The land is flat and stretches for miles in every direction. I take a sip of my beer and nod my head. ‘It is good beer Karl,’ I say. Karl nods and takes a big gulp of beer and the foam spreads over his lower lip and his blond moustache.
‘Yes, it is good beer,’ he nods again
The summer sun drenches our skin with light and heat just as intensely as the short, sharp shower soaked us an hour ago. Now it is gone, the shower and all traces of it. Except for the steam that rises from the ground. The ground is soft now but soon it will become hard. As hard as the bicycle saddles. Soon the saddles will also become harder and then it will be good to find another Gasthaus in the woods like this one. It is good to rest, to take our weight off the saddles. It is luxury to stretch.
In the wind the smell of the bird is strong. It is a good bird, I know. Come to Papa, I whisper to the bird. The bird does not hear, for the bird is dead. But the waiter hears. He sees the cry in my eye even if he does not hear me call to the bird. He comes to the table,and it was as if I had called to him saying, ‘Come to me, Bird.’
Or as if he were the bird and had heard the cry. But the bird did not hear. For the bird is dead. And its calling is a silent call to my nostrils. And a call to my taste buds. My taste buds answer and I feel the good saliva on my tongue. Strong and sweet at the thought of the bird. I called to it and the waiter came.
‘A beer,’ I say to the waiter. ‘A big beer for me, and one for my friend here.’ Karl nods in agreement. ‘A big beer for my friend and one for me,’ he says. He nods again at the kitchen and the scents that waft over us. ‘That smell,’ says Karl. ‘I’d know it anywhere. It is good. The smell of chicken frying. Frying in batter and bread crumbs. Frying to a golden brown in much hot oil.’
The waiter nods gravely and looks at us with respect. ‘You are right,’ he said.
I nod at him, understanding. ‘The bird is good. The bird is for me.’ I look at Karl and I raise my eyebrows at him. Karl smiles, for he understands too. ‘And one portion for my friend too,’ I say as an afterthought and we both laugh, for I have read the thought in his mind, and the thought is: the bird smells good.
It is always so with a good bird. First the smell of the cooking, and then the appetite. The appetite that has a mind of its own. The appetite that takes on the life of the dead bird and wafts on updraughts of air, breathing freedom. And Karl and I inhale the scents of this freedom and know that the bird is for us. It was a big bird and now it is a dead bird, and the bird is for us. That is the law of nature. The law that we must follow. And we follow it.
Today we will eat the bird, and today the bird is good, the big, dead bird. And Karl and I are full of the knowing of the goodness of the bird, our plates are full of the deadness of this bird. And the cooked smell of its deadness wafts up to us from our plates. I look at Karl and Karl smiles at me.
‘Skol,’ he says, for his full name is Karlsson and Karlsson is a Swede and all Swedes say Skol before they drink. I do not know why this is so, this saying of Skol, but it is so. ‘Prosit,’ I say, for we are in Austria and this is a bicycle path in the Lobau. We are on a bicycle path in this wooded area so close to the city of Vienna, not in the vast distances of Karlsson’s native country. But Karl does not think like that, so he says Skol and not Prosit.
In the Camargue, where I ride the white horses and the horses are wild, I would have said ‘Salut.’ But we are in Austria. So I say ‘Prosit.’ Karl smiles at me, chewing on the bird, and I see that he does not understand. But that is all right because Karl and I are friends. On days like these, friends will forgive each other anything, and it is good to be alive. There is the clear light of the day, the secret of the path as it winds through woods, past fields that smell of upturned earth. The river rushes close by, the Danube, the brown, forcefully flowing Danube.
You don’t see it most of the time, but you know it is there. Like a friend. Like I look down at my plate and see only the bird. And I don’t look at Karl but I know he’s there. And there is goodness in the knowing and in the eating.
Soon we are done and it is time to go on. The bird and the beer are mere memories now, like the remembrance of old friendship, like the sweet, sad song of past love. It is time to go on. The mud on the ground dries in the sun. The ground hardens under the blaze of the unforgiving sun and it is time to get into the saddle once more. It is good to know that the path goes on, and we must follow it. All the way to Passau in Germany if we care to follow it. It is a good path and our way ahead lies on it. And Karl and I are friends, and our friendship is good, and we will follow this path where it leads.
(With apologies to Hemingway. As always, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery)