Celestial Graffiti

December 22

Like any proper adventure, this one begins in the dark. Mainz is still submerged in night, though ripples of morning birdsong run through the trees. December darkness slicks the streets and trickles from the eaves. In the windows hang Christmas stars, red paper skin stretched thin over electric veins, as if the constellations of the winter sky have been snipped out and pasted across glass panes. In front of the train station, cigarettes glow like scarlet comets.

I board a train that skims out of the dark and into sudden day (our express line makes no detour through dawn). Mist glazes the pines, gilding the forested hills in tarnished silver. As we whip through valleys, rivers race beside us for a glassy while, then veer away into villages. Like crayon sketches, the villages paper these valleys, collections of white-washed farmhouses outlined by a child’s hand: prim rectangles with steep-gabled roofs.

As we glide south, tunnels mince the landscape into a reel of discontinuous episodes. Black velvet curtains shutter each scene when another tunnel closes over us. Once, the curtains whisk away to reveal a snow-feathered forest. Plumed in white down, the trees cluster like flocks of preening egrets.

At noon the curtains open on bleached blue skies knit with Munich’s jet trails. Low in the sky, the sun glints like a shard of shattered summer caught in the horizon’s southern folds. Munich’s Christkindlmarkt is a chocolate box of Christmas dainties tucked into white-trimmed booths. There are sugar-snow dusted waffles, hand-glazed pottery in shades of sea and smoke, fruitcake served by women in frilled white pinafores, galaxies of glowing paper stars, jars of golden honey like small suns trapped under glass. And there are the miniatures, whole worlds of tiny domesticity: minute copper kettles, cauldrons, butter churns, wicker baskets, sacks of flour, watering cans, wheelbarrows, lanterns, thimble-sized sewing machines, bead-like bobbins, porcelain teacups, polished candelabras, bottles of wine, crates of apples, loaves of bread, and iced teacakes. However, I cannot linger amongst miniatures. I belong in another fairytale, not Thumbelina. In my tale, this December-orphan is adopted by a German family and spirited away into a sugarplum dream.

As Hartmut (the father in this tale) and I drive south, the city evaporates into languishing mist. Dazed by the setting sun, the mist sprawls over the fields and lolls against the boles of evergreens, slinking through the trees with its head low. Above the fogline, the air is clear and washed with starched sunlight. In the distance runs a line of scowling blue mountains who will grow into the Alps as they thrust south. Enfolded in the mountain foothills nests a flock of snow-feathered farmhouses, one of which belongs to Hartmut and Margarete.

After two cups of cheery red tea, Margarete and I go out into the white winter glitter too lacy to be called snow by weathered Germans. The scrawny young moon has not learned to shine, so the woods are thick with real country-dark. A frost-crust enamels our path, and remembering moonbeams, the ice echoes them with a shy white gleam. Unobserved by the moon, the stars paint glittering graffiti across the winter night, constellations of unbridled light.

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