After a long day of meetings, Inés lay down on a lounger at the centre of the base camp and read a book. It was late evening, and there were only a handful of people still awake. Illuminated by their screens, they sat on camping chairs between injured and dying birds. The last expedition of the day was just setting off on a night walk into the heart of the low mountain range. The participants wore a mixture of curiosity and fear on their faces and light daypacks on their backs. Turning the pages of her book, Inés had just noticed her eyes beginning to close when she heard someone speak, asking if he might sit with her. It was the playwright, Wolfram Lotz.
She had already seen him in the canteen several times since her arrival, loading ravioli onto his tray, but she had never spoken to him. He offered her tea from his thermos flask, and they began to talk about their work. Inés told him how tedious it was to work on a document with dozens of people who were at odds with each other, how she often emerged exhausted from these discussions and had developed sleep problems. She asked Wolfram if he had written any good scenes since getting to the camp. He shook his head. ‘Only dross.’
They went on to chat about always feeling as if you weren’t working hard enough, as if you couldn’t accomplish anything as interesting as other people were producing, about current projects at the base camp, which they followed with interest, about the beginning of the twentieth century and the simultaneous appearance of the words ‘world literature’, ‘world politics’ and ‘world economic crisis’, about the fact that the German Wikipedia entry for ‘mankind’ consisted of a single sentence, about the international interest in the search operation here in the Taunus mountains, and how one can enjoy orange juice even when one knows how it is made.
This is what they said to each other. Then the sun rose. Just as they were getting up from their loungers to return to their accommodation, the much-delayed expedition returned from its night walk.
News of the second contact sent the whole camp into turmoil. After long weeks spent searching in vain, a new vitality returned. All of the teams hungrily pored over the scant new knowledge that the expedition had brought back that night, while for their part, the camp authorities decided to limit all future reconnaissance to the area where the second contact had been made.
The base camp lay at the south-eastern edge of the Taunus, near Kronberg, just a few kilometres from the place of first contact. It had never been officially designated or planned, but instead gradually took form out of tents, containers and camper vans. Now hundreds of people, sent by universities or on behalf of their countries, lived and worked there in close quarters with local authority personnel, journalists and NGO staff. They lacked for nothing: there were 220-volt electrical connections, sanitary facilities, a canteen, Wi-Fi, a library and even a small shoe shop.
Inés shared her accommodation with a historian from Mainz, a Swiss anthropologist and a Chinese geologist. The geologist had a genetic defect that affected his eye, which meant that it streamed constantly, lending a certain gravity to everything he said. When the news from the Taunus had spread around the world, he had been one of the first to arrive from abroad. It had been decades since one had come across such unknown, isolated groups. Even in the remotest rainforests, it was certain that no stone had been left unturned – and now this discovery, right in the middle of Europe.
‘The mood here,’ the geologist once said, ‘is similar to that of the mining disaster in San José, where dozens of miners were trapped under the earth for more than two months, and a community, of which I was part, developed around the tunnel entrance, working day and night to help the miners. The mood at the base camp reminds me of that, even if we are not trying to rescue anyone here, I think.’
As a rule, Inés spent her mornings alone. She took her laptop and sat in a cafe that stood in the shade of a stack of portable office containers run by a group of young cultural studies experts. As always, she scanned the latest reports and publications uploaded to the intranet by the other camp residents, brought herself up to date with the current state of affairs, wrote up her notes from the previous day and continued work on her mammoth report, all while field mice scurried between the table legs in the hope of intercepting fallen biscuit crumbs.
They still knew almost nothing about the people they were searching for. The first sighting was made by an amateur hiking group from the Rhein-Main area. This group had stopped for a short rest in a clearing not far from the Grosser Feldberg, when they suddenly saw human silhouettes between the trees. There was only blurred mobile-phone footage of the encounter, which seemed to show naked people wearing helmet-like objects on their heads and standing about thirty metres from the camera. Due to the quality of the zoom, it is hard to discern any other details. From somewhere off to the side one can hear the hikers calling to the strangers. Their unease is apparent from their voices. When the strangers finally step out of the shadows and start walking towards the hikers, the video ends with a sudden cry from the person filming.
Quite how these people had remained undiscovered until now remained a puzzle; in such a tiny area, crisscrossed by forestry paths and walking trails, exhaustively mapped, and just a few kilometres from Frankfurt. How was it possible, one asked oneself – perhaps they lived underground, in abandoned mining tunnels? And above all – how long had they been here? Since when had they been watching us? Did they witness the arrival of the Romans, the expansions of the Merovingians? Did they watch as the Peasants’ War and the Black Death unfolded, see Napoleon’s troops marching in, did they feel the earth quaking during the wartime bombing raids? And what did an Airbus A-380 mean to them, when it began its final descent?
Inés ordered herself a caesar salad and a bottle of sparkling water for lunch. The dressing was well-seasoned and the chicken was crispy. Afterwards she made a video call to her partner, who was at home looking after their child. They did this every day. Partner and child were just having breakfast, and the child stared listlessly into her bowl of cornflakes.
‘We hardly slept.’
‘Because of the storm?’
‘That too. She’s scared of lots of things at the moment, doesn’t want to go to nursery. Yesterday I had to pick her up at lunchtime. She spent the rest of the day in my office playing with printer paper. How it is where you are?’
‘It’s been raining a lot here. The streets and metro tunnels have filled up with water. Yesterday we were waiting at a traffic light when we saw someone disappear into a giant puddle.’
‘And your work? Are you making better progress?’
‘Because of the second contact? Maybe.’
‘We miss you.’
In the afternoon Inés met with her team to discuss the upcoming expeditions. The Taunus had been mostly roped off and could only be accessed with the permission of the camp authorities. From the beginning there had been local protests against this closure and when the creation of a reserve was first discussed these quickly turned into threats. An anonymous letter calling for violent resistance stated that the Taunus would not be handed over under any circumstances. Since then, the camp had had police protection. Although the area had been cordoned off, people kept breaking in without permission; among others, parents from surrounding villages who were convinced that their children, who had been missing for years, were being held captive by the newly-discovered people. As a rule, these trespassers did not return from their forays. Since the camp authorities only dispatched three expeditions per day, places on an expedition were few and far between. Several people in her team recommended Inés for the next expedition, and she felt very flattered. She accepted the proposal with pleasure and promised to bring back the first sound recordings of the lost people.
In the evening she had an appointment with Wolfram. By this time they had started to see each other regularly. He lived in a spacious residential container with a king-sized bed, desk and kitchen-unit. The TV was showing a documentary about dinosaurs. The residential container had been rented by the Literaturhaus Frankfurt and was part of a residence grant for an author to work as the camp documentarian. A mountain bike had also been provided. Following the announcement of the grant, the Literaturhaus Frankfurt had been flooded with applications. And even if there were a few who just wanted a place to work and some money, most of the applications were prompted by a genuine commitment to the situation.
‘Have you read this?’ asked Wolfram, indicating a PDF that was open on his laptop. ‘It was uploaded yesterday by that literary theorist who found old songs from this area in some archive. The songs mention people in the woods who “wear bowls on their heads”.’
‘Surely there are lots of texts around the world where someone has written something about people in the woods with strange headgear.’
‘Yes’, answered Wolfram, turning off the TV and putting on his trainers. ‘But that just makes it even more interesting.’
‘Good shoes’, said Inés, and considered buying herself a new pair for the next expedition. ‘I came across an article this morning that suggested the enthusiasm with which we are looking for the lost people might be because what we are actually trying to say is, “Now we are complete. Now we know where everyone is. This is humanity. Let’s get started.”’
‘But people are disappearing all the time, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, the author – I forget his name – mentions that too and goes on to say that it is exactly because of this that we cannot stop looking for the missing – children lost in the woods, people buried under ruins, aeroplanes crashed into the sea. He ends up talking about the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance – so that’s exactly the point.’
‘All people, everywhere. That was the name of the paper.’
‘A good catchphrase.’
‘An even better mission.’
The two left the residential container and walked in the direction of the large assembly tent, where they wanted to listen to a presentation. A family of exhausted red deer had gathered in the shade of the tent. The sun shone picturesquely over the slopes of the Taunus. In the tent it was stuffy under the white plastic sheeting. The lecturer greeted the attendees. She began her presentation with the assumption that most of the theories regarding the development of these isolated people would proceed in a similar way, beginning with the settlement history of the Taunus, that is, the burial mounds of the Urnfield culture, the Celtic stone circles, the fortified boundaries of the Limes, the traces of the Franconian empire, the Duchy of Nassau and the state of Hesse.
‘We also read,’ said the lecturer, ‘that they might be descendants of the Mattiaci or great-grandchildren of Wehrmacht troops that got left behind after the war ended, or separatist faith healers from the 1980s or whatever. There are endless explanations like these, the fruit of the endless gaps in our history books. And these gaps naturally get larger the further back we go, although it gets more unlikely with each century that they could have remained undiscovered for so long. And so one starts wondering why there are no records of these people. A question that returns us to the assumption we started out with: that people will always spread out, explore and conquer. We think, at some point, one of them must have asked themselves, “This river that I have seen every day since I was born, where does it lead? Might I find a new market for my goods there?” Today I want to ask you this: what if it were simply unthinkable for these people to leave their territory? What I mean to say is, what if their whole culture was oriented towards concealing something?’
The limitation of further expeditions to the area surrounding the second contact proved to be the correct decision, since there were further encounters in the days that followed. The camp residents slaved away tirelessly over the new sound recordings, videos and photographs that came back from the expeditions and camera traps. Inés, too, slept even less than usual, sat all day in meetings, used paper serviettes instead of plates, bent perpetually over an abundance of material that one could only have dreamed of previously. One knew now what they looked like (fair-skinned, smallish) and how they dressed (scantily, with helmets); soon one would know all the sounds of their language. However, beyond this, almost everything remained in the realm of speculation, since the people from the lost tribe always kept their distance during encounters. Expedition members had started to leave behind gifts, which the tribespeople then took with them, but this was the only exchange that took place. The camp authorities decided to take advantage of this, hiding trackers in the gift baskets. Just as one was starting to think, with a confidence bordering on certainty, that one knew where these gifts were being taken, they disappeared from the screen (technical equipment no longer functioned in the depths of the Taunus); the camp authorities deployed a seven-person team to follow the traces of these trackers to the supposed homes of the lost people.
Inés was fortunate enough to have her participation in the coming expedition confirmed. On the evening before her departure, she met Wolfram under the stunted trees of a former orchard to drink to her trip. To mark the occasion he gave her a bottle of the local cider and a book about Gabriela Mistral, the relationship between poetry and diplomacy, the formation of nation states, and the desire to tell people at the other end of the world about places they would never visit.
‘Thank you,’ Inés said, and embraced Wolfram. She was happy – with her work, with the progress on her report and because she loved spending time with Wolfram. In the evenings, when she lay on her camp bed, surrounded by the buzz of fever-bearing mosquitos, she would re-read their chat thread from that day on her phone, thinking of his shoulder-length hair, his gold earrings, his faint accent and the fact that she would probably be going home soon. Inés showed Wolfram the hiking shoes that she had bought for the expedition from the small shoe shop.
‘I hope they take you to the place where the truth is – or at least onto the television.’
The seven expedition members set off at first light. The weather was fine. All the other camp residents had assembled in the centre of the camp to bid them farewell and wish them luck. Inés sent her partner a selfie that she hoped showed her looking confident. She told him not to worry, it would soon be over, and to hug their daughter. In reality her legs were shaking and her kidneys ached.
The expedition started with a steep ascent, following a dried-out stream bed, past dead conifers, past machinery left behind decades ago, and steadily onwards, until the forest slowly started to close around them and they entered an area of intense greenery that reminded Inés of her childhood. As she struggled through the increasingly dense undergrowth, enveloped in an eerie darkness, under leaves, vines and massive aerial roots, soon the only thing that Inés saw as she walked was the back of the person in front of her.
After about an hour of marching – their watches had long since stopped working – they reached a look-out. From there she had a surreal view of a plain that lay further below. Inés could not believe what she saw: these people, whom they had been trying to track down for so long, had recreated Frankfurt Airport, here in the middle of the Taunus, hidden under gigantic trees. It was an exact replica. There were the terminals and the multistorey carparks, the hotels and the runways for take-off and landing, the boarding bridges and the detailed reproductions of aeroplanes designed by Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier. There was a tower in which men sat wearing headphones, there were people with signalling discs to marshal the aeroplanes, and there were flags on flagpoles, luggage trolleys, shuttle buses and fire engines.
The group decided not to turn around but to continue their approach. They went to the terminal entrance that was far smaller than it had looked from a distance. There they were received by people from the lost tribe, as if they had been waiting for them. They were brought to a counter where they had to give in their rucksacks. Inés was the first to place her rucksack on the fake conveyor belt. She was worried she would do something wrong. The person behind the fake counter typed something onto a fake keyboard and passed her a fake boarding card. After all the expedition members had dropped off their things, they were taken to security. Something seemed to be wrong with their papers, since two people from security were upset. They fetched some other people to solve the problem, and they started arguing even more loudly, until at some point they simply waved them through to duty-free, full of fake gin bottles and confectionery. At the gate they had to wait once again. Nobody spoke a word. Inés thought of her daughter and her flat. Someone made an announcement and boarding started. One after the other they stepped into the aeroplane, which had been modelled on a 747. A stewardess welcomed them on board. At the front sat two pilots, playing around on fake instruments. The aeroplane was very low and small, so that one had to walk slightly bent over. Inés was shown to a window seat, level with the engines. The aeroplane was empty apart from them. After they had all sat down, a steward went round handing out headphones. He made a thumbs-up sign to Inés. The cabin doors were closed. Someone made an announcement. Shortly afterwards the aeroplane started to move. Inés thought of her daughter, of her flat, of the next ten years of her life, of world history, of cargo cults and the Aerial Board of Control and the indifference of the sun. Someone made an announcement. Inés stared at the seat in front of her and saw herself taking her daughter to nursery and bidding her farewell at the door, then getting on the metro and traveling to work, entering the main building with her laminated security pass around her neck, through the side entrance and into the spacious lobby, past the portraits of the general secretaries, past the permanent exhibition about the never-ending story of the annihilation of people by people, past the numerous displays of gifts from member states, which had turned the building into a museum in which a world was exhibited, just as the member states wanted to remember it, as the ball-shaped home of sovereign nations, saw herself walking down the non-descript corridor, through the second security control, into one of the three lifts, down to the subterranean negotiation rooms, which were only separated from the remains of the East River by a thin layer of concrete, into the room where the others would already be waiting for her, in order to draft the document with her, the answer to that which she had discovered in the Taunus, the answer to the question of how one should describe these people, with a large or a small ‘p’, the answer to their demands and to the fears of secessions, walking past the screwed-down office chairs. Inés saw herself taking a seat at the end of the table, at the head, and getting out her laptop on which the current version of the Word document was saved, which would barely be distinguishable from experimental prose after all the negotiations, circumlocutions and discussions about syntax and adverbs, since incompatible ideas were being expressed here and because the text must be constructed in such a way that all will recognise themselves in it, in the same words, and Inés saw herself connecting her laptop to the projector, saw the Word document appear on the screen opposite and saw how all the people in the room turned their heads in the same direction at the same time – and then it begins. And someone made an announcement. And the aeroplane continued to make its way towards the runway. And Inés looked around. And noticed only now that the person in the next seat had bought something in the duty-free.
Image © defkreationz