All abroad the bus to Lübeck.
He meant to leave his hometown Lassahn, along with its wide skies, lime-green fields, and shadows falling on the walls of red-brick cottages. For too long he had indulged in sleeping until noon and pondered with immobile eyes the notion of sleeping for more, much more, to infinity. When he did go out, he went to read at the library in Heidelberg, the university he had graduated from.
Despite his mother’s disappointment, this trifle activity had let him recover and coaxed him into adult society. Taking a seat between the men and women going to work in what was previously an imperial city, bustling with trade, he felt a pull towards life. In a few hours, he would join vigorous waves undeterred by the many absurd tragedies that had been thrown upon them. Joie de vivre, oh the great joys of a new life, a new identity, a new social status.
He had decided that the first thing to do when he got off the bus would be to visit St. Mary’s Church. Those stained glass works of Danse Macabre were what had pushed him out of bed. In his mind they symbolized his and the city’s regeneration. Artistic and physical masterpieces could be destroyed in a single bombing, just as the flowerbed called his mind had crippled in a sudden shock. Yet they would always be reborn. Perhaps not the same as before, but nonetheless invincible.
A young woman standing opposite him looked out of the window. He followed her gaze and saw a ghostly reflection of himself. It passed through a blur of flowers. Then another. He couldn’t make out what kind they were as the bus sped along. Under the glint of streetlamps, they were a spiral of black and white. Perhaps he should have left his home in the morning. It was surprising and yet familiar how quickly exuberating thoughts calmed down.
He turned away from the mirror.
‘I’ve got it all planned out, you know. I’m saving all the corn I can get my hands on and it’s the sure way to success.’
Two men were talking in hushed voices at the back of the bus.
‘Hey young chap, you need to get your life on track. You’ve got any plans? You sure should, common folk like us, we never know what happens when. You got to be prepared.’
‘I don’t have any warehouses full of crops, like you. But there are other ways, I’ve been promoted. That’s why I’m here, to get to my next job. It’s a respectable position, I think.’
Upon hearing this, the young man who had left his home to settle in the city felt a surge of anticipation run through his bones. For sure, he had not reached any social status as high as the two men in the back seats, but he was young – about the same age as that artist he most respected had left his hometown to settle in Lübeck. His great painting in St. Mary’s was long gone, but his awareness of citizens’ liveliness had affected subsequent works, even geographic works.
He found this fascinating. Almost egotistically, he expected his heart to sail beyond the city’s harbor. For love, for vivacity. The thought that he could be another Bernt Notke…
The bus sped on like a ship hurrying to trade.
Not quite sleepy, the young man glanced outside the windows, expecting to see pointed rooftops as they neared the city. However, it was dark outside, and he saw only himself looking back.
He was about to turn away again when a light flashed before his eyes. He blinked and saw the screen of an online chess game, and the palm that held the tablet. The middle-aged man strategizing against an AI looked scornfully at the monochrome screen. The muscles around his brows were rigid enough to reveal thin blood vessels. In contrast, the screen remained at ease.
For a while, he watched the man fight against his invisible, non-existent opponent. Of course, he lost. It was around that time he heard some mumbling to his left. It came from a scruffy but formally dressed man.
‘Jay mis soubz le banc ma vielle,’ he kept muttering, again and again.
The young man could not make any sense of this man’s words, but for some reason it made him think that he had gone too deep into the night. That despite his determination to better himself in the city, he would rather go home and eat some warm soup his mother made for him. He was aware of how pathetic this sounded, but he could not brush the thought away.
The bus jolted. It had entered a narrow road tiled with rocks.
The scruffy man wouldn’t stop chanting. His voice sounded coarse and gross in his ears. It sounded like bagpipes played by a frustrated beginner. If the noise didn’t stop, he would have to go beyond covering them with his palms.
However, there was no need for him to do anything else. A dart went through his ears. Another went through the young woman’s eyes, and another two through the mouths of the two men in the back. None of them noticed, because they were all preoccupied with their own business. There was no time to issue a complaint.
Soon, the young man settled into a good night’s sleep.
The bus sped on, inching towards Lübeck.
Written by Mai Takahashi
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