NIBELUNG

Rhine gold, Colorado gold

Geist - - Features - Devon Code

They had de­cided that dur­ing their hon­ey­moon in south­ern Ger­many they would at­tend a per­for­mance of Richard Wag­ner’s opera Der Ring des Ni­belun­gen. The full opera cy­cle was to be per­formed over the course of four con­sec­u­tive nights at the re­gional the­atre. The first night, a per­for­mance of about two and a half hours, proved to be a great dis­ap­point­ment. They’d pur­chased tick­ets for the least ex­pen­sive seats, which were in the bal­cony, only to dis­cover that an im­mense chan­de­lier ob­structed their view of the English sur­titles so that they could not fol­low the li­bretto, nei­ther of them hav­ing any knowl­edge of Ger­man. By the time they re­turned to their ho­tel, they were ex­hausted by the night of opera and the day of sight­see­ing that had pre­ceded it. Re­luc­tant to sleep, they sat up in bed drink­ing Bavar­ian pil­sner from cans, re­flect­ing on the te­dium of the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble per­for­mance, de­bat­ing whether

they would be able to en­dure the epic cy­cle in its en­tirety. Since they were to­gether, she said, they were obliged to fol­low through with the com­mit­ment they had made, for the money that would be wasted on the un­used tick­ets would be twice as great as that wasted if ei­ther one of them had planned to go alone. On the other hand, he coun­tered, the frus­tra­tion that would re­sult from at­tend­ing the re­main­ing three nights of opera would be twofold the frus­tra­tion felt were ei­ther one of them to at­tend the cy­cle alone. For this rea­son, he thought it dou­bly sen­si­ble to cut their losses. Af­ter all, he said, it had been his idea to go in the first place—for he’d thought an opera about a ring would be of in­ter­est to his wife, who was a jew­eller by trade—and he was will­ing to ad­mit he’d made a ter­ri­ble mis­take be­fore their suf­fer­ing was un­nec­es­sar­ily pro­longed.

He re­called then, sit­ting up in bed next to his wife in the ho­tel room in south­ern Ger­many, a story she’d once told him about the ap­pren­tice­ship she’d com­pleted shortly af­ter they’d first met. A few weeks into their courtship, she’d trav­elled to a re­mote town in the Colorado Rock­ies, where she ap­pren­ticed un­der a jew­eller of in­ter­na­tional renown. She’d agreed to ap­pren­tice for a pe­riod of six months, dis­cov­er­ing upon her ar­rival that the tasks ex­pected of her were mun­dane and of lit­tle in­struc­tive value, her love of the trade to which she as­pired tested by the drudgery of the work. Her one con­so­la­tion was that the week­ends were her own to do with as she pleased. She spent them hik­ing in the moun­tains, ea­ger to ex­plore a part of the world she’d never seen be­fore and would likely not have oc­ca­sion to re­turn to again. She missed more and more the young man she would even­tu­ally marry, the grow­ing fa­mil­iar­ity of her new life only serv­ing to em­pha­size his ab­sence.

They de­bated whether they would be able to en­dure Der Ring des Ni­belun­gen in its en­tirety

One week­end, in an at­tempt to break out of her rou­tine, she trav­elled by bus to a nearby town, a min­ing set­tle­ment long past its prime. She was taken with its melan­cholic beauty, the di­lap­i­dated grandeur of the nine­teenth-cen­tury build­ings in its cen­tre, the sim­ple wooden houses and aban­doned trail­ers along its out­skirts. She spent the day tak­ing pho­to­graphs and that evening she ven­tured to the town’s sa­loon. She sat at the bar, not far from a man who looked to be in his seven­ties who was speak­ing to the bar­tender. The man was bearded and wore a leather vest and blue jeans. His long white hair was tied back in a pony­tail. She learned he was a drifter who’d trav­elled the world, work­ing odd jobs, staying in one place as long as he pleased, mov­ing on when he wanted a change, which was of­ten, liv­ing for more than fifty years with­out obli­ga­tion or at­tach­ment. The drifter spoke of the first time he’d been in that re­gion, more than forty years be­fore. At that time, he’d nearly fallen in love with a woman who lived in the town where he was work­ing as a labourer. She’d wait­ressed in a diner where he took his meals. The ser­vice there, in his opinion, was bet­ter than the food, which was poor even by his stan­dards. One evening as he set­tled his bill, the wait­ress told him that her shift was over and that he should buy her a drink. Im­pressed by her for­ward­ness, he agreed. In the bar that night, he dis­cov­ered how much she en­joyed the coun­try and west­ern records that played on the juke­box. He’d never paid much at­ten­tion to mu­sic be­fore, but from then on he made sure to have change in his pocket to feed into the gleam­ing ma­chine so he could play her favourite songs. He’d take her out sev­eral times a week. She be­gan to hint at them hav­ing a life to­gether, know­ing full well how he’d lived be­fore they’d met. Though her sug­ges­tions were ca­sual, it soon be­came clear that she was se­ri­ous. He was sur­prised by his own in­ter­est in the pos­si­bil­ity of their shared fu­ture. He’d been hap­pier, he re­al­ized, those last few months than he’d been in years. He knew he’d have to make a de­ci­sion soon or else it would be made for him.

One evening, af­ter they’d said good­night and kissed good­bye, he re­turned to the room­ing house where he was staying. That evening, be­fore go­ing to sleep, he wrote a let­ter to the wait­ress in which he stated that he might like to marry her, but that such a de­ci­sion re­quired fur­ther thought. He’d be gone by the time she read the let­ter, and he might re­turn in sev­eral months and ask her to marry him or he might

The drifter spoke of the first time he’d been in the di­lap­i­dated min­ing set­tle­ment more than forty years ear­lier

not. If he re­turned and she would have him, then she could be con­fi­dent he’d thought things through and his com­mit­ment would be un­wa­ver­ing.

He rose be­fore dawn the next morn­ing and made his way through town, the weight of his pack heavy on his shoul­ders. As he passed by the diner he slipped the let­ter be­neath the door. When he reached the edge of town, he stood by the side of the road and soon af­ter was picked up by a trav­el­ling sales­man. The sales­man spoke with equal en­thu­si­asm of his abid­ing love for his wife and chil­dren and of the op­por­tu­ni­ties for sex­ual ad­ven­ture his line of work af­forded him. Af­ter they’d trav­elled thirty miles, the drifter asked to be let out by a creek. The drifter made his way along the bank of the creek, fol­low­ing the di­rec­tions that had been given to him by a stranger he’d en­coun­tered sev­eral days be­fore. It had been the night of the drifter’s twenty-sev­enth birth­day. He hadn’t ob­served a birth­day since he’d left his child­hood home but his wait­ress had prod­ded him for the date, in­sist­ing on a cel­e­bra­tion. Af­ter they shared a meal at the diner, she pre­sented him with an elab­o­rately wrapped pack­age and he re­moved the pa­per to dis­cover a bat­tery­op­er­ated AM ra­dio. She was very glad, she told him, that he shared her love of coun­try and west­ern mu­sic. He did his best to make his ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude seem gen­uine. Af­ter he’d walked her home, he’d re­turned to the bar alone, the ra­dio, still in its box, tucked be­neath his arm, his head filled with thoughts of a set­tled life and the obli­ga­tions it would en­tail. Sit­ting at the bar, he over­heard the stranger speak­ing to the bar­tender. The stranger was short, stooped and hag­gard. He de­scribed a creek-side cave out­side of town, claim­ing that as a younger man he’d lived there and panned for gold. He’d had some luck, but not enough to make it worth his while and even­tu­ally he’d given up and taken a job in town. The drifter asked him if he thought there was still gold to be had in the creek, and the stranger turned and looked at him as if he hadn’t un­der­stood. Then the drifter or­dered a beer for the stranger and the stranger drank it and said there likely was, but not enough to jus­tify the trou­ble it would take to find. The drifter asked the stranger if he could re­mem­ber the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the cave. The stranger said he couldn’t. Then the drifter or­dered the stranger a dou­ble whiskey, and the stranger, af­ter he downed the drink, de­scribed the lo­ca­tion of the cave in pre­cise de­tail. When the stranger fin­ished, he again ad­vised the drifter that the ven­ture was fool­hardy, and the drifter as­sured him he’d no in­ten­tion of try­ing to strike it rich. The stranger said he didn’t be­lieve him, but that it made no dif­fer­ence to him, that sooner or later he’d learn which hopes were best pur­sued and which ones best left be­hind.

Af­ter he left the bar that night, the drifter lay on his bunk and re­flected on the con­ver­sa­tion. What he’d told the stranger had been true. He was not con­cerned with wealth for its own sake, but the thought of mar­riage had led him to think­ing of a ring. He was more at­tached to the no­tion of self-re­liance than the av­er­age man and ap­proached the prospect of mar­riage with great cau­tion. If he were to be bound by a prom­ise and a ring, then both the prom­ise and the ring, he de­cided, would be of his own mak­ing. He would at­tempt to pan the gold him­self that would be cast into his fi­ancée’s ring. He didn’t con­sider this idea to be ro­man­tic so much as prac­ti­cal, a way of test­ing the strength of his con­vic­tion.

If he were bound to a prom­ise and a ring, both would be of his own mak­ing

And so he’d come to the creek and fol­lowed it as it wound through the wilderness un­til he came upon a cave. He’d packed a pan for pan­ning gold and as much dried food as he could carry, as well as the tools and pro­vi­sions he’d need to live off the land for a few months, in­tend­ing to fish in the creek and set snares to catch hare. His sole con­ces­sion to com­fort was the ra­dio the wait­ress had given him for his birth­day. That af­ter­noon he started pan­ning, a skill he’d learned from his grand­fa­ther as a child but had never put to use. He spent the days in the months that fol­lowed in much the same way. He’d fish and gather fire­wood and check his snares, spend the rest of the day­light hours swish­ing his pan in search of golden dust and nuggets. In the evenings he’d sit by the fire and lis­ten to the ra­dio. The re­cep­tion was lim­ited to a sin­gle fre­quency, a coun­try and west­ern sta­tion orig­i­nat­ing some fifty miles to the south. The sta­tion seemed to play ex­clu­sively the songs of love and heartache that his wait­ress was so fond of, songs he’d be­come well ac­quainted with dur­ing their courtship. He came in­creas­ingly to feel that the de­sires ex­pressed in these songs were not the same as his, though af­ter sev­eral weeks of liv­ing in the cave he still couldn’t say for sure what it was he wanted most of all. He’d brought one ex­tra set of bat­ter­ies, and when the first gave out, he lim­ited him­self to just a few songs a night. This ra­tioning came eas­ily, for he’d grown tired of hear­ing the same songs re­peated end­lessly, songs he’d never cared for to be­gin with. If a song was in­tro­duced he couldn’t stand to hear again, which hap­pened of­ten, he’d switch the ra­dio off and try a few min­utes later, hop­ing to catch one he dis­liked less than the oth­ers, even­tu­ally avoid­ing the mu­sic al­to­gether in favour of the DJ’S mind­less prat­tle in be­tween.

When the sec­ond set of bat­ter­ies died, the drifter did not miss the ra­dio at all. The peace he felt then sur­prised him, his evenings spent sit­ting and star­ing into the flames, or else ly­ing with his eyes closed, lis­ten­ing to the crackle of the fire un­til he fell asleep. He felt at home in the cave and he grew re­luc­tant to re­turn to town though he’d long since gone through his store of dried goods and hadn’t caught a fish or hare for days. One morn­ing he saw his gaunt and bearded re­flec­tion on the sur­face of the frigid wa­ter, his fea­tures nearly un­rec­og­niz­able. He be­came con­scious of the dull ache in his ab­domen, the sen­sa­tions of hunger and de­pri­va­tion hav­ing be­come so fa­mil­iar as to be al­most com­fort­ing, com­pan­ions that clung to him even in his dreams. Rec­ol­lec­tions of the meals served to him by the wait­ress in the diner came to him, taunt­ing him, and he ac­knowl­edged it was time to face what could no longer be ig­nored. The next morn­ing, his nearly empty pack on his shoul­ders, he made his way along the creek back to the road, where he stood for sev­eral hours be­fore a trucker even­tu­ally stopped to pick him up. When the drifter re­buffed the trucker’s at­tempts at con­ver­sa­tion, the trucker turned on the truck’s AM ra­dio in­stead, the pedal steel twang of heartache filling the con­fines of the cab.

In town the drifter learned that the gold he’d panned was worth very lit­tle, less than half of what he would’ve saved work­ing in town in that time. There was barely enough for the cast­ing of a sin­gle ring. He con­sid­ered this for only a mo­ment be­fore he de­cided to sell the gold. With­out stop­ping to glance in the win­dow, he walked past the diner where the wait­ress worked and made his way to the most ex­pen­sive restau­rant in town. As­sess­ing the con­di­tion of his hy­giene, the maître d’ re­fused him en­try un­til the drifter showed the con­tents of

his wal­let and pressed a folded bill into his hand. The maître d’ di­rected him to the ser­vice en­trance, ush­ered him to a small ta­ble in the store­room where the waiters took their meals. The drifter ate very well, smil­ing and rais­ing his whiskey glass at the cooks. It oc­curred to him he must seem half-crazed, for he’d barely spo­ken for months and had sel­dom bathed. Upon fin­ish­ing his meal, he went di­rectly to the bus de­pot, spend­ing the rest of his money on a ticket for the next bus out of town, not car­ing what di­rec­tion it was headed or how far it was bound. The most im­por­tant thing, he’d de­cided, was that he leave be­fore he changed his mind, for his time away had made plain to him what he’d sus­pected all along.

When, some forty-five years later, the ap­pren­tice jew­eller seated at the Colorado bar asked the drifter why he hadn’t stopped at the diner to say good­bye, he said he’d feared the clar­ity he’d found in soli­tude would van­ish as soon as he laid eyes upon the woman he’d grown to love, that once he saw her smile again and heard her voice he would be pow­er­less to leave and it would be as if the ring that never came to be had been on her fin­ger all along.

When the young man, newly mar­ried to the jew­eller, sat in the ho­tel bed in south­ern Ger­many next to his wife and re­called this story, he could not help but re­late it to the con­text of their own fledg­ling mar­riage. The ring his wife wore on her left hand was an heir­loom that once be­longed to her great aunt, who’d never mar­ried and had died alone. His wife seemed un­con­cerned with the his­tory of the ring, her com­mit­ment to him stead­fast be­yond ro­man­tic whims. He knew she’d still be wear­ing the ring while he wore his, as to­gether they sat be­hind the chan­de­lier in the bal­cony of the re­gional the­atre and en­dured three more nights of Der Ring des Ni­belun­gen, the two of them hav­ing pur­chased tick­ets for the en­tire opera cy­cle in ad­vance.

Devon Code is the au­thor of In­vol­un­tary Bliss, a novel, and In A Mist, a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion. He lives in Peter­bor­ough, ON.

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