“Dem Lebendigen Geist” by Martin Bremer

Issue 11 / Fall 2017

 

In the summer you can really feel the grain fields nearby—stalks bobbing in the breeze making ripples in the warm air. You see cobblestone alleys and facades of magenta stone like recurring visual cues to let you know that this is where you are. Across the river, green banks of grass spotted with student bodies on towels and picnic blankets. Blue skies paling as they approach the horizons of pine forests on the hills. Near the clinics, ugly buildings built so far apart that they don’t really ever bother you, and long patches of grass skirting the roads with red flowers dotted dark brown in the middle—and daisies everywhere.

Vivian sits by herself in an old market square and sips her cold foamy beer under a sunshade. The waiter who took her order said her food would be coming shortly. He had frowned at her for ordering something wholly inappropriate for summer. She just misses Spätzle, is all, with good sweet Rotkraut and tender Gulasch. Her dad used to make it at Christmas, the only time he’d ever really cook. The beer is that dark orange of wheat beer and is served with a tall head. Her table overlooks the town hall she’s come all the way from her hotel to find already closed. She’ll just have to come earlier tomorrow. But in the meantime it’s a beautiful day in Heidelberg and she can see a scowling waiter coming her way, holding a steaming tray over his shoulder.

 

After deciphering the alleyway labyrinth of stone stairs up to the castle that overlooks the Neckar and older parts of town, Vivian buys a bottle of water from a vendor right outside the Visitor Center and sits down on a bench on the part of the castle’s garden that juts out above steeples and rooftops and the town hall she had hoped to find answers in earlier today. The Neckar is a blue fissure across Heidelberg’s Altstadt and runs more or less parallel to the Hauptstrasse.

Vivian speaks decent German. Not that that’s so important in Heidelberg—most people’s English here is exceptional. And you can’t take ten steps without coming across Americans here, who seem oddly out of place, as if straight out of a film. Seeing them here almost makes her expect something movie-ish to happen, like a chase scene with loads of collateral damage or something hanging in the sky and casting a shadow over them as they stare and point in horror. Vivian absently wonders just how American she looks to the locals.

Heidelberg Castle is old. She wonders how many people have stood in exactly that corner of the garden where a beaming couple now stands taking a picture of themselves, the view below as a backdrop to their love. She bets Hitler has stood there. She’s heard somewhere that, statistically speaking, around a billion of the atoms that make up each of us have once been a part of William Shakespeare. Surely that must apply to Hitler and Stalin and Charles Manson as well, she thinks. It doesn’t mean anything. But there is an aura to this fact, if you let it hit you deep enough. It really doesn’t mean anything, though.

 

She’s sipping her Surprise Drink (which turns out to be disgustingly minty) in a bar on the Untere Strasse not a minute away from the closed town hall of this afternoon. Across the table, Hope sips her own Surprise Drink, which tastes much better and consists, they think, of pineapple juice and maybe rum but probably vodka, it’s hard to tell which, somehow.

A friend of a man who was talking to Hope had approached Vivian and quickly established that since Vivian is American and Hope English they should naturally all have drinks together. The two Germans have since faded into the background. Ach Mensch. They couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Vivian sure is happy not to have to speak any more German tonight. Not having any lone wolves stare at her from their barstools for fifteen minutes before deciding it’s safe to come on to her is also a nice bonus. Not that she wouldn’t like to hook up tonight, but all the men here are students who just cannot shut the bloody hell up about what it is that they study. It is now two in the smoke-filled morning. Vivian has always loved the expression bloody hell. Hope uses it constantly. She is wearing a tight, striped top and a high-waisted skirt. Black Doc Martens boots. Lip pierced. Blonde hair in a bun with very short bangs and loose strands framing the sides of her face, which is delicate and serious. No body art in sight. Vivian has a faded floral dress on, a blue cardigan with rolled sleeves over it, and a chrome watch with a brown leather strap. Her flats match her cardigan. Her brown curls are always loose. Neither of them smoke.

“Statistically speaking, around a billion of the atoms that make up each of us have once been a part of William Shakespeare,” Vivian says. “Why Shakespeare, though? Why not Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin?”

“People are afraid of what that might mean, I guess.”

“It doesn’t mean anything, though.”

“Well, not in a rational sense, no. But it’s just too powerful a symbol not to hit people right between the eyes, isn’t it?”

“Hm. A symbol of what, exactly?”

“I don’t know—of the essential evil of human beings. I think that when people hear stuff like that they feel like they’ve been exposed, you know? Caught in the Big Lie.”

“I don’t understand,” Vivian says. “What Big Lie?”

“That they’re good.”

Hope downs the last icy inch of her Surprise Drink.

“That’s pretty bleak,” Vivian says.

Hope shrugs. She checks the time on her phone.

“Bloody hell.”

 

It’s three in the street-shouting morning and there are bands of men, three or four apiece, roaming up the Hauptstrasse to an open-air bus-tram terminal with no buses or trams to pick them up until five a.m. on weekdays. Whether they don’t know this or are just passing the terminal by on their way home is not clear. Regardless, they plod on by, chanting with their arms around one another’s shoulders to keep evil spirits away, scared and lonely and feeling good. They’re the cosmonauts of Ecstasy, banging on the drumhead ceiling of one’s insomnia. A dance in shackles, echoed across pancreatic cities and landscapeless lives in pictures on cellphones. Then, shiksas and geishas and cellophane dancers: The renegade, vindicated into a generation of waste. Then the righteous hedonist, narcissist, philanthropist, occasional herbalist—his hands like razors chop down the hills, and the shame washes away with every new river. Monks and angels of dubstep and murder—the penicillin of fashion, avenged. Against the beat, angst, and murder. Rebirth replaced by hope—in things that died.

Vivian’s hotel is near the Central Railway Station, so Hope invites her to stay in her apartment, just around the corner from the bar and conveniently near to the town hall. Now they sit in Hope’s kitchen, sipping seven-euro wine and heating up some leftover fettuccine al pesto.

“Is it cool if I set an alarm?”

“Um, what for?” Hope says.

“I gotta be at the town hall before noon.”

Hope cocks her head and narrows her eyes.

“I might as well tell you, I guess. I’m trying to find out about my grandfather. He was German and already of age in 1939. There’s no definitive confirmation of this from my parents, but we suspect that he fought for Germany during World War II.”

“You mean a Nazi.”

Vivian nods. Hope pops the microwave’s door open and sets the heated pasta on a cork coaster between their plates.

“How come your parents don’t know this?”

‘My grandfather moved to Brazil when the war ended. My dad was only two. We think he was fleeing trial. He never talked about these things. And my grandmother died young. So we just don’t know.’

Hope still looks puzzled. She stares at the table with one finger around the stem of her glass. Vivian helps herself to a modest portion of the fettuccine.

“Why would you want to find that out?”

Vivian shrugs. She says, “I guess I need to know whether we’re dealing with a Hitler or a Shakespeare here. Do you understand?”

Hope scowls a little at her wine before she gets it. “But you said yourself that that doesn’t mean anything.”

“And you said yourself that this doesn’t stop people from believing it does.”

The kitchen is small and old, with wooden cabinets lining three of its walls, a door to a little balcony, and a wooden writing desk reappropriated as the dining table. The sink is made from the same reddish stone as the castle.

Vivian eats her pasta. It’s still very good, she thinks. She sips her wine and looks into the night through the balcony door, which stands ajar. She wonders absently if this couldn’t have been her grandfather’s kitchen when he was young. If this writing desk couldn’t have been where he wrote love letters to her grandmother. If this balcony couldn’t have been where he decided to live with what he had done.

 

Vivian wakes up with a shudder. Hope’s bedroom is filled with a smooth, homogenous half-light. Sitting up on the edge of the fold-out couch, Vivian reaches down to grab her cardigan and shoes. Beyond the dust dancing in sunbeams from the blinds, the room is slightly swirling before her eyes. Vivian grabs a hold of her purse, goes out into the corridor and gets dressed. A Siamese cat passes her by on its way out through a narrow window. A soft morning light refracts on the cat’s tail as it walks along the ridge of the roof and disappears into the streets of Heidelberg. It’s somewhat lighter here than in the bedroom. She goes down the short corridor to the kitchen and fills a glass with water from the tap. There’s a fresh smell in the air or maybe in the water in her glass, it doesn’t matter where. Vivian just closes her eyes and takes it in with greedy breaths. She feels an alignment in the coordinates of several aspects of her life. The fields of grain somewhere on the outskirts of the city are just beyond her fingertips—if she opens her eyes they’ll disappear. The waters of the Neckar flow silently a hair’s breadth away from her parted lips. In the unwitnessed reality of her Thursday morning, she is bare naked, suspended in a stream of cool air. She finishes her water and goes out.

Hope’s apartment is barely a dozen steps off the Hauptstrasse. It’s maybe a brisk five-minute walk from there to the town hall and there are plenty of bakeries for her to choose from on the way. Soon enough she has a cup of coffee in one hand and a turkey sandwich in the other. She spots a few green iron-mesh benches in the shade of some trees on the Universitätsplatz, which look as good a place as any for her breakfast.

A bus stops across the way behind her and out of it comes a herd of mostly well-dressed students on their way to early classes. It’s around nine a.m. Most of them go into a white building to Vivian’s right. Some she sees going past it into alleys, to other departments, she assumes.

The white building has a bronze statue of (it must be) the goddess Athena over the entrance, with the inscription DEM LEBENDIGEN GEIST below. To the living spirit. Athena sits there, Lincolnesque, and holds a spear in one hand and a smaller statue in the other. Her expression mirrors that of the students who pass her by into the building. She looks exhausted from sitting for decades on that hard chair. Face blank. But also resolute, in a German way. Vivian thinks of another inscription, ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which is in truth a lovely phrase, she thinks, were it not for the place that made it famous. Labor shall set you free. Athena’s countenance serves to remind the inmates of this message five days a week as they plod on to their classes. She’s not sure what that means, but she knows it’s nothing anybody should be worrying about.

Her sandwich tastes delicious in the morning cool. She gets up and wipes the crumbs off her with her hand. She trashes the cup and napkins. It’s odd how some sensations and urges seem to travel like light from dying stars a galaxy away to hit you right between the eyes. There it is. The town hall is further along the Hauptstrasse, but Vivian takes an alleyway down to the river. She skirts the water, not looking directly at it yet. She reaches the Old Bridge and turns toward the Neckar. It flows gently and green, and a breeze is blowing downstream. Vivian walks to the middle of the bridge and faces the wind and upcoming waters. Water under the bridge, she thinks. Water under the bridge.

 

A week later, Vivian has checked out of her hotel and is staying with Hope. To repay her host for the hospitality, Vivian goes out every morning before Hope gets up and buys them breakfast, which she is usually just adding the finishing touches to when Hope finally emerges from her bedroom, a smile on her face and few words spoken before she’s had her coffee. Hope works night shifts in a bar, which usually gives them the day to take walks and explore the city together.

One such day, Hope is showing Vivian what she calls the Philosopher’s Walk, a path that crawls up a small mountain that flanks the Altstadt on the northern bank of the Neckar. They had just spent the day lying in the sun on the Neckarwiese—that wide stretch of grass along the river—reading, drinking beer mixed with lemonade, and talking. The subject of Vivian’s grandfather never comes up between them again, nor does it often surface for long into Vivian’s consciousness anymore. As the sky gets its first tinges of gold and orange on its way to the horizon, Hope sits up and tells Vivian she wants to show her something which would involve a forty-five-minute uphill trek. Vivian shrugs and nods.

About an hour later, they’re standing on top of a sandstone tower on the summit of the Heiligenberg, beyond the Philosopher’s Walk. The view is breathtaking in itself, although the trek and then the steps up there have surely contributed to their lack of breath as well. There’s graffiti and even carvings on the crenellations, celebrating friendships and dates as far back as the sixties. This space too has an aura. They can see all of the Altstadt, and Heidelberg Castle looming over it.

Vivian’s mind witnesses all this through the lens of The Blue Marble, that famous photograph of Earth some astronaut took during one Apollo mission or another. She happens to know that the picture was originally taken upside-down and only later inverted for the sake of conformity to cartographic standards. She has always felt that the original inverted version was much more meaningful than the popularized one. The picture is usually referred to in order to put human experience in cosmological context. The conventional line goes something like: “Behold this Blue Marvel—all of life as we know it has taken place here. All of History, every domestic quibble, every dropped ball of ice cream was actualized on this Rock that is spiraling inwards toward our life-sustaining bonfire in the cold darkness of Space! See how fragile it seems!” But seeing it upside-down adds another layer, she thinks. It implies that even history, domestic quibbles, and dropped ice cream are only conventions, arbitrary ways in which we choose to perceive our experience. The grandeur of humanity fades away. No big deal ever happened on our spiraling rock. Except for maybe life.

The women exchange a look and Hope reaches an arm around Vivian’s back. Vivian rests her head on her friend’s shoulder and they stay like this, for a moment, contemplating the fading sunlight.

Wordlessly, they begin their descent.

Walking down, beyond a curve in their path, the sun is finally setting and the colors are like a million supernovae of paint splattered against the sky and clouds on the distant horizon. Against this background stands a lone figure, the silhouette of the whole of humanity in that of a young man in a fighter’s stance, throwing jabs and hooks into the air, fighting the end of time, raging against the dying of the light.

 

“Dem Lebendigen Geist” first appeared in The Acentos Review.

 

Martin Bremer was born in 1991 in São Paulo, Brazil. At twenty, he moved to Heidelberg, Germany for his BA in English. He spent a year of this degree in Connecticut on an exchange program. Currently, he resides in Oxford, UK where he is doing an MSt in Creative Writing. Find him online at his website.

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