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The Stranger


The Stranger

As translated by Sean Craig –

I received a letter from a stranger. The stranger did not write to me about Europe. n16615574454_273Not about Moses. Nor of the great or of the lesser prophets. Not of the Emperor of Russia or of his dreadful ancestor, the Czar Ivan the Terrible. Not of the mayor or his neighbor, the cobbler. Not of cities near or far. The forest, too, with its many deer, in which I lose myself every morning, is not mentioned in his letter. He also tells me nothing of his mother or of his sisters who certainly must have been married for a long time. Maybe his mother is even dead. How else could it be that there is no mention of her in a four-page letter? No, he entrusts me with much, much greater confidence. He makes me his brother. He tells me of his plight.

The stranger visits me in the evening. I leave the lamps unlit, help him with his coat, and ask him to join me for tea as it is the hour in which I take my tea every day. And there is no need to be formal with such close guests. As we are about to sit at the table I notice that my guest is uneasy; his face is full of fear and his hands are trembling.

“Right,” I say, “here is a letter for you.”

And then I am already pouring tea.

“Do you take yours with sugar? Maybe some lemon? I learned to drink tea with lemon in Russia. Would you like to try?”

Then I light a lamp and place it in a far corner, somewhat high, so that it remains dim in the room, only a bit warmer now than the prior reddish glow. And this also seems to make my guest’s face look more confident, warmer, and quite a bit more familiar.

I welcome him once more with the words: “You know, I have been expecting you for a long time.”

And before the stranger even has time to be surprised I explain. “I know a tale I don’t want to tell to anyone but you; don’t ask me why, just tell me whether you are comfortable, whether the tea is sweet enough, and whether you would like to hear the tale.”

My guest could not contain a smile.

Then he simply replied: “Yes.”

“Yes to all three?”

“To all three.”

We both settled deeper into our chairs at the same time so that our faces sank into shade. I put down my teacup, took pleasure in the golden glimmer of the tea, slowly forgot about this delight again, and suddenly asked him:

“Do you still remember our dear Lord?”

The stranger contemplated this. His eyes sank deeper into shadows. The tiny dots of light gleaming in his pupils made them look like two long, shady, vine-shrouded passages in a park above which summer and sun stretch bright and wide. They, too, begin like this: with a soft twilight. Their ever-deepening dusk stretches towards a distant, gleaming point: the opposite end that exits into a maybe even brighter day. While this thought occurred to me, he said in a hesitating voice that sounded as if he was reluctant to use it:

“Yes. I still remember God.”

“Good,” I thanked him. “Because this story happens to be about Him. But first tell me one more thing: Do you speak with children from time to time?”

“I suppose sometimes, at least in passing –”

“Maybe you are familiar with the fact that God, due to a vile act of disobedience by his hands, does not know what man actually looks like in his finished form?”

“I did hear about that sometime somewhere. I can, however, not remember who told me this” – my guest replied and I saw vague memories sweep across his brow.

“Nonetheless,” I interrupted him, “to continue. God bore this uncertainty for a long time. For His patience, like his power, is great. But one time thick clouds stood between Him and the earth for many days so that He was not quite certain anymore whether He had only dreamt it all – world and man and time. It was then that He called on His right hand that had been banned and hidden from His countenance for such a long time, immersed in small and insignificant labor. It hastened eagerly to His side, thinking God would finally forgive it. When God saw it in front of Him in all its beauty, youth, and strength, He was indeed inclined to forgive it. But just in time He thought better of it and commanded without looking at it:

‘You will descend to earth. You will take on the human form as you see it and then stand naked upon a hilltop so that I can observe you clearly. As soon as you arrive below go to a young woman and tell her, but very quietly: I want to live. At first there will be a small darkness about you and then a great darkness that is called childhood. Then you will become a man and climb onto the hilltop as I have charged you. All this will take a mere moment. Farewell.’

“The right bade farewell to the left, gave it many affectionate names. Some have even asserted that it suddenly bowed to it and said:

‘You, Holy Ghost.’

But already Saint Paul approached and lopped off God’s right hand. An archangel caught it and bore it away hidden within the folds of his wide gown. But God covered His wound with His left so that His blood would not stream across the stars and from there drip down to earth in dolorous drops. A short while later God, who was carefully observing all events below, noticed that men in iron clothes were busying themselves about one hill more than all the other hills. And he expected to see his hand ascend there. But only a man came, apparently clad in a red coat, dragging a black, swaying thing up the hill. In that same moment God’s left hand, still lying in front of His open blood, began to become restless and all of a sudden, ere God could restrain it, it left its place and rambled insanely between the stars and shouted:

‘Oh, the poor right hand. And I cannot help it.’

“All the while, it was pulling on God’s left arm, to which it was still attached, and strained to dislodge itself from it. The entire earth turned red from God’s blood and one could not see what was happening underneath it. God almost died that day. With his last iota of strength He called back its right; it arrived pale and trembling and lay down in its place like an ailing animal. But even the left could not find out from it what had happened on the hill afterwards. This was despite the fact that it knew quite a few things as it had recognized God’s right hand below on earth when it had climbed the hill in a red coat. It must have been terrible because to this day God’s right has not recovered from it and suffers under this memory no less than under the old wrath of God, who has still not forgiven his hands.”

My voice rested for a while. The stranger had hidden his face in his hands. Things remained like this for a long time.

Then the stranger said in a voice that I had recognized long ago. “And why did you tell me this tale?”

“Who else would have understood me? You come to me without rank, without title, without any transient office, almost without name. It was dark when you entered. Only I recognized a similarity in your features” –

The stranger looked up inquisitively.

“Yes,” I countered his silent gaze, “I often think that, maybe, God’s hand is roaming about again…”

The children have heard this story and they were apparently told in a way they could understand everything; because they hold this story dear.