Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing; the trees outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. As I did, foolishly. I shoved open the door of the chalet, and steeped out, and stared at the sky.
“Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!”, I shouted. There was no answer. I went back inside and slammed the door shut. Before I froze to death, I put on two coats, made from the fur of critically endangered medium-size mammals, which I had stolen from Yoko Ono. Physically, I am a good deal bigger than diminutive Yoko, hence the two coats. Ideally, I would have pilfered three, but the Beatle Lennon was mooching about the place, and I had to act fast. That was a long time ago. In those days I did not shout at the sky in French.
That skill, or art, I learned more recently, from Blötzmann. “Those seeking succour from the sky,” he writes (Book XIX, Lavender Series), “Are well advised to note that the sky speaks French, with a smattering of Finnish (verbs only).”
I know there are those who damn Blötzmann as a crank and an idiot, but to date I have found him an infallible guide, in spite of the often senseless tosh he peddles. I say “to date” because now even I am beginning to have doubts. It was, after all, because of Blötzmann (Book IX, Lilac Series) that I ended up here, in a chalet high, high in the ice mountains, with an empty coal-bucket and icicles forming on my moustache.
Should I have treated the invitation with a measure of caution? Probably. But, immersed as I was in the tenets expounded in Book IX, I did not even question it. Instead, I shoved a few essentials into a pippy bag and ran – sprinted! – to the railway station. I was in such a hurry that I did not even lock the door behind me. Within hours I was at the foot of the ice mountains, queuing for a ticket for the funicular railway which would take me to this confounded ice-girt freezing coalless chalet.
The invitation came from the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, an organisation previously unknown to me.
Dear Shambeko!, it read, Please join us for a very special week of nisbet spotting high, high in the ice mountains. Be our guest in a lovely chalet heated by a coal-stove. Brr! It’s chilly out there, so wrap up warm!
As I say, it might have been wise to make a few enquiries before rushing off and leaving behind everything I held dear. Not only had I never heard of the Pointy Town Nisbet Spotting Society, I had no idea what a nisbet was. How, then, could I spot one? And if I did spot one, or dozens, or hundreds, I would not realise I had done so, not knowing what one was. Dashing off to the chalet was the utmost foolishness on my part. The best I can say in my defence is that I assumed a representative of the Society would be there to enlighten me.
But when I arrived, the chalet was empty. There was a small amount of coal in the bucket, so I got the stove burning, heated up a pan of milk slops, and sat gazing at the rime-encrusted window. And I waited. I waited for three days, until the coal was almost spent. Then, with a sudden crash, the door burst open, and a woman festooned with the pelts of various hairy mammals came waltzing in.
I was astonished to see Pointy Town’s most notorious flapper, Flossie Von Straubenzee. She raised one bemittened fist and cried “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” Flossie had once been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and still liked to shout their slogan in greeting.
“Thank St Spivack you are here!” I babbled, “The bucket of coal is almost spent, there are very few milk slops left, and according to the Daily Ice Mountains News Digest & Weather Forecast, dropped by parachute to the chalet each morning, it’s going to be twice as cold tomorrow, thrice as cold the day after, and so on, exponentially.”
Flossie seemed unperturbed, and asked me how the nisbet spotting was going. Somewhat shamefacedly, I explained that I did not know what a nisbet was.
“Well, nor do we, exactly,” she said, “That’s one reason for this very special week. We’re hoping that you might accomplish the very first authenticated spotting of a nisbet. That would really give the Society a boost. I came to tell you that we’ve just had word there could be a nisbet higher up the ice mountains. Apparently they don’t thrive except right near the summit, where the air is thin and the cold is bitter, or bitterer. Good luck! Cheerio!”
And Flossie waltzed out of the chalet as suddenly as she had come.
That was three days ago. Now, all the coal is spent. The bucket is empty. The shovel is useless. The stove is breathing out cold. Et cetera et cetera. The sky offered no succour. But I have devised a plan. The bucket is large enough for me to squat inside it, just about. I drag it outside, and, using knots both sturdy and ingenious, attach it to the cords of one of the morning parachutes lying in the snow. Then I climb into the bucket. Soon, as I expected, a flock of wingèd things, with beaks and feathers – probably birds – grasp the parachute in their talons, and lift it. The knots hold. I am lifted too, in my bucket.
“Let us go and spot a nisbet!” I cry.
And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost forever.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.