I originally wrote this short story in German for a story competition; it was published in the competition’s anthology in 2009. Since I assume most of the visitors to this page can’t read German, here is the English translation by yours truly.
The sun is warm. The boy smiles. He closes his eyes and stretches out on the blanket in the garden. He will rest a bit. One of the guests lights his pipe; everyone, his parents, siblings, the guests, all are chatting happily. From the barbecue, a delicious smell wafts over. It is Saturday afternoon, it is summer.
The boy hears a voice softly calling, the voice of a woman. It is coming from further away, from the village. Is she calling his name? He listens; through the talk of the grown-ups and the laughter of the kids he can’t be sure. The voice calls again. It sounds sad.
The boy opens his eyes. He is sure that the voice is calling him. He goes to his mother and tells her. She nods but doesn’t otherwise acknowledge him. The boy goes to the garden gate and on to the street. He walks toward the old village.
It is not far, yet today the walk seems to take longer than usual. The streets are all empty today, emptier than usual on a summer weekend. Nothing is moving, not even a breeze. The voice pulls the boy onward. He still can’t understand words, just this sad call, almost like a memory.
Had the walk always been this far? A fine mist had sprung up. The boy shivered. Where had it suddenly come from? Should he turn back and get a jacket? He looked around. He had almost reached the manor house. The voice sounded very near. It wasn’t calling, it was crying, loud, plaintive sobs.
The boy stumbled. There was no asphalt on the street anymore, only packed earth, loose rocks and wagon ruts. It was still empty, no wagons that had caused the ruts, no animals, no people.
He listened for the voice. It came from the other side of the manor. The building looked strangely different from what he remembered, no museum sign or any other placards. In fact, all houses looked different. They were newer and older at the same time. More real, and yet unreal.
It had grown darker in the mist. No lights were on, and there weren’t any streetlights, either. The windows of the houses were made of crown glass, so that he couldn’t see inside, yet he was certain that they were empty. They were empty, but still felt occupied. Did this make sense? The boy nodded.
He went around the manor house. His mother had once told him about the building behind it, some kind of barn or wine press house, he couldn’t remember. The voice came from this building. The door was open. He hesitated, then entered. A woman was sitting in a corner. She had her hands in front of her face and was crying, quietly, with the same plaintive note that had drawn him here. The boy sat down next to her.
Should he comfort her? He reached to put his arm around her shoulder, and she looked up. She was still a girl, not too pretty, yet delicate, frail, almost translucent. “Why are you crying?” The girl extended her left hand and cupped his cheek.
He flinched. The touch was ice-cold, and at the same time like an electric shock. As if in a film, images flickered through the boy’s perception: a young man in a simple uniform; the girl, clutching him; her pulling a ring made of a reddish metal off her finger; him putting the ring on a ribbon, fastening it around his neck; him marching away with his company; the girl staying, alone.
“I will find it for you,” the boy whispered. He could clearly discern them now, the memories that lived in the houses. Over there, a tailor, bent over his needlework. There, a cabinetmaker, always busy building furniture for the those living in the manor and the village around it. The boy extended his newfound senses to the young man with the ring.
A strong memory came from the town hall square. He ran there. He hadn’t seen anyone except the girl, yet everything seemed much more alive. If he strained, he thought he could hear the voices of the farmers and traders as they were talking, haggling and laughing on a market day. He went to the well in the middle of the square. The young man and the girl had sat here and sworn each other their love. It was empty now.
The boy listened again. He heard ringing, like metal on metal, the screams of men and the neighing of horses. Suddenly he knew where he had to look.
The cemetery looked different from the one he knew. There were no sepulchers with names ornately inscribed; only simple wooden crosses and stones decorated the graves. At the graveyard wall, there was a single large boulder. The memory of the girl’s young man, and of many other men, was strongly connected to it. A monument. The boy concentrated. The memory consolidated, condensed, became more and more real. In front of the stone, there now lay a ribbon — with a ring on it.
As fast as he could, the boy ran to the house behind the manor. The girl accepted the ring from him. She clutched the piece of metal and sighed. She faded, became weaker, thinner, more translucent. Just before she completely disappeared, the boy saw her very faintly, in the arms of her beloved. The memory carries him home, to the garden, where the sun is shining and warm. The boy opens his eyes. The grill smells delicious. Everybody is talking at the same time. From the pipe, smoke rises up; it creates a transparent, almost invisible ring. The boy smiles.