I live near a small village by the sea. A cobble stone road runs past twenty or so houses, then turns towards the water. From my own house, I can see the small harbor and the boat barn. In winter, the place is deserted.
For my birthday walk, I left my house and walked towards the houses, away from the waves, towards the lights. I wore a coat of bear fur over chain mail, a red shawl, a woolen hat and my heavy leather boots. I wouldn’t have needed the armor but I am a suspicious man who likes to be prepared. I passed the church. An old man stood on the stairs leading up to the barred entrance. He waved me over, calling my name. I didn’t know how he knew my name and I didn’t recognize him.
“Do I know you,” I asked him, without daring to come too close, a little afraid he might be a madman out to attack me.
He chuckled. “Christmas this year is a paltry affair,” he said. I grunted in agreement.
He seemed a little crazy: his eyes were a little too wide open, his mouth hung oddly to one side, neither smiling nor unsmiling. He was unshaven, he was true to something that you only see in naked, wild men, a recklessness of being that didn’t match the season. One expects to meet someone like this in a moss-covered cave: a tree spirit, an old fairy, a man-troll.
I agreed with him in so far as I hadn’t been able to get into the Christmas spirit very much either. I didn’t want to say anything for fear it might encourage him, but I also didn’t want to move on immediately in case he had something important to say. It had been a while since I felt able to wait patiently.
“Who are you? ”
He shook his head. “Just an old man, my lad,” he said.
I’m not to be mistaken for a lad, of course. I’ve got a beard myself, and a helmet of grey hair and a two-hander that hangs on my belt, whose buckle, a crusader’s cross, was given to me by a bishop of Rome.
He raised his left hand and held it out, pointing South. With his other hand he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me close, so that I could smell his breath.
“We’re under attack,” he shouted. “The forces of the enemy are mounting!”
I said: “Today’s my birthday.”
“Good,” he said, “good! The spirit of rebirth is what we need! Not the end of times but the beginning of a new era. Tell me, my lad, what do you wish for?”
I hesitated. I had only just emerged from a morning of self reflection and contemplation. Fully turned in on myself, I had planned to see some of the world outside of my own head. I had not planned to be spoken to by a soothsayer and agitator, I had not planned to be interrogated. But I answered anyway, perhaps because of his sense of urgency perhaps, or perhaps I just because I was bored with being on my own.
“I can’t say that I wish for anything,” I replied.
He nodded gravely and gripped my shoulder harder, thrusting his head towards me so that I could see the spittle flying from his open mouth: “That’s it,” he said, “no wishes! You must wish for something, but not for anything, you must wish for freedom because there is nothing else and when it’s gone, everything will follow.”
I broke free of his hold. I ran down the stairs and into the village. I found the cake shop and got myself something sweet. I talked to the baker and to his daughter, a sweet ginger head who was as thick and white as dough.
I always buy the same cake, if I can get it, Black Forest, with cherries soaked in spiced rum sitting on a bed of soft cream white and spongy like fresh snow, sprinkled with dark chocolate chips that melt on the tongue. In the store, I looked in a mirror and I saw my twisted mouth and my smiling eyes, conveniently and traditionally placed left and right of my reasonably straight nose. I looked around the pastry shop to see if anyone recognized me but of course nobody did, because why should they.
Only on my birthday do I have this craving for recognition – it makes me realize that I haven’t done anything worth being recognized for. On the other hand, I get to be anonymous. When I was much younger, I often fantasized that I was surrounded by people who looked at me, wondering who I was and if they shouldn’t take me for someone who was perhaps more important than he looked. These considerations, which were in no way ever backed up by experience or actual events, quickly became as intricate as a tapestry. This is how life really is, I think, for most of us: nobody points at us in particular, but we’re all pointing at someone at some time or another and all these vectors add up to a life whose recognition may not be that of a hero, but it is still more than nothing, more than a void, more than a vacuum. We want to be seen by our fellow men.
As I walked back, after another chat and a few more polite exchanges of good wishes, I went around the back of the church because I didn’t want to see the old man again. I had to get home to work through a long list of routines. Their totality takes on the form of a satisfying ritual.
Another one of my long-standing habits is writing and making up stories. I started inventing lives when I was still a toddler, to whom new words were like new people never talked to, like new dishes never tasted, like strange lands not seen before. Of course, one cannot invent lives. One can only trace their outlines against the sky for as long as clouds allow.
I came home, stirred by the unexpected meeting, feeling the presence of something without a name or face, and, wanting to capture and keep it, I began to write this.
Here is my German translation of this story.