Regina Ullman: The Country Road

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Regina Ullman The Country Road
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Never before in English, Regina Ullmann's work is distinctive and otherworldly, resonant of nineteenth-century village tales and of authors such as Adalbert Stifter and her contemporary Robert Walser. In the stories of , largely set in the Swiss countryside, the archaic and the modern collide, and "sometimes the whole world appears to be painted on porcelain, right down to the dangerous cracks." this delicate but fragile beauty, with its ominous undertones, gives Ullmann her unique voice.

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Regina Ullman

The Country Road

Reverently dedicated to Ellen Delp

The Country Road

Part One

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be in the way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with an almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me. . The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars — even heaven itself could not relieve it of its bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

I, for my part, unpacked my provisions from my small satchel. The heat had rendered them inedible. I had to throw them away. Not even birds would have wanted them now. So in addition to everything else, this sense of deprivation left me hungry and thirsty. And there was no spring in sight. The knoll alone seemed to conceal the secret of a spring deep within it, beyond my reach. And even if I could have hoped to find a spring nearby, I still wouldn’t have tried to reach it. I was tired and dry of tears, but close to crying.

Where were the pictures that had led me so blessedly through my childhood? They seemed to resemble this knoll. But then again, they didn’t, because I was sitting there now. And I didn’t belong in the picture anymore. I conjured up another; for the truth, which I did not spare myself, had given me a beggar’s stubborn stance toward life. I wanted to have an ideal, an ideal (since the earlier ones were already taken from me) suited to my own being. And I recalled a painting by the young Raphael that depicted the dream of a youth. I had always found the purity of that image refreshing. Even today. But such purity was no longer my own. This image from my childhood seemed to grow on the knoll, and it drove me down, down to the dusty country road. But I was not yet fully exhausted.

Then in my mind Saint Anne’s enormous bed arched up here on the hillside. An angel was holding the canopy’s highest billow aloft in the clouds. Beneath it were women, many of them, all lovingly at work. They were bathing a newborn child, Mary. Here they carried in jugs, there they held linens at the ready. The picture was all love and joy, the purest joy on earth. I averted my eyes. Mechanically I looked down at the country road. None of that was really around me. I was alone on the knoll, cast out of myself, so to speak. This sensation is unknown to anyone who feels at home in bush and tree, who finds there a bed, a chest, a trestle; who finds a bouquet awaiting him at every stage of life. It is meant for him. Was it God, was it the father, the younger brother, who held it in his hand from the beginning?

My shoes were dusty, pinching from the heat. My dress had no need to please anyone on earth. Perhaps in the beginning it had had such a purpose, but that had been all too quickly forgotten. One must be reminded of such things. Whether it be the fish in the water or a birdsong or love, as only nature knows it — something must have reminded us of it. But I had already slipped my own mind.

Down below, weary merchant women were passing. In a moment they were all around, and then they had passed me by like a crescent moon. Next a herd came by, enveloped in its own dust like a cloud. A couple of children followed, holding empty baskets in their blue hands. They had a guilty conscience. From above, it was clear that they had stilled their hunger with the meager yield of their blueberry harvest. That was money that they had swallowed. They did not share in the happiness of those mountain children who once returned home from seeking berries to eat their pan of porridge, still spooning out their joy. .

I paused at this memory, my eyes still fixed on the road. An organ grinder passed, old, country road. . The silent organ hung on his back. A little dog ran after him, so close on his heels that it seemed to run underneath him, the way dogs run under a wagon’s wheels when it’s all they have to guard.

A fisherman passed — there was a man-made pond nearby.

Finally, along came a hideous bicyclist. He was a perfectly ordinary man. I could just clearly see the red handkerchief blowing from his breast pocket. Oh, how unhappy I was about this strange cyclist. Not even if the love of mankind had reconciled me to him, forcing me to reconsider, not even then would I have been able to smile again. And wasn’t he laughable, this cyclist? Had I slowly lost all my gaiety in life, all my confidence?

With my hand I had idly plucked a woodruff. So it was May, then. Not July or August, not the hottest day of the year? Up above the country road I had lost all track of time. I held the blossom like an oracle. Then I laid it in my lap. I let out a gentle breath. Or it might have been a sigh.

The landscape around me was not beautiful. No, it was the melancholy landscape of a woeful country road, which never forgot for a moment that this dust was the debt it owed to itself, ankle-deep dust, ground fine by the millstones of the sun and the rising full moon.

A darkening, uncooled night, a day like today, like the glaze of the finest malachite, had ground it down for us, this dust that seemed to be everywhere. It was as if grandfather had left it for us, as he did for the serpent in paradise, this dust, the premature snow of old age coating the trees.

“Oh God!” This cry for help passed over my lips again and again, uncomprehended. I had not encountered it in a long time, this word. Truly, I no longer remembered it.

And you must encounter God in your own flesh.

Of course I knew that God’s name was engraved in every animal. Every blade of grass bore his sharp inscription. Even the flowers held him in their curves. And what was their fragrance but yet another living thing from the hand of creation. I claimed to have no God. But there I was once again, holding the woodruff blossom in my hand. I was touched by the goodness that this blossom exhaled. I fell silent and watched.

Down below, on the country road, a horse and wagon were waiting in front of a low building. I had hardly noticed the building. Lost in thought, I had overlooked the horse and wagon. The horse stood under a chestnut tree and waited. He nibbled at the leaves, pulling the hay wagon behind him. A voice called for him to stop. That was all. Above the building hung a sign that bore the name: “The Sun Inn.” I couldn’t read it, but there was a picture, too. I stood up. It had occurred to me that this wagon could take me along for part of the way. Then at least I would be somewhere else. I headed down. I felt heavy, as if I were bearing burdens, unknown ones from all over the world. But it was only my own presence playing tricks on me. Presence: all at once I understood that worn-out word. It was well-suited to the country road.

I picked up my belongings from the ground. I took one last look at the world. Wasn’t it beautiful, then?

Somewhere a child was wailing miserably, like the very young who seem to have no eyes. That was just what this country road had needed.

I stood beside the road below and waited. The horse approached in a circus trot, as if the world were a carousel that never came round to its end.

The man on the front bench — it wasn’t a true box seat — was lenient with his whip. He was a young man. He shared the bench with a few haggard women. Baggage of all kinds was piled on behind. I looked at it. I looked at the young man and the women. I didn’t have to say much. They saw that I could go no further. Compassion is not as rare a thing as many people believe. But until we experience it firsthand, it doesn’t make an impression. Calloused as we are, we think ourselves equal to those offering it. This is the fruit of our numb desperation. . The women offered their hands to help me up. They allowed me to choose my seat.

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