The Chase

I first heard of the persecution of Christians when I was in the second form at primary school. Mr. Salmen, our teacher, told us that people had been thrown alive to the wild beasts and that they had gone to death with pride after agonies of pain. Much later, I happened to see pictures representing these tragic events, and in this way I learned what all this had really been like: beautiful women, clad in floating robes, and men in dark, curly hair, with bangles on their arms, chatting comfortably in their seats in the big Roman theatre, while down in the arena young men await the lions. The insatiable beasts have just turned away from the bodies of the dead, ready to attack those who are still alive. – Or the dark garden paths lit by burning torches, where people are taking a stroll, holding each other affectionately by the arms and – one could see this distinctly – engaged in friendly conversation. But the torches are not real torches at all. From the clouds of black smoke gathering round the tops of tall, straight poles right above the tarred bundles of straw, the patient sufferers are extending their arms, their hair blowing in the wind and their eyes gazing at invisible horizons with a sad and ecstatic expression of pain. Whenever I happened to see these pictures, I was deeply moved. So wonderfully did they add to my representations of these events that I think I now know all that can be known about those cruel times. But at the time when Mr. Salmen was our teacher I did not yet know that by-gone times may continue to have a spiritual existence in a person's mind, and so it was only when I had my own illuminating experience that I was really able to grasp the essence of those fights between helpless, unarmed humans and rapacious beasts of prey. It was a Sunday morning in Spring. Church was over, and the village boys, myself among them, were running down the cobbled path through the churchyard, with posies of daisy and jasmine on our round black hats. All of a sudden the gate of the churchyard was closed and Daniel Merthen, the curator, and Martin Simbriger, the church elder, stepped up to us. We must not leave the churchyard, they said. From the street came the noise of stamping feet, and men were heard shouting loudly and hurling big, heavy stones with all their might, one could hear the stones hit the ground. Old Litzki's new black bull, the one he had brought home on Tuesday from the cattle market, had gone wild. Those villagers who had already come out of the church to go home had gathered in the churchyard, forming a group. The women wanted to know which of the men were out in the street with the beast. "Oh my God, where is my Getzi?" cried Farmer Roth's wife anxiously, for she had left the three-year-old playing in the sand in front of the church. The Church Elder told them the names of the farm laborers and the men who were out in the street, and then climbed onto an ancient tombstone to look out over the churchyard wall. And then we were free to leave; with their shouts and their stones they had driven the bull over the bridge and back into Litzki's yard. Then Getzi was brought in and laid into his mother's arms, while the women began to cry and bewail him loudly. There was blood on his little head and the wagon that was to take him to hospital in the distant town had already driven up. And now old Litzki slowly approached the group. Although he was the oldest in the village, he was still a sprightly man, and he used to leave church together with the Vicar and the teachers long after all the others had gone. He did so on this Sunday, too. Together with his companions he walked towards the peasants. The news had not reached him yet. Farmer Roth's wife was crying. She climbed onto the wagon holding little Getzi in her arms, who had been covered with a heavy green scarf, and again and again she bent down to press her face against it. Petrus Litzki stepped up to the wagon. He put the hymnbook which he was holding in his hand back into the sheepskin coat that he wore only for church, and lifted the scarf. "You must not worry about the money. Let the doctor have however much he wants. We will settle on it afterwards." – But even before the wagon had reached the bridge over the River Alt, little Getzi was dead. Litzki crossed the bridge and went to the gate of his farm yard. It was a strong wooden gate, strengthened with beams and built solidly into the wall. Now it was shut tight. Next, the old man examined the little door beside the gate. It was through this door that the bull had escaped, and through it the animal had been driven back into the yard. The key was in the lock, on the inside. The old man opened the door very gently, pulled the key out and locked the door from without. I was too young at the time to understand the way in which all the individual events and circumstances were connected, and as a grown-up I have never talked to anyone about the mysterious events that followed after this. But I think that what I then saw and heard was enough for me to combine the numerous details into one meaningful whole. Young Andreas Weidner was a fine figure of a man in the village. He had returned from military service only a short while ago and was dearly loved by the village children because he gave us hemp for our whips, and bristles and the hair of cow hides to stuff our balls. Some time before, his father had been killed by a falling tree while he was cutting wood in the mountains – the same tree, incidentally, that had mortally wounded old Litzki's son. His mother was also dead, and so Andreas, a peasant like all his ancestors before him, had to work the small plots of land left to him by his parents and, in addition, to provide for three young brothers and sisters. Though he was not kin to Petrus Litzki, the old man gave him all his support whenever it was needed. When Litzki's son died in that accident, the old man had no one left but Katharina, his only grand-daughter, a buxom twenty-year-old girl. It is next to her that I see Andreas Weidner in my memory, first as wealthy old Litzki's protégé and later as the young man whom the villagers must have considered to be Katharina's fiancé. Litzki's farm lay alongside the brook which ran through the orchards and, at one point, sort of hopped into the village. Where it left the higher orchards to cut through the main street of the village, it formed a waterfall. On one side of the water was the mill, and on the other side, on the same low level as the rest of the village, was Litzki's farm. When the yard was laid out in the olden times, a lot of earth must have been dug out to give it a regular shape. On the inside, the old brickwall separating it from the orchards rose several metres high; but on the garden side it was no more than chest-high, so that a grown-up could command a comfortable view of the whole yard. Since it served to retain the earth, the wall was slightly inclined forming a kind of embankment. It ran round the whole of the yard and was said to have been even higher in the olden days, when it was especially important for the village in times of war. Along one side of the yard, outside the wall and close to the water's edge, a path led up to the orchards. Litzki now took this path, and the men, and even the women and the girls, followed him. They were all still holding their hymnbooks; the men were wearing the large, white sheepskin coats they wore only for church, the women were dressed in cloaks that were heavy with innumerable pleats, and the girls were wearing the "Borten", a cylindrically-shaped tall black velvet hat with multi-colored, shining ribbons that streamed down their backs; all of them were still dressed just as they had been when coming out of church. Andreas Weidner had brought the organist's hunting rifle and was now looking down into the yard. The black bull was standing in a corner next to a wagon, sniffing cautiously at its shaft. Now and then it moved its powerful head, letting it swing from side to side. We all looked at Andreas. Katharina, Litzki's granddaughter, was standing by his side, her face all flushed. "Move, girl!" her grandfather barked at her, but no one was surprised at his rudeness because everybody thought he was worried about the bull, which had cost him eighty florins. Andreas now aimed the gun at the bull, but then let it down again, saying that one couldn't take a shot from the place where he was standing. "Go along the top of the wall till you're right above it," Martin Simbriger shouted, but Andreas smiled and said, "There'd be nothing to it that way." He swung himself onto the wall, and now sat on it. I don't think anybody knew what he had in mind; then, all of a sudden, he slid down the embankment, landed at the bottom, and stood there firmly on both feet. An excited murmur rose which then subsided into breathless silence. Andreas took a couple of steps towards the middle of the yard, holding the rifle ready to shoot. The bull watched the newcomer, its round black eyes full of malice and rage. It lowered its head and the long hair hanging down from the sides of its chin touched the ground. Then it pulled its mouth back right to its front feet, its sturdy horns looming wide over its massive head. The shot cracked out. The bull threw its head up in the air and shook it to and fro, gurgling sounds coming out of its long stretched throat, then swung its horns to the right and to the left, stepping backwards until it touched the wagon. Then it lowered its horns once again; a bleeding piece of flesh was hanging over its right eye. Its long whiskers touch the ground again. Andreas, composed, stands upright and aims. No-one could watch the scene without utmost excitement. "Click!" – For a moment it looks as if Andreas flinches with pain. Click! Missed! – And now the bull is running toward the youth, its head lowered in a threatening manner. All of a sudden the young man is standing at the wall, waiting for the bull to charge. The beast is nimble and deft. Andreas jumps to the side, perhaps not quickly enough, for a short crashing sound is heard, the butt of the rifle is smashed and the hand of the youth begins to bleed. He throws away what is left of the gun and runs across the yard. The buffalo chases him, taking big leaps, its tail stretched out stiff while it is running. Now and again it snarls and pants. Andreas is now near the wagon. They both run around it. The youth checks his pace and, grabbing hold of the stake, jumps over the wagon's shaft. Running after him in blind rage, the bull fails to see the shaft, crashes into it, stops short with a trembling snort, steps back, looks around and then charges the side of the wagon. The wagon turns over with a huge crash and its sides splinter to bits. The animal stamps on the inanimate pieces, kicks its horns sideways at the wheels and the chassis, treads on the jangling brake chain and charges the wagon once, and then once again; for a few short moments it is completely absorbed in this destructive rage. But then it turns from the wagon, seeking Andreas out with its eyes. The shaft of the wagon lies on the ground, the wheels covered by a disorderly heap of wreckage. In the meantime Andreas has run to the stable and is grasping at the door. Just as he flings it open, the crowd of spectators begins to stir. The breathless silence gives way to shouts and to unconcealed excitement. Some of the peasants cry, "Not in the stable! Not in the stable!" But Simbriger's voice is louder than the rest, and he shouts: "Go inside! Go in!" – Litzki's cattle are out grazing during the Sunday, all except for the new black bull which is, of course, not put out to pasture. But Andreas has no time to think, as the door bangs shut behind him. Its planks break or fall down to the sides and lie on the ground as if they had always lain there; man and beast have moved out of view. Clip clop! One can hear the boots of the chased man running in the empty mangers, and the stamping sound of the buffalo, dampened by the manure-soaked straw on the ground. Now the lad rushes out of the stable. His hat is gone, his hair is sticking low down on his wet forehead, and he is gasping for breath. Now he runs up the stairs that lead to Litzki's rooms, tears at the door, but it is locked. He jumps against it, the bull is behind him, it races up the steps while the youth reaches the ground again over the banisters. He is leaning against the wall; with his eyes wide open, he watches every movement of the beast, trying to get out of its way. A horn hits the wall with a crash, but the youth is already at the opposite wall. The buffalo stops, snorts, and then slowly starts to move again. It was like in a Roman theatre. The sky was a deep blue, white pigeons were flying over the square, and the heat of noon had settled with a hot rustle on the tall trees in the orchards. Some of us boys were standing on the wall, others were sitting, their shiny little boots dangling. The women and girls were resting their arms on the bricks, as if they were leaning against the parapet of a box at the theatre, or they were holding the hymnbooks with their hankies and the posies of auricula in their folded hands that rested on the wall. Katharina Litzki half lay on the wall, her face buried in her hands and her young body shaking violently. The men just stood there, stiff and motionless, staring down and following the fight with an impenetrable expression on their faces. But that was only at the beginning, when all those present were paralyzed by the general shock. Later, the men were indeed the first to spring into action and to start thinking of how they might be able to help. The bull's nostrils dilated. It twitched its ears, which stuck out with long tufts of hair growing out of them. The end of its tail snapped hard against its flanks, it stretched its neck and gave a short, threatening bellow. They were now facing each other at three paces' distance. "Here! Catch the rope!" some of the peasants shouted. The miller had fetched a rope and was now throwing its one end down into the yard. The youth seemed exhausted, his movements lacked the precision and vigor they had shown before, but he managed to get hold of the rope. Daniel Merthen stood on the wall and, with the help of two others, pulled and pulled, his face red and his neck thick with the effort. The chased man hung in the air about one meter above the ground. At this moment the buffalo charged. Blobs of foam fell on its breast and its mouth opened with a muffled noise. Suddenly Andreas crashed to the ground, and for a couple of moments Daniel Merthens stood on the wall swaying violently to and fro. But now the youth was up on his feet again. He jumped over the bull's horns; his boots were heavy, and perhaps his broad leather belt was hindering his movements. Yet he was swift and nimble, he took big leaps, ran backwards, and the distance between them increased. The attempt to save Andreas with the help of the rope had failed, but it breathed new life into the peasants. Some of the lads ran for more guns. Everyone was thinking of new ways to help the young man and the men were calling out to one another excitedly. But we must not forget that during all this time the fight was continuing fast; in the time that it took the helper to make ten steps, the distressed youth had already run a hundred. "Unlock the door!" Andreas gasped. These were the only words he uttered. "Then you must jump into the mill race!" they cried. A man can swim, and he can swing himself from the rushing water onto the borders of stones around the race, but a buffalo cannot do this. Some of the men ran down the path to the gate. "Give us the key!" Simbriger said to Litzki and held out his hand, ready to run. But things turned out differently from what was expected; and I have already mentioned that this story is not free of mystery. Litzki had been watching the fight like everybody else. His old face with its countless wrinkles had not displayed any sympathy or emotion. "Give us the key!" the Church Elder repeated. "I will not give it to you!" the old man said with determination. This was not the time to fuss. Down in the street the first blows of an axe were heard resounding against the gate and the little door. But these were not the soft, rotten boards of the stable door, these were hard oak planks, as thick as a fist, dating from times of war. They hung from wrought-iron hinges and were held together by solid iron nails. The locks were not of the kind that would fly open at the first heavy stroke; they were massive old iron locks that could not be tampered with from without, not even with an axe. More often than not, now, there was hardly any distance between the two fighting parties. Again and again there were distorted leaps, and every motion of the lad betrayed mortal fear. "Give us the key!" – A menacing circle closed round the old man. – "I did not bid anyone enter my yard! No one shall make me give away my key!" The men press toward him as though they wanted to reach into his pocket and snatch the key from him by force. Litzki, who has been the most venerated man in the village for all his long life, looks at those around him. The men shrink back, avoiding his gray eye. But then Katharina throws herself down at his feet, wringing her hands: "Forgive him! Grandfather, forgive!" "Open the door!" The lips of the fighting man below are moving, one can hear his desperate cry. His face is disfigured by his bulging eyes and by sand and dust and the horror that speaks from its features. For a few seconds he looks up and his eyes seem to cross old Litzki's, who is looking down at him sternly. The lads come running across the bridge, with the guns in their hands. Down at the gate the first plank has broken and the splinters fall on the cobble stones. But Andreas is lying on the ground. Before he can rise again, the bull throws him into the air, the crowd of spectators shrieks out. A second later the beast stands on the dead man's body, sniffing at his clothes. Katharina has risen and is now running into the orchard. She falls down under a tree, her hands tug at the grass. The men step closer to Litzki, Johann Weidner, the dead man's uncle, comes quite close and says, "You hated him!" Johann Hähnlein, no longer using dialect but speaking in that elevated style of High German that the peasants favor on solemn occasions, says, "Thou art an old man! – How wilt thou stand before God's Throne of Judgement?" Litzki takes off his round black hat and folds his hands. He, too, speaks High German: "God saveth the Innocent and spoileth the Guilty." Christian Münz, the brother of Farmer Roth's wife, cries, "Was little Getzi guilty, then? And yet He hath spoilt him!" And many cry, "Art thou without guilt?" Litzki had understood what was meant by this question, and he was ready to answer it. They made room for him and he walked through their rows without looking back. One of them cried, "His buffalo knows him!" But at once several voices replied, "No raging beast knows its master!" Others cried, "It's been fed by a farmhand" and "It's only been here since Tuesday!" Soon all of them fell silent. They stepped back to the wall and looked down, their hearts crying out for justice. If I stop at this point to reflect, it is because I fear I may not have stirred my readers as deeply as Katharina's imploring outcry "Forgive him! Grandfather, forgive!" stirred those around her. Besides, I wish to clear up the glaring contradiction that lay in the words "You hated him!", which had been hurled at poor Andreas' benefactor, and which had deeply confused my little brain. Only now, during the two or three minutes that passed before Litzki reached the road, did I become conscious of myself again in the nameless bewilderment that was shaking me – I became aware of my trembling limbs and of the fear and the shame of what I had heard. Was not he, Litzki, the noblest, the most venerated of all? What was it that the grown-ups knew about him and about Katharina and Andreas, that they withheld from us children? Witches used to be thrown into the Tailors' Pond, their hands tied together, the rope wound fivefold around breast and arms. If they were not drowned, it was clear that God himself had interfered to prove them innocent: through the ordeal by water, judgement was passed over Good and Evil... When was it that He had last spoken? Three hundred years ago, or more? What dark, inhuman, bygone world did the old man's memory recall? How had his pride been hurt, his judicious compassion and love been deceived? – Deep in his heart lies buried the firm belief in the eternal and irrefutable order of things. It seems to him that the law of this order has been broken. And yet he does not turn to an earthly judge. – What spell, what terrible power drives this old man on a Sunday morning after church to discover in the raging bull the executor of the will of God? What spell, what presumptuousness makes him claim for himself the right to serve as the instrument of this will? – Sharing this moment so deeply with the villagers, I suddenly felt: in these three minutes in which Andreas Weidner's death revealed itself in all its absurdness and cruelty, there was not one among those present who did not suffer true agony for Litzki's rigid stubbornness and his unimaginable inhumanity. And yet, so neatly did the old man submit himself to the raging power of fate, that this submission brought them all closer to their stern and virtuous forefathers than they were able to realize. In the meantime Litzki had arrived down at the door. The huge key was heard turning in the lock with a creaking sound. Then the door opened. I shall never forget the moment when the old man appeared in the doorway. In my turbulent emotions there was something that said to me: this is God Himself who is walking into the yard. Not the God of Wrath, nor God the Avenger, but a silent God who in His greatness needs neither speak nor answer, and whose will is wrought in calmness and indifference no matter how He is worshipped by the peoples of the world who yearn to reach out beyond their earthly existence. Here, on this Sunday morning, condescending to the power of imagination of those waiting for Him, He revealed Himself to me for a couple of moments in the shape of the Transsylvanian peasant Litzki, and even though the old man's kindness, in which I had so firmly believed, was, as it were, already wiped out from my memory by terror and wordless despair, I felt a deep yearning to bow to His greatness. Litzki stood in the yard now. He laid his hat on a stone and walked slowly toward the middle of the yard. He was the last man in the village who wore his hair in the old style. It had never been cut in his life. The long, silvery wisps hung in soft waves over his neck and his shoulders, gently moved by the wind. He stretched out his right hand, luring the animal, and his mouth was open, but not a sound came over his lips. The buffalo snorted and gawped at the approaching man. Litzki did not take his eyes off the bull, nor did he slow down his pace. There was profound silence, only the animal repeated its threat. Now Litzki had reached it. He caught the huge bull by its broken right horn, then started to move, pulling the animal behind him which followed without resistance. They went to the wrecked wagon. The old man picked up the heavy brake chain and wound it round the buffalo's neck. Then he pulled the animal slowly into the barn. The young men went into the yard, lifted the dead body and carried it away. Everybody left in silence, having seen justice been done. Katharina came back. She dragged herself through the yard absent-mindedly, as if she were under a spell. There were no tears in her eyes. Litzki put his arm round her shoulders and led her gently up the stairs to his house. The organist came with two other men and picked up what was left of the broken gun, inspecting it closely. From the top of the staircase Litzki turned back to them and said, "Our laws are hard, and we may feel sorry for him who is struck – but they cannot be changed!" The organist stepped closer to him and replied politely, "If by this you mean that he refused to marry your granddaughter although the old laws demanded this of him – for we think we know what was between them, and what happened – then I must tell you that our laws are milder now, for the old ones are old." But the old man did not pay attention. The door of his house opened silently and then closed again. On the following day, our teacher, Mr. Salmen, told us of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. He told us the facts without making them come alive, and we had not, by then, seen any pictures that might have helped our imagination. We sat there, slouched on our benches and frightened and lost in our thoughts, and were told of the wild beasts. We saw the old Romans in their richly embroidered sheepskin coats that were only for church, and their wives with their veils pinned to their hair, and the girls with their tall black velvet hats on their heads and with the ribbons streaming down their backs, sitting – hymnbook in hand – in the theatre, watching the games. English version by Erika GRÜN

by Erwin Wittstock