Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The 91st Psalm 

 

 

My wife and I are lucky enough to live not that far from the center of Cologne.  I say lucky because Cologne is surely one of the better European cities to live in and residing near the center puts us within steps of the pedestrian walkways along the Rhein River, the medieval cathedral with its two steeples (the Dom), not to mention all the other advantages of a major city - theatres, concert halls, high-end shops, restaurants and the like.  And – and here I assume we are similar to other transported American couples – when we first arrived in Cologne half a year ago we were so taken by being in a European city that we spent a lot of time just walking around its neighborhoods and looking at its streets and buildings.

 

However, that said, the winters in Cologne are not so nice.  At least, not this winter.  For starters, Cologne is pretty far north (check it out on a map) and that translates into lots of dark mornings and early evenings.  Plus the rain.  Maybe past winters have been snowy and bright, but all we’ve had this winter is low clouds and cold rain and more rain.

 

Therefore, last Sunday when we woke and saw the sun shining in our bedroom window we immediately got the idea to go out into the streets and take in the sunshine.  We rationalized our little expedition by telling ourselves that we needed to go to the railway station near the Dom in order to check out the possible train times for a possible trip to Rome in the summer.  But we both knew that it didn’t matter one way or another whether we actually made it to the railway station or not.

 

After a hurried breakfast (we didn’t know how long the sun would last) we started off in the direction of the Dom and the railroad station by walking down Glockengasse, joining Brückenstrasse and entering the Hohestrasse pedestrian zone near the Altstadt.  In the Hohestrasse we were looking over the coffee shops along the street wondering whether we dared to actually have a coffee outside when I couldn’t help but notice an unusual man down the pedestrian zone coming towards us.  I say I couldn’t help but notice because the man was dressed entirely in white.  Everybody else on the pedestrian zone – please remember this was February – wore dark clothing or, at least, mostly dark clothing.  But this man was not only all in white but, even at this distance, I could tell that he held himself straight and erect as he walked.

 

As we got closer to the man and the man got closer to us, the explanation for the white became clear:  He was some kind of pilgrim or religious type outfitted in a white robe and a wooden cross.  As he walked forward he tapped a long staff with a cross in front of him.  And, moreover, he appeared to be blind.  Or, at least, partly blind.  Because, unlike a normal person, his eyes didn’t focus on this object or that object in front of him, but, rather, as he tapped his staff, he gazed with a fixed and blank stare off into the distance.

 

How old was he?  It was difficult to tell because, on the one hand, he had unkempt, stringy black hair and a long, ragged beard and the bulbous nose of an alcoholic.  Also a facial tic.  That meant that every thirty seconds or so he would twist the right side of his face up into a grimace.  On the other hand (and I realize this seems contradictory) he had the sculptured and intelligent face of a sensitive person.  So in terms of his age he could have been anywhere from his early thirties to his late forties, maybe, who knew, even his early fifties.

 

 In any case, both my wife and I stopped to observe him and I noticed other people stopping, too - which is saying something because Cologne is a pretty cosmopolitan city and in walking the streets one sees all sorts of things.

As the man got closer and closer I became aware that he was chanting to himself.  I couldn’t quite make out what he was reciting, but somehow he coordinated the chanting with the tapping of his staff.  That is, each time he tapped, emphasizing a word.

 

Suddenly, abruptly, the man stopped, turned, raised one arm above his head and spread his fingers.  The gesture was such that it was almost as if he were signaling all the traffic along the street to stop, although, of course, this being a pedestrian zone, there wasn’t any traffic.  Just people.

 

Suddenly he sang out:

 

He will cover you with his feathers

and under his wings you will find refuge.

 

And I mean, sing, surprisingly, in the actual, trained voice of an opera singer.

 

His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night.

 

 

The man turned his gaze on the people who had stopped to observe him.  I say, “gaze,” but I don’t mean “gaze” in an ordinary sense because his eyes were still staring blankly.   But, still, somehow he held the people in his sight.

 

“He is the Lord!” the man sang again.

 

Again he held his arm up in the air as if he were commanding all the traffic to stop.

 

Somehow, I don’t know whether it was his white robe, or his tallness, or the erect posture with which he held himself, or the trained singing voice, but, nevertheless, I somehow had the flash (which I immediately rejected, of course) that this man was actually an Old Testament prophet who had been magically transported from biblical times to modern day Cologne and that he couldn’t tell where he was because he was blind.  And, also, very likely, insane.

 

The man lowered his arm but still held it outstretched in a way that took in all those people around him.  Then he swung his arm around until it was pointing directly at me.

 

    Because he hath set his love upon me,

    therefore I deliver him.

 

 

Using his staff, tapping it in front of him, with that vacant stare in his eyes, the man started walking over to where my wife and I were standing.

 

“I think . . . ,” said my wife nodding in the direction of the Dom and the railway station.

 

 “Yes, of course,” I said.

 

 My wife reached for my hand, found it and we started walking.

 

STOP!” called the man in white from behind me.

 

I can’t explain this.  For some reason I stopped.  My wife went a little ahead of me before she also decided to stop.

 

The man with the staff walked at a surprisingly quick  pace toward me and before I really knew what had happened he clamped one of his hands hard on my shoulder.

 

“You are the Lord!” he said.

 

“Casey . . . ,” said my wife.

 

You will trample the great lion and the serpent.”

 

“Casey!” repeated my wife.

 

The man’s fingers dug into my shoulder.

 

 WE NEED TO GO TO THE RAILWAY STATION!” shouted my wife.

 

That did it.  The man loosened his hand from my shoulder, pulled it back, and somehow – this is difficult to explain – shrunk into himself, losing the erectness of his posture.  He turned and tapping his staff in front of him walked back up the pedestrian zone.  The people who had gathered began to disperse.

 

“I’m sorry . . . ,” said my wife.

 

“No, no.  No matter,” I said.

 

“Perhaps I was too extreme,” she said.

 

“Not at all,” I said.

 

“Well, he’s probably a homeless person,” she said.

 

“Of course,” I said.

 

My wife reached out for my hand and we started walking down the  Hohestrasse in the direction of the Dom and the railroad station holding hands.

 

“I think he was deranged,” said my wife.

 

“Yes, probably you’re right,” I said.

 

“All that singing.”

 

“Yes,” I said.

 

“You have to admit he was acting very strangely.”

 

“He did.”

 

Suddenly, almost before we knew it, we were there, the open square, bordered on one side by the railroad station, but sitting right in the middle, the Dom, cascading upwards, all the intricate designs rushing toward the two high steeples glinting in the sunshine against the blue sky.

 

My wife and I stood there looking.

 

“It’s such a beautiful day,” she said.

 

“Yes,” I said, “it really, really is.”

 

“And I think he was deranged.  That man.”

 

“Yes,” I said, “you’re probably right.”

 

She squeezed my hand and I squeezed back.

 

 

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 100 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.