Each was folded into his own silence, so to speak, even though there were nearly forty of them, pressed together like withies in a bundle, choking, inhaling the others' odors: their breath, their feet, the acrid reek of their sweat and their damp clothes, old wool and broadcloth impregnated with dust, with the forest, with manure, with straw, with wine and beer, especially wine. Not that everybody was sloshed; no, it would be too easy to use drunkenness as an excuse. Saying that would just be a way of diluting the horror. Too simple. Much too simple. I'm going to try not to simplify what's very difficult and complex. I'm going to try. I don't promise that I'll succeed.
Please understand me. I repeat: I could have remained silent, but they asked me to tell the story, and when they made the request, most of them had their fists clenched or their hands in their pockets, where I imagined them grasping the handles of their knives, the very knives which had just...
I mustn't go too fast, but it's hard not to because now I keep sensing things behind my back--movements, and noises, and staring eyes. For some days, I've been wondering if I'm not changing, bit by bit, into quarry, into a tracked animal with the whole hunt, led by a pack of snuffling dogs, at its heels. I feel watched, tailed, surveilled, as if from now on there will always be someone just over my shoulder, alert to my smallest gestures and reading my thoughts.
I will come back to what was done with the knives. I will perforce come back to that. But what I wanted to say was that to refuse a request made under such conditions, in that special mood when everyone's head is still full of savagery and bloody images, is impossible and even quite dangerous. And so, however reluctantly, I agreed. I simply found myself in the inn at the wrong time, that is, some few minutes after the Ereignies, in one of those moments of bewilderment characterized by vacillation and indecision, when people will seize upon the first person who comes through the door, either to make a savior of him or to cut him to pieces.
Schloss's inn is the biggest of the six taverns in our village, which also boasts a post office, a notions shop, a hardware store, a butcher shop, a grocery store, a tripe-and-offal shop, a school, and a branch of a legal office based in S. Over this last place, which is as filthy as a stable, preside the senile lorgnettes of Siegfried Knopf, who's called an attorney even though he's only a clerk. In addition, there's Jenkins's little office; he served as our policeman, but he died in the war. I remember when Jenkins left. He was the first to go. Ordinarily he never smiled, but that day he shook everyone's hand, laughing as though he were on his way to his own wedding. Nobody recognized him. When he turned the corner at Moberschein's sawmill, he waved broadly and threw his helmet into the air in a joyful farewell. He was never seen again. He has never been replaced. The shutters in his office are closed, its threshold now covered by a small growth of moss. The door is locked. I don't know who has the key, and I've never tried to find out. I've learned not to ask too many questions. I've also learned to take on the color of the walls and the color of the dust in the street. It's not very difficult. I look like nothing at all.
Widow Bernhart pulls down the metal shutter of her grocery store at sunset; after that, the only place where you can buy a few provisions is Schloss's inn. It's also the most popular of the taverns. It has two public rooms. The one at the front is the larger of the two; its walls are blackened wood, its floor is covered with sawdust, and you practically fall into it when you enter because you have to go down two steep steps carved into the very sandstone and hollowed out in the middle by the soles of the thousands of drinkers who have trod there. And then there's the smaller room in the back, which I've never seen. It's separated from the first room by an elegant larch-wood door with an engraved date: 1812. The little room is reserved for a small group of men who meet there once a week, every Tuesday evening; they drink and smoke either tobacco from their fields in porcelain pipes with carved stems or bad cigars from who knows where. They've even given themselves a name: De Erweckens' Bruderschaf, which means something like "the Brotherhood of the Awakening." A peculiar name for a peculiar association. No one knows exactly when it was created or what its purpose is or how you get into it or who its members are--the big farmers, no doubt, maybe Lawyer Knopf, Schloss himself, and definitely the mayor, Hans Orschwir, who owns the most property in these parts. Likewise unknown is what they get up to or what they say to one another when they meet. Some say that room is where essential decisions are taken, strange pacts sealed, and promises made. Others suspect that the brothers dedicate themselves to nothing more complex than the consumption of brandy and the playing of checkers and cards, accompanied by much smoking and jocularity. A few people claim to have heard music coming from under the door. Maybe Diodemus the teacher knew the truth; he rummaged everywhere, in people's papers and in their heads, and he had a great thirst to know things inside and out. But the poor man, alas, is no longer here to speak of what he knew.
Excerpted from Brodeck by Philippe Claudel Copyright © 2009 by Philippe Claudel. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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