Wonderlanded

March 22

On the second day of spring, a spontaneous holiday materializes in my calendar. While the thirteenth grade duels oral exams, class is disbanded for the rest of us, and I catch a train to Heidelberg.

Winter still tyrannizes the woods, keeping them gaunt and grey. But Spring has launched a stealth attack in the open fields. Fruit trees explode into bloom, showering the meadows with lacy white shrapnel. Spring’s spies are everywhere: pink eyes staring out from under the fluttering lashes of blackthorn blossoms. Standing alone in the barren fields, the lace-frocked trees look foreign. Spring is still a stranger here in Winter’s grey kingdom.

I eat a tiny cake on the train and when I step off the platform in Heidelberg, I begin to suspect the cake was baked by a Mad Hatter. I have been wonderlanded. How else can I explain the city’s exaggerated proportions? Heidelberg’s hotels and townhouses tower above me, and I am as small as a doll in their shadows, not even tall enough to reach their blue shutters. The university library is a looming palace of rose-red bricks, built for the Queen of Hearts I suppose. A god larger than a hippopotamus lounges in a fountain, and plaster pantheons gaze down from the façades: Valkyries, lions, bearded titans, and a horned codger who could be Pan or Lucifer.

I slip into the Red Queen’s library, not sure if I’m royal or red or scholarly enough to cross the threshold. The library is part fortress, part cloister, part museum, part train station, part dungeon, and part labyrinth. The marble foyer is crowned with a glass semi-cylinder, the kind that canopies train platforms from Paris to Prague. With students skimming from one century to the next as they close Spinoza and open Kant, the library is a hub for time-travelers. Leaving the marble foyer, I find a spiral staircase that threads the library’s brick tower. As I flatten myself against the wall to allow a brood of students to pass, I find myself pressed up to a window overlooking a garden courtyard. It is as if I am peering from the rim of a kaleidoscope into the living green symmetry below. I climb up one staircase, down another, and the foyer has vanished. Escher must have been the architect of the Red Queen’s Wunderkammer.

On a hill called Königstuhl (King’s Seat), Heidelberg’s royal palace languishes in the mist. The moat is lush with grass and as I cross the drawbridge toward a fanged portcullis, I see a tiny door set into the moat’s outer wall. All I need is a bottle of Drink Me and I could explore the Caterpillar’s garden. Beyond the portcullis, the palace courtyard sprawls between walls seven meters thick. To the west, a wall of glass-less windows frames the view. The window-wall reminds me of a Greek theater’s upstage façade (remember Athens’s Odeon?). Perhaps the palace ghosts watch from its balconies, passing opera-glasses back and forth.

Across the Neckar River, the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Way) laces up the blossoming slopes. In the drystone wall, I find a note, a cryptic prophecy written in felt pen and garnished with a daffodil. From the Philosopher’s ridge, Heidelberg looks crusted with dried blood. The royal palace clings to the slopes like a scab. If only a ferocious wind would peel that crust away. Then the blood would well up in red poppies and Spring would heal the hillside.

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