Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

The Cliffs of Rügen

 

A row of posters ran down the middle of the platform, each one identical, displaying a white angel balanced on the curve of a crescent moon, throwing out her arms in celestial invitation.  Susanne, scanning the early Saturday crowd, stood in front of one such poster, its harsh light turning her into a backlit silhouette. Finally, she saw Jon breaking into a run from the stairs. A draft from the oncoming train blew strands of hair over his face. The underground dimness adding to his disorientation, it was only when he was right upon her, and Susanne turned, that the light shifted and he recognized her.

His lips rising in an apologetic half-smile, he lifted a plastic bag on a crooked finger, “I was out of everything. Had to pick up a few things.”

His voice shook slightly.

“Don't worry about it.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, stretched up and kissed him lightly. The not quite familiar gesture dislodged a wedge of uncertainty between them, but still they stood a minute, watching the passengers board the train, as if waiting to see how it's done. It wasn't until they heard the conductor's whistle, and saw him swing from the hand railing off the lower step, that Susanne felt  a thrill, or perhaps a rush of panic that this train might leave without her.

Once on board, they shuffled down the narrow corridor until they found their compartment.  The aisle seats were taken by two older women, each peeling foil from brown bread sandwiches. Susanne stood checking the seat numbers against her tickets until one of the women leaned over and pulled open the compartment door and smiled. In the window opposite, Susanne caught a fleeting reflection of herself and Jon as the two women must see them - a couple.

The door fell shut behind them. It was a relief from the crowded platform and aisles. The blue and yellow pattern on the walls and seating were surprisingly reminiscent of the community center room where Susanne and Jon first met. Susanne was tempted to start as she did Tuesday evenings, “Hi, My name is Susanne, my husband Maik was killed in a car accident last year.”  She was used to being intimate with strangers now.

“Good thing you reserved seats.” Susanne said.

Jon placed Susanne’s suitcase up on the rack. He sat down opposite Susanne, pressing far back into the seats to extend his long legs. Susanne saw his knees poke like rocky outcrops through his jeans. He loudly untied his plastic bags, pulling out deodorant, toothpaste, even some socks, ripped the tags off and shoved it all into his backpack. Susanne watched out the window, grateful he filled the expectant silence that rose off the two women. Once he rubbed his palms down his thighs to his knees and back, she turned back to look at him fully: “Let's get out of here,” and made side-eyes at the two women.

“Yes, hot coffee is just two cars down.” Jon said.

In the dining car, fans of Berlin's football team crowded the tall tables, their long blue and white scarves dangling greasily behind them. They smoked and drank beer despite the early hour, and parted with exaggerated politeness as Susanne and Jon made their way through. When Jon finally reached the counter, he held up two fingers, “Two coffees, please!”

“Milk, sugar?” the steward asked.

Jon turned to Susanne. His eyes dropped to the curve of her breasts under her sweatshirt.

“Oh just black.” She waved a hand, trying to seem uncomplicated, and then pulled it through her dark blond hair, momentarily startled to still feel dampness from her morning shower, which now seemed a lifetime ago.

Jon balanced the coffees, holding them close to his chest as they weaved through the crowd and found a spot to lean against the plastic wall paneling.

He seemed to be making a conscious effort to look at her, bending slightly in the knees. He had nearly run past her on the platform. They had been out together before, usually with others from the group, but here, removed from the circle of familiarity, Susanne found he took on new contours and shadows, and wondered if Jon had the same altered sense of her. He had surprised her with his sudden proposal of a quick get-away to the Baltic.

“So you said you'd been to the Baltic before?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she laughed. She told him of all the family trips in the winter because her brother had suffered from chronic bronchitis.

“It became the prescribed antidote for everything in my family though. The get-away. I wasn't a big fan. Even during the summer holidays. I never left the blanket.”

“And now?” he asked.

Susanne wasn't sure what to tell him. When Maik was still alive they had stuck close to home and the usual routines of shopping mall or the playground with their son Lukas.

“I think I'll manage to venture a little farther this time. What about you?”

Jon shrugged, the two lines between his eyes forming a question as explained he had never seen the Baltic. His family from deep in Bavaria hadn't been one for big trips.

“Once we, I mean Petra and I, you know, came to Berlin, I guess you just get settled, not that that's bad of course. I used to love books about pirates and the open sea. I don't know why I didn't do it sooner.  But you do other things.”

Susanne remembered something Jon had said one Tuesday evening about Petra spending time in the garden during the final stages of her breast cancer, not wanting to be far from home. She imagined Petra bending close to the solid, warm earth under her feet.

“Are they coming or going?” Jon laughed.

“Not a football fan I guess? Going. The game was in Berlin last night, the first one in the new stadium,” Susanne said.

The football fans began singing their anthem. She knew the words and sang with them, loosening the tight pull at the back of her throat. Jon stood back and watched, and imagined for a moment they had just met on the train by accident, and in the next moment they would exchange a few words and continue moving in opposite directions.

The train made many stops just out of Berlin, and as the distances between stations grew, the streams of passengers getting off thinned. Only when their stop was announced did Susanne and Jon return to their compartment. It was empty. The scent of old bread hung in the air, and Susanne felt briefly adrift again.

In the station they checked the schedule for when the trains would return to Berlin the next day. Susanne pushed a squeaky postcard carousel, letting her fingers glide over glossy, almost sticky images of beaches, Wilhelmine villa facades, curling pine trees. She stopped at the painting, just as she felt Jon lean into her back, the warmth of his arm pleasing her.

“This is the famous one, right?” she asked, picking it out.

“Yes.” Jon said and shrugged slightly. “Friedrich something right?” and he took the postcard from her and turned it over.

“The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, by Caspar David Friedrich,” Jon read out loud.

“I mean isn't there one cliff that's really famous. Is this it? I wonder if we can go to that spot too.” Susanne said.

Jon turned the postcard over again to look at the painting. Pointy, bright outcrops of chalk more like stalagmites than cliffs dominated the center of the picture. In the foreground, three figures seemed to cling to the mossy forest edge, high above a blue-pink sea. Only a woman in a red dress leaned tentatively forward into the landscape.

Susanne took the postcard over to the counter and after paying for it held it between her fingertip and thumb like something she didn't want to wrinkle as they left the station.

The little seaside town of Binz was the last stop on the line, and Susanne had a sense of no turning back, no moving forward.

There was only one lane leading away from the train station, so they followed it up a slope past boxy, five-story housing units, the shutters mostly drawn. An autumn light rose pale and yellow in the mid-day sky.  The path narrowed, and after a last bit of incline, the rectangle of light expanded and the sea stretched before them, quiet, a surprisingly soft brown color. Miniature waves, like a souvenir you could pocket, jumped over and over on the beach.

“Look, there are some of the cliffs,” Susanne pointed.

Lines of jagged chalk glowed on the seaside horizon. A ferry blew its horn, and the air was clean and crisp.

“Yes, the big ones are farther round I think. You can take the boat out there, we can ask at the Pension,” Jon said.

They quickly found their lodgings just off the promenade, a converted three-story brick villa. A woman, restraining a dog, met them at the door and greeted them each with a firm handshake, but quickly turned back to retrieve a key from a counter.

“It's over here,” she said, pointing to a door opposite them.

“I asked for the second floor room with the balcony,” Jon said.

“Yes, but that’s usually reserved for those who book for both weekend nights,” she said in a condescending tone that gave Susanne the feeling that they were amateurs. No one books for just one night.

“You said it would be fine, as it's off season.”

She shrugged, “Take a look. It's north-side. If you want it, I still have to clean it up.” She addressed only Jon.

“Jon, don't worry about it. We'll be gone most of the time anyway.”

 

“No. Everyone says you have to breakfast on the balcony the next morning.” Jon said. Jon had never shown himself to be ruffled at the meetings, and now realizing that he had had a plan for how this weekend would work, she felt the pull at the back of her throat again.

Taking another key now, the woman led them up two flights of stairs and opened the first door on the left. Wainscoting edged the high ceilings. An old stuffed chair sat before double doors leading to a balcony.  The woman whipped away a wet towel draped over the foot of the bed, the sheets still twisted. Through the balcony doors, Susanne and Jon saw the remains of a half-eaten breakfast.

Jon dropped his bag up with a thump. 

“It's perfect.” Jon said Susanne. “Let's go out and get some stuff for a picnic lunch; by the time we're back she should be finished.”

“Maybe we can check at the docks when the ferry goes...” he added.

“You missed the round-trip boat already. That's why these ones were up and out so early,” the woman said, indicating the debris left by the previous guests and pulling her mouth down.

“But surely there's another?” he asked.

She looked at her watch. “In about 15 minutes, but it goes straight  to Stralsund.”

“Oh let's just take the bus, it doesn't matter. The hike is supposed to be beautiful too.” Susanne said.

“You know what, you just stay here.” Jon said. “We don't have to decide right this second. I'll be right back then with some rolls and cheese, maybe a couple of beers. Then we can take off.”

And he left Susanne with the woman, who shuffled back and forth between room and hall. 

“The bus stop's just around the corner. It goes every fifteen minutes and drops you at the edge of the park,” she said in a flat tone and she exhaled slightly with a final tug of the dirty sheet, stripping the bed bare.

Before carrying it all out the door she nodded her head at the postcard still in Susanne's hand. “You won't find those. It's a made-up place. The Gauner cheated and just threw a lot of cliffs together in his painting. Still everyone comes out here on a mission to find it.” She laughed unpleasantly, almost clearing her throat, but then smiled  as if she had done Susanne a favor, warned her off of something.

 

Susanne could only turn away from her. “I'll wait on the balcony until you're finished.”

 

The room was long tidied up and clean by the time Jon returned. His cheeks were red, two apples against the room's beige interior. Susanne rose from the edge of the balcony chair and placed one hand on his cheekbone. With a look of undesired alertness, as if he had suddenly been shaken awake, Jon steadied himself by wrapping his fingers around her wrist and she felt the cold sliver of metal, still cupped in his palm, pressed against her skin.

It was a lighter. She wanted to take it out of his hand and ask him about it but then she saw his shoes, wet around the toes, encrusted with sand, and she saw him again on the train platform running late this morning.

“Ready?” he asked.

Jon flapped a leather jacket over his arm.

“Didn't they predict rain?” she asked.

Before he could answer, the ferry horn blew again.

“Ah, the ferry's still here!”

Susanne laughed. “I don't know about my sea legs.”

He put an arm around her shoulders and leaned in to rest his nose and lips on the crown of her head.

“Yeah you're right.” He said quietly. He looked around. “The witch gone?”

“Yeah.” She took the postcard out of her pocket and fanned it between them. “The Cliffs of Rügen are calling.”

 

 

The bus dropped them at the edge of a forest. A path slanted down immediately from the stop. After 100 meters, they reached wooden stairs that plunged down a steep incline. The sun was still bright through the pine trees, everything green shot through with yellow, and it all shimmered when the wind blew. With one hand on the rail, Jon looked up and out as he started to descend, his mouth bent in a quiet smile.

Jon bent down and reached out a long finger.

“Look!  He pulled Susanne’s elbow over to his side. Dozens of small shells lined the lower rail. “They’re all over. The stripes are so beautiful.  Do you think they do that all on their own, like on purpose?”

“What do you mean?” Some of the snails were so small, with houses the size of a tack head. Looking at their short wet trails, Susanne balled her hands in her coat pockets.

“I mean if they lived in a purple and red forest, would they be purple and red?”

“I’ve never seen a purple and red forest, Jon.”

“I mean if there were such a thing.”

“I guess, you mean like salamanders?”

“Chameleons. Yes. Well, no. Probably the colors of these shells evolved over millions of years.  It’s just amazing – they just blend so perfectly here to the forest. They’re beautiful.”

Susanne took a few steps down and turned back to Jon. “I think they’re all brown.”

Jon looked at her now.

“I mean garden snails. Well, at least slugs are. They eat the lettuce in my mother’s garden. Pepper will do it she says. That kills them.” Susanne said.

“That’s a myth.”

“What?”

“Pepper.” Jon remained crouched, gingerly placing a hand on the railing. Susanne watched him glide his fingertips over the shell backs, as if seeking direction in some braille of nature.

“Petra had a garden.”

Jon rose and skipped down a few steps. They descended the rest of the way in silence, then they were right at the water’s edge, the sunlight on the white stones blinding them. The forest lay close at their backs, cupping around them left and right, like a protective hand. The waves here too were small, lapping.

“It's so quiet. Not quite what I was expecting...the big roar of land and sea meeting.” Jon said.

“Let's find a spot at the base of the cliffs.” Susanne led the way and they hobbled over large stones. After several hundred meters, the forest fell away and the beach opened up. The sound of hundreds of pebbles being pushed by water over and over again filled the air.

A hundred meters farther and the largest cliff jutted from the forest, pointing its high nose towards the sky, like the prow of a boat. Another couple sat on boulders looking out to sea. Susanne and Jon walked past them and right up to the cliff base. Susanne slapped one hand on the chalky side and said “Hey old girl” like it was a gentle, trustworthy bovine. She picked up some fallen chips. They felt greasy and cold as she weighed them on her fingertips.

“Souvenir?” Her palm outstretched.

Jon shook his head.

“Oh come on, it’s not like anyone will notice.” and she pocketed the two chunks.

They gravitated over to a large rock and sat down wordlessly, unpacking rolls, some cheese and apples. Jon swung his backpack around and dug for his Swiss Army knife.

“Do you have everything with you in that backpack?”

“I have only what I can carry on my back,” he said in his best Pfadfinder voice.

He cut off pieces of cheese and placed them between sliced Schrippen he had brought from Berlin. Susanne sank her teeth into one and hummed softly with pleasure. They passed a beer that had somehow gone flat between them, looking out to sea for a long time, until the water turned gray and the clouds seemed to drop.

“Looks like it's time to head back.” Susanne stood, surprised at the disappointment she saw in his face.

Jon wrapped his arms around his sides and smiled, “You were right about the rain I guess.” He looked down at her. She was like a little bird with her spiky blond hair and eager face, and ready to be gusted up and away by the wind and out to sea.

Reaching the first landing on the stairs, they paused, out of breath.  A deep shudder in the railing, a vibration, like the thunder of an incoming storm, made them look up and back to the forest edge. Jon waited, while Susanne went ahead. It took longer going back up the steep hill. As her head finally drew level with the top of the stairs, she saw a police car rumbling down the path. The blue and red lights turned silently, changing the colors of the forest.

He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. The words that had gone through her head the afternoon the police stood on her doorstep and asked her if she was Maik Grossman’s wife. The memory’s ordinariness, everydayness is what got to her still – she had stood at the front door with the TV remote control in her hand.  

She turned around. Jon was nowhere to be seen. A Polizist asked her again impatiently.

“Anyone with you?”

“He’s d…” The walkie-talkie screeched. 

 “What?”

Jon’s head bobbed into view.

“Down there,” she finished. Another policeman came up to them.

“Anyone else?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s going on?” Jon asked.

“Anyone behind you?”

“No. I don’t know. Maybe another couple. What’s going on?”

“One of the cliffs. It broke off and fell into the ocean.”

Jon said nothing, looking at him in confusion.

“What do you mean it fell into the ocean? We were just there.” Jon was taller than most people and often bent slightly at the waist, which could have a charming effect, but now it seemed like he was getting in the policeman’s face.

“All I know is what I hear. Just about fifteen minutes ago. A part of the cliff is no more. Collapsed back into the ocean.”

Jon turned and took a step back to the stairs.

“Can’t go back there now. Have to get emergency staff down there.”

The policeman turned away and concentrated on talking into his shoulder walkie-talkie.

At the bus stop, people crowded around, talking excitedly.

A woman held up a cell phone, “My aunt's on the ferry. She filmed it all.” People gathered closely behind her to catch a glimpse.

Susanne looked to Jon, wondering if she should apologize that they hadn't taken the ferry. They would have stood at the rail and together watched a piece of earth collapse into the ocean.

A bus squeaked to a stop, spewing out acrid fumes. They inched up the stairs and found seats across the aisle from each other. Susanne watched Jon take the lighter from his pocket again.

“Was it Petra’s?

“Yes.” He looked down at the aisle, the legs shuffling by between them. “I hated it, hated that she never quit. Figured I would easily throw it out after it was all over.  I forget. It's never like you expect it to be.”

The bus lurched into second gear, throwing everyone forward. A few passengers cheered, but Susanne pulled her hands out from her jacket to steady herself on the seat back, then held up her palms. Bits of chalk, her souvenir, had warmed in the pockets and softened, now spread all over her hands. 

Getting off the bus, they walked back over the cobblestone promenade in the dusk. Strings of fairy lights were buoyed over their heads in a breeze. Underneath the artificial brightness, Susanne wandered over to a row of souvenir stands, picking up an oddly-shaped piece of amber.

“Are you looking for something to bring back to your son?” Jon asked softly.

“No, I am just looking, I guess.” 

Jon wandered off, watched the water and waited, rolling on his feet, as if hypnotized by the waves lapping in and out.

Once inside the room, she quickly pulled her sweater over her head. His hands on her hips, Jon bent to rest his nose and lips in her hair.

They both undressed so quickly that when he put his fingers around her wrist they were still cold from the evening air.

Susanne fumbled for the light.

“No,” Jon brushed her hand away from the switch.

He buried his face in her neck, “You smell like the pine trees and the salt water still.”

And she too saw the point where land and sea met, the flat ocean stretching out of reach, the pebbled beach from which the waves pushed back, trying again and again. 

 

 

 

 

Johanna da Rocha Abreu has lived in Berlin for 21 years. She works as a writer, editor and translator. Her first published story "May 1" appeared in the anthology of Berlin writing, Tales from Another Country. You can check the collection online.