The Pilgrimage - A Short Story (UG)

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I recognised him immediately, of course — if not by the wild hair and the pince-nez spectacles that perched on the bridge of his nose, then by his erratic gait, as though each leg was moving to the accompaniment of a different rhythm.

Today, the eighteenth, was one of those days in May, coming between late spring and early summer, which are a joy. A bright, clear start to the morning, with a promise of warm sun to come. I had come to Vienna on what I suppose should be called my annual pilgrimage, although I never look upon it as such.

My itinerary is by now quite familiar: a taxi ride from my hotel to the beautiful Staatsoper, followed by a gentle walk to stand for a short while opposite the Auenbruggergasse apartment block. Occasionally passers-by glance upwards, curious as to what it is I am looking at. Around midday, I have lunch in one of the many excellent cafés and then take the Number 38 tram out to the cemetery at Grinzing.

From my seat I watched as a modern, vibrant city passed the window; yet this is still a city that retains its position, as it has for centuries, as an important European centre of the arts. By the time I got off the tram, the sunshine had warmed the air sufficiently for me to be able to take off and carry my coat. I stood quite still until the tram had moved off, enjoying once again the local sights and sounds, before making my way slowly from the tram stop to the gates of the cemetery. Not for the first time, I was aware of a tingle of anticipation and a quickening of the pulse, but the feeling somehow felt a little stronger this year. Would there be something different this time? My fear was that there would be a large crowd, especially today. Somewhat selfishly, I prayed that there would not be.

Passing through the gates, I made my way easily to the gravesite. As I arrived, a small group of visitors was just moving away, leaving it unattended. My prayers had apparently been answered.

I stood in front of the tall gravestone with its simple inscription — only a name, no dates of birth and death, no poetic quotation or religious piety, just the plain stone. A branch of the tree behind the grave was hanging down and touching it whenever the breeze blew, as though gently caressing the stone and the name engraved at the top of it. I could still feel the tingle that had started when I got off the tram, but now it was more of excitement than of anticipation.

I looked at my watch to check how long I would be able to stay. On my first trip here, I had rather underestimated the time it would take to get back to the airport and had almost missed the plane. My watch said exactly three o'clock. Good — no need to rush.

A movement caught my eye. Turning my head to the right, I saw a figure walking in my direction along the pathway between the rows of graves. He was dressed in a grey-striped suit with a waistcoat, an off-white shirt and a small bow tie. On his feet were worn, slightly scruffy shoes. There was that wild hair, not exactly unkempt, but with a certain carefree independence. I watched as he approached and was struck, as many others had been, by his sharp, black, piercing eyes. I was mesmerised and my heart was pounding. Here was the man whom I revered, had spent so many years reading about, whose grave I was standing in front, walking along the pathway towards me. He was now only a few feet away.

'Herr M—,' I started to whisper, but he quickly raised a finger to his lips, silencing me. He stopped beside me and for some moments those eyes searched me, as though looking for something concealed from view, not about my person, but somewhere deeper.

'Why do you come here?' he asked quietly. Twenty-four hours ago, or even two minutes ago, I would have had no doubt as to my answer, but now he was making me rethink completely. In some odd way, the question had also calmed me. My heart had stopped pounding and I was relaxed once more.

'To try to understand,' I replied after a while. 'To try to make sense of your life. I've learned the documented history, but it's like seeing it through a misty window. Somehow these visits help to clear the view.'

I was suddenly aware, and rather shaken, to realise that our conversation thus far had been taking place in German, a language which during the course of my studies I had managed to read, albeit slowly, but with which I had little conversational skill.

He turned and started to walk slowly back in the direction that he had come from. Although he said nothing and made no sign to indicate it, I was left in no doubt that he intended I should accompany him.

'There's so much I want to know,' I said, 'but where to begin? Can you...?'

'Go wherever I wish?' he interrupted, completing my question almost before it had formed. Perhaps he could read my mind. I pondered the idea briefly but then dismissed it.

'Yes. Wherever my memories choose,' he said. 'I have complete freedom, so long as I can recall the place.'

'Are you able to meet...' I hesitated, not certain quite how to put it. How should one refer to those who are no longer living? '...your friends and acquaintances?' was the meagre best I could manage.

'If our memories coincide, then yes.'

Although his answers were brief, no further elaboration seemed necessary. I glanced over my shoulder, backwards, towards the grave.

'You must get some degree of contentment in sharing that beautiful spot with P,' I said, referring to the pet name he had given his beloved daughter, who had died while still in her fifth year.

'Alas, her mind was not sufficiently developed at that age for lasting memories to have formed. Very occasionally, I sense her being nearby, but not in the same way as with adults.'

'And A... your wife?' I corrected myself, not certain whether using her first name might cause some slight affront.

'Every so often,' he said. 'But not as much as I'd like. She has so much more life to remember than I was permitted.'

I sensed that his answer said a great deal more than it appeared to, but I also felt that I risked treading on personal territory to which I had no right, so I made no attempt to pursue it.

'Do you feel any bitterness?' Immediately I was not certain why I had asked that question. What had I intended? Was I referring to his premature death or perhaps to his relationships with other people? I wanted to retract the question, but it was too late.

A brief wave of sadness passed across his face. 'Bitterness is an affliction of the living,' he said. 'I spent most of my adult life trying to decide whether mankind's struggle was to be pitied or despised. It was a pointless debate. The real struggle should be to fill every moment available. Our lives are so fleeting and yet we waste so much of it with trivia.'

We had reached the end of the pathway. He paused, then turned and headed back to where we had started.

'I suppose you go to the Opera House?'

'No!' he said sharply. 'Why I spent so long in those satanic prisons I don't know. I should have been doing more important things.'

'But you achieved so much,' I protested. 'You showed that sloppiness was not to be tolerated, neither on the stage nor in the orchestra pit. Every opera house in the world now adheres to your principle of offering only the highest standards of performance.'

He shrugged his shoulders and looked at me with his head tilted ever-so-slightly to one side, quizzically, his eyebrows imperceptibly raised. It was undoubtedly a question, but it escaped me — I was not able to read it. Looking at him, I was again drawn to his eyes. If the eyes are windows on to the soul, then his were wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, panoramic windows. We continued to walk, but now in silence.

Soon we were back at the grave once more, and stood facing it, he just behind me and to one side. 'Look at the branch on that tree,' he said. 'If it is only allowed to, Nature can envelop us all.'

'And if we don't allow it?' I asked, turning to him, but there was nobody there. Just as quickly as he had appeared, he had gone. Instead, a group of people, larger than the one I had seen when I arrived, was heading along the pathway, pointing in my direction, obviously looking for the stone in front of which I was standing.

With a start, I remembered my timetable. 'I'm going to be late,' I thought, and looked urgently at my watch. It was exactly three o'clock.

The composer Gustav Mahler died on 18th May 1911 and is buried in the cemetery at Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna. From 1897 until 1907, he was Director of the Vienna Hofoper, one of, if not the, most prestigous post in the field of European opera.

In 1902, he had married Alma Schindler, a stunningly beautiful woman 19 years his junior. Together they had two daughters: Maria, the firstborn, nicknamed Putzi, and Anna, nicknamed Gucki. Tragically, Maria died of scarlet fever and diphtheria at the age of four years and eight months. She was buried at Maiernigg, on the southern shore of the Wörther See, where Mahler had earlier built a villa to live and work in during the summer months. After her death, he never returned there. When Mahler himself died in 1911, aged only 50, Maria's body was brought from Maiernigg and re-interred with that of her father.

Alma Mahler survived her husband by over 50 years and died in New York in 1964.

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