Heaven's Hill

Stories told by Himmelsberg's linden tree

Original title: Fast wie im Himmel - Geschichten von der Linde in Himmelsberg

Ute Verena Schneidewindt

Translation from German by Miriam Hunter

Chapter III

Duties and stories

It was late. The sun was already quite low in the sky when Anna Lena ran up to the linden tree in a hurry and out of breath.

"Old tree, are you there?" she called.

The old linden's face appeared in the boughs.

"Yes," it said sullenly.

"Old linden, I have to tell you something, I…"

"Tell me, are you always so tardy?" the tree interrupted her with irritation.

"But I'm here now! I…"

"We had agreed to meet in the late afternoon," the tree grumbled.

The little girl started.

"That's unreliable," the linden continued miffed.

"My dad always says that I am reliable in my tardiness," Anna Lena defended herself loudly.

The tree looked at her indignantly.

"Anyway, it really doesn't matter," she continued, "I'm here now."

Suddenly Anna Lena was very disappointed. She had so been looking forward to the first story, and now this.

The old linden could tell that the girl it had already grown fond of at their first meeting was sad. But it had been stood up! And, if it was honest with itself, it felt a little hurt. The old tree remained silent for a long time.

Then the branches jolted.

"I thought you had forgotten me," the old linden confessed quietly.

The girl looked up in surprise.

"But I've been looking forward to asking you about the wild man all day," she countered just as quietly.

Now the tree and the girl looked at each other.

Neither said anything for a good while.

Then, delicately, the old tree broke the silence.

Almost tenderly, it asked, "So, what's all this about a wild man?"

Anna Lena gulped. Carefully she said: "I saw him!"

"A wild man? Here in the village?" the linden asked astonished.

"Yes, and guess what, he was hanging on the wall of a house," Anna Lena answered.

The tree had to laugh, all tardiness forgotten.

"You're saying he was hanging on a wall, just like that?" it asked, more astonished than before.

"Who put him there?"

"No, tree. You don't understand. That's what the crafty-men call those crossing-beams," Anna Lena said, feeling very smart.

The tree looked bewildered:

"You mean that's what the craftsmen call the crossbeams. You're speaking of timber frame construction?"

"That's what I said!" she retorted in a bit of a know-it-all fashion. All of a sudden, Anna Lena worried that the old tree might use as difficult words as her father did.

"Is there a story to go with it?" she asked curiously.

The tree deliberated. "Yes there is. Do you want to hear it?"

"Oh, yes please!"

"Alright. There once was a wild man who lived in a hollow tree deep in the woods," the tree began.

"Here? In these woods?"

"Yes, if you like," the tree replied.

"Everyday, he went fishing. He had made himself a rod with a willow branch and some hair from a wild horse. It was a special fishing rod. He had used enchanted horsehair because he wanted a specific fish to bite. For, there was a beautiful maiden who lived in Himmelsberg. She often came into the forest to collect wood, and the wild man had seen her then. He had fallen so deeply in love with her that he wanted to lay the world at her feet. But, of course, he was a wild man at whom no woman would look twice. However, he caught the king of the waters with his enchanted fishing rod. And you know what?" the tree asked.

"No!" the girl answered.

"The king of the waters had a golden ring on his fin and said: 'Give it to your beloved. If she wears it, then she will notice you.' So, one morning the wild man laid the ring on the forest floor, right where the maiden would pass on her way to collect wood. When the maiden saw the ring she cried out in delight: 'What a beautiful trinket!' And she slipped it on. At that moment the wild man stepped out from the brush. She looked at him. But despite the fish's promise she did not fall in love with him but ran away screaming instead. The wild man took the ring, which she had taken off. He was so sad he had to cry. And as a tear fell to the ground the king of the waters suddenly appeared to him again. 'Even though she does not love you, you can still be with her. In the evening, go to her house and knock on the wall three times with the ring. Wait and see what happens.' The wild man did as he'd been bidden. Quietly, he snuck to the barn. And as he stood there knocking, his limbs grew stiff. He floated toward the crossbeams and turned into the wild man on the wall. The next day, the maiden wondered at the new beams but they seemed to dispel harm from the house and yard. Thus, she was glad to have the wild man of whom she did grow fond in the end."

The girl cautiously looked up at the tree.

"Tell me, old tree. Is that really true?" she wanted to know.

"Of course it's true. Upon my roots!" it said briskly.

"But then Himmelsberg must have been a village full of wild men. I believe I would have found more on the house walls if I had gone looking," Anna Lena added quickly.

"Now, you cannot see the people of Himmelsberg like that," the tree retorted promptly, "the villagers are a nice folk. I've got to rethink the story."

"What do you mean, rethink? I thought the wild man really existed?" the girl pressed the tree.

The tree hemmed and hawed, "Not quite."

"So you're just telling me stories?"

"Exactly!" the tree replied relieved.

After keeping quiet for a moment it spoke up again. "Well alright, if I'm entirely honest, I just invented that story" it admitted sheepishly.

Anna Lena was not particularly surprised and said nothing.

"I don't know any stories about the wild man," the tree said even more sheepishly, "and because I didn't want to disappoint you again, I invented one. But it is true that the wild man is supposed to fend off harm!"

"But I only want to hear the true stories." Anna Lena insisted firmly.

The old tree nodded, abashed.

"Instead of telling you stories I could recite the village's history first."

"You mean, like a local history and geography lesson?" Anna Lena asked boredly.

"No, not like that. Just let me start," and the tree began. Spellbound, Anna Lena listened to the linden tree's words. Where Himmelsberg now stood, there had been a dense forest, almost jungle-like, but without tigers and snakes. Then the people of the time had decided to clear the forest, build a church and houses, and to till the ground. Thus, Himmelsberg was founded. That had been such a long time ago that Anna Lena couldn't begin to comprehend it. You must imagine there were about 26 grandmas in a row. That's how long Himmelsberg has been around, the old linden had said. The girl wanted to know if there had been tractors to uproot the trees, but the old linden only chuckled and said that the people had cleared the trees with fire and their own hands. And when the village had stood for 150 years or so, something terrible happened. The whole village was simply given away. One could do that back then. The village had belonged to a count with a funny name: Count Berthold von Ziegenhain – meaning count goat-grove. Anyway, in 1243, he had given Himmelsberg to a monastery because he had wanted his parents to go to heaven when they died. Hence the name Himmelsberg – heaven's hill. History is complicated, the old linden had said, and Anna Lena had to agree. The tree told of how the village had at one point belonged to one person and then another person. That with America's discovery, even the villagers of Himmelsberg knew that the world was round and that even the quarrel on how to believe in God reached the village. Moreover, there had been many wars. One had even lasted 30 years, bringing death and destruction.

Anna Lena bit her nails.

"Tree, I don't understand that. All you have told me now is that there used to be forest where the village is now."

"Exactly. I always hear experts calling it the late medieval clearing stage. Then came the discovery of America. Followed by the Reformation, after that the thirty-year war which covered all of Europe, later the seven-year war between Prussia and Austria, and many other events."

"But I still don't know how the people here actually lived."

"That is easy," the linden responded, "here, life went on as usual. In summer, the fields were tilled, and in winter people lived off their provisions. On Sunday people went to church in their Sunday best and in the evenings they gathered under my boughs to have a beer or a wine. The residents of Himmelsberg are hardworking, perennial and god-fearing people."

Anna Lena brooded over the tree's words.

"Tree, what's perennial?" she wondered.

The linden looked at her.

"How to explain," it sighed.

"Well, some say things remain unaffected. You know, sort of like if your father reads the newspaper every morning."

Anna Lena looked up.

"Mommy always scolds him then," she said softly.

"Oh well, that is another matter," the tree replied with caution.

"But you know, even if it bothers your mother that your father reads the newspaper instead of talking to her, it's perennial. It stays the way it is. Sometimes good and sometimes bad, it stays the same."

Anna Lena was now biting her nails again. She tried to grasp what that word meant. It was so very difficult to understand.

"I haven't quite understood it," she admitted finally.

"The villagers also experienced many changes," the tree answered.

"I haven't told you about all of the wars that took place in the world and didn't leave Himmelsberg untouched. The village saw many changes. There used to be a good deal more children here, and even a village school. Also, the village looks different now. In the meantime the streets have changed to tarmac, there is electric lighting, and the water is no longer fetched from wells. In the past, everyone here was a farmer, living off livestock farming and cultivating the land. Now there are very few left, most of the residents aren't farmers anymore. They work in the city. And yet–" the tree made a meaningful pause "–the village is still here with all of its residents, who celebrate together, go to church together, and raise their children here."

Anna Lena mulled it over.

"People don't live the same everywhere," the tree concluded its speech. "A village is not a town and Himmelsberg is not like a big city. You will get to know the village. It is quite likeable even if there is the occasional quarrel."

Anna Lena was still deep in thought. Up until now she had thought that in a village everyone owned a pig and a chicken, that one could jump from the bales of hay in the barn and chase sheep in the pasture. That is how she had pictured the extended weekend! She hadn't thought about what living here was like if you grew up here. Slowly, she got up from the bench.

"Bye," she said curtly and turned to leave.

"See you tomorrow?" the old linden called after the child, but it was already on its way, lost in thought. Then it turned after all, waved to the tree, and walked home.