A brief look at the lives of 5 hikers unknown to each other but connected by the mountain.
Snowshoes (Somewhere in the world below)
By William Campbell
In the summer the city was always there, but we did not use it. The heat lay motionless for days between the hills outside Vienna and the evenings were light until very late. Occasionally a cool front would meet a warm front somewhere high above our heads and a pleasant breeze would blow at our backs as we walked up the track. There was always a riot of wild flowers further down the mountain. They increased in number and variety the closer we got to the first reaching arm of the Danube. The great trees and hopeful saplings framed the city from our increasing point of vantage, and the birds whistled from their branches and the branches swayed in the breeze. It was a warm summer and the heat could not be helped.
We had walked this hillside many times that summer in order to truly know it for snow shoe hiking once the winter arrived. The hillside was always beautiful but could be walked in many ways. Two of the ways offered almost unbroken views of Vienna the whole way above the tree line to the top. These paths were very steep and required a lot of scrambling. Always, though, some amount of scrambling was needed, but as we prepared for snow shoe hiking the longer, flatter track around the back of the mountain was the more sensible route. This path spiraled around the hillside like a helter-skelter with the haze of the city on one side, and the blue curves of the Danube on the other, making its way over the land to the Black Sea. It felt cool looking into the glassy river from the hillside and it felt cool afterwards as the water stayed tepid long into the evening after our hiking was done. The summit was bare and rocky except for a well supported cross marking the place. There was also a small kern onto which we would always place a stone from below. The cross was marked with a plaque for a man named Josef Bittmann who died aged 78, somewhere in the world beneath us. Here we hiked each week that summer and made firm the route in our minds for the snow shoe hikes that winter. She walked back over to me from across the small plateau to the base of the cross where I was sitting and said:
' What did we do before the summer?'
'Billiards' I said.
'And this is a million times better than that, isn't it?'
'On a day like this' I said.
When the days were shorter and the air got cold we would busy ourselves with work and kept our marriage only on paper. But in spring, like an orchid, our matrimony would bloom and the long nights and bright days were our own.
'You won't have time for billiards this year,' she said 'what with all the snow hikes'.
She sat down next to me on the cross and laid her hiking stick down with her right hand, which was blotchy from where the sickness was beginning to show. She smiled when she saw me looking but slid it into her folded arms all the same.
'Of course that all depends on snowfall. If it doesn't snow here we could always get the train to Styria and rent a cottage in the mountains' she said moving the pink hand from her arms to under her legs.
'Does your hand hurt?' I asked
'Only when you keep staring at it'.
'I wasn't staring' I said 'just it got in the way of my eyes'.
She smiled again. Differently.
'You know, it doesn't really hurt when you look at it. It's only that I haven't really found a way to feel comfortable about it yet. It's just your bad luck I feel that way.'
'I don't mind your hand, and I wasn't staring, really.' I said. 'And anyway, it's only how it looks that's broken. It works fine as a hand doesn't it?'
'Yes, it works fine as a hand' she said and took mine in hers.
There were two men waiting in the bar by the time Josef Bittmann arrived on a wet October night at Cafe Absolute. Josef Bittmann had taken a relatively long time to walk the short distance from his apartment to Cafe Absolute because he had recently taken an interest in a set of hunting knives in the window of the little shop near the square. He decided on the way to make a slight detour around the square to take another look at the knives.
The two men waiting for him were a good 20 years younger than he was. They were both from Vienna. One was a squat looking man with very tanned skin and a face squeezed to a point where it looked as though he was about to cry at any moment. The second was taller but just as wide. His face was strong with deep set eyes. His chin was shaven, but not very well. He looked quizzically at the damp figure coming through the door.
'You're late!' shouted the man who couldn't shave.
'Yes, and I'm still late even now.' replied Josef Bittmann as he made his way across the tiled floor to where the men sat in the corner. The man who couldn't shave got up and clapped him into a brief but firm embrace. The man with the tight face rose slightly from his chair and shook the hand of Josef Bittmann. 'What will you drink?' he said.
'Whatever keeps me from feeling my age.' said Josef Bittmann. 'When a man turns 70 he sure feels it, I tell you 78 is no joke!'
'I've got just the thing for you.' said the tight faced man getting up and shuffling behind the bar. He reached as high as he could but still just managed to pull down a bottle of schnapps from the first shelf. The bottle was slender and shaped in the image of the goddess Laetitia. Bringing it back to the table with three glasses the tight faced man said:
'We've talked about it and what we think a man of your age needs on his birthday is good friends, good schnapps and a night with a goddess.'
'This is too much' said Josef Bittmann smiling, because he knew the schnapps was very fine.
'Think of it as my gift to you' said the man with the squashed face.
'And the morning after?' said Josef Bittmann.
'That's from me!' said the poorly shaved man. 'Look, he's opened the bottle now' he added.
Further down the hillside as the track levels off around the back of the mountain on the side facing the Danube there was a beaten track. Not more than a meter wide and with its entrance mostly overgrown with creeping branches the whole thing could be completely missed it you weren't paying close enough attention. This over grown entrance would drop off sharply, almost immediately into a steep slope heading straight down the mountain. This would act for us as a double reward. Not only was it the quickest way down the mountain after a long hot climb, but once at the bottom it opened out onto a wonderful inlet of the old Danube. Set in against the current and out of view from the small plateau high above, the backwater provided the perfect place for us to become natural and swim. The water was deep even as I stretched my full length to touch the muddy bottom, keeping my hair above the water. She was lying spread out floating on the surface of the water, eyes closed, only moving her wrists and ankles occasionally to stay afloat.
'This certainly is the most wonderful hike I know of' I shouted to her whilst treading fresh water. 'I think we might even be able to swim the rest of the way into town' I said. 'Would you like to try that one day? When we have a bit more energy to spare?'
She made a noise I couldn't quite make out. I swam a few strokes closer.
'I didn't catch that' I said
'I said we'd need swimming clothes first' she said.
The water felt much deeper where she was, although I could not touch the bottom where I was before either. I continued to tread water next to her and with one hand gently touched her thigh with my fingertips. She hummed pleasantly and pushed her legs out to meet my hand again. On my next stroke I touch against her, pressing firmer with my fingers than before. She opened her eyes and looked at me through strands of sodden hair. I floated over her as we both became upright in the fresh water, gently kicking ourselves afloat and holding the rest. We kept moving through the water as I moved my hand down her side. In the river with the high banks I found the place. Kicking in the water, holding the rest we found the place. We were floating. Kicking. Floating and reeling in the river with the high banks. Her legs came around me and we went under.
There wasn't much time afterward. The apartment needed to be cleaned out by 1pm. The new tenant was due to move in that afternoon and the bursar needed to clean the room.
'I want all of this junk out of here' said the bursar. 'He was a quiet man but nobody could say he was a clean man'.
The man with the squashed face was listening to the bursar as the man who couldn't shave was inspecting his latest attempt in the mirror that hung above the sink next to the bed.
'I don't know what half this junk is, but I want it gone by 1pm' she commanded as she threw a set of hunting knives down on the sideboard. She then made her way downstairs to continue the registration of the new tenant.
Josef Bittmann's sheets were still twisted from his final sleep one month before. The bottle goddess sat omnipotently on the window shelf, filled with sand and looking out onto the square below. The room was organised in a certain way that only the man who organised it could understand. Crampons hung above mud encrusted hiking boots. Maps covered all surfaces making every workspace a topography of Europe, the Americas and Africa in miniature. Josef Bittmann starred alone in photographs documenting his victories over fish, deer and foul. The photographs themselves hung on walls, pipes, bed posts and any map-free surface. Cans of food shared floor space with rat poison. Washing equipment and shaving kit were hung off a single electric light that came straight down in the centre of the room. The man with trouble shaving was now inspecting the dead man's razor. The man with the tight face was taking off his black suit jacket, untying his black tie and looking for a space to set them down. He eventually landed them on a political map of South America.
'What do you suggest we do with all this stuff?' he said.
'How the hell should I know' said his friend who was wearing an identical black suit.
'Well we have to do something. You heard the woman.' said the man, crunching his face even tighter. 'The maps and the photographs we can burn, or throw to the bins.'
'Burn!' said the poorly shaved man contemptuously. 'Bins!' he added equally.
'One hour is what we have' replied the man from his now very squashed face. 'We can burn the maps and the usable kit we can take to the little shop near the square.'
'What about the photos?' the stubbled man asked defensively. 'I'm not burring a mans memory off this earth.'
'OK, we'll save the photos. Maybe I can find room for them in the bar.'
Just then the bursar re-appeared with a basket of cleaning soaps and a bucket of hot water.
'Have you two still not moved? I need this place cleaned out in one hour.'
The two men began collecting their dead friends belongings.
The man in the little shop near the square made a note that night of everything two very smartly dressed, albeit poorly shaved gentlemen brought into the shop that afternoon; one pair large crampons, three pairs men's hiking boots, one set single bed sheets (unwashed), one mans razor, assorted men's clothing (unwashed), one pair men's snowshoes.
In the winter the city was always there, but I did not use it anymore. The snow would turn a mushy brown in the gutters and stain black on the rooftops where fumes would leak from the houses. Packed snow and ice where piled high against the walls, out of the footpaths. Up on the track, high above Vienna on the side facing the Danube the snow was pure and unbroken. It crumbled and crunched gently under the netting of my snowshoes. Finding the track was easier than I had expected and the small details I had remembered made it all the easier. I stopped to catch my breath and take a look down to the river below. It was frigid and still, it seemed bigger now more of its length was visible through the trees which once held leaves. The entrance to the steep slope which led to the inlet had not grown, only aged poorly in the winter. Still no more than a meter wide the entrance was now barbed with naked branches. Standing at its mouth the path dropped away perilously in one unbroken sheet of snow. It looked like a ski jump now. I could just make out movement from the cold water below. It was colder on top with a kind of wind that battered your face and turned it red. There was no new snow falling on the top of the mountain, but I had to cover my face from the wind with the hood of my coat. Out of the corner of my eye I could just make out a mound of snow, underneath was the kern. I sat down at the foot of the cross and untied the bindings on my snowshoes, took off my pack which had felt heavy the whole hike up and removed what I had carried there.
One late autumn afternoon a single man climbed up the stairs from the Danube canal, walked his way silently through the Jewish part of town and made a single pair of footprints in the early snow across the square and into the little shop that was near it. The clerk behind the counter did not hear him enter because he was checking an item in the display case by the cash desk and the shop bell was on the kitchen table in the back awaiting a new hammer. The single man said nothing. He waited until he was seen.
'I am sorry, I didn't see you there' the clerk said cheerfully.
However, once he saw the face that greeted him he wasn't cheerful anymore. He was truly sad. The single man said nothing. He just stood there with his long thin nose and wide, wet eyes. The skin on his face was a remarkable grey. Despite feeling suddenly sad the clerk tried again in as cheerful way as he could manage.
'Are you looking for anything in particular?'
'Snowshoes' replied the man, so quietly that the words barely formed in his mouth. 'Snowshoes' he said again, this time a little louder than he had meant.
'I only have one pair in as luck would have it, there they are'.
The clerk pointed to an old pair of wooden frames looking like two over sized tennis rackets. The type Fred Perry would have used. They were hanging by their bindings on a nail above the cash desk.
'They're fine' said the single man.
He paid up with the clerk and left the shop with the snowshoes and walked alone across the square. The clerk felt sad for some time after seeing the single man, but felt better once he remembered he had sold the snowshoes. It had been almost a year since the smartly dressed, poorly shaved gentlemen had had brought them to the shop. He had made a profit too.
On a bright spring day a young couple, who were meeting each other for just the third time, were making their way up the winding path that led to the top of the mountain, just outside Vienna. Their spritely legs bounded past the great trees and hopeful saplings. Past the overgrown entrance to the path down to the cool water. Past the hazy city and past the winding blue river on the other side. They scrambled the last 300 meters over the rough rocks to the small plateau. The young man sat down at the foot of the well supported cross that marked the place and watched his companion as she added her stone to the kern.
'There' she said 'I wish I'd brought a smaller stone now'.
She sat down next to her young man and sighed gently.
'What a wonderful view' she said. 'I bet we could see almost 10 kilometers straight out that way. What do you think?'
She turned to look at her young man, who was looking at her already, just right, and smiled a beautiful smile. He leaned unnaturally at a right angle to his hips. So did she. They kissed under the cross which was marked with a plaque for Josef Bittmann and for Sofia, who died aged 42 somewhere in the world below.