May 19, 2016

We've arrived in Switzerland





As every year, we rent our house to holidaymakers during the season and stay in the chalet of a friend in Bürchen, Valais, Switzerland, up on the alp at 1,600 meters. This is an evening view from our place, taken by Chang two days ago.

Anything GREEN EYES have to say about Bürchen, or Switzerland, or sunsets? Strangely enough, the answer is "no." But we have a short story set in the chalet, titled Rilke's Ghost, and as yet unpublished. So here's a fragment (Context: we already had a close encounter with the ghost of Rainer Maria Rilke once, in Duino, on the Adriatic coast, where the famous poet wrote his Duineser Elegien. And coincidence has it that his mortal remains are interred nearby; enjoy:) 


Years later. We’re now summering in Bürchen, Valais, Switzerland, in the chalet of a friend, our own house is rented to holiday makers. The village of Bürchen is wonderful, 1,600 meters up on the Alp, and so much cooler than the muggy summer-Riviera (the road up to Bürchen was finished in 1934---the preceding thousand years the villagers were left to their own devices). There is only one problem: Rainer Maria is buried nearby, yes, Rilke, in Raron, a small, historic town right beneath Bürchen down in the valley, three klicks as the crow flies. We’ve given Raron a wide berth so far, but Chang is playing the social networks and has to feed the hungry Facebook beast. His Korean followers can’t get enough of snow-topped mountains and Geranium-studded chalets, and the 24 hour cycle dictates daily posting. We’ve ravaged the entire region already---natives of many cultures believe that you steal their image when you take their picture---along those lines we’ve grabbed photons until nothing seems to be left of the Valais—from the Matterhorn via the James-Bond-historic-marker up on the Furka pass to the longest glaciers and highest vineyards of Europe---save Raron. 

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Chang asks. Of course we don’t. And it’s a sunny, wonderful day, and Rilke is interred in a vault on the southern side of the Burgkirche, which itself is built on a rock hundred meters above the floor of the valley. The views would be fantastic, and a light breeze would play with the pages of the tourist guide which tells about the local Rilke-wine and the XIIth-century town hall next to the church. A Rilke Pfad leads up there. Half-way there’s a bench. “Remember the bench?” I ask. We sit down. And now I have a really bad idea. I google for “Rilke translations,” and the first entry connects to a learned article by a certain Majorie Perloff. 
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hört mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen”…wasn’t that the first line? “Here,” I say to Chang, “there you have it, various ways to do this, ‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders,’ or ‘Who, if I cried out, would heed me amid the host of Angels’... .” Chang, predictably, is not really interested, but you see it coming. “Oohh,” the wailing begins, “ohhoohoo.” Talking about hubris.

*°*

We’re holed up in our chalet now. The wailing has managed to follow us this time, and it’s oohing at an alarming rate, day and night, except when the fire brigade shows up—we had to drop all pretensions---or the police. Next time they may call the ambulance from the nearest asylum---“wait a minute”---the leather-strapped officer with this angelic look on his face has an idea. Whether we thought about Father Zerzuben. He’s widely known in the valley, he was retired early, lives next to the Rilke Park in Visp---the market town east of Raron---and here’s his phone number. “Viel Glück!” 

The Father---—slow, raspy, guttural voice—listens painstakingly to my explanations. Exorcism, he says. Yes, it would be a case of exorcism, except that there ought to be an evil spirit that has possessed the victim and needs to be dispossessed, or driven out, or defenestrated, like they say in Prague, Rilke’s birthplace (he chuckles). Exorcised. A maleficent personality of some standing, Beelzebub, perhaps, or Asmodeus. Or Samael, if we are allowed to think ecumenically. A mere ghost doesn’t qualify. And Rilke’s ghost—not that he’s a Rilkekenner---but a great poet like him who has done so much for local tourism, you can’t really call such a ghost an evil, or---dropping the particle---evil tout court, or can you? 
“Well,” I say, “the police officer recommended you, Father, it appears you can work wonders.”
“Wonders,” he laughs down the scratchy phone line—which police officer, he wonders. 
“He didn’t hand me his calling card,” I say, “but he has this angelic look on his face?”
“And wears a biker’s outfit?”
“Yes.”
“HAHA.” 
“Haha?”
“Don’t laugh, but his name is Angelo, actually. Rilke talked a lot about angels, didn’t he? Der katholische Blick nach oben. Yes, Angelo. Interesting.”
  
“You were talking about ‘being possessed’.” I say. “Nobody else appears to be aware of the ghost, or acknowledge him, except us. Wouldn’t that indicate some degree of possession? On our side? Us being possessed?” 
“Us,” the Father echoes---he was wondering already. 
“Yes, we are two people.” 
“Your wife…?” 
Well, I explain: “Not my wife, although we are technically married. My partner, Chang.” 
“Chang,” he echoes. 
“Yes,” I say, “Chang. He’s Korean.”
“Korean?” 
“Yes.” 
“Where did you meet?” 

(That’s always the first question people ask. We met in the Amstel Park, in Amsterdam, under a statue of Rembrandt van Rijn, but that I can’t really tell him.)

“In Amsterdam.”
“Professor van Helsing taught in Amsterdam, didn’t he?” he asks. 
“Van Helsing?” 
“Yes, the Dracula scholar. Christopher Lee. No, not Lee, Peter Cushing.”
“Father,” I say, “you don’t seem to take us seriously.” 
No-no, he always does, by definition he does, he’s a minister of souls: “When did you get married?” 
“Five years ago.”

Mmmh. You are still young, he ponders. And you are really desperate? 
“Absolutely, Father, we are.” I raise the receiver (I’m calling from the landline), and point the mouthpiece at Rilke’s wailing in the background: “Can you hear it?” 
No, he can’t---didn’t you say third parties are not privy to the ghost, or his productions?
“I didn’t mean…it’s just that Rilke falls silent in their presence.”
Mmmh. Well. He thinks. An immediate act of exorcism is out of the question, if only because we would need permission from the Bishop first. We would have to prove that no natural, material causes are involved, no somatic phenomena of the kind that Dr. Freud liked to exorcise, such as hysteria, schizophrenia, acute psychasthenia, etcetera---not to mention the hoax factor. Yes, sadly, he can’t say it often enough, the Material—as an abstract noun and as a source of causality---is given the best seats in the play house of the modern Church, whereas the Spiritual is left to crane from standing room only, and---as lamentable as mixed metaphors are---it’s plainly unfair from a theological point of view, he agrees, but: haven’t we thought about the fact that he might help in a different way? 
“How do you mean?” 
Well, what applies to the police and the fire brigade would also apply to him. If he shows up, the ghost should fall silent. Nicht wahr?
“And then?”
And then we work from there. Hilf Dir selbst so hilft Dir Gott.

*°*

Zerzuben is a big man---nose, chin, ears, eyes, crane, hands, and so on—clad in the regalia of the retired priest: sandals, nondescript trousers, white dress shirt buttoned-up, and a sweater that clings to him in moth-eaten misery. This outfit would be too warm down in the valley (in the summer, the digital thermometers on the gas stations there routinely rise above 40° centigrade), and he has an overnight bag on casters in tow. How would this man fit into our bed? 

“You’re older than I thought,” he opens the conversation. 
“You asked when we got married,” I reply defensively.
Right, he wasn’t thinking. Homosexual marriage isn’t around that long---funny how quickly one can get used to things. Well, no, ho! Angelo told us that he was retired? But he wasn’t retired for the reasons we might suspect, with all the talk about, you know, altar boys and so on, not at all. What got him ostracized---if you want to know---was his forthcomingness, or righteousness---not an official sin, righteousness, but undeniably the worst offense you can commit in hearing distance of the Bishop, or any bishop, for that matter. It was his footnote-rich discourse on gay marriage in the premodern Church, how the Church had basically invented gay marriage and clang to it past its best sell date, past the end of the XIVth century, when a populist tide turned against all things homosexual, still unexplained and un-understood in its undercurrents, this tide. He was retired, but he’s still under holy orders, so he wasn’t disingenuous---he, for his part wasn’t---and he would be empowered to perform the rites of exorcism, in principle. But we don’t seem to need them any longer, the rites. The ghost is silent, isn’t he? He cups his ears: “Rilke?” he asks mockingly. No answer. “Rainer Maria?” No answer. This shapes up like the opening of Tom Sawyer. 

I usher the Father into the light-timbered dining nook, the true definiens of a Swiss chalet. He looks around. Would he expect an ashtray, a drink? I fetch shot glasses and the Kirsch from the Gelsenkirchner Barock of the Wohnzimmerschrank

“I’m lonely,” he says without warning.
“Let’s not drink to that,” I say. He looks hurt. 
No-no, I didn’t mean it, Father, stupid. 
“You were trying to be witty?” he asks.
“Stupid.”
“Not the first time you were trying, I gather?”
“Stupid.”
“There’s a word for it in my dictionary,” he says, “secondary cockiness.” (Yes, right). “That’s what provoked the ghost in Raron, wasn’t it?” (Yes, it did). “Well, we’ll need your cockiness, won’t we?”
“How do you mean?” (we still haven’t raised the glasses, and I urgently need the booze now, my nerves doing me raw after a sleepless night).
“To provoke the ghost.”
“What?”

Well, how do you want us to deal with him if he stays aloof?—he asks. For two thousand years we’ve struggled with a deus absconditus, and now you want to add Rilke to the mix? We need the ghost to react if we want to do him in. He reaches across the table and cups my throat in a big-handed mock-throttle. “Uurgh, uurgh,” he shouts, or jokes.
“Father,” I yell.
Well, keep your powder dry until you’ve been through a real exorcism: “Never seen this movie? You’re perhaps too young.”

Chang, in the meantime, has been hiding in the minuscular kitchen, where he---going by the oily fish smell—has prepared his usual welcome snack, a fried-Korean mix of egg and tuna. “Everybody likes it,” he says by way of greeting and hands Zerzuben a stocked plate of mini-omelets. The priest shows himself pleased, hungry—and charmed. Chang is still young, we notice, at least much younger than Michael. And Chang is also charmed, he has an inferiority complex as big as the moon and feeds on compliments like fish feed on water. The plate is emptied inside three minutes. We finally raise the glasses. 
“To Chang and his omelets,” Zerzuben says. Even my abstemious husband drinks; his nerves must be as raw as mine. 

“Do you want me to stay, or do you want me to go away?” Zerzuben now asks. Chang doesn’t understand. 
“The ghost is quiet now.”
“We thank you, Father, we are so happy,” Chang says.
“Well, I can’t stay forever, or can I? You’re married already,” Zerzuben chuckles…he’s just thinking outside the box: when Islam finally comes around to gay marriage, they’ll open a new can of worms, what with their polygamy. Five men in a marriage would be the maximum, he reckons: “Well, no. Each man is entitled to four partners in wedlock. Who, in turn, are entitled to four partners in wedlock. Think this through. There’s no upper bound for the size of a marriage---well, yes, the size of the male population. No, not even. Let’s think ecumenically and take bisexuals into account. You’re not Muslim, or are you?” 


Zerzuben guffaws selfishly, but he hasn’t read my husband. Chang didn’t come out on Facebook, and I’m always banished from the frame when he snaps his pictures. His snow tops and valley views attract a lot of evangelical-Korean friends, and whenever he posts a sentimental sunset, he gets pious comments. And when his evangelicals don’t comment on his sunsets, they comment on the devilish gay marriage in America. So my spouse has posted himself into a corner; he can’t come out, in fact---along those lines. 

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