The late spring sun illuminated the moss and grass in front of the hut in a particularly beautiful yellow-green. In the mood of the evening light, a few birds were singing, the people of the settlement were full of energy again after this long period of dark, cold winter.
This year, the winter in the valley was not as severe as the years before. The clan had set out for the impassable forests earlier than all the other years. The longer the animals could eat the first tender plants, the greater the proceeds would be for them.
It was the sweet tart, lovely smell of fresh earth and of the first flowers in the air that Pilgrim loved so much. He sensed it was going to be another good year.
All over the settlement, people were striving to repair the forest huts, which had been badly battered by the snow and wind over the winter, with fresh branches. The dull sound of axes, the creaking and groaning of trees as they slowly begin to move in a certain direction and fall, and the rhythmic sound of saws, the shouts and voices of people, boisterous children's laughter and the blocking of sheep forms a familiar sound for Pilgrim. He has been going to the forest every year since he was a little boy.
The last few years he had always spent his time in the forest together with Marzon, the healer. He was there when the sick were healed or animals were sacrificed to please the gods.
Marzon had taught him many things, and he, Pilgrim, was a learned pupil. This year Marzon did not want him with him, he should build his own hut, he was old enough now.
While Pilgrim was busy with the last chores, Marzon stepped in front of his hut. "Pilgrim, I have passed on my knowledge to you for the last few years in the forest, now it is time for you to set out alone to receive the power for your future work as a healer from the gods in the mountains. Go and find your totem animal. When the moon begins to fill for the second time, it is time for you to set out. Until then, keep to what I have taught you, fast, sacrifice and prepare your body and mind for this journey."
Pilgrim was surprised, never before had Marzon spoken to him so clearly. He felt pride and fear rising in his chest at the same time, how would he manage to find his totem animal all alone? Up there, where so many dangers lurked.
The longer he set out inwardly, gathering his thoughts through fasting and sacrifice, the more certain he felt to take the strain upon himself. In his mind he walked the path to the first place of sacrifice and then the steep ascent to the mountain shrine, again and again, anew. He knew it would be a special journey, a journey that would change his life, he knew that when he returned he would be endowed with the powers of the gods.
Never before has he been so intensely aware of the change in nature, every day he looks intently at his surroundings. He feels the change of nature within him as part of the whole. He is all nature.
Marzon is not one of their own, but he has been in the clan for as long as Pilgrim can remember. The old ones say Marzon came over the mountains, they respect him very much, even though he is not one of their own.
That evening, as the moon rises as a crescent behind the great god, for the second time since Marzon's summons, Marzon again comes to him at the hut: "I see you have prepared well, you are ready for the journey to the gods, it is time. Here I have sewn a protection for you in this bag, it will protect you and give you strength for everything that will come. Here is another Ranft as provisions for the ascent. When you come back you will be someone else, you will one day take my place in our clan. Take the time of silence and find your totem animal. I wish you strength and happiness on your way and a good return home, we are waiting for you, but only you know the time of return. You will determine it." He wrapped him in his arms once more and walked back without a word.
The next morning he began his journey to the gods, heavily packed, setting off early in the morning before sunrise. Everyone was still asleep. He knew the way to the lake very well.
The paths are familiar to him, he feels the dewy plants, smells the musty scent of the old tree giants covered with fungi and lichen. The first wisps of mist pervade the damp forest, a sign of the lake he will soon reach. As he begins his walk, thousands of morning birdsong accompany him. They welcome the new day. Each sound carries him and takes him into a completely different world.
When he reaches the lake, he sees a beautiful old Balder with his magnificent antlers. The stag majestically turns its head towards him. The animal remains motionless for a moment, then turns and moves gracefully into the forest.
At this time of year, the hunters have not yet set out to hunt stags, nor have the animals lost their shyness. For Pilgrim, the Balder was sacred, it was a good sign for the beginning of his journey.
With great strength he pulls a dugout canoe into the cold water. Mists waft over the lake. He sets sail, the arrow-shaped bow waves spreading silently across the smooth lake.
This early in the morning, the high rock faces seem even darker, even more frightening than usual. Completely lost in thought, he rows out onto the wide, long lake. Framed by the huge mountains, he becomes aware of his transience.
His thoughts circle back to where he started. Since his childhood, he has gone into the forest with the migrant shepherds every year. Here the animals find enough to eat, here they are allowed to live their lives. No master cared whether they were free or unfree.
In his inner eye he perceives Virgil with his harsh croaking, loud and incomprehensibly stammering words. His misshapen round head, his wide-set eyes and his big hump often made him a laughing stock, but here in the forest he could oversee a small herd and he was given food. He saw Virgil's big eyes and laughing mouth, he wanted to tell him something, but Pilgrim couldn't understand. The face disappeared from him.
It was as if Virgil wanted to tell him something important, but he could not understand him.
Marzon had passed on all his knowledge of the Old Fathers to him over the last few years. He should pass it on and complete it.
While he was rowing, lost in thought, the headland became visible from where the path would lead him to the upper mountain shrine. With a dark, muffled sound, the boat moored on land.
Before setting off on his journey, he picks some flowers that grow by the wayside. He walks with them to the stone circle, on the very outside of the headland, it is that point that gives a last view of the familiar surroundings of the mountains, far in the back.
It is the place that the shepherds visit before they set off with their animals into the solitude of the mountains. It is the place where they celebrated when their hunters killed another bear that had killed their sheep. He remembers the solstice fires up at the fire palace, he suddenly sees the lambent flames, hears the blazing of the fire and completely unexpectedly he becomes aware of Virgil again, again his big eyes, the mouth opened to scream and again e could understand nothing. He doesn't know what this image means. Was he in danger, or was it Virgil who needed him?
He asks the gods for their protection from wild animals and then sets off on his way to the mountain shrine up by the lake.
The ascent seems more arduous than usual. Often he notices the dull throbbing of his heart at his temple. Clouds gather, the sky becomes overcast, it cools down noticeably.
Again and again he has to look for the way, here is the molehill, there the finch's head, further back he sees the big cairn, he is on the right path, he takes courage again.
His sack hangs on the stick and the burden presses heavily on his shoulder.
Leaning on his walking stick, he climbs the steep path to the top. He knows the way, the roaring waterfall. Above the water cascade, he crosses the travelling stream on a fallen tree. As if pulled by an invisible hand, the water below him seemingly picks up speed to plunge a few metres further down.
When the other bank is reached, he breathes a sigh of relief. For him, it is one of the most dangerous parts of the path. The path leads him further up, it has become quiet in the forest in the meantime, no birds are whistling, it is almost oppressive, it is cold, the clouds hang low.
A little later, this lovely rocky landscape, which fascinates him so much because of its bizarre shapes, opens up to him. Every rock there can tell its own story.
At the large depression, the landscape widens, a very steep ascent now awaits him. Before that, he takes a short break to fortify himself and gather his strength.
The sun comes through the clouds and suddenly transforms the dark forest into a lovely landscape, smells unfold. A miracle happens. He draws the sun into himself, it is silent except for the birds in the round, which have come back to life.
He drinks water from his bag, it feels so good.
He notices the loneliness, and feels fear welling up inside him. To the left and right of him are dark, high and vertical rock faces, now he has to climb up, he won't meet anyone there. If something happens to him here, no one can help him. He drags himself up with seemingly endless effort. At the top he has to cross a wide snowfield, it is still early in the year. From up here he has a last view back to the mountain, where they always light the fires at Solstice. Further back, he knows the spot where, deep down but invisible to him now, lies his village. He knows that he will not see it again for a long time.
Up here, nature is much further back than down in the valley, here spring is just beginning.
After the steep climb, between the two rock faces, he finds the small widening hollow unspeakably beautiful and liberating. He sits down in the grass, watches the butterflies and bees doing their work. He lets himself be addressed by the plants, they tell him what they are helping. He keeps it the way Marzon had taught him.
The clouds pass by, white, grey, in a variety of ever-changing shapes. He tries to understand their signs. He sees many images come and go. Again, completely unexpectedly, Virgil the dolt appears again, he clearly perceives him inside, his eyes again and his mouth open to scream. He thinks he hears him cry out loudly, "Woman!", then the image dissolves and he is back in the here and now.
He sets off again, walks up the scree field again, he walks the old animal paths, animal changes. The animals are his brothers, again and again he sees some standing. They show him the way up. At the top, the path becomes even more difficult, snow from last year has collected in the pit.
For a moment he is frightened, he sees the imprint of bear paws on the path. He knows exactly how dangerous an encounter with these animals can be.
He slips in the snow as he walks uphill, now he has to fight for his footing, he tires quickly, this time the path is harder for him than usual. He feels dull, powerless. He has the feeling that an impending illness is about to manifest itself. He doesn't yet have the rides, the trembling, the hot skin, he can still walk, he knows what it means if he doesn't go on now, if he falls ill now. Up here he is alone, no one would stand by him.
He takes breaks and he moves on through the labyrinth of stones of no return, as the people in the forest below call them. They are indeed for the uninitiated, the uninitiated. But he knows the signs he can follow.
He notices that this time it is different from usual, perhaps the nightmare is already settling on his chest. He gets scared, the sun is already tilting, it is quiet, eerily quiet.
The sun disappears again behind a wall of clouds. A grey wall is gathering behind the rocks, it cools down, his hands freeze. At a sacrificial stone with carvings, he places a handful of dried berries in it, for a good homecoming.
Suddenly, an inexplicable sadness creeps over him, the landscape has changed, everything seems so dark.
He is filled with an inexplicable sadness. His otherwise cheerful nature has changed, like an unknown heavy burden it weighs down on him. He cannot explain this change
He continues walking and comes to a sloping path, around a bend he sees the lake, what a relief spreads through him.
The sky opens up again, the sunset red bathes the rock faces around the lake in a beautiful shining brown-red.
The lake lies calmly down in the valley, the surface of the water reflects the mountain. Slowly the last ray of sunlight disappears, the first harbingers of night appear, it is dawn.
In the immediate vicinity he looks for dry branches for a fire to warm his cooled body. The fire is vital for him to gather strength and to protect himself from the wolves that are roaming the woods again. He had seen their scent on the way up.
For a long time he turns the firewood with his hands until finally the tree sponge smoulders and catches fire. The fire does not want to burn well, it smokes heavily. The wind drives the acrid smoke into his eyes and he coughs. But the fire is the sun of the night for him, he feels the comforting warmth on his front, and the cold of the night at his back, he gladly accepts the smoke.
Slowly the dampness of the night comes, he sees the stars beginning to twinkle bright and clear above him. First one, then more and more, until there are countless points of light stretching above him. A little owl calls. He hears the wolf howling in the distance. Is he on its trail?
He hides under a rocky outcrop to be protected from the weather in case it sneaks up inaudibly in the night.
The powers of darkness seize him, take possession of him, of his heart, he falls asleep. In a dream he meets Virgil again, he comes slurping towards him, takes him by the hand "Come along, to the woman, come along to the woman!" he refuses to follow the dolt, but he grips him firmly and drags him up with him. Pilgrim wakes up, startled. He puts some wood back on the embers and falls asleep again in the glow of the flickering fire.
The cold wakes him before the sun comes over the mountains. It is morning. Still a little dizzy from sleep and lost in thought from tonight's dream, he stokes the fire one last time to warm himself up. When he is fully awake, he sets off for the sacrifice at the mountain shrine. A stone circle forms a spiritual space, a grove, which he enters. There he performs the rites of his ancestors. Afterwards he goes back to the campsite, strengthened.
He fetches a piece of bread, chews it, down by the lake he drinks a sip of cold water, he feels completely chilled, he shivers, he feels bad, sick, nevertheless today he wants to follow the path that has been tempting him for a long time, he wants to go further up, where none of them has been before. Perhaps there is a place of power there that can protect his whole clan. The people in the village once said that Marzon came over these mountains, maybe he will find his destiny there.
As the sun comes over the mountain with all its power and beauty and warms his back, he feels strengthened again to continue his arduous journey, to climb up the mountain. He continues on his way, heavily laden.
A Balder steps out of the forest into the clearing, for him it seems a good sign.
He feels every step, as if dazed, he drags himself uphill. The climb is even harder for him today than it was yesterday. He has the impression that the spirits are beginning to pull and tug at him, not wanting to let him into their realm. He already feels the grip around his body, he can only breathe with difficulty.
The landscape changes for him, he sees figures coming towards him, he is afraid. Are the wads coming for him?
He holds the bone amulet in his hands that Marzon gave him, he knows it will help against the wild creatures, Laurin will not take him into his kingdom. With the mark he has power over them. His dwarves will not be able to drag him into the mountain.
So he overcomes his fear and penetrates further into a world completely unknown to him. He passes through a hollow where marmots cavort, he hears their shrill warning whistle.
He is no longer aware of his surroundings. He feels hot, he feels like he is spinning. Suddenly he hears a whistle behind him, he turns and sees a white marmot. He is frightened, this was a special sign for him. It is his totem animal, he feels it, he knows it exactly. Nothing can go wrong now. He knew he was now on the right path. Strengthened by this experience, he continues on his way. Mountain spirits speak to him in feverish fantasies. Dream and reality begin to merge. He falls and again it is Virgil who leans over him laughing crazily aloud.
* * *
The day began with a magnificent sunrise. For them it is always a new gift to take their lives back in their hands.
The sun is high in the sky, the warmth makes the plants grow, the animals move through the undergrowth again in search of food.
After the long winter, they appreciate eating fresh grass and forest plants.
Lioba, watches them graze. She is glad that the weather has improved, the winter lasted too long up here this year, a few more weeks and she would have run out of food for her animals, she was lucky. It could have ended differently, how long will she last, how long will her strength last? It was her third winter in the wasteland this year.
She drove her animals back into the pen after a while, the winter was not quite over up here yet, she wanted to be careful and not lose any of the animals. After she has stored the animals, she goes in search of medicinal herbs that can be sold to the people of Salafelda. No one down in the valley knows the effects of the plants as well as she does. Her knowledge is highly valued by the settlers down in the valley.
She creaks open the soot-blackened wooden door of her hut and fetches her leather bag. She always takes it with her to collect herbs. She had inherited her adoptive father's knowledge.
She makes her way down to where the plants were already further along, where the warm air was more likely to give the herbs back their power of life. Carefully she made her way down the narrow path. Since the time she decided to live up here, she knew up here every step must be right. No one can help her. She is on her own.
As the path leads around a rocky outcrop, she suddenly sees an elongated pile of fur, a dead animal. As she gets closer, she recognises a human being behind it, crouched motionless on the ground, was he dead? Cautiously she steps closer, she looks around to see if he is alone. She saw the cold sweat on his forehead, he had his eyes closed, breathing heavily. She touches him and she is startled, he was all hot. She had to act quickly now.
She grabbed his arm, put it over the back of her neck and tried to drag and pull him up the path, back to the hut. He seemed infinitely heavy to her, but she knew that if she left him there he would die.
She lays him on her bed of old lichen, moss, hay and brushwood, covered with a sheep blanket. She goes back the way she came to fetch his covenant, he will surely need it if he survives his illness.
She skilfully starts a small fire at the open hearth with the remaining embers.
She makes a brew for the strange man from the dried lime blossoms she collected last summer down in the village and gives him something to drink.
Near her hut she has a stone cave which she uses as a washing tub from time to time. She fetches water from the spring and fills it into the rock hollow. Next to it she builds a fire and throws large stones into the embers and waits until they are almost glowing, then she uses a large branch to roll the chunks of stone into the cold spring water and heats it in this way. She prepares a healing bath for her foreign guest. On the rock she beats mountain pine twigs so that the needles break open and release their scent. She puts the mountain pine needles and last year's hay into the hot water.
She brings the hot hay into the house in a basket and puts it on the stranger's skin. She covers him with blankets and furs. The hay now unfolds the power of the sun that it has gathered over the year. He begins to sweat.
She lays her hands on his head, closes her eyes and prays. She asks God to return his strength to the young body. She feels a tingling in her palms and she is sure that he will get back on his feet.
After a while she gets a sheep's wool blanket, removes the hay and wraps him up again, for a moment she contemplates his beautiful young body completely absorbed. How long had it been since she was in the arms of a man?
She nurses him, cooks him a simple soup with water, grated barley from the valley and salt. As she works over the fire, he awakens. "Are you the fated woman?" She laughs. "Are you a Trud? What has happened to me?" "No, I'm not a woman of destiny, not a Trud, I live here in solitude, because I can't stand the proximity of the people, their falseness. What is your name?" "They call me Pilgrim." "I am Lioba. Soon there will be no more room for women like me. Now rest and sleep a while you may need it!"
After a week, Pilgrim's condition has improved.
Lioba is a quiet white woman. After his recovery, she introduces Pilgrim to her world of thoughts. She talks about her faith, her feelings and her experiences, teaches him her knowledge.
Pilgrim also opens up to her, he tells her about the village, about Marzon, the healer who came over the mountains and about his dream faces.
Lioba explains his dream to him. "Virgil cries out to me in his dream, I will tell you what to do. Bring him to you and take care of him. He is your brother as I am your sister. Help him and stand by him, he has it hard enough."
Throughout the year, as she walks through the mountains, she looks for minerals, which the people down in the village treasure. Every year she finds beautiful specimens that are gladly bought. She knows the healing powers of the mountains, and lets the plants speak to her.
She tells him on the long walks through the high forest, about Javavum the ruined city, about the last Roman who was a healer there. He passed on his knowledge to her, initiated her into the secrets of nature.
And she tells of his violent death of people who are afraid of everything and are abused by it.
She leads him around the wooded plateau, she shows him that there used to be a sea up here, she knows the places where the shells lie open. The cow treads, as the unfree down below say. She shows him the other side of the ridge, he gets to know a whole new world. He gets a sense of the almost limitless expanse of the mountains. She shows him her mountain shrine just before the crossing to Salafelda. He is terribly frightened when he sees a cross with a dead man on it, but she knows how to tell him about Jesus in a sensitive way and he begins to understand. After a short climb over the top of the mountain, he sees the forest valleys below for the first time, and the few houses in the village. He is amazed.
"Look, down there they've cleared another area for salt mining. If they go on like this, one day they'll clear it up here too, then everything will change. When the forest disappears, the animals will disappear first, then the earth, until only the rock remains, and everything will be a stone desert. She said this very seriously. Pilgrim understood, she was a white woman.
Before the new snow falls again, it is the time to say goodbye, after the weeks of togetherness comes the time of silence for Lioba. He thanks her and promises to come back next year. He holds her tightly in his arms, kisses her and turns around. A little snow is falling, it is high time to go.
He descends again to the valley where he came from at the beginning of the year. At the lower mountain shrine he offers a bouquet of flowers as a sacrifice for his salvation.
On the plateau below he takes a rest, the mountain forest has already begun to turn red. It will not be long before the first snow reaches the valley, it is cold.
The first person he meets on the way home is Virgil. Virgil cries out loudly and comes stumbling towards him with his arms outstretched, hugs and kisses him, he is completely beside himself. "Pilgrim widda da, Virgil with Pilgirm go!" "Yes Virgil, you come to me now, I will take care of you."
When he returns, the whole village is on its feet, some had not believed in his return. They rejoice with him at his happy homecoming and celebrate a feast with him. Marzon is proud of his pupil, he has found a worthy successor in him.
The next year, shortly after the snow melts, he climbs up again, he has to talk to Lioba once more. He still has many questions unanswered.
When he reaches the high plateau again this time, he sees large remnants of the last snow, it must have been a strong winter.
As he turns around the bend in the path, he sees the hut. The roof is caved in. A strange feeling creeps over him. How is Lioba? The chimney does not smoke.
He begins to walk, sinking deep into the ground, barely making any progress, it almost takes his breath away. Snow lies in the hut, everything is destroyed. He begins to dig with his hands. In the camp he finds her dead body. The cold has preserved it. Pilgrim cries.
One night he keeps watch over her. With a shovel he begins to dig a grave, but the ground is still frozen solid. Then he carries the body into a crevice in the rock, carefully lays her there, buries her in his rite, finally he says a prayer she had taught him from her religion and covers her dead body with stones. Sadly, he makes his way back.
As he walks, he realises that life goes on. He belongs in his village, that is where they need him, that is where they need his knowledge of the diseases, of the weather, of the way of nature, that is where Virgil needs him.
He has left behind a person he knew only very briefly, but who gave him unspeakable gifts, she will live on in him.
The story is set in the late 8th century. The setting on the high plateau is today's Steinerne Meer between Berchtesgaden and Saalfelden. At that time, the area of the Steinernes Meer was still forested and completely untouched. A thousand years later, a visitor to the shepherds there noted in 1852: "One had to work terribly until, as the rootstocks show, one could rob this vast Alpine region of its immense tree trunks; but the wars of wood extermination in this little country are too well known in history to be mourned as new. Now it would be in vain to try to re-establish forests here, even with the greatest of efforts, because the descending snow and windstorm have long since washed away every bit of soil for receiving seeds."
The Stony Sea as I know it today is one of the most beautiful areas I know, and yet it is painful to imagine that forests once grew on this stone desert.
Nowhere have I been more aware of the changes we humans have made to our environment.
Gerd J. Wunderer