Fiction

Lotte, meanwhile, had been thrown into a strange state. After her last conversation with Werther, it hit her how hard it would be for her to be separated from him, and how painful it would be for him if he had to go away from her.

One of them had mentioned in passing in front of Albert that Werther wouldn’t come back before Christmas Eve, and Albert had driven off to the next town over to see a branch manager he had some business with, where he was going to have to spend the night.

She sat by herself, now — none of her siblings were around — and she surrendered to her thoughts, which were quietly scanning her relationships. She’d made a lifetime commitment to her husband, who loved her and trusted her so much, she knew, and she was devoted to him from the bottom of her heart; his calm and detachment seemed like the perfect solid basis for someone as high-strung as her to build a happy life on. She could tell how good he would always be to her and their children. On the other hand, Werther had become so precious to her; right from the first moment they met it had been so beautifully clear they were on the same wavelength; everything they’d shared for so long, all the situations they’d lived through together had made an indelible mark on her heart. Any time she had an interesting thought or feeling, she was used to sharing it with him, and his going away threatened to tear a hole in her very self that would never be filled up again. Oh, if she could have turned him into a brother right then, she would have been so happy! If she could have set him up with one of her girl friends, she might even have hoped she could patch up his relationship with Albert!

She’d mentally gone through all her friends and found something wrong with each of them — couldn’t find one she would have given him to.

Thinking through all this, she felt deeply, for the first time, without quite spelling it out for herself, that, deep down, she really wanted to keep him for herself, and she tried to tell herself that she couldn’t keep him, didn’t get to keep him; her sense of inner peace, which was usually so easy and so easily self-sustaining, was weighed down by a sadness with no way out. Her heart felt squeezed, and her vision went blurry.

At that point, around 6:30 pm, she heard Werther coming up the stairs and immediately recognized his step and his voice asking if she was in. Her heart started racing as he approached — for the first time, it’s safe to say. She wanted badly to hide her feelings from him, and as he walked in, she called out to him, in a kind of manic confusion, “You broke your promise.”
“I didn’t promise anything,” was his answer.
“Well, at least you could have respected my asking you,” she countered, “I asked you for both our sakes.”

She didn’t really know what she was saying, or really what she was doing when she texted some friends to come over so she wouldn’t be alone with him. He set down a few books he’d brought back to return to her and asked about a few more, while she swung back and forth between wishing her friends would come and wishing they’d stay away. Her phone buzzed: neither of them could make it.

She called one of her sisters to come up, then told her never mind. Werther paced up and down the room; she went over to the piano and started playing a song, trying not to break down. She pulled herself together and sat casually next to Werther, who’d moved into his usual spot on the sofa.

“So what are we reading?” she said. He shrugged. “If you look in my email,” she began, “I’ve got your letter with your Wagner update/adaptation. I still haven’t read it yet, ‘cause I always hoped I’d hear you read it out loud, but so far that’s never lined up, it hasn’t worked out.” — He smiled, got her computer, shuddered as he pulled up the letter, and his eyes were full of tears as he glanced over it. He sat down and read.

ACT I, SCENE I
Night. A living room in a small house in the country. We can hear a blizzard roaring outside. Suddenly, SIEGMUND bursts in through the front door, which was unlocked. He holds the doorframe for a while, panting and looking around the room; he looks exhausted by some tremendous exertion, and we can see from his expression and body language that he’s being chased. When he sees that there’s nobody there, he closes the door behind him, staggers into the center of the room, and collapses onto the couch.

SIEGMUND
I don’t know whose house this is — but I’ve got to rest here.

He sinks down and lies there motionless for a while. SIEGLINDE comes downstairs; she thinks her husband has come home; then her expression changes, stunned, as she sees a stranger stretched out on the couch.

SIEGLINDE
Oh my god!
(Pulling back, to herself) Someone broke into the house and… he’s sleeping… He looks exhausted and beat up from travelling. Did he pass out? Is he sick?
(She bends towards him and suddenly jerks back.)
Still breathing… just… resting. Wow, he looks so strong, even lying there like that…

SIEGMUND suddenly jerks his head up.

SIEGMUND
Water! Water!

SIEGLINDE
I’ll get you a drink.
(She runs off and comes back with a glass of water.)
Here you go, nice and cold from the fridge — hopefully this’ll make you feel better…

SIEGMUND drinks and gives her back the glass. As he nods “thank you”, his gaze locks onto her face with increasing interest.

SIEGMUND
Thanks. That glass of water was a breath of fresh air, a load off my back… and you’re a sight for sore eyes. Can I ask who it is who’s being so nice to me?

SIEGLINDE
This is Hunding’s house and Hunding’s wife, so you’re Hunding’s guest. You should thank him. Will you stay till he comes home?

SIEGMUND raises his hands to show they’re empty.

SIEGMUND
Well, I’m not armed or anything, and I’ve already gotten shot once this evening, so… you guys have nothing to worry about from me.

SIEGLINDE
(panicking) You got SHOT?! Oh my god, can I call you an ambulance?!

SIEGMUND
Just grazed, just grazed, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I’m still in one piece! If my gun had held out as long as I did, I’d never have run, but it jammed up on me.
(Looking at her)
The whole mob of them chased me till I was drained, the storm-winds tore at my body; but tiredness just got away from me faster than I got away from the pack of them; all I could see was night — but now it’s sunrise again…

SIEGLINDE
Can I… can I get you a beer?

SIEGMUND
Will you taste it for me?

She goes offstage to the kitchen and comes back with a bottle of beer. She takes a sip and hands it to him. Siegmund takes a long drink, watching her with increasing warmth. He sets down the bottle, as his expression gets tenser. He sighs deeply and looks darkly at the ground.

SIEGMUND
Listen, you’ve been really sweet to me, but I’m… bad news. And I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.
He gets up and starts heading for the door.
This has been a lovely break. Thanks so much. I need to hit the road again.

SIEGLINDE
(standing up quickly) You’re leaving already? Who’s after you?

SIEGMUND, frozen by her voice, turns around again.

SIEGMUND
(slowly and darkly) Trouble follows me wherever I go; trouble’s on my heels whenever I sit down. I don’t want it coming after you, so… the farther I am from you, the better.

He walks quickly towards the door and takes the handle.

SIEGLINDE
(losing control and calling after him) Then stay here! You can’t bring trouble to the house where trouble lives.

SIEGMUND stands still, deeply moved. He looks deeply at SIEGLINDE’s expression; she blushes, ashamed, and looks down. A long silence. SIEGMUND steps away from the door.

SIEGMUND
(shaking her hand) I go by “Misery.” I’ll wait for Hunding.

He sits back down on the couch; his gaze focuses on SIEGLINDE with calm, intense sympathy; she slowly looks back up at him. They look at each other during a long silence with deep fascination in their eyes.

SCENE II
SIEGLINDE jumps suddenly, hearing HUNDING pulling up in his car outside. She walks quickly to the door and opens it; HUNDING, wearing a holster with a large pistol, walks in and stops in the doorway when he sees SIEGMUND. HUNDING turns with an intense, questioning look to SIEGLINDE.

SIEGLINDE
I found him passed out on the couch; he had to come in, it was an emergency.

HUNDING
You’ve been taking care of him?

SIEGMUND
(staring calmly and steadily at HUNDING) If it weren’t for her, I’d be freezing to death out there. Are you really going to call her out for that?

HUNDING
(ominously) My house. My rules. Remember that.

He takes off his gun belt and hands it to SIEGLINDE

HUNDING
(to SIEGLINDE) Where’s dinner? Us men are hungry.

SIEGLINDE hangs the gun belt on a peg near the door, then goes to the kitchen and starts setting the table and serving food. She can’t help looking at SIEGMUND again.

HUNDING
(looks hard at SIEGMUND’s face, then back at his wife’s; to himself) He looks so much like that girl! He’s got that same glittering snake gleaming in his eyes…
He hides his surprise and turns, deliberately casually, towards SIEGMUND.
The next town isn’t for a couple miles, and I didn’t see a car outside. What had you out on foot on a night like this?

SIEGMUND
Just running, running through forests and fields, on-road, off-road, trying to get away from the storm and a… bad situation. Honestly, I don’t know how I got here or where I am — I’d be happy to know, if you wouldn’t mind telling me.

HUNDING
(heading for the table and gesturing SIEGMUND to a chair) Well, the guy who owns the roof over your head and the walls keeping you safe, his name is Hunding — and that’s me. And right now, you’re in my house. There’s a town a few miles west of here. Got a lot of family there. All the really nice houses you’ll see down there — probably my cousins. (pause) So, you gonna tell me who you are?

SIEGMUND, sitting down at the table, looks off thoughtfully into the distance. SIEGLINDE, who has sat down next to HUNDING, across from SIEGMUND, stares at him with obvious sympathy and curiosity.

HUNDING
(watching both of them) If you don’t want to tell me, tell the woman here. Look at her, she’s just dying to know!

SIEGLINDE
(unselfconsciously and compassionately) I’d love to know who you are, stranger.

SIEGMUND looks up, meets her gaze and begins earnestly.

SIEGMUND
I can’t go by “Sunny”, I’d love to be “Smiles”, but “Misery” is the only name that fits. My dad was called “the Wolf”; I was born as one of a pair — my twin sister and me. But pretty soon I lost my mom and my sister — the woman who bore me, and the woman she bore with me. I barely even knew them.
The Wolf was a fighter, a tough guy. He made a lot of enemies. One day, when I was a little boy, I went out hunting with him, and when we came home from trapping and shooting… the wolf’s den was empty. Our beautiful house, burned to cinders… my brave mother’s body, battered to death… every trace of my sister, burnt up in the fire. The mob wanted to teach us a lesson. So my dad and I went on the run. I spent a lot of years in the woods with the Wolf. They came hunting for us plenty of times; but the Wolf Pack knew how to take care of itself.
(turning to HUNDING)
You’re hearing it straight from the little wolf’s mouth — and a lot of people know me as Little Wolf.

HUNDING
These are some fucked-up, scary stories you’re telling us! Some guest… “Misery” the “Little Wolf”! I’ve heard of the Wolf Pack — not great stories, either… though I’d never met “the Wolf” or “Little Wolf”.

SIEGLINDE
But keep going — where’s your father now?

SIEGMUND
Eventually the mob really came after us. The Wolf Pack took down a lot of hunters, and we chased our prey hard through the woods. But I got separated from my dad; I lost his trail… and, no matter how long I looked for him, all I found was the wolf-paw he used to wear around his neck, caught on a branch in the woods. And I never found him.
I couldn’t stay in the woods after that. I felt so drawn to people. But no matter how many I met, wherever I went, whether I tried to make new friends, or girlfriends, I was always cast out: I was a magnet for trouble. If I thought something was right, everyone else thought it was wrong; whatever I thought was evil, other people said was good. I got into fights wherever I wound up, anger met me wherever I went; I was starving for happiness, and all I could do was stir up misery: that’s why I have to go by “Misery”, because misery is all I’ve got.

HUNDING
Sounds like even your guardian angel hates you. And you’re not the kind of guest people look forward to hosting…

SIEGLINDE
(to HUNDING) He’s unarmed — you’re not afraid of him, are you?

A cathartic flood of tears, streaming out of Lotte’s eyes, interrupted Werther’s reading. He threw the laptop aside, grabbed her hand and started weeping bitter tears. Lotte collapsed onto her other hand and hid her face in a tissue. Both of them were so moved it was terrifying. They felt their own misery in the situation of the characters, felt it together, and their tears merged. Werther’s lips and eyes were burning on Lotte’s arm; she shuddered violently; she wanted to pull away, but pain and sympathy lay paralyzingly on her like lead. She took a few deep breaths to recover and asked him, sobbing, to continue, asked him desperately! Werther shivered, his heart was ready to burst, he picked up the laptop again and read, his voice breaking:

SIEGLINDE
(to SIEGMUND) You’re our guest. Keep going — how did you end up in a fight and lose your gun?

SIEGMUND
(getting more and more worked up) I got a call from a girl in tears, asking me to help her: her family was forcing her to marry someone she wasn’t in love with. I showed up at her house, and… things escalated fast. A whole crowd of them tried to jump me, it turned into a huge fight, and in the end… I was standing, her brothers were lying dead on the ground. The girl started hugging their bodies; she was so upset, she forgot she’d been angry at them. She started crying like crazy over the carnage, she called up her cousins screaming her brothers were dead. A whole crowd of her relatives drove up with guns, looking for payback. Bullets started flying, but the girl wouldn’t get out of the crossfire! I covered her as long as I could until my gun jammed. I stood there, wounded and weaponless — I watched the girl get shot to pieces: the mob outside was battering down the door — she was lying there dead on the corpses…
(with a gaze full of painful fire at SIEGLINDE)
There, happy? Now you know why they don’t call me “Sunny”!

SIEGMUND stands up and walks over to a window. SIEGLINDE turns pale and looks down at the floor, deeply shaken.

HUNDING
(standing up, very darkly) I’ve heard of a vicious gang who think nothing is sacred; everyone hates them, and so do I. I got a call today from some relatives looking for revenge, payback for a murdered cousin: I got there too late, and now I get home and find the fucker who did it sitting at my dining table. — You’re safe here tonight, Little Wolf, you’re my guest. But tomorrow, you better find yourself a gun. I’m telling you now. I’m going to make you pay for those deaths.

SIEGLINDE steps between the two men with an anxious gesture.

HUNDING
(harshly) Get out! What are you hanging around here for? Go get me a beer and wait till I come to bed.
(taking his gun belt down from the peg. To SIEGMUND) Not such a big man without a gun, are you?
(As he exits) See you tomorrow, Little Wolf. You heard me — You’re going down.

These last few words hit Werther with full force. He collapsed in front of Lotte in total despair, grabbed her hands, pressed them against his eyes, against his forehead, and a hint of his terrible plan flashed through her mind. She felt dizzy, she squeezed his hands, pressed them against her chest, leaned down with a sorrowful movement towards him, and their burning cheeks touched. The world disappeared around them. He threw his arms around her, pressed her to his chest and covered her shivering, trembling lips with furious kisses. — “Werther!” she yelled in a choked voice, pulling away, “Werther!” and weakly pushed his chest away from hers; “Werther!” she yelled, more firmly, feeling how wrong this was. — He didn’t resist, let her out of his arms and collapsed, his mind blank, in front of her. — She jumped back, and in frightened confusion, teetering between love and anger, she said, “That’s the last time! Werther! You’ll never see me again.” And with the deepest loving look at the poor guy, she rushed into the next room and locked herself in. — Werther reached out for her as she was going, didn’t dare to hold her back. He lay on the ground, his head on the sofa, and he stayed in that position for half an hour until a noise snapped him out of it. It was one of Lotte’s sisters coming in to set the table. He paced up and down the room, and once he was alone again, he went to the door between them and called in a quiet voice: “Lotte! Lotte! Say something! Say goodbye?” — she stayed silent. — He waited and pleaded and waited; then he tore himself away and called, “Goodbye, Lotte! Goodbye for ever!”

He headed back to town. The weather kept shifting between rain and snow, and it was 11 pm by the time he buzzed back in at the hotel. The receptionist noticed, as he came in, that he was missing the hat he’d gone out wearing and that his hair and clothes were drenched, but she didn’t say anything. Later, the hat was found at the top of a rock face whose peak looks down into the valley, and it’s incredible that he managed to climb up there, on a dark, wet night, without falling.

He lay down in bed and slept a long time.

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