As I stepped off the boat to the granite quay, a fine mist fell like a veil. The pavement shone black and slick, and the tile roofs dripped. The season was past, if this place ever had a season. Summer on the North Sea, my guidebook warned, can be cold and damp.
A college student who had just turned twenty, I was wandering through Europe. I counted on years of high school French, scraps of German and Russian I had picked up, and what I believed was a natural talent for foreign languages. Latin, in which I was thoroughly drilled, helped me to guess at Italian and Spanish. It was true that educated Europeans spoke some English, but their grasp of idiom was shallow. We amused each other without communicating.
My only luggage was a waterproof backpack. I had no itinerary, no hotel reservation, no introduction to family or friends. I was on my own and free as a bird. What I had was a map and a date by which the adventure must end, my return to Boston for a final year of studies. That date was near—this stop would be the last before the flight home. It was early in the day to search for a place to spend the night. I set off on foot with no idea where I would wind up.
The historic district, the old center of trade and finance, was a place of shadow and gray facades, brick and stone in a haze of soot. This part of the city resembled a maze, with no right angles or features by which to steer. Church steeples visible from the water were hidden by overhangs, and twisted streets shut off all but the near view. The irregular street plan dated back centuries to a medieval age when buildings were solidly walled for defense, and the city was hardly more than a village, a mercantile post at the edge of the world.
I sauntered along a busy main street and got in the way of other pedestrians. They took me for a fool, or worse, an American tourist. Abruptly, an alley opened to the street. The alley disclosed few doors or windows, no other access, and not a leaf of vegetation. It offered no evidence of people coming and going, certainly not on a daily basis, perhaps as seldom as once in a blue moon. In every way, the alley was a dead end.
A painted sign proclaimed: “Rare Books and Prints.” Or that is what I assumed it meant. No owner’s name adorned the sign, no slogan below the bare fact of a shop, no promise of a sale price, no attempt to entice the passerby. This reticence drew me down the alley and into its enclosure—its dark embrace, if that is not too melodramatic.
Under the sign, which stuck out from the wall on an ornate bracket, a recess was carved, a Gothic arch. The door was made of oak, blackened by age and bound by iron straps—it gave the impression of a castle portcullis. The stoop was hollow from countless feet that passed at some era when the place was thick with traffic. I mounted the stoop and pulled the iron handle. The door groaned on its hinges and mightily swung open.
Inside I paused. The shop was so dim I could barely make out its contents, and so full there seemed no way to move around. A passage loomed, a narrow void between stacks of books that rose waist-high. In the center of the space, a great table stood. Heaped below were more books and boxes, and piled on the table were large sheets of paper—prints and maps and brown engravings with tattered edges. Beyond, on all sides, shelves crept up the walls to a shadowy timber ceiling. The shelves were crammed with books to overflowing, so that they threatened to burst and fall. The scene was one of disorder and neglect, or so I thought, until I noticed labels pasted here and there, as if for Poetry, Drama and Fiction.
An opening led to another room in back, a cavern as choked as the one I had left. I glimpsed a certain organization. The front room sheltered literature, works of the imagination, while the back room dealt with history, politics, the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, and the dreadful tide of war. In both rooms, titles were stamped on spines in all languages, including Latin. The books must be very old, I thought, their cost beyond anything I could afford.
A movement in an alcove. A man thin and stooped as though by centuries, with a long, grizzled beard and a black skullcap shuffled some papers with a withered hand. He sized me up in a single glance and spoke in English.
“What are you looking for, if I may ask?”
“Nothing in particular. I saw your shop from the street and was curious.”
“Curiosity is all to the good. It leads down many a path worth taking. But watch your step, young man, and be careful where you swing that hump.”
I took the hint and slipped the backpack from my shoulders.
“The shop has three floors, nine rooms in all. Nine you must know is the number of the Muses, though the correspondence is inexact. This winding stair connects them. It is narrow, impossible for two to pass. No one else is here. Take as long as you like. The shop is open till nightfall.”
To my heart’s content, I wandered and gazed. Cut off from the world in that dim pile of stone, as still as a tomb, and to my mind stocked with treasure, the burial goods of civilization, I lost track of time. I plucked a book at random from a shelf, let it fall open, and read a sentence or two, or tried. I felt light-headed, the more so on an empty stomach.
On the top floor, a ladder was propped in an open hatch to an attic or loft. As if to invite the intrepid browser, a sign was posted beside the hatch: “Metaphysica.” I recognized a reference to Aristotle, to matters beyond the physical world. I had seen the nine rooms, the storehouse of Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, and their worldly sisters. The ladder must lead to a higher realm, the Metaphysical Loft.
Leaving my bag, I climbed hand over hand. The loft was large, open to the rafters, and lit by small dormers like so many stars. The space was less crowded than the floors below. It was furnished with a fireplace, a leather armchair, and a reading lamp. Almost domestic, it seemed to welcome the weary student, to say to the scholar: “You have found your niche.”
The shelves bore titles such as Alchemy, Astrology, Chiromancy, Demons, Etiology—a smorgasbord of spiritual lore. From a section devoted to Dreams and Trances, I pulled a folio titled Somniorum Clavis, or “The Key to All Dreams.” The author was given as Sapiens Vetulus, surely a pseudonym, as the words mean simply “old philosopher” or “the wise old man.”
I had risen before dawn to catch the ferry, which churned for hours through choppy seas. My feet were sore, and my legs might buckle. The armchair beckoned. I sat with the heavy book in my lap and opened to the beginning. In clear Roman type, in Latin that was more classical than monkish, I read the following:
Here you hold the key to unlock the meaning of all dreams whatsoever that are dreamed by man and woman alike in this world of sorrow. It has long been known that the skilled interpreter may foretell the future by sifting dreams, that the soul reveals itself in sleep, and that dream-figures enter our bodies from heaven, like angels who bear the word of god. Be warned, however, that such knowledge may stir anger. Truth is sweet in the mouth of the teller, bitter in the ear of one who will not hear.
My eyelids drooped, my head fell forward, my heartbeat slowed, and the weight of the book in my lap bore down. I dreamed I was trapped in some dark place that resembled a booth. I must exit or die, and the only way out was a hole at my feet. The hole was much too small for my body—I would never get through. Yet the need was pressing. I bent double, clenched my teeth and eyelids, stuck my head in the hole, and pushed.
The dream ends here. The thread of my story also breaks at this point. How I left the shop, where I stayed in the city, for how many days, and what else I saw—after more than forty years these details have fled. What is certain is that I flew to Boston, graduated from college, trained as an architect, and embarked on a career of design and construction, a practical course of life that I loved. Architects are often bookish. Some of us labor for social justice. We seldom excel at mysticism.
At leisure now, I pick at the memory of my own past, like a sweater worn through. How do I account for the missing fabric? I have read about cities on the Baltic coast—Danzig, Riga, and Tallinn. Travel to countries in the Soviet Bloc was difficult back then. Königsberg, now called Kaliningrad, was a place I studied in print and photographs. The Seven Bridges of Königsberg are a famous mathematical problem. And Königsberg was the home of Immanuel Kant. My guidebook said of the great philosopher:
Kant never married. His life was uneventful, academic, and routine. Citizens said they could set their watches as he passed their windows on his daily walk. But he was dapper and amusing, he relished company, and he never dined alone.
Did I tramp through Königsberg in the land of East Prussia, places that no longer exist? Did I make a jaunt to Lübeck, Rostock or Visby, city members of the Hanseatic League? I remember only the arrival by sea, the alley, the shop, and the loft where I fell asleep.
In a sense, I never woke. The awful dream recurs now and then. I would call it a dream of birth, of being forced to enter the world upside-down, through a tight squeeze, but that is absurd. No human being can recall the moment. Is it a symbol of some dark conflict or hidden desire? Did Sigmund Freud use the Somniorum Clavis to write his book The Interpretation of Dreams?
Part of me longs to travel again, to shake that young man, and part of me is loath to disturb him. He slumbers there still, and his dream is the life I have followed thus far. Instead, I revisit the gray city by the sea, as Theodor Storm describes it in his poem.
Die Stadt The City
Am grauen Strand, am grauen Meer By the gray shore, by the gray sea
und seitab liegt die Stadt; the city stands alone.
der Nebel drückt die Dächer schwer On roofs the fog weighs heavily,
und durch die Stille braust das Meer and through the stillness roars the sea
eintönig um die Stadt. upon a single tone.
Es rauscht kein Wald, es schlägt im Mai No forest laughs, no thrushes trill
kein Vogel ohn’ Unterlaß: without a break in May.
die Wandergans mit hartem Schrei By night the wild goose with its shrill
nur fliegt in Herbstesnacht vorbei, autumnal cry flies where it will;
am Strande weht das Gras. the saltmarsh grasses sway.
Doch hängt mein ganzes Herz an dir, Yet hangs my heart entire on you,
du graue Stadt am Meer; gray city by the sea.
der Jugend Zauber für und für The magic of my youth anew
ruht lächelnd doch auf dir, auf dir, smiles evermore on you, on you,
du graue Stadt am Meer. gray city by the sea.
Featured Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons