III The News of the Building of the Wall: A Fragment

The news of the building of the wall now penetrated into this world. This, too, arrived late, some thirty years after its announcement. It was on a summer’s evening. Ten years old, I stood on the bank of the river with my father. As befits the significance of this much discussed moment, I remember the smallest circumstances. He held me by the hand—he liked to do that even when he was very old—and with his other hand he stroked his long and very thin pipe as if it were a flute. His large, sparse, stiff beard moved in the wind; enjoying his pipe, he looked upwards across the river. This made his pigtail, which was an object of reverence to children, sink lower, softly rustling against the gold-embroidered silk of his holiday gown. At that moment a bark came to a stop in front of us; the boatman beckoned to my father to descend the slope, while he himself climbed up to meet him. They met each other in the middle; the boatman whispered something in my father’s ear. To get even closer to him, he embraced him. I did not understand what was said and saw only that my father did not seem to believe the news. The boatman tried to convince him that it was the truth, but Father still could not believe it; the boatman, with all the passion of a sailor, almost tore his clothes open on his breast in order to convince him that it was so. Father became quieter, and the boatman leaped back into the bark with a clatter and sailed away. Meditatively, my father turned his back toward me, knocked out his pipe and stuck it in his belt, stroked my cheek, and pulled my head toward him. This was what I liked most, it made me very happy, and so we returned home. There the rice soup was already steaming on the table, several guests were already gathered, and the wine was just being poured into the cups. Without paying any attention to all this, my father began to report from the threshold what he had heard. Naturally, I have no exact recollection of his words, but because of the extraordinary nature of the circumstances involved, which was enough to impress even a child, their meaning sank into me so deeply that I still feel able to give a kind of verbatim version of them. And I do so now because these words were very characteristic of the popular interpretation. Thus, my father said more or less the following: A strange boatman—I know all who usually sail past here, but this one was a stranger—has just told me that a great wall is going to be built to protect the Emperor. As you may know, the infidel nations, with demons among them too, often gather in front of the imperial palace and shoot their black arrows at the Emperor.