I – Dusk
We drove through the dark landscape. We wanted to get there before darkness fell, but dusk was already spreading over the area—earlier here than elsewhere. We had stopped here and there along the way—at important spots, where he had seen a deer for the first time or where he’d had his first kiss. So I didn’t get to see the landscape while it was still light, and now only saw it as elongated shadows that the hills were casting over the valleys. The village barnyards were also elongated, as we drove by them after turning away from the main street. They were all alike, which was why the one yard that looked different caught my attention. It seemed to be the largest one, and we drove past it for a while. A white light shone from the roof of the house, as though the moon had already risen. The structures in the yard took turns going past us, building after building, barn after barn. None of the other barnyards’ bustle could be felt here, everything was absorbed in silence. Only at the far end, by the fence, a man stood and waved at us. I turned around to take a look at him, since we drove by quickly. He was an old man with a pointy hat, standing there and waving.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“It’s Stadlbauer,” he said.
“Why didn’t you wave back at him?”
“My hands are at the wheel.”
We finally arrived at the house. His mother and father were waiting for us at the door. I’d already noticed that people here had light skin that quickly turned red from the wind, and very blue eyes. His father was wearing a cardigan to keep out the cold, and his mother was holding a bouquet, like a shield at her heart.
“Welcome,” the father said. “We expected you to arrive earlier.”
“Yes,” I said. “We made stops here and there.”
“We’ve been waiting for a while,” his mother said. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” he said and entered his parents’ house.
Two floors—the first was brightly lit, the second was darker—and the quiet, ceaseless sound of water. That had to be the nearby stream, which cut its way through the silence and made the fine and small noises disappear, while muffling the big and harsh ones, so they didn’t reach the neighbor’s house. The neighbor’s garden was visible through the window, as was the rising moon. We had dinner in the kitchen.
“We saw a villager on the way,” I said.
“Yes, there are lots of them here,” his mother said.
“We all know each other,” the father said. “When they see Kilian, they recognize him immediately, even if he was still a boy the last time they saw him. The villagers have a sharp eye and even sharper memory.”
“That’s not true, exactly,” Kilian said. “I ran into Kleinpeter in town a while ago, and he didn’t recognize me. It was only after I told him who I was and where I lived that he remembered.”
“Kleinpeter,” his father said. “Kleinpeter doesn’t know you. He’s only heard about you, but he’s never seen you. He wouldn’t recognize you.”
“The man we saw on the way recognized you,” I said. “But you didn’t recognize him.”
“Whom didn’t you recognize?” his mother asked.
“Stadlbauer,” Kilian said. “I did recognize him.”
Somewhere high up in the branches a bird screamed. They told me this was the hunting cry of the long-eared owl. The long-eared owl, they said, was a bird that only hunts at night, like many other kinds of owls. We were done with dinner.
“Would you like to go for a walk before bed?” his father asked.
“That would be nice,” I said.
“All right,” said Kilian. “Nights here are nice, you’ll see. Just the hills and the sky.”
“All right,” his mother said. “We’re going to bed.”
Outside the night had changed. From a dusk that obscured things, it had turned into a darkness that outlined them. The moon gave away without mercy how far the settlements stretched, while the stars pointed out the way. The hills were high, the houses lay deep down below, and it made you wonder why the houses were built at the bottom of the valley, rather than along the high ridge. On top, at the ridge of the hill, stood Stadlbauer’s house. I recognized it by the long barnyard and the pointy roof.
“Are we going to pay Stadlbauer a visit?” I asked.
“Why would we?”
“Didn’t your mother say it was customary to pay visits to the villagers? And for them to give you pear cider and dried blue squill flowers from last summer.”
“Stadlbauer doesn’t make cider. He’s got chickens and pigs, but no fruit trees.”
“Then he’ll give us some bacon. And besides, I don’t think that he doesn’t make cider. Your father said that everyone here makes cider. He also smiled and pointed down, to your cellar, where they must keep the cider.”
“He probably means pear juice. Everyone here makes pear juice.”
“But it’s true that one must pay the villagers a visit, isn’t it?”
“But not Stadlbauer.”
“Because he’s too big and rich and crotchety. If you want, we can go visit some other villager. Come now, it’s getting cold. You don’t know the nights here, they can get really cold.”
We headed back to the house. He put his arm around me, because it really was cold. That was still when his hands were as warm as though bread was baking inside of them. We walked, and among the trees fell bits of ice.
II – In Town
First he had to catch the wild animal.
Then he wore its golden pelt.
This made him almost invincible.
We had come with a specific task—to apply for a marriage license. We were going to stay for three days and intended to file the application on the first one. The town was a short drive away. We crossed a bridge and found ourselves in it. He explained that the bridge had once divided two towns, but now it divided one town into two parts. A river flowed through the middle, and somewhere in it flowed our stream, which had become indistinct because of the roots it had gathered along the way and the reflections of the houses. The sky hung over the town, held up by four towers. A man on the street recognized Kilian.
“Gilian, I haven’t seen you in so long. How’s it going in the great big city, you doing good?” the man asked.
The man had the kind of pronunciation that turned everything into a G, made everything sound like a G.
“Yes,” said Kilian. “I’m all right. I’m here because I’m getting married.”
“Very good, very good,” said the man and looked at me. His eyes were so light that it hurt to look into them.
“Yes, in August, when our region is most beautiful.”
“Very good, indeed, when the pears ripen,” the man said and his gaze drifted off into the distance, to his garden; he began counting the trees, the pears on the left, the apples on the right, and down at the deep end, where the hill was casting its shadow, were the plums, blue like the feathers of a peacock. “Come by for a visit some day. You know where we live, don’t you?”
“Yes. She—” said Kilian, and the man’s gaze came to rest on me once again, “wants to pay one of the villagers a visit.”
“Very good. You know where we live.”
The town hall was located at the main square. It could be distinguished by the town’s coat of arms, which featured two towers; the town’s other two towers seemed to have been left out. The town hall housed the administrative offices of the town and the surrounding villages, the civil union service, and a small music school, it seemed, as the playing of a beginner musician could be heard coming from the window on the second floor. While Kilian looked for the clerk responsible for civil unions, I paced up and down the hall and read the signs on the doors: Consultations in case of important decisions regarding family or business; in case of handing over or taking over the farm; in case of disputes or family problems which complicate the relationship between generations and threaten communal life; in case of death or separation. In the meantime, Kilian had located the civil unions clerk. The clerk invited us into a room with a sign on the door that said: Preparatory talks regarding entry into a new family. The man had an official air—instead of a tie, he wore a blue flower in his lapel. I imagined how pleasant it would be to enter a state of civil union under his guidance.
When we came out of the town hall, we noticed that it had rained. It was humid and the wind blew from all directions. Kilian explained that this was because the surrounding hills formed air corridors and the wind passed through them and through the cracks in the houses. But only when it was windy. When it wasn’t, the town was as warm and cozy as the inside of an egg. We stood on the bridge and observed the river. It appeared that the river overflowed frequently—at a height of one meter, the walls of the houses had a different color. It seemed that the river reached this height and then retreated into its bed, leaving behind this muddy trace, which seemed to announce: the river has come this far and it will come again. We sat on a bench by the bank, in one of the few spots that were accessible. In that sense, there was no bank—the houses came out of the river like cliffs and the birds perched on top of them like on cliffs. The windows on the other side appeared to be near, the smooth surface of the water had the effect of a magnifying glass. But nothing could be seen on the inside, as the curtains were drawn and they concealed everything. That was how the afternoon passed.
When it was exactly the same time as when we’d arrived on the day before, we decided we wouldn’t go back to his parents’ house. Since we were in town for a short time anyway, we thought we’d take advantage and have dinner here. He said he knew where to take me, and I followed him down a narrow and dark street in the center of the town. It was obvious that this was the town’s old part, the first cell from which it had sprung into existence. The Great Bear Pub was here, which was closed on Thursdays and Sundays after two in the afternoon. Today, fortunately, it was open, but it still made you wonder why those were chosen as days off and who’d want to rest on a workday or on Sunday afternoon. We picked a table by the exit. He sat facing the door, while I faced the interior. We were given a menu, which was designed as a map of the nearby surroundings. It depicted even the narrowest paths, even the shrubs and the trees. The names of various dishes were scattered over them. We ordered a local specialty and examined the map.
“What’s the path that starts from your house and goes up?”
“That’s the Waldweg. It’s called a forest path, even though it doesn’t lead to a forest.”
“Then where does it lead?”
“Up the hill. But it only goes up to the walnut tree. Actually, it doesn’t lead anywhere which is why it’s never used.”
“It must’ve been used at some point. Otherwise it wouldn’t be there.”
“Some villagers probably lived there back in the day. Only villagers used paths like this, for their goats and sheep. But there haven’t been any villagers in my family for many generations. That’s why the path’s overgrown.”
The door behind me opened, and someone came in. Judging from Kilian’s expression and the way he straightened up, I could tell it was a woman. I could also tell he knew her. The woman approached and stood behind me.
“Hey, Blondie,” she said.
“Hello,” I said and turned around.
“Oh, sorry,” the woman said. “I thought you were someone else. Someone else but blonde just like you.”
“And like you,” I laughed.
“Yes. Forgive me.”
“No problem,” I said.
That was probably the innkeeper. She wore an apron, and her hair was very light, as though it were covered in a dusting of flour. Her hands were smooth from years of duteous solicitude.
“Everything all right?” the woman asked.
“Thank you,” said Kilian.
“You want anything else?” the woman asked.
“Thank you,” said Kilian.
“May I have one more of the same,” I said, although my glass wasn’t empty yet. Even though the liquid in my glass was of an indistinct color, the woman knew what it was. She brought me a second glass, then went over to the man standing behind the counter. I looked into the glass and saw unfounded joy gleaming at its bottom.
“Blondie,” I said. “Who would that be?”
“Keep your voice down,” said Kilian. Indeed, the acoustics of the space were such that we were able to hear the innkeepers talking. They weren’t speaking in German.
“The woman’s not from around here,” I said. “I noticed it immediately, from the way she looked around and how she acted.”
“She’s from around here. She’s the daughter of the hotel’s former owner. But her husband is Czech.”
“The Great Bear is a hotel?”
“It used to be. More of an inn, actually, a place where traveling salesmen used to stay. The rooms upstairs are still there, but now the family lives there.”
“And not guests?”
“Maybe guests of the family. Though they probably don’t have too many of those.”
“Why did they close down the hotel?”
“I don’t know. I was no longer living here at the time.”
“That’s why she didn’t recognize you. We have to tell your father.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just like Kleinpeter. She didn’t recognize you. But you recognized her. I could tell from your expression when she came in.”
“Well, no. I just knew she must be the innkeeper.”
We had some dessert, which was named Cider Barn. It was prepared using vapor and steam in a steam boiler, so you could see what had come out only after it was completely done. Before that, everything was veiled in volcanic depths. Hardly anyone came in while we sat there. The air was still getting its bearings after our entrance. The dessert had plenty of cider in it.
“So much,” I said. “You can practically drink it.”
“So drink it. That’s what the cider’s for.”
“Tell me something I don’t know yet.”
“Like the kinds of things you talk about when you’re in your place of birth. About your first love, for example.”
“Now? Right when we’ve come to get married?”
“That’s all right. I won’t change my mind.”
“Fine. I was still in school. She was, too, but in the year above me, so I didn’t know her—I only saw her from time to time. In the school yard there was a bench under some trees—people sat there whenever they wanted to spend some time together on their own. I went there and waited for her a few times, but she never came. Years went by. I finally ran into her in town, on one of the small streets that wrap around the square. I’d never seen her from so close up, since she was not in my year. And now she was really close to me, the street was so narrow. That’s when I realized that time had passed and I had grown up, while she had stayed young. I invited her for a drink. When we were about to leave, I asked her.”
“You asked her what?”
“The thing you’re supposed to ask.”
“And that was your first love?”
“I wouldn’t say my first love. It was my first time.”
“Now’s probably not the best moment, but where’s the bathroom?”
“Must be all the cider. Up the stairs, then to the left, I think.”
When the floor creaked under my feet, the woman looked in my direction. Perhaps she thought we wanted to pay, because I saw her heading over to Kilian’s table. The upstairs area was dark, as it usually was on all the second floors around here. The bathroom was to the right, not the left. To the left were some stairs, which led up to the old hotel rooms. The strong scent of pines floated around, which made me feel as though I were somewhere high up, over the line of trees.
“Someone’s had a bit too much to drink,” he said when I came back down.
“The bathroom was to the right, not to the left.”
“It’s possible. It’s been a while since I’ve been here.”
“We’re on some sort of a hill. I can feel the incline.”
“You can feel the cider.”
“Did you already pay?”
“I did. I’m going home. You coming?”
“Oh, yeah? Is that the thing one’s supposed to ask?”
“It is. So?”
“Yes. Is that what she answered?”
This translation has been supported by the National Culture Fund of Bulgaria.
LEONIE HODKEVITCH is a Bulgarian–Austrian author, cultural producer, and university lecturer. Born in Sofia and raised in Vienna, she studied Ethnology as well as Spanish and French Philology at the University of Vienna. Her short story collections A Night Ride Through the Woods (1995) and Salty (2011) and her novel Stadlbauer (2010, 2017) were published in Bulgarian and German. Stadlbauer was nominated for the Elias Canetti Literature Award and named one of the three most important “shadow” novels of the year by the Austrian press. Committed to social justice and people who are in the minority or at a crossroad in their lives, Leonie Hodkevitch currently lives in Thessaloniki and Vienna. The author’s website is leoniehodkevitch.com
About the Translator:
EKATERINA PETROVA is a literary translator and nonfiction writer. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship. A collection of her essays and travelogues called Thingseeker: 44 (Un)usual Objects from Near and Far (in Bulgarian) was published by Janet 45 in 2021. Her translations from Bulgarian include Bogdan Rusev’s novel Come to Me (Dalkey Archive Press, 2019) and the nonfiction anthologies My Brother’s Suitcase and Fathers Never Go Away (ICU Press, 2020). Ekaterina’s work has appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, The Southern Review, 91st Meridian, European Literature Network, Drunken Boat, EuropeNow, and B O D Y, among others. Her translation-in-progress of Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow received a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. She is currently translating the nonfiction anthology Stories from the 1990s, forthcoming from ICU Press.