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Late Guests

Author: Gertrud Leutenegger
Translator: Kate Roy


Translator’s preface

Having myself lived for many years in Ticino, like the author of Späte Gäste/Late Guests, Gertrud Leutenegger, this extract, in which the innkeeper tells the story of his mother’s youthful infatuation to Serafina and the unnamed narrator, particularly resonates with me, evoking as it does the Sicilian origins of many of those working in the hospitality industry, who hail from just such small towns as Modica on that island, and who return, just like the innkeeper, to visit those places, spaces, and pasts in the summer. There is something particularly Marquezian about the ceremony of the toilet paper squares, about the young woman relentlessly unravelling clouds of toilet paper outside a small toilet outhouse at a saffron yellow coloured station in the middle of nowhere to express her feelings for the man with the bushy eyebrows and chequered jacket, who has captured the poetry of that space, and being captured in words surrounded by those billowing, snowy strips. The image is startlingly cinematic, as is that of those poetry papers waving, against the green wallpaper, above the cot of the child who would later become the innkeeper. I wanted to attempt to capture these word images of Leutenegger’s that had struck me so much on my first reading, and grow them on into another linguistic, and possibly comparative context.

 

Perhaps everything just goes back to the writing on the toilet paper, said the innkeeper, while Serafina and I were getting settled in our rattan armchairs in the loggia, breathing a sigh of relief over the occasional wave of cooler night wind. In the dark of the garden, between the gorse bushes, a floating glow-worm flashed here and there. My mother, the innkeeper continued, must have been in love with the young man who told her one day that he was born in Modica, the son of the former station master, who was transferred after the earthquake of Messina to that city of ruins. Apparently he never got over the fact that he had been ripped out of Modica as a child and replanted in rowdy Messina! Now he was studying at the technical school, he wanted to be an engineer, but from time to time he had to come to Modica station. Absorbed in thought, he used to stand for long hours in the blazing heat of the sun, he never set himself up under the protective veranda of the saffron-yellow station building; it was as if he wanted to become one with the shimmering heat over the tracks and the numbing scent of the wild thyme. The innkeeper’s mother, very young still, sat in the shade in front of the toilet outhouse on her folding chair, beside her the metal dish with its scanty coins on a small, rusty garden table, and observed his rare appearances. The man mostly wore a chequered jacket, which seemed very English to her, and a tie, always. When he came closer to the toilet outhouse, she noticed the reserve in his big dark eyes under those strikingly bushy eyebrows. Somehow under their spell, she didn’t move a finger to count off the squares of toilet paper. Perhaps there was something questioning in her expression, for the young man, as if he had to explain his standing there in silence in front of the train station building, began to recount why he always yearned to return to Modica. If he could just hold out long enough in the boiling heat by the tracks, he would see his father before him, the way he walked in front of the station building at the arrival or departure of a train, in full-dress uniform, he never even missed a train that was just driving straight through. Upright, dignified, unmoving, he would stand there in the air stream and raise his hand in greeting to his red peaked cap, its wings of Hermes shining. And his father seemed to him as if he were the God of Travel himself, of this bittersweet gift of earth that he would yet so often curse. Now the young girl carefully counted off the usual number of squares of toilet paper, and gave him three squares more. She thought she spied a smile in the corner of the young man’s eyes. He pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket, bent down to the wobbly garden table, scribbled a few lines on one of the squares, and gave it back to her. In the evening she took the square home and read it over and over. It spoke of a white dress, naked arms, wind, certain nights in March; it seemed to be a poem, though it didn’t rhyme. But, ah yes, she had worn a white summer dress that day!

Now, when she waited in front of her toilet outhouse, it was only in the hopes of the return of the man with the bushy black eyebrows. No sooner had the signal system set a station bell in motion, than the harsh clanging filled her with an excitement she had never felt before. The clear tone heralded the arrival of a train from Syracuse; with the darker tone, a train from Caltanissetta would arrive. Sometimes the trains almost crossed each other and then a frenetic bell-ringing concert sounded into the blazing heat of the small train station. In just such a moment, after many months had passed, the chequered jacket popped up again among the few travellers. The young woman immediately began to count off toilet paper squares, and when the man came up to the toilet outhouse, she must have glowed as if she had set off the multi-voiced ringing welcome from before for him alone. She unhesitatingly handed him the usual two squares and then, not without a tender ceremoniousness, six more besides. The man looked at her pensively. She felt how she was blushing, and stood up from her folding chair so that he could sit down. He paused frequently while he was writing, but in the end he left her three squares scribbled full. When the man had gone, she read the lines over, still standing in front of the toilet outhouse. A vague sadness ate its way out of the words into her: buried voices and dead angels came from them, marshes, dusty streets, betrayal. Nearly a year would elapse before she would see the young man with the bushy black eyebrows get off the train once more, into a warm twilight. The chequered jacket must have been quite shabby, but frankly she had no eyes for that. A sudden melancholy overcame her and she didn’t know how to fight it back. It seemed to her as if she were seeing the young man for the last time. And, without rising from her folding chair or counting off even one square of paper, she began, slowly and carefully, in perfect silence, to unwind the whole toilet roll. The broad white strips of paper fell relentlessly from her hand to the ground, billowed briefly, casting bizarre folds, and remained peacefully lying there. In the end, she sat motionless amidst her veneration, so extravagantly offered. Only after a long pause, said the innkeeper, did the son of the former station master begin to carefully roll up the toilet paper, and he took it with him. My mother never saw him again. Now and again an envelope arrived for her in the post and inside it lay a square of toilet-paper writings. The postmark was from Rome, then Genova, Milan, until the distance grew immeasurable for her. She married late; on her bedside table she continued to keep a bundle of fully scribbled squares of toilet paper: they described her world, her Modica, the heat, the shadows of the dead, the parched animals, the glistening stones and unquenchable sadness. Perhaps, said the innkeeper, my father let her feel his jealousy about these squares, squares which bound her forever with an inner voice unknown to him; in any case, she must have cleaned out the bedside table after my birth. With the help of thin pieces of adhesive tape, she stuck the toilet-paper writings to the green wallpaper above my cot. In my earliest memories, these squares are waving above me in the wind, or is it the sprays of the white-blooming tamarisk near the house wall that are leaning in?

Serafina was showing unmistakeable signs of sleepiness. The innkeeper said more quietly, just as the son of the station master searched for his father back then in the shimmering over the train tracks, in his red peaked cap with the shining Hermes wings, so too do I see my mother, every time I arrive in Modica, a young woman still, sitting in the twilight in front of the toilet outhouse, surrounded by the strips of toilet paper that have fallen in slow waves and settled quietly into billowy folds, lying around her like snow.

From Gertrud Leutenegger, Späte Gäste, Suhrkamp, 2020.

 

 

Shipping Forecast

Author: Sarah Kirsch
Translator: Angela Hirons

 

I usually rise so early that the radio station I listen to is still silent. Outside in winter I see tiered cowshed lights, and always on cue, a bead of light in the lower right corner of the right window, which slowly and searchingly moves into the middle-left square of the left window, as if on-screen, before suddenly disappearing. In summer I have a view of cows and sheep in the various paddocks and on the dyke, unless they’re concealed by fog. Later, after the coffee machine has done its work, I listen with one ear to the shipping forecast. A worthwhile activity for coastal inhabitants because we know first-hand what it means to bear the brunt of hail, storms, the lashing whip of the sun – plus, we can pinpoint most of the places where the final readings are made at 3 am. Towards the end of the information on wind, temperature and air pressure, the film reel in my mind is invariably set in motion: I hear Mariehamn, west four, fog, one degree, one thousand and nine hectopascals. It’s here I came ashore for three days – Mariehamn is the capital of the Åland Islands, on the border between the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea. Arriving and leaving in summer fog, the strange enchantment of a place like that makes you wonder whether you were ever there, and if it’s somewhere you might ever find again. Back then I walked along the Nørre Esplanadgaten, a sixfold Lindenallee, when I saw a big Old English sheepdog with a tiny, old grey lady on a lead that could extend and retract. The pale grey fog blotted her out, blossom-like, which is probably why she appeared here this morning, bound to the place name of her abode. It began harmlessly enough – after my trip, which incidentally took me further afield and to some spectacular cities, I happened to catch the shipping forecast as usual, and close to the end, the place name Mariehamn, at which point the speaker always struggles to articulate the last two consonants – then came the ensuing drama: the entrance of the dog and the old lady. One thousand and nine hectopascals. The sheepdog lies in the hall and awaits the start of a new day. His mistress, if you will, has risen and already brewed herself a Koffie, much like me. The sheepdog gets a dog biscuit as she steps over him there in front of the kitchen door, his head already over the threshold – no, his mistress, if that’s what she is, tosses half a teaspoon of cocoa into her coffee pot. She’s a sophisticated one. Oh, and she adds a pinch of salt in there too. Just today? Or does she always do it? We still don’t know each other that well. A dusting of fog surely hangs outside her windows, and hooded crows descend, cloak-like, as they did when I saw them there. The old lady sits in the kitchen with her Koffie and reads from the newspaper that’s bundled up on the floor ready for the rubbish. She reads the paper upside down. Including a sentence about the GDR. Where’s that then? Far south. A Nazi land. She knows Göthe, of course. The little birds in the wood. She knows them better still. Wrens in the blackberry vines. Swarms of snowfinches in the city park at this time of year. The peacocks I saw in summer have been rounded up. By the park wardens. They’re housed in a tall aviary through the winter. The sheepdog, who goes by the name Lasse, gets up now. It’s time to fetch milk. Come on old boy, let’s go! But what you need to know is that our spinster is aware of more than she lets on. For instance, she read Arno Schmidt in the original a few years ago. You wouldn’t guess it offhand. It begs the question from whence the language knows her. Islanders are at home with languages. Learned during the war. Earlier on. Before there were any distractions. A book was always a challenge or an adventure. Someone lightened the load of their suitcase in ‘44. What books did I get passed on to me? Strangely enough, Palisade’s Island and Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. And yes, Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in an army postal service edition. The books helped during a dangerous winter. Dangerous in a personal sense. But come on now, Lasse, it’s all such a long time ago and doesn’t mean much anymore. People, pah! I’m not bitter. I’m going for a walk. That’s how my old lady started out life in my notebook. Mornings came and went; the shipping forecast brought her back to me. There was always something happening there, a bit like here behind the dyke. In February I jotted down, pen flying: my humans are still asleep, apart from the cats. The shipping forecast. Let’s see what’s going on in Mariehamn. South three, rain, three degrees, one thousand and two hectopascals. I could really picture it too. One thousand and two hectopascals where the old lady is – that’s a bit much, and just when the decorating’s underway, as it is here.  Everything’s on hold because the weekend has disrupted her workman’s plans. She went to school with him sixty years ago. He still has two days’ work to do, then he wants to prime and paint her boat. A nice friendly black on the outside this time. And waxed on the inside. The sheepdog looks a touch grey from the workman’s dust. He shakes himself, wants to go for a walk. It’s high time now, just before seven. But it’s raining heavily. My old lady sets her reading glasses to one side, drinks her Koffie. Gösta, she says to the dog, since that’s his name, not Lasse – I misheard. So she says: Gösta, only half an hour mind, and not on the cliffs. Come on then! Oh no, a button’s come off. I’ll put it here on the dresser; will you remind me? Now they go, and the door slams shut. The stripped lime trees hang full of crystals, a phantastic image, the rain fine and the wind barely a whisper. They turn a corner and I lose them from sight, from sense. Because I’m watching the peacocks and wondering if they’re coping with the climate here. But winter will soon be over. True – in T. I need to check whether the tortoise is still sleeping. Think on it when the days get lighter. We both have things to do. This one later finds in her notes: 1st March. Every morning I look to see if the trees are still there. The dead ones too. Shipping forecast. Storm front, intensifying over Jutland. I want to hear about Mariehamn and be able to imagine it. North one, minus three, nine hundred and seventy-three. Very interesting. The sheepdog goes skidding down the garden steps with our old lady. Gösta, watch where you’re going! she says, and him: you need to cut my eyes free again! We’ll do it as soon as we get back. But use the curved nail scissors, I prefer those. You can keep your eyes shut. I’ll be careful. You just need to trust me and stay still, no twitching. Easier said than done, grumbles the sheepdog.  But the sky they’re walking under looks black, and two unsettling, white weather trees are unfurling in it. Sky theatre. The old lady’s tormenting me. I only have to hear the name Mariehamn in the shipping forecast and she’s standing there, or Gösta is. I’ve had enough. I turn the dial again quickly when the shipping forecast is announced. I want to be free again! She needs to disappear, along with her mangy dog that doesn’t even have a proper tail, that’s what it’s come to…. What’s complicated about the whole thing is that because I’ve seen her in person – the little grey dear, my old lady – I keep thinking she exists by my design, and that’s why she can’t be killed off like any old made-up character you might find in a popular novel. And damn it, love plays a part too! I’ve vowed to let her die and to give her the best send-off. I know the cemetery, and the Saltvik-Kirka with the pale blue benches. But what will I do about Gösta? He’ll lie on the grave and howl for evermore.

 

From Sarah KIrsch,  Schwingrasen, DVA/ Penguin Random House, 1991.

Poacher

Author: Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

 

Translator’s Note
Told with great sensitivity and authenticity, Kaiser-Mühlecker unfolds a powerful story about rural life, its archaic and precarious violence, about the meaning of family, and a tender chance for love.

 

As soon as Jacob stepped into the clear, ice-cold, amber-coloured water, which was barely ankle-high at this point, he spotted the bitch a stone’s throw away, standing with her forelegs splayed out in front of a deep spot, seemingly staring into the water, which was taking on a grey colour similar to that of the silt lying under the topsoil in the wetlands here. Jacob could see the muscles twitching above her withers. Although the sound of the stream was not very loud, more like a gurgle, it was loud enough for her not to hear him. Step by step he made his way through the water darting away beneath him. The stones, polished and covered with algae or moss, felt soft and slippery, and only occasionally did he step on something sharp; he did not always recognise what it was, as the sun’s rays penetrating the canopy or rather the undergrowth made the surface of the water gleam, blinding him and causing him to step more carefully. Landa was only a short distance away. A few metres. He had almost reached her. Two, three breaths. Jacob untied the knot he had made in the lead and took one last step and reached for the bitch, but before he could grab her, something sharp penetrated the sole of his foot with such force that he groaned, and although the pain did not make him stop, the brief delay was enough to allow the bitch jump away to the side. She shook herself as if she knew she had the time, that he was too slow or could not move any faster because his foot hurt and the water was getting deeper, and so she ran on as if nothing had happened, as if he had not just ordered her to come to him with a sharp command.

‘Damned bitch,’ Jacob hissed and pulled his foot up and looked at the sole; bright red blood, thin, thin as the water with which it was merging, was oozing from the ball of his foot right under the big toe. ‘You stupid bloody bitch. I’ll kill you.’

He knotted the lead in front of his belly and ran up the creek with hardly a thought for his feet, which were growing more and more numb from the coldness of the water. He ran and ran. Shouted her name again and again. It was a hunt that he had lost from the outset, a hunt in which the hunter never once got to see the hunted, a hunt that he did not give up, could not give up. It took him a long time to admit to himself that it was pointless to keep running, to keep limping along, because he would not catch up with her or track her down, and then he gave up. He was hoarse and bruised, bruised and hoarse. There was no sign of the bitch. Jacob climbed out of the stream and took the road back. He walked as if he had logs tied to his feet. As if he had no toes. He walked like a penguin. Every now and again someone came towards him, someone overtook him, a few times a car tooted at him; each time he just raised his chin a little or, with those coming from behind, his hand, not even paying any attention to who it was.

When he arrived home, his boxers were still wet and stuck to him. His feet and legs ached and were numb at the same time: likewise his cock – all he could feel was a dull pulsing inside it. The front door stood open as before, just as he had left it. His mother and father were sitting in the kitchen having breakfast; piano music was playing on the radio, clinking tinnily like everything that came out of that box, and two mosquitoes were sitting on the plastic crucifix on the wall.

He went into the boiler room, put the mug – the John Deere mug, his favourite – with the lukewarm, too weak coffee on the stepladder, took off his boxers and hung them on the clothes rack. He pulled his knees up a few times and felt a little better afterwards. He took dry underwear and a pair of trousers from the rack and got dressed. His socks were hanging over his wellies; he took them, plucked off a few bits of straw and slipped them over his still numb feet. His toes were white, as if dead; when he touched them, he felt nothing. Then he stepped into his boots and reached for the dust mask. He took the ear defenders with the built-in radio from the hook, turned one of the two small dials and put the defenders on. The seven o’clock news was on; he turned it down a little; there was still no mention of anything else but the plague. He reached for the mug and left the boiler room; taking a sip every few steps, he went into the stable. For a moment he had even forgotten about Landa, but when he put down the empty black mug with its image of a yellow, leaping deer in a green field, just anywhere, as always, he remembered that the bitch was not in her place at his side and, in the next few hours, while he finally began to feel his feet again, he kept looking out for her. It wasn’t until eleven that she suddenly returned, and if she had appeared sooner, Jacob would have been furious and would have roared at her and maybe even given her a belting; but after all those hours, he had passed that point, and so he pressed his lips together and said nothing, only beckoned her towards him and stroked her, the suddenly obedient creature, on her head.

‘Yes, Landa. Yes.’

Landa looked at him, narrowed her eyes and, when he stopped stroking her, moved away from him and stretched out in the shade, no longer lifting her head. Jacob followed her, crouched down beside her and stroked her some more. He saw dried blood on her front paws and thought of his own foot: a deep cut across the ball of his foot that didn’t hurt.

‘Did you hurt yourself too, Landa?’

But even before he saw that she had blood on her flank, he knew that it wasn’t hers.

[…]

***

The nights were long, still. They gained what seemed to be excess length from the empty days that seemed squeezed out, that brought hardly any light, only a few hours of twilight. At night, it froze, during the day it thawed again; earth, dirt, dead grass, decaying leaves and small and large stones that stuck to your boots. In the mornings, wisps of mist often hovered motionless over the pools that had formed on the trampled pasture; never anything with any substance; always just wisps. Apples still hung on some of the trees, red-black and shrivelled. Where it hadn’t been mowed again in autumn, the grass lay pale yellow, as if it had fallen over itself, on the dark, wet ground.

Night. No moon. No stars. It had to be about half past one. The hour of the ox. That was the name of that time of night in Japan. That’s what they said. Yes, it was all connected. The young cow that had suddenly started limping had been standing next to the ox. Yes. And his breath, too, in the glow of the headlamp that had been fading for days, was thick and heavy like the steam that rose from the damp muzzle of an ox. Or like the smoke from his grandfather’s pipe. The motorway roared louder than ever, and you could even hear the whirring of electricity in the high-voltage line. Jacob thought about how he had never consciously been aware of these sounds before he had been in the army, and how they had almost driven him mad when he returned.

He had often thought he would go mad because it just never got quiet. Each lorry was followed by the next, announcing itself long before the roar of the bridge with a hum of an unbearable frequency, almost a screech. Then there had been phases when the noise had bothered him less. Lately, however, he had been wearing his ear defenders more often. When the radio was on, it was harder to concentrate at work, but for some activities it didn’t matter and he liked listening to those pleasant voices and at the same time not listening, to understand and at the same time not understand; his thoughts, his perceptions and these voices merged together and became a kind of music, or a kind of language that only he understood in which everything could be said, in which everything was said, a world that existed nowhere else and to which only he had access and which had become more and more of a refuge to him over the years. It was a bit like a dream, because you couldn’t really speak about that either; if you did, the dream disappeared, or what constituted it: the feeling you had experienced. Certain similarities, somehow, and yet it was completely different. A few times he had tried to tell Katja about it, but she had never said anything about it, but had looked at him a little strangely instead; that was when he had understood that he couldn’t make anyone understand these feelings – and that he wasn’t allowed to, either, if he wanted to keep them.

Jacob’s senses were hyper-acute, even more acute than normal, but on the other hand he felt numb. He glanced over his shoulder. No light could be seen in the house. Even Luisa was asleep at half past one. And Marlon always slept through the night anyway. A great boy. Jacob’s pride and joy, who meant everything to him and for whom he would have given his life without thinking about it. At the same time, he didn’t think about him often; he often forgot him; sometimes he didn’t even notice him when he was next to him. Carefully, so as not to make a noise, he opened the gate to the workshop,

‘It’s me,’ he said unnecessarily; he said it in a hushed voice.

As usual, Axel only briefly raised his head. Jacob stepped over to him, squatted down and stroked him. Somehow, he wanted to say something to him, but nothing came; he patted him a few times. How thick his fur had become.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes, Axel.’

Then he straightened up and went to the back. The sky-blue tow rope with the galvanised carabiner hung from the hook from which the chains for the woodwork and also a few thinner ones that were still there from the cowshed were also hanging. He took it down and threw it over his shoulder, grabbed the stepladder and walked with it into the middle of the workshop. He unfolded the ladder and adjusted it. It was a good ladder. Sturdy. And it was high. Suddenly, from somewhere, the sound of a moped. Who was that so late? He recognised some by the sound, but it wasn’t one of the ones he knew. He climbed the ladder and put the rope over the pulley hanging from the ceiling and tried to see if the wheel would move freely. Yes, it did. It did not squeak. He climbed down and folded the ladder. The tinny clang. He carried it back to its place. Leaned it against the wall. Then he took off his jacket and laid it on the workbench. Rolling up his sleeves, he walked over to Axel, untied him and stepped back underneath the pulley.

‘Come, Axel,’ he said quietly.

The dog raised its head, then it quickly got up, shook and stretched itself and came. The lead dragged across the ground like a snake.

‘Come here.’

Jacob crouched down and stroked him, hugged him; the dog stood still.

‘Axel,’ he said. ‘Axel.’

Without stopping his stroking, he took the end of the dog’s lead, slowly stood up, reached for the carabiner dangling above him and hooked the lead in it; then he reached for the other end of the rope and pulled on it, putting one hand in front of the other, and it almost felt like when he used to milk the cows by hand. He did it slowly so as not to frighten the dog, but the moment the rope tightened and began to pull on him, Axel resisted and braced himself. Even though it was harder now, Jacob continued to pull relentlessly. Axel jerked his head back and forth, trying to free himself from the noose the collar had become. As if he understood what was happening here, that someone who looked and smelled and sounded like his master but could not be his master was about to strangle him, he jumped at Jacob and snatched at his arm, but did not get hold of it; Jacob had pulled back in time. But somehow the dog had caught him after all; there were bite marks, scratches that immediately began to bleed. Still, Jacob felt nothing but a brief burning in the tense muscles of his forearm; quickly he pulled up the animal, which shook the rope so much that Jacob feared it might jump out of the guide. He stopped pulling and tied the rope to the vice. The dog, which had been almost silent until then, now howled and, without thinking, Jacob grabbed it by the hind legs and pulled on it, hanging on to it with all his weight. Almost immediately, the yelp died down. Jacob, his hands in front of his face, eyes closed, knees just barely above the ground, almost like a supplicant. The trembling of the animal’s body shook him, and there was a choking in his throat as if the noose was tightening around his neck too. Again he thought he heard a moped, and again it was gone a moment later. Like before. Exactly the same sound as before. Where was it coming from? Could it just be in his head? And it was also the same hour as before. This has nothing to do with then, he told himself. It is different. It has nothing to do with then. You can’t walk through water without getting your feet wet. Wasn’t that exactly what they had said on the radio today, weren’t those exactly the words he had been looking for and hadn’t found for himself, words that helped him and guided him and, it seemed to him, in a way also absolved him? You can’t walk through water … no, you can’t. The old life has to end, and this was the last thing left to do. At last the twitching grew less; it finally stopped altogether. Jacob let go of the limp hind legs. Sank to his knees. Took some deep breaths. Then he got up and walked over to Axel’s place, picked up the blanket the dog had been lying on, pulled it over to the carcass and spread it out. You could still see the reddish-brown spots from the lice that Landa had once struggled with. He released the rope from the vice and lowered the carcass. He untied the rope from the lead and loosened the collar with a jerk as if he didn’t want the dog to be strangled any further. A final, horrible sound came from the carcass: the air escaping the body; then it was as silent as before.

 

From Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlacker, Wilderer.  © 2022 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Hedderichstr. 114, D-60596 Frankfurt am Main

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and then Life Will Start

Author: Necati Oziri
Translator: Cristina Burack

 

When you read this, Papa – and already I’m stuck. Should I call you that? I know that Aylin calls you that when she’s talking about you – on extremely rare occasions, don’t go getting any ideas. But unlike with me, you two were still smiling as you let Aylin soar between you, one hand in yours, one hand in Mama’s and then up we go. She tells me these kinds of things every once in a while, when she and I are in a good place. And like this memory, Aylin also still has the word “Papa” from that time. She learned it as if it were a totally normal word. It’s different for me. I’ve often tried it out: Papa? Father? Baba? Saying the word aloud isn’t actually that hard, it’s just I can’t continue. Even stranger than saying “Papa” is hearing myself say it. It sounds like a word from a different language, one that I picked up or read somewhere. It sounds fake when I use it. How do you say “Papa” so that you can’t hear a question mark? Until I have an answer, I’ll stick with Murat. So: When you read this, Murat, I will already be dead.  

During my first internship at the theater, the director had the actors sit on the floor in a circle and gave them a writing assignment:  “Pick a sentence that you, under pain of death, can say belongs to you, that is part of your very being, and then ask yourself who you would be without this sentence.” The director strutted across the dance floor. “For example, the sentence: ‘I’m scared of silent rooms.’ Or: ‘I do everything for my children.’ What would your day, your life look like, if this secret fear hiding behind every encounter were suddenly gone? Or when what you had always believed in disappeared from one moment to the next, or when the reason you leave the house every morning suddenly wasn’t there? And now start writing.”

 I was sitting in a corner of the rehearsal stage, silently sorting a pile of copies, and I asked myself what sentence I would shed. I’ve since realized what it is. It goes: “Tomorrow I’ll wake up and then life will start.” 

I’ve often imagined what it would be like if you had died. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never wished for your death. I don’t think you’re a bad person. Quite the opposite. After prison you probably became the most gentle, loving father in the world. You probably come home from work late in the evening, when your second wife is already in the bedroom, lying on her side of the bed. She must be wearing pink satin pajamas, like the ones you gave Mama for her birthday even though we didn’t have the money for them. (I also know this story from Aylin). Your second wife might be reading a magazine with pictures of expensive furniture, a cucumber mask on her face, her hair wrapped in a towel. She hears the key turning in the lock. She’s been waiting for it all evening. A quick glance at the clock: “Later than usual,” she thinks and remembers how hard you work every day. She knows nothing about your life before prison, your life in Germany; she doesn’t know that you work so much because you don’t want to screw up your second life the way you did your first. So you come home, a stressful day, the office telephone still ringing in your head; you close the door behind you, softly, no one should hear you; you carefully hang up your coat on top of the other jackets and place your shoes next to those stupid dinosaur rubber boots that all the rich kids have. You enter this new apartment as quietly as you left ours back then, when you slipped out of your pregnant wife’s bed during the night. You packed no bag and left no note, and yet Mama immediately knew what was going on when she woke up and the picture frame on the bedside table that had held Aylin’s photo was empty. 

Now: A note from your wife on the living room table. “There’s manti in the microwave and yogurt in the fridge.” Be honest, Murat, she can’t cook, can she? Of course not, you wouldn’t love a woman who feels fulfilled by being in the kitchen. She would remind you too much of your mother, make you feel too much like your father, the general who also wanted to make you into a general. And because your wife can’t cook, you scarfed down a şiş kebab at your old revolutionary pal Serkan Amca’s place. He’s back too, right?  

So you walk past the manti in the microwave; you see a light is still on in the bedroom; you loosen your tie, plant a kiss on your wife’s green creamed-up forehead, maybe quickly exchange words: “Don’t wake him.” “Don’t worry.” Then back into the hallway, the wood floor groaning under your feet. (Black socks. After the slammer the first thing you did was buy enough to fill an entire drawer. That’s the first step to an orderly life.) You crack open the door at the end of the hallway. A beam of light falls over a black wavy-haired head at the end of the bed, underneath the window. You take a step onto the rug, one with streets and parks and whatnot. Be careful you don’t slip on a car in the dark and break your neck, Murat. You sit down on the edge of your youngest son’s bed, put one hand on the bedspread that’s pulled up to his shoulder and with the other stroke his fingers. You imagine he can sense it in his sleep: You are there. Even if another military coup took place tonight, even if they came tomorrow to bring you in, even if at this very moment a friend of the soldier who you killed busted in through the child’s window to get revenge for his friend. You are there. And while you’re thinking this, you hear him breathing softly. Outside are minarets behind the treetops that rustle in the wind. Moon, stars, everything there.  

This image stays fixed in my mind for a moment, as if it were the last page of a children’s book. But do you know what happens next, Murat? Your gaze moves from the night sky back to the closed almond eyes of your son, his narrow mouth, his child’s nose, and very briefly, just for a millisecond, you think about us.  

Suddenly two silhouettes are standing in the room, two shadow children who are looking at you – silently, barefoot; Aylin, at my side, has wrapped her arm around my shoulders. You don’t recognize our faces because you don’t know what we looked like at that age. But you know that we have been watching you the whole time. You stand up, walk past us, lie down next to your second wife. “Everything okay, sweetie?” – ” Yes, just tired.” You turn out the light, and when your son wakes up in the morning, he’ll notice that I parked all the cars in new places on the rug during the night. 

Murat, I wouldn’t even think of writing this now if I believed that you were the kind of asshole father who would beat my little brothers every day. I have to admit, I do sometimes also imagine that: How you slam the door behind you to find your worn-out wife fighting with the kids, how the first thing you do is give them all a bitch slap so that things quiet down for just a moment. I often saw your comrade Serkan Amca doing exactly this in his home. You sit down, annoyed, on the couch or collapse onto a table covered in bills, and while the rest of the family is scared silent or screams at each other or cries, you ask yourself how the hell you managed to end up in this situation a second time. And then you lift your head, and once again I’m there. I’m sitting on the couch, channel surfing, while you lose it.  

And there’s also a third scenario that I sometimes imagine: You’re dead. No idea why. Maybe because an Islamist climbed into your world through the window and bumped you off out of revenge; maybe because your frustrated second wife watched you, smoking all the while, as you slowly choked on an olive during breakfast; maybe also because you simply surrendered in your last days, drooling and demented. (Come to think of it, how old are you now?) At any rate, you’ve died and I attend your funeral, which takes place in a solemnly decorated banquet hall. I cross the room in, let’s say, a white linen suit, stand in front of your coffin, bouquet in hand, and note with relief that you don’t have any baldness you could have passed on to me. The others in the hall begin to whisper: “Who the devil is that young man?” Only one or two comrades from bygone days – Serkan Amca is also here – realize: “Shit, it’s him!” I would stride over to the lectern and talk to your pale face. What about? Who could possibly know, Murat? I would definitely not ask why you left us; nothing interests me less than launching into a Papa-where-were-you number. But the reasons why you couldn’t stand it in Germany anymore – that I would want to know. Why you went back to Turkey of your own volition, even though you knew they would greet you at the airport with handcuffs and immediately lock you up for eighteen years. I would ask you if you really killed multiple people. If you remember their faces, their names, their fear. How you managed to set your pistol on the forehead of a man made to kneel in front of you in the street, his red military cap in his shaking hands, crying as he begged you in the name of his newborn daughter not to pull the trigger, and how you nevertheless did it and left the body lying in front of you before jumping into the car of other terrorist fathers and beating it. I ask myself what your voice sounded like as you told him “Get on your knees.” And whether you hesitated for an instant. I would ask you whether you’re haunted by the souls of the people you killed or whether you’re hugging each other now that you’re dead too. I would want to know whether I am the son of a convinced assassin, a revolutionary, freedom fighter, putschist, terrorist. (What did you all call yourselves?) Or whether you sort of just fell into things and at some point were in too deep to extract yourself. Whether you were a leftist, but nevertheless nationalist asshole whose bedside table held not only a photo of your daughter but also one of Mustafa Kemal. I mean, I don’t know, Murat, maybe we would also chat about soccer or women or how you hooked up with my mother while she was translating your indictment into German for your asylum case. There would be one critical factor in the whole scene: Because you are dead, you have no choice but to remain silent. And that also means: You could no longer intentionally decide not to tell me anything.  

If you’re dead, there’s no chance that I’ll pick up the phone and just call you – both the easiest and most impossible thing in the world – and no chance that you’ll hang up as soon as you know whose voice you’re hearing at the other end of the line. And even if you didn’t hang up, Murat, and we actually set a date to meet – let’s say in a kahvehane, in other words, on neutral territory – you still might sit down in the chair in front of me, two glasses of cay between us, and answer all my questions, at times hemming and hawing, at times searching for words, but you would answer, because you would know that after twenty-five years I have the right to know. Only once I’m through with all my questions, you still might not ask me anything in return. Absolutely nothing. In the worst-case scenario, you would simply wait until the cay between us gets cold, and then you would say goodbye and leave. Do you get what I mean? Fuck your honest answers or your lies. What would be much worse is if you didn’t want to know anything about me when it was your turn. But the dead are mute and cannot refuse to speak to you. You couldn’t ignore me. I would be forced to talk about myself because it wouldn’t make sense anymore to wait for you to prompt me.  

And now it’s the other way around. You don’t die, Murat, I do. I’m lying in a bed in the intensive care unit. Organ failure. My liver decided not to play along anymore. It’s not a metaphor in a coming-of-age novel for immigrant lowlifes or something. It’s much simpler: Cables rise from my neck, connecting my heart to a whirring machine, which is why I can barely turn my head without feeling pain that shoots all the way down my spine. Only when I need to go to the bathroom am I allowed to carefully undo the clips. My right arm is covered in blue spots, puncture points, as many as Mama has moles on her back. They are the stamps of my daily blood-taking; each point means a new blood analysis, bringing with it the news of whether I still have a few days to live. The analysis printouts lie next to me on the windowsill, the pile growing bigger week by week. Every night I painstakingly transfer them into tables on my laptop: GGT, GOT, GPT … The abbreviations here in the hospital are more complicated than anything I had to deal with at the Foreigners’ Office. I try to document my death and in the evening, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I look at the colorful graphs and imagine I understand what it all is leading to. On the little table next to my bed lies a notepad, every page filled with the same sentence: “My name is Arda Yilmaz, and I am doing well.”  The doctors tell me I should write down the same sentence every day. It’s supposedly possible to tell from my handwriting how extensive the deposits of toxic substances in my brain are, the ones my liver would normally filter, and whether the damage is permanent. Personally, I can’t see any difference in the blue letters except that sentence by sentence and day by day, I try less, and hope disappears from my sentences. 

Some mornings, a whole brigade of lab-coat-wearing pricks barges in: senior physicians, attending physicians, chief physicians, assisting physicians, student interns. The most senior pricks gesture to me as if they were weighing some nuts in their hands, while the less important pricks nod and take notes. They don’t explain anything to me. They don’t even speak to me. This also reminds me of the Foreigners’ Office, where the civil servant with the beer belly never spoke to me or Aylin but instead referred to us in the third person. He would say, in Germany, every person needs this or that document, and we were allowed to subsume ourselves in this category, as they so nicely put it. A similar monologue is delivered here, this one about the future trajectory of your existence. Amidst all this, the most they do is ask me questions: whether I can still say my name, what year we’re in, when my birthday is. A couple of times I acted as if I didn’t know in order to see their reaction. There wasn’t any. The lab coats once raised their eyebrows in acknowledgement after I first told them my birthday and then went on to explain that all the information in my passport was entirely meaningless. As for why – that didn’t interest them. But the fact that my brain was still able to communicate this – definitely. Despite all that, I would still give each of them a smooch if one were able to keep me from leaving the hospital feet first.

But the most absurd part of the situation, Murat, plays out at the foot of my bed. Aylin and Mama are sitting there. After ten years of not exchanging a single word with each other, they’re sitting there, and neither of them is reaching for a syringe to stab in the other one’s neck. They spent the whole day here, and they’ll be here again tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and who knows how many days after that. The only thing they know is that soon they will be each other’s only family – that is, unless someone with a matching liver and my blood type who is also a registered organ donor has a fatal car accident very nearby that happens to leave their internal organs unscathed. In other words: Our time is running out, Murat, with every line. 

Have you also ever imagined that I am dead? You don’t know, of course, that I’m lying here right now. Just in case next year, contrary to expectations, you get the idea to pick up the phone or appear before my door to only then learn that you are unfortunately too late, I’ll write it down for you here. You should know who I was. So you never get the chance that I have secretly dreamed of so often: Getting the silent treatment from the dead. I want to forever deny you the opportunity to not know who I was. You should find out how things went for your family in Germany, what the last summer of my youth was like before nearly all my friends were deported or landed in rehab clinics or, like you, had to go to prison, not for instigating a putsch but for wanting to survive. You should know how much it was raining on the day Aylin ran away from home, how she whispered “I’m sorry” in my ear, closed the front door and never came back. You should know how your ghost also constantly watched me here, when your old friends patted me on the back and said I would one day be like you: the hero of a failed revolution.

I will write down this story for you and my little brother, who is currently sitting unsuspectingly on his car rug.  So he can know whose father his father was, so that he learns to treasure all the time and love he got from you. 

It’s nearly as impossible for me to use “I” here as it is for me to suddenly start saying “Papa.” The word “Papa” sounds wrong after it is spoken aloud; trying to say “I” makes me stumble, triggers a cavernous pain, makes my tongue cramp. “I” was never I, “I” was always someone else, especially now. So I’m going to act as if this weren’t my story. I will constantly lie, Murat, nothing is right, but every word is true.

In the only photo I have of you, you’re wearing a pair of thick gold glasses. You’ve got a moustache and under your left eye, between your beard and the arm of your glasses, you have a mole. You’re reclining on a leather couch, a cigarette stub in your mouth and Aylin in your lap. She is laughing, tickling you, as you try to play elli bir with the bald Serkan Amca, who sits across from you. Mama isn’t in the photo. She probably stood up, hauled her round belly into a corner of the room and took the photo. Unlike Serkan Amca, who smiles lightheartedly, you ignore the camera. Or at least you act like you do. Despite the thick glasses, you hold the cards directly in front of your nose. You didn’t want anyone to be able to recognize your face, am I right?  You already knew that you would be gone by the time the film was developed and didn’t know what expression to leave behind for me. Just like I won’t leave you a photo now. So instead I’ll describe myself: Your son had thick black curls, just like his mother and his sister. He used to have a tall, smooth forehead, but since starting the cortisone treatment, it’s become covered in a pus-filled rash that extends over the nape of his neck and across his back. When he hid his slender face from the world in his girlfriend’s blond curls, she would always say she could hear his brain mechanically rattling away behind his forehead. He had imposing eyebrows that looked a little like the Nike swoosh, and underneath them the eyes of his mother, but darker, almost black, deep-set. Your son had your narrow mouth, the thin lips. And he had, like you, a black mole under his left eye. His father’s mark. Sometimes a mischievous smile would flash across his face. Whenever he and his girlfriend had a serious fight, she would always call it his best argument. 

While speaking these sentences in front of the bathroom mirror, practice for writing them out, he covers his father’s mark with his index finger. He asks himself what his face would look like without it. When he removes his finger from his skin, the mark is no longer there. It’s stuck to his fingertip. Arda takes a breath, closes his eyes and blows it away.
.

Necati Öziri, Morgen wache ich auf und dann beginnt das Leben.  2021.  Published by permission of Ullstein Verlag.,

What I Knew

Author: Tabea Steiner
Translator: Jozef van der Voort

 

It must have been September; I was six, maybe seven, when my father asked, Do you want to come with me?

A cow was very ill and had to be sent for emergency slaughter. I stroked her fever-cool nose, rubbed the white patch on her forehead, gazed into those big eyes with their long lashes. Then my father led the animal into the trailer, where she lay down on the floor. He bolted the door and lifted me onto the child seat mounted on the fender above the huge tractor wheel. I had to hold on tight, and all through the journey my little boots clattered against the vibrating metal.

The butcher was waiting for us outside the abattoir. Everything was ready. I looked round the clean, tiled room as my father brought in the cow. By now, every step was a struggle for her, but I don’t remember her being in mortal terror. Perhaps she was just too tired.

Out, the butcher said to me, his bolt gun in hand, so I crept off and went round to the window, where I stood on tiptoe to watch the butcher cock the bolt and pull the trigger; saw the cow crumple, big and heavy. She jerked a few times, and then she was dead.
The door flew open; the butcher came rushing out and boxed my ears. I can remember his hand and his thick, endless, beige-grey plastic apron, but where his face should be is a blank in my memory.

Come on, said my father. He took my hand, put me back in the child seat, said goodbye to the butcher and drove off. After a while he turned on to a narrow country lane, stopped the tractor and switched off the engine.

The butcher didn’t want you to see the cow die, my father said. Then he turned to look at me. Do you understand?

I didn’t understand. I knew the cow had to die, and I knew why as well, but I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t see what I already knew. Besides, I was used to a lot of things from life on the farm where I grew up.

I knew what it meant when the cows in the field jumped on each other’s backs. They did that when they were in heat. A vet would be summoned with his case of pipettes. Together with my father he would select one of the tubes before pulling on a thin plastic glove that went up past his elbow. Then he guided the pipette full of semen into the cow and tossed the soiled plastic into the bin. Nine and a half months later, the cow gave birth to a calf.

As soon as the tips of the calf’s little yellow hooves began to protrude from the cow’s vulva, my brother had to fetch the two-handled iron calving chain. This was wrapped around the hooves, and my father would haul on it in time with the labouring cow. A nose would appear, followed by a head, and then an ear would flop out. At this point it wouldn’t be long before the whole calf appeared.

I knew that no one would send me to bed until the new arrival had been seen to, and calves often came into the world late at night. But I was still too little to make myself useful, and so nobody noticed me standing by the wall of the cowshed in my wellingtons and pyjamas. Sometimes I wore one of my father’s old coats draped over my shoulders.

From a safe distance, but still close enough, I watched my grandmother rub down the bloody, tousled calf with a bundle of straw to stimulate its circulation. When it had stopped trembling, she left it to its mother and went to the kitchen, where she boiled several litres of red wine, cracked a few eggs and stirred everything together with plenty of sugar and spices – cloves for sure, maybe nutmeg too. She poured this mixture into the exhausted animal, which drained it in one go and then drank several buckets of water. After that, the cow started to lick the calf clean, revealing the pattern on its soft hair.

In the meantime, my father sexed the calf. Really good dairy cows were only ever impregnated with high-quality semen. When my father opted for expensive semen from a good stud bull, it put him in a bad mood if the resulting calf was male. If a cow only needed to be inseminated in order to go back into dairy production, it didn’t matter what sex the calf was, and a cheaper sire would generally be chosen.

When cows have just given birth, their milk tastes unpleasant for a time and has to be kept out of the tank. One day, Grandma decided I was old enough to learn how to make this beestings into chocolate mousse. First I had to gather some eggs from the chicken coop. I was the best person for this particular job as I could crawl under the laying pen, where the hens sometimes hid their eggs when they didn’t want to give them up. Then I strapped on the one-legged milking stool and milked the cow by hand. I loved doing that because cows have a hollow place between their belly and their udders where you can rest your forehead and keep it warm. But when I was nearly finished and the pail was almost full, the cow lashed out and kicked it over. The thick, dark-yellow milk trickled into the finely chopped straw.

I was allowed to draw some fresh white milk from the tank, which I poured into a pan. Then I melted the chocolate and cracked the eggs. One of the yolks had a patch of dark-red slime in it, which meant it had been fertilised. Whisk it quickly, Grandma said as she turned on the oven. Then you won’t have to look at it.

We had a cock in the chicken coop; Grandma said it made the hens easier to keep. But we never hatched any chicks. We bought our young hens from a battery farm where they were separated from the young cockerels, which were surplus to requirements. That was how I knew that the chicken on my dinner plate and the schnitzel we ate on Sundays usually came from a male animal.
And I also knew that the rabbits I reared and fed with grass and pellets until they reached a certain weight, and which I then loaded into a wicker basket and took to the butcher in the neighbouring village on my bike, would eventually land on someone’s plate somewhere. That was how I earned my pocket money.

I grew up with my grandmother, and I was well aware that she was my father’s mother, and that he in turn was the father of my brother and me. My grandmother took care of me, and most nights she made sure I went to bed on time.

She insisted that my brother and I never slept in the same room, but we eventually started to rebel against this stricture because we always had so much to discuss and to tell each other. We talked about how we’d seen the next-door neighbour’s breasts while she nursed her baby in the garden during the fine weather. And we wondered why I wasn’t allowed to run around in my vest in summer while my brother was allowed to take his off altogether. Grandma only ever told us that it was because of the old man who also lived next door.

We racked our brains over how the neighbour, who was a talking point for the entire village, could have had a baby when she didn’t even have a husband. And when I finally learned how to read, I asked my brother what the word ‘sex’ meant, which I’d seen in the newspaper. Grandma hadn’t wanted to explain it to me; she’d said it was only for grown-ups.

One day, another farmer came over after lunch with a copy of the newspaper. She sat with my grandmother in front of the house and they chatted about the news, but when they noticed me, they fell silent. I’d been listening in, however, and I’d already heard them speaking indignantly about this new era in which a woman could report her husband to the police just because his natural urges had got the better of him.

I crept away again, wandered past the calves and snaffled a handful of their milk powder, which I liked because it tasted like white chocolate. Then I sat on the ground behind the blackberry bush, as I always did when it was warm and dry enough and I had something to ponder. I knew that my grandmother had good intentions and that she wanted to protect me. But I didn’t understand why she and the farmer had gone quiet, and I still didn’t know why I wasn’t allowed to run around in my vest. I didn’t understand why not only Grandma, but my father and the butcher and everyone else in the village always made such a secret of everything. But above all, I didn’t understand why there were things I wasn’t supposed to know when I could already see them anyway.

Only much later, when I had grown up and my grandmother was very old, did she tell me how her own brother had come on to her years ago when she was starting to become a woman.

But when I was still a child, I already knew that the old man next door had wanted to marry my grandmother after my grandfather died very young. He had ended up marrying another woman instead. Yet only when my grandmother and the old man were both dead did it emerge that he had spent years abusing his daughter. I don’t know if my grandmother knew about it, or what exactly she knew if she did.

And I can’t ask my father anymore either.

 

From Frauen erfahren Frauen, ed. Jil Erdmann.  Zurich: Verlag sechsundzwanzig, 2021.  Published by permission of Agentur Poppenhusen, Berlin.

My White Fox

Author: Katharina Bendixen
Translator: Rachel Farmer 

 

I’m glad they took a chance on me in the Husky Outdoor Shop. Admittedly, the boss still always puts me right at the back with the accessories, where the sun only reaches in the evenings. Few customers stray this far, and that’s also why I work down here – because of that, and because of the fire door, which can be completely locked down from the checkout area. It’s actually designed for accidents. But I know my colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to flip the switch if I had an attack. I haven’t had an attack in two-and-a-half years. It must be down to the work, and the fact that I no longer have to make much of an effort in other areas of my life. If I get to three years, I can move up to the outdoor jackets. In the meantime, I dust down camping stoves, push sterilisation tablets to the front of shelves and make sure not to look at the clock too often. My favourite products are the cups that you can fold completely flat. It’s usually men who buy them, some of whom are quite persistent. They tell me about their latest day trip, then they bring the conversation round to going for a hike together, or at least for a coffee. I point out that my work schedule is too hectic right now and cast around for some shelf to rearrange. I’m not allowed to go out with men; I’m not actually allowed to talk to them for any length of time. I still don’t know why I have these attacks, but they started with a man.

I was twenty-five, had finished my studies and had taken up a post with the public utility company. My boyfriend at the time would sometimes pick me up from work. We talked about our first child. We wanted to move in together at last. Things had never been so good, but by the time we found a flat, I felt myself getting restless. I lay awake at night, I made mistakes in my spreadsheets, and when I looked in the mirror, something alien looked out through my eyes. I didn’t yet know that it was a white fox. Just before we were supposed to sign the rental agreement, it happened. My boyfriend was washing the dishes, and we were in the middle of planning our new kitchen. Suddenly, my body stiffened, and when I came to, I looked at my boyfriend’s face. He was as white as the fridge behind him. I saw this white face, I saw the shards on the floor, and the next morning my muscles ached as if I had climbed a two-thousander.

“So that’s the famous astronaut food.” My brother picks up a bar. “And it counts as a whole meal?”

We both know he’s not interested in astronaut food. My brother has never set foot in a walking boot, and I would never stay in one of the hotels he always books. Even as children, we were never interested in one another’s toys.

He’s hungry, but we can’t find a restaurant we both like. Finally, we decide on a pizzeria.

“Do you really want to stay in this rucksack shop?” he asks. “Is that what you studied for?”

“It’s fun, and I do like hiking.”

“And that doctor? Are you still going to him?”

He always asks that, and by that he means the therapist I was going to for treatment. After the doctors hadn’t found anything, my boyfriend managed to get me a couple of appointments with him. I didn’t even go to the last few. It irritated me how unwaveringly the therapist proceeded on the assumption that the present is connected with the past.

“No idea why our parents haven’t told you,” my brother says without looking up from the pizza menu. “Mum had something similar. It sometimes happened multiple times a day. I can even remember it happening. It was only when you arrived that it started happening less often, and finally, it stopped completely.”

He always starts with that too, and every time I act like I’m grateful for his forthrightness. Unfortunately, I doubt it’s the same for me. It’s true the attacks started happening less often after the breakup and then finally disappeared altogether. But the white fox still lives in me, I know that for a fact.

My former boyfriend was the one who discovered that it’s a white fox. He got so obsessed with my attacks that he neglected his thesis. I had long since lost my job. My colleagues were afraid of the power the fox could unleash, and after my probation period they had to let me go.

“We need to get to know your fox,” my boyfriend said back then. “We need to know everything about it.”

“My fox?”

“Most of them are red foxes. Many of them are friendly. They go away if you ask them to. Or you need to fulfil their desires. They might desire money or trinkets, for example.”

“But there are other ones too?”

“The other ones,” said my boyfriend, “have white fur and desires that cannot be fulfilled.”

My boyfriend observed exactly what happened when I disappeared. He even wanted to film me, but I forbade him. I knew it was difficult for him to watch while I writhed and shrieked on the floor. It scared him to death, he said so himself. It was only later that I realised we didn’t necessarily break up because of my attacks, but for another reason: unlike me, my boyfriend was afraid of death, not life.

“It’s a white fox,” he said after a while. “You can’t fulfil its desires. Maybe when you find out what it wants, things will change.”

But I didn’t want to get to know my fox or find out what it wanted. I could guess from the aches in my muscles how much havoc I had caused, and I trained myself to keep checking the time. My attacks never lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Knowing that was enough for me, and my boyfriend and I came to blows over it. One evening, he held his phone out unceremoniously in front of my face and pressed PLAY. I closed my eyes just in time, and what I heard myself shriek in an unnaturally deep voice, I immediately forgot again. I broke up with my boyfriend that night. For a few months, I only left my flat to go to the supermarket. Then, when my bank account was empty, I started working at the Husky.

I come down with laryngitis and can’t talk for nearly two weeks. When I return, everyone at the Husky is saying I’ve had a relapse. Stefan defends me against the rumours. He even raises his voice to Marie. When Stefan is shift supervisor, I get to spend some of my time by the rucksacks. He spins this as if there’s no other option, like when he gets Marie to clear up the stockroom. Someone always needs to be standing by the rucksacks. Not all of them are secured because the tags leave holes in the Super Polytex, and it’s where the customers ask the most questions. I give advice to a man my age who wants to go on a week-long trip to the Alps. He is only vaguely interested in my explanations about wearability and heat build-up. He’s more concerned about the colour. He chooses a green one. When I’m demonstrating how to tighten the waist strap, I get too close to him. I quickly pass the rucksack to Stefan and disappear into the accessories section. I run my index finger along the sharp, serrated edges of a camping stove. I don’t want to lose this job. It’s not much fun, but at least it serves to pass the time.

Stefan catches me in front of the mirror on my break.

“Are you OK?” he asks. “Do you have plans later?”

“Yes, I’m quite busy, sorry.”

When I get home, I call my brother. He’s back from Gran Canaria where it was sunny, he says, and the hotel pool was big enough this time, but the water in it was too warm. Together, we make fun of Stefan’s attempts at flirting. But as we’re laughing, I realise that I ought to accept his invitation. I need to at least try.

After we hang up, I look in the mirror again. Not for the first time, I think that the other one is the real me. I think that all this – my flat, this phone call, the Husky – all of that must be the attack, an attack that never ends, and my real life is on the other side, where my limbs twitch and I shriek or howl or master four languages, or whatever it is I do over there.

I take Marie with me as a precaution when Stefan and I go out, and Stefan brings a friend with him, too. We walk from the Husky towards the Südstadt. Yet again, Stefan wants to know where I worked before I started at the Husky. Yet again, he wants to know why I no longer work for the public utility company and, as always, he reckons it’s because I don’t talk enough. Finally, we find a restaurant we all like. It’s going to happen again today, something inside me thinks. That’s a shame. I would almost have made it to three years.

“That’s enough questions now,” I say.

“She’s right,” says Stefan’s friend. His name is Manuel. I like his soft voice. “What does all that have to do with anything?”

When the food comes, Stefan really does stop asking questions. Manuel has ordered the Brotzeit, a snacky meal of pretzels, ham, creamy potatoes and the like. I like that. He lets Stefan convince him to do a mini show for us. Manuel is a comedian. I find it hard to believe. His spoon trick makes even the next table join in the laughter. Actually, he says, he prefers to work with little stories, in a tiny bar not far from here.

“Tell him something funny,” says Stefan. “He’ll put it in his routine.”

I have stopped talking completely now, so Marie goes into overdrive. She tells the story of how, when she was at school, she was always embarrassed by her healthy sandwiches and jealous of the soft chocolate rolls her friends had. And now she gives her daughter the same wholemeal sandwiches, she says, and asks us why people don’t learn even the simplest things. She goes ahead and orders another cocktail. She and Stefan joke around with the waiter. From the corner of my eye, I see Manuel wrap his spoon in a napkin and slip it into my coat pocket.

Luckily, I get home before it happens. My body starts to stiffen in the hallway, and when I come to, I’m lying in the kitchen. I last checked the time downstairs in front of the house, and seven minutes have passed since then. I can taste blood in my mouth. Manuel’s spoon is between my teeth. In the hallway, I find the napkin with a telephone number on it.

I should probably be happy that Manuel is taking a chance on me. I don’t call him. After three weeks, he comes into the Husky. Shortly afterwards, they let me go. After the fire door has to be locked down for the third time because of me, even Stefan can’t do anything to help.

“Do you think,” asks Marie, “that the customers want to hear a grown woman rolling around shrieking, as she . . .”

“Stop! I don’t want to know.”

“See? Neither do we.”

Manuel and I go hiking. We sit by the river. We eat pizza. He only asks me a few questions and, although I am interested, I don’t ask him how he became a comedian of all things and what he used to do before that. A few weeks pass before we sleep together, then I start disappearing even more frequently. Manuel says that my attacks don’t scare him at all. They don’t even bother him. He’s scared of other things, he says, of long escalators in shops or the outdoor jackets in the Husky that apparently you can wear to go hiking on glaciers.

Manuel soon starts talking about a child. The fact my mother recovered after her second pregnancy doesn’t make a difference to him. Manuel seems to really want to have a child with me. That should actually make me have my doubts. But the fact he doesn’t know how to interact with my brother works in his favour. He won’t admit it, but I can tell that he has to make just as much effort around him as I do.

Following a few good reviews, Manuel moves his act to a bigger bar. He wants to know if he can use my attacks.

“On stage?” I ask.

“Why not?”

“Are they funny then?”

“I’m not actually trying to be funny. I don’t know why people always laugh.”

I have never seen any of his shows before. I have never asked for a ticket and Manuel has never given me one. This time, I find one in my coat pocket, so I guess it’s important to him. Most people there leave their jackets in the cloakroom. I prefer to keep my coat on. The show is almost sold out. It has received more good reviews. Although my ticket is for the second row, I sit further back, on the end. By some kind of fluke, no one else claims the seat.

I don’t know why I always thought Manuel dressed as a clown on stage, or at least wore a polka-dot tie. It alarms me how vulnerable he seems in his white t-shirt, which he was wearing at the kitchen table only a moment ago. The audience laughs even before Manuel can say anything, and no sooner has it quietened down than he starts talking in his soft voice. He tells the story of a woman who desires nothing more than a real heart, one that does not tick so frightfully cold and slow in her chest, and he tells of a sad man she meets one day. I grip the armrests tight and look at the time every thirty seconds. I’m hot in my coat, but perhaps I’ll sit here a few minutes longer.

 

From Katharina Bendixen, Mein Weißer Fuchs, Poetenladen, 2019.

Superbusen

Author: Paula Irmschler
Translator: Geena Erfurth-Roberts

 

Translator’s note:   Taking its name from the feminist punk band co-founded by the main protagonist, Superbusen follows Gisela, a woman in her early twenties who moves from Dresden to Chemnitz to study. Paula Irmschler’s debut novel blends pop culture with politics, exploring female friendships, music, and heartbreak against the backdrop of life in post-reunification Saxony. In this extract, Gisela returns to her hometown to attend a protest against a neo-Nazi march and reflects upon her relationship with the city’s history.

 

Whilst Leipzig was the cool city you traveled to for concerts and parties, we only ever visited Dresden for demonstrations. We usually went to protest against the big neo-Nazi march on 13th February, when Nazis from all over Europe gathered to ‘mourn’ the bombing of beautiful Dresden by the evil Allies. The middle classes were always sad too, for the same reason; they lit a sea of candles, warning against the horrors of war in general. Together with those on the right, they fought against their common enemy: Antifa, who dared to name the chief culprits.

Every year this day was either one of celebration or mourning for all Saxons, and you had to pick your side. February 13th is coming up. It’ll be February 13th again soon. What happened on February 13th again? Will you be there on February 13th? And so on and so forth. In school we collected money for the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche. We had to. There was a bake sale, and you also had to bring at least three euros. If you forgot, you were told to bring three euros with you the next day, or else. After all, it was for us, for our city, for our Dresden, our heritage, our duty, our future. When I was very young, there was still some rubble lying around Neumarkt. It actually looked really cool. Then as the rubble disappeared, there were endless discussions about what the new Frauenkirche should look like and whether it was even a good idea to rebuild it, or whether it shouldn’t just be turned into a memorial. I didn’t give a shit about buildings and three euros wasn’t exactly a small sum of money. They made a similar fuss about the Waldschlösschen Bridge, and again the issue was whether or not our beautiful Dresden was now becoming more beautiful or uglier thanks to the new architecture. In spite of all the fuss, the biggest argument of all never went away; whether Dresden had been the victim or the perpetrator in 1945.

As a child, I was still sure that we were the victims. There were those horrible stories told in kindergarten and primary school: the air raid alarm that had come from nowhere and forced everyone out of bed and into the cellars. The animals in the zoo had perished in the most horrible way, which for me as a child was the worst imaginable thing about it all. The bombs had dropped just like that and then at some point people had copies of Richard Peter’s Dresden: a Camera Accuses on their shelves, but they themselves accused the British above all. The fear that we could be struck by bombs overnight left such a mark on me that I would lie awake at night, listening out for an alarm anywhere. I had laid out my dolls and other possessions close enough to my bed so that if the worst came to the worst, I could quickly pack them up and take them with me. Then, twenty years later, we raged against this supposed victimhood with the cry “Bomber Harris, do it again.”  Well, that’s one way of growing up, too.

The nicest February 13th was in 2013. A few weeks earlier, a group of women had publicly begun to call for it to be made into a day of remembrance to commemorate the split of Take That. After all, the band had broken up on 13th February 1996, and in doing so had claimed countless victims. They called for a memorial and an hour of commemoration at the Frauenkirche. Of course, nothing came of the memorial, but the hour of commemoration did take place. They laid down teddy bears, lit candles, and sang ‘Back For Good’. Needless to say, the police chased the group off. This was how ‘Back For Good’ became the 13th February anthem for Antifa, until the day became less important thanks to successful efforts to block them.

Then the anti-Islamic group Pegida became a thing and with it came trouble every week. Whilst some people from Chemnitz still traveled to Dresden for this as well, I gave it a miss. After all, we soon had our own spin-off: Cegida.

We are driving towards Dresden in Stefan’s car. When we arrive at the state parliament building, there are some 50 counterprotesters there; we don’t see any Nazis. Eventually there are around fifteen of them, on our side there are around 100. Perhaps there aren’t any more Antifa members than that in Dresden these days. Konstantin, who we know from earlier protests, tells us that support has declined and they need new blood. In the end, the people running Dresden Nazifrei were completely burnt out, he says. According to him, these days many of them want to campaign for a ‘colourful Dresden’ and to feel like they’re doing something positive, but no one wants to be seen as a ‘left wing extremist’. Lots of people on the left just come here to study and then move on. I feel seen.

Luckily nothing more happens that day. There’s lots of empty talk and everyone’s on the alert, but the Nazis aren’t that dumb. It would be tactically stupid to take to the streets again today because this time there really are a lot of police about. Old Philipp traipses through the frame again and takes his photos. A couple of Pegida grandads tell us that we should get jobs. Whatever.

On the way home, Stefan, Selma and I want to stop at McDonald’s, but Jana doesn’t because she wants to lose weight. I’m annoyed, but then my embarrassing thoughts from last night cross my mind again. Who am I to judge her?

 

Excerpted from Paula Irmschler, Superbusen, Claassen-Verlag, 2020

Or Else It Doesn’t Work.

Author: Katharina Wulkow
Translator: Regan Mies

 

Translator’s Preface:
Kristin, the 25-year-old narrator of this short piece, reflects on sensations from her childhood, submerging readers in joyful seaside anticipation, early-morning awe, and the simultaneous comfort and unease of knowing and not-quite-knowing the members of one’s own family.

The ephemeral quality of the story’s content is reflected in its syntax and tense:  Short, fragmented sentences, all in the present, pull readers forward through time.  Katharina Wulkow’s prose sets up a  captivating back-and-forth between the present and the past, between togetherness and distance, and between hazy nostalgia and precise observation.

 

A hand on the banister. Fingertips feeling for grains of sand. Fissures in the wood. Above, seagulls circle; the Baltic surges under their screaming calls.

Kristin skips the last two steps. For the length of a breath, the inner tube hangs suspended around her waist. She is ready. To dash across the beach, to plunge herself into the water. The air smells like it always has. The shore’s full of seaweed, which everyone finds disgusting. But not Kristin. She thinks of spinach. Spinach and mashed potatoes.

Sneakers sink into the sand. She bends down, digs her fingers in, then watches how the grains tumble back down to the ground. Soft like powdered sugar, only heavier.

Sandcastles and moats, all day long, because they make her brother’s eyes shine bluer. Hair bleached by the sun, almost white. Melted ice cream runs down fingers. Skin bitter with sunscreen.

They wave to her. Sometimes it’s eerie. The look, the freckles, the way they walk. Mom linked arm-in-arm with Jens, who towers a whole head over her. Laughing, they come closer. The same dimple. On the left. Kristin runs her fingers over her cheek, presses into the shallow depression. The two settle down next to her, the sea in their eyes. Waves wipe the years away.

Kristin sits between people. Imagines how it all used to be. Like in an old, washed-out photograph. Across from her grandparents. Grandma’s face flushed, like it always is when she’s allowed herself a schnapps. Next to her, Grandpa strikes the table with his hand. Long, broad fingers with callouses from work on the farm.

Kristin is seven when he wakes her up one morning, his pointer finger against his lips. We mustn’t talk, he had explained the previous evening. Or else it doesn’t work. He helps her get dressed, and half asleep, she stumbles down the dark wooden stairs.

The sun is still hidden behind the horizon. They venture across the farmyard, hear a snort from the stable. Grasses and trees lie sleeping under morning’s frost, under that last breath of snow left shimmering across the field.

Grandpa holds Kristin’s hand. So tight that it feels smaller when they arrive at the spring and he lets go. They take off their jackets and shoes, roll up the hems of their pants. The water prickles and stings against skin. Kristin presses her lips together, wades behind Grandpa into the river. They each wash their face, their neck, their arms.

Until even their feet are shivering. Grandpa lifts Kristin out of the water, sets her down on the riverbank, and rubs her dry with a hand towel. Her skin burns. Grass tickles her palms. Grandpa strokes her head as the sun climbs into the sky.

The people at the table come alive with color. Kristin discovers her mother in Grandma’s mannerisms, Uncle Peer in Grandpa’s gestures. Puzzle pieces of herself scattered around the table. Here, between them, she’s the tomboy tracking mud down the hallway each night. The woman newly divorced. Fresh from the womb.

In the harbor canal there is a boat. Nailed to its bow, a plaque that says Lütte. Kristin listens to the water slosh against the ship’s hull.

The windows on the pension’s top floor are dark.

Maybe they’re still awake, Mom and Jens.

Maybe they’re thinking of Grandma and Grandpa, and how, when they climbed into the cab, they waved until they were out of sight. Of Uncle Peer, who becomes stiff as a board when embraced. Who never knows what to do with the closeness, the kisses.

Kristin strides to the Lütte, looks around, climbs across the narrow catwalk and onto the deck. Pauses in front of the wheelhouse. Walks along the railing. Brick houses line the canal, and one of them looks just like the home that used to be theirs.

A quarter of a century settles into her stomach.

 

First published in Mosaik: https://www.mosaikzeitschrift.at/literatur/freitext-katharina-wulkow/

About Ghosts

Author: Bernhard Strobel
Translator: Mandy Olson

 

The suspect climbed over the fence Wednesday night, a few minutes after ten o’clock. I saw a shadow move in the half-darkness along the wall of the house next door. It was foggy, so I couldn’t make out much, and the figure — I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman — at least had the presence of mind to clamber over the fence away from the glow of the nearest streetlamp.

My first thought was that this was a burglar. I admit that I was nervous. I trotted back and forth for a whole minute thinking about what to do. It took at least that long, a full 60 seconds, maybe longer, for the figure to come down the other side of the fence. That seemed strange to me, but then again not that strange. I had never seen an intruder at work and didn’t think I was in a position to judge this person’s criminal proficiency.

I came to the conclusion that it made the most sense to wait out the next few minutes. I set myself rules to determine my next move. If the shadow moved towards the entrance, I would do nothing. If it disappeared around the back, and no lights came on in any of the windows within a few minutes, then I would call the police.

It ended up being scenario number two, and I did what I had resolved to do. I called the police to report what I had witnessed. I was a little flustered, but the call didn’t last long all in all. The officer on the phone thanked me and said someone would come by and see to the situation right away. I remember I smiled: “see to the situation.” I hadn’t heard that expression in some time.

Not even five minutes later, they drove up. No blue lights, no sirens. Still no light had come on in the house across the street. I had no idea what the proper protocol was for police officers in a suspected burglary. Would they ring the bell? And risk that the bell would give the burglar enough time to get away over the back fence? Were they allowed to just go inside the house?

I was so agitated I was trembling. I stood at the window and watched them. I saw them stand at the front door and press the doorbell, many times. No lights came on. An eternity passed before they decided to head down the narrow path along the wall to the back of the house. The dark of night and the fog combined must have made it very difficult for them to see. Now I’m surprised that they didn’t use any flashlights. Or maybe they did have them, and I just didn’t see.

Finally, a weak shimmer of light appeared. A yellowish glow cut through the fog from the ground upward. The light must have come through one of the long, narrow basement windows. It illuminated a small section of the path between the house wall and fence, hardly noticeable if you weren’t looking closely. The basement, I thought, someone broke into the basement.

Shortly after that, the police officers returned. I saw them walk slowly along the side of the house and step through the gate to the street. They stopped next to the police car and exchanged a few words. Then, sort of indecisively, they crossed the street and rang my doorbell. They must have seen a light on and a person at the window, me. I let them in. It was a man and a woman.

“Excuse the disturbance,” said the woman.

“It’s fine,” I said.

“You called the police a little while ago?” she said more than asked. After I confirmed, she wanted to know: “What exactly did you see?”

So I told them what I had seen, a figure climbing over the fence at the neighboring house and disappearing in the back. They wanted to know if the person climbed over the fence right away or if they had first tried to go through the front of the house like normal. I answered that I had seen exactly what I had told them; I couldn’t provide any information on anything that had happened before that.

“And it was the first time that you had seen him doing this?”

“Him?” I asked

I noticed her discomfort at having involuntarily given something away like this, a rookie mistake. But she didn’t let it faze her and corrected: “They. The person.”

“Yes, this was the first time. And it was pure coincidence.”

“Do you see your neighbor often?”

“Not very often, no,” I answered. That was the truth; more precisely, I practically never saw him. In fact, I could think of no more than three occasions on which I had seen him, and in each case, we had coincidentally come out of our houses at the same time. The truth is, the presence of the police triggered a feeling of discomfort in me, a feeling of guilt. After all, as it turned out, it was not an intruder but rather my neighbor himself who had broken into his own house. He surely had just forgotten his house key or lost it, and I can imagine how little I would like it, should I ever forget my own house key, if the police got reports about me from my own neighbors. It was a misunderstanding, a false alarm, all because of my call.

“Then you probably aren’t aware of the rumors either?”

“Rumors?” I asked, surprised. “Since when are the police responsible for rumors?”

The sentence sounded more accusatory than I’d intended, it just slipped out. It must have been the surprise, paired with the tension that the evening’s events had triggered, tension that continued to build.

“What you saw fits a certain image, if you will. That’s why I asked.”

“What kind of rumors?” I wanted to know.

The man stepped in, “The police are not responsible for rumors.” His smugness when he said this rubbed me the wrong way. They were the ones who had brought it up. But that’s how it is with the police, they can do things no one else can.

“By the way, is it against the law to climb over your own fence?”

The question came out before I could stop it. In the same instant, I heard how foolish it was, and what followed was the only fitting response:

“And yet, that’s why you called the police. Imagine if the police were called out every evening just because a person set foot on his own property in an unusual way. You understand that’s not an option.”

I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. Partly because of the police, just the fact of their presence, their questions—most people do feel uneasy around the police, it’s mainly a question of power, the juxtaposition of power and powerlessness. I wasn’t any different. But it was probably largely because of my guilty conscience. A new, additional guilty conscience, if you can put it that way. I knew virtually nothing about my neighbors, and to be honest, have always welcomed this ignorance. I live alone; not exactly a hermit, but alone. I knew nothing about the people in the area and they knew nothing about me. That’s how it was, and I liked it that way. But now I was suddenly overcome with doubt about whether there wasn’t actually a little cruelty, inhumanity, in this way of living. You read again and again in the news about people, mostly elderly, who lay dead in their apartments, undiscovered until the smell of decay becomes unbearable. Is that really how I wanted to live? Did I want to be left for months until I’d half-moldered to dust?

I suddenly felt so lonely, almost self-pitying, even. After quite unexpectedly becoming a widower two years ago, I had decided to move, as far away as possible, to a small town far outside the city. That’s how I ended up here. By chance. The house was up for sale, and I bought it. It was that simple. The house didn’t even cost that much; it ate up less than half of my wife’s life insurance. I’ve lived here since then, alone—if you can call it living. Now, though, because of this alleged break-in, this business with the neighbor, something from outside had seeped into me and sparked a glimmer of hope—or more of a curiosity. Yes, because I was curious. Curious about the neighbor and the rumors. “It fits a certain image,” the officers had said. But what kind of image does climbing over your own fence fit? The other thing that occurred to me was that I felt bound to my neighbor in a way; yes, I thought that I was even a little indebted to him. Well, maybe not quite indebted, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Even so, after the officers had left, I decided to go over to his house the next morning.

*

He came from the back side of the house after I had rung the bell several times, pausing in between. He was wearing a robe, on his feet slippers so worn that he was practically walking on bare heels. An unappetizing sight, yellow toenails, skin full of cracks and deep grooves.

“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” I said.

He laid his hand on the gate latch but didn’t push it.

“I … it’s,” I stammered, even though I had already prepared in advance what I’d say. Maybe it was because he came out looking so disheveled.

“It is a little uncomfortable for me to have to tell you this, but I wanted to let you know that it was me who called the police last night.”

He didn’t respond, so I went on.

“Had I known it was you…I’m not the kind of person who calls the police at the drop of a hat. I’m sorry, anyway, if I put you in a difficult position.”

“Thanks,” he said.

There was a pause that was a little awkward and that he, because he apparently had something to say, ended with the words:

“I’d ask you to come inside, but it’s not possible.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“See you around,” he said.

“See you,” I said, as he took his hand from the latch and turned around. Again, he went not through the front door of the house, but along the side of the house to the back.

It was a little odd when you think about it. Why didn’t he go through the front door like a normal person? And what was he doing behind the house all the time? Even though we’d already said goodbye and there was no reason for me to stay standing in front of his house any longer, I did just that. What was I waiting for? Why was I standing here and waiting as though the encounter hadn’t happened yet? I didn’t know. Or maybe I did know, but not until I was back at home and a kind of disappointment washed over me. I felt a sense of relief because the apology was behind me, but at the same time, I was disappointed, as though I’d expected something more. I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it was.

I made coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. I didn’t even feel like leafing through my gardening magazines. What did you expect? I said to myself. What on earth did you expect? I was beating myself up. Did I actually believe that just because I’d rung his bell one time to make a polite apology that he’d confide his life story in me? And is that even what I wanted? Was I suddenly so desperate to connect with another human that I would grasp at straws like this? It was not a pleasant feeling—I’d have liked to just shake it off. I knew, of course, that there was more behind this sudden sense of dejection than mere disappointment over a conversation that hadn’t happened or the fact that I was excluded from local rumors. That was merely a consequence of the life I had chosen and, yes, the life I had successfully resigned myself to for quite some time. Granted, it was not entirely voluntary on my part—what happened to my wife would have thrown most people for a loop. Nevertheless, I felt so acutely alone that my stomach tensed up. You have to see to it that you get out a little bit. Maybe you could go to the pub, I thought. There were three establishments in town, and when I realized all at once that I had not seen a single one of them from the inside since moving here, I said to myself in earnest: Today you will go to the pub!

I admit that hidden behind this spur-of-the-moment decision was also the hope that I would meet him there. I thought that would be a good beginning. I’ve never set great store by rumors, but it did make him all the more interesting. And if not him, who else? I didn’t know anybody. I would be part of the world again, at least a small world. This was, as far as I was concerned, not just a spontaneous decision, but a transformative one.

*

I met him in the pub at the train station. As I walked into the dimly lit, run-down place, an unease overcame me. It had nothing to do with the state of the pub — I have nothing against a dive, and if I had to choose, I’d rather spend my time there than in some fancy restaurant — it was the curiosity with which my arrival was met. I felt like I was on a stage, an impression that was intensified by the dark, greasy floorboards. I thought to myself that it was probably normal in such a small place to enter a bar and have all eyes on you. The difference being, I suppose, that those eyes would quickly turn back to other things, or rather other people. That was not the case with me. I had their undivided attention. I’d have liked to spin on my heel — I felt my courage escape like air from a tire. It was the neighbor,of all people, who helped me out of the situation. He waved. He was sitting alone at a table in the corner, and I went over to him.

“Thanks. You rescued me,” I said outright.

“That remains to be seen.”

He invited me with a gesture to take a seat at his table. I gladly accepted the invitation.

“We’re two mice in a rat hole,” he said, obviously having noticed what I had noticed.

“You too?” I asked.

He smirked before saying:

“I’ll put it this way: If you were hoping to make friends in the village, you would have been better off sitting at a table by yourself.”

“Well then, thank you kindly for waving me over,” I said.

“Consider it payback for calling the cops on me,” he said with an entirely unreadable expression. Did he really mean that? If this was his way of giving me a glimpse into his character, he was certainly succeeding. My utter bewilderment caused another smug grin to stretch across his face.

“A joke,” he said finally, “just a joke. No hard feelings. You looked so helpless when you came in.”

At that I said nothing. Although he seemed to be waiting for me to say something in return, I preferred to not immediately give him another opportunity for affront. It turned out he didn’t even need to be given such an opportunity, because he suddenly said openly:

“People think I’m crazy.”

“You mean I do, or they do?” I asked, indicating the other people in the room with a roll of my eyes visible only to him.

“Not just them,” he answered. “Everyone. The police too.”

I almost felt sorry for him, how he sat there and laid bare his reputation in the village. I wondered if I could ask him why he came here, when he obviously didn’t feel welcome, and didn’t instead spend his time at home. Or was that too personal a question? I asked him anyway.

“It’s no better at home,” he answered somewhat cryptically. I wanted to ask him why, but he beat me to it. There was a strange look in his eyes, a sort of impishness mixed with hope, if you can say that. Although this look alone signaled something was coming, it struck me by surprise when he suddenly asked:

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

He saw the expression on my face and added:

“Maybe now you understand why you’re still being stared at.”

He said this with a smile, but one that was not without pain. In his situation, whatever that may be, a little gallows humor might be considered healthy, but he didn’t quite succeed. I wasn’t sure what approach to take with him. It was somehow both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time to sit there at that table with him. I have nothing against directness, the bluntness that comes naturally to some, but he did seem a little more extreme in this regard.

“It was a serious question, by the way,” he said.

“I understood as much.”

He nodded. When I didn’t say more, he drank from his beer. Only then did I realize no one had come by the table yet to take my order. One might interpret that as impolite, and at the very least bad business sense, but there was no waiter in sight. But then apparently someone did turn up, because the neighbor made a gesture over my head, from which I gathered he had also ordered a glass for me.

“And? What’s your answer?”

I had hoped I wouldn’t have to answer the question anymore, but no such luck. He didn’t seem like a crazy person, at least not like the kind of crazy you usually imagine—a really crazy person, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The truth is, I had often asked myself about the existence or non-existence of ghosts and had come to what was, for me, a satisfactory conclusion. But I never would have thought to discuss it with a stranger. Maybe that’s where he was crazy. So I decided, since we were being so open and direct, that I would try to answer him as honestly and clearly as I could.

“I believe in memories,” I said. “I believe memories can be so powerful or so real that they seem like ghosts. Memories of people. And if those people are dead, then yeah, they especially might appear to us to be ghosts. I mean, however people imagine ghosts to be. I sometimes see my late wife, talk to her even. But I know that it’s the memories. In other words, the brain. I believe, actually, I’m convinced that what happens with ghosts is the same as with gods: they come into existence out of a combination of fear and not knowing. If you asked a six-year-old what thunder and lightning are, the child would probably tell you that they are a weather phenomenon that occurs under certain conditions in the air. Two thousand years ago or so, people believed that some god was swinging around his hammer or trident, because they didn’t know any better. And because the weather scared the wits out of them. I’m fairly certain that the belief in ghosts came to be in the same way, only through the phenomenon of memory.”

He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms, kind of sulking, like a little kid. I waited for his insult, but then it went the other way.

“That was a really nice little speech, thank you,” he said. “Do you also want to tell that to the ghost that’s been driving me mad for two years straight?”

I’m sure I don’t need to mention that his tone was full of sarcasm. I was a little irritated. Although I’d actually expected such a tone and was even prepared for worse, I found it to be uncalled for, nevertheless. He had asked me something and I had answered with utmost sincerity. I said that to him in precisely those words.

“Don’t be offended, it’s the desperation,” he apologized. “I live in the basement.”

I really didn’t know what to think of it all. I was even less sure how to react. He wasn’t stupid, he knew I felt uneasy about what he had told me. After all, there were these rumors going around about him, and the fact that people were the way they were with him—according to his own account—he certainly carried some of the blame for that. He must have been very naïve if he thought it would be different with me. Or was it simply indifference, resignation? Probably the latter. What I had observed, he told me, and what had prompted me to call the police, was his reaction to the “circumstances,” he explained, and that was how he said circumstances, with quote marks. It had gotten so bad again recently that he entered the house through the back door and went from there straight down to the basement.

“The first floor and upper floor belong to the ghost,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen, which is why I climb over the fence. I am aware that this cannot be a long-term solution. The last two weeks alone are enough. It started when I … no, let’s leave it there. My personal life is really none of your business. That someone would notice me climbing around sooner or later is no surprise, but so what.”

“What did the police say about it?”

“What do you think they got out of me?”

“No idea. What do you say in such a situation?”

“Definitely not the truth,” said the neighbor.

“But the police know the rumors, too,” I pointed out.

“The rumors are one thing. It’s another to hear such a truth from the mouth of a grown man. I’m afraid such a story wouldn’t be safe in the hands of the police.”

“And is it safe with the others in the village?”

“They have no authority.”

On that point—well, there was no arguing with that.

“Besides, I can’t stand the police,” he added. “Just by being the police, they are automatically the good guys. That’s the shitty thing about it. They can be sadists, dumb as a bag of rocks, hate everyone—if they are also police officers, then they’re still the good guys. Then they can make decisions about other people. If civil war breaks out overnight, or a dictatorship takes hold—as police or, as far as I’m concerned, soldiers, they’re in the clear. They have nothing to fear. It’s maddening, don’t you think? And they just chose this for themselves, you know? These custodians of the law are not people with high moral standards or a strong sense of justice, they just made a decision to do this, that’s all. Other people decide to become bakers, carpenters, scientists, whatever. Does that give them authority to order others around? No.”

I couldn’t stop myself from saying:

“Now you gave me a little lecture.” He smiled, and I added: “No harm intended, I agree with you. I had to deal with the police some time ago and never felt good about it. Although they actually had good intentions.”

“You too?” he asked.

“When my wife died.”

At that he just nodded. This information had obviously left him feeling awkward. We both drank our beer. Because I was sitting with my back to the bar and could hardly see any of the people there, but also didn’t want to turn around, I had no choice but to read the atmosphere in the bar through his eyes. I don’t think I’m mistaken when I say that even he was surprised by the curiosity paid us. Something in his eyes told me so. Unexpressed hostilities, you could call it.

“So what does it do, your ghost?” I allowed myself to ask. “And what do you plan to do about it?”

“What can I do?”

The question went unanswered. I didn’t think I could offer a solution he hadn’t already thought of himself. The only thing I could think of that made sense was to ask why he hadn’t long since moved.

“Because the ghost would move with me,” he answered matter-of-factly, as if he were talking about a pet that couldn’t simply be left behind. “It’s not a household ghost—I mean it, well, she actually—doesn’t belong to the house, she’s tied to me. To something that I did.”

“Which brings us back to the memories.”

He responded with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Whether you believe it or not, I was a normal person once,” he said now, kind of apropos of nothing, without looking me in the face. It wasn’t clear to me what he hoped to accomplish with this statement, if anything. Or if maybe he expected me to say something about it. Then a question occurred to me that I wanted to ask him:

“So do the rumors have to do with your ghost or with what you did?”

“No one knows what I did, no one!” he shouted. That is to say, he didn’t really shout, but hissed the words from between his teeth. Had his mouth been open, it would have been a shout.

How I was supposed to react to this outburst, I really didn’t know. Whatever he’d done must have truly tormented him, but whether it tormented him as a memory or in the form of a ghost—well, who knows?

Indeed, I myself was also tormented by a notion. Was I sharing this table with a criminal? With a criminal who got away with it? Although such a notion was deeply disturbing to me, especially me, I could hardly wait for him to confide in me, of all people, and besides, another question had occurred to me:

“If you are so sure, by the way, that it—or she—would haunt you no matter where you go, then why not in the basement too?”

I didn’t expect an answer and I didn’t get one. But I suddenly had a thought that made me grin: a ghost that was afraid of basements. I knew there were people who were afraid of basements—my wife was one of them. It’s common knowledge that people are afraid of the strangest things, but a ghost without the guts to go into the basement?

“What are you laughing at?” the neighbor asked.

“Nothing, I just had a thought,” I answered. And because I had no intention of revealing exactly what that thought was, I said: “If you don’t mind me asking, do you plan to keep climbing over the fence from now on? I could imagine it might get you even more frequent visits from the police if you do.”

It was a little awkward for me to say so—he wasn’t an idiot and surely knew that such behavior would alarm the other neighbors sooner or later, but I saw it as my duty, in a way, to point this out.

We had both almost emptied our glasses, and although the conversation hadn’t been uncomfortable at all up to now—surprising, but not uncomfortable—it was quickly coming to an end. I admit I wasn’t unhappy about this, I didn’t feel very at ease in the place. It may sound strange, but I told him that if he thought of a way I could help, to let me know. I said this as though I were actually in a position to drive away spirits or something. On the other hand, considering the things I’d heard that day, maybe it wasn’t actually so strange.

After finishing our glasses more or less in silence, we quickly said our goodbyes. I went home, he stayed. It’s quite possible that he was also ready to go but had no desire to spend the fifteen-minute walk together with me. I wasn’t unhappy about that either. We’d talked, quite a bit actually, when you think about the fact that we’d already been neighbors for two years and before this had exchanged hardly three words with one another. The walk home together could prove to be rather awkward under the circumstances. Although I couldn’t deny that I thought he was interesting. Or more precisely, that I, for whatever reason, had taken an interest in his life.

The weather was nice, a little windy, but that didn’t bother me. Not anymore, I should add. It was a particularly windy area I had ended up in, and it had taken time for me to get used to it.

I expected that as I walked my mind would already be flooded with thoughts of this encounter, but it didn’t happen until I reached home. As I walked, with the wind in my ears, I thought of virtually nothing—it literally blew all thoughts away.

Once at home, though, I had to sit down then and there. My neighbor’s face suddenly appeared to me as if out of nowhere, as though he himself were a ghost. Oddly, and more terrifying yet, in black and white, almost like a drawing. It was as if this encounter in all its, how to put it, significance, didn’t really hit me until then. This thing with the ghost and the memories. I didn’t believe in ghosts, I never had. But I believed just as little that memories stopped at a basement staircase. I was confused, to put it mildly. I had never asked myself why, after the murder of my wife, I had ended up here of all places. And just what bad thing had the neighbor done?

*

Then it happened. On Saturday morning, two days after our encounter in the pub. I got up at the same time as always and immediately heard that something was going on outside. I went to the window and discovered the blue lights of several emergency vehicles. It wasn’t completely light out yet, but the entire section of the street in front of the window was lit up blue. Three police cars and the ambulance blocked the way on both sides. And people had gathered, mostly neighbors from the street, as far as I could tell.

I considered whether I too should go out but decided against it. It would be a lie to say I didn’t know what had happened. Of course I knew. The emergency workers had gathered in front of the house and were looking at a spot on the ground directly in front of the wall facing the street. And: one of the windows on the upper floor stood wide open. I even caught a brief glimpse of the body lying on the ground. It was the neighbor.

I remember what my first thought was: the ghost. I said it several times to myself, for whatever reason. Maybe to convince myself that it was true?

A few more days passed before they showed up. I expected them sooner. After all, I was likely one of the only people who’d had some kind of contact with him before his death. They came in without asking. After a whole run of questions, primarily my personal details, they finally came out with it. More precisely, they didn’t actually come out with anything, but rather asked me dozens more questions.

“How well did you know your neighbor?”

“Not very well.”

“Did you have contact with him?”

“Only once.”

“When?”

“Thursday evening.”

“You mean when you were seen together with him at a table in the pub by the train station?”

“Yes.”

“And after that?”

“No more.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Would you say that under oath?”

“Yes.”

“Were you ever in his house?”

“No.”

Each question was followed by a nod from one the of the officers—there were three—and the man asking the questions, a man in plainclothes, wrote something in his notepad.

“Did you know that he was a wanted criminal?”

“Did you know?”

“No.”

“Then how could I have known?”

“Because, for example, you saw what we saw when we searched his house.”

“I told you I was never in his house.”

“You said that, yes.”

Things continued this way for a while until the conversation turned to my own past. They had found out what happened to my wife, how she had died, said something about a composite sketch, a rather fuzzy black and white drawing that unfortunately never would have led to solving the crime. I knew all of this. God knows they didn’t need to tell me. Well, I knew it, but they evidently had not known about it. Finally the conversation turned more explicitly in the direction the officers had taken from the start.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Well, before recently, I didn’t believe in them.”

“Us either, you see,” said the plainclothes officer. And last but not least, the question it all came down to: “Where were you on Friday night?”

 

From Bernhard Strobel, Nach den Gespenstern, Literaturverlag Droschl, 2021.

 

 

 

About Traveling and Being Good
Minna von Barnhelm was Blue

Author: Susanne Neuffer
Translator: Milena Sanabria-Contreras

 

About Traveling and Being Good
There once is: The violinist is short and skinny. He looks exactly the way violinists and tailors look on the covers and illustrations in past editions of old novellas and fairytales: mustached and half-starved. He’s wearing a shabby suit – that, too, fits into the picture. He sits on the concrete bollard in front of the Sparkasse, a few meters from the intersection, and fiddles away. What he’s fiddling is not important; it’s just a few bars, an increasingly irritating, then jarring melody, repeated incessantly.

If you’re only walking from the Sparkasse to the organic food store and maybe going to the bakery, it’s not too bad. Then you listen to the skinny violinist for a few minutes, maybe a quarter of an hour. Afterwards, you can go home and listen to nothing or something else.

Kathrin Berendsen will listen to Mahler or Bernstein or to a CD of Finnish poetry. Kathrin Berendsen doesn’t know Finnish – that’s why she listens to that soothingly unintelligible CD.

Kathrin Berendsen loves Nordic countries, although recently she’s been having some trouble on her journey there. The metal toilet paper holders on the ferries are all named Katrin, and the new soap dispensers Berendsen. It’s an imposition to see your own name used in that way. The missing h doesn’t help at all in this context, only the spoken word counts.

If the lifeboats were named KATRIN 1 through KATRIN 8 (preferably with an h), if the big steering wheel, which Kathrin quite erroneously assumes to be on the bridge, or any other piece of machinery were named Berendsen, it’d be fine. But being confronted with a part of your identity – and your first and last name are very much that – in the restroom area of every ferry, and even on the equipment in the sanitary facilities at the ferry terminal on shore, is too much. It looms over the joy of travel like a shadow, eventually forcing you to go by land. The latter trip, however, leads convolutedly across Danish bridges or via the Baltics. This makes the whole business longer, more expensive, more exhausting. So, in the long run, she’ll stick to the Finnish poetry CD, caviar cream in a tube, and fat books, in which people subarctically murder and grouse.

All of this you find at home, where you can no longer hear the violinist. You can quickly walk past, move away from him – him and his sphere of power. But what of those forced to listen to him all day? You can hear him at the Sparkasse, in the neighboring shops, in the public library – on the second floor even with the windows closed.

Something seems to be brewing around the violinist: something palpable but not yet allowed to surface. Nobody likes being a monster, but nobody can listen to the same eight or twelve shrill bars all day, a melody twisting upwards without coming to an end, a screeching bolero without a final drooping resolution. Such a thing threatens civilization because it provokes sinister fantasies: snatching the violin from the little violinist, stomping on it with a derisive laugh, or smashing it against the pole with the electronic clock and the temperature display; kicking, pushing, chasing away the crying violinist, knocking over his collection cap, threatening him with the police. The latter would be the tamest variation of the suddenly seething rage, the helpless anger, the red-faced aggression.

The next day – Kathrin Berendsen needs to buy some cleaning products for herself and her overflowing household, and once more needs new stories about the ubiquity and ultimate vanquishability of evil – the violinist has moved a little farther away. A few meters closer to the intersection, further from the shops. He’s basically standing at the edge of the street. He’s standing since he no longer has a concrete bollard to perch on. His playing can no longer be heard so clearly, it even seems to be a slightly different melody; however, it’s still curving aimlessly upwards. He’s mostly drowned out by the traffic; only when the light turns red and the pedestrians start across the street does he win back control of their ears and souls.

Seems impossible that he has willingly slid so far to the edge of the sidewalk and away from the shopping street. Maybe someone asked him, threatened him – but who? How stron is the power of thought?

Kathrin Berendsen doesn’t buy cleaning products, but a travel-size tube of detergent instead. It’s time to set off. Once her dreams start swarming with people, that means it’s time for her to quickly take a few vacation days, to leave for empty landscapes, until her dream studio is washed empty again and shows nothing but rocks, lichen and loading docks for birchwood trucks. Too many people in your daily life and your dreams are an imposition; you can die from it. She read a beautiful story where somebody was afraid to die of their oversensitivity to impositions. She immediately felt very close to that somebody.

On the third day, when she buys a travel-size toothbrush and withdraws money, the violinist has disappeared. It’s quiet, at least when it comes to the violinist. The traffic, of course, can be heard, and the people are making an undefinable background noise inside the shopping center.

Kathrin walks cautiously across the intersection. There’s a big brownish-red stain on the crosswalk. She can’t stop, the pedestrian lights have already turned red. They ran over the violinist, naturally.  Ran him over or beat him to death. And the splinters from his violin and the horsehair from the bow were meticulously swept up.

Feelings of shame and guilt do not fail to materialize. She’d wished him away. Just like the whistler that time on the local train, who’d been whistling a shrill, high-pitched melody, over and over again, at predictable intervals, a melody against which no reading, no earplugs, no staring out the window were of any use. The wandering old codger sitting across from her had said: You can’t do anything. That poor guy. He gets off two stops from here. But people who don’t know him can’t stand him very well.

Kathrin had moved two compartments over. She couldn’t stand him either. Actually, she couldn’t stand the idea of the whistler working every day in a sheltered workshop, shrilly whistling away at regular intervals at a high pitch, and trilling sharply and indomitably, and after work, living a few stops away, in a small townhouse with his parents. There he whistles away as he showers, eats dinner, and watches soccer, until his mother sends him to bed because the next morning he needs to go whistling to work well-rested. And over the house and the workshop and the local train hang black clouds where his listeners’ thoughts and feelings accumulate.

So, on the third day the violinist is dead, or at least gone. The journey must begin now. Kathrin finds an airport counter where you can pay cash and get a ticket from a small blond helper with a little blue-and-white striped blouse, and the little helper only gives a friendly laugh, neither derisive nor condescending, and wishes her a good flight.

In the waiting area, there’s coffee and newspapers, and in the middle of the sitting landscape sits someone whom Kathrin Berendsen has seen often in pictures and on the TV news. He’s a politician but she doesn’t remember his name and party or office. She knows that he did something stupid or embarrassing or illegal. There’s something creating a space between him and the world, something to do with money or lust or words you can’t say.

Now she can either walk past him, or she can seize the opportunity to do something good. Maybe somewhere there’s a white crow that’s watching her who will someday bring her a healing plant in its beak when a bear in the woods up north has grievously wounded her. But that will only happen if she’s done enough good.

So, she sits down beside him leaving a seat in between, sighs loudly and strikes up a conversation about the fear of flying. She improvises, because she’s not actually afraid of flying, and so she’s chatting, face to face, with the scared politician – she thinks she remembers that he’s already fallen or is still in the process of falling from grace – and talks neither about politics nor about human lapses or new beginnings in general; no, she prattles on about the annoying feeling that you get before flying, which will hopefully pass when the flight attendant brings something to drink.

The apprehension in the man’s eyes has given way to surprise, and that, too, gives way to friendly relief. Apparently, for the first time in a long time, he can talk about trivial things to someone who clearly doesn’t know him, and he’s doing so with increasing joy. Yes, the takeoff is the worst part, and that never really goes away, and then you remember that humans are, after all, land animals. It sounds as though he has to and wants to regain practice in casual conversation, and he’s on the right track when his flight is called, and he stands up nodding a friendly goodbye. Now she remembers what he did. During a solemn state ceremony, he was unable to mute his cellphone when it pierced the silence with a horrible strident schmalzy ballad, and he frantically stomped on the singing thing on the floor before every camera in the world and the eyes of all who had long been waiting for his first useful mistake.

Later, it’s not that hard to get to the small Finnish city and find the gas station with a few shabby apartments on Europastraße. It’s blood drive day; all around, grey-haired ladies sit with collection tins and urgently point the way to the blood donation center. Kathrin Berendsen walks bravely and a little self-consciously past the ladies into the small café with the reheatable pastries. Rose-printed tablecloths cover the tables, and the sofas have rose prints too. Lord, it is good for us to be here.

Over the corner table, where two older men are discussing a headline in the magical local language, hangs a TV. Should she now be surprised to see a program about the little violinist whose pool of blood she thought she saw at the intersection back home? Here he is, standing in a concert hall, skinny, mustached, in a shiny suit, giving a heart-moving performance and is – so the English subtitles say – a famous Latvian violinist who will soon tour all over Finland. Tickets are on sale.

She wasn’t even truly good, since she didn’t donate blood. But she’s here now, she understands nothing, the violinist is alive and wasn’t wounded, not even by her thoughts. It’s conceivable that her dreams, too, will soon take their proper course.

 


Minna von Barnhelm Was Blue

Outside the restaurant, the ice floes in the City Park lake pushed back and forth. Inside, you could hear the clattering appetizer plates being placed on the chargers. It was already time for full meals, not time for quick bites.  But we were supposed to head north soon.

Everyone was sitting around the sun parlor with empty latte mugs when I joined them. I put my small suitcase down to the side and hid the envelope deeper in my coat pocket. They were assigning the rooms. Something had gone wrong. We had two houses to share among all of us. One was ample enough for the two couples, Hilde and Tom and Konrad and his new wife, but the other one was smaller than anticipated, too small for the three singles and the girl. Someone would have to sleep on the couch in the living room. Not it! said the girl, the only young person among us, and of course we all immediately glared at her with a look that said: You’re young, you can take it. She was about fifteen, and everybody was presumably blaming Karla for finding no other solution than to bring her along. So then, she wanted to sleep in Karla’s bedroom. She probably thought that this way she’d be able to keep an eye on her mother more easily. After all, Fenech was there, and he was the only one she might consider, since Anders had died and Karla, his late new love, had stuck around our circle.

This was an experiment. In theory, we all knew each other, had celebrated holidays together, and some had already gone on vacation together. This past year, New Year’s Eve hadn’t panned out: there’d been too many regroupings, break-ins, illnesses. We’d been unable to integrate this new chaos into the familiar procedure. But everyone had been in favor of spending a few days way up north.

I’ll take the couch, I said hastily, recalling the old hotel at the end of the road, and during the whole drive along the slow broad Danish freeways, I thought about the hotel and contemplated what explanations I would need to give to switch over to its silence and comfort after the first night. My back, a need to go to bed early, the smell of food, sleep disorders in general: all this I would gingerly put forward over breakfast.

It was dark when we arrived, and our houses were deep in the back of the resort, on the right side of the long village road that poured itself and the cars seamlessly onto the beach at the end.

Stop here, I said to Fenech, who had driven the whole way in silence. Wait. I want to get my suitcase. He stopped and let me out. I’ll join you later, I said, or tomorrow morning.

It was fine that I slept in the safety of the hotel, under a down duvet and two woolen blankets in a green room. A little lamp on the windowsill was beaming out comfort, in unison with the other little lamps in the houses at the end of the road and the two old lanterns in the courtyard.

It was fine that I had breakfast there as well, drinking an entire pot of coffee and observing couples, couples and families, an inexhaustible spectacle, dainty men and sturdy women and only a few annoying children. Brightly colored parkas hung on the coatracks. They’d already been out, diligent as they were, on the beach, in the wind; they’d earned their eggs and coffee and herring.

The breakfast room was green like my bedroom, with green tapestries like the Hamlet Hotel in Helsingør, green like the first Danish café of my childhood, just across the border, where the coffee, to my parents’ surprise, never ran out.

The breakfast room was a joint effort by Ibsen & Strindberg: thick curtains, pillows, glass cabinets. I imagined inviting a theater group to perform among the tables and oaken sideboards: Nora, joking around among the breakfast guests, or Andersen’s life pleasantly dramatized during brunch. Harrowing dialogues, rustling dresses and the first smell of gravy wafting in from the kitchen.

I put on my coat, felt for the envelope with the pictures inside, went out, felt the cold hit my face, walked over to the vacation homes, found Bogfinkevej, saw the cars parked in front of the houses, walked toward the larger of the two.

The porchlight wasn’t on, but they were home, still having breakfast. They handed me a cup of coffee and asked why I was staying at the hotel. Well, you old only child, Tom teased me. I said they didn’t need to worry, I’d pay my agreed share, plus hang out with them until bedtime and participate in the group activities.

Why don’t you leave the porchlight on? I asked. That’s what the Danes do. It tells people that you’re home. In case someone gets lost in a snowstorm.

They’d been thinking more about saving energy.

The beach was almost empty when we started our walk, there was no snowstorm, only sandstorms, small, shallow sandstorms that suddenly rose as if God’s presence had dawned, as if God were a huge jumping sheet flapping toward us. I turned and pondered who I could say that to, because I thought the idea quite beautiful: God, a jumping sheet swelling and whirling in the sandstorm. But I didn’t. I had the feeling I’d already set myself apart too much.

Small cars approached from afar, driving through the water, speeding over the beach; the wind was so loud that we couldn’t hear them, couldn’t smell them, either – they were just there, crappy, old, multicolored, driving through the water, parking right at the water’s edge.

Hilde and Tom agreed, that was not right. You didn’t drive a car on the beach. Just like you didn’t leave the vacation home’s porchlight on.

Karla’s daughter watched the cars with envy and shivered even more conspicuously. Fenech gave her his scarf, which seemed to annoy Karla.

Wondering about Fenech was pointless. Though he was on the homicide squad, he was never called in when he was with us. Maybe he only worked on cold cases. He only seemed like a changing enigma. He was simply quiet and polite, considerate and a little boring, but as a single man, he dragged a somewhat crumpled myth behind him.

In the midday sun everybody looked beautiful in front of the ocean, almost unrecognizable at that distance, bravely facing the wind, a little otherworldly, like in an austere French movie.

At some point we all walked off in different directions, as if the wind were blowing us away from one another. I sat down against the rear wall of the blue-painted coffee stand presumptuously called Polarkiosken, where the wind was quieter, and pulled the envelope out of my pocket.

I’d done it again, and this time, too, it had been easy. I’d told the cashier: Oh, I forgot to bring my claim slip, but these are my pictures. And then I very confidently recited the name and the address from the envelope, looking the cashier straight in the eye. It worked, and I had a whole envelope full of pictures that didn’t belong to me. Of course, it only worked once in each drugstore.

It was an envelope with pictures going from Christmas through Easter and stretching into fall. Old people with grandchildren, bare bushes in the garden with glinting Easter baskets, a young couple who’d clearly photographed each other constantly, an empty living room, a view from an upper floor onto a residential estate. Like many times before, I was only half-satisfied, a little disappointed. It was life, and then again it wasn’t. No corpse, no sex, no birth, no moment of decision. People are more harmless than you’d expect. I put the pictures away. It was an immoral pleasure and not justifiable by any means. Only a private indulgence. Maybe I should take photographs myself – of these jellyfish, for example, lying around the beach in all colors and sizes, like the eyes of dying cats.

It got even colder, the sun garishly melted away in the water, and night fell, and I remembered we were meeting for dinner. The village road was already empty: you could see into some living rooms and kitchens; in the corner house next to the small supermarket beautiful-to-look-at old people were sitting and raising their glasses as if a director had asked them to do just that for me, so as to test my resistance to tears.

The two old sisters who ran the food stand by the post office had put out candles and fresh flowers. The menu listed two kinds of burgers, fish and chips, sausages, and fat potato salads. We ate slowly and with great care to make sure we properly honored the beauty of the locale.

At some point, we began a conversation about sleep and dreams. We’d already exhausted other subjects, touched briefly on types of oil and wine and vacation homes and growing old, and someone had talked about the need for a new communitarianism – with less emphasis than around the turn of the millennium when the topic was still fresh, and the name Amitai Etzioni rolled off everyone’s tongue like a good medium-bodied wine.

I always dream such crap, said Fenech as he sopped up the last of the ketchup on his plate with his bread roll. I’m always late, racing to catch trains and ships and getting lost in unfamiliar parts of the city that should actually be familiar. He fell silent and finished his beer.

Everybody seemed to have similar dreams, except Karla and her daughter, the latter of whom just sat there disgusted and silent. We quickly worked our way to a plausible theory: they came from the escape stories from the postwar days. Parents and aunts had ladled out the myth broth and created images in our young heads about endless trekking, overfilled trains, missed meeting points. And it didn’t matter at all if someone had actually lived those stories or was just passing them on, because, after all, they couldn’t tell us the other stories. We’d all heard it, been forced to hear it: how they’d left their luggage behind and flung themselves into roadside ditches because of low-flying aircraft. And they’d only managed to rescue their pocketbooks and a few letters.

Minna von Barnhelm was blue, I said to contribute something. A blue pocketbook with a hard cover.

I could’ve drawn a picture: my mother in her tight dress that accentuated her hips, grabbed by attentive Wehrmacht officers by precisely those hips and pushed into the last possible train from East to West. And in her small handbag, the gleaming blue Minna von Barnhelm was her only provisions until Würzburg.

The sisters set new beer bottles on the table for us, cleared away the empty plates, lit new candles. The conversation wandered around, just as we wandered around in our dreams.

Someone should do a study on that, said Konrad’s new wife. So, there are generation-specific dreams? For every time period?

Nobody answered her because people rarely ever answered her because she always said things everybody’d already thought of anyway and because she was Konrad’s new wife and therefore didn’t really count. You just can’t join in late, like Karla, who’s so much younger, which is why she’s still hauling around this obstinate daughter. And Konrad’s new wife also infiltrated our circle too late to understand all the little games and rules.

I needed to go outside. I wanted to go to my green hotel, so green was my Denmark, so blue was my Minna. I was blue too – quite drunk, really – and wouldn’t have minded leaning on Fenech now, just down the road to the beach and then back to the hotel entrance. Sleep well, sweet dreams, Fenech, I would’ve said, no murders at Bogfinkevej.

Both couples kept talking but Fenech was already by the coat rack and wrapping himself in his coat and wrapping Karla and her daughter in their parkas and he said: I’ll take you two.

And then to me: You’re not too far, are you?

No, I replied, I’m not too far.

It’s all fine, I thought on the way back to the hotel, into the rushing of wind and water: I am an old only child, I have fought valiantly in groups and partial families and now I can be an only child once again and close the doors behind me. I will dream, like always, that I’ve missed the train to Paris and all trams are going in the wrong direction.

I went to my green hotel and wrapped myself in every available blanket and decided to take some photographs over the next few days, my own pictures instead of ones stolen from strangers: of the gleaming jellyfish and the blue polar kiosk, blue like the pocketbook whose contents I had read again and again as a child but never understood – where did the ring come from, where was it now, what was the Frenchman doing in that play?

I didn’t dream that night. I slept deeply and without images and awoke early, saw the lanterns going out and the day breaking, put on my shoes, and feeling hungry, I walked along the beach, against the wind, circled the glistening jellyfish, beseeched them to keep lying there until noon, and from afar looked over to the last two houses before the dunes, where everybody was still asleep. And I watched over their escapes and wanderings until it was time to go over and join them for breakfast.

 

From Susanne Neuffer, In diesem Jahr der letzte Gast.  MaroVerlag, 2016.