In the small hours of 21 September 2007, I spilled around 200 millilitres of coffee over my insistently ringing mobile phone, which had so abruptly prompted me to pick it up, disturbing me with its withheld number, that I didn’t have time to put down my cup. Vexed by the interruption to my work, it took me a few seconds to comprehend who was speaking to me. A policeman was on the line, and, without the verbiage of an elaborate greeting, he told me that my parents had been killed in a car accident that night. ‘Killed?’ I asked, even though I had understood immediately. While I continued to stare at my talk on vector spaces, and watched the intricate scalar products dance before my eyes, the officer informed me what had happened: the red Audi, the licence plate of which having been used to identify my parents, must have come off the road last night and swerved down a scree in the vicinity of Syhrn Valley like an avalanche. The peculiar thing was, the officer explained to me, that neither of them exhibited any wounds or bruising. There was a dented section on the car resulting from the confrontation with the crash barrier, and yet there was much to suggest that this was not the cause of their deaths.
The vehicle must have slid towards the slope at a rate of infinite slowness after the impact, rolling sluggishly onto its back like a dying insect, before finally slipping, softly grinding as it went, over the ridge into the depths. The descent, which had been completely invisible to other drivers on the Semmering Expressway due to heavy fog, had probably come to its soundless end in a common oak tree, according to the policeman.
I was sitting in bed in pyjama bottoms and a bra, my laptop with the script of my inaugural lecture open on my knees, and suddenly found myself in the middle of a painting with erroneous perspective: the corners of my apartment, the park outside my window, every chair, every shelf began to creak into motion, jamming up against one another. The man on the telephone continued undeterred, keen to bring his diplomatic task to a close: it is, therefore, clear that the impact did not lead to their deaths, nor had (and he stressed this) the road-construction measures been responsible for this tragic accident. The pathologist’s report would bring us certainty about the cause of death in a few days, the man told me, and I could tell from his tone, which fluctuated between the style of a traffic officer and a detective, that he was also facing this situation for the first time. But by then we had both mechanically said goodbye and hung up.
For an endless morning I lay silently in my nightwear, alternating between lying on my side, my stomach, and my back. From my bed, I watched the metronomic phases of the traffic lights outside my window until I gradually gave up hope that a change would occur within me. Instead, I was overcome by an intimation from which a certainty slowly emerged: I had evidently long been part of a calculation, a ceremony put in place prior to my birth that was now about to unfold. A cosmic barrel organ had been cranked into motion. All the roles had been allocated, the cogs meshed together, all cylinders in the mechanics were waiting to be called for their mourning duty: I would, of course, organise a funeral.
No sooner had I thought these words than I was able to act. I got dressed: my new tights had a silky sheen as I released them from their packaging. I made coffee and opened an Excel document. Over the next few hours, I itemised requirements, compiled those in need of notification into a mailing list, collected addresses for undertakers and parables for the card of condolence. I got things moving and postponed my work commitments. That meant first cancelling my lecture and postponing a meeting with the supervisor of my postdoctoral thesis.
‘That won’t be a problem, Ruth, I’ll send you confirmation of compassionate leave right away,’ the secretary of the institute told me gently. ‘We’ll inform the students that your class will start a week later.’
It was now twelve o’clock, and because it was a Friday, the students sprang from the New Institute Building across the street and surged into the tram in formation; in their hands, ready for flinging, were suitcases of dirty laundry, which their Upper Austrian or Styrian mothers would transfer into the washing machine in just a few hours. I, on the other hand, felt as constricted as if my silent apartment had tightened itself around me. I forced my breathing into a rhythm, closed my eyes for a few minutes, and waited for my pulse to even out again. Nevertheless, a pressure was released: I cried, loudly but briefly, thinking of my parents, my father’s firm hug, my mother’s perfume, sitting together at the dining table all those years, singing at Advent, the quarrels — a thousand little moments that rushed at me in complete disarray, while I braced myself on the bed. It only lasted a moment and then vanished again, as if my body couldn’t yet contain the pain, and a nothingness wrangled a place in its stead. Complete silence once more: only a ticking sound coming from the gas boiler.
It became imperative to do something. I fetched two Xanax from the bathroom cabinet, then lay on the couch and swaddled myself in a quilt. I was so exhausted from the past few hours that I finally nodded off: the couch seeped murkily into the living room wall, and into the greyish, cloudy mood of the early afternoon.
When I came to, my back was weighed down by a moving load. Hands were rubbing my shoulders, verifying I’d had a shock. Indeed, it was a reminder: I had opened the door for my aunt and two of my cousins, who had received the news shortly after I had. Each of them had her hair firmly clamped to the back of her head in a bun and was dressed in black, so that all three looked identical in every way.
My aunt had put her arm around me and had laid out food she’d brought on the table, knowing that I hadn’t partaken of anything all day. ‘Ruth, you know we can help with the household and with everything else. That’s the least we can do.’ My aunt was facing me, and yet her words reached me on a delay. We were soon embroiled in a serious conversation about the arrangements of the funeral when I dropped a glass, which, in my mental absence, someone had filled with orange juice. I watched the liquid run unchecked beneath my sofa and I had no means of stopping it. The table slipped away beneath my palms, the furniture was unfamiliar to me, even though it was mine. The handkerchiefs drawn by my cousins, the mobile phones vibrating endlessly, the solar disk passing over the firmament, the rhythmically falling tears from my own and other people’s ducts keeping time, the bellows of my lungs operating in the empty space. The processes were sundered from their logical interrelationships, I thought. You’ve had a shock, one of my cousins repeated senselessly and pushed my hair against the grain — into my field of vision instead of out from it.
My aunt explained to me between trumpet blasts from her full-to-bursting nose that it had been the unwavering and incontestable will of my parents to be buried in Greater Einland.
‘Greater Einland,’ I said several times, in order to recall this longforgotten name. ‘Greater Einland, Greater Einland, Greater Einland.’
‘Greater Einland,’ my aunt proclaimed as a final amen, then I jumped to my feet. (Greater Einland: I’d last heard this name twenty-five years ago and rediscovered it that evening in a tingling, revitalising déjà-vu. Like many people who had worked their way up from humble circumstances, my parents had taken care their entire lives to hide their rural origins. Of course, they went much further than most other people: as far as I could remember, we had never visited my parents’ hometown — and since my aunt, who was my mother’s half-sister, had grown up in Graz, and the relations on my father’s side had broken away right from the start, I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to Greater Einland.)
I had to drive there right now, I explained, and take care of everything else in Greater Einland. I would drive there alone and immediately, about which, I entreated my aunt, there would be no discussion. I wanted to clarify the possibility of acquiring a grave plot in the desired cemetery, otherwise it wouldn’t even be possible to arrange the transportation of the bodies. A guesthouse would need to be procured, ground-floor level lodgings for the older generation, no doubt a small brass band and marble cherubim, I concluded, determinedly pushing both cousinly bodies towards the door. I had the urgent need to be alone. I was being firmly grasped by the shoulders, but I twisted free of this hold and uttered appeasements that instantly fizzled out.
‘Please get in touch first thing tomorrow, otherwise we’ll worry,’ I still managed to hear, then saw my aunt and her cohorts disappear into the stairwell. I set about packing for my departure right away, ignoring my mobile, which was ringing almost relentlessly. All these relatives wanting to express their condolences or to extract the details about the exact circumstances of the deaths from me, until, after about the fifth call, I decided to switch it off. The falling night stripped the contours from the slats of the parquet floor, on which I piled my clothes. My luggage comprised the following: five shirts, two blouses, two dresses, four pairs of trousers, one pair of shorts, a coat, seven pairs of socks, five pairs of underwear, four bras, two towels, running shoes, trainers, high heels and ankle boots, a laptop, Xanax, phenobarbital, modafinil, oxycodone, an MP3 player, ten books (Wittgenstein, Serner, Max Brod, Tristan Tzara, six standards works on physics), and a small bag of toiletries. This was all I would have with me for the next three years. At that moment, I wanted to shed my apartment like an old pair of shoes. I took several stairs at once as I hurtled from the fifth floor to the ground floor, and got into my car. It has to be this way, I thought feverishly as I started the car; it was my duty to organise a decent burial without delay.
As I was leaving Vienna, I was overcome by an infinite sense of relief: my chest was relieved of a dull pressure. When a valley opened up before me at Alland, it seemed to me to be an act of providence, and I twisted deeper and deeper into the blackening scenery. I fleetingly wondered if I should tell one of my friends about what had happened, but I found the idea repugnant. The roads were empty, and by two in the morning the highway had nestled into the landscape, which I, of course, could only surmise in the prevailing darkness. It was only when the stony screen of the Semmering mountain pass appeared before me that a change took place. A plunge as if under a blanket: needle-like viridescence fumed into my brain; I had cranked down all the windows, and felt my car billowing with autumnal air from the inside. It smelled so good and fresh that the vanilla aroma of the tree-shaped air-freshener suddenly irritated me — I tore it from the mirror and threw it outside.
I took a random exit to the left: I had absolutely no idea where I was going. Yes, I did know: Greater Einland, only I had driven off without any idea of where Greater Einland actually was. As if to protect myself I turned up the radio, from which Janet Jackson was blaring, but she was soon swallowed up by the sound of the wind rushing into the car. The moisture-saturated air whistled in through the windows; I only vaguely comprehended that the treetops were swaying in the fallen blackness. I have never been the best driver, and I was struggling to control the ageing Ford: I must have accidentally found myself on a forest road, because my tyres kept slipping as if I were driving on bare earth, but there wasn’t enough room to turn around. And then I came to a tarmacked road, and thought momentarily that I could make out a signpost, which, as I got closer, turned out to be a large piece of branch, and continued on my way without a pause on a slight incline. I felt hot, driven on by the landmasses that sloshed around one another. Then the route snaked up a hill on winding roads. For the first time I realised the significance: both dead, both died at the same time, and on some accursed road in the middle of nowhere.
The more alpine my surroundings became, the more graceful the undulations in the rugged rocks, the steeper the roads, the gnarlier the forest. I saw rippling ridges appear all over the meadows, break, then disappear again. The wind seemed to be pushing against the forest, the forest against the fog, and the fog against the grasslands, which piled up towards the clouds, distressing them. And I was no less moved by it than nature itself was: something that had kept me in the world up to now had become unhinged. The whole countryside rose up beneath me; I was sailing upon the wavetrains of a liquid mass. My hands trembled in their grip on the steering wheel, and the contractions of my tense body made the car lurch dangerously. I had to evade the land’s grasp, and that a sign for a rest stop appeared at this very moment was a signal from heaven.
As soon as I drove onto the concreted area, these imposing impressions came to an end. This comfort station for drivers — the most banal of all places — brought me back to reality. Behind the still virtually opaque wall of rain I made out a fix-mounted set of chairs, littered with used serviettes and plastic plates. The manmade structure, no matter how disgusting it was (half-eaten sausages, spent porno mags, and tampons had been discarded on the hedged pathways, trampled for the sake of nature’s call), released me in that moment. The ground had stopped shaking.
The engine hadn’t been off for even a minute and I began to freeze, and because I assumed that the toilets would be heated, I grabbed my sleeping bag and waded through the sodden meadow to the little cabin. No feelings of disgust, alienation, displacement: all that was left for me to do was to wedge myself in while sitting on the toilet pan and sink into sleep.
When I powered up the following morning it seemed like only a moment had passed, but someone was thundering their shoes against the partition, causing the whole structure to tremble. It took a minute before I could feel my legs again, another to mobilise my wound-tight lower back, and one more to finally venture in the direction of the door, from where several voices were cursing me. I finally unlocked it. A corpulent man in blue overalls pushed into the cabin so aggressively I was thrown off course and, without further ado, left the toilet on the spot. The queue was massive: furthermore, I had spent the night in the men’s bathroom. I reached my car amidst whistling and hollering — my neck stiff, yesterday evening nothing more than a strange memory.
Still, the air was mild, and as I wondered about the sudden surge of warmth that mingled with the scent of the freshly drenched meadows, I realised I was in the forest. Surrounding the toilet cabin where I had spent the night, in the midst of an otherwise heathlike landscape, small clusters of trees could be seen merging together on the horizon to form an ocean. It hit me, the Wechsel mountain range; and indeed, when I finally retraced yesterday’s odyssey on the map, I discovered that I must have alighted in a gorge near Feistritz. The car was modestly damaged, that is, the exhaust and bumper were noticeably battered and being held just off the ground by two thin wires. I took out the road atlas from the side door to determine where I actually had to go. Greater Einland — this name could not be found in the glossary, and apparently, I was already too high up to have internet reception. With attentive care I once more reviewed each of the sub-maps that comprised the Wechsel area, but that, too, was unsuccessful. A phone call, then: the directory provided me with the number for the Provincial Government of Lower Austria, which in turn gave me the number for the local authority: ‘Good morning,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for a town by the name of Greater Einland in the Wechsel region.’
‘Greater Einland?’ the lady asked, hammering the letters into her machine. ‘No, there’s nowhere by that name in Lower Austria.’
‘That can’t be.’
‘But Wechsel also borders Styria — perhaps it’s in their territory. I’ll give you the number,’ the lady offered; ergo, I called the Austrian Federal Administration to ask the same question, but no, there wasn’t, the Federal lady said this time, a place by that name in her listings. ‘A merger, an incorporation maybe?’ I asked hopefully.
A pause. ‘No. There’s never been a Greater Einland in Austria.’
I hung up without saying anything, and sat silently on the bonnet for a while. Only now, when I had to find it for the funeral, did I realise how little I actually knew about Greater Einland: just that it had to be somewhere in the Wechsel region, because that’s what I’d heard my parents say when others asked. But I hadn’t broached the subject with them for a number of years. Not because I had found it uncomfortable or had considered it taboo: the past just seemed to be irrelevant. Holidays were the opportunity to rush away, to flee the continent with closed eyes, on an aeroplane if possible — but never to dive deeper into our so-called origins or even go skiing like everyone else, whom we secretly despised for it.
It was what was shared between the lines that came back to me most strikingly: I remembered my mother telling me that in Greater Einland you could climb underground with a ladder. ‘In a damp cavern, ten or fifteen metres high at least, there were old aeroplane parts that we used to build dens with as children. Sheet metal doors, armoured glass, and then there were wing parts we would see-saw on,’ she’d said.
Or the no less thrilling story my father would tell: during my primary school days, curled up together in front of the woodstove’s eerily crackling fire in our living room, he spoke of someone called Hans the Woodcutter, who had bought a shed next to his childhood house. It was winter, and whenever my father brought his cup to his mouth in the middle of telling the story, he spilled a little black tea into his beard, which would drip onto my legs as if from a stalactite.
Hans the Woodcutter locked himself away in his shed every evening bang on ten o’clock. This was where, my father whispered into my ear, he had collected the hearts of every mammal, one placed next to the other in glass jars filled with formaldehyde, and among them: a human heart, but no one knew exactly where he had got it from. ‘And as boys,’ he said, ‘we threw stones at the window pane, in silent dread and urgent anticipation that Hans might appear, clutching one of his preservation jars.’
It was the first of those rare moments when I heard him talk a little about his own childhood, but what does a horror story like this tell me? I was lost.
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