Cephalia and Ludwig | Soren Gauger
We met at a Lower-Silesian train station on a chilly morning in mid-January. I was the only one on the platform apart from a man sleeping fitfully on a bench to my left, pigeons examining his hat and suitcase. The fog was dense, and no trains seemed to be arriving. Ludwig's finally announced itself two minutes before it became visible, a general clattering filled the air, punctuated by the icy hoot of the whistle, and when the engine came pouncing into view, lurching out of the milky morning air with all the fateful urgency of a comet, I held my breath as though I were seeing a train for the first time.
Ludwig was alone in disembarking. First his two leather satchels dropped onto the platform, then he backed out of the train, an indignity a man accepts only when he has lost all faith in his feet. He wore a knee-length trenchcoat, black half-boots and pince-nez. Even from a distance I could tell that his face had changed, had become paler and more gaunt, and his hair was now trimmed down practically to his skull, which turned out to be oddly misshapen. I started to feel some anxiety at this new Ludwig, this less comely and robust Ludwig standing before me. I ran up to meet him and his face melted into the bashful smile that I was so intimately familiar with. We embraced. As he withdrew I maintained the composure of my face, but I felt another powerful surge of anxiety. It was like holding the body of a little girl, and a frail one at that. You're looking well, Ludwig, I told him, and we both blushed.
I carried his bags as we walked down the platform, him silently nodding his gratitude. He began telling me of how, when he had been a younger man, he had had no difficulty at all in traveling by train, a train-ride, he said, had even been invigorating in his youth. Now everything was somehow intensified. The clacking of the train was louder and more monotonous, near the end of the journey he didn't think he would be able to tolerate it for another blessed moment. The compartments had a rotting smell to them, the coffee served wasn't fit to be drunk, and sharp pieces of metal jabbed through the seat cushions into his skin, which felt, he claimed, inexpressibly sensitive. Well, and of course his memory would give him no rest, he added as though it were an after-thought.
When we got to the stairs leading us out of the station, I had to tuck one of his satchels under my left arm and carry the other with my left hand, so that I was free to support him on the stairs with my right. I did not offer the support, nor did he comment on it or thank me.
I did not know the area of town near the train station and I asked Ludwig if perhaps he could recommend somewhere to take a cup of coffee. He scrunched up his forehead, looked at his watch and smiled thinly. Rudolf's, he said.
It took some doing to find Rudolf's, some turning down spindly alleys and squinting at street signs through the fog. I heard rain start to tap on the brim of my hat. When at last we found Rudolf's, we had to get right up to the front window to realise it was vacated. The gold letters forming Rudolf's flamboyant signature still had a dull shine to them, and the wooden sign with the two top-hatted men toasting each other's health with steaming cups of coffee, though creaking as it swung in the wind, was intact. The plate glass window, however, was broken in two places, and the furniture inside the café was upturned or smashed. We stood there for a long minute, not registering the rain. I don't know, said Ludwig, you choose somewhere.
I walked us to an area I was more familiar with. The morning was, as I have said, frosty, which was no more than a discomfort to myself, but I was earnestly worried for Ludwig's health. At the same time, I felt absurd nannying a 34-year-old man who was scarcely capable of walking without my assistance. There was no morning sun to speak of, the streetlamps still shone through the grey fog, small puddles were forming at the curbs. I managed to bring us to a café. We were the only clientele at the Café pod Wplywem, but it was warm enough and an old recording of the Humouresque was softly playing. When we had sat down and ordered coffee, I said now start from the very beginning, Ludwig, don't spare a single detail. I want to know everything.
Ludwig was looking down at the table, taking the filthy little pitcher of cream and pouring it, drop by drop, into his coffee, where it thickly diffused. He took a deep breath, gave a long sigh. And the words stormed forth, hordes of them, and as quickly as they began my mind flew off to my own torment: How long did I have to listen before I could ask him about Cephalia?
Cephalia, Ludwig's younger sister. Before I had ever met her, I recalled, I had heard people speak of her. I had been in a men's salon where card games are played, cigars smoked and whiskey drunk freely. I was losing my fourth consecutive game and suffering it badly. It had not helped that I'd had a great deal to drink, it was a hot afternoon made all the stuffier by sitting in a cramped room with men in their shirtsleeves sweating as they inhaled billows of smoke. I sweat a great deal when I drink in the afternoon, and so, in sum, there I was, aggravated, unable to think clearly, stinking of the smoke, the sweat, and the alcohol, and all at once one of the men at the table, a stocky idiot named Georg (all men named Georg are uncommonly stupid) with fiery red hair and suspenders, lifted one eyebrow at me and said: I hear your new composition is a flop. Around the table the stifled chuckles of the other card-players were audible. The cards in my hand, I reiterate, were wretched. Georg was in point of fact partly correct; in some circles the forward-thinkingness of my new composition, “Contorted Spectrum,” which manages to sustain a Lydian tonality while wryly commenting on Hindemith's ruhig bewegt , was badly understood and misinterpreted as shallow pretension. And yet in periodicals which address a more serious readership, “Contorted Spectrum” had won accolades for its uncompromising modernity. How to explain this to a crowd of men whose minds soar no further than discerning the various seasons in Vivaldi. Not that I've heard it myself, Georg was further saying, but Miss Cephalia Weiss was telling anyone who would care to listen that your new composition was a dismal flop, through and through . This was the last straw. I threw my cards in Georg's face, picked up my money and drink, and stormed out, indignant. Jerzy came stumbling after me, anxiously pulling on his cigar, clapping me on the shoulder. Listen to me, he said with a soft chuckle, I know this Cephalia. She's extremely beautiful, she has a haunting presence, but she's also more than a touch. . . (the phrase was completed with a few firm taps of the index finger to the side of his skull). Psychologically unfit, you know? I took her with me to a restaurant once, before I knew, and she ordered a double portion of tripe and only wanted to talk about her mother and Schopenhauer. What do you do with a woman like that?
What indeed. One and a half years later I found myself at a charity ball where a dozen or so artists had been invited as a sort of incentive for the normal folk. There were two composers in attendance: myself and Huntington, a British man with mutton chops who wrote light entertainments. Principally waltzes. The ball-goers thronged about Huntington, tittering at his light humour, buying him cocktails, tugging adoringly at his facial hair. I was alone, drinking gin too quickly, chewing on the ice cubes. The public will always fawn over the trite and pedantic, I remember thinking, and when I am dead they will glamourise my isolation, my total non-existence in the public sphere. An audience is an entity of singular perversity, I noted. They will promote me as a man too profoundly complex for his times. Note the perversity: It is not the audience in fact but the times that are at fault. My mind slipped down a cog. That is, unless I ease gently into oblivion. Gala social occasions, I have found, generally steer my thoughts towards oblivion. And just as the word oblivion was ringing in my inner ear, I saw a beautiful woman in an emerald-green dress cut a swath through the crowd, parting the seas of ball-goers, a woman whose natural beauty was so disarming that I literally gasped. Her eyes sparkling mischievously, she asked me: Are you a composer? No, I said, the gentleman you want is Mr. Huntington over there, and to punctuate my statement I popped an olive into my mouth and chewed it heartily. The woman smiled. The man over there, she said, composes sentimental nonsense for boys and girls. I was hoping to meet a composer of intellectual stature. I had stopped chewing the olive and my mouth was hanging open, limp. Well, then, if that is your, I stammered, yes, I'm a composer. We exchanged names, and when I discovered that this was Cephalia I became quite agitated again. After the premiere of my last composition, I told her, you publicly denounced it as a flop. Yes, she said with a thoughtful smile, it was like Schoenberg without the courage. Rage swelled up inside of me, a tremendous wave of rage which met an equally profound surge of amorous attraction head on, with the net result that both dissolved into a paralytic impotence. Have you been working on anything since, she asked, her tone of voice bored. I was, truth be known, in the middle of a period of total artistic inactivity, every composition I wrote seemed futile by the end of its first page, I was having what amounted to a crisis of faith and I feared that I had exhausted my store of talent at the very point when a serious composer ought to be beginning his “mature” work. If my talent were to snuff itself out before I reached my mature period, history would acknowledge me as a dabbler or a clever upstart. Assuming it acknowledged me at all. I was circling back around to oblivion again, it was time to say something, anything, so as to leave this conversation with dignity. I am just now starting, I said, what posterity will surely recognise as my. . . Indeed! She interrupted, I'm sorry to cut you off, but I must introduce my brother Ludwig. . . You'll both excuse me for a moment. And thus Ludwig stumbled into my life, adjusting his glasses and fidgeting in his woolen suit. Ludwig was a writer of unpalatably experimental fiction, and we found our respective struggles with forging a name for ourselves, with the public and their ignorant whims, to be not so dissimilar. I liked Ludwig, and from the very start, but I also saw him from the start as an avenue to his sister, who had just done violence to my heart. My friendship with Ludwig swiftly deepened, and I was sent an invitation to dine with his family. I would come to know Cephalia in this capacity, as a friend,
build up her trust and confidence in me. And then, one day, at just the moment when we were totally comfortable with each other, things would imperceptibly change. . . and in that instant she would know everything, not only that I loved her, but that I had loved her from the very first time I saw her eyes flicker, and the fact of my Biblical devotion would demolish any thoughts of resistance she might have had left. Thus I became a regular dinner guest, I ate their lemon-steamed trout and their raspberry sorbet, I filled their glasses of wine before coming to my own, I demurred from discussing my symphonic achievements in favour of the father's trials at his bank, the mother's amateur botanical attempts, Ludwig's latest formal experiments. I listened attentively, I laughed politely. I bided my time. Throughout my visits, Cephalia remained perfectly, infuriatingly silent, never less than polite, but silent. As though studying me.
This went on without any sort of change for twenty-two months. For twenty-two months: eat the fish, pour the wine, chuckle at the joke, repeat. And when I had lived through twenty-two months I decided it was time for my relationship with Cephalia to change. But then, for the first time, I fell victim to what are sometimes called the Tides of History. I stopped hearing from Ludwig without any warning, and when I went to call on him a week later his family house was boarded up. A neighbour informed me that they had left for political reasons. Politics, I cried, Ludwig has no interest in politics.
For the next five years and four months I heard only scattered rumours about the family, all unverifiable. Someone reported that they had seen Ludwig's mother at a cheese market in Potsdam. Another man swore he had seen the outline shape of Ludwig himself in a picture of a factory strike in an American newspaper (Minnesota, he thought). Two years later, the names of the whole family minus Cephalia were allegedly seen registered in a Russian encampment near Bialystok. The more rumours I compiled, the less I understood. I had all but abandoned the family until last week. Last week I was relaxing in my padded slippers and housecoat and nibbling on some buttered toast when the mail arrived. A small and yellowed envelope with Ludwig's name shakily spelled out in the sender's corner. I tore open one side and ripped out the small letter, seeing through the words to Ludwig himself, and then further on past Ludwig again, as though he were no more than an inevitable prism to Cephalia, who with no effort had jostled her way into my heart once more. Ludwig was requesting that we meet; I contacted him at once and urged him to come.
Pounding a fist on the table hard enough to make the coffee cups hop and the sugar cubes rattle like teeth, Ludwig said I don't know what to do, what I can do!
I took stock of the situation carefully: Ludwig, the café, the rain abating outside, the Humouresque replaced by a Threnody, my coffee cup empty, Ludwig, Ludwig's story. . .
The thing to do, I said grabbing him intimately by the arms just above the elbows, the thing you must do is write it all down, everything you have told me here. It is what you must do as a writer. Tears were falling from his cheeks, but he ignored them, spitefully I imagined, and they fell into his coffee with little plopping sounds. Of course, he said, you're absolutely right. I owe it to history. To oblivion. I released my grip on the area where Ludwig's biceps should have been, and sat back as though a serious thought had just occurred to me. Ludwig, I said with a voice strangely hollow, So where is the rest of your family now. Your mother, your father. I waited a tell-tale instant. Cephalia.
I returned home that day with my mind aflame and a train ticket in my coat pocket. Ludwig had been reluctant to tell me Cephalia's whereabouts, she had wanted it to be kept a secret from all those she once used to know. But I kept at him, at first with a jovial prodding, which was a prelude to some grave entreaties that gradually transfigured into savage hostility. Poor Ludwig, I think something must have annihilated his spirit of self-defence. He whimpered and scribbled down the name of a town near the Eastern border, a place called Sejny. The same name was printed on my train ticket. At home I felt possessed, pacing around the house half delirious, mumbling ejaculations of delight. My train departed the next morning. I'm not sure what I did until nightfall, but when it grew dark I sat at my desk and began pouring the anguish of my heart into a poem. I wrote several pages all at once, the passion all but tangible in my hands, in the pen and on the page, which by the time I had finished was damp from my own tears. I had never written like that before, so completely unblocked, never had there been such a direct conduit from my heart to the words on the page. For the first time in my life I did not blush or sneer at my own sentimentality, I was able to express myself with the sincerity of a child. The exertion proved too much for me, I read it once over having finished and then coaxed myself into bed.
I woke up to a hammering on the door, tearing me out of a vivid and terrifying dream that vanished from my memory as soon as I was awake, leaving me with only a dim sensation of foreboding. The hammering turned out to be my butler; I was going to miss my train unless I left immediately. I decided to forego breakfast and a shower, and having slept in my clothes there was no need to get dressed. I threw some mismatched clothing into a suitcase, as well as what I would need for shaving, and some musk, and ran out to the cab my butler had summoned.
As fate would have it, I did not miss that train. My compartment had three people not including myself: an elderly priest and a mother with her little girl. The latter two fell into an early morning nap as soon as they had settled into their seats. The train started moving, and with it my thoughts were roused from their inertia, began clacking along strange associative tracks, my memory gathering a rare fluidity. I began with thinking of Ludwig's agony during his train ride, and then began recalling the pair of us as young men, my rakish grin and unkempt hair, his clothing stodgy and smelling of mothballs. I saw the pair of us fiercely discussing a recital by a new talent from Finland, a boy who reminded me of my first piano teacher, a tall bony creature with stumbling movements who would catch all of your senses off guard with a sudden flourish of his hands across the keyboard, a feat which the contrast of his body rendered all the more remarkable. Before he would take me on as a student I remember him holding my hands in his in a way that struck me, even at that young age, as strangely intimate, making a careful study of my fingers. For years thereafter I would from time to time close myself up in my room and stare at my fingers myself, searching for traces of whatever my teacher had seen.
You have the hands of a pianist, said the priest.
I snapped out of it and found myself to be staring at my hands, just like I was six years old. I blushed at my regression. The priest chuckled to win my confidence. Forgive me, he said, but you see, there once was a time when strangers in a train compartment would speak to each other rather than pass the time in silence. And if you don't mind my saying so, you have something old-fashioned about you.
I was only inspecting my hands for dirt, I replied curtly.
Of course you were, of course you were, the priest went on undeterred. But as I was saying, at one time it seemed more natural for people to start up a conversation. . . not so many years ago, really. . . whereas now the natural thing to do is keep quiet. Why do you suppose this is? His eyes were twinkling.
I don't know, I said, Perhaps people have grown tired of saying and hearing the same pointless drivel.
Maybe you're not so old-fashioned after all, said the priest. I gave a laugh that sounded like a snort. Not that old-fashionedness is any guarantee of anything per se, he continued, but it does seem a defence against what I would call the pitfalls. . .
Please Father! I said, exasperated.
The twinkle abruptly flickered out of his eyes. I leaned my head against the window and pressed my eyelids shut.
When I awoke, the priest was gone, the gloom had brightened, I was nearing my destination.
Sejny was desolate. Damp, charred skeletons of buildings were scattered about in no apparent order. Dogs and children picked through piles of rubble. Wheels of ox-carts were stuck in the mud of the primitive road. And the mud was everywhere. The sleep on the train had left me feeling cold and nauseous. My clothing still smelled of the train compartment.
I asked a few people where a woman named Cephalia might be. They all pointed me in more or less the same direction.
I caught sight of her from a distance, clearing away rubble from the site of what once might have been a house. My heart beat furiously, but I would not say amorously. I saw Cephalia bent over like a shepherd's crook, her hair clumpy and tangled in knots, dressed in filthy rags. Her face wore a world-weary grimace, and she appeared to be favouring her left leg, giving her gait a monstrous aspect. I thought to myself: How ridiculous I have been. What could I expect this new Cephalia to have in common with me, I thought, remembering my smooth and manicured hands. What could I possibly have to say to this new and unprecedented Cephalia. It was a catastrophic finale to our courtship, I thought, all the more tragic in that I was the only witness to it. I ran to a nearby florist's and bought a bouquet of flowers. A young child was sitting on the curb outside, stuffing leaves into the gutter with a stick. See that woman over there, I said to the child, steering his gaze towards Cephalia, I want you to bring her these flowers and tell her that someone she knows has loved her with all of his heart. Can you remember that? The child nodded and dashed off, abandoning his stick. I went to catch my train.
I arrived home emotionally and physically spent. My butler hadn't expected me home for at least another day (I hadn't expected such a quick and decisive conclusion to my journey), and so I was alone in the house. I poured myself a healthy glass of gin. All at once I was reminded of the poem I had written, and realised that I couldn't recall a bit of the text itself, only the passion in which it was conceived. I went to the desk and read it, and found myself appalled at nearly every line. What I had recalled as a misty romantic epic was little more than degrading smut squeezed into hastily cobbled-together rhyme schemes, crude parodies of romance ornamented with body parts, saliva, mucus, skin, I had given voice to the most complex and pent-up longings I had ever known, a decade of tribulation and patience, and instead of a magnum opus it was revolting pornography, the sort of thing I avoided looking at on bathroom walls. I crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the fireplace, and I went upstairs to sleep.