I write these words and tenderly breathe on the hesitantly drying ink with my lids stretched tight over my unworthy eyes unfit to witness this most holy of all moments. I let my hands sink, closing this book like the door of a temple, trapping the reluctant air pressed between these vigilant pages and let this go.
sprechen, dass es wehtut
Once upon a time there was a witch who was sad because no one really liked her. It wasn’t as if she’d done anything wrong. She didn’t poison wells or curse the crops. She didn’t make women miscarry or give birth to monsters with more than the two usual eyes or with teeth that bite and claws that scratch. She didn’t even make people fall in love with those they did not want to fall in love with. They did the job themselves more than well enough, no need for witchcraft there. She wasn’t even responsible for calves being born with two heads – and that’s more than the local village doctor could claim for himself. No, she did not do any of these things. But still.
It was just because she was a witch, that was enough in itself. Once you heard about someone with a wart on their nose turn someone into a toad, suddenly everyone with a wart on their nose is supposed to be running around turning all sorts of people maliciously into all kinds of animals. And she didn’t even have a single wart on her nose – although sometimes she’d actually like to be able to turn one or two of her neighbours into toads, or frogs, or worms.
So, what does a witch really do? What makes a witch a witch so to say? She couldn’t brew potions, she’d love to have a magic broom – cleaning her house would be a lot more convenient. While her cat admittedly was indeed black, it was too lazy to catch even the slowest of mice. There wasn’t the slightest chance of it bringing bad luck to anyone. Being a witch was just that: being a witch was what being a witch was about. No explanation needed. You either were one or you were not.
Oh, wait. Witches actually did do or rather were a thing. Invariably. They were handy. Did your milk turn sour? Blame it on a witch. Got out of bed with the wrong foot – as if there actually was something like a wrong foot – first? Surely it’s the witch’s fault. It’s rather nice, having someone who always turns into the thing you need them to be. A witch is basically everything and nothing at the same time. You just need to want a witch to be something. You don’t even need to believe in it. You just have to want. Want a witch to be ugly and jealous of the pretty maidens in your village to explain young men falling in love with her? Easily done. Need her to make deals with the devil – lots of them – when she’s just smart and spends most of her time studying? Just say it. It is even rumoured that in one of the neighbouring realms a king once declared a witch to be a duck when need arose for such a course of action. Nothing’s impossible, you name it.
One day, as things usually go, she was invited to a party. Not because anyone really wanted to have her but because it was expected. It was a birthday party of sorts, one of those where you bring tons of presents after the future king or queen pops out of the present queen – or king. There were fairy godmothers, of course, bestowing numerous gifts upon the new-born: the gift of being pretty – or handsome, we don’t want to be biased, do we? Although in this case it actually was ‘pretty’ –, the gift of being clever, courageous, generous, of being pure at heart, several magical items such as seven-league boots, magic swords, crowns, wands and all that other junk that ends up in some forgotten part of the palace because there simply is too much of it. Nice lady that she was, the witch brought a gorgeous birthday cake with layers upon layers of cream and fruit growing in her corner of the forest. Although everyone was loathe to admit, they loved the cake, Fairy Godmother Number Twelve devoured nearly half of the entire thing herself.
And now that every gift and good wish had been heaved upon the princess, everyone was looking at the witch rather expectantly. Surely she had prepared a special surprise, such as a powerful curse that would put them all to sleep? Or how she’d secretly put some potion into the wine to guarantee a slow and painful death to anyone but the princess who’d be spared to be saved by some fancy – but slightly dim-witted – prince when she’d grown up living among dwarves or bears or something like that? No? Really? Was she absolutely sure? She was the witch, right? They peered inquiringly at her name tag, which indeed did say ‘Witche’. When the witch finally was able to assure them that she definitely had not come to the party with an evil plan of any sort, they first grew restless but then turned outright abusive.
They started calling her names, asked her whether she couldn’t at least once do what was expected of her. Whether she couldn’t do her bloody job, for God’s sake. That’s how things are supposed to be, how could she dare to oppose the expectations of the majority? Who did she think she was? Good Fairy Godmother Number Seven, soon followed by all the others, at some point even gave her a good shove, the bitch should know her place after all. And that’s when it happened. She didn’t even want it to happen, stoically bearing the organised bullying. The witch didn’t say one bad word, no curse passed her lips or escaped her trembling fingers. She really tried to hold it back but it just happened because all the others wanted it to happen, they expected it to happen.
First of all, the fairy godmothers one after another started losing their voices so that at least the verbal barrage ceased pretty quickly. Then their arms and legs became immeasurably heavy and unwieldy, their punches and kicks slowly withering away until they stopped altogether. Then, one by one, they started dying. Just like that. One went thanks to a burst artery, another suffered a fatal stroke, a third simply dropped dead without much ado. When the good godmothers had bit the dust, the other guests began leaving the party in a similar manner. Not a single one was spared. No, absolutely no one. After the palace had been depopulated, the calamity spread to the neighbouring villages, the surrounding shires as well as all of the other kingdoms. One after another, until there was not a single human being left in the entire world. Only the witch. Who was all alone now. Who wouldn’t have wanted anything like this to happen to anyone, not even her worst enemies of which she didn’t have exactly few, although she had not earned even one of them. Just because they expected her to. Because they wanted her to. Life wasn’t fair.
“Where are we going, Dad?”
George looked back, twisting his neck over his shoulder, hands clenched around the steering wheel, the safety belt cutting into the soft skin beneath his skin.
“We’re . . . going away. For a while, Johnny. Isn’t that right, Patty?”
“George, would you please keep an eye on the road ahead? Yes, that’s right, sweetie, maybe we’ll even be staying with Grandma for some time. Wouldn’t that be lovely, John? Johnny?”
Johnny, in response faced his parents on the front seat, scraping his gaze from the rear window, breaking into a sunny smile. “Yeah, that’d be grand! I miss Grandma a lot since we went to live at the new place.”
“Almost wish we never did”, George muttered from behind the sweaty wheel, shooting Patty a sideway glance that got stuck somewhere in the air between them, where it hovered unfinished.
“Not as if it would make any difference”, came the almost inaudible answer, impaling the glance frozen in mid-air, leaving it to wither.
“Did you say something, Mommy?”, Johnny tweeted while he grasped for the drying flakes reflecting the setting sun that brought a gleam into his eye.
“No, sweetie, I was just wondering what kind of present we could get Grandma. Would you like to help me think of something?”
“Then try to think of something lovely for awhile and tell me then, okay?”
“I can’t remember when I saw a sky like this, Pat”, George interjected, as the car sped along the coast following the sun in its retreat, nestled among crisp and storm-tossed clouds baring their sharp edges, looking as if someone had cut them out with a huge pair of scissors layer after layer of gold and charcoal grey, gold and grey. Patricia shuddered involuntarily, gazing out into the enormous canvas stretched before them.
“Where is everyone, George? You’d expect that we weren’t the only ones who had the idea of jumping into their car and just drive. There’s no one here, the roads are empty. What was it? Like, two hours ago I saw one car, one car somewhere in the distance but apart from that, nothing.”
The early evening, under different circumstances, would surely have been beautiful. Trees swaying lazily in the breeze, the shy smell of the sea drifting coyly around the car and the magnificent silence enveloping the travelling vessel as far as the war could hear. There was no one around far and wide, their only companion the stretch of road ahead of them, gleaming.
“It’s eerie . . .”, George’s murmur struggled against the hum inside of the car like a nervous bird against the bars of its glass and metal cage before finally finding a slightly opened window and slipping out of the crack into freedom.
In the backseat Johnny could no longer resist and carefully, unless his parents noticed, turned his head so that he could look through the rear window behind his back. They had told him not to look, not forcefully but just like you would tell your kid not to play ball close to your neighbours’ windows. The tone of voice had been nearly the same so Johnny assumed it was a-okay as long as he didn’t do it too obviously. He didn’t understand why but just couldn’t help it, he had to. He just had to. It gave him that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when the beam of the magnifying glass is just about to get out of control and burn half of your parents’ backyard down.
No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Things just stopped making sense back there. But he wasn’t particularly worried about that, he was sure it simply had to do with the fact that he was nine years old. He wasn’t dumb or anything, but one couldn’t always understand everything, right? Maybe he’d get it when he was old. Like 16 or something. So Johnny stared.
* * *
They couldn’t believe it and this is not supposed to be a manner of speaking. After driving on and on through the same landscape for God only knows how long (and yes, they still used that expression although having been convinced atheists for quite some time now, particularly after the incident involving Aunt Bertha), there was a person standing next to the road one or two miles ahead.
“But Tricia –“
“No, we don’t pick up hitchhikers. Especially not when John’s with us and especially not now.”
“Come on, we should at least give him a lift until we get to the next town. Especially now. I mean, what’s he to do? Out here. You know how long we’ve been driving through”, he indicated the landscape, “this.”
“Yes, this, that’s why we shou–“
Bringing the car to a halt, George addressed the hitchhiker with a theatrically pained smile: “Going somewhere particular, pal?”
The hitchhiker, looking a lot less menacing than both of them could have imagined, trotted over to George’s open window.
“Oh, thank heaven. First, I didn’t even want to believe that your car was real. Thought I was just imagining things. Anywhere but here would be fine, I guess.”
“Rear door’s open, just hop in. By the way, I’m George. That’s Patricia and your fellow passenger’s Johnny. Say hi, Johnny.”
Staring at the window, Johnny hadn’t even noticed that the car had come to a standstill. “Hello, Mr. –“
“Jenkins. Dave Jenkins. Just call me Dave, Johnny”, he said friendly, shaking everyone’s hands once he had gotten in. Even Patricia had calmed down somewhat and was content shooting George accusing glances every few minutes.
The interior of the car had become a reflection of the world outside again, all quiet and tranquil. George’s eyes wandered contently across the scenery. The road could be seen from far off, so possible collisions with other vehicles were pretty unlikely. He could relax. He even started enjoying the constant lack of change in front of them. Man, how long ago was it that he could truly wind down without thinking too much about the job, about how to be a good parent and a good husband and – now his glance got stuck on a tiny mote of dust dancing uneventfully in a slanting ray of the setting sun, colouring it a rich amber, preserving it for the generations to come so that a long time from now someone could find it in this exact same spot and people would wonder whether dust motes were different ‘back then’ and put them into museums and do radio carbon dating and all that sort of stuff. George chuckled. Maybe this spontaneous trip wasn’t that bad after all? They could all take a break, just keep on driving and driving and driving and driving and driving and driving and driving and driving along that majestically setting sun pouring that crisp sort of light over them and –
“Mr Jenkins? I mean, Dave. What do you think that is? Behind us.”
“Why, Johnny, I think it’s the end of the world.”
One of the scientists clumsily let slip the precious dust mote, setting it on its course straight towards the floor where thousands of years shattered and burst uneventfully into tiny pieces that took off and once again started drifting through the air. George was wide awake.
“No, no, no, no. I think you got it wrong, buddy. How can it be the end of the world if we’re still here? The end of the world just happens – would just happen. It’s not like”, here George waved about with one of his hands while Patricia started scolding him again – why for God’s sake couldn’t he just keep his hands on the wheel? – “it’s local. If you know what I mean.”
“You’ve got a point there, George, but who says that ‘local’ is a category that still applies at the end of the world?”
“Daddy, I think Dave’s right. Somehow. Things just stop . . . working. I’ve been looking out of the window for some time now and –”
“– things just start unravelling behind us. If there still is a ‘behind us’. I’ve been standing at the side of that road for some time and there wasn’t much to do think about apart from that. It’s –”
“I told you we shouldn’t have picked him up, George! And you, mister, who do you think you are, spouting that rubbish to my son?”
“I don’t blame you, this is an absolutely normal reaction. Denial, I mean.”
“What, you’re a bloody psychologist all of a sudden?”
“Yes, in fact I am. I just don’t like going around bragging with it, it’s just a job like any other.”
“Patty, come on, there’s no need for that –”
“Oh, yes, there is, now throw him out.”
“Wait, we can’t just –”
“Yes, we can. Do it.”
“It’s okay, George, I’ll get out, I don’t want to impose myself.”
“But, Dave, I can’t simply –”
“Nah, I’ll be fine. Not that it will change anything, mind you.”
Pulling over, George contorted his face into an apologetic smile hiding between his cheeks rapidly turning red. “I’m sorry, Dave, really.”
“No need for apologies, George, we’re good. Bye Patricia. Bye Johnny.” And Dave Jenkins got smaller and smaller as Johnny watched him through the rear window until there was nothing left of him and he dissolved as a wisp of smoke might do.
* * *
“Tricia, that was heartless. And he was right. Probably”, he added meekly. “You don’t have to be a genius to see something’s . . . off here.”
“I shouldn’t have let you drive, George. I wouldn’t have picked up that nut.”
“Why are you calling Dave a nut, Mommy?”
“Because he is one, John, that’s why. End of the world my a–”
“Alright, come on, Patty. Do you maybe want to drive for a bit? We can also take a short break before we switch seats. It’s not as if a five-minute break would kill us, ha ha.”
“I definitely must be mad to be listening to you again but maybe a short break is just what we need. But no more than five minutes.”
Searching the landscape for a proper spot to stop – which was a pretty unnecessary procedure, everything looked the same – and having found one that pleased him for no particular reason, George pulled over once more, gently slowing down on the pebbles strewn at roadside. Everyone got out of the car, the doors banged shut. Johnny dug the tips of his shoes into the ground, making the gravel scrunch pleasantly beneath his feet. “Stay close, Johnny, don’t go running off, alright?”
“Okay, Dad”, Johnny replied trotting over to the strip of lush grass running along the road, each blade of grass casting a deep shadow. Sitting down with his knees tucked up, he wrapped his arms around his legs, resting his chin on top, listening to the wind combing through the trees with his eyes shut.
After having paced his own mind for some quiet minutes, George shuffled over to Johnny, hands in his pockets. He placed his hand on his head, ruffling his hair yielding as feathers. “You okay, Johnny?”
Johnny looked up. “Mhhh. It sad, Dad.”
“What is, champ?”
“Leaving Dave is. And it’s not only Dave. It’s – I don’t know. I don’t know why but I think the sun is feeling sad right now going down into the sea and so is the wind and the road.”
“Hmm. I understand, I did like Dave, too, but you have to try to understand your mother’s point of view. She’s only afraid that something might happen to us, however unlikely that would have been.”
“I don’t think anything can happen to us right now, nothing that matters, somehow. Do you know what I mean, Dad?”
“I think I do, John, I think I do.”
* * *
All the while Patricia had been pacing back and forth in front of the car and every time she turned her back to where they had come from ignoring the tingling sensation at the nape of her neck. Jesus, how could anyone get the idiotic idea that they were running away from the end of the world? Like George had said, it wasn’t something ‘local’ happening in one place. If the world would go, it would go with a bang, someone would finally launch nuclear missiles, asteroids would hit the earth or some huge volcano would finally erupt, sounding the bell for earth’s slow demise in the ensuing winter. Admittedly, in the last case, the world wouldn’t end right now but gradually. However, everyone would remember the eruption as the point where things started going downhill. The world wouldn’t just end without anyone noticing. It wouldn’t end with a whisper so quiet no one would hear. And they were alive, weren’t they? And they had even met another human being, hadn’t they? That’s not how the end of all things looked like.
Going through these deliberations Tricia finally managed to calm herself so much that she could face talking to her son and her big oaf of a husband. “You ready, boys? Let’s get going, enough sitting around.”
Patricia was sitting in the driver’s seat, happy to be finally in control of the situation, George was dozing peacefully next to her and John kept gazing out through the window. Whenever she caught him looking back, watching him through the rear mirror, she would try to engage him in a conversation to keep him from developing more of these silly thoughts that idiot Jenkins had put into his head.
“What’re you looking at sweetie?”
“Nu-nothing, Mom, I mean I was wa-watching the clouds and, and tried to find out what shapes they come in here.”
“Oh, really? What did you find out?”
“That one . . . over . . . there”, he pointed with his finger, “that one looks like a huge mountain, a bit like Mount Everest.”
“Wow, how do you know what Mount Everest looks like?”
To be honest, Johnny didn’t really know what Mount Everest looked like, he just thought it would be a smart thing to say after having picked up the name from a documentary on TV. “TV, Mom, it’s not always dumb, sometimes there are some pretty neat things on. And that one over there looks like a hare running away from a fox and both of them already look pretty tired from having to run and run and run and run all the time and I think that even the fox is running from something else and somewhere in that chain maybe something is running away from a car, in which three people are seated who in turn are running away, driving away from something bigger still, maybe something like the end of th-“
“John, stop –”
George awoke with a jerk, sleepy eyes still glued together by dreams quickly evaporating. “Pat, what’s wrong?”
“It’s that nonsense Jenkins told John, again –“
Following his index finger Patricia and George saw a grey dot in the distance quickly growing taller, stretching upwards until the shape settled on the one of Dave Jenkins standing at the side of the road looking tired and resigned.
“No, George, not this time”, Patricia managed to squeeze out, awkwardly navigating the words along her tongue, pushing them out between her teeth, past their blunted edges and ridges, actually for the first time on this trip at a loss for what to say. She put her foot down heavily on the gas pedal, blazing past Dave Jenkins making his coat flutter wildly in the wind. Dave Jenkins did not actually look very surprised.
“But we left him behind. Way back. We put several kilometres behind us since we last saw him. He could not have been where he just was. That’s just . . . not . . . possible. How?”
“Oh, would you stop, George? We left him a second time, so what?”
“Dave said it wouldn’t change anything.” Both George and Patricia turned in their seats simultaneously.
“What did you say?”
“Come on, Johnny, it’s alright, Mom’s not mad at you, she’s just asking a question.”
Johnny didn’t look particularly assured by his father’s interjection. “He said it wouldn’t make a difference whether we left him or not. Don’t you remember?”
“Well, he might have. I was just too embarrassed to listen to him properly”, George muttered under his breath, careful not to look his wife in the eye.
“Whatever he did or did not say doesn’t matter anymore. We won’t go back for him either way.”
“I think we won’t have to, Tricia. Look.” And indeed, once again Dave Jenkins could be seen standing reliably next to the asphalt as he had done the last two times. Again, Patricia breezed past him without so much as a stray glance. Just like she did the next time, the one after that and the one after that one and the various times after these.
“Patricia, dear, I think we should really stop next time, this is getting rather impolite. I’m sure he doesn’t mean any harm, trust me, I’m good with people. He seems like a nice guy.”
“Yeah, you might be good with people, George . . .”
“Come on, are you saying he’s the devil or something? You’re the one who isn’t believing in any of . . . this”, he sighed, flourishing his hands but he noticed too late that he should’ve kept the last remark to himself.
“Okay, George, have it your way”, his wife snapped, kicking the breaks hard and making the car stop, as if by magic, right in front of Dave Jenkins. “Get in.” Dave got into the car, fastened his seat belt, awaiting his turn to speak. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Good, Mr Jenkins, now I want you to tell us everything you know about this place or condition or whatever it is.”
“Well, I don’t actually know anything about this entire situation, I don’t think that’s even possible in the narrow sense of the word but I’ve had a lot of time to think. Although that’s not really the proper term either as, in my humble opinion, there’s no such thing as time anymore – if there even was in the first place. So I can only tell you about the things I observed and experienced myself here, which come with absolutely no guarantee.”
“Good enough for me. Pat, what about you?”
“I don’t seem to have much of a choice here”, she sighed, finally somewhat more at rest.”
“Patricia, may I ask Johnny a question?”
“All right, go on then.”
“Johnny, I’m sure you have been looking through that rear window a lot, haven’t you? And I won’t be telling you off now, don’t worry, your looking could come in handy now. What do you think that is or what is happening back there?”
“I don’t really know, Dave”, Johnny started shyly, “and I’m not all grown up and clever and all that but I think that this”, he pointed backwards, “is strange and I mean really strange, Dave. Things just stop working there. They stop making sense. It’s really hard to think about that.”
“Exactly, Johnny, that’s what I’ve been thinking as well. Things stop making sense. And when that happens all man-made ideas like space or time, ‘here’ and ‘there’ disintegrate. Now, this may sound more troubling than it actually is or rather may be, I mean, we’re all here, right?”
“And what happens when that thing behind us catches up with us? It looks different from the stuff here, where we are. There are trees, the road, our car and so on. That looks way different.”
“In all honesty, I have absolutely no idea.”
“There are a lot of possibilities. That our environment over here works, may be due to the fact that we are here and that we are making things around us make sense because we’re used to do that. Maybe we could think about it as a sort of meaning bubble, a very uneven and pretty dodgy bubble. In that case, as long as we keep on doing that, the thing in the back won’t get to us. Theoretically. But the longer we move through this landscape the more we could unlearn, so to say, to make sense of things because we’re yet to meet someone apart from us and small groups tend to get . . . itchy sometimes.”
“Okay, that sounds a lot less reassuring than what you said before.”
“I didn’t mean to be reassuring.”
“I’m just trying to figure out how things work here. If some of that sounds reassuring and some of it doesn’t, that’s okay. But, you know, everything’s got its upside and downside. So, theoretically –”
“I think, I’m developing a positive dislike for that particular word.”
“Theoretically that means that things like ‘life’ or ‘death’ could lose their meaning, as well.”
“You mean that we need not necessarily die? That would make as immortal.”
“That’s the upside.”
“Or that we’re already dead.”
“That’s the downside. Or even that we’re neither –“
“Because the End of the World is the loss of meaning.”
“Because the Loss of Meaning is the end of the world. I think, I’m starting to figure this out. Somehow.”
“You mean Woe’s Home?”
“Yeah, I think that’s it.”
“Who’s actually doing the talking right now?”
“I don’t, no.”
Once upon a time, on a sunny eveningafternoon a happy family was on a trip to visit their grandma. How can she be the grandma of all of them? Who cares. The clouds were pretty, the sun was blazing down its way into its watery grave at the bottom of the ocean, cause that’s where the sun goes when it sets if you’re near the sea, children. If you watch closely, you can see it struggle beneath the surface giving off sparkly and glowy bubblebubbles. And when the bubbles rise to the surface and BURST you can hear it sigh its last breath. It has to go through this procedure every single day. Just for you. So show a bit more gratitude, for fuck’s sake.
On their way to Grandma they met the Wolf at the side of the road, who was called Dave, a not particularly wolfy name, to be honest. Dave was a psychiatrist, though at the same time, he was not. That was just a lie he was in the habit of telling to get into the ladies’ panties. On the other hand, which psychiatrist doesn’t? So maybe each and every psychiatrist is a wolf or maybe even each wolf is a psychiatrist – which does make a lot more sense to me, I have to say.
The family’s mother, the secret heroin of our story, recognised the wolf for what he really was, namely a psychiatrist and grabbing the wheel behind which her husband sat ran him over. They put him into their trunk and having finally arrived at their grandma’s gutted him to fill his belly with panties because that’s what he would have wanted.
“But lo! You have made a mistake, Patty, dear”, screamed Grandma. “That’s no psychiatrist, that is, was, a wolf, a proper Wolf, dear. I know, for he often lay in my bed lying!”
“So what do we do now?”
“We drive back”, said Johnny cunningly, “backwards like in a movie and do everything backwards we did forwards and he’ll be a-okay, definitely.”
So that is what they did. They ungutted the Wolf, put the panties back into Grandma’s drawers and drove back the entire way in rear, putting the wolf back onto the road after pulling him out of the trunk and behold! he was a-okay once more. Because he was a nice guy, actually, they let him sit in the backseat and gave him a lift. Because it was such a sunny day, he started telling them a story about a family driving into the End of the End of the End of the End of the End of the End of the End of the End of the End that looked like a huge mouth which did not look hungry at all . . .