The present writer bears the name of Brauxel at the moment and runs a mine which produces neither potash, iron, nor coal, yet employs, from one shift to the next, a hundred and thirty-four workers and office help in galleries and drifts, in stalls and crosscuts, in the payroll office and packing house.
In former days the Vistula flowed dangerously, without regulation. And so a thousand day labourers were taken on, and in the year 1895 they dug the so-called cut, running northward from Einlage between Schiewenhorst and Nickelswalde, the two villages on the delta bar. By giving the Vistula a new estuary, straight as a die, this diminished the danger of floods.
The present writer writes the name of Brauksel in the form of Castrop-Rauxel and occasionnally of Häksel. When he’s in the mood, Brauxel writes his name as Weichsel, the river which the Romans called the Vistula. There is no contradiction between playfulness and pedantry; the one brings on the other.
The Vistula dikes ran from horizon to horizon; under the supervision of the Dike Commission in Marienwerder, it was their business to withstand the spring floods, not to mention the St. Dominic Day floods. And woe betide if there were mice in the dikes.
The present writer, who runs a mine and writes his name in various ways, has mapped out the course of the Vistula before and after regulation on an empty desktop : tobacco crumbs and powdery ashes indicate the river and its three mouths; burnt matches are the dikes that hold it on its course.
Many many sunsets ago; here comes the Dike Commissioner on his way from the district of Kulm, where the dike burst in ’55 near Kokotzko, not far from the Mennonite cemetery – weeks later the coffins were still hanging in the trees – but he, on foot, on horseback, or in a boat, in his morning coat and never without a bottle of arrack in his wide pocket, he, Wilhelm Ehrenthal, who in classical yet humourous verses had written that ‘Epistle on the Contemplation of Dikes’, a copy of which, soon after publication, was sent with an amiable dedication to all dike keepers, village mayors, and Mennonite preachers, he, here named never to be named again, inspects the dike tops, the enrockment and the groins, and drives off the pigs, because according to the Rural Police Regulations of November 1848, Clause 8, all animals, furred and feathered, are forbidden to graze and burrow on the dike.
The sun goes down on the left, Brauxel breaks a match into pieces : the second mouth of the Vistula came into being without the help of diggers, on February 2, 1840, when in consequence of an ice jam, the river broke through the delta bar below Plehnendorf, swept away two villages, and made it possible to create two new fishing villages, East Neufähr and West Neufähr. Yet rich as the two Neufährs may be in tales, gossip, and startling events, we are concerned chiefly with the two villages to the east and west of the first, though most recent, mouth : Schiewenhorst and Nickelswalde were, or are, the last villages with ferry service to the right and left of the Vistula cut; for five hundred yards downstream the sea still mingles its 1.8 percent saline solution with the often ash-grey, often muddy-yellow excretion of the far-flung republic of Poland.
Brauxel mutters conjuring words : ‘The Vistula is a broad stream, growing constantly broader in memory, navigable in spite of its many sandbanks…’ – moves a piece of eraser in guise of a ferry back and forth across his desk top, which has been transformed into a graphic Vistula delta, and, now that the morning shift has been lowered, now that the sparrow- strident day has begun, puts the nine-year old Walter Matern – accent on the last syllable – down on top of the Nickelswalde dike across from the setting sun; he is grinding his teeth.
(Dog Years, Günter Grass).