Did we survive all those Rumanian parties, shoulder to shoulder, just so that you don‘t write to me any more?
Is that why we had an afternoon nap with Charlie and a right dog, so that when the orderlies came in they were surprised to find a three-headed police inspector lying in the bed? Is that why we drank Zuika, or however one spells the name of this plum schnaps, tricked the old fella, wangled official trips to Sinaia, guarded good, old Mackensen, as he passed Craiova (I arrived a bit late, just in time to see the gallant gentleman leave). All that just so that you never write? But I am writing to you, because you are a senior state councillor, and because I like you so much. Things didn’t turn out well with you, I let you go and get academic qualifications, and now you are in charge of Hamburg’s drains. But I am writing to you nevertheless.
I got out of the Pyrenees car in Mauléon, and scrambled around the little town. On the market square are a war memorial and a pelota court, old trees, a beautiful, surviving Renaissance house, and a heavenly peace. In front of the café is the provincial version of Massary. It was apparently the local fallen angel, the wife of the cafétier, a young lady who with her black eyes promised everything which the rest of her certainly didn’t deliver, and who recalled what an Englishman once said, “French women have such an effect on us because they seem to be that which other women are afraid to be.” It’s a good job that Charlie wasn’t there, he would first have looked at her sideways, and then he would have said to us, “I wouldn’t mind having a little word with her!” And then he would probably have had urgent business in the town, perhaps to visit his cousin who lived there, and left us. But Charlie was luckily not there, so I was in complete charge. We quickly became intimate, she and I; she even showed me her secrets, while her husband wasn’t watching. My God, what a man of the world one is!
There is a little chuff-chuff train from Mauléon to Tardets. “Tardets, mirror of the Basque country! Tardets, you unknown corner, made of nothing but light”, according to Francis Jammes. And he’s right, Tardets really is pretty. It was market day, and the peasant women, some of them wearing up to eight petticoats, stood between their baskets of apples, sat on their vegetables, and rummaged around behind their little stalls. A fellow was shouting out his chinaware. One would have thought he was declaring a minor republic. His face was a blueish red, and he shouted like a town crier. I climbed into the hollow of my room, it was ein old-fashioned, cosy hotel, with bulbous water jugs, and lovely, lovely pictures, Japanese heathens torture Christian missionaries, and I looked down from above on the crowd, which is one of the nicest of all human activities. It was the 1st. September.
Jake, I think someone’s calling you. You should go and have a look, his sink may be blocked. Go and clear his pipes. Have you done that? Good.
But Les Gorges de Cacaoueta was shown on every map, no problem at all. The Gorge of Cacaoueta. Guide nécessaire, it said in the prayer book. A guide! Didn’t we always find our way back home on our own, at four o’clock in the morning, always tied together with a piece of string, and Charlie sang his song about the twelve nuns, and all the milk churns leapt aside in fright? Were we or were we not independent men? “In addition to which, his high calling demands courage in all duties,” it said in the service manual. I don’t need a guide.
In the evening light in Tardets, I watched as a horse got its pedicure, and heard how, in front of all the taverns, Basque peasants shouted the latest market prices into each others’ ears. The hairdresser sat in front of her salon, so terribly beautiful and colourfully made up that it made one quite hot under the collar.
The next morning, which was Sedantag, I walked along the long road which leads from Tardets to Licq-Athéry, until I reached a small inn, in which the owner of the Gorge of Cacaoueta lived. He had leased it and fenced it in, and taken possession of the waterfall. It belonged to him. There is nothing more self-evident than having to buy an entrance ticket to nature. Two francs fifty. And a good day to you!
The road was passable for vehicles for about another hour, then it got lost among the stones, and one had to scramble along a little, lonely railway track, which lay there virginally. No locomotive traversed it. Below, there was a reservoir, which the sun coloured light green. The water was wonderfully transparent and clear. Let’s assume that little fish played on its bottom. A cigar box lid nailed to a tree, with a mute arrow. No, not what you think! No, that was the way to the gorge. Past a hut in which a mother drank from a pot, and the baby from the mother. Through the bed of a dried out stream, a hill, and then the gorge opened up.
It was nine o‘clock. The bright sun shone on the green heights. Down below was shadowy and cool. The path snaked its way along the mountain stream, and then there were no footprints any more. What now? Climb. I climbed for half an hour. Half an hour can be a long time. Then came a rusty iron gate, which was open, so here was where one has to pay for nature. The gorge became gorger and gorger, the cliffs cliffer, and the mountain stream wilder. The walls were now about two hundred meters high, with me in the middle. Where was the path?
What was shown as such on the map was the rim of a saucer, to the left the naked cliff, to the right the Brodelbach, and sometimes the other way round. As I made my way forward, I held on to the wet stone, and because I was all on my own, I spoke to myself and to the stone, I told him sternly not to push me into the water, that I would get out again. What a monkey! And it didn’t push me, but sometimes I put my foot down on an edge, the leather of my shoe sole slid a bit, and my insides rose a little bit. I walked about two kilometers like this, although walking is really not the right word for it. A flatland creature like you! How can I tell you how we had to make progress, my legs and I? Have you ever seen a man walking the tightrope?
Every fifty meters they had laid a few planks across the stream, with a puny, wobbly hint of a sort of hand-rail. I shoved myself over the abyss which yawned three metres below me. Sometimes the bridges swayed so strangely. I really didn’t like that. On the left-hand side shone the waterfall, and on the right the grotto, into which I clambered. There were white sandstone men there, looking at me. How still it was here! Outside, I threw my travel guide more or less deliberately into the stream. I didn’t need it any more. And then the path disappeared completely. I wanted to reach the Spanish border, leave the gorge, and make my way back to Tardets by another route, into the granddad hotel. But there was no path. None. I stood there, with the little, remaining map, like a great general, terribly important, but a little perplexed. And then I did something which is the reason for writing this letter. I climbed the walls of the gorge.
I thought, there is sure to be a way out up there, and I’ll see better where I am. Upwards, upwards! The grassy hillside had a slope of 91°. It started off well enough; there were trees with which one could pull one’s self up, but in places there were none. I trod firmly on the crumbly ground, it slid away, and I held onto thin air, which can be done, you know. Who is one playing to, when one is alone? Whenever I was just about to slide down, I pulled an energetic and manly face, keep calm, it will all turn out alright! But then that wore off, and I looked like I really looked, as red as a turkey, panting heavily, and terribly irate. I hadn’t yet found anyone to blame, but I would certainly discover the back-stabber in due course.
The gorge owner will pull a right face when he next comes. I have completely ruined the whole thing. One had to climb backwards and forwards, you, with your old water pipes, won‘t know what I am talking about, you flatland dweller, you! At one point, I stood still and thought, „If Jake were here now, he would immediately channel the splendid stream down there, and turn it into a flushing toilet.“ I imagined exactly how you would start to dig here, and how all the peasants, instead of grabbing a fist full of fir leaves from behind them, like they do now when they get back on their feet in the woods, would be able to pull a chain, and what good that should actually be, for Christ’s sake! You dig your drains where you are, and leave us Basques here in peace. And then I started to climb again. In three-quarters of an hour, I had made it. It was ten thirty in the morning.
You were sitting in Hamburg at that time, going through your files, relaxed, in clean clothes. You are a well-groomed chap. A colourful map hangs on the wall: Hamburg, with all the streets and water extraction points, so that, if necessary, you can go straight to the house at no. 17 Neuer Wall, and say to the widow Brenkemeyer, “Who is running the water for so long here! It’s a disgrace!“ Someone has to keep things in order.
But if you had the opera glasses of the fairy tale princess, you would have been able to see me at the same time, sitting there, high up in the greenery, a poor bird on its perch, its feet pressed against a rotten branch, a hint of suffering and surrender about the nose. Heartbeat and breathing quicker than normal, the pulse racing. My belly rose and fell. I was still alive, but there was no way up and no way down. Above, the clouds drifted over my prison. The mountain stream raced below. My mountain stream (which you are not to drain!), and the racing below got quieter and quieter. I was so tired. Should I turn back? And go this whole, horrible way back, with the wobbly bridge and the scrambling stones? But what else should I do? How was I to get down?
In the meantime, in Hamburg, girls with straw-blond plaits are sitting well-behaved at their desks at school, reciting something in chorus. It was after the long playtime, and they had buttered roll voices, because they had not had time to clear their throats. Two dockers gazed after a fine gentleman and muttered into their chewing tobacco, “’Oo’s that, then? ‘Ee looks like the two halves of the man from Mars!“ And your phone rang. You told some fine lies into the black receiver: you were very, very sorry, but you were unable to come to lunch in the Harmony. Perhaps next week…? And you had a devilish grin on your face because at the other end was your deadly enemy, and with this refusal you had really put one over on him. And I was still sitting here on my hillside.
I couldn’t sit here forever. I stood up, with a heavy sigh, and nearly fell over. I grabbed a branch, but it didn’t want to, and said, „Crack!“ So I sat down again. I sat down nonchalantly, because I was still a little tired. You stood up and paced up and down in your smooth, flat, idler’s office. The water pipes flushed and swelled, the whole of Hamburg was all the same to you, your issue was resolved. I got up very, very carefully, and at the same time, for the joy of life, you tried to whistle, which is absolutely disgusting, because you whistle like Charlie rides and I swim, and that’s saying something. And now I was completely on my feet.
I looked around madly. I tried again to give an invisible group of tourists the impression that nothing was amiss. Then I gave up, and scrambled down a bit, obediently and humbly, on all fours. Crash! Some gorge rolled away, about eighty Francs worth of gorge that was lost forever. At least, I was not going to bring it back up. One will have to climb a little bit to the side. We mountain climbers sometimes have to climb to the side, for technical reasons.
And here was now a spot where there were no more trees, and I forgot my human dignity, sat myself down on my rotund posterior, and slid at great speed the five hundred feet down into the valley, back down to where I had come from. At the bottom I could stand up properly and dust myself down a bit. I now had rust-brown hands, and felt like whistling, because I can, you know, much better than you, you old man of desires. And then I fell heavily. Don’t you grin across your unlovely features with their low boozer’s brow! I fell right on my shins, both of them, and a bruise the size of a baby‘s head swelled up on my right leg. A souvenir of the Pyrenees, „To show that I was thinking about you, I have brought you this…“ And then I marched the whole way back, right up the scale.
I have always regretted that you and Charlie didn’t come along. I can see us climbing along the wild mountain stream: you bold, but complaining loudly, Charlie baring his teeth in glee when someone misses his step, and from time to time saying, “It’s a bit narrow here”. And me with the measured dignity which is typical of me when things go wrong. But you’re never there when you’re needed.
All the bridges came again, all the slippery spots at which the wild stream looked up at me from below and said, “Well? What about it? A little tumble into the water?“ All the wobbly railings, everything all over again. I once met some people: a man with a bandaged head (perhaps he was doing this tour for the second time), a girl and a woman of about a hundred and thirty-two, certainly an indication of how dangerous this section of mountains is. Guide required.
Oh, if someone had photographed me now! Babbling quietly to myself, I stumbled onwards, with fire in my belly! No mountains ever again! Damn, why didn’t I go to the seaside, to a completely flat beach! I no longer spoke to the cliffs and the trees, they had taken sides. But I asked my walking stick whether I really had to climb down into such a completely crazy gorge, into such a completely foreign gorge. Cacaoueta! What kind of name is that anyhow? That’s not what things are called. Just let me out of here. I want to lie stretched out in my bed, never get up again, never again in my whole life set foot in such a tricky bit of mountain. And then came the gate, the path became smoother, and what a feeling it was as I had grass under my feet again! I looked back and found the gorge entirely passable. That‘s what people are like.
One o‘clock. The schoolchildren are leaving their classrooms in Hamburg, you had just quickly written a memo to your office colleague, which he would find on his desk this afternoon, a particularly tricky and unpleasant case, and he had no chance of getting out of it. And now everyone goes for some breakfast. A warm roll…
The path rose, and a minute later I was lying flat out on the ground in the bright sunshine. He’s alive! He’s there! It didn’t swallow him up. But nearly. Nearly, and the lovely verses of the crazy Konrad Weichberger were applicable:
If you discover my face, beerily round, some day, in an album,
then say, „Whatever became of him?”
He was a friend of mine.
Dear Jake, I hope you soon become a Senator, just so that I can say to you, “Herr Senator! Hummel, Hummel!“ What would you answer?