Storm on Weisskugel

Martha Miklin
Storm on Weisskugel
Twenty years ago I believed that time would stand still if I held my breath. My older sister had whispered this nonsense in my left ear during the stormy night of July 12, 1994 – we were on our way to the South Tyrolean Weisskugel, but because of the weather we were stuck in a rustic cabin with 20 other hikers. That was not so bad for us two city rascals, since this summit, which we were supposed to climb up that day, in tow after our father, wheezing and cursing, we already well knew from 1992 and 1993, though it had not left very nice memories in us at all.

“You heard right, Johanna. Time stands still. It's as simple as that. If you hold your breath, you can extend your life! But only once each day and no longer than 10 seconds, or else time will stand still forever. And you will stay as small as you are now.” Especially for this last sentence, which she pronounced very slowly and clearly, I wanted nothing more than to pull Marie's jogging bottoms down in front of all of the cabin guests. She knew exactly how much I suffered back then as a sensitive six year old due to my limited height of 99 centimetres. Only out of politeness did I spare the audience in the cabin, who by then were fairly tipsy, a display of the pale white behind belonging to my clever sister.

Clever she was, in truth and officially so as well. A full 149 IQ points was what the brain in my ten year old sister's pear-shaped head racked up. That was according to a neurological test which she had had to take, apparently to determine where her headaches came from that back then had regularly brought her down to her knees. For a girl of average intelligence like me, the theory of holding your breath was plausible or perhaps simply too attractive to ignore. If it turned out to be wrong, so what? “If it doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt,” the motto of our Viennese great-grandmother Grete echoed in that moment through my little head and made itself comfortable behind Marie's theory. In this very night I would pay my first ten seconds into my lifetime account. I was so careful not to surpass ten seconds that, as I held my breath, I looked continually at the glowing second hand on my light blue wristwatch and it never even occurred to me that, as the hand moved, time could not possibly be standing still.

What I did notice however was the perpetual worsening of the state of health of the sky above the South Tyrolean mountains. Not only did the storm magically make the most bizarre colours appear in the sky, it also showed itself from its hardest and most cynical sides. Twice lightning struck near the cabin in the cliffs, the skinny goats crying out for their lives in their ramshackle stall, the five centimetres in diameter rocks of hail completely flattening the daisies in the soft meadow and crashing a few tiles from the roof with hell-bound fury. Each time when one thought it was lightening up, the next blow followed up swiftly. What had we done to the heavens? Marie complained that her headache was coming back and let herself be given a painkiller from our worried father, which she swallowed with a groan only to fall right to sleep like a log, whereas I was on watch at the small cabin window shaking like a leaf. I was so sorry for the goats that I wanted to invite them all into our room.

The next morning I woke up feeling absolutely whacked out as though I had been run through a mincer and spat out as a formless heap. The heaven's nervous breakdown from last night had surrendered to a cheerful blue with a few small clouds, and if it had not been for the broken roof tiles and the flattened flowers you might have thought that there had never been a storm at all. The old men were snoring unabashedly in the room, and Marie seemed at first to be dead in the way she laid there. I pushed my sister, pinched her right cheek and stuck my thumb up her nostril. Then my father woke up.

A few minutes passed until we realised that Marie was not breathing any more. Minutes that seemed like an eternity and which neither my old man nor I can remember. Minutes erased by our brains for our own safety. I can’t even describe the helicopter that flew Marie, my father and me back to the valley. Let alone the age, gender, number of doctors or any of their questions at the hospital in Bolzano. The only image that I can still see is Marie's left hand that long after her painless and quick death still clenched her pink neckerchief that she took off all annoyed right after she had taken the medication. I could not understand back then how a person whose heart no longer beat could still hold onto something so firmly.

Today I know why. I also now know that on this day in July, 1994 Marie wanted to pull my leg with her lifetime theory. Did her clever head, which far too early was flooded from cerebral haemorrhaging, have any idea that she would be right in the end? Lifetime. Day after day I added another ten seconds to my account and kept a scrupulous record of it all. Lifetime. Ten seconds per day, which is a minute every six days, which is about sixty minutes per year. That is one hour each year that I spend every July with Marie in the South Tyrolean mountains. In the middle of raw cliffs, soft moss, bitingly fresh air, hairy goats and a silence like death. Today I know that Marie was right. I am collecting time. Time that keeps Marie alive for me. Lifetime for Marie.

Translated from German by Shan Wardell

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