Bright magic, p.8
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       Bright Magic, p.8

           Alfred Doblin
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  In the meantime he treated her bitterly, contemptuously, shoved her against the wall with a running start. He betrayed her in little things: knocked over her saucer with a quick push, as though by accident; made math errors to her disadvantage; sometimes acted devious toward her, the way he did to competitors. On the anniversary of her death he pretended he didn’t remember anything. Only when she seemed to insist more urgently on a silent ceremony did he devote half a day to her memory.

  One time, at a social gathering, the question went around about people’s favorite dishes. When they asked Herr Michael what he most liked to eat, he replied coldly and deliberately, “Buttercup. Buttercups are my favorite food.” Everyone broke out in laughter, but Herr Michael huddled in his chair, teeth clenched, listened to them laugh and savored the buttercup’s rage. He felt like a monstrous dragon that calmly gulped down living beings; he thought about wild Japanese things, hara-kiri. Even as he secretly awaited a harsh punishment from her.

  He waged this guerrilla war with her uninterruptedly; he uninterruptedly swung back and forth between deathly anguish and rapture; he anxiously feasted on the furious screams he sometimes thought he heard her make. Daily he devised new traps; he often retreated from his office to his room, in a state of great excitement, to hatch his plans undisturbed. And so the war raged on in secret, and no one knew what it was about.

  The flower was his, was part of the comfort of his life. He thought back in amazement to the time when he had lived without the flower. Now he often went for walks to St. Ottilien through the forest, with a defiant expression on his face. And one sunny evening, while he was relaxing on a fallen tree trunk, the thought flashed into his mind: Here, exactly where he was sitting, his buttercup, Ellen, had once stood. It must have been right here. Wistful, timid reverence gripped the fat gentleman. The turns everything had taken, from that evening to this! Rapt in thought, he let his kind, slightly darkened eyes roam across the weeds, Ellen’s sisters, maybe her daughters. After he had mused for a long time, his smooth face twitched mischievously. Oh, his dear little flower had it coming now. If he dug up a buttercup, a daughter of the dead one, planted it at home, and lavished tender loving care on her, then the old flower would have a young rival. Yes, now that he thought about it, he could expiate the death of the old one completely. For he was saving the life of this flower and thus making up for the death of her mother; otherwise this daughter would just rot and die here, most likely. Oh, he would make the old one mad, leaving her out in the cold like that. The businessman, conversant as he was with the law, recalled a paragraph on compensation for damages. He dug out a little plant nearby with his pocketknife, carried it carefully home in his bare hands, and planted it in a gilded porcelain pot that he placed on a mosaic side table in his bedroom. He wrote in charcoal on the bottom of the pot: “§2043 par. 5.”

  Every day the happy man watered the plant with spiteful devotion and sacrificed the dead one, Ellen. She was legally compelled, on pain of possible police measures, to resign herself; she received no further dishes, no food, no money. Often, lying on the sofa, he thought he heard her whimpers, her long, drawn-out groans. Herr Michael’s self-confidence grew in unforeseen ways. He sometimes practically had fits of megalomania. Never had his life passed so cheerfully.

  One evening, after he had contentedly strolled back from his office to the apartment, his housekeeper told him, calmly, right at the door, that she had knocked over the little table while cleaning up and the pot had broken. She had thrown the plant, that nasty piece of garbage, into the trash with all the shards. The matter-of-fact, slightly contemptuous tone in which this person reported the accident made it clear that she was in full sympathy with the proceedings.

  Rotund Herr Michael slammed the front door shut, clapped his stubby hands, loudly squeaked with happiness, and lifted the startled female into the air by her hips, as high as his strength and the length of her body permitted. Then he went sashaying down the hall and into his bedroom, eyes flashing, unutterably excited; he panted heavily, stomped his legs, his lips twitched.

  No one could say anything against him; he had not wished for the death of this flower with a single, most secret thought, not granted it the smallest fingertip of a thought. The old one, the mother-in-law, could curse and rail and say whatever she wanted. He had nothing to do with her anymore. They were divorced. He was free of the whole buttercup brood now. Law and Fortune and Justice were on his side. There could be no doubt.

  He had duped the forest.

  He wanted to set out for St. Ottilien at once, climb up into that grumbling, stupid forest. In his mind he was already swinging his little black walking stick. Flowers, polliwogs, toads too—look out. He could murder as many as he wanted. He didn’t give a damn about any and all buttercups.

  The fat businessman Herr Michael Fischer, irreproachably dressed, rolled from side to side with laughter and schadenfreude on his chaise longue.

  Then he leapt up, shoved his hat onto his head, and stormed past the astonished housekeeper, out of the house, onto the street.

  Laughing and snorting loudly is how he disappeared into the darkness of the mountain forest.

  [1] A common children’s rhyme. The next lines are: “Poor little bunny, are you sick, why can’t you hop? / Hop, bunny, hop, bunny, hop!”—Trans.


  PAST THE thin row of birch trees edging the town to the north, a rolling plain extended to the sea, sparsely filled with low pines and shrubbery. Not a single path ran from the gap in the city walls to the shore, barely two hours away; a narrow road led to the water in a wide arc skirting around the wasteland. There were bogs in many declivities in the plain, black and starchy like glue; rats and toads lived there; a jay often shot through the thick air and caught a slug or snail.

  Where the row of hills rose steepest, square and shapeless blocks of stone towered sharply up, the remnants of eroded bluffs. The ocean had once covered the land; now the plain lay there, haggard and wintry. Sea and earth both turned away from it.

  This area had, many years ago, come into the possession of one Baron Paolo di Selvi in a strange way. The baron, returning from a trip around the world, had steered through the sound into these waters to visit the town and see the father of his first officer, who had succumbed to blackwater fever on the other side of the equator. He came on land, dreamily, sparkling with good spirits and confident of his ability to conquer. He walked broad-shouldered over the plank with the lightly bowed legs of a horseman. The wind whistled sharply that morning and knocked the captain’s cap he was wearing at a tilt into the water in one clean blow, so that he stood there bare-headed, laughing among his people, who were appalled by the bad omen. His eyes were set somewhat at a slant, close to his nose, which was small and blunt and with the bridge set far back. His bright light-gray eyes didn’t go with his girlishly soft mouth, his gentle voice. He followed the long detour to town riding on a black stallion behind a brace of mules; they were hauling two chests to the old man he was looking for, one with the first officer’s keepsakes and all his belongings, the other filled with Japanese silk, Indian pearls and jewels, Siberian fur. He stayed in the town barely two hours, then rode back alone at a trot, whistling and laughing—rode, not knowing the region, the short way through the plain. Nothing is known of the events that took place on the plain that day. The baron must have dismounted from his horse right at the entrance to the area and made his way alone through the sand and mire. At dawn the next morning they found the missing man lying unconscious on the bluff, stretched out on his back, covered all over with seaweed and mud, his face strangely swollen, hot, and blistered, as though burned, and with the skin on his right hand and forearm coming off in patches too. They laid him on a bier unconscious and carried him diagonally across the wasteland to the nearest road, where they requisitioned a hay wagon and drove back to town. The wounded surfaces healed in a week. The baron did not know what had happened to him. All the townsmen knew was that the nurses sai
d that his eyes took on a horrified, suffering look when night approached, that he raised his right arm into the air as though to defend himself and whimpered inconsolably. When he had fully recovered, he gave his yacht as a present to his first helmsman, said goodbye to his crew, and moved to the town.

  At first he lived in a house to the south of the town, surrounded by fields. His neighbors were the many songbirds; he cultivated no dealings with anyone. After a few months, he moved into a very old apartment by the city walls, with a view of a wide stretch of the misty heath. He strolled or sat on the city walls, an entirely changed, unapproachable man, or rode slowly along the road to the sea. It was after almost a year that he walked through the streets of town early one morning, asked at the marketplace to see a master builder, and commissioned him, with a few short words, to build a residence on the heath, at its highest point, near the bluff. The builder did not need to hurry, he said, crossing his arms; it should be a castle, comfortable and spacious, festively decorated, for in six months he intended to take a wife.

  So the road builders set off across the heath and stamped down a safe side path from the road to the bluff. The masons drove up noisily; they leveled the hill, laid the foundation, and built, into cliffs that reached up to the second floor and freely projected into the rooms, a wide, elongated, gray limestone building with colorful stained-glass windows and delicate towers. In the middle of the wasteland there rose the tower, the laughter of the builders, the shaking of the townsfolk’s heads.

  Barely a month after the walls were covered and the rooms were filled with valuable objects, the baron brought into his castle a young woman from abroad. She attended the theater in town once, this Portuguese woman, a brunette childlike creature who never let go of her husband’s arm; he laughed again the way he had before and enchanted everyone. They danced in the Bürgersaal that night. The baron pursed his lips and whistled during the dance; he stroked his brown beard and scoffingly showed off the burn scars on his right hand. The second time anyone heard about the Portuguese woman was a week later, when a messenger came racing on horseback from the castle, beat down the doctor’s door, and dragged him out to the heath to the young woman’s body. She lay in the dark hallway outside her room in her nightdress, with a purplish-red face. Next to her, the candle she had probably been holding when she fell out the door was still burning. The baron followed the doctor with numb eyes; he answered no questions, his face was expressionless. From the words of a sobbing lady-in-waiting the doctor learned of an old heart condition the Portuguese woman had had; he buttoned up his fur coat; she had succumbed to a blood clot in the lung.

  Three weeks later the baron appeared in town again; they invited him to events and parties. He rode into town more and more often, went hunting, took part in jousts and races, drank wine at night, and told stories about his travels and adventures. For a long time he was seen merry, enthusiastic, dreamy, with the soldiers and seamen of the town; one March day he went out to sea again, with two of them. After about six months a letter from him reached the steward of his castle, saying that the bedchambers should be lined in green and green runners laid down, and that orchids should be set out in the lady’s bedroom.

  About eight months after his departure, he returned. Again he was bringing a young foreigner to his castle. This one no townsmen saw. One morning she lay in a black riding habit, a veil covering her proud white face and riding crop in her hand, in the castle courtyard, dead.

  The people, the mariners, the workers who lived outside of town started to whisper when the sinister baron rode past in his black leather cloak; children screamed when they saw him, threw little stones at him as he passed, shot his stallion using slingshots.

  An alderman’s daughter, a slim girl with light blond hair, saw him out her window. When the men spoke in grim wrath of the black knight’s lot, tears came to her dove-gray eyes; she cried over him in her room and went to his castle one day and became his wife. All the frightened pleas of her family could not prevent it. A riotous crowd of men and women swarmed along the dark path to the castle when, before even a month had passed, the sweet creature’s body was found one night in a gap in the city walls. The police surrounded the castle as a precaution; the baron was arrested. The court had the first two wives exhumed and ordered a detailed chemical analysis of the three corpses for poison. The results were negative. The baron was freed. The people impotently reached out their hands after him, wanting to tear him to pieces, as he rode back out onto the heath, slowly, with a mocking laugh, a revolver in his right hand.

  From that point on he completely avoided the town. He lived alone on the heath; only his riches kept the staff and servants from leaving the castle.

  Then one day a small yacht docked outside of town. A silver horn rang out across the heath; in a carriage drawn by a pair of white horses, Miss Ilsebill rode down the smooth road to town. She checked into the inn on the market square. She asked the landlord about Baron Paolo and his infamous castle; next, she asked whether he currently had a wife; third, she asked where she might see him. At the races taking place the next morning in Stirming, the nearby town.

  Early the next morning they harnessed the team of horses; the groom climbed up onto the box seat; Miss Ilsebill rocked back and forth on the cushion.

  Carriages and wagons sped down the dead-straight avenues before making a wide turn in front of the gates to the racecourse. The sky was steel blue and a summery breeze was blowing. The people crowded into the stands around the wide, green racecourse, filling them up; the din of the voices and vehicles roared, a giant bird, across the empty space encircled by the track.

  Miss Ilsebill drove up to the paddock last, shortly before the start. Two gentle white horses pulled the open blue-lined carriage through the crunching sand. She climbed out, in a flowing blue velvet dress, a white ostrich feather waving over the bare nape of her neck; she glided through the wooden gate to her place. She had ivory skin, perfect features. Her deep dark eyes slipped lingeringly over the people and objects around her like a slimy snail’s body, leaving a trace. She sat there smiling, chewing chocolate.

  Baron Paolo leaned against the post and watched with pleasure, shielding his peering eyes with his soft felt hat, as the white horses trotted up. When the white ostrich feather stood straight in the wind, he walked the four steps down the staircase, elbowed his way through the crowd, and approached Miss Ilsebill. He held up his empty hands like an Arab and bowed his head. She was startled, then laughed. The favorite’s name was Calvello. Brown, with lean legs, he was running nonchalantly behind the pack; two laps had already been run and the horses were reaching the home stretch. Miss Ilsebill let the silver paper drop, held her strong chin in her hand, and cheered at the horse’s controlled calm. They were near the finish line when the jockey in blue and white leaned right next to the horse’s ear and whispered, “Calvello, ho, Calvello.” The animal lowered its head, sprang ahead in four leaps, and won. Miss Ilsebill beamed. The noise of the crowd swept over her. As soon as the steeplechase was over, she stood up and invited the silent man to come with her in her carriage. As they rode through the woods to the south of town, he told her that he was Baron Paolo di Selvi; his fate had brought him here; that he lived on the heath. She told him that she was Miss Ilsebill; she knew he had lost three wives at his castle on the heath; she pitied his fate. At which point he gave her a gloomy look and lowered his gray head; the groom, though, swung the horses around; they rode back along the avenue, on the straight road to the heath. The road narrowed at the turnoff to the castle. Paolo took the reins from the coachman. The horses balked. He climbed out and pulled them. They moved forward, under the blows of the whips; they snorted, they wanted to bolt, but he held the reins taut.

  The gray castle stood showily in the wilderness, the tip of a white cliff towering up behind the top of the lady’s wing of the building. Paolo sat up straight in his white hat. His tan cheeks and temples were sunken; his obliquely set gray eyes stared vacantly; only his mouth w
as round and soft and yearning, as always. They reached the gate in the twilight. He said goodbye and held out his hand. Miss Ilsebill, though, climbed out of the carriage and offered to stay with him for a few days as a guest; she wanted to care for him and cheer him with beautiful music. She moved into the rooms in the lady’s wing.

  They went riding mornings and afternoons; Ilsebill sang and played for him in the castle’s chambers. She wore dresses colored nixie-green and other bright colors; there was a white gleam in her eyes when she danced on the carpets; she had tied her black hair in braids that she held in her flashing teeth. Paolo lay dully on the cushions, smoked, and hung back in the screen of smoke; later he launched himself onto the carpets, looked at her curiously with his light eyes, heard her hum along to the sound of the guitar that her maidservant held. His voice grew brighter, his footsteps quicker. And once, when they were standing on the balcony, she broke out in clumsy sobs. She wanted to know what was wrong with him, wanted to help him. He merely took her two hot ivory hands and placed them on his brow, while whispering the words of a foreign prayer; she clung to his neck while he quaked in terror and said something out loud, screamed something that she couldn’t understand. All at once he was quiet and gentle again, and he walked Miss Ilsebill back to her room. That night, while the baron slept in the gentleman’s wing, she crept alone, defiant and somber, to the door of the locked room into which the cliff side penetrated. She jiggled the door, she shoved it with her shoulder, panting, but the lock held fast. Then she took the golden cross from her neck, beseeched the Mother of God for help, and saw a sliding bolt at the foot of the door. She slid it up, crushing her finger; it was hard, her whole arm hurt.

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