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Oma

Author: Milena Michiko Flašar
Translator: Sebastian Smallshaw

 

Translator’s Preface:

“‘Die Omama” was originally published in 29 Kurzgeschichten aus Wien, the 2020 edition of Eine Stadt. Ein Buch. For this annual series, the City of Vienna traditionally selects an existing work of fiction and distributes 100,000 free copies around the city every November. 2020 was the first year in which original work was commissioned, in the form of short stories by 29 different authors.

 

Then somehow it all went pear-shaped

In Oma’s garden, the roses stand to attention. She gets rid of voles by fumigating their burrows. Her hands are agile, even though she’s about to turn eighty-five. With her nimble fingers she plucks the snails from the vegetable patch and throws them into a bucket full of salt or, if she feels like it, flings them over the thuja hedge into the neighbour’s garden. Thirty years ago, the neighbour poisoned her cat. “You remember something like that,” she says, “for a lifetime.” She’ll never forget how little Schnurli, foaming at the mouth, croaked it under the apple tree. When she says the words “croaked it,” she spits three times.

Oma has the best-kept garden in the Viennese suburb of Nussdorf. People walk past and marvel at it. They say you can eat a sandwich off Horacek’s lawn. Not a weed to be found, no matter where you look. Daisies or dandelions are no match for Oma, who always carries a knife, and her eyes are as sharp as its blade. If she spots something, she doesn’t rest until it’s eradicated. When she says “eradicate,” she cackles at the thrill of it.

Oma’s name is actually Horácek. But she writes it “Horacek,” without the accent, because she’s uncomfortable with it looking Bohemian.

She got the name from Opa, whose father emigrated from the South Bohemian village of Deutsch Reichenau in 1918, and although Opa has long been dead, she still blames him for turning her, a born Herzog, into a Horacek. She was young and beautiful back then. Young and stupid, too. If she had known better, she wouldn’t have kissed him in the undergrowth on their walk through the Vienna Woods. Two weeks later, she missed her period and had no choice but to marry him. That was in 1945, shortly after the end of the war.

The wedding photo is still in her possession, of course. It shows Oma in a dress made of parachute silk, and the first signs of a bump underneath. She looks older than just eighteen. Her shoes are a few sizes too large and have been stuffed with cotton wool. She tries to smile. Opa too. He stands next to her and looks short, like a crouching man. He borrowed his grey suit from his best friend, a bricklayer. Opa himself, a house painter by trade, was slim compared to his friend. But that’s how it was back then: you wore things that didn’t fit you. “All kinds of things,” Oma says, “that were too tight or too loose, depending on the contacts you had.”
Whenever Oma picks redcurrants, she thinks back to the years before the wedding, when she was still a Herzog. Reminiscing about that time keeps her feeling young and fresh, and although she holds a grudge against Hitler for invading Poland on the day she had her first period, she regards the war years, the years of her youth, as a golden time. When she says the word “youth,” she crushes a redcurrant between her fingers. She lets the crimson juice trickle down her wrist and arm, which is dotted with liver spots. Then she licks it off.

The nicest thing about the war was the singing. Oma was in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ wing of the Hitler Youth, because she liked the folk songs she sang there and because she was given the solo parts in choir, thanks to her very fine voice. Sports were also a nice activity. Oma loved to do gymnastics. She was even chosen for the long jump trials. Too bad she wasn’t good enough to get a ribbon.

Oma was born out of wedlock. She grew up with her mother in a block of flats in the working-class district of Ottakring. The stairwell smelled of overcooked potatoes and over time, less often of meat. Whenever Oma helped Frau Stanek from the apartment next door with carrying her shopping, she was rewarded with a piece of chocolate and then, more and more often, with a dog biscuit as hard as a rock.

She had barely any relationship with her father. He was a small-time hustler from the neighbouring district of Hernals, who spent his days betting on cards and horses. Now and then he’d show up at the door just to ask her questions. How old was she now, what was she learning in school, was she being good and helping her mother around the house? Then he’d always make off again. Oma still remembers his lopsided gait. “He walked,” she said, “as if something was causing him pain in his side,” and when he disappeared for good one day, with talk he’d gotten into hassles with the Nazis, the only enduring memory of him was this invisible pain in his side. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Some family members reckoned he’d joined the Foreign Legion and gone to Morocco, others said he’d cleared off on a ship bound for America. Oma was teased at school because of this, but the girls at the Bund Deutscher Mädel left her alone. She belonged to the community there, and that felt nice.

Her mother had to work a lot. She taught at the Schloss Wilhelminenberg children’s home, where the kids of whores and drunks were sent. She was more eager to care for these social misfits, Oma says, than she was for her own child. And anyway… Oma is lost for words. She can’t finish the sentence; her voice is stuck in her throat. She takes her pruning shears and snips a dead branch off a bush. The redcurrant harvest is meagre this year, no doubt because of the crazy temperatures. She read in the newspaper that there’s no spring anymore. Winter is followed by summer and summer is followed by winter, because now there’s no autumn either.

When Oma was fifteen, she was sent to Uncle Fritz and Aunt Helene in Lower Austria. All four of her cousins were at the front. Letters sometimes arrived via field post and Aunt Helene always got all worked up afterwards. She would rant and rave about Hitler, cursing so loudly that Uncle Fritz had to lock her in the barn. She would continue ranting in there, until eventually you could only hear her crying. The names of her sons carried through the cracks, each of them ringing strangely hollow.

Gustl.
Ernst.
Fredi.
Hans.

Oma only knew them by their handwriting. Gustl’s was angular, Ernst’s was round, Fredi’s was big, Hans’s was small. What they wrote about was always the same: the food, their homesickness, the food. A chunk of dry-cured ham, they wrote, would be really nice now. A little piece of home to bite into. This was in the winter of 1942. Oma knitted a pair of socks for all four of them and Aunt Helene stuffed them full with dry sausages and cheese. Uncle Fritz got all of it from the Huber farm for a pretty penny. Oma slyly bit off some of the sausage for Hans, out of sheer hunger. But he didn’t resent her for it, as far as she could tell. He was killed shortly after in the Battle of Stalingrad, as was Gustl. And then Ernst.

Apart from the business with her first period, Oma had a good relationship with Hitler. She had a picture of him hanging above her bed, which was more like a camp bed, and though she didn’t find him especially attractive in the conventional sense, she detected an aura emanating from his eyes. This aura intoxicated her. Before she went to bed, her hair braided into swirls, she kneeled in front of the framed picture in her cotton shirt and bloomers, joined her hands together, and recited the Lord’s Prayer. She wasn’t very Catholic, but praying helped her to feel close to the aura she found so intoxicating. After the Lord’s Prayer, she talked to Hitler about whatever was going through her head. She told him about things like the disappearance of Elsa Friedmann, a girl from a block of flats in Ottakring who had gone missing along with her entire family. She told him she couldn’t believe what the other mothers had said about Elsa – namely that she had been taken away. To work. She told him she had always admired Elsa from afar because of her slender and pretty legs. And she told him she wanted to have long and pretty legs herself, should it somehow be in his power to grant it, because her dream, she told him in a low voice, was to become an actress one day. A brilliantly talented actress like Marika Rökk, who oozes glamorous allure and sings that she doesn’t need no millions – she’d be happy without a single penny extra, all she needs is music, music, music.

With this song in her head, Oma got through the hours of her home economics classes. When she had some time to herself in the afternoon, she would stand in front of the bedroom mirror with a small hat on her head and try out a series of poses while pushing her chest out. She was very proud of her breasts. Whenever she rode her bike across the cobbled village square and her bosom bobbed up and down, the boys would whistle at her, and that was a great feeling. Here comes Lady Herzog, they would call, and their eyes almost fell out of their heads.
There’s a bench in Oma’s garden, but she rarely sits down. She has to keep moving, she says, otherwise she gets swollen feet. Pacing around all day runs in her blood. When she says the word “blood,” she rams a shovel into the ground and loosens the soil around the old well. She wants to plant herbs there – parsley and chives. Oma doesn’t believe in gardens that are only to be looked at. A garden has to be useful; it has to produce something. The hard work you put into it has to pay off in the end.

Oma did a lot of walking when she was seventeen, mostly down to the air raid shelter at night. The wail of sirens still rings in her ears to this day. The drone of low-flying aircraft, the roar of bombs. One of them blew a munitions train at the station sky-high, which made a hell of a racket. The ensuing silence blotted out all other background noise. It wasn’t until the all clear that you could hear your own breathing again, breaths squeezed from the pit of your stomach. Aunt Helene was the first to gather her wits and launched into a loud rant, but this time Uncle Fritz joined in, shouting “Hitler is a Jewish bastard!” It was so hilariously funny that Oma doubled over with laughter.

In the spring of 1945, when spring was still an actual season, Oma and Aunt Helene and a few other girls and women from the village were brought to the Groiß farm. It was supposedly safer there, because the Russian and his Katyushas – Stalin’s Organ, as they were dubbed – had almost reached the Ölberg hill. Oma wondered why people said “the Russian,” as if there was only one. Peering out of a knothole in the cider cellar, they could clearly see that scores of them were closing in. Shots were being fired in all directions. Through the hole, Oma saw a soldier slumping to the ground, fatally hit. Hanging on to life by a thread, his body swayed in the wind like an ear of barley for a few seconds. Then he collapsed, blood around his mouth, and was dead, one of the many bodies strewn along the path heading west. Oma had walked the same path days before, happily singing to herself, and picked a bright yellow flower from where the soldier’s face was now staring blankly into the sky. She tucked it behind her ear and felt like the most beautiful girl in the world. More beautiful even than Liesbeth, who now had a boyfriend. It was whispered that she had clambered into the hay with him, where he had snuck his hand under her skirt.

Liesbeth was also in the cider cellar. She was the one who squealed the loudest when the door suddenly opened and the Russian stepped in. Oma had to cover her mouth. The Russian shouted “Ura!” And again, “Ura!” He confiscated their watches and every single piece of jewellery they were wearing – a charm bracelet here, a necklace or a ring there. Then he left, taking the farmer Groiß with him to help the men outside bury the dead soldiers. Nearly all the women were sent to cook, while five of them were taken to the stable, where they could be heard begging for mercy. Liesbeth was among them. When she came out, her blouse was ripped and she didn’t say a word. With pale lips she went over to one of the saucepans and began stirring the soup. She cried into the pan, gentle salty tears. Oma cried too.

Uncle Fritz’s house was commandeered by Soviet secret police from the GPU. During their interrogations, Oma had to make sure there was always enough tea on the table. If she did a good job, she was praised and allowed to pick up a pot of lard from the supply officer, who was staying in the neighbouring house. Because the officer had a daughter at home in Moscow who was her age, he often brought her a couple of cinnamon rolls from the officers’ mess. He would watch her eating, and if she enjoyed them it brought a misty sheen to his eyes. Oma liked him, but she kept that to herself. Somehow it felt wrong to like him. Just as it was wrong to like Andrei, another Russian. He had studied music before becoming a soldier, and came by every afternoon to play the violin for her. Once, he put down his bow in the middle of a piece, tiptoed over to Oma, who was rocking back and forth to the music, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She pulled her face away and he immediately let go of her. Oma says this was very decent of him, although she actually only turned away to see if anybody was standing in the door, and she felt terrible regret about it afterwards, because Andrei stopped visiting her after this incident. She would have liked to have mended his uniform for him and to get a little hug in return, just to see what it’s like to be held close by a man.

Where the picture of Hitler had once hung, there was now, in the same frame of course, a picture of a guardian angel. Uncle Fritz had been smart enough to replace it without delay. He had rolled up the picture of Hitler and hid it behind a crate of sugar beets in the barn. “It would be a waste,” he said, “to tear it up or burn it. You never know when you might need something like that again, and it’s annoying if you no longer have it.” From then on, Oma prayed to her guardian angel and carried on praying for pretty long legs like Elsa Friedmann’s, because then she would be discovered and be able to take to the stage in a flowing costume, and that would be a life, an exciting one, a life like no other.

Four months after the end of the war, Oma was sent back to her mother to give her a hand with gathering bricks. The apartment building was still standing, but it was completely surrounded by rubble and no progress had been made in shifting it.
There is a photo of her on the day she left. Oma is wearing a blue soldier’s jacket, a cap with a feather, and green velvet shoes with straw soles that a displaced woman from the Sudetenland had braided for her as a farewell present. The photo is in black and white, but Oma remembers the colours very clearly. “Back then, when something was blue, it was really blue, more than nowadays, and so radiant,” she added, “that it was almost blinding.” When she says the word “radiant,” she tamps down the loose soil around the freshly planted herbs with her feet. Soon she will be finished for the day; all she has left to do is water the roses. One of them needs quite a bit of water or else it will begin to droop.

The supply officer picked Oma up in his car and drove her in style to Hütteldorf on the edge of Vienna, where she was collected by her mother. On the way, he taught her a Russian folk song. They sang it together, their hair in the wind. It was a melancholy song, which you could tell even if you didn’t understand a word of it. When they arrived, the officer gave her a kiss on the hand. It tickled because he had a beard, and despite it tickling her, Oma suddenly felt like crying. She was ashamed of this and quickly got out of the car. It also brought on a pain in her side, an invisible pain that she has since always associated with the smell of cologne. The smell came from the kiss on her hand, and she wondered if her father, the hustler from Hernals, hadn’t also smelled like that.

And then Oma helped to rebuild Vienna.

Opa, who had escaped from a prison camp near Linz, was finally back home with his parents in Nussdorf after a return journey with lots of detours and got to know Oma while they were gathering bricks.

Then the thing happened in the Vienna Woods.

Then she was pregnant.

Then suddenly her name was Horacek.

Then Andreas was born.

Then Robert and Christel.

Then…

… somehow it all went pear-shaped. When she says the word “pear-shaped,” Oma puts down the watering can and looks around the garden. She’s satisfied with what she sees. The only thorn in her side is the neighbour’s house, which desperately needs a fresh coat of paint. It’s a crying shame how shabby it looks, just like everything is getting shabby! Things used to be different, she’s sure of it. Things were definitely better in the past. And if she hadn’t been so young and stupid, she’d be standing on stage under a spotlight and the applause would never end, even long after the curtain comes down, and then she would stand there with her pretty long legs and just be happy, happy, happy.

From 29 Kurzgeschichten aus Wien, Echomedia Buchverlag, 2020.

Lorenz looks after his own

Author: Monika Helfer
Translator: Mandy Wight

 

Translator’s note: Die Bagage is set in rural Austria during the First World War. Maria Moosbrugger, a woman known for her beauty, is living with her five children just outside a village in the mountains. Her husband was called up on the outbreak of war and the family, who were already very poor, are reliant on the help of others, like the local mayor, for food and supplies. The family are known locally as the Riff-Raff, because they are poor and keep themselves to themselves. They also incur disapproval because Maria’s last baby, Grete, was rumoured not to be her husband’s child, but the child of an affair. We see in this extract how Maria’s son, Lorenz, enacts a bold plan to help his family.

 

And then winter came round again. And they had nothing left to eat. There was no bacon hanging from the ceiling. The last potatoes were inedible.

Outside it was snowing. The snow was falling so thick and fast that from the kitchen you couldn’t see as far as the well. Lorenz came home from school. It was the afternoon. He shook the snow from his hair and took his school things off in the kitchen. He nodded to his mother by way of greeting. She had Grete on her lap, as always. Katharine was doing her homework with Walter. Lorenz went into the cowshed and told Hermann he had things to do there, he should get some firewood and go into the house. By this time Hermann had learnt not to challenge his brother. He whistled the dog over and disappeared with him. He asked no questions. Lorenz waited. He stamped his feet to keep them warm. He was waiting till darkness spread down from the mountain. Then he did what he’d worked out in the night to the last detail. He’d got everything ready. That morning he’d left a second pair of thick socks in the barn, together with his father’s thick gloves, a second shirt and his long johns—he never wore them normally, he thought long johns were for sissies, he couldn’t describe it any other way. But now, in the barn, he pulled on the clothes, even the cap with the padded ear flaps that also belonged to his father. Sat down on the handcart shaft and shoved his feet into his father’s heavy boots, which were too big for him, but only a bit too big now, and which fitted alright with a second pair of socks on his feet. Finally he worked his arms into the straps of the big rucksack, which smelt of mould and wasn’t used, as they never had so much to carry home that the small rucksacks wouldn’t do. Then off he plodded out of the house, down the deep, narrow path, trodden down in the snow, past the well and onto the lane. He marched along the lane into the village, head down against the snow which was falling from the sky, and marched through the village to the last farm at the other end. As he walked he whistled gustily, he even sang a few verses, there was no one out and about at that time, but if anyone had been out and about, Lorenz would have made a point of greeting them, that’s what he’d planned at any rate. The last thing anyone should think was that he was up to something secret. That Lorenz from the Riff-Raff, he’s cheerful today, that’s what they should think, anyone that ran into him. He who’s cheerful must be harmless. No one ran into him. With that snowfall no one left their fireside. But someone could be looking out the window maybe. Of course someone was looking out the window. That someone would see him, harmless, cheerful, in spite of the weather.

At the other end of the village lived a classmate, the only one he exchanged the odd word with now and again. Actually he liked the lad, but even at that young age the firm belief was ingrained in my Uncle Lorenz that he was someone who kept his distance from others — and as a result wasn’t allowed to like anyone. So he couldn’t like Emil. Though the fact was, he found that he did like him. He helped him with his arithmetic and more than once he’d even managed to get him a better grade. When he got to the house it was dark. He took hold of the iron ring and knocked at the door.

Emil’s mother opened the door. Lorenz swiftly removed his cap. So that she’d recognise him straightaway and wouldn’t have to ask who he was or get scared.

‘What do you want?’ she asked, without calling him by name.

That wasn’t polite, he thought. He felt a small swell of anger rise up to his throat, but he checked it at his Adam’s apple. He swallowed, and acted as cheerful as he could. He couldn’t find his reading book at home, he thought Grete may have gone and lost it, the little one was always losing things, and he was sure to find it tomorrow, but just as surely only after school, and at school tomorrow he had to read two pages aloud, and sadly he wasn’t especially good at reading, some lads were good at sums, others at reading, he’d prefer to be good at reading himself, and so it went on. He talked just like he’d planned it and just like he’d practised out loud in the still of the night before. Even if it was slimy talk, that was what he’d intended. It was all calculated. He knew Emil’s mother, he knew that she admired his head for figures, but also that she was envious, as arithmetic was her Emil’s weakest point. So he’d figured out that it would make her feel good if he pretended that he envied Emil, on account of his gift for reading.

‘I wanted to ask Emil if he’d lend me his reading book till tomorrow.’
What people said about Lorenz’s family was not exactly nice. In fact it was quite the opposite. Some people believed it, some didn’t. Some people believed it, but still thought it was out of order how the priest behaved, setting himself above the Lord God. The Riff-Raff children went to school just when they liked, just when they felt like it. You could criticise that, for sure. Maria had as good as given up looking after things. You never saw her in the village anymore either. That was arrogance for you. Emil’s father kept telling his wife she should keep her fantasies to herself, what did she know, and just because the Riff-Raff mother was better looking than other women, yes, really than any other woman, that was no reason to be so nasty. But reason enough to talk about her, you’d agree with me there, his wife retorted. Still, that business of removing the cross from their house, she wouldn’t have done that.

‘Wait there,’ said the woman to Lorenz.

Yet again he wasn’t called by his name and wasn’t asked into the house. He saw that as yet another slight. It was really mean. The door had been closed in his face. It was snowing so hard that in the few minutes he’d stood there without his cap his hair was covered with a white pelt. You wouldn’t have left a beggar standing outside like that. He was frozen and banged his shoes against one another. Emil put his head round the door to give him the book along with an apple. The dog, a light-coloured creature, squeezed between Emil’s knees and the door frame and stuck his nose outside for Lorenz to give him a stroke. The dog was a pet, useless as a worker. Lorenz shoved the book into his belt in front of him, pulled his jumper down over it and stamped off.

He went on his way. If they look out after me, they’ll see I’m on the usual path. They’ll see me in the middle of the lane. His footprints were already disappearing, already covered over by the snow. When he was out of sight, that is, before he came to the houses standing closer together on the way back into the village, he climbed up onto the fence alongside the road. It was barely visible, hidden beneath the mound of snow thrown up by the plough. He jumped from the fence into the snow on the other side and sank down up to his chest. He struggled across the field up to the woods, in summer he’d have done it in under five minutes, now he needed a good fifteen. He crawled up the last steep bit into the woods on all fours. The trees stood close together here, with only a little snow lying between the trunks. He had to catch his breath, so he knelt on the ground for a minute, knocked the snow off his clothes, and shook out his cap and gloves. Then he went back through the woods to the house where Emil and his family lived. The cowshed and the barn were extensions to the house, built onto the back. In the parlour you could neither see nor hear what was happening in the cowshed or the barn.

From the edge of the wood to the cowshed it was no more than ten metres. But you had to cross a hollow where the snow had drifted. After the first step, Lorenz slipped, and sank right down into the snow until he was completely submerged. When he got to his feet, he was still beneath the snow surface. For a minute he was scared, panicking even, thinking he could suffocate. He struck out with his arms as if he were doing front crawl. The snow got between his cap and his collar, his face burned with the cold, he struck out some more, hit out all around him, held his breath and finally his head emerged, thrusting up out of the snow. No way can I come back through here, he thought. He struggled on till he reached the barn. Under the porch he brushed the snow from his clothes, his cap and his gloves. He was exhausted, his legs felt numb above his feet, as if he didn’t have any legs at all. And his lungs hurt. He felt like swearing, but he couldn’t trust himself, he knew what he was like, once he started swearing, he couldn’t stop.

Then he heard a noise above his head: ‘Chink-chink! Chink-chink!’
A chaffinch was sitting on the lower cowshed roof. He couldn’t see it. He knew all the birds by their song. ‘Fly home or you’ll catch your death of cold!’ he said softly.

A squirrel hopped out of the barn, right up to his feet.

‘Go home, or you’ll catch your death,’ he said to this animal too. The hillside below the wood was glistening through the falling snow. There were no tracks to be seen. He hadn’t reckoned that he’d be swimming beneath a blanket of snow, but now he thought it was a good thing. No one would discover his tracks. No one would suspect him. This is the plan my Uncle Lorenz had thought up while lying in bed next to his brother Hermann the night before: if I go along to Emil’s house on some official business, and butter up his mother, then it won’t enter anyone’s head that the thief could be Lorenz Moosbrugger. They wouldn’t think anyone could be that cheeky. Not even one of the Riff-Raff could be that cheeky. Without that, the minute they see they’ve been robbed, they’ll think it was one of the Riff-Raff and probably that Lorenz. Even if it wasn’t me they’d think that. The thing with the reading book was a diversionary tactic. There’s no easier way to divert someone than by flattering them. Uncle Lorenz was proud of this theory. Tante Kathe told me he went on laughing about it till the day he died.

He broke into the barn, went from there into the cowshed, and crept from the cowshed into the cellar of the house. Sides of bacon were hanging from the ceiling, cheese wheels were stacked on shelves. They’d made provision, these people, and of course they had food to make provision with. There were glass jars filled with preserves: pears, apples, pickled cabbage, pickled squashes, cooked meats, stewed plums, cherry compote. He grabbed as much as he could and shoved it into his rucksack. Until it was so heavy he could barely lift it. Then he crept into the tunnel under the snow, crossed the hollow, and went up to the wood, and up in the wood he walked parallel to the village street, dragging the rucksack along, pausing frequently to catch his breath. Above the village, where the lane ended and the path to their house began, he stamped out a hole in the snow and put his booty there. Then, with an empty rucksack, he tramped through the snow, up into the wood, and back on the same path till he was standing once more above Emil’s house.

Lorenz climbed into Emil’s house five times that night. He cleared out their cellar, leaving them not one single jar of preserves. He took the cheese, he took the sausage and he took the bread. And all the while the snow fell from the sky and covered his tracks. On the final trip he stuffed three chickens into his rucksack. He’d already built a coop for them some days before, in the shed behind the cows. When he finally finished it was two o’clock in the morning. He could have caught his fingers in the door and he wouldn’t have felt it. He couldn’t even make it into his bed. He lay down on the kitchen floor. With all his clothes on. The padded cap on his head, the two pairs of gloves on his hands, his father’s heavy boots on his feet.

But he didn’t skip school the next day. In the morning he said nothing to his mother about where he’d been and what he’d been doing. And Maria didn’t ask. Her Lorenz, she could rely on him. Whatever he did, it was to help out his own. He asked her if she wouldn’t mind ironing the reading book, it was creased, it didn’t belong to him and he had to return it today. She filled the iron with glowing coals, placed a cloth over the book, and it soon looked as good as new.

After school, Lorenz ordered his brothers and sisters to help him fetch the things from the snow hole. He’d even designated the hiding places in the house in advance. Just in case it did enter their heads that one of the Riff-Raff had broken into Emil’s house. Either it didn’t enter their heads, or, if it did, they feared the fighting spirit of the Riff-Raff so much that they kept their mouths shut and looked the other way.

My Aunt Kathe said, her brother once told her how his mother looked at him that day. He’d never seen anything lovelier in all his life. He’d said that day had been the best day of his life. And that his mother had never been lovelier than on that day. And that he’d never been happier than on that day. He lay the whole afternoon on the bench by the stove and slept. A chicken had broken its wing, so Maria killed it, plucked it and made it into a soup. She wrapped her son’s feet in a warm cloth as he slept and tucked a blanket around him. That evening they had a special meal to celebrate. As for Lorenz, there was nothing more you could teach him now. He knew how to survive. You couldn’t tell him anything now. Just let them try.

 

Excerpted from Monika Helfer, Die Bagage, (The Riff-Raff), Carl Hanser Verlag, 2020.

The Man in the Lift

Author: Anna Prizkau
Translator: Charlotte Wührer

 

Translator’s Preface:
Published in the autumn of 2020, Anna Prizkau’s debut collection, Fast Ein Neues Leben, explores the contested nature of home and the state of being ‘other’ or foreign through the lens of an unnamed narrator, the daughter of immigrants who move to Germany following an attempted coup in an unspecified ‘old country.’ It is an elliptical, non-chronological story of the narrator’s journey from young girl to young woman.

 

The houses were towering giants. They thrust so many stories up into the sky that I couldn’t see the highest ones. They were lying among the clouds. This part of the city was where Olcay, Samiha, Abdullah and Ali lived. It was the Turkish kids’ quarter. That’s what the non-Turkish people called it here in the first German city I ever lived in.

In front of these giants lay the playground where Ali, Abdullah, Olcay, Samiha and I became friends. In the afternoons, only the foreign kids were on the playground. The German children all went to after-school day care. You had to pay to join. The process was bureaucratic. Registration, countless forms – the foreign kids’ parents spoke foreign languages and didn’t get it. That’s how we ended up meeting on the playground, which was right near my school, in a different part of town where people stared at me and the Turkish kids like we were some rare and terrifying breed of wild animal. Although we heard different languages at home, we all lived in the same world. The world of Olcay, Samiha, Abdulla, Ali and me.

If you added their ages together, Samiha and Olcay were twenty-one. Olcay, the oldest, was eleven, and Samiha was a year younger. They lived on the seventh floor of one of the giants. It always smelled of cooking in the corridors. Of mothers from other countries. Mothers from other countries were always cooking. The corridor on Samiha’s and Olcay’s floor was an issue. Not because it smelled of food, but because of the lift. Samiha and Olcay hated that lift. They forbade me from ever using it. The stairs were okay, though. We always took the stairs.
This was back when I still believed in fairy tales. The lift was evil.

“People are killed in there. Afterwards, they just disappear.” Hardly a day went by without Olcay telling me that.

“A man lives in that lift. A Nazi. He kills Turkish people,” said Samiha.

My friends’ flat was opposite the evil lift, separated from it by a corridor that went on forever. Olcay’s and Samiha’s front door was mirrored in the old scratched lift doors. Every time those lift doors opened when we were still in the corridor, we’d run as fast as we could run back then, disappearing either into the stairwell or their flat.

It was like any other foreigner’s flat, but one thing was missing. A father. The flat had two main rooms. One was the living room, where turquoise Turkish eyes stared down at me from glass or knitted amulets. They looked at me in the same way those grey German eyes looked at me in my part of the city, where few immigrants lived. The second room belonged to my friends. On the wallpaper was a boy on a bike trying to ride up a hill. Always the same boy, always the same hill. He never made it.

My friends’ mother kept to the kitchen. According to Samiha and Olcay, she slept under the watchful Turkish eyes in the living room, yet I only ever saw her in the kitchen. Never once in any of the other rooms. She wore her veil inside, but more loosely fastened than when she was out on the street.

I didn’t understand how there could not be a father in this flat. I only knew one German girl at school who didn’t have one. All the foreign kids had fathers. I wanted to know what it was like, being one who didn’t have a father, but every time I so much as mentioned the word “dad”, Olcay would disappear to do his homework.

It was late summer, perhaps the end of August. Olcay, his sister and his mother had just that day come back from Turkey, and I wanted to visit them. I’d been at the open-air swimming pool all day, was sunburnt and wilting from the sting of the sun. I decided to take the evil lift up to their flat. I pushed the button to call it and then hid behind the letter boxes in the lobby:
thousands of people lived in that giant. I glanced into the lift when its doors slid open. No Nazi. It was empty, so I ran in. There were many buttons, all of them as round and as yellow as the acne that pitted the faces of the older kids at my school. I grimaced as I thought of this, and pressed the button for the seventh floor. It started rattling up, and my body rattled with it. The Nazi could come at any second; I expected him to get into the lift at every floor. The little screen showed which floor I was on: two, three, four. Still no one. Another three floors – I felt I was in some terrifying fairy tale – and then floor seven lit up. The door opened, and Olcay was standing there in the corridor. His severe eyes met mine, and in them I saw a rage I’d never seen there before.

He hit his fist against the doorframe and shouted, “You cheated”, and then he slammed the door to his flat shut behind him. I was still in the lift. With a quiet chime, the doors began to slide shut. I pushed through them with one large step, knocked and rang at the bell, but Olcay’s door didn’t open.

Two days later, I saw Samiha at the pool. She didn’t say a word. She was sitting at the edge of the pool, her dark feet in the water. I sat down next to her.

“Hello,” I said, quietly.

Samiha didn’t reply.

“How was Turkey?” I said, making it louder than my “hello”.

She didn’t speak, jumped into the water instead. Her brother wouldn’t speak to me, either. Four days long at the pool, it was as though I was invisible to them both.

On the fifth day at the pool, I saw Abdullah and Ali, the other playground friends. They asked why the Turkish kids were being so strange. They always called Olcay and Samiha the Turkish kids, and they themselves were the Arab boys. I said I didn’t know, my eyes swimming with forced crocodile tears.

“You must have done something,” Ali said. “Did you say something bad about their mother?” He was snarling, and also had something of a crocodile about him.

“No!” It came out loud; I was shouting. What had I done? It was the lift. I knew that must’ve been it, but didn’t want to tell them. My betrayal had brought Samiha’s and Olcay’s own to light: their lift story had been no more than a childish tale. It wasn’t my fault.

I was banished and excluded from the friendship with Olcay and Samiha for days, weeks, months – for four years. I’d grown too big for swinging and climbing at the playground. I made friends with the German kids, who were too old now for after-school day care. I was rarely in the Turkish kids’ quarter with its giants. Abdullah and Ali didn’t like playing with girls anymore. Or perhaps they still wanted to play with girls, but it was a different kind of playing, a game that involved hands and bodies, and I wasn’t ready.

It was late summer again, and just like last time, I was sunburnt and wilting from the sting of the sun. I was waiting at the tram stop when I saw Samiha. She had swollen eyes, her eyelids looked painted red. She was crying. Samiha didn’t recognise me at first. I said hello, and then she realised who I was and said my name.

“Do you have a tissue?” she asked, without saying hello back.

I dug around for one in my rucksack. “What happened? How are you?”

“We’re going back to Antalya.”

“Why? When?”

“My mother…” Samiha’s voice broke. Her tears prevented her from speaking.

“Is she sick?”

Samiha hid her narrow face, which was dark and now also red, behind the tissue.

“She hates it here. She’s hated it since my father left.”

“Is he in Antalya, too?”

Samiha appeared from behind the tissue. Like four years earlier, she didn’t speak. But her eyes said yes.

I pressed myself into Samiha’s thin arms, but the hug felt so contrived that my former friend extracted herself as fast as she could. She shook herself.

“He hated it here, too. And then he hated us for it.”

“Your father doesn’t hate you. You can’t hate your own family,” I said.

Samiha opened her mouth for a second, but once again, no words came out. Or maybe she said something and I missed it. I heard only a loud, sharp squealing as the tram pulled up. Samiha’s tram would take her back to the Turkish kids’ quarter. She jumped up from the tram stop seat and said a hasty goodbye. It was like we’d never been friends up on the seventh floor of the giant, as if she hadn’t just cried right here at the tram stop.

And then she was on the tram. I didn’t look away. The doors slid shut in front of her with a littleding. Samiha stared angrily through me. She knew I finally understood. The way she looked at me through the tram doors mirrored the way her brother had looked at me four years ago on the seventh floor, the lift doors between us. And it mirrored the way Samiha and Olcay had seen their father on the seventh floor. Perhaps the last time they’d ever seen him. I knew that now, as the tram with Samiha on it rattled towards the Turkish kid’s quarter.

A scene played out in my head. Perhaps it was only a fantasy, but it felt true and very real. It took place in Olcay’s and Samiha’s giant. The two of them were standing at the threshold of their apartment with their mother, and their father stood in the open lift. The doors slid shut, and he was gone. There’d never been a Nazi who killed Turkish people and made them disappear. There was only a Turkish man who disappeared. But he was still alive and he lived very far away. A place he’d moved to after failing to make a new life in the new country.

The shame cut through me now like the blade of a knife. My face burned. It was my fault, after all. I’d taken Samiha’s and Olcay’s fairy tale away from them.

 

From “Der Mann im Fahrstuhl” in Fast Ein Neues Leben, (Almost a New Life), Friedenauer Presse (Matthes & Seitz Berlin), 2020.

That Immaculate Blue
Autobahn

Author: Sarah Raich
Translator: Eilidh Johnstone

 

THAT IMMACULATE BLUE

It starts in the top left corner, by the bunk bed. The wallpaper darkens, breaking out in black blisters; for a moment everything seems to stand still, and then the firestorm sweeps the room away.

“Mama, you’re supposed to be building!”

Would they feel pain? Or does it happen so fast that the nervous system shuts down before the sensation hits?

She goes into the kitchen and puts two pieces of bread into the toaster. The room is warm and comfortable, and everything is fine here. Everything is fine. The cream cheese is starting to dry out, a yellowish crust collecting on the sides of the tub. She raises it to her face and sniffs for signs of mould. The white mass smells as it always does, cool, salty, and metallic.

“Mama! Food!” The happiness in their voices is loud and rough-edged. They nudge their small bodies against her body, hop on the spot with their arms stretched upwards as if they could change the fact that her head, all the way up there, is unreachable. She smiles back, strokes their tousled hair, it’s so important to mirror their emotions.

The sun is bright, the sky is blue. As blue as if there were nothing behind it, no blackness lying in wait for night. It seems so real, the sky above them. But nothing about it is true. It is just a shell between them and reality, the murk of the universe and the burning stars.

“Look, a helicopter,” says the little one and points upward. She doesn’t look, there’s nothing flying up there, she knows that already. “Yes,” she says. “Lovely.”

The flames come again, this time they sweep across the street, melting the asphalt, she can see it beginning to boil. She cannot stop thinking about it. Would there be a moment of pain?

“Look what I can do!” The big one has climbed onto the roof of the bin shed. She looks, her hand over her eyes so that the sun does not blind her. He spreads his arms, his whole body stretched out, an accumulated cell cluster wound tight. “I’m flying!” he screams and pushes off with both legs from the pebbledashed concrete. She takes a step forwards and opens her arms. His body falls onto hers with full force, they almost topple, but she takes another step to catch herself.

“Did you see?” She is still carrying him, holding him tight, and he takes her face in his hands, eyes blazing with pride. She nods and wonders how it is that eyes can look like that, so full of feeling. At the end of the day they are only coloured fragments, nestling around a black hole. She slides him slowly to the ground and strokes his forehead.

“Did you see?” he asks again. She nods and grasps his hand. With the other, she takes hold of the little one and hauls him onto her hip. He is already so heavy, but when she carries him she doesn’t have to keep track of which way he’s running. Sometimes when she watches him he reminds her of a badly programmed robot that wanders here and there, picking things up and throwing them down again, always looking for the logic in its code.

“Where are we going, Mama?” the big one asks without any suspicion in his voice. A pure curiosity that she would like to remember experiencing, but she isn’t sure that she has ever felt that way. “Just down the street a little way,” she answers finally. She knows that he would not let it be if she said nothing. He has never accepted that. So she has got used to saying whatever is left of her thoughts after they have passed through the many filters set up between her mind and her words. We’re just going down the street a little way, because there is nowhere to go, because there is nowhere to hide.

“Why can’t people fly?”

“Because we’re not birds.” She knows that this is not enough of an answer. She wants to gather herself and say something about weight and tubular bones, about the ratio of wingspan to body size. But she does not manage to collect her thoughts in a way that she wants to voice.

“You’re flying all the time,” she hears herself saying, finally. “We’re all flying through space.” On this tiny globe from which there is no escape.

“Cool!” he shouts and pumps his fist into the air. “Like Superman! We’re all Superman!” Then he pulls away from her hand and clambers onto the wall next to them. “Will you catch me on the other side?”

“Yes,” she says. “Of course.” She looks up at the sky. At that immaculate blue.

 

AUTOBAHN

The car slipped past them so slow and so close that she could see the flecks of dirt on the chrome trims, and that the dark lenses of the driver’s sunglasses were held in place only by a thin wire, like the glasses in The Matrix.

Everything seemed so still. As if she could push open the door between them, then the next, and slide over into his back seat. Secretly, quietly. And then she would hammer down the Autobahn in the next car over, to Hamburg, to the sunset, to the end of the rainbow, wherever. The man with the Matrix glasses wiped his face, put his foot down, and disappeared. Their car moved leftwards. Now the bushes were rushing past again, closer this time, dust-green blurs with dark gaps. They must be overtaking a lorry, she felt the change in the air pressure, or whatever that was, the car made a soft rocking motion. She pressed her forehead to the cold glass and looked out at the median strip, at the world rushing past behind it, at the cars in the opposite lane running together into coloured streaks, hardly more than racing ghosts from another universe.

“Are you fucking someone else, or what?” She tightened her grip on the handle, but her damp hands kept slipping. “Go on then!”

“No.” Of course that was what she should say. “No. You’re the only one I want. To fuck. And for everything else too. Children. Love. You’re the only one I want. I’ll tear my eyes out so I never have to see anyone else. I’ll burn my pussy to a cinder so no one else can have it.”

“No,” she wanted to scream back. If she ever had to feel another skin against hers she would die, go up in brief bright flames or crumble into dust. “No, I’m not fucking anyone else. No, I don’t want you any more. I don’t want to feel you next to me any more, or on me. Or in me. I don’t want to smell you, or taste you, I don’t want to hear your voice any more. No.”

She wanted to crawl inside the door, between the switches and the plastic casing, and never come out again. She would get herself settled in, build a little bed out of the dust and scraps of fluff that found their way into her hidey-hole. She would roll up in there and sleep, and sometimes she would hum a tune into the quiet. She had a flying feeling in her stomach, a little bit like their love had felt, at the beginning, the glances, the stolen touches, before the others noticed anything. Exciting and secretive. And always that sensation, like her body was filled with crackling stars. Yes, this felt quite similar, as if all her body wanted was to fly away. But the stars had disappeared, leaving only dark, endless space around her.

“What are you doing hiding back there? Talk to me! You always want to talk, so talk!” He tugged at her knee as if he could move her up or down a gear. His fingers, too, were cold and damp. She pulled her feet up onto the leather of the back seat and thought briefly about the marks that the soles of her shoes might leave there. He had rented this car specifically. A heavy, fast car, a metallic frog pressed to the asphalt, that was now supposed to shoot them towards the coast. With him at the wheel, her in his arms. To the ocean. To the sunset. To “You’re the only one I want”.

Why didn’t she say anything? She looked at her hands, still gripping the handle. She tried to feel her tongue. It was lying in her mouth, a paralysed worm, as helpless as she was.

“Take me home.” Every movement of her mouth felt strange and small. A dying fish in its last throes. “Please.” One last time, her tongue rolled heavily around between her teeth. Clicked against the roof of her mouth. She could feel every tensed muscle. She could not imagine ever saying another word.

“Don’t ruin it! Why are you doing this!” She heard the way the car wailed, the way the noise of horns bore down on them, muffled by steel and glass. “Here! I’m here!” screamed a voice in her head. “Can’t you see me?”

“Why don’t I just crash this car?” He laughed, shrill, but she could hear the tears too. His voice was different. It wasn’t as if he had never cried before. In the last few weeks, even, she had often seen the narrow wall of water slowly rising in his eyes, swelling at the edge of his eyelid, until it finally grew too heavy, tore through its own surface tension and tumbled down.

“None of it matters anyway!”

She closed her eyes. Yes, maybe he was right, maybe none of it mattered anyway. Her legs pulled further upwards, a snail’s body searching for its shell. Outside there was more honking. Tyres squealed, the seatbelt tore into her. More horns. Very close this time: the sound stabbed at her ears. “Yeah, fuck off!” he screamed. “They can’t hear you,” she thought. “Nobody can hear us.” Then she was forced back against the heavy leather seat again. The engine whooped, as if it were having fun. He liked Formula One.

“Do you think I won’t do it, or what?”

She pressed her forehead against the leather on the door. “No, I believe you. I believe everything. Everything you say. Every word,” she thought. The new-car smell was so strong for a moment that she almost vomited. She saw nausea like a little green flame dancing somewhere in her chest, nervous, incensed. She rolled all her thoughts around it, wrapped the little fire in darkness, and all that was left was the flame and her body somewhere out there, and she was nothing more than stillness, encasing the flickering green.

Her forehead hurt where it had struck the doorframe. She waited for shards of glass to rain down on her, for screeching metal. But there was only the chirruping of sparrows. She opened her eyes and saw them in the corner of the churchyard, taking a sand bath. They hopped in and out, fluttering on the little fleck of dried-out earth that the last heavy rainfall had left there. One after another they pressed their little bodies against the ground and wriggled with their wings as if they wanted to hug the world below them, only to shoot upwards again a few seconds later into the dazzling sunlight.

“Fuck off!”

The click of the door lock seemed terribly loud to her. She pushed the door open a bit and waited. But nothing happened. She pushed again against the weight and let her legs slide out until they met the ground. They went over the cobbles, carried her across the wickerwork of joints between the grey stones. She saw the way they moved, the canvas shoes on their feet that she had laced up that morning. Despite that, though, they didn’t seem hers. As if they were sticks that someone had lashed to her body in place of her old legs.

Something hit her on the head and flopped to earth. Her bag. The colourful tassels that she had tied onto the zip, one yellow and one pink, glowed strange and shrill. As if they were screaming. They were neon colours. That had never occurred to her before.

“I hope I never see you again, you piece of shit!”

She knelt down and grasped for her bag, which was lying slack and flabby on the sun-warmed stone. Her hands struggled to grip the fabric properly. As if they hadn’t had enough practice at taking hold of things, and now they lacked the strength and the finesse to manage it.

She watched the sparrows flurry upwards as the car screeched out of the car park. They scattered into the blue and disappeared somewhere between the old houses.

“Schnapps?” She smelled the harsh kick of it. The glass that the barwoman from the pub on the corner held out to her was full to brimming. She took the drink and downed it. “Love is a right bastard,” said the woman and took the empty glass back. Her hands were red and heavy. When they had gone to her pub for a nightcap after the disco, her hands had looked quite different. It must be the light, that bright, bright sunlight.

“Hmmmm,” she said. Nothing more made it out of her mouth. Her throat burned from the schnapps. Even the ‘hmmmm’ scratched painfully in her larynx and came out thin and weak.

“If you need another one, come on in, yeah?” The barwoman hauled herself upright, walked back over the cobblestones – rounded and gleaming like buried skulls – and disappeared into the doorway of the pub. For a moment she could see the slot machine flashing. It glowed like a sun in the darkness.

From Dieses makellose blau: Geschichten, Mikrotext, 2021.

Our Father

Author: Angela Lehner
Translator: Lizzy Kinch

 

Translator’s Preface: This passage consists of the opening chapters of Vater unser and describes the narrator Eva’s arrival in the Otto-Wagner-Spital, a psychiatric hospital outside Vienna. There she meets her brother Bernhard, who is also a patient and suffers from an eating disorder, and Dr Korb, her psychiatrist with whom she discusses her conservative Catholic upbringing in rural Austria. Told from Eva’s highly unreliable perspective (we never know why she’s in the hospital, but she claims to have shot a classroom full of children), the novel follows her attempts to reconcile with Bernhard and persuade him to join her in murdering their father.

 

Journey

They’ve tied my hands behind my back. I lean my head against an opaque pane of glass. Nobody’s smoking but the seat cushions tell of past nicotine delights. There’s a grate in front of me. An officer is sitting in front of it, her ponytail dancing in the wind.

The air conditioning is off. I’m surprised. If I’d had to guess, I would’ve thought that the Austrian police keep the air-con on when they crank down the windows. But how wrong I’d have been — quite sensible of them, really.

“Excuse me,” I say, “I’d like something to drink.”

No response. I feel awkward. I wait half an hour and try again.

“Apologies,” I say, “thirsty.”

“She wants a drink,” I hear a voice say from the driver’s compartment.

“Oh. She’s thirsty, is she?” says another.

“Correct,” I say, “I’m thirsty.”

The police officers mumble among themselves. From the front I hear an “alright”. Alright, I think to myself, these police actually are alright. What’s everyone complaining about?

Five minutes later we stop in front of an Esso petrol station. The police confer via radio with the head office, then the ponytailed officer gets out and opens the door for me. She has a made-up face and bright nails. In my head I call her Maria. Next to Maria appears the other voice from the driver’s compartment. The policeman is small and solid like an egg cup.

The egg cup goes into the petrol station. It’s only when he gives the Okay over the Walkie-Talkie that the rest of us get moving. You’ve got to hand it to them, these police officers are well-organised.

The police officer buries her fake nails so deeply into my upper arm that I worry the small plastic gem stones could find their way inside my body. She forbids me from speaking and brings me into the toilet. In the cubicle she pulls my trousers down and sits me on the toilet bowl. I scrunch my hands into fists so that my fingers don’t touch the loo seat, and try not to think of the toilet scenes in Wetlands.

“Excuse me,” I say to her from below, “I’m thirsty.”

She’s surprised, then remembers: “Ah, yes. You were thirsty!”

She stands me up again and pulls my trousers upwards.

“Thanks,” I say. And when I notice the fastening of a thin golden chain on her collarbone: “God Bless You.”

I’m brought into the shopping area of the petrol station. No other customers. The shop assistant pulls her head back into her grey jumper like a turtle. Maria holds a bottle of mineral water in front of my face. I lean forwards and drink through a red straw.

“Aren’t you hot?” I ask the shop assistant after a while.

She shakes her head and points to a table fan behind the till. I nod and look around. My gaze falls on a small altar, on which an empty crate of Villacher beer is arranged. A rosary lies on a hand-embroidered tablecloth, next to a framed portrait photo of Jörg Haider, our far-right trailblazer. Above it a little Jesus is hanging out on a cross.

“My God,” I say. “Are we in Carinthia?”

The shop assistant nods. I empty the bottle in three gulps.

Four hours later we turn into Hütteldorfer Strasse and someone starts to hum. The sky turns gaudy as the giant grated compound appears before us. The egg cup climbs out and stretches his back. Forms are filled out and my gaze wanders over Vienna. Summer evenings always make me feel better about life.

New people in new uniforms take over and I nod to my police officers one last time. A man leads me through the grounds. Our steps crunch over the gravel stones. My leg muscles are not used to the climb and I notice I have to make an effort to keep up. The toes of our shoes get dirtier with each step. I’m thinking about how the summer takes what it needs from the earth when we turn onto an asphalt road. A few metres straight ahead. Then we stop in front of a white front door. Above the entrance I read the number fifteen. The nurse starts to fumble around with a big ring of keys.

I look around the hospital grounds — only a little, I don’t want to see everything yet — and discover a small group of people in tracksuits ten metres away, in the vegetable patch. A woman with broad shoulders talks at a few of them, while others lay their harvest on a blanket spread out on the floor.

“How wonderfully educational it is here,” I say to my custodian.

“Right you are,” he grunts.

He probably says that often. A familiar sweet smell rises in my nose. I hear cries of indignation and turn around again to the flower bed. A girl around 20 years old with protruding ears is stomping the tomatoes, meticulously laid out one by one, flat on the cloth. She screams and puts her bandaged wrists on her head, on top of which sits a brown topknot. A nurse stops the tomato girl, talks to her angrily. Then another figure approaches them both. It raises its thin arm and lays a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She sinks her head and whispers something to him. She stops screaming. Then this figure raises his eyes and meets mine. He stares. The nurse pushes me through the now open door. Our steps echo from the walls.

“Somebody you know?” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply.

I’m naked. I had to undress myself behind a screen. Silly, really, that undressing has to be hidden when being naked isn’t a problem. A ward sister examined me and then left, leaving me alone in a treatment room full of scalpels and operating scissors. I consider whether I’m allowed to get dressed again, but then sit myself down on the examination table as I am and dangle my feet. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d be embarrassed by my nakedness. The door opens and the ward sister comes back with a doctor. He’s around fifty and balding. When he sees me, he stops in his tracks. He asks the sister in a whisper if the examinations have not yet been completed. Then he turns to me:

“Wouldn’t you prefer to put some clothes on, Miss Gruber?”

“I’m alright, thank you,” I say, and cross my legs.

“Right,” says the doctor and approaches me to shake my hand. He looks me in the eyes: “I’m Doctor Korb. I’m the senior psychiatrist here.”

At the end of the sentence he raises his voice, as if it were a question.

“Great,” I say and nod interestedly.

The doctor pulls up a stool and sits in front of me. When he notices that his head is the exact same height as my lap, he stands up again.

“Yes,” he says, “Miss Gruber”, and looks at the ward sister standing motionlessly by the closed door, like a potted plant.

“Yes,” I reply.

“I’ll come by again later,” he says and goes to the door. When he pushes the handle down, he pauses, turns around and nods to me. I nod back. Then he leaves and the sister follows him. Before the door clicks into the latch, I shout out: “Doctor!”

I slide off the couch. The doctor comes back in. Behind him I see the ward sister’s head peering into the room. “Yes?” he says and gestures to her with the flat of his hand to slow down. I clear my throat: “I have a question.”

Doctor Korb nods: “Yes?”

“I’d like to know if someone called Bernhard Gruber is a patient here.”

He studies me. Hesitates. He wants to say something, but I cut him off.

“He’s my brother,” I blurt. “I think I saw him earlier in the garden.”

He looks at me, tilts his head. Then he nods. “Well, then”, he says, “we’ll look into it.” He exchanges a glance with the ward sister. “Well, then”, he repeats, turning towards me again, “anything else?”

“No,” I say. He furrows his brow and looks at the floor. Then he nods and leaves. Just before the door swings shut, he stops it once again from outside.

“And please put some clothes on,” I hear him say.

Bedroom

The room is no more awful than any other hospital room. No one could be offended by anything. By any of the furniture, for example. To the right of the entrance is a shelving unit attached to the wall, on the opposite side is a bathroom. Two hospital beds next to each other, both unoccupied — I’ll be living here alone. In the corner a small television with a frame screwed to the ceiling. Next to it a camera. At the start, they’ll film me at night. I know because I had to give my signature. I go over to the window but don’t quite have the nerve to rattle it. The view is beautiful. Other hospital wings, fields, Vienna. Without knocking, a ward sister comes in and gives me a bundle of laundry. She outlines the coming days to me in ‘we’ sentences. I nod. When she leaves, I ask her to please knock in future.

By now the sky has turned black. I sort through the washing on the bed. Two hand towels, two mint green tracksuits. Hospital clothes that look like they’ve been sewn from kitchen towels. The less said about the underwear the better. Only at the start, Doctor Korb said.

The shower is a grey square indented into the floor. The quadrant is mirrored by a metal rail on the ceiling, from which a white shower curtain hangs. Though the air is already muggy, I have a warm shower. While the water pearls over my dry hair before submerging it, I run my foot along the shower’s edge. Little grey nubs to stop me from slipping. When I’m done, I throw the wet and the dry towel over the metal rail.

At ten o’clock it’s bedtime. Getting enough sleep is essential to maintaining a healthy psyche, so I’ve been told. They don’t need reminding here, I think, as I stare up in the dark and wonder whether I should put on a little show for the rolling cameras. A little masturbation, perhaps.
Shortly before midnight, a ward sister storms into the room. I was screaming in my sleep. We both calm down (it takes me less time than her) and then I fall asleep again. At one o’clock she wakes me once more while checking if I’m sleeping. At three I’m woken up by a bang from the bathroom. I remember the camera and don’t let on — I don’t want to have to talk to anyone else tonight. When I go into the bathroom in the morning my towels and the shower curtain are lying in a heap on the floor. The shower rail is broken, snapped into two pieces. I trace my thumb along the brittle material, where the stump has shattered. Breaking point.

Meeting Bernhard

I’ve been here for two days now and I’ve not seen my brother again. I’ve already been to my first group meeting, but now I’m on strike. I’m saying nothing until I’ve met Bernhard. Doctor Korb is aware of this. He had me brought into a treatment room, where I’ve been waiting for half an hour with a nurse. I’m sitting on a swivel chair and lowering myself up and down, up and down. The nurse’s nose is blocked and he whistles gently with each intake of breath. I’m becoming more irritated by the minute, but he hasn’t noticed. Then Korb finally arrives. He says something, but I’m not listening. Behind him, the gaunt figure from the garden comes in: Bernhard. He’s so tall now— and so thin. He’s wearing a tracksuit with the sleeves rolled up. I can see a small tube sticking out of the crook of his arm. He looks at me briefly, then at his feet. He tucks a non-existent strand of hair behind his ear.

I grin.

“Hello,” I gush and stand up.

I spread my arms out but my brother doesn’t move. I notice that he’s grinding his jaw. He looks at Doctor Korb, who squints and smiles, and Bernhard slowly sets himself in motion. He approaches me like a calf approaches an abattoir. Twenty centimetres in front of me he stops and stands. I hug him awkwardly. It’s terribly embarrassing. You’d think we were two acquaintances running into each other in the street.

“So?” I say and take a step back. I try to keep up my smile. Bernhard opens his mouth and closes it again. He clears his throat and tries once more: “Hello, Eva,” he says. He takes a deep breath:

“How are you?”

“Not too bad,” I say and smile. “And you?”

Bernhard nods: “Yeah.”

Then he turns back to Korb, who looks back and forth between us and notes something down on his clipboard. I try to work out what to say next. Slowly, my smile fades. I’m annoyed my brother can’t make small talk with me, after all this time.

“Why are you here?” I ask, and Bernhard turns again to Doctor Korb.

“Can’t you understand me?” Doctor Korb adjusts himself, but Bernhard doesn’t react.

“Do you need an interpreter or something?” I say and feel myself getting angry.

“Hello?” I shout.

“That’s enough,” says Doctor Korb and makes the same gesture in my direction that he’d made a few days ago to the ward sister. The nurse positions himself in between me and Bernhard, who seems relieved and trots off to the exit. Doctor Korb follows him and lays a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve done well,” I hear him say. They leave the room. I laugh out loud. It’s just astounding. The nurse looks at me seriously.

“Shush,” he says.

“Shush?” I snarl at him.

He flinches and backs away. I seize my chance and run out of the room. In the doorway I first turn right, then left. I see my brother and Doctor Korb standing at the end of the corridor.

“Bernhard,” I yell as loudly as I can.

They both turn around to me, terrified.

“Well, then,” I shout, “how are you finding the weather?”

Bernhard’s Fear

Bernhard is the only person whose fear is worse for me than my own. As a kid he once told me that he was afraid of falling face-first onto the big cactus on the landing. So he always went downstairs very slowly, with his left hand sliding carefully down the bannister. Going upstairs was quicker. There were no eyes on the back of his head, he explained to me, and so obviously there was nothing for the cactus to gouge out. I laughed then — and I still laugh now when my mother talks about it. When she recounts past tribulations, in order to smooth over those of today. I laugh at my stupid brother, who’s afraid of everything. It’s easy to be the brave one next to a coward like that. As a kid I would’ve been the first to beat Bernhard up in the playground if he hadn’t been my brother. So I beat him at home, when our parents weren’t looking, and did the same at school to anyone who got too close to him.

At some point I also got scared when I saw the cactus, though I’d never tell Bernhard that — there was even a little colourful sombrero on its thick spike. It’s not that I was afraid of hurting myself. No — it was the thought of my brother’s blonde mop of hair cowering submissively in front of a potted plant that made me ill.

Bernhard’s birthday is on the first of April. Bernhard, our walking April Fool. When it’s his birthday, the night lasts eleven and a half hours. When it’s my birthday it’s a little shorter. My father and I argued, back then, about whether the day starts at dawn or only when you see the sun. For me it starts with dawn. Afterwards, my father started to wake me. Every day at half past four he stood by my bed in his pale blue pyjamas, which probably used to fit him long before Bernhard was born. I’d always shut my eyes immediately, and he’d always tap me on the forehead until I kept them open, with a fingertip that reeked of nicotine. If it was a morning when my eyelids were heavier than normal, his hand would wander to the breast pocket of his pyjamas, through which the rectangle of a cigarette packet was clearly visible. It was a reflex for him. At some point I threw the duvet back and heaved my legs out of the bed. Even today I still can’t get up in one go. When my feet touched the cold wooden floor, I ran my hands over my thighs and scratched at all the mosquito bites from the day before. Even if there were no bites, I always had to scratch. I don’t remember a morning in my life where I’ve not had red flecks of grime under my fingernails.

My father was patient. He waited until I was ready, with his arms folded. We went downstairs together, past the cactus on the ground floor. I always had to go to the toilet first — I’d fall asleep in there again. When I finally came into the dining room, I saw him through the terrace door, dragging again and again on his cigarette and staring into the sky. Now I’m thinking about it, I wonder if I fell asleep for less time than I thought, or if he simply lit up one after another until I arrived. We never spoke but I knew where I had to sit: looking to the East, at the still grey sky between the mountainsides. After smoking, my father always disappeared into the kitchen. I heard things clattering around, he was not particularly light of touch, and then the beeping of the microwave. He sat next to me, gave me a cup of cocoa that I never drank, and we looked into the sky until we saw the glowing orange sun rising.

One day we came downstairs and my mother was waiting for us. In her white terrycloth dressing gown, she sat there with a mug of tea — and waited. She’d turned the radio on. I sat next to her, and my father went to get the cocoa. Then the three of us looked out of the window while Bernhard slept upstairs. The presenter said that Lady Di had been in a car accident. My mother turned off the radio and we went upstairs. My father never woke me again.

 

Excerpted from Angela Lehner, Vater Unser (Our Father), Carl Hanser Verlag, 2019.

“Who, If I Cried Out?”

Author: Iris Hanika
Translator: Abigail Wender

 

WHEN ROXANA GOT HOME, she heard voices in the kitchen, and when she hung her keys by the door and carried her shopping into the room, she saw a new face — and the world’s hammer struck destiny’s gong or the opposite, destiny’s hammer struck the world’s gong. Either way, at that moment everything changed. One could say it was as if she’d sustained an electric shock that brought her body to the limit of its electrical capacity; or as if the planet had suddenly changed direction, which made her head spin. One could also say that the earth broke open and hellfire blazed up her legs, or the heavens opened and divine rays of light blinded her. A comet struck earth; the ice cracked wide under her feet; she had been hurled into a new universe; Albert Speer’s Schwerbelastungskörper had fallen on her head —

something of that sort. Put simply, in the instant she saw the new face, a guillotine was released, its knife making a precise cut that marked an epoch of her life. From then on there was a before and after, and she would always know the exact moment in which her life had been radically altered: when I came home after shopping, he sat in the kitchen, and from then on everything was different.

“Hello, here you are,” was what greeted her. “Roxana, this is Josh.” He stood up immediately (“Josh, this is Roxana”), beamed at her and held out his hand to pull her from the before into the after. But it was not so easy to grasp that hand — nothing was normal now and even the smallest action required careful thought and planning before it could be undertaken.

First she needed to put down her groceries. And for that she had to turn away from this new person, and that took some time because she wanted nothing more from life than to look at that face forever. With effort, she spun around to put her bag on the counter between the stove and refrigerator. At last her hands were free, and she turned and took his hand, which pulled her safely and definitively into the hereafter — which quickly changed into the never-ending present.

“Hello,” he said, “I’m Josh.”

“Hello,” she said, “Roxana. My pleasure.” She didn’t let go of his hand immediately in order to completely absorb the face that everything now would depend on. And yet she couldn’t see the face clearly as it was a bit too near for her age-related, weak eyesight. So she let go of his hand and put her glasses on to study it exactly. She saw all his pores, lines, hair, and bumpy skin very distinctly. But that didn’t help a bit, it was just a face. Except it tunneled through her to a place that she hadn’t known was still there. She took the glasses off and Josh’s face changed back into a young prince’s.

“Have a seat,” said Sophonisbe and stood because the other two were standing. Now they were all standing. “Would you like coffee?” she asked, already taking a cup from the cabinet and putting it quickly onto the table just as Roxana warily sat down. After Roxana, Josh sat once again. “And a glass of water,” said Sophonisbe like a good spirit in the background; she took a glass, filled it at the tap, and put it in front of Roxana; and then she poured coffee in Roxana’s cup and sat back down, wondering why the atmosphere was so peculiar. On the outside there was nothing to see, nothing had happened, and so she was surprised and thought perhaps she was mistaken.

Josh and Roxana were opposite each other. He was as hopefully expectant as always, but when no one said a word, and Roxana looked deep in thought, his puppy dog exuberance dampened and he furrowed his brow just like she had; now she was deep inside herself and began to understand why his face distressed her. If I were thirty years younger, she thought, I’d fall insanely in love and pursue him maniacally, that is until we had sex, which wouldn’t continue for long because I would hang on him like a lump of clay, and, as a result, he’d leave me after two weeks max, whereupon I’d drown in an ocean of despair.

Men like him have always initiated a collapse into deep depression. The collapse was always preceded by a phase of intense mania. Men like him could be relied upon to drive her insane and make her as miserable as possible.

He’s exactly the type, she thought, exactly the type who would make me crazy if I were thirty years younger.

She hadn’t expected to meet someone like him ever again.

She hadn’t thought she’d ever be reminded, and so concretely, of her screwed-up adolescence and those unhappy flights into madness. They’d happened so long ago.

Surely it was no longer true.

She had gone off the rails.

And yet here they sat.

For Sophonisbe the quiet rolling out like a gentle fog from the middle of the kitchen table wasn’t unpleasant. However, Josh was confused; he looked frowningly between both women, seeking an answer from Sophonisbe, but she gave none; instead, with a touch of a smile on her lips, she relaxed and leaned back, her hands folded in her lap to savor the unprecedented event happening at that table. Roxana was so astonished that she hardly noticed the silence. For her it was more than just right — she had to concentrate. In reality, though, she wasn’t thinking about anything. What had happened just now? The question whirled like a carousel in her head. What would, could or should happen later she didn’t weigh — that was in the future, and it would be gruesome, she already knew. But what had begun here was the past, and it was hell. Why, why was the past taking place now? (To be hurled into a completely new state of mind at the sight of a new face, to be catapulted out of oneself and suddenly land in the kingdom of madness, no longer concerned with yourself but only with this other person. To see a new face and suddenly think, “this man, he’s it, he’s exactly it, he’s the one.”)

As Sophonisbe would have put it:

Like this I have not thought in so long; already more than ten years since I think like this. That’s why, really, I forgot that someone like this can think. That someone can a new face see and that from now always they will always be with this person, and every day this face see. Even if one knows absolutely nothing about what’s inside the head of that face, one thinks one will see that face now for always.

Roxana had been wrenched in this cruel way into the relentless present. There was no gentle fog spreading slowly in her head, actually her mind had become a hurricane-grade vortex; and it was not the face that had broken the dam, but the maelstrom’s return that shook her; she had imagined the whirlwind was long past dead. She was shocked that the door to madness wasn’t barricaded behind her where she’d left it thirty years ago, locked for eternity—shocked that the door could simply unlock as if that were an easy task. She had met a new person and the gate to hell had opened again.

THE SILENCE WAS PATIENT, but thick as cotton batting. At last Sophonisbe realized that it fell in her jurisdiction to further the conversation, after all she’d dragged the young man back with her. She was responsible for ending the silence and for the wellbeing of her landlady.

“I met Josh last winter in New York.”

“Frau Roxana,” Josh said formally, “I bring to you greetings from Alf.”

“From Alf? You mustn’t call me ‘Frau’! Bedolf. How’d that happen? Use the informal ‘you.’ And what next?”

These weren’t questions that Josh or Sophonisbe could answer. Josh couldn’t really understand what was being asked, Sophonisbe not what was really being said, and Roxana not how she’d arrived at those questions. Josh looked helplessly at Sophonisbe to continue on, but even if she could have helped him, she wouldn’t have because she was watching enthusiastically as the delusion of love erupted in someone else for once. Until now she’d only known the experience from the inside. She was glad to see what it looked like on the outside and she was excited by what was yet to come. Roxana looked again at Josh, or rather away from him and then back at him again and again away and again back and again away and again back. Suddenly she stood up and left the kitchen.

“I’m still wearing my jacket,” she said as she went.

Although it was summer, one nevertheless wore a light coat. They were in the season the the fashion industry called “the transition period” — a time of change.

She didn’t just hang her coat in the closet but also made a detour to the storeroom, so it took a little longer than expected for her to return. In the meantime, Sophonisbe smiled at Josh who looked as if he were multiplying four-digit numbers in his head.

Roxana used the storeroom’s mirror less to smarten up than to make sure that she was still the same person she’d been that morning, to see that she hadn’t changed on the outside and that she was intact and extant, at least outwardly. The glance in the mirror gave her a reference point—it let her know who the person was, who she really was, whose whole being walked every day through the neighborhood — a resting place, a moment’s peace. While she considered herself in the mirror, reality appeared to be in existence, with the familiar present and the steady flow of her orderly, pleasant life. She applied her lipstick and saw that outwardly she looked the way she always had when she left the house and went face-to-face with the world: admittedly, it was strange not to inhabit the world any longer.

That did the trick; with titanic force she thrust herself back, and held firm as she sat down once more to the full coffee cup and water glass. She touched neither. And she sat very straight on the chair. One can’t truly hear or see when worlds break apart. Of course it depends, too, on the worlds.

Sophonisbe thought of several ways to revive the conversation but none seemed suitable. She didn’t want to say anything, particularly about Alf, which would mean talking about Deborah — though she’d been the one interested in the Ukraine, and so Josh had been invited to dinner several times, which was how they ultimately had the idea to travel together to visit Odessa. She didn’t want to talk about Josh—he was sitting at the table with them and could speak for himself. The same went for Roxana. It wasn’t in Sophonisbe’s nature to praise people who were in her company, and she also didn’t like to speak about herself. At the start she’d already told Josh about her overwhelming experience at the Schlesische Tor station, that sufficed; and Roxana knew nothing about the man Sophonisbe had wished would die and then had died. And really, at the moment, she didn’t want to tell anyone about the accident; actually she wanted to write about this incredible incident, which was the reason she had lured Josh to the apartment: so that the path to her writing desk would be as short as possible.

“‘For our wishes oft hide from ourselves the very object we wish for’” she said finally, “‘Gifts / come down from above in the shapes appointed by heaven.’”

That livened up the room. Josh beamed at her and now Roxana directed her stare at Sophonisbe.

“What?” Roxana asked.

“Goethe,” answered Sophonisbe.

“What?”

“Did you know that Czar Nicholas II died with that word on his lips? They read him his death sentence in that dungeon in Yekaterinburg, but he didn’t understand and asked twice, ‘shto? shto?’ and then they shot him, and he was dead.”

“And did you know that Nicholas II was such an incompetent czar that he put the stamps on his own letters? But I had in mind the shapes, of course. Goethe. What kinds of shapes?”

“‘Gifts come down from above in the shapes appointed by heaven.’”

“Repetition won’t clarify it. What kinds of gifts?”

“Just the gifts. Whatever we haven’t wished for because we hide our desires; I’ve already said that.”

“Yes, you should explain the wishers and the wish-fulfilled,” said Josh, joining the conversation. “Do you mean that people are gifts? I mean, the shapes—are they people, and the people—what they what we wish for?”

“Something like that, only not so concrete,” said Sophonisbe. “A gift could be in the shape of a person, and a person could be the fulfillment of desire — if one had wished for a person. But that is, as I said, too concrete. I think Goethe had something more abstract in mind. Although, for details look at “Hermann und Dorothea,” which is all about wish fulfillment in the shape of a human being.”

“A person is no wish fulfillment,” said Roxana, “a person is ‘the beginning of terror’.”

“No, you’re mixing it up, Rilke meant something else. His line is, ‘But beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.’”

“Well, that’s what I mean!” Roxana was so agitated that she slammed her hand down flat on the table.

“Where did Rilke write about terrorist beginnings?” asked Josh, already pulling out his phone to type a note.

We can go no further like this.

Once again we can go no further because there are three people having three different conversations and each one of them has needs that each would like to have known and met. As long as the reason for conversation isn’t clear, and the goal itself left unspoken, they talk against each other, not with each other. Also a kind of incommunicado.

When Sophonisbe realized that they weren’t getting anywhere, she took hold of the reins, saying to Josh: “Not ‘terrorist beginnings’ but ‘the beginning of terror.’ The first of the Duino Elegies.” And to Roxana: “Josh is getting his doctorate degree in East European history. I met him with Alf and Deborah, because Deborah’s ancestors were from the Ukraine and Josh is researching the Ukraine. That’s why they saw each other a few times after I left, and will be going to Odessa all together. Alf and Deborah are coming to Berlin soon.”

“But this isn’t the Ukraine.”

“No, this isn’t the Ukraine. Josh goes to Lviv in five weeks and from there they’ll travel to Odessa.”

“Five weeks? You’re only here for five weeks?”

That was bad news. She had only five weeks to be done with this madness.

“I am in Berlin for a vacation and for to learn German. In Lviv I work in the archive.”

“Oh, okay, and that’s why you need to speak German—so you can read Nazi documents?”

“No, my research isn’t about the Nazi era. I work on the Ukrainian national movement in the nineteenth century.”

“Ah ha.”

Once again the conversation hit a dead end. Sophonisbe considered if now was the time, perhaps, to sing Roxana’s praises, to give a jolt to the talk, but luckily it moved ahead of its own accord.

“I know so very little about the Ukraine.”

Josh picked this up gratefully for now he could say what he said every time he spoke about his doctoral thesis.

“Yes, this is a problem. The people know only the Maidan Revolution, but know nothing of the early history. But there is the early history. This is the reason I write my dissertation on this. This is why I chose it. There is not much literature. It is a – how does one say it?” He finished in English, “It’s a rewarding field of research.”

“And so you need the archive.”

“Exactly.”

“In Lviv. I had no idea there was anything still there.”

“Many think that.” Josh smiled.

“Yes, we can hardly believe that east of Poland anything at all remains,” said Sophonisbe, “of course, I knew Lviv from history, as Lemberg, from Joseph Roth, so Galicia, Eastern Jews.”

Oh, that was the wrong direction — she saw immediately. When it came to the Ukraine and history, talk often went along one — even if rusty — track, and it would have ground along happily had she not reflexively turned once more in the direction of the Nazi business. As luck would have it, Josh wasn’t the least bit interested in that and steered the conversation off elsewhere.

“Alf told me a lot about you,” he said, beaming now at Roxana. “I would like to know everything about the self-care business!”

At least Roxana could laugh a little at that.

“The self-care business,” she said. “Ah, well, that was a long time ago.”

“And what business are you in now?”

“Now?” Now she could think of nothing. “Let’s see, what do I do now?”

“You are working on a book about communication.” Sophonisbe rushed in to help.

“Oh, right. Yes, I’m working on a book about communication. But only halfheartedly.”

“Why only halfheartedly?”

“Hmm, why only halfheartedly?” Roxana now asked herself. People always had to ask the hardest questions first!

“Yes,” said Sophonisbe, who thought that now she had done enough social work. “So I’ll just leave the two of you alone to communicate, which is to say I really must to get to my desk,” and disappeared, leaving behind a small bubble of silence, which Roxana, as luck had it, burst quickly.

“Would you like more coffee? I bought cookies.”

“I love cookies!” the young prince called out in English, and leaned backwards, aglow with anticipation.

Like a young hound, thought Roxana. Oh, how sweet!

How unbearably sweet.

And then she thought: the beginning of terror, and stood petrified, the cookie package in her hand and gaped at Josh. He looked back at her in alarm. He was frightened, she frightened him, she saw it. Best to leave the room, she thought, but no reason came to mind so she stayed.

Yes, something was sideways, crooked, not right. “Who, if I cried out” and so on, and why was Rilke holding forth, of all people—also strange. The kitchen was actually quite well furnished, full of machines that made the lives of harried cooks and housekeepers easier. In this kitchen no one would cry out, there was nothing to cry for, this kitchen was a very peaceful place.

Roxana came to her own rescue.

You are no angel, she thought, you are just a darling boy, nothing more. Very normal. But such a boy.

“Cookies,” she said, “Kekse,” and tore the package open, putting them on a plate and sat down again, smiling kindly at him the way one smiled at such a darling honey-boy.

“These words are similar,” said Josh.

“They taste the same, no matter what word one chooses.”

Then they each took a cookie and ate it in their own awkward style. Josh gobbled his in one gulp as if it were a nutritional supplement he’d been lacking and craved, and immediately stuffed a second in his mouth; whereas Roxana nibbled hers in many tiny bites, scrupulously fulfilling her duty to enjoy it. That was just as idiotic, but lasted longer. Josh watched, casting his princely smile on her. For now, so far so good.

 

Excerpted from Iris Hanika, Echos Kammern (Echo’s Chambers), Droschl 2020.

 

 

 

Confessions of a Morning-After Pill Popper

Author: Anaïs Meier
Translator: Kate Brown

 

(Warning! This text ignores serious and important concerns regarding contraception, such as sexual violence and lack of access to contraceptives. As such, it may be regarded as thoroughly superficial, first-world, degenerate nonsense. No need to cast aspersions on the author, though.)

 

1 Prologue
2 The taboo of unwanted children
3 The concept of emergency contraception
4 The limitations of reliable contraception:  the Immaculate Conception
5 Acknowledgments

 

1

There are four appropriate ways to write about contraception.

1. In the form of a religious exhortation written by a sixty-year old mother of thirteen with hepatitis c.

2. In the form of a brazen, raunchy essay, by a post-emancipated woman in her late thirties with red lipstick and an undetected Ureaplasma urealyticum infection.

3. In the form of an erotic poem by a fifty-year old pottery teacher who is sometimes troubled by genital warts.

4. In the form of diary entries by a forty-year old male gynaecologist who is travelling the world and studying traditional Chinese medicine. (The forty-year-old gynaecologist doesn’t have any sexually transmitted infections, as he is always careful to protect himself on his travels.

Any other way of writing about contraception is inappropriate.

 

 

2

Having unwanted children is bad news. I realised this when I was seven, watching TV with my grandparents.

The programme was for grown-ups. In the studio where it was filmed there was a blue partition behind which an adult – whose voice had been distorted – was talking about how his parents had fried him, in a frying pan, when he was a child.

When I asked my grandparents why this had happened, they just kept on looking at the TV screen and answered, in unison, ”Because he was an unwanted child.”

During puberty I learnt about the existence of my father’s two half-sisters and my mother’s half-brother.

I realised that I would never meet my grandparents on my father’s side because my dad was an unwanted child. His half-sisters were the wanted children. And I learned that I would never meet my mother’s half-brother because he too was an unwanted child.

Unwanted children are first pan-fried, then silenced and, subsequently, disowned.

As this is unpleasant for all involved it would be better if there were no unwanted children. “So that’s why it’s important that the man has a good job.” My grandparents told me this because I was a wanted child.

According to my grandparents, a child is wanted when the mother and father have been together in the same monogamous relationship for no less than a year; are, at the very least, engaged if not married; and share the same postal address.

When I was conceived my parents fulfilled these requirements. Except that, unfortunately, my father didn’t have a good job. In fact, he didn’t have a job at all. On top of that he smoked hash, typical behaviour for an unwanted child. My grandparents also explained that many unwanted children go on to take drugs and don’t have good jobs.

So I realised that I didn’t want to have an unwanted child. This means I’m very conscientious about contraception. One example of this is that I have never been pregnant. Unfortunately, though, I don’t have a good job and I occasionally smoke hash.

 

 

3

As I said, I’ve never been pregnant. For years, in critical situations, I’ve used a relatively new option for sexually-active women who don’t want to fry their children. The advantage of this is that you will almost certainly not get pregnant. The disadvantage is that you may have breakthrough bleeding and cramps which can last up to four days.

The product is commonly known as the morning-after pill or, more officially, emergency contraception. It’s effective when another form of contraception – or discipline – has failed.

In Switzerland, you can get the morning-after pill at the chemist’s.

They will ask you, “When did you last have sexual relations?”

Their voice won’t go up at the end of the sentence because the written instructions for dealing with this situation do not imply a question mark. And by the way, having sexual relations doesn’t  –  shouldn’t – have anything to do with your actual relations.

The first time I used emergency contraception was about three years after it was introduced. I had never heard of this potentially life-saving possibility for young women before and had already spent a whole day in a state of panic. Then a friend told me that she lived with two exceptionally promiscuous nurses who frequently used this new product. (Both of whom, by the way, got pregnant young because of sexual intercourse with people they hardly knew, despite both being wanted children, having a good job and not smoking hash). My friend and I got all het up about how debauched her flat mates were, then I went to the chemist’s at the station in Bern and took my first step into the world of the morning-after pill.

Since then I recognise morning-after pill women straight away. The woman’s boyfriend has often come to the chemist too. He’ll be standing behind her, turned slightly away, scrutinizing the deodorants while she, eyes lowered, is whispering across the counter. When the girlfriend disappears with the chemist into a back room, the boyfriend expands his knowledge of glucose tablets.

I must say I was welcomed into the world of emergency contraception with open arms. The chemist was a pleasant woman of around fifty. After I’d taken the pill she gave me a small bouquet of roses and said, “Thank you and Happy Mother’s Day.” When I looked perplexed, she started to laugh and explained that it was Mother’s Day today so they gave all women a bouquet of flowers.

I’m afraid my subsequent encounters were less friendly.

Baden-Württemberg, 2008: In Germany, I am informed at the chemist’s that the morning-after pill is only available after a medical examination. Because it is the weekend I go to St. Mary’s Hospital, close to where I live. I wait for three hours in A & E before a doctor tells me he won’t write me the necessary prescription because this is a Catholic hospital and the principle of emergency contraception is a sin.

I hadn’t looked at it like this before.

It doesn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that, in my situation, an unwanted pregnancy would be the greater sin.

The Catholic hospital, however, believes I have insufficient grounds to avert the potential fertilisation of my non-believer egg.

I’m starting to get nervous because, depending on where you are in your cycle, the pill is only 100 percent effective for 24 hours after sex. After 24 hours the pill becomes less effective hour by hour. If you’re close to ovulation, you need to take the pill straight away. It’s a matter of a few hours.

So next I go to a hospital that doesn’t have a Mary in its name. By now, it’s after midnight. In this second hospital I’m told straight away that only certain gynaecologists can prescribe the pill, and there isn’t one on duty. I’m getting slowly desperate and I tell them it’s important I take the pill as soon as possible, to which the nurse replies that time doesn’t play a role. She says you always have 63 hours during which emergency contraception will work.*

At home I ask my flat mate, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse, if this is true. She says it is.**

The next day I get an appointment with a gynaecologist who refuses to write me a prescription unless I first let him carry out a sweeping and excessively crude physical examination. For a long time after the examination I can’t shake off the feeling that I’ve been assaulted. When I tell him that in Switzerland you can just pick up the morning-after pill at the chemist, he says that handing out emergency contraception is what results in dissolute young women like me.

Basel, 2014: Certain that in Switzerland one is not subject to the same kind of treatment as in Baden-Württemberg, I visit a chemist’s called Blösi’s. On the one hand it’s close, on the other it has a funny name.

When I tell the assistant I need emergency contraception she starts to giggle and says she’ll call the chemist. The chemist at Blösi’s is hardly any older than me, but is clearly married (ring on finger) and has Christian tendencies (a cross round his neck). He tells me, immediately, and without my asking, what he thinks of women who are always partying, going to bed with men they don’t know and then popping the morning-after pill willy-nilly so they can just go out and party again.

As he hands me the tablet saying, “But don’t party, party, party tonight!” and makes rhythmic movements with his clenched fist, I know that Switzerland can give Baden-Württemberg a run for its money. At Blösi’s, anyway.

 

 

4

Catholic St. Mary’s, the gynaecologist, and the chemist at Blösi’s in Basel all have one thing in common: they believe in the Immaculate Conception. So they would be all the more pleased by the next tale, which really did happen:

In the year 1999, just before the millennium and almost exactly two thousand years after Mary – who later became the mother of God – saw an angel, the miracle of the Immaculate Conception was repeated in the parish of Schaffhausen am Rheinfall.

The protagonists of this modern-day miracle are Steffi*** and Manuel****. They have been together for a fortnight.

On Wednesday afternoon, Manuel’s mother is at work and Steffi comes round. The two strip down to their undies and then rub their lower bodies together through Steffi’s Snoopy and Manuel’s Batman logos. Somehow something gets wet, so afterwards they’re not sure whether they were safe. Steffi goes to the supermarket with her best friend Manuela***** (13) and buys a pregnancy test. The test is positive. And that’s only one hour after sexual intercourse did not take place!******

Manuel is into men today (actually, he was back then too) and what became of Steffi isn’t known. The staff of St Mary’s, the gynaecologist in Baden-Württemberg and the chemist at Blösi’s in Basel now sing “What ay ay ay ay shame, hee hee hee hee hee, hee hee hee hee hee… heh…” in chorus as they sway gently back and forth in the nave of a church. Suddenly, the ground opens up beneath them and swallows them up. They will all be reborn as unwanted children in the next few years. Therefore I recommend the morning-after pill if in doubt. Or would you like the staff of St. Mary’s Hospital to be your children?

Exactly.

 

 

Notes:

* Which is complete bullshit. The woman had either received a pitiful education or she was malicious, or she was in cahoots with the papal mafia.

** Four months after this incident, this nurse was also pregnant.

*** Real name known to author.

**** Real name not known to author.

***** Real name not known to author.

******* Later they realised they hadn’t read the instructions properly.

 

 

5

I would like to thank Achillea, the 24-hour chemist’s at Bern station, for their humour and appreciation of the fact that a nineteen-year-old does not want to get pregnant; St. Mary’s Hospital in Stuttgart for the interesting introduction to applied Catholicism; the gynaecologist Dr Ulrich of Ludwigsburg for his ‘whatever’ assessment of emergency contraception in Switzerland and for the realisation on my part, gained through him, that I will never set foot in his practice again; and especially Dr C.A., chemist and manager of Blösi’s in Basel, for his valuable party tips.

 

 

 

From Anaïs Meier, Über Berge, Menschen und insbesondere Bergschnecken, (Concerning Mountains, People, and Mountain Snails in particular), mikrotext Verlag, 2020.

Dear Darling

Author: Lydia Mischkulnig
Translator: Caroline Summers

 

Translator’s Preface:  This story is taken from a 2009 collection entitled Macht euch keine Sorgen: Neun Heimsuchungen, which brings together nine stories:  humorous and thought-provoking narratives in which the absurd and the morbid disrupt the everyday.  In this story, the narrator is shocked to find her elderly room-mate on a hospital ward has died in the night, seemingly without giving any indication that she was about to do so. She is unsettled by the way in which the woman sharing her room seemed to somehow become younger as she approached death. The story invites us to reflect on our assumptions about others and their bodies, and on the ways in which we perform and interact with illness.

 

The folding screen obscures the bed. All I can see is the nurses. They’ve brought a fresh bedsheet: holding it at the corners, they flick it sharply upwards and it flies into the air. The white fabric billows out from their tight grip, stretching above the bed like a baldacchino. Then they let the sheet fall. Behind the screen is the old lady. The nurses glance kindly towards me. They push the screen to one side as they need space to manoeuvre the bed out of the room. Only the very ends of her dark hair peek out from under the sheet. Sunlight falls on the dead woman: the tips of her hair cast a short shadow, like eyelashes. The dead woman is wheeled away from the harsh light and over to the lockers. The nurses open the double doors. The doctor speaks to me, but I have no explanation for the old woman’s death. I didn’t notice her dying; the first I knew of it was when I was woken by the commotion.

I was satisfied with my roommate. As soon as she arrived, the old woman had insisted that I not be too polite to wake her if she snored. And I pricked up my ears like a bobcat, but I didn’t hear a peep from her.

[…]

I try to stay calm. Death is not something that frightens me. It’s part of my daily life, so for me it has substance. It’s intangible, but I spend my time handling it. I create fresh prisons for its vanitas. I free it from rust. I restore coffins. I fight off tin disease. My workshop is next to the Kaisergruft. I had to stop work for my operation. The chemicals I use to remove rust are harsh and contain poisons that attack the body’s lymphatic system. I’d like to see the dead woman, but I daren’t ask the nurse to pull back the bedsheet. I’m not a family member, and would probably come across as a voyeur. Death has crept into my neighbour’s body and taken her away, secretly and from within. I thought death was more familiar to me, like an old acquaintance wandering around at large in the world. But death has no fixed form, it can’t be warded off, it can find a home in any of us.

The old lady had been admitted to hospital for some infusions. She asked me if I lived alone. I said no, and out of pure politeness returned the question.

She wasn’t alone either. She had a dog at home. A sweet little animal, apart from one thing: the dog wouldn’t set foot in a lift.

You have to force him, she said. Since the dog was no bigger than her handbag over there on the nightstand, it was easy enough to simply grab him and stuff him inside it.

The same handbag is now on the bed with the dead woman, being wheeled out of the room.
The old woman flipped open her small suitcase and took out a few pieces of clothing. Before opening the locker, she asked which half was mine.

She’d tried it, the trick with the handbag. But there was no calming the dog once they were in the lift. She could hardly keep him in the bag. Another time, she had pulled a hat over his head. She showed me the hat, since she had brought it to hospital as a keepsake. It’s her son’s old bobble hat, and belonged to each of her two daughters before him. She’d pulled this forty-something-year-old bobble hat down over the dog’s head, covering up his face and muzzle, even his ears, so that he couldn’t see or hear anything, or smell anything unfamiliar. But nothing escapes a dog’s sense of smell, she said, and no sooner were they in the lift than his whole body began to tremble, the pitiful thing.

And so now, twice a day, she had to walk down the stairs and back up again. Four floors, or five including the mezzanine. And all that even though there was a new lift in the building, only installed two years ago. But never mind, she was used to climbing stairs. In the course of family life she’d hauled three children and countless bags of groceries up them, and bags of rubbish back down them. She’d always wanted a lift. Now the luxury was there but she couldn’t take advantage of it. But it was a sacrifice worth making for the dog.
[…] That’s just life, she said, and looked over at me from inside the washroom, asking whether I used the right-hand sink or the left.

The old lady was friendly, considerate and discreet. She didn’t overstep any boundaries. She didn’t undress in front of me. She performed her personal toilette out of my line of vision. And wherever I might look – at her checked suitcase, for example, or at the bobble hat – I had no idea that she would simply lie down and die, and probably neither did she.

She returned from the washroom with her dressing-gown over her arm. She was wearing a white hospital gown, even though she’d brought her own nightdresses and unpacked them into the locker. She folded her clothes into a pile, tidying them onto the shelf. She placed her shoes under her gabardine overcoat. Only minutes previously, wearing those shoes, she had crossed the room briskly and with a spring in her step; now, in slippers, she shuffled towards the bed. Her hair had been nicely arranged when she arrived: it was still dark, with streaks of grey like the fine, faint cracks that form in painted enamel when it cools too quickly. In the washroom she had combed her hair back, slicked it down and covered it with a net. She was preparing herself. She was transforming into an invalid.

She sat on the bed and kicked off her slippers.

Well, and as long as I’m able, I’ll just keep taking him down those stairs, she said, looking at her feet.

He’s a doddery old thing, after all, she said, and lay down with a sigh, lifting her legs to tuck them under the covers. For a while she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Then she told me I really must say if I found her chatter irritating.

I didn’t find her chatter irritating. It was just that I couldn’t really join in, having just had my tonsils removed. I asked where the little dog was now.

He’s being looked after, said the woman.

At an animal shelter?

At the kennels, just for a few days, I’d no other option. But they’ll look after him, she said. There’s a yard with enclosures and they give them a run-around a few times a day. And of course there’s no lift there. Otherwise she’d have left him the hat. It’s in a sort of yard, and each dog has its own kennel. Of course, her dog was used to being talked to. But that just meant he’d appreciate her own conversation even more when they were reunited.

The woman was receiving vitamins directly through a drip, and was taking pain relief for her rheumatism. I started to nod off while she was talking. Her descriptions were clear and detailed enough for me to imagine the dog and the kennels. Her voice was controlled and steady – after all, she wasn’t telling me anything upsetting. I found her presence relaxing. She was warming into her role as a patient, and she was enjoying bed-rest as much as I was.

She has a son-in-law who works here in the hospital, as a medical negligence solicitor. When he comes to visit me, I’ll introduce you, she said.

I felt well looked-after and safe. My operation had been successful, with no complications. I was no longer at risk.

I’m sure it doesn’t do any harm to have a medical negligence solicitor in the family, I said.

The old lady stared at the ceiling and didn’t reply.

Later on, she had several phone calls from various people. She told each one that she was set up in a lovely room and so far the doctors seemed to be prodding her in all the right places. That her dog was being looked after, at the kennels, with a space to run around and his own enclosure and so on, and that he would be looking forward to enjoying her conversation again. She told the story almost exactly the same way each time.

I noticed that she called her daughters ‘dear darling’. Once or twice she addressed a caller as ‘old girl’. Of course, she was far too old to have many friends more senior than herself, but there were her sisters, and the two of them phoned to ask after her.

[…]

One of the daughters phoned again. Old Babs, dear darling, and Old Christa, dear darling, they’re going to share a taxi. When she told the dog story, she added that her friend, Roswitha von something-or-other (the name sounded somehow familiar) was to check on the dog.

The old lady’s first visitors arrived before lunch. They were women of advanced years, with false nails: neighbours who were watering her flowers and collecting her post. They’d brought her bills along, so she could have them straight away. They didn’t live far away. They stood at the window, looking for their building. They tapped their fingernails against the glass, disagreed about which direction to look in. The neighbours noted that the old lady was well accommodated here and that she would never rest enough at home, so she had been right to come to hospital. And especially to a private clinic like this.

[…]

At lunchtime she was uncoupled from her drip tube to enable her to manhandle a knife and fork more effectively. I was served crackerbread. Dry, crumbly foods are best, to avoid clogging up the large wound at the back of my throat where my tonsils used to be. Before we had finished our lunch, the medical negligence solicitor appeared, and to my surprise he asked only whether the food was alright. The old lady had enjoyed the food and said she must have someone find out from Roswitha whether the dog was being fed what she had left for him at the kennels. She didn’t introduce us. She had forgotten, was thinking only of her dog.

He’ll be fine, said the medical negligence solicitor, promising to come back later.

She said, oh, but only if you have time, dear darling.

Not long after that, the first of the daughters appeared. I was a little shocked to see that she looked like an old woman herself. Her husband came too: a short, stout man with rather dirty hands. He hardly spoke, and when he did, it was only about his garage business. The daughter looked exhausted, and I thought I saw her crying when she turned to look out of the window. The old woman had been reconnected to her drip and was talking about Roswitha and the dog, and asked if the daughter might be able to get in touch with Roswitha.

The daughter said, don’t worry about that. Has Peter been yet?

Peter? He’s so busy.

Has he been?

Maybe Peter could phone Roswitha for me.

I’ll see to it.

My loves, I feel as if I’m in a luxury hotel.

That afternoon she had a phone call from her other dear darling. The other daughter is a solicitor, but not for hospital patients, for normal people, she said. Then she had calls from the old girls.

At five o’clock, in came her son: an alarmingly tall man who had to duck to avoid banging his head on the doorframe. No sooner had he entered the room than the dimensions of his surroundings seemed to shift. The furniture looked as though it belonged in a dolls’ house. He, too, was really quite old when you considered how vivid the old lady’s memory was of him as a frail child. She had always wrapped her son up warm to prevent his throat and delicate ears from catching infections: he was a dear darling, who hadn’t really grown until the age of fourteen but by then was already studying singing. Now he was hoping for a position in the chorus at the Staatsoper. I had imagined a chubby, pompous tenor, nothing like the leptosome giant who now stood between our beds, making efforts to soften his bass baritone and yet still thundering ‘Grüß Gott’ as though his ribs housed the acoustic space of a church dome instead of a normal chest cavity. I looked at the floor, in order to avoid staring at him. He strode on long, spidery legs across the criss-crossing lines of the parquet floor and pulled up a chair next to the old woman’s bed. Bending, his knees strained against the creases of his trousers. He had almost reached a crouching position before his flat backside touched the chair. Then he stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. He was wearing custom-made shoes. I recognised the signs of splayed feet: heels worn down on the outside, just like my own favourite shoes.

He’s too tall for the chorus, I thought, he needn’t get his hopes up. He’d destroy the uniformity of the group, standing head and shoulders above the rest. He’ll never get a job at the Staatsoper.

The old lady behaved like a young child, as if her son were the parent. She began talking about the dog, and he cut her off: think about your own needs. She talked about Roswitha, her best friend in the world, and he interrupted her: I know, mother, I know, you’ve already told me a thousand times.

I thought his tone too sharp, considering his mother’s age and dignified manner. A touch ungrateful. After all, she had nurtured and encouraged him, not just raised him. The daughter had perhaps let herself go a little, I’d say, didn’t look after herself, but was considerably more affectionate towards her mother. […]

Do you need anything to eat?

No, thanks, he said.

She still had her afternoon cake on the tray in front of her, if he wanted it? No. I never eat anything, you know that, he said. But surely his height meant he had to eat like a horse just to keep himself upright.

Has Peter been? he asked.

He has so much to do.

Has he been?

Why are you so cross?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him run a hand irritably through his hair. I imagined him rolling his eyes. He gesticulated with one large hand, but by the time he let it drop his bad temper had passed. He had an attractive face, when it was untroubled. Naturally wide eyes, almost dreamy. The old woman fell silent and watched him. They sat across from one another like this for a few seconds, and then he suddenly glanced over at me.

I lay unobtrusively in my bed and looked at my book about the Habsburgs, casually turning the page.

Roswitha, said the old woman.

And the dog, he said.

Why are you… ? she hissed, quietly.

As he left, he stooped. It made him look a little shorter, but his shoulder blades hunched together to form hump that his jacket did nothing to hide. Nonetheless, he managed to exit the room without bending any further, passing neatly through the doorframe with only a slight incline of the head.

The old woman telephoned her sisters. They were not due to visit until the following day, in other words today, and would bring her a little hamper and some sparkling Sekt.

I’m watching my figure, you know, said the old woman. She laughed and held the receiver away from her face, pointing towards me. I could hear the outraged shrieks of the sisters.

Once she had hung up, the old lady sat back in bed and smiled to herself. Suddenly, with her eyes fixed on the white ceiling, she said, those old girls are such witches.

I nodded along, feigning confusion and looking abruptly up at her from my book as though my concentration had been broken. Her gaze was fixed on the triangular hanger for her drip. She gave it a prod and hummed a march in time to the swinging.

In the evening, there was another visit from Peter, the medical negligence solicitor. I greeted him like an old friend, and he wished me a good night’s sleep.

[…] The old lady got out of bed and headed for the washroom, but chose the wrong door. A nurse brought her straight back and said, here’s your washroom, right here in the room.

The nurse stayed to help her, then brought her back to bed, leaving the room with the old lady’s thermometer as well as my own.

I swallowed my painkillers.

The old woman got out of bed again and stood in the middle of the room, looking aimless and confused.

I asked what she needed, whether I could help her. I was beginning to form a picture of her illness: a nebulous cloud of memory loss and disorientation, maybe due to a stroke, a metabolic disorder, maybe the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. […] It didn’t frighten me. I was moved by the old woman, but I wanted to be neither moved nor affected, I wanted to recover in peace and leave the hospital today.

She answered me, firm and determined, no, no, please don’t trouble yourself, I can manage.

She marched into the washroom, and I pricked up my ears to see if she would stay there. I turned my thoughts to practical things, away from her and her life story. At that moment, my only concern was that she might attempt to brush her teeth again and might mistakenly use my toothbrush. I didn’t hear any running water. I heard brushing, the crackling of hair, the scraping of a comb, electrostatic discharge. Silence. Rummaging. Who knows where.

Do you have a hand mirror? she asked me.

I reminded her that there was a mirror on the wall.

Undeterred, she rummaged on.

Ok then, I said, there’s a hand mirror in my washbag.

She seemed to have found it already. I heard a satisfied AHA! and AHA! and AHA!. Then a long hissing sound. The tacky smell of hairspray began to pollute the room. Feeling increasingly irritated by her nonsense, I consoled myself with the thought that I could open the window once she was asleep.

As she exited the washroom, her fragile frame shimmered through the light blue nightdress she was now wearing. The old lady had changed and prepared herself for bed. Her hair was backcombed and piled up high, sparkling with the last dusting of spray. She seemed confused: she stood and winked at me expectantly, as though I were her knight in shining armour. The artificial light flattered her white face, smoothing the complexion of her aged skin. I began to observe details of this woman’s appearance, becoming conscious of changes that I would rather have left unnoticed. A few hours before her death, she seemed to lose years off her age. As though she had simply rubbed away her wrinkles. Had her daughter been standing next to her, they could have been mistaken for sisters. Or me. My hair is dark, but it’s dyed – my natural colour would probably be even greyer than the old woman’s hair. She smiled at me with warm, pale eyes. Wished me a lovely night in this lovely room. Her voice was as solemn as if she were opening a ball. Her nightdress was magical and childlike. Unbelievable to think that this frail person had given birth to a giant. The old woman was younger and slimmer than Bette Davis in Baby Jane. She pirouetted and swayed in her billowing dress. That made her dizzy, of course, and she lay down, her hair still resplendently styled. I wanted to tell her that her hair would be damaged if she went to sleep with it sprayed so stiff and then rubbed it to and fro on the pillow. I resisted the urge. It was none of my business what she did with her hair. It was her hair, not mine.

The old woman fell asleep immediately and lay there like a doll. Her stillness made me look over to her again and again, watching her chest rise and fall. Her silence did not unnerve me. I welcomed it. I simply wanted to take a good look at the sleeping figure in the ballgown. She had not pulled up the covers. The room was warm enough. I did not open the window. Maybe she had not wanted to crease her nightdress and that was why she was lying so stiffly, like one of the life-size figures on the majestic sarcophagi in the Kaisergruft.

I turned on the television, used my headphones to watch the news and Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. Around halfway through the film, I became aware of a gentle rasping coming through my headphones. I looked across. The old woman was asleep. I concentrated on The Silence. The rasping in my ears continued. It must have gone on for around a quarter of an hour. I tried to ignore the sound. Then I changed channels, but the rasping did not stop. I cleared my throat and coughed and moved noisily around in my bed. I turned up the volume, the rasping increased. I took off my headphones, the sound was now really stuck in my head. It seemed to fill the room. The old woman slept on, undisturbed. I wanted to wake her. The rasping did not go away. I wanted to ask her if she could hear it too. I waited. Considered whether or not to wake her up. Since I like to avoid physical contact with anything unfamiliar, I tried to shout her awake, cawing like a raven. I strained my poor scratched-out throat. I propped myself up and turned towards her, calling as loud as I could. I did not even know her name. Still don’t. Several times, I shouted MRS. Had she woken up, I would have said she was snoring and then asked her about the rasping in the room. She didn’t make a sound, didn’t move a muscle, maybe she was already dead. Maybe the doctor was right. The rasping still did not stop. I tried DEAR DARLING. Saying dear darling to a stranger is odd. I was making a fool of myself. She didn’t react. I practised the word in my head, bellowed it against the rasping in my ears. I probably managed no more than a hiss at death, a drop of defiance, and if death is an ocean then I know why I began to flounder.

Neither a sigh nor a moan, I tell the doctor, I didn’t hear anything. I keep the rasping to myself. There are people who lie down and die without needing to gasp for air or undergo any kind of struggle.

Enviable, says the doctor, when you think about how violent death can be.

The dead don’t frighten me. I have looked dead Kaisers in the face, although it’s not often I open a tin coffin. A coffin has to be quite badly corroded, threatening to fall apart, before it’s worth going through the rigmarole of reburial. Even the sight of a decomposed face doesn’t frighten me, as long as I’m prepared for it. But a quiet, pleasant death upsets my composure. The panic that begins to rise up in me feeds on the heat of my own body. I slept badly, but I am determined. I ask for help with my packing. I want to get back to my life quickly, don’t want to stay and watch them clearing away the old lady’s things. The nurse understands, she helps me and asks carefully which half of the locker is mine.

 

 

Excerpted from Lydia Mischkulnig,  Macht euch keine Sorgen. Neun Heimsuchungen, Haymon Verlag, Wien, 2009.

Traces

Author: Hannes Köhler
Translator: Don Henderson

 

Translator’s Preface:    How well do we know the people closest to us?

One night in Berlin some “bar philosophers” are drinking and smoking in a neighborhood bar. Jakob’s best friend, Felix, goes out for cigarettes and never comes back. It’s a classic set-up for a joke, but in Hannes Köhler’s psychologically complex novel, Traces, it takes a darker turn. Jakob begins an increasingly desperate search for any trace of his childhood friend. He enlists the help of Felix’s tough ex-girlfriend, Manja, goes to Felix’s apartment, and soon finds himself immersed in his friend’s diary and emails. He spends more and more time with his friend’s ex and less time with his girlfriend. Gradually Jakob discovers disturbing truths about identity, friendship, and obsession. The boundaries between his own existence and his friend’s begin to dissolve as he slowly takes on Felix’s identity and sheds his own like a kind of Talented Mr. Ripley. Felix has disappeared. What would happen if he returned?

This extract is from the opening pages of the novel.

 

 

“And other people just grab a rope and hang themselves,” Felix says and raises his left arm up over his head, his fist closing over the end of an invisible noose. “Think about that for a minute.” The room is full of smoke. “The fog of war,” Felix says; he always has to be the center of attention, holding his cigarette wedged between his knuckles. That grating laugh of his.

“Hey, take it easy!”

He stands up, a little unsteady on his feet. And slurring a little: “I’m going out for cigarettes.”

Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Basti says, “Hey, I think he fell into the john.”

We laugh. I say, “I’ll go look for him.”

In the bathroom, a pungent ammonia smell. A corner of the mirror is broken off; there’s a
long crack in the sink from the rim to the drain. In front of it, a puddle is pooling in the grooves
between the tiles. The walls are covered with magic marker and stickers. Für immer und ewig:
Eisern Union. Next Sunday: Soul Explosion. The dark wood of the stalls is gaping with holes,
either punched in or kicked in. I open the doors, see fragments of words scratched in the wood
and stickers everywhere. There is no trace of Felix, no one else either. On the way out, I bump
into the overflowing trash can. Right on top is his t-shirt. Gray cotton with white lettering:
Elbkind. Dark sweat stains under the arms. I pick it up, hold it out by the shoulders, pinching it
between my fingers. It feels damp.

I try to imagine him leaving the bar shirtless, stumbling into the street, his hairy chest, his
little beer belly sticking out. I have to shake my head. Not possible, not even for Felix. He must
have had a spare shirt, maybe a bag that I overlooked. The owner didn’t notice anything. One of the regulars at the bar says, “Yeah, he left.”

When I ask if he was barechested, the guy just shakes his head and stares into his beer.

The others are at the table waiting, producing a cloud of silence under the lamp.

“Well?”

Basti is drumming his fingers.

“Gone,” I say and toss the t-shirt on the table.

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Poof! Disappeared.”

“What now?”

“Wait, I guess. He’ll come back.”

“Call him!”

I call his number. An electronic voice answers. The person you are trying to reach is
unavailable.

“He’s going to freak out,” Manja says. “You don’t know what he’s like when he freaks out.”

She gropes for the light switch. A quick click. Light floods the entryway, illuminating the
yellow walls that are darkened as if covered with ash. To the right, some graffiti in black: Resist. The floor tiles form a chessboard, sagging in the middle. Rotten ceiling beams in the basement,
I know this from Felix. Supposed to have been repaired months ago. All it took was the neighbor’s new washing machine.

Felix said that he was standing on the stairs when the hand truck with the washer was rolled
into the hallway. When the men got to the middle of the floor you could hear a loud crunch like
gigantic grinding teeth. The floor gave way in slow motion. Felix described all the shouting, the
shock, and the thundering sound when they let go of the machine and it fell over backwards.
The floor was still holding, Felix had told me, but the question was, for how much longer. It was a strange feeling to be standing on those tiles now.

Manja walks ahead without paying any attention to the floor. Her broad behind stretching her
tight jeans. My comfy cushion, Felix had called it. She stops in front of the apartment door, pulls out the key.

“He wanted this back a long time ago,” she said. “You’re never coming in here again.”

She stares into the distance. To hear his words coming out of her mouth makes me wonder
how long he’d been saying things like that. We ring the bell. No answer.

“Well, go ahead.”

She looks at me.

“It’s my responsibility,” I say.

She takes a breath.

It’s quiet in his apartment. There’s a weak light coming from a naked lightbulb. Manja steps
into the hallway, hesitates. The floor creaks with every step she takes. The wardrobe on the wall
to the left catches her eye. Empty hooks, waiting to snare jackets, stick up in the air. At the
bottom, a heap of old shoes, a pile of rags, torn shoelaces. Next to the wardrobe, the door to the bathroom. She turns around, pushes down the door handle and looks into the darkness.

My own body is frozen on the threshold. Only when Manja gestures to me, do my legs know
what to do. I’m a thief, breaking in, feeling my way forward. Manja whispers

“Felix?”

I wait and imagine that I hear his voice, that I’ll see him walking through the door at the end
of the hall, his surprise, his anger maybe. I listen. But there isn’t a sound. I lean against the
apartment door, and I’m startled when it bangs shut behind me.

Wallpaper is peeling off in places on the high walls of the living room. Pieces of plaster lie in
the corners. The floorboards are wide wooden planks in dark red, tinged with brown.

“Synthetic ox-blood, looks like what’s left behind after a slaughter,” he said. “Why did they do that back then?”

He shook his head, no interest in sanding away the paint.

“I mean, come on! How long will I be staying here anyway?”

He put three fingers to his temple as if the thought gave him a headache. He hung on for four
years. Those floorboards never changed. During those four years, I moved twice. Felix stayed put.

Manja and I walk into the room, his den in the Wrangelkiez neighborhood. The heavy sofa
bed dominates the middle of the room. In front of it, on the wall to our left, there’s a table with
some plants and a small TV; next to that a turntable along with an amplifier. To the right is his
desk in front of the window which looks out on the courtyard. On the back wall is his wardrobe
and next to that, the entrance to the kitchen. Across from us are all his books. The long wall is
one big bookcase with shelves that he made himself, with the books sorted by size and color. Underneath, on the floor, runs a row of storage cubes. That’s where he keeps all the random records that he bought so many of. Radio plays for kids: Hui Buh, the Castle Ghost, Asterix in Britain.

“I say, could I just request a spot of milk in my hot water?”

He would imitate that accent and laugh at it over and over again. He had mixed every style of
music, classical concert records next to rock, electro next to hip-hop. In between, oldies like Peter Alexander and Hannes Wader appear out of nowhere.

“Post-Parental Stress Syndrome,” he once said. “You can never get away from it.”

A cacophony of music. In contrast, his reading is well organized. I discover Thomas Mann,
the complete works. The gray spines of the paperbacks line his bookshelf. He read chronologically, an hour or more every day. He researched when each of them was published.
More than once in the last few years, I have run into him on the U-Bahn, reading. He seemed
completely immersed, the book in his lap, his head bowed. For me his books would always be
foreign, would always be long lists of words, like his sentences. When he talked about them, I had the feeling that I had to resist with my entire body, that I had to push away each and every letter.

On a small table next to the sofa, I find a copy of War and Peace, an old edition with a gray
binding. On the cover there are two curved letters printed in gold: LT. The pages are bristling
with sticky notes, short keywords are scribbled in the margins, often with exclamation marks.

Yes! Look this up! Terrible!

I leaf through the book, find a sentence that he has circled, but I can’t figure out why.

A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: ‘What moves it?’ A peasant says the devil moves it.
Another man says the locomotive moves because its wheels go round. A third asserts that the
cause of its movement is the smoke which the wind carries away.

Manja is leaning against his desk supporting herself with her hands on the workspace. The
muscles in her arms flex. Her glance takes in the sofa, the bookcase, and the spines of the
books. She’s inspecting, comparing, looking for anything that has changed, for things that are out of place.

To me the room seems lifeless. Or abandoned. The leaves of a few of the plants on the
windowsill are already turning brown. There’s no trace of any clothes. Manja pushes away from the table and goes into the kitchen. I hear cabinet doors squeak, water running from the faucet. A loud crack when she flips the switch on the hot water kettle.

There are things hanging in his closet that I’ve never seen before. Suits, dress shirts, sports
coats. The Felix I know wears old tennis shoes and jeans that are so loose they hang down past
his butt. And those t-shirts with weird things printed on them.

I push the hangers in the closet from left to right. Some of the things are still wrapped in the dry cleaner’s plastic bags and crackle when I touch them. There’s a rattle of porcelain behind me. It’s Manja. She comes up next to me, a steaming cup in her hands. I stare into the closet.

“Did you know. . .about all this stuff?”

She leaned against the doorframe, nodded slowly as if she had to concentrate to pluck
things out of her memory.

“For a couple of weeks now. What are you really looking for anyway?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Some trace of him.”

“Why would he run away? All he did was take off from the bar.”

I turn around. At first glance the apartment is empty of any clues, even his desk is cleared
off. I remember it as a chaos of notes, pens, teapots, and books. But I just shrug.

“He hasn’t been here since. I would say that—” I hesitate. “No one has been here.”

She breathes in. Her nostrils flare. My first thought is that she is going to start laughing, but
then she nods with a worried look.

“When did he disappear?”

“Five days ago.”

“Maybe there’s something in his emails?”

The next surprise: a new black laptop that she pulls out of the desk drawer. She powers it on. The whir of the fan is the second sign of life in the apartment after the bubbling of the hot water kettle. Manja enters his password.

I’ve lost touch. I’ve lost the connection. I think of the photo that I saw on my last visit to
Hamburg on his mother’s kitchen cupboard. Two blond boys laughing into the camera. The one
with a head of wild curls and big, blue eyes, a delicate nose; the other with a bowl cut and little
green eyes shining out from it. The kid with the polo shirt next to the kid with the checkered shirt tucked in under the suspenders of his overalls. We’ve thrown our arms around each other’s shoulders.

The computer background shows a photo of a gray lake in the mountains. The shore is
divided into two parts: the green carpet of a pine forest abutting burned out stumps. Manja
catches my eye and nods. “Canada.”

It was two summers ago when he completely surprised me by boldly traveling alone to North
America.

“I have to get out of here. Just get out,” he’d said.

When he came back, his face had some color, and he would laugh a lot. He started studying,
writing articles for newspapers. Soon we were together again in clubs and bars. And he was
sitting there smoking and gesturing as often as ever.

I open his email program. There’s a new message:

hi felix,
thanks for your email. i’m in france until the end of june.
if i’m around, you can stay with me any time. just let me know.
yours,
hanna

I ask Manja who Hanna is. She comes over, stands behind me. Her breath caresses the
back of my neck. I can smell her, a cheap floral scent almost masking the sharp smell of sweat
and onions. She’s silent for a moment, breathes softly through her nose.

“I’ve lost track.” She laughs. “None of my business anymore, is what he told me.”

I go through his contacts. Hanna Bechtel, with her email address. I try to recall the name, but
can’t. When I click on reply, Manja puts her hand on my shoulder.

“So now you’re going to write to all the women in his life?”

I type a few letters, then delete them immediately. Manja’s presence is a heavy weight on
me.  I want to find him. Manja acts like she could care less. This angry girlfriend bothers me,
confuses me. Her presence is a continuous commentary running in my head: What you’re doing
is nonsense. He’s coming back.

I close out his emails and shut his laptop.

“Had enough already?”

She grins, puts her cup on the desk and heads toward the bathroom. Quickly I open the
computer again, go to his emails and put Hanna’s address in my cell phone.

I hear the toilet flush. My eyes wander for a second, then rest on something behind the desk
at the windowsill. In the corner under the handle, I spy a thick black leather-bound book.
Nothing printed on it. A notebook maybe. I reach for it, put it on the desk in front of me. It’s
bulging with scraps of paper, some of them sticking out from the sides.

“Diary snooper!”

I pull back my hands. Manja comes close to me, picks up the books and flips through a few
pages.

“Must be exciting for you. But not today. I have to go.”

She holds the book in her hand, thumps it shut. Her look tells me to leave, pushes me out of
the apartment. We’re like two magnets, I think, repelling each other. Or something else. I stand
up. She puts the book down on the desk and follows me into the hall.

Back home again, I see my own apartment with new eyes. But before that: the trip home
over the Spree on my bike, the long incline of Warschauer Strasse, to the right the brick
archways of the U-Bahn viaduct, with iron bars in front of smudged windows and wooden
shutters, advertisements for concerts, meditation classes. Above me, the trains roar. It was a
struggle, I pedaled until I was out of breath. Carrying my bike, I ran up the steps to the fourth
floor, my back soaked with sweat. I knew I would be alone when the key turned twice in the lock.

In the long hallway my body can expand, the pressure that covered me like a second skin, is
released. In the kitchen there is still the smell of food from the night before; it’s coming from a
pan with bits of dried pasta stuck to it. I stick my finger into wizened mushrooms covered with a
beige glue that used to be cream. For the first time in a few hours, I think of Sarah, who is on
the road, as always. I think of her endlessly chasing leads that will turn into stories. I try to
remember what her appointment was today, could have been a press conference, maybe an
interview.

In the living room toward the front of the huge sofa, there is a stack of newspapers. She calls
it research. I call it the inability to part with old papers. I go to the shelves at the front of the
room, turn on the radio. I hear voices talking fast, summoning the listener to call in. It’s time for
Questions for Parliament, that talk-show nonsense. On the dining room table in the middle of
the room, my laptop is hiding under a pile of her books.

Hi, Hanna,
My name is Jakob, and I’m a friend of Felix’s. Unfortunately, he has been on the road for a few
days without telling anyone where he went. I saw in one of his emails, that he asked you for a
place to stay. Have you heard from him? It would be great if you could let me know if he
contacts you or shows up at your place.

Sincerely,
Jakob

I start it three times. A friend of Felix’s. Felix’s best friend. A friend of Felix’s. A best friend
would know where he’s disappeared to. For a best friend, the “why” wouldn’t be a blank to be
filled in. Maybe there’s a friend somewhere that he has told all this to. Maybe I can find that
friend.

 

Excerpted from Hannes Köhler, In Spuren, mairisch Verlag, Hamburg, 2011

The Missing

Author: Eva Schmidt
Translator: Eleanor Updegraff

 

They’d been walking for two hours now. Before that, they’d taken the train a short way, then caught a local bus to the last village in the valley.

Where are we going? asked the boy. It was the first time he’d posed the question. His face was pale; he hadn’t seen enough sunlight this year.

You’ll see, said the man.

The boy nodded. He didn’t speak much. No one had taught him the things it’s possible to talk about.

Shall I take your rucksack? asked the man.

The boy shrugged.

I can carry it myself, if it’s not much further.

All right, said the man.

The path led to an alpine pasture that wasn’t yet in use for the season. The cattle wouldn’t be brought here until May, to the higher meadows even later. The man was counting on this. He panted as he walked, spitting occasionally.

Shall we stop for a bit? asked the boy.

No need, replied the man. We’re nearly there.

The winter had left its mark. At one point the path crossed the bed of a small stream, but an avalanche or sudden torrent had swept away the wooden bridge that had stood there. The splintered remnants were caught in the trees lining the gravel streambed. Now, the flow was a mere trickle.

Not long till the meltwater, said the man. He was gazing up at the mountain peak visible above the broad swathe the stream had cut through the forest. The boy had stopped too.

What’s meltwater? he wanted to know, and the man explained it to him.

They crossed the streambed, the man holding the boy’s hand. Whenever they came to running water, they jumped. The distances weren’t great; it was the stones that were more dangerous, rolling easily out from under their feet. The sun beat down on their heads, but as it wasn’t much further it made little sense to stop and fish their caps out of the rucksack. The man had remembered to bring them; he’d even bought one for the boy.

We’re nearly there, he said. The boy looked up sceptically. Perhaps he was wondering what awaited them there.

It was a steep climb out of the streambed. The boy slipped a couple of times, but the man’s grip on him was firm. The small hand in his felt cool and dry, while he kept having to wipe the sweat away from his own forehead and neck.

Is it much further? asked the boy, once they’d clambered back up and re-joined the path that soon led back into the trees.

I can carry you for a bit if you’re tired, the man suggested. He studied the boy with an expression of mild concern, perhaps, though not with anxiety. But the boy shook his head; he didn’t want to be carried. And as soon as they were in the woods, he found the going easier again.

Look, whispered the boy. He’d stopped and was pointing at a lizard sunning itself on top of a rock. The man had stopped as well, and stood silently beside the boy. The lizard didn’t move. It looked as though it was staring at them, too. But it was impossible to tell.

Quietly, the man told the boy what kind of creature it was.

Does it bite? asked the boy, but as he was speaking the lizard darted away and vanished behind the rock.

Every time they heard a noise (usually birdsong, or a rustling in the undergrowth) the boy wanted to know what it was, and the man would explain to him what type of bird had just called or what kinds of animals lived in the forest.

Have you never been to a zoo? he asked. Or seen stuffed animals in a museum? The boy shook his head. Then they walked on in silence.

 

As they emerged from the forest, they saw the huts. They stopped and stood there for a while. All the shutters were closed and there was no sign of either animals or people. That’s good, thought the man.

The grass at the base of the pasture was shot through with stones and the flowers known as cow’s footsteps, and a fence separated it from the woods. They came to a five-bar gate that was chained shut. Next to it was a narrow opening with a turnstile, which squeaked as they passed through it. The boy laughed and spun around in it a couple of times. It was the first time he’d laughed since they’d set off.

Then they were at the huts: three smaller ones with lean-to cowsheds, the upper floors of which were haylofts, and a larger wooden house with a stone terrace that served as a restaurant in summer. A gravel track leading up from the other side of the valley ended in front of it. There was electricity, too – the power lines went all the way up to the house. And a cable car for goods, which was used to transport milk, cheese and butter down to the valley in summer, leftover hay in the winter.

Is that a hotel? asked the boy.

Something like that, replied the man, easing his heavy rucksack down beside the terrace. The boy followed suit. Then he ran to the front door and rattled it.

No one’s here.

I know, said the man.

Does that mean we have to go back? asked the boy.

No, I have a key.

Is it your house, then?

It belongs to a friend who said I can stay here.

Does he know I’m with you? asked the boy.

Yes, the man replied, but this was a lie. He had worked here for a couple of summers, but then had a falling-out with the owner. At the time, he’d had the key copied, and every now and again he spent the night when he was out on one of his longer hikes.

Have you been before?

The man nodded. But it was a long time ago, now.

 

They ate ham and fried eggs for supper, sitting at one of the few tables in the restaurant. The man had brought the food with him. The larder was stocked with various tins, jars of preserved fruit, crates of drinks. The fridge was turned off, but the man had plugged it in again and filled it with the groceries he’d brought. He’d opened a bottle of beer to go with the meal; the boy drank lemonade.

Taste good? asked the man.

Mmm, said the boy, chewing. He ate hungrily and quickly, then wiped his mouth and asked if he was allowed to watch TV.

There’s no television here, said the man.

The boy: Then what are we going to do?

We could talk, or play cards.

The boy frowned. I can’t play cards. And what should we talk about?

It wasn’t particularly late, but darkness had already fallen when they went back outside. After supper they had washed up together, and then the man had got a pack of cards out of a drawer and explained the rules. The boy had caught on quickly and ended up winning more hands than he did. Now they were looking at the mountains and the sky. The man had lit himself a pipe and told the boy what the peaks were called. The boy listened and repeated the names, pointing to each one.

He’d sat down on the bench beside the man. He’d been cold, so the man had fetched a blanket from inside the house and draped it over his shoulders. It was completely silent. Not a sound drifted up from the valley. Only occasionally did they hear the screech of an owl.

Does she know where we are? The boy spoke into the silence.

Who?

Valerie.

Yes, lied the man. I rang her.

The boy referred to his mother by her first name, but when the man had asked him why, he hadn’t been able to explain. They sat there for a while longer. The boy swung his legs, his feet not yet touching the ground.

You can call me Charly, said the man.

I thought you were called Karl.

My friends call me Charly.

Am I your friend?

Yes.

And you?

I’m looking after you.

It got even colder, so they went inside. The man locked the door, gave the boy a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap, and told him to have a wash.

The water’s far too cold, complained the boy.

You’ll sleep well afterwards, replied Karl.

Hello, he’d said, I’m Karl. I live in the building opposite. We can walk home together, if you like. It had only been a couple of weeks ago, but that was how they’d got to know one another. The boy hadn’t said much, had followed him without hesitation.

Erik, he’d said, when Karl asked him his name. After that, they’d walked together occasionally at first, but eventually every day. Karl had initially made their encounters look like a coincidence. In the mornings he’d be standing near the entrance to the building, just leaving the courtyard or waiting at the traffic lights further down the road. Cars, cyclists, mopeds and buses hurtled past. It was a through road, and there were two crossings to negotiate on the way to the after-school care centre. In the afternoons, Karl had waited for Erik in the vicinity of the care centre and told him he’d just been to the library near by.

Do you go to the library every day? Erik had asked when Karl had been waiting for him on the following days as well.

Yes, most days, he’d answered, and the boy hadn’t asked any further questions. At first Karl had been anxious about accompanying him. Someone could ask who I am and what I’m doing with him, maybe imply I have certain intentions, he’d thought. But no one in the neighbourhood, not even the people living in the same block of flats, seemed to know Erik. Perhaps they think I’m his grandfather, thought Karl. Or they don’t think anything of it at all.

Erik hadn’t said much. When Karl asked him a question, he mostly answered with yes or no.

His mother worked in a shop, he’d said. But Karl knew that wasn’t true. Erik’s mother spent all day at home; she slept until midday, sometimes even until the boy came back.

Karl didn’t think much of Erik’s mother. She drank and took drugs, just like the men who came to visit her and took turns staying overnight. Karl had made a habit of watching the flat where she and the boy lived. Every morning he saw Erik come into the kitchen and make himself breakfast, which consisted of a bowl of milk and something he shook out of a packet. He was already dressed by that time and had probably had a wash, too. Nothing about him looked unkempt. His hair was neatly combed, and his clothes appropriate for the weather. He even made himself a sandwich, which he put in a plastic box and tucked away in the little satchel he always carried. He appeared in the kitchen at the same time every morning; Karl could have set his alarm by him. Which in fact he had done – since retiring, he’d been sleeping in now and again.

Erik’s mother still wasn’t up when the boy left the flat. She slept on the sofa in the living room, next to whichever of her night-time visitors was there. Once, Karl had watched as Erik opened the door to the living room after breakfast and surveyed the scene dispassionately, then closed it again almost immediately.

Outside, another tawny owl hooted. Hoohoo-hoohoo. Karl closed his eyes. Erik was breathing noisily through his mouth, a gurgling sound. What if he was ill? He could have caught a chill in the cold evening air.

What will we do tomorrow? thought Karl, but before an answer could come to him, he’d drifted off to sleep.

 

Excerpted from Eva Schmidt, Die Welt Gegenüber (Opposite the World), Jung und Jung 2021.

 

 

 

 

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