It was the afternoon of the big summer holiday. Hot dog stands and other street booths were already in place in front of the castle, and the locals had been swarming around them since the morning, whereas foreigners were gathering in droves to board lamp-lit boat excursions so that would put paid for certain to any ideas of peace on the riverbank tonight. Squads of cars were starting to make their way towards the city centre—past the weir, past the side turnings glinting on the water, until all of a sudden the main square opened up with lanes of traffic branching this way and that, the bridge, the river, the sky, the white city hall. There they came to a standstill, with tourists swarming out to teem on the edge of the water and paddle in it until the dusk of a summer evening made its appearance on the lower margin of the sky and the crowds melted away from the riverbank.
In the end just a single figure was still paddling around in the gleaming water. It was a handsome man, elegant as a Venetian amoroso: a haughty profile, sternly gazing fiery eyes, a dark green silk cravat round his neck—those were what were caressed by fading light. Around him the fabulous landscape: sky, water, clouds, mundane visual delights, but maybe the darkened look did not so much as notice those. A sound of squeaking wheels broke into his solitude: a delayed tourist slipped out of his car and, camera in hand, made a beeline for him. He in turn almost immediately started to row and in no time was drifting in midstream.
There he looked around as if he were waiting for something—or somebody. And promptly he did indeed spot the someone for whom he had been waiting: his wife, approaching from the island.
The Girl, the name he himself called his wife in his own mind for her girlish frame, was the sole person from whom he had been able to learn that another kind of delight also exists than parading about on the river showing off a green silk cravat and handsome profile to admiring females. At first glance he was instantly struck by the beauty radiating towards him from her modest exterior, the all but meek slimness, litheness and frailty, yet all that nevertheless passionately imbued by a mute fervour. A secret to be unlocked. The wind of drama.
In May, when the city had experienced the first hot spell and the riverbank became full of pairs of lovers clinging to other, they too had clung together and thereafter never let one another go. It was a miraculous love—inescapable, but then they did not seek to escape from it. They looked for one another every day on the riverbank, and as evening drew in they sat on the rickety jetty, overgrown with wild weeds, of a burned-out cinema and just sat there until they were overtaken by inky darkness and they would let the May night ripple over them. On that stub of jetty under the wild overgrowth of weeds, where the smell of the river was even more pungent, they were struck by something from the very first encounter.
In his burgeoning love for the Girl the man also experienced another kind of delight during that unrepeatable spring. He sat snuggling up to the one he loved; they stayed silent, they were together, and he also somehow specially exulted inside: there on the night-time jetty of the burnt-down cinema, he fell in love with life itself; a delight in sheer existence which could not be tied to anything in particular accumulated and grew in him.
He caught up with his wife on the evening of that lantern-lit procession by the free port. They had always been a handsome couple, but now they were wonderful in the way they strained face-to-face in their big scene on the local theatre stage: to the left gardens running down to the water’s edge, inquisitive eyes in their bushes spying on every movement made by the others, while higher up the main square as night overtook it being lit up by the street lamps as they came on, with lanes of traffic branching this way and that, the bridge, the water, the sky and the white city hall.
The man turned back. Oh no! Not home, the Girl’s heart drummed. With the man’s head twisting back, the fiery eyes checked whether his wife was dutifully following, drawing her own skiff to his. By now they were rowing under the willows. Oh, for goodness’ sake! Where to now? the Girl’s body tugged mightily. To the inlet, the water whispered; do you remember? He panted, how could he forget the way that in May’s torridity everything had glowed and sparkled, big blossoms had been resplendent at the water’s edge; and under the willows then too the V-shapes of the two skiffs, the man’s on whose green cravat water glistened, and brown, glittering on on hers following. Where to now? her heart,likewise about to leap out, was asking—to the Sun? No, to the inlet, the very next line of the legend has it, and the sunlight did a St Vitus’s dance on the wavelets curling behind her, so we’re going to the Sun after all, pounded in the Girl’s chest, but then they stopped and finally there was still. The man bided his time before looking up, slowly, dead-tired, his throat throbbing like mad with excitement. How lovely, the man’s innards heaved contentedly, how lovely, lovely while his eyes scanned the bank, knowing that the image was being fixed for eternity right then and there: the twilight was dancing on the water, the belly of the waves was aflame, around the stillness of the start of the spring season, with hut owners still in town, the animal world as yet slumbering, and that sole love itself being the one thing on its feet.
She was still tender in years, oh Lord! for such a task; too thin, too young, so very frail. Her tiny frame had somehow withstood all five of them pressing on her as if spheres of white-hot iron grown to gigantic proportions were leaving her insides—quite unbearable. Every evening the man looked anxiously at them, particularly his wife as she slept, forgetting the daytime’s events, the real world, floating almost weightless on the doughty waters of dreams. He was in love with her; she captivated him just as she had done at the beginning, the way her beauty radiates in invisible beams from her gorgeous tiny body, his love was infinite and much stronger than anything that he felt towards those five. Then, on that first evening, the Girl had recovered a little, got up, and, without a glance back at either the man or the five, she stood out on the jetty, ran her eyes around the segment of the view that could be seen from there: the reed bed, the gentle ripples, the bell jar of the sky before sculling out onto the river. The man, tenderly framing with his glance a picture of the five, heavy-heartedly went on his way.
From then on they had rowed out every evening to No-Man’s Island, enjoying it as the cool of summer nights stole out of the watery land. They didn’t snuggle up to each other, just sat in the weeds before returning home to the five. The next day they could scarcely wait for night to fall so as to be able to retreat to their island.
Their daily timetable still preserved its normality: the man did what he had to do, the Girl was preoccupied with those five. But she became a bit more ill every day, and the man would be beset by anxieties as he hurried home to her. As soon as he got back the burning body would instantly turn away from those five, but also from him, only those feverish eyes lighted on his gaze.
The one thing the Girl would tolerate was for him to go rowing behind her at night.
On the evening of the big holiday the man ventured to snuggle up to his wife on the bank of the inlet, but she thumped so hard on his chest that he flinched. Her slight body carried further by her own strong momentum panted in the damp greenery; there was no way of taking a single step nearer her. The Man bided his time, just in case the Girl looked up at him, but she did not seek his gaze and before long she had set off back. The man followed her as far as the exit from the inlet and watched the V of the skiff cutting across the river as it flowed in the moonlight. He only pulled out himself when an unbroken silvery reflection had re-established itself on the water. He spotted the first watercraft which was bedizened with lanterns as he was floating in the metallic light: the titivated raft-like contraption was girt with orange-coloured discs that it was tending in the water like so many tiny moons; on this was a rowdy gang, their song carried far and wide by the water. He speeded his strokes lest he were caught in the middle of a whole string of them, and all of a sudden the delight in sheer existence, barely tasted but now familiar forever, was shattered to the core by the orange lights and surging saccharine melody, and now for the first time his heart also began to pound, if only he would not find the five back home next to that tiny body radiating its beams of beauty.
Near the jetty an unfamiliar series of sounds stood out from the din of human voices: rumble-splash, silence. Then again rumble-splash, silence. By the third time he knew what he was hearing. With an as yet inchoate giant terror promptly succeeded by a surge of jubilation he spread his wings and flew up to a slender, brownish-grey little figure busying itself on the jetty so that they might together roll and plop into the water the fourth and fifth hatched egg.
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson