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Franz Hohler
translation by Katie Ritson

 

The Retaking of Zurich

 

One day, as I was sitting at my desk, looking out of the window, I saw that an eagle had come to rest on the TV aerial of the apartment building opposite. I should add that I live in Zurich and that eagles are found only in the Alps, the nearest ones perhaps in the Glarus mountains, about 50 kilometres from the city. Nonetheless I was certain that this was an eagle; its enormous size, and the challenge in the way it held its head reminded me of the stuffed bird in the glass case in the schoolhouse when I was a boy, the one we had to pass on the way to the sports hall, whose little cardboard label bore the description “Golden Eagle”. There was no doubt that it was a golden eagle that was sitting over there on the aerial of the neighbouring building. Perhaps, I thought, it’s escaped from the zoo or from an aviary, but then I remembered that they usually clip the wings of these creatures, so that all that they can do is hop pathetically. Perhaps it’s just lost, I went on to myself, that can happen in the animal world too, but I immediately had the feeling that this couldn’t have happened to the creature over there. The fact that it had just settled on top of one of the houses also seemed strange to me. We had previously spent some years living in the countryside, and there I had always been put out that the big buzzards I saw soaring high above us never came to our garden to eat mice; then I heard that birds of prey avoided going near houses. And they scorned the post I had put up some distance from the house—in all the years none had ever ventured down to it—and yet here, on the roof of the house opposite, amidst other rooftops, sat a golden eagle, its head tilted slightly, watching the people down on the street, none of whom seemed to have noticed it.

I decided to call my wife and went down a floor into our family’s apartment, but when we came back the eagle had disappeared. I thought I could just see it circling above the Hotel International, but my wife was right in saying that it could just as easily be a buzzard, or even a seagull.

When it returned a couple of weeks later, a second eagle was with it, and together they began to build a nest on the neighbouring house, between the base of the TV aerial and where the chimney joins onto a small cupola, the most protected spot on the roof. The neighbours, who weren’t sure how to react, decided to leave them be, and within a short time they built an eyrie, in which one of the two eagles permanently sat, while the other was off hunting mice, squirrels and small cats.

Of course these birds attracted quite a lot of attention, all the more so since they proved not to be unique. Reports of newly built eagle’s nests were received from all over the city. The ornithological society drew up a list that they were constantly updating while biologists were occupied with the sudden change in the behaviour of these rare creatures, unable to find any explanation. Normally, they said, no member of the animal kingdom changes their usual habitat so abruptly. People were instructed to take good care of their smaller pets, keep dogs on a lead, and not to leave rabbits in open enclosures. Other than that, the city authorities decided to tolerate the eagles, since it had been observed that they were eating rats, among other things, something of which the city had more than enough.

We had just got used to the fact that an eagle could suddenly swoop on a stray cat and peck it to death right there on the street, when something else occurred to make us uneasy.

One morning at the traffic lights on Bellevue Square, one of the busiest spots in Zurich, they found a set of antlers. These antlers had been shed that very night, without a shadow of a doubt, and they weren’t just any old antlers, but had twenty-four prongs, or ends. An enquiry by the Swiss Association of Huntsmen showed that the largest known deer lived in Bann Beverin and was a twenty-two-ender. Bann Beverin is in the canton of Graubünden, many miles away from Zurich, and our native deer are among those species of animal that has almost completely retreated from this part of the country during the course of this century. Since, however, no one had seen this deer shed its antlers and it was not seen anywhere in the following days and weeks, neither in the city nor in the surrounding area, it was concluded that the antlers must have been placed there by someone who had very recently found them somewhere in the mountains and had no idea of their worth.

So nobody was expecting the events that occurred some three months later, on one of the first days of summer. An early morning walker called the police at 4am to report that there were a number of deer on the park near Bürkli Square, and they were blocking the footpaths. The two police officers who were called to the scene confirmed this report and put out a general alert as they had found not just isolated deer moving in the bushes, but what must have been a whole herd, the size of which could not be easily ascertained, but which must have numbered in the hundreds. The park was bordered on one side by the shore of the lake, and on the other by two wide streets, and so, on consulting zoologists, the police decided to cordon off the park and capture or shoot the animals individually. In great haste two rolls of electric cable were organised, the kind used for fencing off pasture for cattle, and as the morning traffic began to build up towards 7am, the whole park was blocked off with several strands of electrified fence to contain the deer, who were completely calm, eating their way through grass, flower beds and trees, accompanied by a monotonous munching sound. While the authorities considered their next steps, an enormous animal used its antlers to push up the electric fence by the congress centre, and, without doing itself the slightest harm, tore it away with one abrupt movement. This animal was the twenty-four-ender, who now trotted out onto the street towards Bellevue Square with the rest of the herd following behind.

No one knew how to get rid of these deer. Marksmen were summoned, then huntsmen and gamekeepers, but shooting at them in the midst of the crowded streets was unthinkable, and the herd stuck to these crowded streets. They crossed Bellevue Square, stalked by police cars, and then wandered along Limmat Quay at a leisurely pace.

There was great consternation. The tram cars got backed up but passengers were too nervous to get out, motorists tried to steer their vehicles along the pavement, some, in the face of the approaching herd, left their cars standing in the middle of the road and fled into doorways, others wound their windows up and stayed put, disappearing amongst the animals like a stone in a torrent of water. The passage of the herd was accompanied by a strange silence. Engines were switched off, and the only sound was the scraping and scrabbling of the many hundreds of hooves on the asphalt; every now and then a windscreen shattered or a car was scratched, but the people were all as quiet as mice. Police officers ran ahead of the herd and tried to warn people. The zoo director had advised against using a megaphone in case the noise caused the deer to panic, for a stampede was the thing that everyone was most afraid of. The assumption that the deer would try and seek a way out of the city and head for one of the surrounding forests proved to be false; the route that the animals took looked rather more like a sightseeing tour of the city. They turned sharp right on Central Square and went through the Niederdorf quarter, leaving again via Preacher’s Square, and, once they had eaten their way through the scant greenery at the Peacock, they went right again along Rämi Street and back across Bellevue Square, not heading for Üetli Hill as everyone hoped, but turning right at the town hall into Station Street. On Parade Square the banks bolted their doors, and the jewellers and fur shops pulled their shutters down noisily over their entrances and looked fearfully out of their shop windows at the never-ending stream of brown bodies that filled the street across its breadth. Officials had just started blocking off the subways to the station and were putting the huge grid barrier to the main station into place when the herd veered off unexpectedly to the right past Modissa House, going in the direction of Rudolf Brun Bridge. A little later—the first of the deer had just passed under the bridge, close to the old sentry house—a sudden shower of rain brought the herd to a sudden standstill.

The twenty-four-ender, who had been leading the herd the whole time, lifted his head, looked around, and then set off at a gentle trot towards the Urania multi-storey car park, with all the other animals in pursuit. This was a serendipitous development. As soon as the deer were all inside, the entrance and exit to the car park were blocked with trucks, so that the herd was trapped.

The decision to shoot was made quickly. Those who were inside the car park were instructed over the tannoy to remain in their vehicles and keep away from the entrance and exit, something which not everyone managed to do, judging by the screams that issued forth. Then military policemen with machine guns were positioned at entrance and exit, reinforced by the municipal police force’s best marksmen. They waited until the rain had stopped, then the trucks were driven away and a smoke bomb was thrown into the car park. The detonation did its worst. With a mighty leap, the twenty-four-ender jumped from the third-floor open walkway and the entire herd followed within such a short time that the marksmen, quickly repositioning, only managed to hit one or two of the deer; machine gunning them was out of the question, because the Lindenhof apartments were in the line of fire. A single doe got disorientated at the lower exit and was felled by a salvo that also hit a petrol pump, so that the dead animal’s blood mingled with the leaking oil to form a reddish-brown pool.

As if following orders, the herd began to disperse, roaming through the whole city in twos and threes, some singly. The morning’s head count wasn’t encouraging. Only eleven animals had been shot, and the total herd was estimated to be some thirty times as many; moreover, four people had been injured in the multi-storey car park, one of whom, a woman, was fighting for her life.

Since the deer wouldn’t leave the city, or did so only to return again after a short time, a special police unit was formed to deal with them. It was a very delicate task, especially since the use of guns was rarely possible without endangering human life. Some men were therefore sent to America, where cowboys schooled them in the art of lassoing. But they did not succeed in banishing the deer from the city. We got used to the sight of a deer charging along a one-way street, pursued by a lasso-swinging policeman on horseback.

There was something picturesque about that, to be sure, and in a sense it was an added richness to our urban life, but somehow the terror came back along with these creatures. The screams of a cat, for example, trying to fight off a fatal attack by an eagle, are scarcely bearable. On autumn mornings, wrenched from sleep by the sonorous and unrelenting mating calls of a stag, you were wide awake for the rest of the day, and wherever in the city two stags went for each other and locked antlers with a cracking noise, the street emptied within seconds.

Anyhow, the eagles and the deer stayed until the autumn, and when the winter arrived, they not only stayed, but attracted new guests to join them.

The deer that was discovered one foggy morning in the middle of the Hardturm Stadium, of which little remained besides skin and bones and the bloody entrails that turned the surrounding snow red, was thought at first to have been attacked by dogs, but when the district vet saw the tracks, he started to feel uneasy and sent for a number of biologists. Together they studied the scene of the crime and announced their verdict. These tracks, said the vet, while behind him the team of biologists looked grimly at the ground, were made by a wolf, and we are not talking about a lone wolf, but a whole pack of them.

It was quite a while before the first wolf was sighted—for a long time it was just their tracks. They had obviously decided to go for the deer; the one in the Hardturm Stadium was just the first, and then every two or three days they found another set of remains somewhere in the city. The first ones to actually set eyes on a wolf were the children in my eight-year-old’s school class. One morning in PE, as they were sledging down the slopes of the Käferberg on the edge of the forest, wolves suddenly appeared and fell on the boy bringing up the rear of the group, Ilya, the son of a Yugoslav immigrant. He only cried out once, said the teacher, quite beside herself with horror. It seemed that the wolves had severed his jugular. Once the police arrived, all they could do was follow the trail of blood, which led to a clearing near the small lake. There they found all that remained of him; the wolves had disappeared and the dogs they brought in couldn’t track them, they lost the scent somewhere near Nordheim cemetery.

From then on, Zurich was in a state of emergency. Not that one was officially declared, but it was there nonetheless. Schools began to arrange for the children to walk in groups accompanied by an adult; men who had completed national service were permitted to escort groups of children carrying assault weapons with the safety catch off. My son was deeply traumatised by what had happened to his class and only began to feel calmer once I allowed him to carry a large Swiss Army knife that I had previously told him was too dangerous for him to have. He clipped this knife to his belt whenever he walked to school with the other children, where, incidentally, he was taught by a supply teacher. His teacher had suffered such a shock that it was weeks before she was back in a classroom.

The authorities began to make serious efforts to take control of this strange situation. The fact that a couple of children died each year under the wheels of a car, well, we’d got used to that, that was just one of the hazards of city life, but children being torn limb from limb by wolves, that was not supposed to happen, not in a city like Zurich. The inhabitants of Zurich were invited to make suggestions, which were reviewed by the emergency committee, all those with licences to hunt were permitted to shoot wolves, and eagles and deer too, for we now understood that these visitors were all connected, and at the same time the committee appealed to the marksmen never to shoot if any human life was in danger. After that, things got slightly better. More animals were slain within a short time than the special police unit had managed in total, and then things improved more than anyone had dared hope: the wolves were enticed into a trap. Someone placed a wounded deer in a cul-de-sac in the Friesenberg district, keeping it there with food, and the following day, incredibly, the whole wolf pack moved in and pounced on the deer so that that the machine gunners who had taken up first-floor window positions in terraced houses all along the street were able to shoot them without any problems: thirty-three wolves in the space of a minute, all flat on the ground with their jaws wide open. Zurich could breathe again, and the forestry official whose idea it had been received hundreds of telegrams and phone calls congratulating him. That evening the city was in a festive mood, the bars stayed open late and many of the restaurants offered beer on the house.

The next day the airport had to be closed because they found a half-eaten deer on the runway crossing. The analysis was clear: it was wolves.

From that moment on, we slowly started to adapt to the fact that we might never get rid of these creatures, but would have to find a way to live with them. Where they came from no one knew, nobody seemed to be missing them, and they didn’t beleaguer any other cities, not in Switzerland nor anywhere else in Europe. Zurich alone was affected, and no one knew why.

The first bear turned up in the spring. It wandered through the station subway, the one we called Shopville, tipping over all the wheelie bins with single blows of its paw, and sniffing out anything edible. People ran up the escalators or squeezed themselves into shop doorways, and the bear helped itself at leisure from the window display of a grocer’s shop. A member of the railway protection service shot it from behind as it reached out for a melon; the animal slumped to the ground as if surprised and rolled over once before coming to rest on its stomach, like a bearskin rug.

Shortly afterwards we heard that a bear had brought traffic to a standstill in the Enge Tunnel and then disappeared in the direction of the River Sihl. So now we had to rediscover the ways of bears, even though the last bear had been hunted down in Engadin more than seventy years earlier. Now, we had to be prepared to meet one in the middle of the city. They were less dangerous than the wolves, and never came as a pack, but usually ambled through the streets on their own. But we had to be cautious nevertheless, especially with small children, and it was immediately decided that bears could be shot on sight too. Certainly, there seemed to be no other way of shifting them.

Generally, people took the appearance of bears pretty well, and real panic only broke out amongst the city’s inhabitants when an elderly man was bitten on the hand by an adder whilst reaching to take a newspaper from a rack at the Stauffacher tram station, dying that same day despite immediate medical attention. It happened again a few times that week, with poisonous snakes appearing suddenly out of lockers at the station and trying to bite people who were collecting their luggage. There were reports from the industrial estate of an Italian woman who, on opening a bread bin, discovered a viper that bit her when she tried to kill it with a spatula. Almost everyone started to check under the bed before going to sleep. We pulled the covers all the way off first because we’d heard the warning that snakes liked warm places. In my five-year-old son’s kindergarten they found a dice snake in the toy box, which was immediately killed by the caretaker. Afterwards they discovered that it wasn’t poisonous after all, but we still wondered whether we shouldn’t take the children to stay with my brother in Ölten. Many parents took their children out of school and found somewhere else for them to stay; some families moved away completely, it became more difficult than ever to find an apartment in the neighbouring towns, and the campsites across the whole of central Switzerland were extraordinarily full even though it was only April.

We decided to stay nonetheless—it was around this time that I heard of a snake eagle, a bird of prey that exclusively hunts snakes, which had been sighted in Switzerland, something that was hitherto unheard of, and I hoped that this would take care of the new threat. There was no sign of this happening, though, and it turned out that there was an even greater threat to the city, against which we were even more helpless. This threat looked harmless, almost pleasant, but we soon realized that this might in fact be our undoing.

This threat came from plants, and from two types in particular. The first of these was ivy, which suddenly started growing incredibly quickly. In a single night it could grow from a garden to the middle of the street, and if it was cut back in the morning, it would be up to the pavement again by the evening. At the beginning, with great daily effort, we could stop it from growing up glass and concrete buildings. The administrative centres of big companies, the hotels, the banks and the department stores all had to employ people whose sole job it was to cut back ivy all day long, but in the wake of the ivy, other climbing plants began to put out shoots: white knotgrass, clematis, wisteria and other domesticated parasites began to intertwine with the ivy and join forces to wage war on streets, roads and underpasses.

At the same time, another kind of plant began to grow to dimensions never seen before, and that was the kind that normally grows in bogs. I don’t know if you know what Butterbur is—it’s sometimes called Pestilence Wort, the rather fleshy plant with huge leaves that you usually find growing along the edge of mountain streams or damp runnals—this Butterbur started springing up on every patch of grass, and the leaves started growing so big that they could cover a parked car. Horsetails grew to the size of birches, and bracken arched across the street, leaving enough space to pass underneath. These plants, for all their pliancy, were so strong that they ate away at the substance of all other plant life, and within a short time, great trees turned brittle and started to topple at the merest gust of wind, so that these days no one goes outdoors if the weather is turning. We only ever go out now if we really have to—as you can imagine, this vegetation is more attractive for wolves, snakes, bears and deer than it is for humans—and since many streets have fallen into disuse, completely overgrown and only passable to people who can cut themselves a path with bread knives and garden shears, we are less and less likely to be rescued if a wild animal sets upon us. So now we are increasingly self-reliant and cut off from society. Often days pass before we hear anything from the authorities or see a police car. Besides the sense of community that stems from the fact we are all completely dependent on one another, there are new kinds of looting and lawlessness, since there is practically no authority that can provide any kind of assurance in our lives. So people are starting to mistrust each another, and sometimes someone who is forcing their way through the ivy in a different quarter of the city gets gunned down by the guards accompanying a school class. Now autumn is coming, and no one knows how we are supposed to carry on. The few trains that can still pass on the central tracks of the station are always packed if they’re leaving the city, luggage cars are full to bursting with suitcases and sacks tied on top, while the trains coming in are almost empty. The only motorway sliproads kept clear are those leading out of the city; the roads leading in have long since been buried under yards of green.

In general, people are hoping that when the plants wither in autumn, it will cause the growth to slow down, and are planning a big deforestation and extermination programme, although I doubt it will succeed. Right from the start, the almost unjustifiably large amounts of herbicide they used proved to be useless—ivy stays green in the winter too, and it’s already been proven that horsetail stems, far from being soft and pliable, are increasingly taking on the properties of tree bark. It certainly begs the question of what the winter will do to us. Last year brought unusually large falls of snow, and the tank for my oil heater is only a quarter full, because the oil delivery van can’t get into our street any more, so I’ve sawn up our pear tree, which toppled over in the embrace of a gigantic fern, and I’m preparing to spend the cold days in my study with my family, where we have our only wood-burning stove.

When I look out of the window of this room, I can see through the tips of the horsetail to where the golden eagles on the neighbour’s rooftop still take off and land to their squawking offspring, bring them some morsel of still-twitching meat, which they mash up and push into their beaks, while the Hotel International looks like a huge old tree trunk against the horizon, completely covered in ivy, out of which poke blue and white clematis and wisteria flowers, recently joined by nasturtiums whose yellow and red blooms can be followed right up to the tenth floor.

It has also gone very quiet outside my window. The building site for the new Migros supermarket has been abandoned, the crane arm nodding like an enormous flower in the breeze; the trams have stopped running, the nearest passable road is right out by the public swimming pool, the house opposite is empty, and I’m sitting here and wondering whether there’s even any point in leaving the city, or whether this is just the start of something that will spread out from here, something unstoppable.

 

From Franz Hohler's Die Rückeroberung, a short story collection (© Luchterhand, 1992). Translation © Katie Ritson.

 

Franz Hohler is a Swiss writer and cabaret performer. He was born in Biel in 1943, and today lives and works in Zurich, where he is counted among Switzerland’s finest contemporary writers. Hohler has received numerous prizes for his work, including the Kassel Literary Prize for Grotesque Humour in 2002 and the Zurich Arts Prize in 2005. His literary works have been translated into a number of languages. Hohler’s novella Der Steinflut was published in English in 2001 as The Stone Flood, in a translation by John Brownjohn.

Katie Ritson started learning German as a teenager in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex. She studied German, Comparative Literature, and Nordic Studies at the University of Cambridge and at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Ritson works as an editor and translator of academic texts in Munich and is studying for a PhD; her current research is concerned with literature and landscape. She lives with her ecologist husband and two small sons, and thanks to them now knows many more German names for insects than she ever knew in English.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013