Rilke’s Ghost – by Michael Ampersant

(c) 2015, Michael Ampersant



I still see myself sitting there as a boy on the greenly-striped couch of my parents reading Rilke, Rainer Maria (1875-1926), Bohemian poet, best known for his “Duineser Elegien” (Elegies from the castle of Duino). I read only the first two elegies then, but still, I went with the flow and was very impressed.



Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke
by Paula Modersohn-Becker.

(Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


We moved to the French Riviera where Chang and I rent our house to holiday makers. We get a surprise booking in April and decide to visit Croatia, a new country that isn’t too far away and reasonably cheap. Chang collects countries, he’s never been to Croatia. Bonus: on the way we’ll have to cross Slovenia, yet another country missing from his collection.


We will drive non-stop the nine hours from Cannes to Croatia but should stay overnight somewhere on the way back, some place nice. Chang is on the internet and suggests a town between Venice and Trieste, on the Adriatic coast. A hotel without sea view, budget-friendly. “How is it called?” I ask. “Du-i-no.” Sure, Duino.


Du-ino, Dui-no. “Chang! Rilke! Duineser Elegien!” “Chang, we must stay there. Rilke.” “Rilke?” “Rilke!”


Duino is off motorway A4. We descend into a villa town and get lost because budget-friendly hotels are always hard to find. There’s a ludicrous little beach attached to a harbor of a few fishing boats and a pier doubling as boardwalk; three restaurants, the castle (tower, battlements), and a university, i.e., a small building labeled Collegio Sapienza Rainer Maria Rilke with lots of kids milling outside speaking American and a concierge inside who knows the directions to our “hotel.”


Castle of Duino (Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


It’s still a bit early in the afternoon, so we’ll have a nap in the budget-friendly double bed. We should have a nap, that is, the room is quiet and reasonably dark, save for a distant wailing, a sound like “Oohh, oohh,”—a human voice almost that appears to come from nowhere—“Oohh.” Not a typical hotel sound you’d say. And it won’t go away. “Oohh.” Impossible to fall sleep. We should complain. We should get up, descend down the noisy stairwell and thwack the desk-bell on the reception desk. And, of course, the moment the manager appears the wailing is gone.

So we have to explain. “Bizarro,” the receptionist says. “Oohh,” I intone to give her an idea. “Insolito,” she says and shakes her head. “Oohh,” Chang intones. “Pronto,” she says because her phone rang.


I had them printed out, all ten elegies, in German (the ninth got misprinted). I had packed them with my luggage to take them to this bench on the Rilke path which leads from the harbor to the castle, the bench where the poet put pen to paper elegy-wise (we presume). We sit down. “I will read them now,” I explain to Chang, “all ten elegies, always felt guilty that I never got past the first two.” “Rilke really that famous?” Chang ask. “Yup,” I say, “insane, five stars, trending.” “Why don’t you share them with me, your elegies,” Chang asks.

I begin to read out loud: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hört mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen …”. “Why don’t you share them with me,” Chang asks again (we are married). I translate: “Who, if I were to cry, would hear me from the angels’ order … no … orderings …angels’ orderings…not cry, yell…”

“Funny they are blowing the fog horn,” Chang says and points at a freighter out on the sea. It isn’t exactly a fog horn though, it sounds more like a human voice: “Oohh, oohh.”

“Do you get it?” I insist. “These orderings? And here: ‘Ach, sie verdecken sich nur miteinander ihr Los.’ Do you get this? They are only covering up jointly their destiny? Why not covering up their ass, jointly?” “Oohhoohoo,” the fog horn goes.

“Why don’t you try Google translate?” Chang asks and hands me his Samsung Galaxy. “Oh, they cover only their lot together,” the Galaxy translates.  “Oohhoohooo…” the lamentation goes again, louder this time, not coming from the freighter in fact but from nowhere in particular. “Stupid,” I say. “Oohhooohooo,” the voice moans.

“Let’s go,” Chang say. We descend the Rilke path. The oohing follows us effortlessly to the hotel. We run. The reception is abandoned, I thwack the bell. The moment the manager appears, the wailing is gone. “Did you hear this,” I ask her. She has this funny look now. On her face.

“Let’s get out of here,” Chang says. We fetch our bags, pay for the unspent night, and ask the manager for a match. There’s a fireplace in the reception area where we incinerate all ten elegies, including the misprinted ninth one. We flee at high speed; the wailing stays behind.


Years later. We’re now summering in Bürchen, Valais, Switzerland, in the chalet of a friend, our own house is rented to holiday makers. Chang is bored, so we go on excursion and visit the village right below in the valley, Raron. There’s a Gasthof, we have a drink, and a friendly local tells us all about Raron. There’s not much to tell about Raron, except that Rilke is buried here. Yes, Rainer Maria, the poet. “Remember Duino,” we say, laughing. The letzte Ruhestätte is located next to a pretty chapel up on a rock. Let’s go have a look. A “Rilke path” leads up there. Half-way there’s a bench. We sit down. “Remember the bench,” I say? You see it coming. “Oohh,” the wailing begins, “ohhoohoo, ohhoohoo.”



Grave of Rainer Maria Rilke, churchyard in Raron, Swizerland.
(Photo by Michael Ampersant)


We’re cloistered in our chalet now. The oohing managed to follow us this time, and it’s “oohing” at an alarming rate, day and night, except when police shows up, or the fire brigade, or the village priest. He’s warned us, the priest. Next time he’ll call the ambulance from the nearest asylum. In Raron.

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Michael Ampersant – more stories


See his recently published novel: Green Eyes: an erotic novel (sort-of)


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