They reached the translucent gate to which Andrew was holding the key, tall, massive, obstructing any view over whatever lay behind it. Peter heard the heavy jangle of the key being turned into a lock, iron against iron, then a full cluck and the gate gave way. Past the black woods and the milky screen of the gate, now came a full picture in sight, trees and bushes and broad clearing in the midst of which there stood a dwarfish church, some outhouses scattered around it, and a stone path winding about the place. Peter’s gaze hovered over the view in gratefulness.
“You didn’t tell me you live in a church”, he whispered to Andrew.
“I don’t”, Andrew replied in a low voice. “Just a little more patience and we’re there, you’ll see.”
“Oh, good. Glad to hear that, I can’t wait to see!”
Andrew lunged ahead again, treading the stone path with quick, inaudible steps. They went past the church and between two rundown stalls, past bushes and through what looked like an apple tree orchard. The stone path surrendered into heath, like a stream into the sea. At the far end of the orchard there hung the sight of a scanty, slightly lopsided hut.
“The hermit’s hut”, Peter uttered under his breath.
“The hermit’s hut”, assented Andrew with a smile in his immaterial whisper.
They started off through the grasses that were reaching their shins. The moon was clambering over the hump of a mountain on their left, turning the thin frost into an eerie glazing over the orchard, the planks of the hut, the stones of the path. Soaked in the moon rays each tree each bush each building looked neatly drawn and neatly dark against the lucid air, shadows populating the set, containing their inner life. Whooshing through the heath they kept striding ahead, casting shadows cuffed to their ankles. No twig no spear of grass was stirring. The only movers were themselves and the moon. Peter stopped short to ascertain this, as if baffled at a world so perfectly laid out, so deeply at rest. Was that still-frozen site alive or was it merely an exquisite scenery? Was that a real place on the map, or rather something thought out, gone hard and palpable outside of them and wrapping them all round? Was he just wandering within a story? Were his limbs, coated in the same glittering moonlight glazing, his true flesh, the only thing moving by its own will in this place, or but the story of a Peter Schild?
“Welcome to my humble home”, Andrew whispered gently.
Peter contemplated the ascetic surroundings while standing on a timbered porch. Andrew had opened the door and was lighting what looked like a kerosene lamp with his nimble movements. Peter leaned against the door frame watching him while he was busy making light, his dark figure interposed, meagre furnishings and a litter of household paraphernalia emerging from the night, finally turning back to Peter, his face invisible against the lit background.
“Do come in, it’s dark and cold out there”, Peter heard him say.
It was in that instant that the bag over his shoulders and pressing his back thudded full into his awareness. He took a step over the threshold and rolled his body out of the straps, dropping the weight with great effort on the planks of the floor.
“I’ll light the fire and it’ll get warm in no time”, Andrew said hastily.
The fire, yes. Getting warm.
While he can just let himself drop on the nearest stool and catch his breath. Catch up. Take bearings.
The surroundings besieged him with an abundance of details, as if he was suddenly looking into an image with a magnifying glass and visualising the multitude of pixel dots. There were chair and table legs made apparently of chopped tree branches, seams between floor boards, cooking pots made of tin, a clay-built stove with a side surface for cooking, some books in the corners on the floor, a blue bucket, pencil stubs, prayer beads, flyers for the fortress, postcards, icons in faded colours on the walls or propped up round the place on a table or a hanging board, candles, matches, a shovel, rubber boots – and in between there was Andrew gliding to and fro moving things, fetching things, grabbing things and disposing of them again – too much. He closed his eyes to it. There will be a fire. There will be warmth. There will be a bed for him, if only hard planks with a coarse blanket. The rambling the roaming the loitering it was over at last, the hundreds of kilometres of driving handling Mona handling these people climbing to the fort strolling about coming down and driving here and trudging through the dark all the way up here hanging from the moon it seemed in this apple tree orchard, at last at last within four walls no more moving, at last coming to be still, coming to rest.
The fire was crackling merrily and spitting sparks up in the air like a pied circus comedian, the scent of burning wood tickling his nostrils in hypnotising waves, unlocking his sinuses and going to his head. He raised his head and made a point of taking his eyes off the gluing sight of the fire, gazing around as if looking for something. Andrew kept busying himself with pots and utensils while apparently scheming amid the monotonous cackling noise of his work.
“Is there any water here?” Peter broke the silence.
Andrew carried on undisturbed and replied casually,
“There are two buckets by the door. The one that is covered is water to drink, the other is for everything else. Get the tin mug hanging on the wall. If you want to drink, cups are on the shelf above.”
He grabbed the tin mug hanging on the wall, as instructed, and ducked it into the bucket that was covered with a lid, then put the mug brimming with icy water to his mouth and drank thirstily, while a faint voice was crying out in his head if you want to drink, cups are on the shelf above, if you want to drink, cups are on the shelf above, but it just didn’t matter which cup or mug he was using to do such a basic thing as quenching his thirst. There were dents in the rim of the mug that were tasting of rusty metal. Fleshy and slippery like fish, water was rolling over from the obscure depth of the mug into the roundness of his palate, washing away any tainted aftertaste and any conceivable concern about alternative users and foreign tongues.
Then, for some unaccountable reason, he dropped dead asleep.