I didn’t really disagree with many of his opinions, in and of themselves. It was more the disproportionate anger that accompanied them, an anger that seemed all too big and amorphous to contain all the things he railed against, an anger that seemed more constitutional.
He also became angry at me once. It was later on, when I had begun to say more, maybe even one of the first times we had something that seemed like a conversation. Anyway, that’s how I saw our exchange of words. We were talking about love, I remember. Love in the Christian sense, charity. I was the one who called it charity. “Charity!” he sneered, as if it was the epitome of all of modern culture’s inanity. It seemed almost as if he had been waiting for that cue just so he could throw himself into what was really on his mind: the rampant individualism, the psychologizing of human existence, the whole culture of self-improvement and its facile spirituality, all just a thin shroud over modern man’s superficiality and inability to take an interest in anyone other than himself.
I said something along the lines of—which was true—that for the most part I agreed with what he was saying. Still, it wasn’t totally wrong, as a psychologist would see it, that a person incapable of loving or at least respecting themselves is not in any position to love others, and that self-improvement or some form of therapy could therefore—
I never managed to finish my thought. Suddenly he banged his fist on the table and shot up so fast that the chair fell over.
“I don’t want to hear this,” he hissed. “This isn’t a fucking conversation—it’s just an exchange of attitudes!”
I have to confess that I was rather dumbfounded. It was totally unexpected. He stood there in the middle of the room, his mouth hardened into a strict line; and then he turned round, standing at the kitchen table, his back towards me. He stood that way for a while, with hands clenched against the tabletop and his shoulders arched. Eventually he let his hands fall and said, without turning around:
“Forget it. Have a cup of coffee, if you’d like. I’m going down to work.”
And he left.
Normally, he directed his anger more at impersonal things: social, political, or cultural matters. It probably comes as no surprise that I was a little fascinated—if not actually impressed—by the energy in this constant store of anger. Its ability to surface almost out of nowhere with a power and intensity that made any question of rationality fade. An anger that barely seemed containable in that small kitchen with its cozy paneled cabinets.
At other times, he could be sullen and silent, barely answering in monosyllables, as if he were gathering his strength for later eruptions.
I wasn’t really sure I believed all that about the secret room. Or even if he did, for that matter. He said so many strange things. In any case, I couldn’t see the point of wasting square meters—which even then, over a hundred years ago, must have been quite expensive—on a room nobody would ever use. The whole idea seemed foolish, like some gothic fantasy or something out of a child’s fairy tale. Still, the secret room kept popping up in my thoughts, and sometimes, just for fun, I tried to figure out where it was. It was almost impossible not to think about it when I was moving around the silent house, the vacuum cleaner’s head gliding like a probe along the tall paneling. From the very moment the possible existence of a secret room was mentioned, the idea of it became just as much an inseparable part of the house as the room itself, whether it actually existed or not. And maybe it wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. There was something about the house, something eccentric or irrational, that made the possibility of such a whim seem if not obvious then at least plausible.
It was a three-story house, four with the cellar. The stairs between each floor sat just about in the middle of the house, like a not particularly straight vertical axis around which the rooms dispersed in an apparently improvised sequence—as if they followed some incoherent line of thinking full of sudden impulses and accidental flourishes rather than any coherent master plan.
The way into the house seemed like a rite of passage in several stages. The first barrier was the hedge with the red-painted wooden gate. The hedge, which I guess was taken care of by the cemetery’s gardener, was so massive and wrapped so tightly around the gate that it looked as if the gate had been mounted directly into it. Inside was a short flagstone path leading up to the main steps. From the front door, with its gold bottle-glass panes, you entered a porch that could just as easily have served as the entrée hall all by itself. From here you entered yet an even larger foyer with a strangely misplaced cross-vaulted ceiling, and finally into yet another hallway from where the steps snaked in a lazy curve up toward the other floors, while a hidden flight of stairs beneath them led down to the basement. Once this far in, there was no sign of the outside world, its cars, sidewalks, and traffic lights were far away. You were surrounded by doors and openings, and walls that cracked and ran around corners, leading one ever further in.
It was a house with an unusual number of doors, at least two in every room, and three or four in many places. The sheer number of doors meant that the rooms were connected crosswise, and I think that contributed to making it so hard to cope with the house. It was as though the idea got jumbled up among all these entranceways and exits, and ended up leading aimlessly around, with nothing to stop it than the outer walls, which in and of themselves rarely demarcated any clear or definite boundary, but faded off instead beneath the eaves or bulged out in bay windows or corner towers.
The only exception was the bedroom on the first floor. There was actually only one door here. Obviously, it had always been that way, but it was only later that I had any reason to notice it. At first, I was more consumed by the basement office, where I officially had nothing to do. He never mentioned whether or not he took care of the cleaning there, but I had probably assumed so. Or maybe it was just never cleaned. In any case, from the very start it was clear that my range of action did not include the basement. Unofficially, on those rare occasions when he wasn’t home, I went down there anyway.
In contrast to the hushed, almost uninhabited atmosphere hanging over the rest of the house—the sense of something provisional, rooms still waiting to be taken into possession—the basement office seemed inhabited in a completely different way. Obviously, this was where he spent the largest and most important part of his time. The desk had been overrun. Stacks of books were piled up with a forest of small yellow post-its stuck between their pages, or they lay open on top of each other among half-filled-out birth certificates, pieces of paper with notes, bank letters, ashtrays, half-filled coffee cups with small islands of mold in them. Capsized rows of books, binders, and journals filled the bookcases along two of the walls. An old rocking chair sat in the innermost, darkest corner. And then that silent stare from the wall niche. There was something at once repulsive and puzzling about that small tableau that drew me with a force I cannot explain. It was as if it sucked all the energy in the room to itself. I often found myself standing there mesmerized in front of it while I felt the children’s eyes fixed upon me. I couldn’t look at them for very long; instead, I tried to look into the shrine through the small colored windows.
Children at that age grow quickly. But not that quickly. And they don’t grow younger. The girl I had seen in the garden one day—the only child I’d ever seen in or around the house—was at least three or four years younger that the girl in the picture. The boy next to her I had only seen here. His face was childish but his eyes were dark like the wells in a Russian fairy tale, like holes burnt into the photograph. You could just make out something glinting between his slightly separated lips. Maybe he was wearing braces.
Sometimes, especially in winter when the sun was low, a sunbeam would break through the dry vine leaves that almost smothered the windows and strike the shrine, which reflected the light even farther and bathing the little scene in an almost apocalyptic glow. For a brief moment, the children seemed to almost flare up, standing there glowing in the light from the shrine’s colored glass. I didn’t know why, but sometimes I imagined that it was in these moments that he most loved them. And it really was just moments. Before long, the sunbeam would move on, leaving the room to sink back into a formless twilight.