Faithful Antigone: A Story
by ELISABETH LANGGÄSSER
THE grave lay among the vegetable gardens on the outskirts of the town. A narrow path ran between them, widening at this point, as a sandy stream will widen its bed where it flows about an island. The wooden cross was already beginning to weather; the letters R.I.P. had been washed away by the rain; the steel helmet was askew, a grin on the face of Death the sentry. The watering can, rake, and trowel lay beside the grave, and the girl called Carola put down the basket of pansies that she planned to plant around it. Then she turned to her companion, a bored young man who watched her while between cupped hands he struck a match with which to light the Camel dangling from the corner of his mouth.
No breeze. Spring, losing its freshness, was turning to hot summer. The lilac was nearly done, its blossoms once purple and mauve were browning at the tips as the fruit replaced the flower; the pink spiraea was a great froth of color, the tall tulips were still each a perfect urn balanced upon its slender stem, and would remain so for today and for tomorrow— after which they too would droop. An ugly old vase and two aluminum cups held the flowers — and now it was to be lilies of the valley, narcissus that recalls sickrooms, and white spiraea which would create a feeling of exuberant profusion that contrasts oddly with the unpleasant smell of its small, short-lived petals.
“Once the pink and white spiraea are over, there’s nothing for some time,” said Carola. She leaned down, emptied the dirty water out of the cups, and refilled them with fresh. She sighed.
“There’re roses,” said the boy. “Though not yet awhile. You’re right. There’s nothing for a bit. Except maybe flowering shrubs. There’re pink ones and yellow ones too. The thing is to tear off the branches when you can find them . .” He glanced rapidly at the girl.
“No,” she said quickly.
“Not tear off the branches? No? Then he’ll just have to do without, till the roses are in bloom.”He gave a harsh, awkward laugh; the girl began to tidy the grave, carefully collecting the petals that had fallen upon it, straightening the sides of the little mound with her trowel and her hands, so that there could be no doubt where the path ended. (He thought: She must have done like that when she was a little girl, cooking up porridge or rice pudding for her dolls on her toy stove. The thought was quickly gone.) He had to laugh again and she looked up at him with distrust. It really was as if the grave, spattered with the white blossoms, had been sprinkled with sugar, as if children, called in from play by their mother, had forgotten to bring their toys in with them.
“Give me the basket with the pansies,” said Carola. “I’ll plant them now. And the stick, so I can make holes to put them in. Spaced evenly . . ,” She was eager, and flushed.
“Get them yourself,” said the boy, and ground out his cigarette against a rotten post. “It’s silly, what you’re doing.”
“What I’m doing?”
“Yes, all this fuss about some soldier’s grave. You’re always coming here. In September and October it was rowanberries. November and December it was holly and pine branches. Then snowdrops and crocuses. And all for a stranger, a man you don‘t even know anything about . . .”
“What don’t I know?”
“You don’t know what sort of a fellow he was.”
“He’s dead now.”
“Maybe he was an SS man.”
“Well, and aren’t you ashamed?” the boy said loudly. “Those bastards murdered your own brother in Mauthausen concentration camp. He was probably ...”
“Shut up!” Her expression was one of despair as she pressed her hands against her ears. He seized her wrists and pulled her hands away from her head. She struggled, panting — their faces were very close together—then suddenly he let her go.
“Do whatever you please. It’s all the same to me. But I’m sick of it. So long.”
“You’re not going?”
“Why shouldn’t I? You’ve got company here, haven’t you? I’ve got to see some people.”
“I know,” said the girl, bitterly. “Those blackmarket people.”
“So what? The black market isn’t any worse than your collection of ghosts. Ghosts like this one here — worms and maggots.” He nodded toward the grave. While they had fought, the rake and trowel had fallen across it, giving it a disheveled appearance, a look of lonely destitution.
“Come along,” said the boy. “I’ve got some chocolate for you.”
“You can keep it.”
“And nylon stockings.”
“Why do you lie to me?” asked the girl coldly.
“Well, if you know I’m lying,”said the boy calmly, “ I might as well stop. Or do you imagine I enjoy telling lies?”
“Then you lie from unhappiness,” said Carola.
They fell silent. The afternoon sun blazed down, and the air shimmered as it does only in the summertime— a fleeting blast of light, the muffled scream and sigh of distress of mothering nature. A length of garden fence lay smashed beside the path. As though by agreement, they both sat down, the young man drew Carola toward him, then laid his head in her lap like a stray dog. She sat bolt upright, and stared with wide eyes at the soldier’s grave.
“Do you really think that Clemens suffered so terribly?” Carola asked softly. “In the quarry, or . . .”
“I don’t know. Let it be. Don’t fuss yourself,”he murmured, as one talking in his sleep. “For Clemens, it’s all over.”
“Yes,” she repeated mechanically. “For Clemens, it’s all over.” She nodded her head several times, and then began again. “But I‘d still like to know.”
“Know . . . what?”
“If he’s at peace now,” she said and her voice was half-stifled.
“You needn’t worry about that. You know what it was he died for.”
“Yes, I do know. But, you see, when I was a little girl I couldn’t sleep if I’d left my toys out in the yard, my wooden horse, or my doll. Suppose it should start to rain! And my toys all alone down there, and maybe frightened of the dark. Don’t you understand?”
He did not answer. Nor did Carola seem to expect any reply; her questions were addressed to some other person altogether.
”Is it hard to die? You can tell me. The moment when the soul tears itself away from all it has ever possessed ?”
Now a gentle breeze arose and lifted the outermost tips of the branches of white flowers; the rays of the sun, slanting down, caught the steel helmet, and on its sightless surface kindled a tiny flash of light.
“Are you comfortable?”
The young man’s head rolled from side to side in her lap, as in a dream; his drawn face, marked with the lines left by the hard years, relaxed beneath her caressing hands as she tried slowly and gently to smooth back the unruly hair. Then her fingers passed across his forehead, down to his temples, and over his cheeks, touching his lips which sought to catch them in a softly clasping kiss . . . until at last they came to rest in the hollow of his throat, where the living vein pulsed steadily.
“Yes, I’m comfortable.” Ilis voice was far away. “I’d like to lie like this forever. Forever ...”
He sighed, and whispered something that Carola could not catch, for as he spoke he pressed his mouth against her hands; she did not ask him what it was that he had said.
After a time the girl said, “I must go now. Mother will be coming home soon. And by the way, before I forget, the curate was asking after you yesterday. There’s a great shortage of older acolytes just now, particularly for the High Masson the great feast days. Perhaps you might ...”
“No, I won’t.” The hoy’s lips tightened.
“. . . the children can‘t remember the texts, they won’t learn, and there’s no relying on them,”she went on steadily and inflexibly. “At the Requiem the other day . . .”
She stopped. Immediately in front of them a brimstone butterfly, testing its new yellow wings, fluttered past and settled, confident and weary, upon the basket containing the plants.
“For my own sake,”said the boy. “No, for your sake,”he corrected himself. “So that you can be at peace,”he added after a moment’s pause.
“So that he . . . can be at peace,” she said, and reached for her basket.
Translated by Constantine FitzGibbon