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Norbert Scheuer's novel "The Rushing of the Weir" - an excerpt


In our childhood my brother and I felt that the whole house was full of noise and anxiety, and only the rushing water of the weir behind the inn reassured us. We used to lie in bed in the evening, thinking that its sound drowned out everything else, and it was as if we were drifting lifelessly, slowly towards the weir, arms outstretched, with only an endless starry sky above us.

But that's all long ago. This is the year 1996, I am forty-five now, my brother Heinrich is two years older. It is early autumn, the leaves are beginning to turn colour, they fall from the alders on the bank, reeling in the air, they drift in the river where I am standing trying to catch a fish. I am wearing Hermann's angling outfit, his waders that come up to the chest, his vest, his hat with its brightly coloured flies, all of them tied by Hermann himself, I am carrying his creel and his rod, which is black glass-fibre and over two metres long, with yellow ring bindings. I am after the big fish, but I'm clumsy, I don't throw straight, the line gets tangled up and catches in the undergrowth on the bank, and I lose precious lures – just as I did earlier when I went fishing with Father and Hermann. In those days, however, I used to lose the lure on purpose, because the river and angling meant nothing to me. To Hermann, however, they meant everything. When he had gone to sea and wasn't here any longer, he kept talking about his great river on the audiocassettes that he sent home to us. I always thought that the river, the fish and his Alma would be enough for him, he'd be happy with that. But it had not worked, or how could matters ever have reached the point where he was taken away yesterday evening? Maybe he really is mentally sick, maybe they'll keep him shut up for a long time.

Yesterday evening, after the last customers had left and Alma had closed the restaurant, she gave me Hermann's angling outfit gear and fishing tackle, saying she thought my brother would have wanted me to have them anyway. She also thought it would be best for me to stay here for a few days instead of going straight back to the city. I think it's as well for Alma herself not to be alone at the moment. It was she who called me and told me Hermann had been shut up in his room for days, and wouldn't speak to anyone, she told me how he had changed over the last few months, ever since the Dutchwoman disappeared, and his behaviour had been getting stranger all the time. As I spoke to her on the phone I could hear customers at the bar in the background. Alma whispered: "I think your brother's sick, he keeps talking about that old fish – you know, ichthys – just like your father in the old days. Sartorius thinks Hermann needs help, but your brother won't let anyone into his room and he won't speak to anyone either – not even Sartorius, who's always meant well by him."

She went on to say that recently Hermann had been interested in nothing but his flies. He didn't go angling any more, he just sat by tOpening pages, pp. 9–19he river from morning to night, watching the midges and mayflies swarming above the water, Then, when he came home in the evening, he would get behind the bar, drink schnapps, and stand everyone round after round. He told muddled stories, got up on the table, shouted for no reason, bawled songs and made boastful speeches that reminded her of our father. In fact he made a fool of himself in front of everyone, called the customers names and then simply threw them out of the inn.
Alma asked me to come at once. She didn't know what to do, she said. My sisters were going to come as well. Alma had even turned to them for help, although she and my sisters had not got on ever since our childhood, when Alma did her training at our inn.

I took several days off and caught the train to the Eifel area after work. I hadn't been home for years, and I'd heard very little of my brother and sisters. In the end I hadn't even gone home for Mother's birthday and at Christmas. Everything I knew about my family came from occasional phone conversations with Alma, or the audiocassettes that Hermann went on sending me regularly, but what he said on them got more and more confused.

The cassettes that Hermann sent me through all those years are labelled with titles like: Summer Rain, River, Deep Pool, Pond, Basin, Nymphs, Confluence of Currents, Gravel, Love, Banks of Gravel and Flint and Reeds, Reflection, Shallow Waters, Wars, Degrees of Incidence, Banks of Rock, Dam, River Bends, Undermined Banks, Overhanging Bushes, Submerged Trees, Smell of the Water, Dragonflies, Sleeping Fish – and again and again cassettes labelled "In the Bar", on which there's nothing to be heard but confused voices and the murmured counting out of coins, drunks rambling on, the sound of table football, the creak of the lavatory door, throats being cleared, coughing, whispering, raucous shouting, juke-box music. And there are audiocassettes about fish-farming, male fish spawning, sisters, the Caribbean, ships due to be scrapped, oceans, what's below the river, the streams secretly feeding into it, floods, the rushing of water, that ancient fish the ichthys, and other oddities. Now and then, when I listened to a cassette, it was like being a child again in the days when I lay in bed and couldn't get to sleep, listening to the sounds of the inn. On those audiocassettes Hermann talked about the trout, grayling and barbel that he could catch with his bare hands. "There are fish as old as our river itself," says Hermann on one cassette. When I heard that I wondered how any living creature could be as old, as ancient as our river?

[Translator's note: the next page has a drawing, the first of several on fishy subjects in the book, each with a page to itself and a caption. This first caption runs:]

Probably a fossil of the first fishlike vertebrate (Anatolepsis), which lived in the shallow seas of the Cambrian. The first land animals are thought to have developed from it millions of years later, breathing oxygen and crawling on shore with the aid of their powerful ventral fins. A time came when their descendants did not return to the water, and we ourselves evolved from those descendants. Perhaps something of the spirit of that ancient fish still lives on in us.

I stand in the river, fishing, I smell the water as I used to smell it in my childhood, the odour of all the stuff that the river carries about with it, like an old jacket with its pockets stuffed full. I wonder why I really came home, I think of my family, of my sisters who, when I came back yesterday morning from the care home where I had been visiting Mother, were sitting in the kitchen behind the restaurant with Reese, waiting for me.

On the journey here I had spent a long time sitting in the station bistro at Cologne, until the first regional train finally set off for the Eifel at six. I was hoping I could do something to help my brother. By the time I boarded the train I was slightly tipsy. I had certainly promised Alma to come, but these days I didn't really want anything more to do with my family, which has lived in the Eifel area for as long as it can be traced back. Aunt Reese used to tell us that only two men in the family ever left this part of the country. One of them was my uncle Jakob Arimond, who was taken away to Siberia during the war, escaped from a POW camp there and made his way home on foot. The other was my brother Hermann, who also came back again after many years as a seaman sailing all the oceans of this earth.

In the beginning our forebears were farmers who kept an inn as a sideline. At the end of the nineteenth century, when the railway line through the Eifel was built to run from Cologne to Trier along the rivers Urft and Kyll, they gave up farming. At first they made their living from the labourers who came from all points of the compass to build the embankment and the reservoirs. Later, after the war, most of the guests staying at the inn were American soldiers stationed in Prüm and at the Bitberg air base, and later there were commercial travellers, holiday-makers in summer, and anglers who came to fish in our river.

While I was still on my way home Alma was waking the first anglers, who got up, dressed, went along the corridor in their waders and then, slowly, down the creaking stairs in the musty stairwell, their footsteps dragging, to have breakfast in the restaurant. In my childhood I was always woken up by the sound of the anglers going along the corridor early in the morning, quietly discussing the best places to fish. Hermann would have gone down to the river long before the anglers. Then I used to fetch his pyjamas, put them on my pillow, and smell them. Waterweeds, mossy stones, leaves in the water – I would go to sleep again with those aromas in my nostrils, dreaming that I was drifting in the river, dreaming of water-nymphs and strange water creatures, until Alma was there leaning over me, whispering in my ear that it was time for me to get up and come down to breakfast. Sometimes she got into bed with me, and the tips of her fingers moved over my stomach, tickling. Reflections of the river outside as it ran past the house dappled the ceiling of the room, and wonderful things that now seem lost for ever drifted on the river itself.

At the time Hermann and I often went fishing with Father. When the anglers and holiday-makers had left in late autumn we had the river all to ourselves. To Father, this was the best time of all. He was usually in a good mood, he didn't get drunk as often as usual. We went with him to the place near the railway underpass to fish for pike. Father told us about Paul Maclean, a famous American fly fisherman, who had been stationed in Westphalia after the war as a helicopter pilot. At the time Father had been on a cycling tour along the river Werre with some friends. When they stopped for a rest, they saw a helicopter circling above them. Then it flew a little way upstream, said Father, keeping so low that the skids almost touched the water, making waves that splashed over the bank. Finally the helicopter rose in the air again, turned back and began coming down to land in a meadow close to them. While the rotor blades were still turning, and wind they raised blew the caps off the cyclists' heads, two American soldiers jumped out. "And do you know who one of them was?" Here Father would pause for effect, looked at Hermann – when he told this story in the restaurant he always looked round, waited, and finally made his announcement. "The great Paul Maclean. The other man was just carrying his fishing tackle, and then he sat on the bank smoking and drinking. I went fishing with Paul. He lent me his rod, and showed me what to do." It seemed that Maclean had told Father about the rivers in Montana where he used to fish before the war. He had given Father one of his flies, and Father always carried it in the breast pocket of his fishing vest. Later, after Norman Maclean wrote his wonderful book about his brother Paul and fly fishing, he sent Father a copy of the first edition, with an inscription to him in it. As there was no German translation yet, and Father knew hardly any English, Hermann translated the entire book for him. Father took it everywhere with him, and soon he too could read it in English. He would often leaf through it as he sat on the bank of the river, now and then quoting whole passages that he knew by heart.

But when we came to the river, Father would stop talking. He laid his fingers to his mouth, or put his hands to his ears as if holding a telephone receiver, to let us know that now the fish could hear everything. We went to the deep pools by the embankment or the weir, where the water stands almost still and the great pike swim. The river was covered with a brightly coloured carpet of floating leaves. That meant that we couldn't spin-fish, because the line would have stayed on top of the leaves, making it impossible for us to handle the lure properly. When it was colder and the sun no longer shone right down to the river bed, thus depriving the water of warmth, many underwater plants disappeared, and with them the prey animals of the pike, a fish hungrier and greedier in autumn than at other times of year.

As I sat in the train on my way here yesterday morning, I was still hoping that by that time Hermann would have thought better of it, would be fetching breakfast rolls for the guests staying at the inn, helping Alma to lay the tables, then bringing bottles of beer, cola and wine up from the cellar to put them in the chiller behind the bar. On my journey I kept wondering why he had suddenly stopped fishing, and only tied flies, why he didn't want to catch fish any more, except for that ancient fish, the chimera that Father had been after too. Hermann talked about it on many of the cassettes he had sent me, saying that he would like to go fishing with me, as if only that would really make us brothers. But I never answered him; fishing didn't matter to me. Even on my way here yesterday, I kept feeling an impulse to go back, fearing that I was missing important meetings. I didn't know what I was really supposed to be here for, I wouldn't be able to help my brother – we've lived in different worlds for too long – even though he kept sending me those cassettes. I generally put them in a cardboard box beside my desk without listening to them.

The train drew out of Cologne. American soldiers on their way to the air base were sitting in the compartment, and young people on their way back from a rock concert. The railroad passed through container stations, suburbs, then on and on into the surrounding countryside. Rooks fluttered above stubble fields, it was raining, later the sun shone through the clouds. Leaves fell from the trees on the river bank, settling on the slowly flowing water. Some schoolchildren came into the compartment. It wouldn't be long now, I thought, until winter came. How fast the years had flown! Soon I would be old, with nothing left but fading memories. I thought it might be a good idea to stand in the river fishing. I decided to make the first move: I would ask Hermann if he'd go fishing with me.

When the train came into our part of the country, people on their way to the weekly market boarded it. Our inn was always very busy on market days. I remembered Aunt Reese saying once that in her youth people used to come from far and wide to the cattle market and the market for household goods. At that time business was booming, and it was the same after the war when American soldiers were stationed in the Eifel. Back then, Reese also told us about the markets before the war: the sellers of mousetraps, the fortune-tellers, the miracle healers, she told us about Zirbes who went from market to market with pots and pans and his own songs. She told us about the girlfriends of her youth who married GIs and emigrated to America with their husbands, and about Uncle Jakob who came home from the POW camp on a market day.

It was on just such a market day that Hermann had been conceived, and perhaps I myself, Reese thought. The man who fathered us used to buy up the timber from the farmers' woods that had been hit by bombs and then sold it on to timberworks. Later on the same man must have turned up at our inn now and then, when he was travelling around the Eifel with the Perseus, an electrical acupuncture device. Mother hadn't wanted to marry him, he was a good deal older than she was and had a wife and children already. "He was an idiot, couldn't even write his name properly," was Reese's opinion. Mother never talked about him, all we knew of him came from Aunt Reese. When Hermann or I asked Mother about our birth father, she would say: "None of that matters. Reese ought not to talk so much nonsense." But Reese didn't listen to our mother, and went on telling us things that we were not supposed to know.


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