Sunday, February 15, 2015

Johann Peter Hebel Unexpected Reunion



I ran across the following story by German writer Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826).  The story is taken from an English translation of Hebel's stories called The Treasure Chest.

I have long been interested in how dislocations of time affect love (and have written several short stories exploring this subject).  I hope that my blog readers find as much enjoyment with this 200 year-old story as I do.

Unexpected Reunion

By Johann Peter Hebel

At Falun in Sweden, a good fifty years ago, a young miner kissed his pretty young bride-to-be and said, ‘On the feast of Saint Lucia the parson will bless our love and we shall become man and wife and start a home of our own’. ‘And may peace and love dwell there with us’, said his lovely bride, and smiled sweetly, ‘for if you are everything to me, and without you I‘d sooner be in the grave than anywhere else’. ‘When however, before the feast of Saint Lucia, the parson had called out their names in the church for the second time – ‘If any of you know cause, or just hindrance, why these two persons should not get joined together in holy Matrimony’ – Death paid a call. For the next day when the young man passed her house in his black miner’s suit (a miner is always dressed ready for the funeral), he tapped at the window as usual and wished her good morning all right, but he did not wish her good evening. He did not return from the mine, and in vain that same morning she sewed a red border on a black neckerchief for him to wear on their wedding day, and when he did not come back she put it away, and she wept for him, and never forgot him.

In the meantime the city of Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed by an earthquake, the Seven Years War came and went, the Emperor Francis I died, the Jesuits were dissolved, Poland was partitioned, the Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed, and America became independent, and the combined French and Spanish force failed to take the Gibraltar. The Turks cooped up General Stein in the Veterane Cave in Hungary, and the Emperor Joseph died too. King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland ,the French Revolution came and the long war began, and the Emperor Leopold II was buried. Napoleon defeated Prussia, the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the farmers sowed and reaped. The millers ground the corn, the blacksmiths wielded their hammers, and the miners dug for seams of metal in their workplace under the ground.

But in 1809, within a day or two of the feast of Saint John, when the miners at Falun were trying to open up a passage between two shafts, they dug out from the rubble and the vitriol water, a good three hundred yards below the ground, the body of a young man soaked in ferrous vitriol but otherwise untouched by decay and unchanged, so that all his features and his age were still clearly recognizable, as if he had died only an hour before or had just nodded off at work. Yet when they brought him to the surface his father and mother and friends and acquaintances were all long since dead, and no one claimed to know the sleeping youth or to remember his misadventure, until the woman came who had once been promised to the miner who one day had gone below and had not returned. Grey and bent, she hobbled up on a crutch to where he lay and recognized her bridegroom, and more in joyous rapture than in grief, she sank down over the beloved corpse, and it was some time before she had recovered from her fervent emotion. ‘It is my betrothed’, she said at last, ‘whom I have mourned these past fifty years, and now God grants that I see him once more before I die. A week before our wedding, he went under ground and never came up again’. The hearts of all those there were moved to sadness and tears when they saw the former bride-to-be as an old woman whose beauty and strength had left her, and the groom still in the flower of his youth; and how the flame of young love was rekindled in her breast after fifty years, yet he did not open his mouth to smile , nor his eyes to recognize her; and how finally she, as the sole relative and the only person who had claim to him, had the miners carry him into her house until the grave was made ready for him in the churchyard.

The next day when the grave lay ready in the churchyard and the miners came to fetch him she opened a casket and put the black silk kerchief and red stripes on him, and then she went with him in her best Sunday dress, as if it were her wedding day, not the day of his burial. You see, as they lowered him into his grave in the churchyard she said, “Sleep well for another day or a week or so longer in your cold wedding bed, and don’t let time weigh heavy on you! I have only a few things left to do, and I shall join you soon, and soon the day will dawn’.

‘What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call’, she said as she went away and looked back over her shoulder once more.

(Translated by John Hibberd)


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