Lament for the Old Man in Autumn

/ Alex Reinsch-Goldstein

Fiction17 min reading time

No. 5

As we walked across the fields we hardly spoke. In the east there were storm clouds and we saw them coming over the tops of the trees, very large and very far away, moving slowly as the shadows did, and above us the sky was clear and the sunset was coming down on the fields and the forest. The fields were fading green and yellow as they were in the autumn and across from us was the line of tall trees. The trees were changing also, orange, red, a strange and fiery tint in the sunset. A flock of birds crossed over the fields from east to west and I saw them skimming in perfect silence over us and their shadows racing along the ground, and we turned and watched as they were eaten up by the glare of the sun and I imagined them to be running from the storm clouds in the east. Christina pointed to the white dirt road that ran along the edge of the forest and she said, “At the road we go right, and that is the way into town.” We reached the road and turned as she had said and there by the road was the house of the seamstress woman. She was sitting on the porch, hunched over, gray-bunned, with a quilt half finished in her lap. When she saw us coming she smiled and then looked down at the quilt again, but as we walked by her I suppose her curiosity got the better of her and she said, “Did you know the old man?”

I turned around. “Yes, I did.”

“I thought so. I do not remember you. When there is a funeral you start to see strange faces.”

“He was my uncle. Or rather my great-uncle,” I said.

“Were you very close?”


“I always thought it was a pity Heinrich never had children of his own,” she said. “I think he would have been quite the father.”

“He was quite the uncle,” I said.

She squinted at Christina. “And who is this young lady?”

“She is my cousin.”

“I am very sorry for the both of you.”

“We appreciate that,” Christina said.

The old woman took off her spectacles and folded them in her lap. “I saw him every day, you know. He passed this way, into the forest, walking or on a bicycle. I gave him tea sometimes, when it was cold.”

“That was very kind of you.”

“It was nothing,” she said. “In my own way I will miss him. He was a part of things, the way the trees or the birds are.”

“This place does not feel right without him,” I said.

“He took you to the forest?”

“Every time I visited.”

“Heinrich was an evangelist,” she said. “An evangelist for the forest. Some men are evangelists for Christ, but he was an evangelist for trees. Did he believe in God?”

“I do not know.”

“Professors usually don’t,” she said. “Not even the Bavarian ones. But he was such a good man I cannot believe the Lord would fault him for it.”

“I suppose not.”

“They say He sees what is in your heart, anyways,” she said. “I am very sorry, again.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Christina smiled at her. We turned and walked along the edge of the forest and around the bend until we had the town before us, on the other side of the fields and the railroad tracks, and I saw the rooftops of the town black in shadow and the church spire reaching high above them, and in the distance the bells pealed out six o’clock. Beside us there was the path that branched off into the trees and the signpost that marked the distances to the places of the forest: six kilometers to the forester’s house, four kilometers to the chapel haunted by a lady in white, nine to the meadow where a castle had once stood.

“Did you ever go to the chapel?” Christina said.

“Heinrich took me there,” I said. “We looked for the lady in white once, but we did not find her.”

I stood there a long time, looking up the track, the track with the fallen red leaves on it and the trees high and silent on either side, and in the air there was an awful stillness.

*   *   *

Christina’s father came that evening. The train from Munich drew up at seven o’clock and when it left there was only Uncle Gerhard standing on the platform in his banker’s suit, and he would not let us help with his bags even though it was uphill to the inn. Once he had put his things in his room we went downstairs to the restaurant to eat and he began cutting his schnitzel into small squares. It was then that my mother said, “I heard you were with Uncle Heinrich at the end.”

“I was,” Gerhard said.

“Was it peaceful?”

“Peaceful as it can be, I suppose,” Gerhard said. “Death did not scare him. He had seen so much of it that it did not scare him. There was one thing that bothered him, but we talked about that and it did not bother him anymore.”

“What was it?”

“What happened with his mother, after the war,” Gerhard said. “We talked about it and after that he was not scared anymore. I could see that.”

“I do not think he ever spoke to me about that.”

“He did not speak about it with anyone, I think, until the end.” Gerhard said. “But you know Heinrich was very close with his mother when he was little.”


“He was with his mother all through the war, as were his brothers. They had hardly seen their father since the divorce. Our grandmother was a good woman. I wish I had been able to meet her. I am sure you feel the same. There were times in the war, when they were on the run, when there was one egg for the family to eat, and that was all. She would beat it stiff and she would give it to the boys to eat and leave nothing for herself. She was a good woman. Heinrich loved her very much. I am sure he told you that part of it. After the war she was so poor she could not take care of them. She ended up in the same town as her former husband, and his new wife—Greta, that wicked one—and they were very rich, and she sent the children to live with their father and Greta, so that they could have a better life, but every day after dinner Heinrich and his brothers would race across town to the rented room where their mother lived, and they would spend the evenings there, and those evenings were the happiest times they had. That was what Heinrich told me. But Greta was very jealous. One night she told Heinrich that the reason they did not live with their mother anymore was that she did not want them, that she had been ready to throw him and his brothers out on the street and make them urchins, and Greta said it was only through her kindness and her husband’s kindness that they had a home at all. Of course it was not like that. But Heinrich was very young. He did not know yet that Greta was bad. He believed it. And he stopped going to see his mother. He thought she did not want him. That was 1948, or so. Then she became sick—the cancer. Heinrich went to see her again, but by then she did not have very much time left. She died after six months. He never told anyone, until he told me just before he died—but it had been eating at him all his life, that he wasted the time he had left before his mother died, that he wasted it being angry over things that were not true. I told him that he would see his mother again. I told him that he would see her again and everything that had been unsaid would be said, and they would be together and there would be no more misunderstandings between them, and it would be that way forever. That made him happy. That night he died.”

*   *   *

The bells rang as we carried him from the church into the graveyard. The priest and the pallbearers went in front and behind them Gerhard and my mother, then Christina and I, and then the professors and students from the university and Heinrich’s neighbors and the old seamstress woman who lived on the edge of the forest.

As they lowered him into the ground, I thought of what he said on a day when we were sitting at his kitchen table and he was drinking tea as he did in the afternoons. He said to me, “I am seeing it again, and I have been seeing it for a few days—the trench in Leipzig.” I remembered the story. February, 1945, the flight from Silesia, passing through Leipzig, an air raid, two cousins among the dead—peering over into the trench where the dead lay all in rows, trying to discern the faces. He said, “When I go I will get my own grave. But I doubt it will matter to me then.”

*   *   *

On the day after the funeral, my mother and I set out on bicycles and crossed under the railroad tracks and across the field of harvested corn where the dried-out stalks were scattered along the roadside, and we took the path into the forest. The storm had passed through and the evening was clear and there was rainwater pooled in the hollow places of the fallen leaves that shimmered with strange light as we rode over them. The path ran straight ahead of us under the treetops glowing in the light of the sunset and on to the forester’s house six kilometers down. At five o’clock we came to the little forest chapel where the lady in white lived. In the pleasant light of the evening there hardly seemed anything haunted about it.

“Is there a full moon tonight?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” my mother said. She propped her bicycle on the kickstand. “It was a full moon when Christina got here, I remember. Only a week ago, or so.”

“No ghost tonight, then,” I said.

“I guess not.”

I leaned my bicycle against the side of the chapel and opened the little iron gate across the front and went inside. The picture of Mary on the altar was none the worse for the two years since I last saw it. I said, “They ought to change out the ghosts in the forest.”

“What do you mean?”

“The lady in white is too vengeful,” I said. “I don’t like vengeful ghosts. If the dead do come back, I don’t think they come back to hurt anyone. I cannot imagine how they would even do it, mechanically.”

My mother came in and she began rooting around under the altar. “If they are ghosts, I do not think the logistics of it matter very much to them.” She found the box of matches and she struck one and lit a candle on the altar.

“Maybe,” I said. “But I think they ought to get a new ghost.”

“What kind of ghost do you have in mind?”

“I think Uncle Heinrich would do well.”

“What on earth do you mean by that?”

“I don’t think he would mind living here forever,” I said.

“Probably not.”

“I think it would make him very happy. He could spend the days walking and at night he could rest in the clearings and in the mornings he could rise when the mist does, and it would be like that day after day and year after year, and he could see the seasons changing and every time it would be like the first.”

“Maybe it will be like that,” my mother said. “I hope it will be.”

I did not believe it even as I said it, but as the thought crossed my mind I felt a happiness I had not felt since the old man died, even though I knew it was not true. I knew how happy it would have made him. He loved the forest and he was a part of it like the trees and the birds, for the old seamstress woman had said so and she was right, and as I walked back to the road I asked myself the question, knowing that the answer was no; I asked myself why it should end—why should his love not tie him to this place forever? For he loved the sudden sight of blue sky above the clearings, the smell of the damp earth after the rain had passed, the mist that hung in the clearings and the bursts of light through the trees when the sun was low in the sky. More than anything he loved the fall, the face of the forest changing with the season and green turning to red and orange, and the fallen leaves drifting across the road and the high color that came just before the death. Yet I felt that love is mortal also. It was all still there, the quiet road and the stretch of blue sky above it and the forest dying to be born again, but I knew that I could search the misty clearings and forest roads and the cool dark places under the trees and I would never find the old man again.

*   *   *

The evening before we left Christina and I went to the graveyard one more time. It was almost dark and as we walked down the empty street we watched the moon rise over the trees. We opened the creaking gate to the cemetery and the stone with the old man’s name was white in the moonlight.

“It’s strange that on your grave they put the date you are born and the date you die,” Christina said. “The really important things happen in between.”

“I guess the important things are hard to fit on a stone.”

“Maybe one day we will figure out how to do it,” Christina said.

“Maybe one day,” I said.

The wind rose. It came through the forest and across the fields and it rustled the trees and made a great steady sound like the movement of a great mass of people, as though it was the passing of the dead.

I looked up. The clouds were passing in front of the moon. I said, “Did he ever tell you about the trench they buried people in, during the war?”

“Yes, he did.”

“He told me about it once, and he said, ‘I am seeing it again.’ I cannot understand it, Christi. I just can’t.”

“What do you not understand?”

“He had to live every day of the rest of his life with those pictures in his head. They would come to him and he would see them again. I do not understand how anyone could see something like that and still want to live afterwards.”

“It is hard for us to understand. We were not there,” Christina said.

“They must have had something we don’t,” I said. “Heinrich, and our grandparents, and all the old people who lived through the war.”

“You think so?”

“I cannot explain it any other way. I do not understand how you can love a world where you have seen such terrible things. I tell you, Christi, it’s damned sad.”

“It is,” she said.

“Not just Uncle Heinrich. All of them. One by one they are going. Soon there will be none of them left, and those grand old people will be gone from the world forever and we will be all that is left on earth, and I worry that we are not good enough.”

“I do not know what it means to be good enough,” Christina said.

“I have never met anyone in my life as strong, as selfless, as loving as the old ones. Certainly not anyone our age. How cynical we are, Christi! We are afraid of the world, and sometimes we hate it. I see people falling apart over small things. The old ones lived through the worst thing that humankind has ever done to itself, and it could not make them hate the world. We will never love life half as much as they did, though it has treated us so much better—”

“I think you are being too hard on us,” Christina said.

“I am only telling you what I see. What I see is that the good and the kind and the big-hearted ones are dying, and who is left behind? We are only shadows of them, Christi. We are bad imitations, a bad joke.”

Christina said nothing and she brushed back the hair from her face, and she hugged me. The wind was dying down and that terrible stillness was coming back again. When she let me go she said, “It will be alright, I promise you.”

“No, it won’t,” I said. “We are losing something. I can feel it.”

She put her hands in her pockets and walked to the cemetery wall, and she looked out over it at the town quiet and asleep. She said, “I think some things can’t be lost.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, I do. Some things have been with us since the beginning of time and will be with us until the end.”

“Like what?”

“We want to live, and to love also.”

“That may be.”

“I believe,” she said, “that some things are never going anywhere, and that is one of them. You may think we are giving up on the world, but I promise you—we will give up on breathing air, on drinking water, before we give up on believing that the world is somehow very beautiful.”

“How do you know?” I asked. “How can you know for sure?”

“Faith,” she said, and I saw that she was smiling. “I cannot prove it. But I know it in my heart.”

Watching the way she smiled at me, seeing the smile with all the faith behind it, I felt something that I recognized. I felt that way in the forest, when I thought about the ghosts. I did not believe in it, this unbreakable love. I could not believe in it. But the thought, the wondrous illusion of it, was enough to fill one’s heart.

On the other side of the wall the silver light was filling the empty street, and far away past the end of the town and across the silent fields I could see the forest in the moonlight.

“You might be right,” I said.