13 June 1886
Standing at the edge of the lake’s still waters I stare out at the sublime mountains, still visible in the twilight, trying to ignore the commotion behind me. Ahead is peace and tranquillity, the calm of the water only briefly disturbed by the dance of a fly across the surface and sometimes the flip of a fish, pulling it down. If I keep my eyes fixed ahead and up, locked on the summits of those far-off lofty peaks, perhaps I can disappear from the disturbing present, into thin air, just as he has done.
It is not to be. Search parties holler at me to get out of the way; I slip on the stony shore as burly fishermen half stagger, half rush past me, into the waters, bearing the wooden boats between them. One, two, then many more humble fishing craft are borne down to the shore, with panting breaths and muttered curses, for today is an official day of rest. As the fishermen lurch past with their burdens, I hear one hiss to his fellow boat-bearer: “Trust the bloody King to have us up and out, even on a holy day.”
It is work they are unwilling to do: to take to the waters at this odd late hour; fishermen forced to look for an ungodly haul. As they slosh into the lake, water tipping into their boots as they heave themselves into the little vessels, I can feel their displeasure rise just as the holy spirit should be settling amongst them.
Pentecost: the day and night of the descending spirit. Coincidence, or had he known? Was it King Ludwig’s wish to cast off from the world on this particular day? Perhaps he had stood, as I do now, before skimming his spirit across the lake: a jumping stone, until it sank as he knew it must.
He has only been missing an hour and already the rumours are spreading: faster than the oars which now beat Lake Starnberg’s waters; further, like the search parties, separating as they begin the long slow trawl of the lake. Day seems to exhale its last breath and the water ripples, little tongues wagging, joining the talk on land:
“The mad King has taken his own life!”
“Looks like it, but his doctor is missing too.”
“They were out together for a walk- never came back… “
“You never! Here? At our lake?”
If one rumour reeks with the intoxicating fumes of insanity, the other is an explosive mix of gunshots and hidden assailants, topped off with a measure of murder:
“I heard those shots ring out, you know. I was taking a stroll on the lake; they echoed as loud as the Pfingstsonntag bells. “
“Since when do you take a stroll round the lake? A walk to the local guesthouse for a few beers would be more like it!”
“Well, it makes no difference. I heard them. Could have sworn I heard the splash too.”
“Splashes: I heard they murdered the doctor as well.”
Give it a few minutes and perhaps the rumours will change, flickering then flaring like the search lanterns bobbing across the waters. The lights burn tall and bright on their wicks, held aloft as faces crane into the dark waters below, searching yet hoping that no face will stare up into theirs. As the lights dance and the oars beat and the policemen call instructions for the fishermen to widen their search, I wonder if answers will flicker, seeming to shine, only to fail. Has Ludwig just disappeared, or is it something more sinister? Suicide, murder even? As the minutes lengthen, the chances of certainty seem to vanish without a trace, just as he has done.
A storm is gathering and thunderous cloud castles tower in the sky, reflected back in the glassy surface of the lake. They remind me of our happier times together at a different mountain lake, the Alpsee, where we used to take our walks, aspirations soaring like the buzzard above our heads. I can almost hear his earnest voice, raised above the crunch of his boots on the gravel path, telling me about the castles he swore he saw; how if he stared hard enough, he could almost see the door. No matter how many palaces I built him, turrets piercing the sky, challenging the mountains with their impossible beauty, it was the lake that drew him and those phantasmagorical cloud castles, so tantalisingly near and yet ever out of reach.
I shift the large book with its beautiful red cracked leather cover under my arm, feeling its weight. It used to be a comfort, now it just feels a burden. Within are all my plans: sketches and accurately rendered designs for our master visions, each one more grand- the people thought preposterous- than the next: hundreds of thousands of marks poured into the earth with castle Linderhof’s Venus grotto; millions for the palace that would crown him with the name Fairy-tale King: Neuschwanstein. His subjects called him mad; every stone we raised plunging the country into greater debt. If he were, then what does that make me? For I am the man behind them, who shared- no, who urged on and realised- those intoxicating dreams.
I start at my name, barked like a demand for attention rather than a question, and see a police officer striding towards me.
“Yes. Can I help you Officer?”
“I need to ask you a few questions about the King’s disappearance.” He continues, giving me no time to concur.
“Did you know of King Ludwig’s plans to walk here tonight with his physician?”
“I’m his architect; I build his palaces. His leisure time is no concern of mine.” The response is out of my mouth faster than a whip’s lash and the officer flinches, obviously expecting me to be quiet and compliant.
“I see. So, I can record that he did not confide to you his intentions for tonight?”
The question makes me shift my weight uneasily; the slight movement sets the loose gravel about me sliding, and I slip slightly forward. The officer looks at me expectantly, tapping a pencil on the page in his little notebook headed “Grimaldo”. I look at my name and feel the last days begin to shift and slide in my mind. Memories are an avalanche of boulders, crushing me under their weight; I feel like I have the whole of the Alps pressing on my chest. The book is a dead weight under my arm; the pages tallying the numbers, running into the millions, each red figure is like a migraine’s pulse in my mind. Does he see what his words have set in motion? If yes, he has no time to ask another question: a shout goes up at the shore and he is off at a run towards the sound.
Someone is holding up an umbrella and an overcoat; I would recognise the dark wool anywhere. I am too far away, but I can almost smell the scent of that familiar lamb’s wool: mountain air, woodfire and the sour tang of lonely despair. Just the thought of his smell is nearly enough to make me buckle.
The day has tricked us, seeming to exhale peacefully; instead it was only ushering in a storm. Black clouds bank, pushing with force from the distant mountains, scudding across the sky, painting a dark scowl on the waters below. It is as if the coat and umbrella, held aloft, have summoned these dark spirits. Look at us! The abandoned possessions seem to cry at the sky. Come wind and weather and add your clamour to the breaking of a heart.
I curl my free hand tight, pressing the nails into the thick calluses on my palm, waiting for the jab of pain. It is nothing to my sense of shame: Remember Grimaldo: you had his visions; you had your genius, and what did you build him with the two? Prisons for palaces; towers where he could only lock himself away. Why hadn’t I been able to build him what he asked for? - a place to escape; a place to belong. Sat at my drafting table, sketching our dreams to life, why had I never seen that beneath all the turrets, towers and ornate finery there was nothing but debt and a foundation which ran deeper still: solid sorrow.
The rain starts like it has been summoned. The drops pierce the lake like a thousand eyes, boring deep, probing where the soaked and miserable fishermen have no desire to search. I see them on the lake, huddled under their flapping rain jackets, desperately trying to keep their little lanterns lit.
Swim deep King. Swim to the bottom and stay there. Don’t give them the pleasure of dragging you out; gloating over your bloated face. Stay with the fish; for there, even if they pick your bones, it’s better than the cruel dissection waiting here, at the hands of those who never loved you.
It is not to be. Another shout goes up, this time of jubilation.
Here! Over here!
Yes, and the other one, the doctor.
Yes- dead. Drowned.
It is the news only I seem to have been dreading; all others, fishermen, officers and passers-by, flock now to the finding place: a wake of vultures, flapping black figures jostling to be the first at the scraps. I have never wanted to feast on death. The time for tombs approaches, but it wasn’t always so: I built banqueting halls; I summoned infinite space and light in my halls of mirrors and I hollowed the earth to make temples for music where the King could feel most alive. I close my eyes as the rain courses from my sodden hair, down my neck, pooling in my shoes; it is a baptism of memory, drenching me in recollection: Ludwig’s ebony hair, his faraway look, then the warmth of his neck as he held me close, staring in wonder at the castle I had built, a solid legacy of his genius and my love.
I can bear the burden of it all no longer. I was architect to his dreams but now that waking vision has fled. Removing the book of plans from under my arm, I caress its beautiful red cover one last time. As if agreeing with my intention, the wind courses from behind me, speeding my arm as it curls back, looping over my head. The book soars aloft, borne on the wings of the wind; pages fly from the covers, momentarily swirling in the stormy air. And then, inevitably, they drift downwards; the book shatters the water and loose pages settle on the surface, the inked designs unravelling like my mind.
I walk into the lake as the pages sink around me; the time has come, to look for those castles in the clouds.