Before the Fall

Austria2012 007

Image © Victoria Gosling 2016

 

by Victoria Gosling January 13, 2016

The path rises into the thin air, where the heavens are so clear they seem to tremble and vibrate. Only when she reaches the saddle does Teresa stop for a moment, bending over double to pant while clutching at her knees. The sun is at her back. As she straightens, a small bird flies past her face and then plummets down towards the valley floor, so that she watches it falling, effortlessly falling until it enters the shadow and can be seen no more.

At each step, she inspects the whim to see if it has expired, but if anything it is becoming keener. It’s been a frequent visitor these past forty years and she thought she knew its ways. Most often it came in the evenings, shared wine with her, ruined her sleep and was gone by morning. But of late, it’s been a houseguest, unwelcome, unavoidable and refusing to budge.

Yesterday, as Teresa closed the shop and made her way to the station, as she bought her ticket and took up a window seat on the train, she was waiting to see at what point the whim would fail. She never expected to come this far. But here she is.

The path continues, unreeling like a dun ribbon through the rocks and over the ridge before beginning to zig-zag in a series of switchbacks higher into the mountains, towards the pass and the border. After the war the hut was given over to the Italians. Word reached her that the new family had abandoned it and then that some time later it was half-destroyed by an avalanche. It is hard for her to imagine it empty; sightless, voiceless, soulless amongst the winter snows and summer thaw. Perhaps that’s why she needs to see it, to revisit what was so briefly her home, if only to know it is no longer there.

Forty years ago, a door had closed on love, pushing her out. She was not a dressmaker then. She did this, she did that; sometimes she modelled for the students at the art school, sometimes she did nothing. There were older men who were generous. She had friends and got by. But then love had given her a hard push and Louisa had said, Come, come to the mountains. Work with my family for a summer. Johannes is an idiot. They are all idiots.’

They were sitting in a beer garden by the river. Louisa was her new and exciting friend. She was hard to know; or rather it was hard to get past how she looked. People drifted in their direction to gaze at her and when the waiter came with their drinks, he set them down with eyes lowered as if before an icon. Louisa ignored them all, her eyes intent on Teresa as she talked.

The hut stood upon a plateau through which a stream ran in summer, carrying melt water down from the glaciers. The nearest road was a day’s walk away and from June to September it was filled up with mountaineers from the Alpine Club. They would work hard waitressing the tables and helping with the housekeeping, but there was nothing to buy so they could save money, and besides, it was different in the mountains. She picked up Teresa’s hand, ‘You will feel different there.’

Different: the word held an attraction, and then there was Louisa. She was wearing a pink dress that Teresa had helped her make. It was a simple thing, simple was all she could do then, but they had been stopped twice in the street already. ‘Where is it from? Where did you get it?’

Finishing their beer, they went down to the river. At its edge, Louisa crouched down. A dragonfly hovered above the surface of the rippling water. Evening descended like a cool, gossamer cape. While she watched, Louisa had taken her hair and coiled it round her hands before tucking it away behind her shoulder and Teresa had understood why people called beauty ravishing, that there was a quality of violence in what it compelled from you. ‘Yes,’ Louisa said happily, ‘everything will be different there.’

So they had gone to the hut and it was only later, long after she had left that she understood how much she had loved the place, and later still that love itself was a process, that by loving something you entered into a relationship in which you allowed yourself to be changed, that the object of your love would go on changing you, long after you thought you had said your goodbyes forever.

Now she is back, toiling upwards as the air gets ever thinner. The path becomes shale and small stones skitter down the slope from beneath her feet. Ahead lies the great slab of rock where, on their way to the hut, they had paused to rest. She moves forward eagerly as though they will be there, her younger self and Louisa, sunning their bare legs as they share bread and cheese.

Louisa had been talking about the guests at the hut. ‘All the British who come are rich. Mountains are a rich man’s hobby. They have the best of everything, houses and cars and servants. They want to stand on top of a peak where no one has been before, because it can’t be bought.’

Reaching the slab, she lays her hand upon it, feeling a little warmth seeping out from beneath her fingers.

Had she been happy, sitting here, her leg against Louisa’s in the sunshine, laughing about English lords? Teresa believes she had been, that the moment had been lustrous and full of promise. Yet the obverse had also been true, and if asked at what time in her life had she been most unhappy, it would have been easy to reply, the work of a second, not to locate it during the war, or in its aftermath, or any of the years that followed but in the months following her last conversation with Johannes.

He had been a married man: a doctor with a practice and a wife and a little girl. He liked poetry, suffered from what was termed ‘nerves’ and was bad with money. Those were the facts. They had broken with one another more than once. The last time had gone on for half a year, and when they finally met again, it had been at her suggestion.

In his absence she had built a case against him and as he passed through the crowd towards the table at which she waited, she thought sourly of the lie he would have told his wife – a patient urgently in need of his attention, no doubt – and idly wondered what malady he would have given her.

It was hopeless, though. The facts remained unchanged – there they were, as plain as the water rings on the table, the dripping candle wax and single drooping snowdrop – but what accounted for the affinity?

They drank a glass of wine. It came in a glass jug clouded with fingerprints but tasted spectacular, like nectar. They had to have more of it, had to tell their friends about it. He shook his head astounded and smiled at her.

Later, they walked in the dark until they reached a small ivy-covered bridge. As they remained there in silence, her fingers began a journey from her pocket, to the edge of the crumbling brick and from there to rest on the back of his hand.

He suffered her touch for a moment and then moved his hand away.

Well,’ she said, ‘you have had long enough to make up your mind.’

He tried to explain; that he was tired of being ashamed, and that while he very much wanted to see her, he also wanted to be a better man. She understood, but what she had also known was that he would never be a good man, not in the small things, that he would be weak and unreliable and dishonest. And now, he was simply trying to apportion more of the cost of their relationship to her. She might have told him but she too was weary now. Touching him had taken all the strength she had.

So you won’t know me anymore?’ His voice was pained.

I can’t stand at your door forever.’

Won’t you be my friend?’

We are not friends.’

It had been a simple answer and after giving it she had gone away, but the matter had been anything but simple.

Her hand still upon the slab, an old pain seizes her afresh, as though the past along with the heat of the sun is seeping from the stone. The mountains are immortal, so what does time mean here? On the other side of the ridge she may encounter Hannibal and his elephants, or her younger self and Louisa. Or both; the general’s elephants kneeling, Louisa’s hand outstretched to receive his kiss. For who had she not conquered?

Teresa lifts her eyes to the pass. The shadow in the valley has grown darker. She could return tomorrow, start earlier. Her shoes are flat and sensible, but they were not meant for hiking. But the snows! They could arrive any day now, and then she will be cut off from the hut until next year! And next year, will she even be able to come? It makes her smile, how strong the whim is, how it argues for what it wants like a child.

The climb is so steep she stops every few paces and looks up at the pass, willing it closer. From there, she will be able to see the hut and maybe that will be enough and she will be able to turn, to retrace her steps to Vienna, to her shop on a cobbled street in the museum quarter.

In her mind’s eye she sees it, the locked green door with the note she has hung in the window, the tailor’s mannequin, the basket of patterns. Starting out, she made day-dresses, best-dresses, copies of old favourites, things to wear to church or to a Christmas party. But now women buy almost everything off the peg and so she has specialised. These days she makes wedding dresses for women getting married for the second, sometimes even the third or fourth time; women whose pockets are deep but whose desires are always qualified. Romantic but not girlish. Special, but nothing over the top. And often, when they talk about the men they are marrying, they speak in the same way: enthusiasm qualified by a certain restraint, a certain practicality.

She had found no such capacity in herself, nor the wish to stand in her customers’ place at the altar and say the familiar words. Because what no one ever spoke about was that everyone loves differently. You heard the words and thought it meant the same as you meant it. Such are her thoughts as she finally obtains the pass. The wind, gusting up from the other side, rocks her on her feet and a sly fat cloud, cornering a peak, moves round to stare at her. Her breath steadies but her heart continues to leap and she rests a finger against the pulse in her neck to feel it throb.

As she creeps forward steadying herself against the wind, the whim sheds its disguise. It is pure hunger that grips her now that the moment is here. Teresa moves towards the edge, gets onto her hands and knees and then her belly to look over into the void. It’s dizzying; the path down begins as a gash that disappears amongst a tumble of massive slabs that descend towards the plateau like a great broken staircase, and beneath that a stretch of grey moraine and then…

There it is, the hut, or what is left of it. It is as if the mountain has moved forward, its lower slope like a fat tongue gobbling at the rear of the building. Half of the roof is gone, the timbers sheared, and then with a jolt she realises that the whole left side of the building no longer exists: the terrace with the picnic tables, the dining room and outhouse where the guests could leave their boots and ropes, and above it the private bedrooms, including the one she shared with Louisa for a summer, less than an arm’s span wide, with two bunks, three shelves and a washbasin in the corner.

They could keep their things on the top bunk and sleep together in the lower. It would be better, Louisa had said. And it was better. Dog tired, at night they lay down together, the knots of Teresa’s spine pressed against the wall.

From the dormitory drifted the sound of snoring. Through the small window, the moon traversed the night sky like a climber struggling up a slope. Once an Italian came, whispering and drunkenly fumbling with the door handle while they lay there, clutching one another and shaking with silent laughter; Louisa’s hair in her face, her hand between Teresa’s legs.

In the dark it was one thing, in daylight another. When it caused her unease, she liked to imagine an older woman – not her mother, of course – but someone older and understanding, dismissing what they did with a wave of her hand. ‘It’s just something girls do before they get married.’

Work made not thinking easier. First came tea and breakfast, then preparing the rooms, cleaning, sweeping, serving lunch and cake and later dinner. It kept coming. There was the satisfaction of simple tasks done well, the noise of the kitchen and the low voices of the mountaineers, further away the rush of tumbling water, and ranged around them, seemingly moving closer each day, the silent mountains.

And at the centre of it all, Louisa, stepping quickly, purposefully, balancing a tray of beer, totting up a bill, drawing all eyes and dementing Andreas, the little love-sick German chef till he barely spoke and let the milk boil over and burnt the fried potatoes. They all ignored him: Teresa, Louisa’s father, her two small brothers, even her kind mother looked away.

Only in darkness, her beauty cancelled out, were they even. Then she was soft skin, quickened breath, a voice whispering, do you like this? and, kiss me, and, was it ever so nice with him?’

The wind sweeps over her body. It is cold now and long past time to turn back, but the ruin calls to her. She must see it better, if only to know what it is not.

It had been the evenings she liked best. Dinner over, she brought wine and schnapps to where the men played cards. Smoke and singing filled the air. The two boys wandered freely, small gods with luminescent skin and dark mops of shaggy hair. Arm in arm, they roamed, crying or laughing, or wearing the grave expressions that made them seem ancient, otherworldly, and not like children at all.

From where she lies, she can make out the stream, but not the bridge, the wooden planks on which she had stood as the waters rushed beneath her and the cold from the icy flood rose up to envelop her in a cloud. She had been drinking and longing for Johannes expanded within her, until she felt like nothing more than a void bounded by skin.

Johannes,’ she had said, her voice flat and steady, as though he were ten minutes late to meet her, ‘Johannes, where are you?’

She will not turn back. Not now she is so close. It is going to snow, she feels it coming, and the path down is broken and treacherous, but her journey here was not prompted by logic and it is a pleasure at last to slip free of it entirely.

It is almost as if they will all be there, all those that she lost, each as they were. Teresa finds herself pressing forward with vigour, hastening over the pass and picking up what remains of the path as the sun slips behind her on its journey west.

She is thinking of Louisa’s English lord, a sweet man, harmless, bullied by his friends and not a lord but a baronet, whatever that was. He and his companions had sat at the wooden tables in the sun, watching Louisa. They had all watched her, more so even than was usual, her parents stopping as they went about their business to scratch their heads, Andreas stepping out of his kitchen and striking a match with trembling hands, the children slack-jawed and uncomprehending – because it had only been a joke between them, a silly joke – and yet Louisa seemed to be taking it seriously, as though she had meant it and might really go off and marry the fool with his reddish beard and goggling eyes.

Teresa had never seen her try before and it was unnerving to watch the harnessing of what Louisa wore so lightly to function. In it lay a terrible defeat, but she had only grasped this later, at the time it had merely pained her and she had turned away.

We kill what we love by turning away, as she had turned away from Johannes because he had hurt her pride and because he would not give her what she wanted. And he had turned from her as well.

When word reached her that he had been killed in the war, she had lived in fear that a letter would reach her, a final word from him to which she would not be able to reply. Those were the days in which for all of them the post had been monstrous, an engine of fear, generating tears, wounds, graves, making the dead.

Then after a year, after two, she became enraged that he had had nothing to say. It was a form of madness, the rage, and she had taken to travelling to the church where a small memorial had been established for him next to his parents’ graves.

On the last occasion, she had seen his wife there and their little girl. It was autumn and a little mist hung over the path and about the gravestones. It was as though they were stepping out of a dream. How beautiful they were; how ordinary and shabbily dressed. Knowing that they possessed the answers to the questions that tormented her – How had he died? Had he ever spoken of her? What had the war done to him? Had it, before it killed him, that terrible shameful war, had it broken and dishonoured him? – she had turned away, even then.

One turned from love and killed it. That was one way. You went to lie upon the mountain side to watch an eagle perform its lazy circular spell, or to sit in the dark by the water, looking at the glacier under the stars, the glistening, seemingly molten spread of it over the black mass of rock, as she had that night while the baronet slept in his bed and Louisa had come to look for her.

The other way, was to try and grab hold of love and make it stay if only for a moment.

That was what Andreas had done, the German chef, maker of spätzle and kaiserschmarn. He had been sitting there in the dark, smoking his little cigars, and listening to the glaciers melting and flowing down into the valley. What had the trickling water whispered to him, what had he heard in the roar of the flood? That life was by its very nature the process of discovering love where it might be found and losing it? Or had he just wanted to make Louisa wait, to make her listen, if only for a moment – Louisa who would not be made to do anything.

And she, Teresa, lingering amongst the rocks, wishing on the hard stars not to feel anything anymore, not to love anymore, a minute’s walk away, close enough to hear the cry, momentary, cut off, as the chef tried to take hold of her, of Louisa, tried to grasp love and make it be still, and she pushing him away and stumbling, had fallen into the gulley where her head, her coiling hair, had met the hard stones.

And nothing that had come after had made it any less irreparable. Not even her own understanding of what it was that had lain between them.

By the time she reaches the slabs, the snow has begun to fall, the flakes as fat as feathers. Teresa takes off her shoes and puts them in her handbag, and then leaves it, shoes and all, at the top.

Down, down, down she goes – crawling and scrambling, coming across sheep droppings and here and there remains of the metal cables that had once secured the path.

She already knows what she will say, has known for years that if she were granted another day with Johannes, another hour even, she would tell him that in the larger things, he had been the best man she had known.

The drop is vast. Teresa clings to the rock, gasping. A current of warmer air must be rising from below as the snowflakes are flying upward. They land on her lashes and melt into her eyes. She is crying.

Wait for me,’ she says. It seems to her that if she does not hurry, they will be gone, instead of sitting together at the table, the one head dark, the other blonde, a fire burning in the grate.

At last,’ Johannes will say, and Louisa will snort as though Teresa has been immensely stupid.

And despite the falling darkness, the treacherous slippery way, her frozen hands and the metal cables – so deceptively reliable, so weakly anchored – that is, of course, just how it happens.

 

__________


Victoria Gosling
is a short story writer, novelist and founder of The Reader Berlin. In 2012, her novel LETTERS TO G. was selected as one of the winners of the Mslexia Novel Prize. Her work has been published by The Guardian, SAND and Visual Verse, amongst others. She is represented by Zoe Waldie of Rogers, Coleridge & White.

 

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