off for months and lonely foresters died of hunger and cold. In spring, when the snow melted and the ice on the brooks and rivers and lakes broke, the dripping of water could be heard everywhere in the wood and the murmur of little streams seeking a path among tree roots and fallen tree trunks until they reached a brook or a river and plunged eddying and foaming into it. Grasses and herbs sprouted after the first spring day. The birds that had been silent all the long cold winter, called out to each other. Trees and shrubs began to bud. Less than two weeks later everything was a mist of tender young green. In summer the sun shone long on the dense canopy of leaves, the thick, low humus on the ground warmed up and everything smelled of rotting leaves and resin and freshly sawn wood, because the men had come back into the forest to fell. Wild strawberries glittered like drops of blood among the blanket of green, orchids gave off a heady scent, bees flew back and forth, and honey-drunk bumble-bees buzzed around the blossoming thyme bushes. After the long quiet winter the forest was one great hubbub: foresters felled giant trees for the sawmills, huntsmen shot bears for their hides, bison for their meat and wolves for their pleasure. In sluggishly flowing rivers and brooks the pike hung motionless waiting for its prey and carp grew big and fat, otters played in the quicksilver glitter of the water and beavers built their dams with such dedication that it looked as if they hoped that this summer they would finally succeed in transforming this vast forest into their watery dreams.
It was in that forest, in a village without a name, that I came into the world. It had no name because it wasn’t supposed to be there. It was a spot where wood-choppers, charcoal-burners and fur-hunters had settled. If one of us was asked where we lived, he would say ‘there’ and point in the direction of the village that didn’t exist, and if we were here, in the middle of our huts and cottages, we called it ‘here’ and looked around as if we had to convince ourselves that the village was actually there.
I had no name myself, and for the same reason. Before I was born four other children had died. None of them had lived longer than a month. They had been a girl, two boys and another girl. When I was born my parents’ confidence in the viability of their offspring had shrunk to such an extent that they hoped the Angel of Death would pass me by if I remained nameless. It was the same superstition that led to mothers giving a different name to their sick children.
After I was born my mother was feverish and weak. Her breasts were empty and she had to stay in bed. Because in the whole village, which consisted of nothing more than eight cottages and few huts, there was not a single nursing woman, my father wrapped me in cloths, wrapped a bit of fleece around the little bundle and walked to the nearest village. There he found a Lithuanian peasant woman who still had her child on the breast. But however much he pleaded, wailed and haggled, she would not make her milk available to the brood of a murderer of God. She put her leaking breasts back in her bodice, spat on the ground and called the farmer, who sent my father packing from the farm with a flail. And so it went on, door after door, farmyard after farmyard. At the end of the day, when my father set off on the way back with his starving child, on the edge of the village a woman walked up to him. She was a woman with a bad name, who had children with different men, and who kept herself and her offspring alive by washing for the farmers’ wives of the village. Some also said that she sold her body.
‘You there,’ she called to my father, ‘where are you going with that child?’
My father, a strong wood-chopper but as meek as a lamb and shy of worldly things, lowered his head and mumbled the story, the four dead infants, his sick wife, her empty breasts and the fruitless quest for a nurse. The washer-woman looked at him from beneath her tousled furls and smiled.
‘You don’t look like a man who can’t make healthy children,’ she said.
My father swallowed and shook his head. He was about to turn round and go on his way, the long journey through the dense forest, when the woman stepped forward, gripped him by the arm, placed his hand on her full bosom and said, ‘I have enough for two. I’ve even got too much.’ She let go of his frozen hand and laughed. ‘I have so much that I could even nurse you.’ As she said those words she laughed so loudly that my father looked round to check that no one was watching them. The washer-woman beckoned to him and walked into her house without looking to see if my father was following her.
So my life was saved, by an indifferent benefactor who became my nurse. My father laid me in his arms and handed me over to fate. His child would surely die if he brought it back to the village without a name. Better to leave it where it might perish than keep it for the abjection of the world with the chance that it would die, because he who saves the life of one human being saves all mankind.
That night, when he returned to his ailing wife, where one of the other women was trying to quell the fever with a compress of dock-leaves, he shrugged and said that it had all been too late and in vain.
The washer-woman’s name was Anna. When my father left me alone with her, she unbuttoned the lace of her blouse, took out her left breast and put me to it. I drank like someone thirsty who has been wandering for a long time and who has found a spring and when the left breast was finished she put me to her right breast and I drank from it too. That night she feared for my life, because I was bent double with cramps and still didn’t cry. The following morning, when she had rubbed my belly and moistened my lips with fennel extract, she put me to the breast again and I drank for the second time and even though the milk gave me cramps again, even after a day it was clear that I was growing stronger and healthier and six months later, when my father came back to the village, this time to sell hides and take salt and fabrics away, he saw a child with rosy cheeks, an unruly bush of jet-black hair and a body like a fat piglet. By then my mother had died of puerperal fever.
When I was no longer a baby my father picked me up and I went back to the village that didn’t exist. Because no one had ever heard of a child without a name and there was no one there to give a definitive answer, my father let it be. I was called ‘the one who was away’, or Niekas, which means ‘nobody’.
The years passed, hot summers came, white winters went, and I grew up into a boy who helped with the felling of the oak and the skinning of the beaver. When I stood by the flowing water in which the tree-trunks drifted downstream, it was as if the forest was the whole world and everything was a part of it. Trees grew and fell and when the trunks of the newly felled trees were still lying on the ground, young oaks were already sprouting all around them. Foliage drifted down and even before it could wither and rot it was buried beneath a thick load of snow, and in spring when the snow melted, it formed a fragrant layer of humus in which worms and beetles and mice and salamanders crept around and ferns and grasses and herbs sprouted up from the mould and small, pale orchids and fragrant anemones and little wild strawberries which glittered like fresh drops of blood among the green leaves. The skylark climbed towards the sun above open patches of ground, giant ants clambered over rotten stumps, sometimes half-hidden under moss, the bison stood staring sadly, as if he knew already what fate had in store for him, and fish leapt from the river that flowed sluggishly by, to pluck a dragon-fly or a fly from the air. Trees were felled, people fished. Hides were tanned and berries picked. People waited for the end of winter and looked forward to the summer. The years passed and time repeated itself. What was there had been and would be again. Everything was life, everything passed away and became new and old and I was a part of it.
When I was old enough I was sent to the river with the other boys. There were five of us, the twins called Moses and Aaron because one of them stammered and the other one filled in his broken words; Jaakov, the youngest; Adam and me. On a bend in the rifer lay the tree trunks that the men had felled upstream and rolled into the river. We tied them together into rafts that we lashed together with ropes and poled into the middle of the river, after which we let them float to the village that lay downstream, where the wood was pulled into a timber channel. When we were finished we set fishing nets and sat down on the grassy bank and looked at the bumble-bees that hung languidly over the wild flowers and the pollen dust that floated in the air The hammering of the woodpeckers rang out from the forest. We chewed on long grass-stalks and lay back in the fragrant, herby grass
Ne day when the air was almost white and the sunlight fell in such a way that the green of the trees was limp and dull and the heat scorched our skin, we saw Malka, the gooseherd, a girl of our age who was as stubborn as she was introverted and preferred to wander through the forest on her own. Everyone remembered how she had once ridden into town on a Tarpan. The pony had asked her if she didn’t want to climb on his back, she said. Mocking laughter had risen up from the group that had gathered around her and a boy had called that horses couldn’t talk and another one had asked if she was going to come with a stone tomorrow if it asked her whether it could come along. Malka had sat there unmoved, with her fists in the bristly mane, her thin brown legs wedged stiffly against the animal’s flanks. Her lonely rambles came to an end when she became a gooseherd and her birds grazed along the river.
That hot summer’s day, when we had come from the edge of the forest to make rafts, she stood a little way upstream keeping watch over the grazing geese. The grass reached to her knees, she was dressed in a worn skirt and her red hair flamed in the sun. Pollen and fluff floated around her. High overhead swallows darted through the air. Adam shouted and waved and Malka looked round. I went on walking, stiff and awkward, through the high grass and didn’t look up when Malka returned Adam’s greeting.
There was a lot of wood and it took us a long time to tie it together. When the first raft was ready, Jaakov poled it to the post that was fixed in the ground a little way from the shore and moored it. Moses and Aaron argued over who was next and I stood on my raft and looked around. There was nothing around us but reeds, lush pastures, wetlands and the forest rim. Malka had disappeared from view, but my eyes still looked for her and the image of her, in the knee-high grass with her worn skirt and flaming hair wouldn’t disappear from my thoughts.
When we had gathered all the trunks together and saw them drifting along the sluggish stream and the nets had been set, we lay down in the grass. I closed my eyes, listened to the others and felt my body connecting with the earth. Jaakov’s voice sounded. The grass sprang up with a sigh and I heard the swishswish swishswish swishswish of feet passing through the long stems. Someone called out, a splash, spluttering after emerging from the water. I saw Moses and Aaron jumping from the river-bank hand in hand. Jaakov who was already bobbing in the water, his head just above the surface, hair wet around his temples, Adam testing how could it was with his right foot. It was a while before I worked out that my eyes were still closed. How could I see what I couldn’t see?
My gaze wandered away from the water and seemed to soar like a lark. The heads of the boys were now small dark balls on the shimmering surface of the water, a thin wisp hung above the open patch of our village. Children there were playing around the fire, a few women were kneading dough in the wooden trough in front of the cook-house, two dogs lay sleeping in the sand with their heads against each other’s bellies. Two girls sat outside a house weaving garlands of wild flowers.
‘Beanpole! Come into the water!’
I stood on the grassy bank and looked at the bobbing heads of my friends. I couldn’t remember sitting up.
‘Jump in, Niekas. Jump!’
The boys’ eyes were narrowed to slits against the glittering from the water. I wondered what was going on, why what I had seen hurt so much. Then I shook my head, set off and jumped like someone diving into the void.
One day we came back from the river and the village that didn’t exist had disappeared. The women and children sat together among bundles of possessions and the smouldering piles that been houses. The men from the army had levelled everything.
That evening we sat around a big fire, our faces orange in the glow of the flames, and there was no one who wasn’t thinking about the journey of our forefathers. Jakub, the oldest, told the children the story and the men and women raised their beakers and said ‘next year, home next year’, but in the meantime plans were made for a new village, not far from here, right by the river. The women dipped their little fingers in the wine and moistened the lips of the youngest children. I asked my father why we hoped every year that we would be home next year, why we didn’t set off and go. Why didn’t we take our fate into our own hands?
‘It’s just a story,’ my father said.
‘Is there no law to protect us?’ I asked. ‘The law belongs to everyone, doesn’t it?’
One of the men looked up. ‘Which law? The law belongs to the strongest. Who makes the law? The wolf or the hart? And if the hart makes the law, does the wolf pay it any heed?’
I looked round. In the flicker of the fire, old Jakub’s milk-white eyes were staring in my direction. My eyes followed the sparks that rose from the fire and disappeared into the black of the night among the treetops that loomed blue into the black air and I wondered if my ife would be like the story of our village: whether it would be leaving and starting again, moving away and arriving, and I thought about the story that Jakub had told about an ancestor who had come walking from a country where the people lived in wooden towers, tall as an oak, connected to each other with rope bridges. The cattle grazed in pastures that hung between the towers and there were fields in the air where rye and wheat were grown and orchards that produced apples, plums and dates. I realised that I no longer believed that the forest was the whole world.
Next morning, with everyone packing to leave, I said I wasn’t going with them.
My father didn’t look up and went on emptying straw sacks.
‘I want to go into the world.’
He got to his feet, an empty straw bag in his callused hands, and looked at me uncomprehendingly. He shook his head and pushed the sack into my hands. As I started rolling it up, I said I wanted to know more about the world that I wanted to learn things that I wanted to see other people and other countries and not be hounded from one clearing in the forest to the other, that I wanted to find a place to stay, a home.
‘This is home,’ my father said.
‘Then why are we always saying “home next year”?’
‘It’s a story. Nothing but a fairy-tale. You can’t live on fairy-tales.’
‘But Jakub…’ I said.
‘Jakub…’my father snarled. He stared across at me and narrowed his eyes, even though it wasn’t sunny, and folded his arms.
‘It was the nurse’s milk.’
I looked at him.
‘Die or rot,’ he said. ‘That’s what I thought. And look what came of it…’
He nodded as if I, and what I had said, were confirmation of what he had suspected, the fate that he had feared and predicted. He turned round and walked towards the clearing where our belongings were piled up.
Around us bundles were being hoisted on to shoulders and belts tightened, somewhere someone was loading a cart. Time flowed and I stood still. I thought: I’m nameless and invisible. My father stood near the other men with bag and baggage. Even like that, turned away from me, a box on his back, his body spoke. It said: I am not taking leave of what I have never welcomed.
But that day, when the air was heavy with the unexpressed, when the village without a name was no longer a place and my desire to leave had sprouted like the first shoots of spring, that day I could still not make a decision. I hadn’t yet understood that big changes in life are seldom the result of decisions, they just happen.
From that moment my father stayed in the woodcutters’ camp in the forest. We had silently built a hut, and when that was done he moved into the wood without saying goodbye. There had been moments when I wanted to say to him that I didn’t want to leave him in the lurch, that I had probably been nursed by what he would have called a bad woman, but that I was his son, and wanted to be, but every time we were near one another he turned his back on me and things grew quiet and cold between us and my mouth could not speak the words that my head thought.
I built a table and a bench and in the evening when the families gathered for meals and the clearing between the cottages was empty, I sat at the table and ate black bread with salted fish and pickled beets and when I closed by eyes I saw the fathers and the mothers at their tables and imagined that I was with them.
A few years, later, when I was not yet a man but no longer a boy, Jakub called me to see him one day. He was sitting outside his hut, on a bench that was nothing more than a rough plank resting on two roughly hewn blocks. With his knife he had worked the seat into endlessly curling vine tendrils that covered the whole surface. The ground around his feet was always covered with shavings and his clothes were sprinkled with sawdust. It was a mystery to me how someone who couldn’t see was able to do such delicate wood-carving, just as I didn’t understand how he knew who was walking by. He tapped the seat beside him with his right hand. We sat there without speaking, his face turned towards the clearing, his hands in his lap.
When he was young he must have been taller than most of the men from our village, but now everything about him was shrunk. His face was tanned and wrinkled and framed with the white hair of his beard and on the top of his head. It made me think of the fruit called Etrog, which was brought every year by a traveller who carried it with him in a box on a bed of straw. Jakub’s back bent where his shoulder-blades began and his head stretched forwards, as if he were staring into the distance, blind though he was. He wore a sleeveless goat-skin jacket that reached over his hips, the legs of his quilted trousers poked into boots that had been often mended, but which had plainly once been expensive.
‘Son,’ he said. ‘You know the letters of the alphabet. You can read. But if you go into the world you must be able to speak the language of the people among whom you live, and you must have knowledge that can only be found in books. Language is your shield and your weapon, it is your house and your bed, it is food and drink.
‘Maybe I’ll stay.’
‘And someone has to preserve the stories.’
‘Which stories,’ I said.
‘All of them,’ said Jakub. ‘Other people’s stories and your own. I’ll teach you what I know and in exchange for that listen to my story. Maybe you’ll come across it some time. Maybe you’ll pass it on and my story will become part of yours and yours will become the start of someone else’s. My book’s indoors. Will you get it for me?’
In his cottage it takes my eyes a long time to get accustomed to the dark. Then, on a rickety table, I made out a stack of parchments of different sizes sewn together, some barely bigger than a hand, others so big that they were folded double in the book. I ran over to it to pick it up and saw something moving, but when I looked round there was nothing. I leaned over. Again something moved. I straightened up and examined by surroundings. Now I saw that the walls of the cottage were covered with wood carvings, so dense that it looked as if ants were creeping over the boards in long, coiling strings. My eyes wandered over the busy carvings and my eye fell on the table-top, which also consisted of thick, twisting garlands of woodcarvings. Letters appeared in the spars light. They were barely legible, and most of the letters didn’t look like the ones I knew, strangely round, or high and angular. It was as if I had landed inside a book. A strange sense of persecution took hold o me. I went and stood by one of the walls and ran my fingers over the humps and hollows. Near the door, level with the loop that served as a latch, I recognised a word. While I heard Jakub’s voice asking where I was, I read hastily, my fingers on the wooden words, a sentence that climbed along the door-post and crept on like ivy and burgeoned over the back wall. There were words, sentences, whole scraps of text, fragments in unknown languages, illustrations that looked like what you draw with a stick in the sand fo show a stranger the way to the next village, words that assumed the shape of a tree or a house, woods and lakes, sentences that snaked like forest paths.
When I came outside I was breathless with surprise.
That day Jakub let me see the book in which he had learned to write, and which he had always carried with him afterwards, always full of adventures and discoveries, maps of his wanderings and things he had learned. The letters on the first page were written a child’s hand and said in three languages: ‘I am Jakub ben Adam, born in the town of Kaffa’.
So, with Jakub’s writing exercises as my model, I learned Latin and Greek script, and while the words and sentences in the book became more fluent and the writer more dexterous, my own skill improved as well and I learned how to use words where they fit and to make sentences that didn’t just say the simplest things, but which were beautiful in their own right. Jakub’s book was the first I had ever held in my hands and if it wasn’t the most remarkable thing that I would ever see, then at least it was one of the most remarkable. There were drawings of creatures that I had only ever heard of: the centaur, the cyclops, the griffon, the firebird. Others were unknown, strange and frightening: the canocephaloi, which had a dog’s head on the body of a human being; the three-headed Cerberus, harpies that screeched so hideously that they froze a person’s blood in their veins. The book contained stories that Jakub had heard on his travels and people he had met: the Cabbalistic alchemist Abramelin, who confessed that he had seen the secret book of creation; the last of the Khazars wandering around in search of the last Khazar woman; the occult doctor Agrippa who said that man and woman were certainly the same, but that tat the female race was probably better than the male. Illustrated in the book were place so big that I couldn’t believe it was really possible that so many people lived together when Jakub told me about his birthplace, which consisted of hundreds of streets and thousands of houses.
The stories and illustrations in his book were rain in the desert of my dried-up spirit. Seeds that had lain waiting in the sand for years began to germinate, sprouted and became a covering of flowers and leaves, as dense and multi-coloured as the carpets of the Persians. New ideas, about what was possible and what was impossible, fought for attention. That people lived in cities as big as a forest… That some people went on board ship, without the certainty of another coast, to discover what they didn’t know, or fleeing from the all-too-familiar. That there were dwarves, giants, monopods, yellow and brown people, people who live in or on water, and others who dwell in the crowns of tall trees and never set foot on solid ground. I was a desert after a rainstorm, a forest when spring has arrived. Everything within me blossomed and sought the light.
Later, when my daily lessons had progressed somewhat, Jakub told me about his youth, that he had been a keen reader who played with letters and words by a flickering candle until late in the evening, and that he got up early in the morning to be able to read before breakfast, and how, when the years advanced and he had read almost everything that was available in his father’s hose, he noticed that his eyes were becoming weaker, that he had to bend ever lower over the letters to be able to see them. Then he had known that his declining eyesight would deprive him of access to what he loved above all.
‘My sight was taken from me so that I would see,’ he said.
Translated by Shaun Whiteside