the ruins at dawn

blaubeuren, germany

Blaubeuren is one of those pockets in Germany from which the magic hasn’t yet trickled out. This is still the Germany of the Brüder Grimm, the Brothers Grimm. You never know what might pop out of a well here: a frog prince, a witch with three wishes, a nixie.

Something sacred throbs from Blaubeuren’s spring. Long before Once Upon a Time, Cro-Magnon folk trooped from their caves in the Swabian Alps to behold the Blue. The Blautopf, the Blue Pot: Blaubeuren’s hallowed spring. In the shadow of the Middle Ages, a cloister sprouted along the banks of the pool. The monks were drawn by the same awe that lured the Cro-Magnon from their caves. While the Brothers Grimm were gathering their tales, the romantic poet Eduard Mörike found a mermaid in the Blue, the enchanted Nixe, and fastened her story in folk legend. She is the most beloved denizen of this blue spring where she was cursed to live, bearing no children until she learned to laugh five times.

The Blue of this pool is color in another dimension. It is the iridescent scales of the butterfly’s wing. It is the glossy crest of the male mallard. This tone haunts the water, not a tint—blue—but a spirit: Blue.

A field trip swept me into this fairytale. Forty-three students from all corners of the globe converged on the southwestern German town of Tübingen to enroll for a semester’s exchange. But before the start of the semester we threw ourselves into an intensive language course to beat our German into shape and go on learning excursions like this week in Blaubeuren. We have classes in the morning and adventures after noon.

I am skipping lunchwards down the Institute’s stairs when my roommate exclaims: “You look like the Nixe!” Dressed in green, with streaming viny hair, and skipping everywhere I go—“Do I?”

The hunched range of the Swabian Alps shoulders above the Blue. In the mountains rise the ruins. Did the ruins sculpt the stone, or the stone the ruins? One millennium later, they have grown into one another, a stony citadel built by neither man nor god. Ruine Hohengerhausen, the Ruins of Rusenschloss: naked stone walls stark against forested slopes. Lidless archways survey the valley below. The arches spy students straggling up the path from Blaubeuren.

On the rim of a snaggletooth wall, I perch, legs dangling. I follow the castle’s gaze over the trees and valley villages. “You look like the Nixe,” one of our tutors remarks. She sees it too? Is nixiness a sheen across my surface, a taint of Blue? Is it my untamable hair, tangles of yellow seaweed swimming over my shoulders? Is it my skipping step, the step of a wildling creature who can’t stay in line?

Whatever it is, today I am Nixe. Perhaps tomorrow, too.

Our last morning in Blaubeuren wakes up cold. In the half-light, I slip into my Nixe greens and close the door quietly behind me. I want the ruins all to myself. The ring of peaks is so earnestly present in the morning. The mountains embrace Blaubeuren’s little valley with tender might. They are always there, these cragged grandfathers, looming without menace, but reminding, always reminding us that we are small and young.

It is the first day of spring, but King Winter’s breath hangs thick over the river. His misty exhalation congeals in the valley, an ever-winter refusing to budge for a spring morning. Have I wandered into Narnia, always winter but never Christmas? At a culvert, the river’s blue cascade bubbles, boiling cold, Winter’s brew. I sprint down the slopes into the frosted valley, and winter-breath streams white behind me. I run faster to escape the clinging season.

Beneath the ruins, a cave of natural archways revels in an architectural delicacy more graceful than the medieval castle squatting above. I find traces of a stillborn fire. Where modern mischief-makers failed with lighters and crumpled newspaper, the Cro-Magnon folk once succeeded with only flint and tinder.

I reach the ruins with the sun. Still weak, Sun tears itself free from the crags to spill light across the castle walls. In the valley, the first coppery reflections shudder gleaming from glass windows.

With a cacophony of bells, five churches sing the seventh hour to one another across the vale.

Winter still guards the bridge across the river. I skate its iced planks.

I have lost the sun again. It crouches somewhere amongst the Ruins, not yet strong enough to surge above the valley’s highest peak. Just as I crest the hill above the Institute—where breakfast and lessons await—Sun catches me, racing down the crags and across the valley to cast springtime over my cold bones. In a few hours, the new moon will chase across the sun’s bright face, throwing us into shadowy eclipse. Perhaps the strange sheen of eclipse will lure the Nixe from her pool. She will laugh and the enchantment will splinter as Sun soars free from shadow.