THE LONESOME DEATH OF AUGUSTUS ETZEL:
- LEIPZIG AND THE SURROUNDING AREA
In East Germany there was very little. The areas around Leipzig were largely populated by illiterate farmers and uneducated children. Finding a wife was hard for the men of the soil; women rarely came by and when they did, they certainly were not looking for love. There was always something strange in the air, it was fresh like any morning in the countryside, of course, but the lovelessness could be felt from miles afar. One would tend to flare the nostrils when entering the sparse region and wonder privately, what on Earth is that smell? Only to then see farmhouse after farmhouse and in the dirty windowpanes, in a private, secluded life, yet another lonely man in the neglected regions of East Germany.
The terrain around the city, near lakes or forests, was rich and diverse, but for the most part, in dryer quarters or areas with limited water coverage, the soil was simply unpopulated. The unfruitful soil made bad harvests commonplace and one of the main sources of complaints and outrage amongst the lonely men of the soil. Many men could not feed their animals or pay for beer, some even resorted to buying such goods as tomatoes and potatoes and lager from supermarkets in the city; many men were outraged by the ludicrous behaviour of the sun and the rain.
All the men would react differently. Many would pray to an omnipotent lord sitting on a cloud with a white beard and a baritone voice; others would sit with the fire gently crackling beside them and open another local or home-brewed beer, and then another, another, until nothing mattered anymore; some would even give up and leave for the luxury life in Leipzig or Halle, but such extreme behaviour was rare.
As far as traditions in the surrounding areas of Leipzig, there were few. Since the war, many lonely farmers whose wives and relatives had been killed whilst they were away fighting were left on a planet of strangers, of useless faces conjuring up nothing friendly or welcoming. And many would never try to fix the problem. So East Germany became known to the wider population of the rich West as ‘the Lonely East’. And a lonely east it was.
Rarely was there any need to pass through the lonely land as there was little one could do unless they were travelling to western Poland or the very northern lands of the Czech Republic, which was not a common journey for most German. Some Poles would travel through westward on a long journey to London or Birmingham or Paris, as they were allowed to pass through the Berlin Wall with sufficient money in their banks, but for the most part, the residents of the Lonely East saw little activity.
Wildlife in the region was, as suggested in the name, lonely. Many animals were killed during the war and no one remembered if it was simply an unintentional but inevitable cause of the war or some strategic plan from Berlin, but, either way, most of the fauna that once roamed the unpopulated region with such freedom and fearlessness was dead since the Dark Days.
A problem in the Lonely East that many locals overlooked was the rapid fading of the population. The sexes were so imbalanced that many could not breed, so many of the old men simply died alone in nobody’s memory once that three or four dry seasons had hit consecutively and there was nothing left but beer. Many old farmhouses were left empty in the stench of death; no one would pass by them and check that things were fine. No one was alive to worry about the farmers’ whereabouts, and people just disappeared: houses remained creaking in the wind, a part of nature’s force, no longer places for man but for small rodents and ugly animals. The communists in Berlin often spoke about the lonely region south of themselves but never came to any decision about it, except how to use the men’s money once that they died.
No one from the happier lands had moved to the East since long before the war: there was no reason to. The life was harsh and brief. In the West, as people well knew, things were easier. Furthermore, the Lonely Easterners were ugly. They had wrinkled, leathery faces and prominent frown lines. They had dark eyes and lethal stares. They were animals compared to the Europeans around them. They had hairy arms and were far shorter than the average man.
Some years after the war the Lonely Easterners began to realise the speed at which their population was dying, and it was then that the strong sense of unity amongst the community began to die along with all the old men. It was not long until each man lived for himself. The men ignored the communists and followed hedonism, but Walter Ulbricht didn’t much care for the ugly men anyway. Men did not think about the men around them or how their crops were doing during the dry seasons; they did not communicate with the man with the best crops, although sometimes they felt jealous of him. Once one man met a woman who he bought fruit from and, the following morning, all the faces in the dirty windowpanes in that particular settlement knew what had happened and heard it during the night too, and then they felt a terrible jealousy overcome them, almost developing into anger in some of the younger of the lonely men.
- THE THINGS AUGUSTUS ETZEL DID
Augustus Etzel, for that was his name, was a man of the soil. He was not particularly short, nor particularly ugly. He lived in a small farmhouse in the Lonely East. The house was once home to a small family who rushed to the bomb shelter at the back of the garden, hidden under a small mound of grass, when the alarm rang out, warning the easterners of the Evil British. A small bomb was dropped from a low flying Hawker Typhoon. The metal ball hit directly the mound of grass and mud at the back of the farmhouse garden and everyone underneath the soil died instantly. The house remained in tact with a few misplaced bricks and dust marks.
Augustus Etzel moved into the house soon after the war. The communist getaway appealed to the man with a fading scar on the back of his right hand. He knew the communists would watch him and talk about him, but he would be different on the other side. He had heard stories of what happened in the house, he could see some of the family’s possessions and memories on the mantelpiece and the kitchen counter, but the house was affordable and hidden from the prying eyes of the left-wing Easterners, so he simply never looked into the mound at the back of his garden and, with the knowledge that seeing is believing, the stories did not bother him much.
Augustus Etzel never married and did not have any children. He remembered passing the age of sixty but did not know the exact date on which he was born and soon lost count of his living years.
Augustus liked cooking. He cooked whatever was available to him. In the more fruitful years his meals would be wonderful: all sorts of tomatoes, potatoes, leeks, carrots, onions, peppers, strawberries and red and green apples. In the dryer seasons when ingredients were somewhat more appreciated through the efforts it took to find them, he would use fine meats like rabbit, hog, deer and fox. He would cook them in nettles and wild herbs, although he did not know what they were called. He made a fine lager and was once acclaimed in his home town for his brew; people would pay for what he made in his kitchen.
Augustus also liked music, although it was rare for him to hear any in his area. Sometimes he would sing songs that he heard when he was young. They were war-time German ones, but sometimes he would just sing whatever was in his head in whatever tune it happened to escape him in. He would sing about the trees in his garden or how he imagined the old family would have lived by the fire before the war, when everything was fine
During the day, Augustus filled his time by playing Agorgarten with the trees in the baumgarten. He would stand in the middle of his large garden, his baumgarten, and cover his eyes with his hands so he could not see a thing. There was a strong pink shine coming through his fingers and his eyelashes when he stood at a certain angle to the sky. He would find that angle and stand there with his feet together. He would then begin to spin, still visionless. Wherever gravity or his subconscious or some other power stopped him would be where he would walk. And in that direction he would walk until he hit a tree. Into that tree he would force a pin attached to a roll of string. And there, in front of that tree, he would again cover his eyes and again spin. Wherever he landed facing would be where he would walk until he hit a tree. And, again, to that tree he would pin the end of the same roll of string. He would repeat this for some hours, but Augustus Etzel did not keep track of time: if it was light, it was the day; if it was dark, it was the night. Once that he felt a sufficient trail of string had been strung around the baumgarten, he would retrace his steps with a pad of yellow paper and a sharp pencil. On the paper he would try to replicate the shape of the string as he walked with concentration from tree to tree around the large garden.
Later, in the farmhouse, he would look at the yellow paper and the trail on it with a beer in his hand, and he would wonder to himself privately what the shape looked like. Sometimes it looked like a self portrait and sometimes like a cloud and sometimes like nothing at all but a pencil’s trail on a piece of paper. Sometimes, if there was not much beer left, Augustus would make a strong black coffee and dip the leathery tip of his finger into it and then spread the dark smudge between and around some of the lines on the paper, and then he would smile and think himself an artist, but he did not like to tell anyone that he was an artist.
When it was dark and the view of his baumgarten had become but another sheet of blackness in the night, Augustus would recap his beer and put it beside the open window to keep it cool. Then he would wash his eyes with cold water so that he saw none of the same things the proceeding day that he had seen that day to ensure life did not grow monotonous. Then he would clean his hands and his wrists so any heavy loads he had picked up that day were left behind. Then he would wipe his forehead of any marks or perspiration it beheld so as not to bare any unnecessary burdens. And then he would lie in bed with his sheet covering all of him except his right hand, just in case God were ever watching, although Augustus Etzel did not believe in God.
He wasn’t often questioned about his faith, or lack of it, but he knew that if he ever were he would tell the faithful one that when Augustus looks around at beautiful things and beautiful creatures and beautiful skies in the hotter time of year, Augustus then sees his reflection in a dirty windowpane and is disgusted, not by the dirt on the window, but by what is consuming it, and Augustus Etzel knows then that no authority governs him but himself.
The mornings were colder than the afternoons, Augustus knew that, and so the earlier part of the day was when he would wash his clothes and rid his bedroom of other small inhabitants and dust the corners of things that he did not feel the desire to have dust on. And once that he had done the things he wanted to do, he would reopen his beer and move it away from the windowsill so that it did not heat up, and there, on the concrete step which led down from the house to the baumgarten, he would watch the forest and the sun eat all the darkness that covered it. He was not ever sure if the sight was one that made him happy or sad, but he did it every time the sun did, and he felt something inside him.
On that step, once that all the dark had gone and everything was light, he would listen to strange noises of far away birds in the trees. Sometimes he would hear other things as well like shouts or growls or screams, but he did not think about them as he was pleasant in the thought that he owned the forest.
After sitting on the step what Augustus did depended on the weather. If it was raining he would play Regenspiel in his house. Regenspiel was a game involving less movement than Agorgarten. Augustus would pull a chair across the wooden floor so it was facing the window, leaving just enough room for him to fit his legs. He would fold his arms into his lap and relax his legs, stretching his neck from side to side. He would then wait until four or more droplets of rain hit the glass almost simultaneously and then he would watch them until all of them had hit a certain marker on the window, for example, a scratch on the glass or a small insect. At that moment Augustus would have to pick one of the droplets without thought or hesitation, simply relying on instinct. If the droplet that he picked reached the bottom of the windowpane before any of the others, he would take a sip of beer, if it was beaten by another of the raindrops, he would not take a sip of beer. The game, although highly amusing, relied on the patience of the player to find the right droplets and make sure that they all made it to the bottom, as many shy ones simply drifted off into the corners or merged with their competitors forming something far too large for a fair race. Augustus, as the creator of the game, had the patience for Regenspiel.
If, on the other hand, it was not raining and the sun was in the sky, Augustus would play Sonntagspiel, one of his favourite games in the Lonely East. He would stand in the baumgarten where the trees did not create any shade and the sun was rather strong, and then he would cover one eye with one hand so that only one eye could see the beautiful garden. He would squint the one open eye whilst looking at the sun and all its rays would flare up and look like huge beams of light shining in no accord from the burning furnace to the cold earth on which the lonely man stood. He would pick one beam, it did not matter much which one for the game was rarely completed, in fact, Augustus never did complete the game. He would follow the beam of light that he chose to wherever it ended on the ground. Through the trees and past a small pond and then to another open bit of land much like that directly at the back of his house, and then back into the forest. The beam of the sun in his single squinted eye, of course, moved with him and he would never find where it met the earth, but it brought Augustus Etzel amusement and pleasure; two things he liked very much.
After a game in the baumgarten or watching the windowsill, Augustus found himself with little energy, so he would sit near the forest and drink his beer as it was not ever as cold as it was in the morning. As he sat at the back of the garden, smothered in the fading rays of the sun, he would stare at the patterns the leaves made as they let odd glimpses of light seep in between them as the wind pushed them from side to side; this, at least, distracted him from looking at the scar on the back of his right hand, which only flooded his mind with memories once again.
Augustus thought of the things that went on in the forest and the noises it made and the beauty it radiated. He loved the forest, he always had: that was why he bought the house in the Lonely East. He did not ever find himself in fear of the forest, the wald, or find it to be a dangerous place. A mysterious and wicked place he could not deny, but not fearful, surely not.
- AUGUSTUS ETZEL IN THE BAUMGARTEN LONG AFTER THE WAR
Augustus Etzel, a man of the soil, sat one evening in his baumgarten enjoying a beer. It was a warm evening and the sun had almost completely been consumed by heavy black clouds. It was not very dark, but not as light as it had been. Augustus looked into the forest like he often did and thought about it, about the strange things he knew about it and the strange things he dreamt.
Augustus Etzel was not a man of superstition; he did not believe the things he heard and did not believe what the Bible told him. He believed death was simply another life process, much like eating, sleeping, excreting faeces and vomiting. He envisaged his death and it was always happiest in the forest, that was the place Augustus Etzel would end if it were to happen anywhere.
In the baumgarten the old man thought he heard bombs from the war, but he knew it was his imagination, as he knew his imagination was quite splendid with all his years of experience. When he heard the bombs of the war (thankfully without the screams of the family in his garden) he did not feel happy, in fact, quite the opposite. He was puzzled as to why the noises would penetrate his otherwise calm brain. But, he would always accept sooner or later that many things did puzzle him.
- THINGS THAT PUZZLED AUGUSTUS ETZEL
Men of the soil were often blind to the modern world in which they somewhat unknowingly lived. They did not understand many modern terms and concepts, like atheism for example, which is why Augustus was disliked by many who met him. The men of the Lonely East often did not hear things that went on in the world and therefore found it hard to develop with it, as they lived in very solitary conditions where one man’s beer was as another’s God, or one man’s home as another man’s world.
Augustus was particularly puzzled by the world. One thing that puzzled him was the mixture of humans on Earth. He wondered why there were so many and often asked himself, ‘wouldn’t it be easier if we were just all the same?’.
The noises from the forest also made Augustus confused, or at least made him think deeply about what it could have been that was singing or tapping a steady rhythm on a tree or rustling leaves. It was at night, when the sun had been eaten by the darkness and everything was black, that the noises were loudest and at their most peculiar. It was then, tucked away with clean hands, renewed eyes and a mopped forehead that he would see how fear could be derived from the forest’s almightiness over the silence of the dark nights of the warm season.
Augustus never understood why the taste of a coriander leaf did not please him in any way and, if anything, made him slightly repulsed, whereas a man he once met nearer the city thoroughly enjoyed the taste of coriander and added it to many dishes. On the same subject, Augustus always took a particular liking to parsley and added it to many of his foods whilst cooking, sometimes he would even chop some to put into a dish but then end up eating it all before he could even add it to anything because his mouth seemed so pleased by the taste. But he remembered a very large man who did not live too far away saying that the texture and taste of a parsley leaf severely displeased his mouth and set him at a rather weak disposition for the rest of the light period, which is exactly how Augustus himself felt about a white nut he once unwillingly forced between his teeth much closer to the war years. The nut was called an almond and it came from a land afar. The corresponding flavours and textures and colours and scents to each man’s tongue puzzled the lonely easterner. He did not understand why there was no universal taste chart, so every tongue on the planet could enjoy the same foods and tastes and then surely, as Augustus saw it, enjoy themselves in each other’s company to far more an extent than with the complaints many made.
- GAMES IN THE BAUMGARTEN
During the hotter months, Augustus Etzel spent most of his time in the baumgarten, the garden of trees. He would play games such as Agorgarten and Sonntagspiel. Another game he liked to play was Baumfinden. Baumfinden was a game that one could only play in a deep forest of tall, endless trees. Augustus would stand underneath any tree quite deep into the misty light of the forest on a sunny day, around the hottest point so he was sure that there was a lot of time if he were to get carried away or lost. And then he would spin around with the lids of his eyes held closely in together so as very little could be seen in the dimmed light of the tall trees. He would spin about fifty spins. When he stopped, he had to rest his head and sip his beer because his head felt as if it had unscrewed with the force of the spin and was not strong enough to hold on to his neck. Once that he still felt in a dizzy state but his head was secure, he would leave his beer by the tree and run for many paces until his heart was beating forcefully onto his old chest. Then he would stop and spin again, this time without sipping his beer or letting his head re-screw itself onto his neck. In the resulting dazed state, some distance from the tree under which he left his beer, he would have to return back to it, find his beer and take a sip of victory to show the forest who, in fact, was the ruler.
Baumfinden was one of the hardest games Augustus played in the baumgarten. It involved tiresome physical exercise and Augustus was in no denial that such harsh movement was growing ever harder at his age. He noticed, along with a decline in energy, that his intake of beer had grown, so he was forced to make more in his kitchen, but, because more was being made and less care and time therefore put into each batch, the quality was fading. A lot of the time Augustus did not think about the taste of his beer but simply appreciated it being by his side, for that reason he did not mind a slight decline in smoothness and fruitiness.
Sometimes Augustus made beer with pears. The taste did not particularly please his pallet but was certainly nicer than many things he had come across, such as coriander. He had once made beer with apples, at least he used the same fermenting process as he did with beer, but the outcome was very different. His apfelmost, his apple beer, was too sweet and quite bitter, and Augustus was not a sweet man; he did not add sugar to his beer like many of the lonely men of the Lonely East. Three or four times Augustus had experimented with fermenting potatoes, but at first the outcome was very displeasing, so he fermented the same liquid again, and then again, and the result was not pleasing to the tongue, but it felt quite nice and warm through his cold veins, as it was in the cold months that he carried out the experiment.
During the warm months, when Augustus played in the sonne in the garden, his skin would turn quite red and more leathery year by year: he did not like that happening. There was a patch around both his eyes that was purple and marked with lines of overlapping skin, these also developed during the warm months and he did not enjoy it. Although lonely Augustus did not often see his own face nor pay any particular heed to it when he did see it, he certainly preferred it when the air was cold and the sun was more tired and so would not stay bright for so long during the day.
Although it displeased his face somewhat, Augustus Etzel was a man of the soil and a man of the forest; nothing could stop him playing there or living there.
There was a game he would play in the baumgarten when he was very tired or his skin was particularly red to the extent that it hurt when he ran. He did not have a name for the game but sometimes would say quietly to himself when he awoke from another delightful sleep that he was to play in the baumgarten a game of ‘Vögel und Vögel’. The game involved very little. One would sit on the ground, maybe on a pile of dry leaves or maybe on the grass or maybe on mud, depending on the season, and shut one’s tired eyes. And nothing then happened but the sounds of the birds. Augustus loved the sound of birds and could sit on the ground listening to them sing and argue and chat for days if he did not have other things to do. He could listen for hours and nothing bothered him. It was then, in the misty sunlight of the tall trees, that he did not worry about the outside world or any strange modern things or the tastes he enjoyed or did not. He simply heard the birds and liked hearing them.
Vögel und Vögel, the game that involved very little and did not have a proper name, was a game that Augustus liked to play in the warmer months or the months of awakening or the months of cleansing, as long as it was not the colder months. In the months of cleansing, when the trees would cleanse themselves of all their unneeded leaves and the bushes would do the same and the animals would sleep to cleanse their bodies of a long, tired season and Augustus himself would bathe in water and wash the inside of his penis and the part of his head that was hidden by white hair, the ground was layered with dry leaves which made running through the forest playing Sonntagspiel or Baumfinden even more enjoyable than in the other months, and made listening to the birds less messy for his behind on the floor. During the months of awakening, when all the lonely trees would grow their leaves back and the bushes the same and all the animals enter the forest again and search for food and Augustus himself would experiment with pears and apples and beans in all sorts of fermenting processes, the ground was wet and slippery which made games with limited vision such as Agorgarten or Sonntagspiel much messier, but at the same time much more fun.
The positive points about the cold months were few and far between, apart from the colour and texture of Augustus’ skin. Many men would die during those months as they simply had nothing to do and no beer to drink because many crops did not grow. Others left for the city until it grew warm again and they would return to their farms. The reason for the men that stayed and lived was not generally because of faithfulness or money but because the ugliest and the shortest of the men of the soil, who were already short and ugly, could not find acceptance in a town of tall, beautiful people. Staying alone in the Lonely East was often the only option; there no one judged on appearances.
They were forest games, games of the baumgarten, that kept the men of the soil sane and content. In the seasons when the ground was rough and infertile, many men would not have potatoes or tomatoes to eat, sometimes they would not even have beer to drink. In such times of desperation, one could only resort to the games of the forests, the games that involved one body and little more. Some men did not have the creative mind to invent games and experiment with fruited beers. Those men would often sit on a step in the garden or behind a window in the house and watch the forest scream and sing and sway and dance as if it were a rehearsed play. And it did often look so, as the way it moved and the turns each tree took were so beautiful.