The Shingle Maker and Other Tales
A tale of King Lear set in the rural poverty of late nineteenth century Silesia.
It is seven years since Franz Tone awoke to find his wife had died. Now dependent on his wife’s miserly niece and her husband, whom he bequeathed his farm to, he is losing the will to live. Can he find love and fulfillment again?
When I go to heaven, it’ll probably be so: you always go past the lights. But everything will change that now looks just like a glowworm, it will”, the old man thought to himself while he climbed the Eschberg through the evening darkness to his home.
The light strip of the path wound in sharp turns through the grey shadowy expanses of the meadows on both sides. Flat stones, looking like bread in the uncertain light, were laid strewn here and there in the path.
Franz sought them with his feet, but it was not at all boggy.
Then he paused and counted the lights which were to be seen on the righthand side of the path at almost equal distances right up to near the peak of the mountain. The little houses from which they glowed were like formless haystacks.
“One, two, three … eight; the stars start behind them. Who knows if that light is the light of men or a star? — Who knows? — —
Wasn’t at all easy and good for me, old left behind, I’m walking on the row of lights now, raising my legs more and more, the higher I get — nevertheless, if I feel a void under me, I’ll just make a long stride. And as I do it, I’ll avert my eyes. I have to push open somewhere. At one time, I’d give a jolt like a wagon that was stopping before an inn — mph! — then I’d go! — — — I’d look at the star — and the other stars twinkling around them, cosy like neighbours, the sparkling ones, the yellow ones, the red ones, and numbering to eternity. Hey! can I call for good luck a little lightman, you, where my one, my wife, probably lives: Katharina Umlauf, from Sauerborne, if you only know how to speak proper in heaven.
Ha, you see, old Tone, there, you were hard to please and a call comes from a distant twinkling light — mph! — cock the ears! — You recognise it from before: like the blue tit whistles, nice and long like an old maid — it knows the way straight to me. I know who is calling and making long legs in the blue near you, wife — a step, one all alone, and it would happen. Why, in all the world, why don’t I make it then? Waiting does nothing for me!”
With an amorphous murmur, he conversed with his longing dream-thoughts. They came driving over him. He was climbing with powerful strides. He was breaking out in sweat. His stick was swinging heavily. His eyes gazed blankly, but only into that distance which was attached to the expanses of his inner being.
People walked past him. He did not see them.
“Something has come over Franz Tone”, they said, watching after him and thinking, ‘Who’s seen the like?’
But the retiree did not notice anything and ran as though today he really wanted to enter the next world. The climb was already becoming leisurely. The two fields began to broaden into flats on the other side of which the mountain, with its last strength, was pushing up its peak from the shelter of the forest into the blue.
The humid night was talking to him, murmuring with the tree tops of the forest, water was burbling sleepily in the forest, and a lonely silhouetted spruce was moving its hanging branches in dream uniformly and silently over the peaked gable of a small house below it.
It was the last human dwelling on the mountain and cowered like a black cat, nestled by the trunk of the tree. Lurking, the little house looked with the erratic light of its two window-eyes at the solitary wayfarer who was heading for it.
Franz Tone still believed he was climbing, or did he really want to take “the last step” now? Enough, he hastened raptly towards it with exceptionally high swings of his legs.
He neither heard the creaking of the door of the lonely house under the spruce nor did he see the prying woman stepping onto the path.
Ever murmuring, he ran straight into her.