They say that the thought of dying alone causes such a horror in the human soul that it will go to great lengths to avoid it — even if it means to break out of the order of things, for a fraction of an instant.
Now I’m a reasonable, grown-up person, and I’ve never given anything much about such talk. But lately, I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve come to believe that there may be something to it, that sometimes, one of our fellow humans knows no other way than to reach through via pathways that should be impossible … to avoid this one horror of the ultimate solitude.
Here’s what got me thinking.
It was several weeks ago; I was driving down the highway, practically in complete darkness. Not all routes die down late in the night. This one does. It’s almost entirely made for commuters: work people, who flock to the big city when the morning comes and flow out of it as the afternoon fades away. When darkness has finished falling, they’ve long arrived in their sleepy small towns and villages; back on the road, apart from the very occasional oncoming traffic, you see nothing but the black shadows of the trees and the cat’s eyes on the milestones that reflect your own car’s glare as they shot through its narrow cone of light.
A sticky fog had started to add to the opacity of the surroundings, and since my radio had fallen out of repair, there was no chance of being entertained by music and blabbering human voices, either. The droning engine and swishing tires on the wet road were all that could be heard, and it was just beginning to dull my nerves, when a sudden flash of light shocked me back to full awareness.
The road was lined by signs that told me it would be closed a short stretch further down. Flashing and blinking light signals commanded me to slow down, pull to the right lane, and leave the highway for a redirection. I cursed quietly, and followed the indicated route. Soon after, I found myself drifting along a land road through the woods, darker than the highway, a gloomy narrow canyon cut through dense roadside walls of trees, opaque even to the headlights of the car.
When I had settled back and resigned myself to slower progress and consequent later arrival, I ran into yet another barrier of blinking light. I braked, and sighed. Now I had finally come to complete standstill…
It was a railway crossing, one of the minimal sort: just the flashing signal light, not even a barrier. The tracks were spewn out of obscrurity on the left side, ran over the street, and got sucked up in the same kind of obscurity to the right. No buildings to be seen, no streetlights, no other vehicles. No human soul around. Certainly no birds, nor even a passing rat, understandably, given the ugly rain weather. Just a dark crossing, and a monotonously blinking light on a traffic sign.
I briefly considered to simply ignore it, and drive on. Breaking a rule, yes; but so what… The risk was negligible (I thought), and it was laughable to think that a police patrol might catch me in flagranti. At this hour of night, in this forlorn spot? Hardly. And yet…
Something kept me from doing it. And so I just waited.
In retrospect, the first thing that is inexplicable to me now is what I must have thought. Of course, waiting for a crossing train is just what a good citizen and vehicle driver has to do. But what is a reasonable amount of time?
I waited for some minutes, watching the trickle of rain water on the front window. I had switched off the engine already. Now I killed the lights. Some more minutes went past; still nothing stirred. At this point, I got annoyed with myself. Shouldn’t I just have driven on? Then I would be well on my way now; obviously, no train would have crashed into me. And what if I did it now? But once again, I felt a curious paralysis hold me back. A kind of leaden heaviness. It just felt easier to continue waiting…
But certainly, there must be limits, right? What if this went on and on? What if it was just a case of a defective signal, to be noticed and repaired the next morning? Imagine, I’d still be waiting here with my car when they arrived, finding me having spent the night in front of a false stop light…
I peered through the side window. My eyes had gotten used to the pitch-blackness, and I was able to make out some rough outlines of my surroundings. It helped that the rain had diminished a little. There was nothing much, but I thought I could discern a spacious area with writing on it, presumably some company name plate. It was too dark to read it, though. I did not have enough curiosity to open the door and get out into the uncomfortable cold and wet outside. And so I just shrugged it off, and went back to my boring wait.
As time crept on, numbness and cold sank down, too. And that is the second thing which, in retrospect, I now think should have shaken me out of my passivity and made me get out of there. For I gradually realized that this was not just the natural chill of the night. It was a cold that went right to the bone, the kind that we sometimes feel running down the spine in uneasy chivers. But stronger. And more effective in numbing me down, too. It was a frightening cold, one that brought a frozen stupor. I somehow began to have sympathy for how some people might get afraid simply of the dark. If it felt like this, then there was nothing childish about it. It was very real, and terrifying.
And then, for the third time this night, I got shocked out of my numbness by a flash of light.
This time, it was a veritable stroke of lightning, and it illuminated the whole scene for several seconds. I got a good look at it, and even though I had spent an eternity here already, the sudden clarity of what was where shook me through.
Not that there was much out of the ordinary. It was a train crossing, much like many others. What I had seen on the left, though, really was a company name plate, and there was a tall and strong wall that ran along the street, which might well be the fencing around a significant industrial complex. There were no gaps or entries, as far as I could make out; only the plate indicated to whom or what it would belong.
As abruptly as it had set in, the illumination from the lightning ended. I sat in darkness again. And then I realized them: three things, all at once.
First, the blinking of the signal had died. It had gone dark. Nothing indicated it was even there.
Secondly, the cold and numbness had intensified to a peak, shudders ran through my body, and I realized that I was shaking even on the outside, uncontrolledly, with what might have chills or fears, I don’t know which.
And thirdly, at my consciousness arrived what exactly I had read on the name plate. It had said: “Andreas Schütteler”.
In my work, I have dealt with countless people. Some I got to know for a long time, some I just had a short transaction with and never met again. Quite a few have worked for me, over the years, too. With those, I had easy relationships — not too close, of course, for there is always a possibility that we might fall on hard times, and then I’d have to let them go. And it’s never convenient to do that with someone you’re too close with.
There had been one, however, where that kind of distance hadn’t been possible. That was almost at the beginning of my career; he had been one of my very first employees. His name, of course, was Andreas Schütteler. A quiet, shy young man who worked diligently (though wasn’t particularly skillful). He was very withdrawn, and I soon realized that he had no-one to even talk to. Something stirred my sympathy, and I began to have a friendly chat with him from time to time, just to cheer him up a bit and keep him company.
He seemed grateful for this, though always a little disbelieving. I learned that he had lost contact with his entire family, all his relatives. There seemed to have been no quarrel, just an estrangement. So he withdrew, let it all die down. Nor had he made any friends to speak of; with his colleagues he merely kept a polite, but formal way of conversing, too. Once anyone had finished their business with him, they would have forgotten him within minutes and never thought back. If there was ever something close to a lonely soul by no great fault of his own, then it was him.
At some point, when I left town for a step up the career ladder, I naturally lost sight of Andreas Schütteler, too. I assumed he would keep going, quiet and subdued. But I never ever heard from him again. And I don’t think I even remembered until that very moment when, surely from a strange coincidence, the identical name flashed over the painted company billboard in front of me. Of course, those names were not that unusual, and why would not a firm be a namesake of one of my former workers? And still, all those memories felt disturbingly present, shoved back into my awareness, after all those years, from the depths of what I had assumed would be the land of the forgotten.
It felt as if a bolt of ice had just ripped through me. If that is even possible, I would say that I was frozen and thoroughly shaking at the same time. Thick darkness was around me again, but somehow, the glare of the lightning flash was also present, somehow, as if it had grabbed hold of my consciousness and wasn’t quite willing yet to let go.
And then, suddenly, it was over. I was able to move; almost mechanically I started the car, switched the lights on, and drove off. Only a few moments later I even remembered to inhale again; on the first outbreath, a wave of gratidude swept over me, a faint echo of a warm glow. Then that was gone, too.
Once I reached the highway, I took a very deliberate deep breath and told myself to relax. For the first time all night I even remembered to check the clock. And I realized that the whole thing since I had entered the side road had taken just about ten minutes.
A few days later, I read in a company newsletter a laconic notice that one of our former employees had died, from a sudden illness. I didn’t even need to check the date and time when it had happened; something told me I knew already.
I took a day of and went to the funeral. I knew in advance that I would be the only person there. But what counts, I guess, is not so much the formalities and the rituals of the living. What really counts is what had happened in that fraction of a moment when I was, perhaps, the only possible soul to reach for.
And that’s what got me thinking.