Author: Lennardt Loß
Translator: Helen MacCormac


Shortly before dental technician Hannes Sohr survived the worst catastrophe of his catastrophic life, he cut his index finger on the penultimate page of an in-flight shopping catalogue advertising a pencil made of Californian cedar wood for $179.99, duty-free. Sohr tore out the page and used it to bandage his finger.

The rear emergency exit was situated six rows behind Sohr’s seat. He’d counted the headrests one by one as he boarded the plane and had written down the number on the back of his hand. He was following the advice of a pilot he’d received years ago, pilots being among the few people in uniform Sohr was prepared to listen to.

“If there’s a fire on board,” the pilot had said, “the air-conditioning sucks in the smoke and distributes it evenly throughout the aircraft. The emergency lighting in the aisle is no longer visible. Anyone who knows the number of rows to the next emergency exit has a higher chance of survival.” Sohr remembered commenting that for the most part, planes are in the air. And that at 35,000 feet certain death would be waiting on the other side of any emergency exit regardless of the survival rate. The pilot had paused. Then he’d said, “Better than suffocating, eh?” Sohr had counted the rows of seats ever since.

After eight rows he came to a halt. He was holding his bleeding index finger wrapped in the catalogue page out in front of him like a gun and obviously unsettled the young woman standing outside the toilet. She took a step back, opening her mouth as she did so. Her central incisors were longer than those on either side.

“Do you want to go first?”

“Excuse me?” Sohr was thirty-nine years old and deaf in his left ear.

“Would you like to go first?”


The woman pointed to the toilet and to the catalogue page that was turning red. Sohr nodded, quietly adding, “Yes, please.” As he locked the door and the red “occupied” sign showed up, flight LH510 should have started its descent on Buenos Aires.

Sohr held his finger under the tap. He popped a painkiller in his mouth. He had planned on taking three during the flight. This was number four.

His left arm and back had suffered second degree burns at some point. The skin was scarred and numb. A .25 ACP cartridge from a Walther PPK had been lodged between his stomach and spleen for the past seventeen years. The entry wound had healed years ago, but the projectile continued to inch its way towards his lungs. He had six months left.

Four hours before Sohr jumped the toilet queue, flight LH 510 reached the Brazilian coast. Shortly afterwards, the contact to the tower in Recife cut out. The Airbus A340 disappeared from the radar as the flight attendants started serving Butter Cake.

There was a veterinary surgeon living in the north of Buenos Aires who specialised in gunshot wounds. Sohr had spoken to him on the phone and had managed to beat him down to a fee of 4,500 $ for the operation. Back home, he would probably have been arrested as soon as the surgeon had finished sewing him up. There were no records of a Hannes Sohr living in Germany with a .25 ACP cartridge fired from a police weapon lodged in his gut. But there was someone called Carl Fuchsler, who had been wanted for the past seventeen years. The charges were printed on the warrant in capital letters: “PIPE BOMBS” and “RED ARMY FACTION TERRORIST”.

Sohr looked up. The continuous drone of the engines had ceased. It was so silent in the cabin, he could hear his heart beating. B’dum. Pause. B’dum. Then he hit the ceiling.

At 23:32 hours, flight LH 510 crashed into the Pacific. Nine passengers survived the impact. Seven were able to free themselves from the sinking wreck and swim to the surface. One of them was Hannes Sohr.

The tail-end of the plane stuck vertically out of the sea, kerosene burned on the water. Sohr would have drowned before long, if it hadn’t been for a coincidence that saved his life. The impact had torn business class window seat 9A off its rails, and a wave washed it towards him. Sohr grabbed hold of it and clung on for dear life.

Her voice was louder than the other survivors.




He squinted, listening to the dark sea. Nothing. Sohr had done some yelling in his time. When the first pipe bomb he’d built exploded for example. When the hearse heading towards Stammheim Prison drove past. But now he yelled louder than he’d ever done before: “HERE!”

Suddenly, she was swimming beside him: the woman who’d let him jump the queue for the toilet. She grabbed hold of his lower arm, he grabbed hers. As seat 9A drifted away from the wreckage, the cries of the other survivors slowly died away.

After the Airbus had lost radio contact to the tower in Recife, it had flown across Peru and out over the Pacific Ocean. There was enough kerosene for four hundred miles in the tanks.

Sohr spent the first short night on the Pacific in a strange state of semi-consciousness. Not awake. Not fully aware. He’d hooked his arm around the arm of the seat as if he were trying to strangle it. His belly and legs dangled into the sea. He wasn’t cold. The water temperature seldom dropped below twenty-seven degrees Celsius in this part of the ocean and would increase during the day.

He looked down at himself. He’d lost one of his Derby shoes. That annoyed him for a moment. Left and right there was nothing but water. It was just blue in fact. There was no dividing line on the horizon. The blue sea merged imperceptibly with the blue sky.

Opposite him, close to the other armrest, the young woman looked up. Her eyes: bloodshot red, inflamed from of the salt water. Her nose dented, possibly broken. She was missing an incisor. At a loss for words, Sohr said the first thing that came to mind. The contrast to the horrors of the past few hours could hardly be starker. “Hello.”


“I’d get that replaced as soon as possible if I were you.”


“Number twelve.” Sohr tapped his right lateral incisor with his fingernail.

“Are you a dentist?”

“Sort of.”

“Dental assistant then?”

“Dental technician.”

On the first day of his apprenticeship, in the autumn of 1969 at the tender age of sixteen, Sohr had fallen in love: with the rattling grinding machines in the laboratory, with the plastic strips and thick layers of plaster dust that covered the linoleum floor, with everything to do with this loud, dirty, wonderful occupation. Then he got to meet the lab leader, Frank Graupner.

“Do you think they’ll find us here?” the young woman asked.

“They’ll have sent out search parties ages ago.”

“The water’s as warm as pee.”


“We were flying across the Atlantic.”


“The Atlantic isn’t warm.”

“Keep an eye out for a plane,” Sohr said.

“Can they even see us?”

“I expect so.”

“What height do planes fly at?”

“No idea.”

“Too high?”

“For what?”

“To see us, of course.”


“You sure?”


Frank Graupner, head of the laboratory, had shaken Sohr’s hand and sent him straight to the next dentist: “Fetch the dental casts,” he’d said. Sohr, who was still called Karl Fuchsler in those days, went at once without waiting to hear how he was supposed to carry the casts. He’d been so surprised that a man with skinny arms and yellow eyes could have such a firm handshake, he’d forgotten to ask.

Years later, when cirrhosis of the liver was listed as an underlying cause of death on his death certificate, Graupner was found to have caught hepatitis B from the casts. Until the seventies, it was common practice to carry them back to the lab, still covered in saliva, blood and bits of food, without wearing protective gloves.

At the end of his first apprenticeship year, Frank Graupner had called Karl into his office and asked him if he wanted to take over the lab as soon as he’d finished his training. Sohr, who had no desire to do so, started calling his boss “SS-Graupner” behind his back, much to the delight of the other trainees. Of course, no one in the laboratory knew how apt that nick name was. Graupner had a quarter-inch-sized tattoo on the inner side of his left upper arm, identifying him as a member of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, also known as the Death’s-Head Units. “AB”. That blood-group tattoo was the reason he ended up dying from hepatitis B. He hadn’t seen a doctor since the eighth of May, 1945, for fear of being discovered.

“Are you?” Sohr started to say and then fell silent.

“Am I what?”

“Were you on your own? On the plane?”

“Yes,” she said. “And you?”

“Me, too.”

It had taken Graupner another year to give up on him, after he’d coined the nickname. It was the last day of his apprenticeship exams. Sohr had spent a week moulding crowns and bridges, milling dentures, and casting metal bases. Graupner had been expecting him to pass with distinction, but he’d only achieved a merit.

“What’s wrong with you?” Graupner had hissed before smashing one of the plaster models on his desk. Sohr was offended. There was a good reason why he’d not done as well as expected.

The day before, on the fourth of April,1972, three bombs had exploded in Frankfurt. One in a department store, one in front of the 6th Police Department, and a final one outside the American Consulate General. Several persons were injured and one killed: Klaus Brandau, aged thirty-nine, a taxi driver who had been waiting for a customer outside the police station. Sohr requested a meeting with his contact person at once to find out which of the bombs was his. The Red Army Faction (RAF) refused to say, but he knew without being told. A week after Graupner smashed his plaster model, Sohr attended the funeral service for Klaus Brandau. Butter Cake was served at the reception.

“What’s your name, by the way?”


“I wouldn’t want to presume?”

“It’s fine.”

“Hannes, then. I’m Marina.”

It was mad, Sohr thought, not to tell Marina his real name and to keep on lying, now that he had unexpectedly survived a plane crash and was floating about in the sea. Then he thought again. It was mad not to lie. His paranoia had saved him from Stammheim Prison. And from East Germany, which would have been worse.

“Can I ask you something?” Marina said.

“Of course.”

“Do you need the loo?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Need to urinate?”

“No, I mean yes, not too bad.”

“I just did.”

“That’s okay.”

“I know that,”

“No need to feel ashamed.”

“I’m not.”

“Well then?”

“I’m wondering if it was a mistake.”

It was all Erich Honecker’s fault. He was the reason Sohr had had to book a flight to Argentina. If Honecker had run his country properly, Sohr thought, the Wall would still be standing. And if the Wall were still standing, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) would never have discovered ten RAF terrorists hiding out in East Germany. But Honecker was a loser. And so the BKA had hunted down the GDR dropouts over the years and arrested them one by one. They’d all talked. About Jürgen Ponto and Hans Martin Schleyer, about automatic rifles and maybe also about pipe bombs. Sohr had decided to have the bullet removed in Argentina. As far away from Europe, the RAF, and his past as possible.

Marina carried on talking. “It might have been a mistake. Look up. What can you see?”

“Nothing but blue.”



“What happens if there isn’t a plane?”

“There will be.”

“I’m thirsty already.”


“I’m just saying.”

About an hour later they spotted a black dot in the sky. It grew larger, more distinct. They could make out the fuselage, wings, and engines. The plane was directly overhead. They yelled at it. It continued on its way. A minute passed and then another one and one more. The vapour trail in the sky began to dissolve.

“We’re going to die.” Marina said.

He was hit by the bullet in March 1975. The attack that had probably turned him into a murderer had happened more than three years ago. In the meantime Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader had been locked up in Stammheim Prison. Sohr had had no further contact to the RAF after Klaus Brandau’s funeral. He’d moved to Wiesbaden, where he had worked his way up to becoming the deputy director of a dental laboratory. He’d only been back to Frankfurt once. To visit Klaus Brandau’s grave.

On the return journey, someone had approached him wearing dark sunglasses and an army green parka. He looked so obviously like a member of the RAF that nobody would ever suspect him of being a terrorist. His name was Bernhard Bachhuber, he spoke with a slight Southern Bavarian accent and said something about a “tremendous act of liberation.” And “responsibility and accountability.” And “overt aggression.” Sohr listened carefully before he said, “Three bombs for three thousand. Deutschmarks.” Bachhuber called him an “imperialist swine” and said the handover would take place at Oberursel station in the Taunus Mountains.

The sun was vertical in the sky above the Pacific, and Sohr’s face, shoulders, and arms were already badly burnt, when Marina’s teeth started to chatter.  Her lips had turned blue.

“Oh shit!” Sohr said.

Ages nine to fifteen, Sohr had attended the boys’ school which was part of the ‘Krügerhof’ correction centre in Rengershausen, North Hesse, where he grew up. He knew almost the whole of the Gospel according to St. John by heart, but he had no idea why Maria was suffering from exposure.

He grabbed hold of her left arm with both his hands and gradually pulled her up onto the seat. He gasped for air, the seat wobbled precariously, sinking further into the sea, but at last he had Marina lying on 9A.

“Can you hear me?”

She groaned.

“We are starting to cool down. I’m bigger than you. Heavier. So I can last longer.” As he spoke, he undid his belt with one hand and fastened it to the armrest. “The seat can only carry one of us at a time. We need to take it in turns. One of us in the water, the other one on the seat. Whoever’s in the water straps themselves to the seat with my belt.”

They’d caught him in Oberursel. As he’d handed the sports bag with the pipe bombs to Bachhuber, three undercover cops at the end of the platform had pulled their guns. Even before Sohr realised what was happening, Bachhuber had opened fire. Sohr yelled, “Bombs!” as he was hit by the bullet. Bachhuber yelled, “Bombs!”, too. He pressed the sports bag against Sohr’s chest and pointed his gun at it. The undercover cops lowered their weapons, and Bachhuber dragged Sohr over to the car park. The police followed them at a safe distance. Without firing a shot. But when Bachhuber opened the door of his Opel GT and heaved Sohr onto the passenger seat, bullets shattered the rear window. They still managed to get away. The investigators had been following Sohr, not Bachhuber, who’d travelled to the meeting point on the tram. Their police car was still standing in Wiesbaden.

For the next three months Sohr stayed at number “104,” a safe house in a block of high rise flats in Erfstadt, North Rhine-Westphalia, which the Faction used as a field hospital. Most of the time, he played monopoly with Bachhuber. Foggy with painkillers and antibiotics, Sohr always lost. During one game, six members of their group stormed the West German Embassy in Stockholm. They took twelve hostages and murdered two of them. Then their pipe bombs went off by accident. Two terrorists died. Sohr never knew if it was one of his bombs. After three months in “104” he was given a new identity and never heard from the RAF again.

The sky above 9A was turning crimson. Marina appeared to be asleep. And, all of a sudden, Sohr was overcome with a feeling he hadn’t experienced for weeks. Joy. The cut, his aching wrists, his sunburned neck, and his parched throat didn’t bother him any more.

Before the flight, he had lain awake for nights on end, bathed in a pool of sweat, his heart racing for no apparent reason. Here in the Pacific, he finally understood: it was the bullet. The operation. The imminent extraction. That bullet was the only thing that still connected him to Carl Fuchsler. Hannes Sohr had always despised Hannes Sohr, his pointless life, the paranoia, and all the lies. Almost delirious now, he swore to keep the bullet inside him and die as Carl Fuchsler.

When Sohr woke up again, he was lying on seat 9A. His lungs were burning. Marina must have swapped places with him. He glanced at her. She was strapped to the armrest humming a tune Sohr thought he knew. A nursery rhyme that the older children at the Krügerhof used to sing.

“You’ve got a temperature,” Marina said.

Sohr touched his lips with his index finger.

“Want me to be quiet?”

He shook his head. The slightest movement exhausted him.


Marina undid the belt and carefully pushed herself away from seat 9A. She swam to the other side, pulled off one of his socks and tossed it onto his belly.

“We’ll wait until it’s dried.”

Sohr didn’t understand.

“Then you piss on it. And wring it out in your mouth.”

He understood that.

The urine dampened the pain in his throat, and in his chest and collar bone. It did nothing to quench his thirst.

Sohr’s first ever attempted escape was in 1962. He climbed through an open window into the correction centre kitchen, filled a saucepan with water, and set it on the stove. The break-in was the first part of a carefully constructed plan. The second part succeeded several minutes later. His left arm and his back were covered in second- and third-degree burns. Part three failed. He had assumed a serious injury would mean he got transferred to hospital and would be able to escape from there. Instead, he was taken to the correction centre’s own sick bay.

“Do you think there’ll be a plane today?” Maria asked.

“Who gives a damn?”


“Who gives a damn?”

“So we are going to die?”

“What does it matter?”

“I was on my way to visit my father,” Marina said. “The papers call him the ‘Car Park King of Brandenburg’.”

“Argentina, you mean?”

“Nope. Brandenburg. He’s expanding.”

“That’s nice.”

“He’s called Ferdinand Palm.”

Sohr was ashamed of himself for being so obnoxious, pessimistic, for howling.

“Though Ferdinand Palm’s not his real name.”


“Marcel. His real name is Marcel.”

“It’s terrible.”

“That’s why he changed it. ‘Ferdinand’ sounds richer somehow, he said. Once he’d built his third multi-storey car park.”

Sohr didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. One of them talked, and the other one listened.

“Marina, the East Germans, the ‘Ossis’, are going to start buying cars now, and they’ll want to park them somewhere nice and safe. He’s always saying things like that. He’s a poor bastard, really.”

Then it was Sohr’s turn. He told her about the youth correction centre. And the day a group of students had gathered outside the gates. A young man who looked South American had grabbed a megaphone and had delivered a speech, mumbling every word. Sohr had never heard the vocabulary he used before, but he sounded nothing like the Sisters at the correction centre. The next day, twenty boys ran away. One of them was Hannes Sohr. In Frankfurt, he met the young man again, who introduced himself as Andreas Baader and found Sohr a place to stay with a friend. Directly above Frank Graupner’s laboratory. On the first evening, Sohr asked what time he was allowed to use the shower. “Any time you like,” Baader’s friend replied. Sohr thought he was joking.

Marina noticed the fish first. There were thousands of them, swimming beneath 9A.

“Fucking hell!” She said.

Sohr let himself drop backwards into the sea. The fish brushed his body. All he had to do was hold out his hands, and he was able to catch one. He and Marina clubbed the fish to death on the armrest and threw them onto the seat. In less than a minute the seat cushion was stained red with blood. In less than three, the shoal was gone. They held on to the armrests and counted their catch. Nine fish.

“I’m covered in scratches,” Marina said.

Sohr looked at his arms. The fish scales had lacerated his skin, too.

Marina squeezed her fingers down the gills and ripped the fish open. She pulled out its intestines and handed it to Sohr. The meat was cold and mealy. After a few bites, he wasn’t thirsty anymore.

That’s when he said it. So fast, he mumbled:

“I used to make bombs. Pipe bombs. For the RAF.”


“The RAF.”

“The what?”

“The Red Army Faction.”

Marina stared at him for a second. For two. Three. Four.

“Forget it.” Sohr said and helped himself to another fish.

The storm came out of nowhere. Lightning was followed immediately by a clash of thunder. The current grew stronger, soon raindrops like bullets were pelting down on 9A. Sohr stuck out his tongue. Another flash of lightning. A crash. Saltwater towering over him. The wave engulfed their seat. The sheer force of it combined with his own mortal fear slammed his jaws shut. He bit off part of his tongue. Saltwater mixed with blood in his throat and shot down his windpipe.

Marina screamed.

They were back on the surface. He threw up a piece of tongue. The second pounding wave struck 9A even harder and dragged them further under water. Sohr realised then that he and Marina were causing the seat to sink. They were too heavy. 9A could only carry one of them.

His mouth flew open. He let go of 9A.

And then the world stopped. Sohr could see his own motionless face. His arms, his hands. 9A up above. The surface of the water. Lightning. Rain. And the storm clouds and the sun.

He swam towards the surface. After a couple of strokes, he bumped his head on her foot. He grabbed hold of it. Held on. He dug his fingernails into her flesh. Then the first kick. She kicked him with all her might. Again and again. Kicked his head, his shoulders, and his nose. His lungs filled with saltwater. And then suddenly, close by, suspended between the last rising bubbles, he saw a pencil made of Californian cedar wood for $179.99, duty-free.


Lennardt Loß,  “11,312 KILOMETER ÜBER DEM SUDPAZIFIK. APRIL 1992.”  in Und andere Formen menschlichen Versagens (Other Forms of Human Failure).  Weissbooks w. 2019, Unionsverlag Taschenbuch, 2020.

They’re Shooting Again

Author: Elisa Wächtershäuser
Translator: Helen MacCormac


They’re shooting again. This morning I found the leg of a deer. It was lying on last years’ leaves not far from the shelter. The leg had been severed just above the knee joint. I thought it was a stick at first.
When Jan went out to have a look, the leg was gone. Lia laughed at me. But I know what I saw. Things have started to change now that they’re hunting in the woods. They come out at dusk. I don’t know how many of them there are. I can hear the shots and voices and footsteps in the undergrowth. I don’t leave the shelter unless I have to.

We set off in the summer after Jan and I finished school. Freedom, Jan had said. A simple life. I could imagine it, Jan and me roaming through the woods, swimming in rivers, roasting fish over an open fire at night. I couldn’t stand the walls closing in at home any longer, or the feeling that someone was watching me all the time.
She’s a friend, Jan said when he brought Lia along. We took the S-Bahn. Jan and I both had rucksacks. All Lia had was her dress and the shoes she was wearing.

I don’t have a watch anymore and I can’t tell the time by the sun. When it starts to get dark, I hear the first shot.
Nothing to do with us, Jan says and puts a branch on the fire. The wood is damp. A pall of smoke hangs under the ceiling. Lia spits chewed leaves into the cup of her hand. Are you scared, she asks and licks her green stained teeth. I shake my head. Lia drops the chewed leaves into the fire. It hisses and spits. I move closer and hold my hands over the heat radiating from the flames. It’s cold, I say.

It’ll be a lot colder in the winter, Jan says.
Lia grins. I’m growing a winter coat, already, she says and spreads her legs wide open, grabbing hold of her thick, dark pubic hair.
Later, when the embers have died down and Jan and Lia lie panting on top of each other, I sit in my corner, away from the glow of the fire, fingering my body.
I’ve noticed something under my skin for a while. A creeping sensation, as if something were forcing its way through the different layers of my body, as if skin and muscles were being torn apart, as if something was starting to grow inside me.
I don’t know how long we’ve been here. I notice the different seasons, but the days are a blur, I can’t count them backwards. The first night in the woods it didn’t get dark. We slept outside in front of the shelter. Our campfire smoked and soon went out. Lia threw her clothes onto it and then Jan did, too. Jan told me to take off my clothes and join them. I didn’t want to. Lia called me a coward and wrapped her skinny thighs around Jan’s waist. I listened to the woods and to Lia and Jan. I counted my breaths till the morning. 5000 times.

Since they started hunting outside, I can’t stand the nights. They’re not even close, Jan said. But each shot resonates inside my head. The fire has died down, Jan and Lia are restless; the leaves rustle beneath them when one of them tosses or turns. I lie on my side, twisted up like a fox in its den, plucking out hairs from my armpits.
I’ve grown my own coat of fur. When it got colder, thick black hair started to sprout on my arms, stomach, and chest; on my back and around my penis. Even my backside is covered in long dark curly hair. Each night, I try to get rid of it. I grab bunches of hair between my finger and thumb, pulling slowly and steadily. The hair is rooted deep inside me. My skin burns. Later on, a drop of blood forms. They’re still shooting outside.

I am constantly looking for food. I’ve learnt that you can eat birch leaves and oak leaves and sorrel. You can roast beechnuts on the fire and chew the bark of a willow. I walked for miles today. I found a hazel tree next to a stream. Most of the nuts were hollow; I chewed the shells for ages. Then I tied my t-shirt into a bundle and picked every nut on the tree. I knelt down in the leaves and collected all the ones that had fallen there, as well.
We eat together. Lia eats most of the nuts. She cracks open the shells with her teeth and spits them out into the fire. Her arms are as thin as sticks, her bare skin is still dark from the summer; I stare at her nipples; they look like knots of wood.
Jan can’t get enough to eat. I carry on chewing long after we have finished all the nuts. Lia and Jan devour each other next to the fire. I double over and tear at the hair on my stomach. Later on in the night, a bird breaks out of a nutshell inside me and pecks a hole in the wall of my stomach.

They are drawing closer every day. In the mornings, I find footprints on the frosted ground. There is a mound of feathers in my stomach. One catches in my throat. I spit it out.
Jan asks me what I’m doing. Nothing, I say. My throat hurts, that’s all. I’ve got no idea where all the feathers came from. My stomach is stuffed full of them, but the feathers can’t still my hunger. Jan says there is blood on my lips. I must have bitten my tongue in my sleep.
We set off as soon as it gets light. It’s getting harder and harder to find anything to eat. We split up. I head back to the stream where I found the hazel tree. I follow the stream as far as I dare. The ground is frozen and the trees are bare. It gets dark early.
I don’t manage to find anything to eat before I go back to the shelter. The feathers are forcing their way through my innards. Lia and Jan sit close by the fire. They are wearing clothes. Lia is wearing a pair of my jeans and two of my t-shirts. She must have taken them out of my rucksack.
I couldn’t find anything, I say. When I sit down beside them, there’s a stabbing pain in the pit of my stomach.
We found this, Lia says, and holds out a piece of bark. There are maggots stuck to the bark, grey, slimy half-eaten maggots writhing where Lia’s bitten off a piece. I bend over. My stomach cramps. I start to wretch, coughing up feathers. Jan and Lia stare at me. Saliva and little feathers stick to my chin. I crawl to my corner holding my stomach. The pain slowly subsides. I hear them whispering by the fire. Then I fall asleep.

The next morning, Jan and Lia are gone. So is my rucksack. I burn the feathers in the fire. There’s more blood on my chin. I don’t feel hungry but I go out all the same. I need to gather food for the winter.

It’s going to snow soon. On some days I go hungry. On other days I find something in the woods. Jan and Lia haven’t come back yet.

Yesterday I found an arm. It lay outside the shelter on last year’s leaves. It was very thin. There were a few hairs on it. It could have been a stick.
I’ve stopped going out. They’re shooting again.

Draußen schießen sie wieder,  Allitera Verlag 2017.




Emil: A Quiet Beetle on the Road

Author: Julia Weber
Translator: Helen MacCormac


Us standing around his bed, and beside the bed a silver tray, a tray with metal legs, with four metal legs on wheels and a beaker of water on top, a beaker of water and a cotton bud, the cotton bud my mother used to wet his mouth on the outside and inside. She wiped it slowly across his lips to make them glisten; she put it in one side of his mouth, pressing it gently against his cheek, and then in the other side, her face stock-still. Soft marches came out of the radio and outside there was a fleeting sky. People walked down the corridor on soft-soled shoes, brushing the dusted plants with their gowns.
We formed a half circle around his bed: my mother, sitting wetting his lips, my father standing beside her, touching her shoulder with four fingers, my aunt trembling slightly. The beads on her red jumper made a soft sound, the sound of tiny clapping hands. I stood between my aunt, feeling too small for this big situation, and my uncle, who looked too old. He was wearing a crumpled shirt and his beery smell went straight up my nose. His ears seemed to be smaller than usual, so did his eyes, and the bags under his eyes looked huge.
When it started to rain, raindrops pelted against the window and the sheet beneath my brother grew dark. When it started to rain, I shouted, ‘He can hear the rain!’ and clapped my hands. Something struck my face and made it burn. My father’s hand drew away. We both jumped and a dog whined outside.  My brother had closed his eyes sometime before then; my brother had closed his eyes long before then. ‘Too long ago,’ said my aunt. They might have grown shut, I thought.
My mother whined like the dog and a nurse came in. She changed the sheets and my brother’s shirt, and everyone turned away, except for my mother who still tried to wet his mouth, inside and out. The nurse left the room on her soft-soled shoes and as the rain beat harder against the windowpane, another dark patch spread out under my brother.
The uncle hummed a song, the song of a hunter in the city. My father closed his eyes for a moment; he rested his hands on his head. My mother dipped the cotton bud into the water, guided it towards Emil’s mouth.

Outside a fine-threaded sheet of rain.
Outside the pale sky.
Outside yellow light breaking through grey clouds.
My brother inside in his bed.
My brother in his bed, almost see-through in his bed.
His hands palms down beside his body.
His body all still and flat, his skin papery thin.
Something shivered beneath his eyelids and something shivered in me. My mother’s hand rested calmly on Emil’s chest.
I started to cry. ‘I’ve got a pain in my tummy, a very sore pain,’ I said.
‘Quiet!’ my father cried. My aunt’s silence grew more and more impatient, my father cried more and more loudly, pacing up and down in a small space. The uncle had fallen asleep with his big hairy hands on his belly. Outside grey pigeons landed on the windowsill, they shook their wings, and walked up and down, knocking their beaks against the glass.
‘Be quiet, won’t you!’ my father shouted. ‘Emil needs to rest!’ he shouted. He sat down on the floor and shrank. I’d stopped crying by now. Emil had stopped breathing. My mother kept on as if nothing had happened. Wetting Emil’s mouth inside and out.
No one moved.
Then I was taken out of the room.

At home I sorted my coloured pencils, putting them down on my desk one by one: black, navy blue, turquoise, sea blue, sky blue, arctic blue, lilac, purple, wine red, crimson, rose, yellow, lemon yellow, lime green, green, forest green, charcoal grey, grey, white.
I pushed the pencil tips into a row with a ruler.

My uncle pushed me upstairs into our room, telling me to do whatever I did every night. But I knew this wasn’t like every night, and I couldn’t do what I do every night, so I hid under the blankets for a long time without anyone coming to find me and I sat in the corner with my face turned to the wall and I sat in the cupboard and peered through the keyhole. Without anything happening.
I couldn’t do what I do every night. I needed my mother for that or my brother at least. But my brother had turned see-through and my mother wasn’t there.

I heard her coming home in the middle of the night. I’d been waiting, making shadows on the wall with my fingers until I put on my tiger suit and turned into a tiger. And my father was with her. I heard them coming up the stairs and opening the door. I pretended to be asleep because it is far nicer to be woken up when you are already awake or hugged when your parents think you’re asleep. You notice everything then and they are so gentle and it’s your secret.
She went over to Emil’s bed; she fell to her knees on the carpet. My father was big again. He held her shoulders and whispered something. I turned over, as if I was turning in my sleep, I could see her legs. I made some sounds. They didn’t answer. My mother stayed where she was on her knees, resting her head on Emil’s pillow.
‘I’m here,’ I whispered. My father turned around to me. ‘Go to sleep.’ he said. I couldn’t see his face in the dark.
‘I’ve got a pain in my tummy,‘ I said.
My mother stood up then and left the room. My father followed her out.

In the morning no one was there. When I woke up in the morning, no one was there.
There were no parents in my parent’s bedroom. The bed was made and the windows tilted open.
I heard a lawnmower mowing the lawn outside and I dug my bare feet into the soft grey carpet. White and red flowers outside the kitchen window, not moving. A beery smell in the kitchen and living room and down the hall. All the pictures of me and Emil in the hall and all the pictures drawn by Emil and me.
‘Mummy?’ I called. ‘Daddy?’ I called.

I went out of the house and closed the door behind me.
I was a tiger.
I was big.
I wasn’t frightened of the old man who pointed his stick at me and spoke to the sky.
I saw a one-legged bird.
I said hello to an old lady with long white hair who was sitting in her front garden.
I ran my hands along the length of a hedge and the hedge scored fine lines on the palms of my hands.

I was late and the lady at the playgroup looked paler than usual. She was waiting for me beside the door, standing on one leg. Like the one-legged bird, I thought. She kept her balance without moving until I reached her and then she swapped legs. Her glasses were crooked and her eyes behind the glasses were huge. She was thin and long. And she looked a bit see-through like Emil.

I said I was sorry. She drew a breath. I looked at all the flowers on her dress. She drew another breath. I stared at the ground. She knelt down beside me; she hugged me and started to cry. It sounded like a big fat bumble bee. Or a bee next to your ear. She cried and I cried a bit, too.
She saw my hands and asked where the red lines came from.
‘Emil,’ I said; she didn’t say anything and she swallowed.

I was allowed to drink lots of lemonade. I was allowed to eat two pieces of cake. I was allowed to choose what game to play and I was allowed to get up first after our midday nap. And I pulled Marie’s hair without the lady’s voice getting loud. She talked to Marie and Marie stopped telling me off and stopped crying. Marie’s eyes opened wide. She came over and held my hand. She gave me her jelly frog. She asked if I knew where Emil was now.
I wasn’t sure, but I told her he’s see-through. ‘He’s still there but you can’t see him anymore,’ I said. ‘That’s good because it means he can play all the time and never has to go to bed.’
Marie was glad and asked me to give back her sweetie. I saw why, so I gave it to her.

When I went home the sky was pale.
When I went home, the old lady was still in her garden, the man sitting beside her seemed to have lost something.
When I went home I didn’t want to go home.
When I went home there was a beetle quietly walking across the road.
I sat down beside it and tried to stroke it.
When I went home, I saw a pale-skinned woman with a patchy face. She looked right through me, I was hungry.
When I went home I saw an old man with a loaf of bread under his arm. The man was very thin and his clothes hung off him, or clung on, as if the whole world were clinging on.
When I went home, the one-legged bird was lying on the road not moving.
I picked up the bird by its wings. I shook it.
I held the bird up high and waited. It was soft and its eyes were made of glass. When I went home something changed.
I thought about my mother and knew she was sad.
I thought about Emil and didn’t believe he was see-through.

At home, the uncle was sitting in a chair. At home everything smelt beery; the uncle wobbled his head and swore under his breath.
None of my mother’s smells. No  smell of my mother’s coffee. No smell of my father’s pipe. No mother. No father. Just the uncle and footsteps upstairs which didn’t sound like my mother or my father.
No Emil.
The uncle said ‘Hello boy,’ and changed the channel. His grey hair was sticking out all over the place.
‘Your mother and father will be back later.’ He held on to his belly with his hands.
‘It’s boring,’ I said.
It’s interesting,’ the uncle said.
‘Boring, boring, boring,’ I said.
‘Interesting, interesting, interesting,’ the uncle said.
‘You smell,’ I said.
‘Children smell,’ said the uncle.
My aunt flitted about upstairs.

My aunt gave me soggy noodles in cold sauce. She gave me orange juice in a glass too big for my hands. I put the glass on the table and dipped my head. I lapped like an animal.
‘Like an animal,’ my aunt said.
‘Tiger,’ I said.
‘Silly boy,’ my aunt said. And the beads on her jumper made another noise. She hugged me and pressed me against her soft bosom. She stroked my hair backwards. Then she went away.

I sorted my coloured pencils, putting them down on the desk one by one: black, navy blue, turquoise, sea blue, sky blue, arctic blue, lilac, purple, wine red, crimson, rose, yellow, lemon yellow, lime green, green, forest green, charcoal grey, grey, white.
I pushed the pencil tips into a row with a ruler.

My mother and father came home later. When I had sorted the pencils seven times and lined them up with the ruler again and again, my mother and father came home.
My mother’s arms were very long. They hung down by her sides as if they didn’t belong to her. My father put his shoes beside each other and he took off my mother’s shoes and set them next to his. He bent down to her hip and lifted her foot and pulled off the shoe. My mother turned her face away and held on to my father’s shoulder while he lifted her other foot and pulled that shoe off, too. And he looked at me standing where I was standing in the doorway, standing between the kitchen and the front door looking up at him.
I said, ‘You put your shoes in a nice row.’ He smiled and said, ‘You did, too.’

I was pleased and he was pleased with me. My mother stayed standing in the hall, leaning her head on the coats. A red sock hung off her foot and my mother hung between the coats.
I called her name. She didn’t answer. ‘Mummy,’ I said, ‘the playgroup lady wasn’t even cross, she cried and stood on one leg and her glasses were crooked.’
She didn’t answer. ‘I found a bird. I wanted it to fly.’ She didn’t answer. ‘I buried it in the ground. It was soft and its eyes were made of glass.’

I think she might have stroked my hair when she walked past.
I think she might have looked at me once she’d gone by.
I think my father said that would do.
I think branches and little animals moved outside.
I think I stuffed my whole fist in my mouth and it very nearly wouldn’t come out.
I think someone laughed on the telly.
I think I dreamed in the night.

I tried to talk to Emil when it was quiet in the night.
I listened first, to hear him move, to hear the moving air.
When I still couldn’t hear him or see him, I called Emil.
‘Emil where are you?’ I called.
I called quietly at first and then more and more loudly.
I shouted his name and he didn’t come.
Eventually the door opened and my mother stood there.
She stood there for what seemed like ages and didn’t move. My mother kept silent and so did I.
Then I shouted, ‘Where is Emil?’
She stood there all white, her nighty was white, her face was white, her feet, arms and hands all were white. She stood there and I tucked the blankets up under my arms and I was stunned and shut my eyes and opened them again.
‘Where is Emil?’ I yelled.
She leapt over to my bed like an animal. She grabbed my shoulders and stared into my face. She could see right through me.
‘Emil is dead!’ my mother shouted. ‘Emil is dead. Emil is dead. Emil is dead!’ she screamed.
She shook me and my body went limp, she shook me like a piece of clothing. The telly was still on downstairs, I heard clapping and I was afraid, afraid for me and afraid for my mother.
Her face was wild, her face was hard and white, and her hair was everywhere like the uncle’s hair.
All of a sudden, I saw my father’s head behind her head, I saw Emil’s anorak hanging on the door next to my father’s head.
My father took my mother away from me.
I cried and my mother cried and my father cried, too.
‘Everything’s changed. We’ve put Emil in a coffin and the coffin is going to be burned and Emil…’ Her voice sounded like a voice coming out of the station speakers.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said before my father took her out of the room.

He came back after a while. I sat up in bed waiting. I hid behind my fingers, but kept my eyes open. ‘You’re not a tiger,’ my father said. I lifted one hand off one eye. ‘You`re a human being and human beings all have to die someday.’ I took the other hand off the other eye. ‘Just like Emil but usually not as soon.’
I slept with my tiger suit on. I said I wanted to be a tiger one more time.
I tossed around and started to sweat and smell bad.
Outside I saw the fat moon in the sky and the branches of a tree.
Outside the air was dark blue and the sky had patches of light.
Inside, I saw the half-empty room.
Inside, there was me and strips of moonlight on the wall.
Once in the night my mother came to my bed. I didn’t say anything.
Once in the night my father came to my bed. I didn’t say anything.
Once in the night Emil came to my bed. I woke up. My face and my pillow were wet.
The next morning I put the tiger suit outside my door. I knew now I was going to die someday, so I put my pencils out there, too.



The Bee God

Author: Joseph Felix Ernst
Translator: Helen MacCormac


The Holy and Mighty One will go forth from his dwelling, and the God of the world will tread upon Mount Sinai and thence come down from heaven in all his mighty power. And all shall be afraid, and the watchers will shake and great fear and trembling will seize them even to the ends of the earth. The lofty mountains will quake and the high hills be levelled, melting like a honeycomb before the flame.
Ethiopian Enoch 1, 3-6

We can vouch for the truth of everything told here. The following notes were recorded in the flying log book of Unterfeldwebel Thomas Seibold, who was posted to Feldluftgau Command Rostov in the Crimea (Крим), and assigned to Air Corps VIII, Sturzkampfgeschwader 97 (StG 97 – the 97th Dive Bomber Wing), Group 2 (II / StG 97) and No. 4 Squadron (4 / StG 97). Seeing as Air Corps VIII and the aforementioned Geschwader 97 conclusively did not exist before the year 1942, and no official documents referring to a time before Seibold’s deployment to the Crimea have been found, we can only speculate on his former period of service. Several personal letters, however, suggest that he was stationed in Vienna in 1940, and thereafter, from 1941 to 1942, in Breslau – where he very probably joined the 12th Night Fighter Wing.

According to his flying log book, which progressed from flight book to log and veritable journal during the period of his anomalous journey, it would appear that on the 14th of January 1943, he had all the bombs of his Junkers Ju 88 a-4 dive bomber removed, and instead loaded additional fuel tanks in the front and rear holds, which together with the four wing tanks held a total of 3620 litres of diesel. Seibold took plenty of provisions on board and faced no notable difficulty in gaining permission to make a long reconnaissance flight along the eastern flank of the Black Sea. He indicated a false take-off time to his copilot and the two gunners, and at 07:35 on January 15th, 1943, he took off in his bomber entirely alone and bore south.

His flight book lists only the basic facts of his departure and offers no information about his reasons or even a word about the ultimate goal of his daring expedition. All we know is that on the same day, after several hours and a flight of some 1000 km, he touched down for the first time at the Van airfield in eastern Anatolia, on neutral territory, where he refueled. The same evening Seibold received permission for take-off, and in the early hours reached a neutral military airfield on the coast of the Persian Gulf ‒ located between Damman and Kuwait on Saudi Arabian soil, to be more precise. There he stocked up on fuel again, had a rest, and then set off just after noon bearing east-north-east. In the evening hours, the Junkers reached Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, with the fuel tanks almost empty. Seibold spent the night there, refilled the tanks and then took off again before sunrise. Later that same morning, he eventually reached Lhasa, landed ‒ on Tibetan soil this time ‒ and had the tanks filled up again, which took two days to organize due to the lack of supplies in the region. Seibold spent his time checking and cleaning the two V-12 engines and the landing gear. He took off as soon as the aircraft was filled up.

After a 53-hour stay, and after a flying time of another couple of hours, he landed on the runway of the former civil airport of Bangkok, which now served as a Japanese Air Force military base. Here the German bomber was immediately filled up with diesel, and after just a few hours the airplane flew off once more, on course for the Philippine Islands. The extremely short and narrow runway on Mindanao, north of Lungsod ng Dabaw, was the seventh leg of Seibold’s journey from the Crimea, and apart from a bit of flak from an Indian antiaircraft gun in the Kashmir region (in Srinagar, to be more precise), which was ineffectual presumably due to the altitude of almost 8000 m, no further incidents are recorded.

By this time, Seibold had covered a flight distance of about 12,000 km, used approximately 20,000 litres of diesel, and spent almost a week on the run. It is impossible to say for certain which random chance ultimately caused the following events. It would, however, seem as if the next step of the journey failed to go as Seibold had planned. Seibold took off from Mindanao in conditions of poor visibility, high winds, and dense rain. The course was set for South at 05:00. It may be that the compass or the controls failed; we only know that the plane was driven hard to the east, and after a few hours of blind flight and with no fuel left, at 11:32 on January 22nd, 1943 the propellers stopped. The pilot recorded the emergency in his flying log book and steered his plane towards the nearest Pacific island.

Flying log book of Thomas Seibold, 28th of January, 1943

It seems as if the natives of this island only know the numbers one, two and three. I have spent days watching them count provisions, tools, loot and even children. They use their hands, holding up their index finger for one, the middle finger for two and the ring finger for three and utter a discernable phonetic sequence. If, however, the goods to be counted exceed the amount of three, they end their counting with the ever same word and describe a double circle with the right lower arm. I can only assume that the sound sequence and gesture mean no more than ‘many’ or ‘more’ and are perhaps similar in nature to our own nonplussed expression ‘endless’. In general, the natives seem to communicate amongst themselves with their limbs as much as with spoken language, and one tribe member who is certainly deaf and dumb takes as lively a part in the conversations as any anyone here by gesticulating.


The nose of the aircraft almost touched the trees. The impact was hard: the landing gear and airbrakes could not be deployed, as the batteries which were usually charged by generators driven by the two diesel engines were completely empty by now. The landing speed was too high, the approach angle too steep. Normally, the fuselage would have burst into pieces when it hit the ground, but as the plane carried nothing but the empty fuel tanks and slapped down in shallow coastal waters, the relative lightness and the pliant surface helped soften the impact somewhat, though it was still immense. The colossus slid through the shallow surf, across the beach and finally came to a halt in the dense undergrowth. There was no imminent danger – no diesel left to explode, and the bomb bays had been unloaded prior to the flight. Only the machine gun in the cockpit and the twin guns at the rear fired several solitary shots during the seconds of main impact.

An overflowing mass of teeming growth spanned out in front of the bomber: beneath never-ending treetops which towered almost 60 m above the ground lay the shadowy organism of a monstrous living creature. Its innards were moist and as green as could be; the wings of countless birds of the forest, including crowned pigeons, parrots, and jungle fowl, hummed like the tense nerves of the mighty monster. Everywhere in the midst of all greenery the individual parts of the creature rivalled each other in color and splendor: No sooner did a tree start to bloom than it immediately shed every single leaf to create a greater spectacle. Flowers reminiscent of cartwheels were wet and red like opened corpses and gave off a smell of rotting flesh with which they attracted clusters of flies. Some orchids of magnificent colour smelled so intoxicating that dazed insects tumbled into their chalices and took a minute or two to come to, flocked in pollen all over. And all of a sudden, from within this extraordinary creature, faces emerged – faces belonging to robust men of the land with firm, tanned skin and an even, steady gaze.

Flying log book of Thomas Seibold, 16th of February, 1943

They took the badge from my lapel – though they did so with the utmost caution and humility. That prized possession is now on a table in the middle of the village decorated with the most magnificent flowers, alongside my goggles and service jacket, which is useless in this heat. For several days now, there has been dancing every night. The rain forest all around us is full of reptiles and amphibians – the most frequent sightings are monitors and other lizards, forest tortoises, snakes, and frogs, some of which sail from treetop to treetop; even a species of snake is able to conquer a considerable distance through the air (without a single limb!). Finally the Junkers started to rust after just a few days. Fine droplets of salt water surf dispersed by the incoming winds saturate the air close to the ground, which is corroding the wreck. The natives still won’t go near the stranded bird, not even after all this time. But two men keep watch day and night in sight of the wreck.


A Cessna seaplane landed close to the shore. It had left Saipan a few hours before, the largest spot of land on all the Mariana Islands strung together in the Pacific Ocean like pearls on a string. Apart from the Australian pilot and copilot, the ethnographer Matthias Eickhorn, his assistant Philipp Zieger, and cameraman Simon Dreil were on board. The expedition had been planned three years after the crew of a processing ship belonging to a Palauan sea fishing company had messaged the harbour master in Melekeok and reported sighting single canoes in a remote Pacific atoll which had hitherto been regarded as uninhabited, and the public had got to hear about it. In the end, the expedition headed for the one piece of land on the atoll which offered enough space for a settlement. And of course this remote island had been populated, populated by faces belonging to the robust men of the land, with firm, tanned skin and an even, steady gaze, and the inexhaustible organism that bathed its innards in the shade beneath the thick forest canopy was as green as can be. Tree frogs spawned in the cups of bromeliads, and millions of delirious bees immersed themselves in the heady magnificence of brightly coloured orchid flowers. The bees built their hives in the crowns of the tropical trees, where water vapour from the regions below wouldn’t harm their brood. Drop for drop, the busy insect folk carried the heavenly ambrosia from the intoxicating flower cups all the way up to the utmost limits of the rainforest: and so on this island it was rightly believed that the bees brought the sweet fare to waxen chambers on high, where they enabled it to ripen in winds which had never penetrated the thicket of the forest, and that the great and fastidious Bee God would every now and then come down from heaven to the treetops of the forest to demand his sacred food; and of course it was he who let the forest fruits flourish for the sake of his pleasure and who made the tree-tops grow up to the sky.

When the ethnographer Eickhorn finally climbed out of the cabin of the Cessna and waded through the shallow water towards the shore, he was met with a most disturbing sight: the model of a huge aircraft stood on the beach of the island, made of dry grass, fern leaves, lianas and the branches of strangler figs. The model’s wings, elevators and tail fins, and the giant fuselage were immediately recognizable; even the propellers, exhaust pipes, and cockpit had been carefully crafted. Huge swastikas in white circles on a red base were depicted on the wings and the rudders. Once the expedition managed to fight its way through a few dozen metres of undergrowth into the interior of the forest, they soon found the scant remains of a settlement. The team spent the next couple of days combing through the entire island, until they were certain that for whatever reason, no human inhabitants had survived to this day. Finally, they diligently sifted and sorted through the remnants of the insular culture, and discovered some human skeletons and the remains of an elaborately decorated altar space, which comprised a badge of the Nazi Luftwaffe, a pair of flying goggles, and a German Wehrmacht service jacket. A few wooden planks were still intact and were covered in swastikas of different sizes, as were jewelry, conches, and bowls that appeared to be made from turtle shells: swastikas in white circles on a red background.

Flying log book of Thomas Seibold, March 1st, 1943

There are canoes! They are tied up on the south side of the island. They must be for fishing, though I haven’t seen them being used since I’ve been here. Last night I stowed a week’s rations of fresh water and provisions in one of the canoes. I also managed to secretly retrieve what money was left in the kitty from the wreck. I will set off in the small hours and aim to head west.


From “Der Bienengott.” Krachkultur 2016.

Young Animals

Author: Saskia Trebing
Translator: Helen MacCormac

You tell Benny to go and find a stone. A big, sharp stone. One he can carry without needing both hands.

That will give him something to do. Benny needs things to do. Benny is the kind of child who likes to be praised. Benny wants to be a good boy. But not right now. Right now Benny is on his knees crying. He is bent over the mess beside the road, wailing as if he’d been knocked down instead of the heap of fur in front of him. “Mummy,” he wails in his raise-the-dead voice, snorting a pint of snot up his tiny nose. He knows you hate him doing that, but he has no idea how much you hate the ‘Mummy’ word. It’s always Mummy all the time. As if she can fix anything astride her new boyfriend down in Kreuzberg.

“Hey, Benny,” you say softly. “It’s for the best, don’t you see? Let’s look for a stone together.” But that just makes things worse. “No,” Benny screams and clutches your leg. “Don’t make it die. Don’t!” He digs his nails into your leg right through your jeans. You shake him off. “Ouch,” you say in the loud, assertive voice the horn-rimmed glasses lady has told you to use. “That hurts.”

Benny lets go and carries on sobbing. He plumps down in the dewy grass on the verge of the road. It’s no use. The fox is done for; there is nothing they can do. Its hind legs are glued to the tarmac as if they’ve been ironed on. Slimy purple guts spill out of the gash in its belly. The worst thing is that it is still breathing. Flat, panicky gasps of air while a thin trickle of blood runs down its pointy nose. Every few seconds a shudder jerks its crushed body. The fox doesn’t seem very big. Not a cub, but not yet fully grown. This could go on for hours if they don’t find a stone.
You are so far into the woods that there is no one there. Just the car pinging away to remind you that you’ve left the key in the ignition. The car that can do everything. Except swerve to miss a fox coming out of nowhere. It can’t do that. Or save a child from seeing it all.

Sounds of the Eighties drift over from the radio. “Listen, Benny, it’s your favourite song.” But Benny’s being a woebegone in the ditch by the road. You sit down beside him. “I know you’re sad,” you say. The horn-rimmed glasses lady told him to say this, too. He lets you touch his shoulder. “But he’s not going to make it.” You almost laugh as you say the words and your son wipes his snotty nose on your polo shirt.

That’s what they said about Benny, too. When he was just a bloody bundle with a needle stuck in his arm. His head the size of a tennis ball. Nicole was so weak they wouldn’t let her see him. A blotch of red in a white landscape. Everything was too quiet, just the miniature heartbeat on the screen. Everything was too big except the doll-sized nappy. The doctors called him a miracle.

Nicole says it’s a miracle Benny even wants to see you. But Benny doesn’t harbour grudges. She wouldn’t understand that. It’s just between the two of you.

He was all excited about going swimming today. In the lake in the woods. It’s just a pond really. But you found it together. That was last summer before you had to start asking to see him.

Nicole, standing in the doorway, handing over the child and his swimming bag, reluctantly.

A peck on the cheek wouldn’t be too much to ask, but she won’t take her eyes off Benny. “Don’t do anything stupid,” she says only half-jokingly. It’s not your fault the fucking fox decided to leap out in front of the car.

The crying is beginning to get on your nerves. You get up and start walking in circles. Benny is a child who likes to be told he’s being ‘sensible’ and ‘brave,’ but he does get carried away. No idea where all this whinging comes from. You’re not like that and Nicole isn’t either. They always said you would have to be patient. That these children may take longer to develop. “Grow up,” you say. This has nothing to do with being patient.

His body tenses. He’s sitting craning his neck over what is left of the fox. He wipes away the tears with his jumper sleeve. “Look,” he says in a different voice. “I can see its heart.” You don’t want to look at the panting body, then you do. At first it’s just muck and slime. But Benny is right. There is something pulsating in the middle. The hole in its belly reveals a nut-sized heart. A racing, bloody core that hasn’t given up yet. You feel sick. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he asks. You want to know how he knows this. “The heart beats to keep the blood moving.” Every time you see him, he’s learnt something new. He’s not disgusted . His eyes are full of compassion and a young scientific interest. Suddenly all you want is for this young animal to survive. You can see yourself scratching its legs off the road, carrying its organs wrapped up in your jumper. One by one if necessary. They can transplant heads and hearts nowadays. There are dogs on TV with wheels instead of legs: “Yes,” you say, “he’s a tough little guy.” Benny pats you on the leg. “Can we nurse him better?” The scar on his forearm is taking forever to heal. A bulging livid streak between two dotted lines exactly where they nailed the small bone back together.
They called him a brave little man. They plastered his arm and coddled him. They didn’t trust you. All you got was a coffee from the machine and please wait over there. Of course it was a mistake. Of course you’d never hurt him deliberately. You know that, so does he. You might grab him if he tries to run away. But you never want to hurt him. These children’s bones are too soft.

Since the hospital, Benny wants to be a doctor. “We could take it home,” he says. He touches the fox’s nose with a finger. Its breath gets more raspy; its eyes narrow to slits. You don’t want to know what he means when he says home.

“No, Benny,” you say, “we can’t do that.” You both look at your fox silently for a moment. Benny leans his head against your chest.

Birdsong, panting breath, the pinging car. “OK,” he says. At last. He lets go of your arms and leans over the fox’s snout. Breathes a tiny almost-kiss on its oddly intact head. You think rabies but don’t say anything. There’s a huge lump in your throat so big you can’t speak. Benny looks at you and all you can do is gape like a fool. He looks worried. Then he turns away and disappears from view. “Don’t go far,” you say quietly. You came home earlier yesterday for Benny’s sake. But maybe it wasn‘t early enough. All you want to do is lie down next to the fox.

You stay where you are and close your eyes. Sounds of a car engine in between the birds and the wind. Then a car shoots round the corner and races past far too fast. The rush of air almost sends you flying. Startled, you look round for Benny and can’t see him. You leap up and panic surges through you but then he nudges you from the side. He’s holding up a stone. Large, but not too large, sharp and smooth. “Here,” he says, “is this good?” You let out a long breath. You take the stone from him. “Yes,” you say. “It’s a good stone.” The fox’s breath is slowing down, more peaceful somehow though that can’t be right. “Get in the car,” you say. Benny shakes his head. “I want to stay with him.”

“Wait in the car,” you say. Getting louder, but Benny sits back down beside the fox. “Right now,” you say. Benny just sits there. “I want to stay.”


“I want to stay with you.”


The last ‘no’ is shouted. Benny flinches. You grab his arm. Drag him to his feet. You pull him towards the car. He yelps. Are you mad? That’s his broken arm. You put your big writhing baby on the back seat. Slam the door shut. Benny screams and pounds against the car window. “Mummy,” he howls inside. You’re in front of the car and your heart’s beating so hard it hurts. A wave of anger and shame is rolling towards you. You know it’s coming. All you can do is wait; you can’t move. You stare at each other. You on the outside and him inside. A moment of silence between one ‘Mummy’ and the next. Two seconds, maybe, or two hundred. Then you grab your mobile and call Nicole.

She never takes more than ten minutes. She picks up her tear-stained child and ignores you. You try to stop her so that she’ll look at you. “It leapt out in front of the car,” you say. “We are going home now,” Nicole talks into Benny’s hair. Benny waves.

Her car disappears around the corner. You’ve still got the stone in your hand. You kneel beside the fox which has all but stopped breathing. You lift the stone and press it against your temple. It is cool and damp and smells of earth.

“I’m sorry,” you whisper. And strike.


From “Jungtier (Mama).” Sachen mit Wörtern, January 2016.

My Deepest Sympathy

Author: Katharina Bendixen
Translator: Helen MacCormac

I couldn’t stop laughing when we buried my mother, but there was nothing funny about her death. She got ill all of a sudden, lay in hospital for a few weeks and then one night she died, before I had time to say goodbye. We’d never been best friends or anything like that, but we always got on in our own sort of way. Sometimes we’d go out shopping. She used to ask me what everyone was wearing and then she’d splash out, buy herself a nice top and a dress for me. We used to talk on the phone for hours, and now I can’t remember what we talked about. Sometimes, we didn’t hear from each other for a week or two, for no reason.

My father, my grandmother and I stood in a row in the car park; the gravel had dusted our black shoes white. We shook hands with the mourners and they all mumbled the same words, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ or ‘my condolences,’ or, ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’ I don’t know if it was the endless repetitions that got to me, or the hushed voices, the sameness of it all. I started to grin when the priest gave the homily. I giggled when the organ played. When we left the vestry, I actually laughed out loud. Luckily, it wasn’t the kind of funeral where all the mourners walk to the graveside behind the coffin. After the service, we drove directly to the reception. I laughed when the car stopped at a red light. I laughed when I ordered a cup of coffee with plenty of milk and after every bite of lemon sponge cake.

‘It’s just nerves,’ everyone said, and people kept hugging me before I could fend them off. But I knew it wasn’t nerves. It was something else, something hiding deep inside me. I was really worried that it had nothing to do with my mother’s death; that it had been there all along and had simply decided to show its face for the first time now.
During the next few years, I often dreamt about my mother. She’d be sitting at the kitchen table in front of a chopping board loaded with cheese and tomatoes and grapes. Dad was still at work and she was making sandwiches for when he came home. ‘I might be going to die,’ she said and buttered a slice of bread. I didn’t say anything. ‘You might not get to say goodbye,’ she said and topped it with cheese. I didn’t say anything. ‘You might have to laugh at my funeral,’ she said and put the cheese sandwich onto a plate with all the other sandwiches. I always wanted to ask her why I had to laugh. I wanted to know if she minded. But I couldn’t say anything. It felt like someone was holding my mouth shut.

At some point the dreams went away. Though my father didn’t stop dreaming about her. ‘Last night,’ he’d sometimes say, ‘I saw your Mum again.’ We never talked about her much, but when we did, we were always honest. My father wouldn’t give up the flat he’d shared with my mother for thirty years. In the beginning, I couldn’t stand being there, even for an hour. But I got used to it after a while. I met a couple of men, I got promoted. A lot of things turned out better than I’d hoped. Some even seemed easy.
It took me four years to realise that something was wrong. A good friend asked me to accompany her to a funeral. Her ex-boyfriend had been killed in a motorcycling accident or out on his bike, I can’t remember. But I know she was having a bad time. It was a nasty separation and they hadn’t been able to forgive each other. ‘Write a letter,’ I told her, ‘write down everything you wanted to tell him.’ My friend laughed in a weird sort of way and I realised that my advice was stupid. Stupid and hurtful because it was just something to say.

The mourners stood around in the car park waiting for the two or three closest relatives to line up ready to shake hands and listen to the same old words. ‘Sorry for your loss,’ or ‘my condolences,’ or less often ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’ I felt something start to flutter deep down inside. I bit the inside flesh of my cheek, pinched the back of my hands, curled up my toes tight inside my black shoes, tried to disguise my laughter as tears. Then I turned my back on everyone. I could feel their eyes watching me. No doubt they thought I was the ex-girlfriend, a sister, a cousin maybe. The fact that even the closest relatives were so easily fooled made me laugh even more. My friend touched me on my shoulder. ‘Is everything all right?’ she asked. And when she realised that I wasn’t crying, she said, ‘What are you doing? What’s wrong?’
After that funeral, I started dreaming about my mother again. I dreamt we were back at the kitchen table and she was making more sandwiches for my father. She said the same things she’d said before, and still I couldn’t speak. But when I woke up I felt drained, rather than sad. I told my father and he shrugged his shoulders, and looked away as if it was all his fault.

Some things did get better in time, but the anniversary of her death was always bad. We both hated going to the graveyard, so we bought flowers instead and put them in his flat. We’d have coffee and cake, and talk about the illness, about her final days, about the funeral. Sometimes we’d look at old photos. If one of us got sad, we’d hug each other. One time, we tried to ignore the anniversary. We didn’t meet up or phone. But that didn’t make it any better.


I haven’t been to another funeral since. But today my father phoned to say that his aunt, my great aunt, had died. ‘The funeral is next week,’ he said, ‘I can’t go on my own. What am I going to wear, anyway?’ ‘I’m very busy at the moment,’ I answered, ‘I don’t think I could take a whole day off.’ We talked about the garden, about the fruit he wanted to pick at the weekend. I promised to look up a recipe for blackberry jam.

I’m seeing someone. Last weekend we went for a walk. This time we meet in a restaurant. It was his idea. He’s a slow eater, his manners are nice and he’s really good with the waiters. There are some men I like talking to about my mother, and some I don’t. The ones who are brave enough to ask about her usually last more than a couple of weeks. This one asks. He actually asks the most moving questions anyone has ever asked me. ‘Do you look like your mother?’ he wants to know and, ‘do you get your cautiousness from her?’ We sit talking for a long time, but I end up going home after the last glass of wine.

During the night, I see my mother again. The dream is the same as before, only this time no one is holding my mouth shut. I can’t think of anything to say, so I watch quietly while she makes sandwiches for my father.

I have never told anyone that I laugh at funerals.
The telephone rings again. It’s not the man, it is my father. He wants me to help him buy a black suit. We decide to meet at the market square.

‘Is it for a sad occasion?’ the shop assistant wants to know. My father shakes his head and says, ‘For a wedding, black seems easiest.’ The assistant is charmed by my father. He’s a charming man and he tells her all the little jokes he used to save for my mother. I stand back and watch his reflection in the mirror. Since my mother died, he has lost two kilos every year, so of course he looks great. I can’t think of any father who wouldn’t.

‘We’ll take in a tuck here,’ the assistant says holding a bit of cloth between two outstretched fingers. ‘We’ll need a day or two.’ I stop listening to my father’s jokes. The pale blonde woman in the mirror is me.

‘What about you?’ My father asks as we’re leaving the men’s department. ‘What shall we get for you?’ ‘I still don’t know if I’ll be able to come,’ I say, ‘and I’ve got enough black clothes, anyway. Let’s get something to eat.’ Our favourite Chinese restaurant is only a few streets away. We order the same dishes as always. We don’t mention the funeral. I have no idea if my father liked his aunt, I don’t know if she used to play with him when he was a child, or if he ever phoned her when he grew up. I only met her once and remember her having a huge neck. ‘It’s a goitre,’ my mother told me; and I was surprised that something so scary could have such a silly name.

I wish I knew what to ask when I see my mother during the night. I used to want to know why I laughed at her funeral and whether she minded. But somehow, it doesn’t matter anymore. And I don’t think it matters to my mother either. Maybe there’s a different question that is more important.
‘Are you going to go or not?’ my father wants to know, on the phone. The funeral is tomorrow. And he has already phoned three times so far, today. But I was out, working, meeting the man. When I don’t answer straight away, he says, ‘We should both be experts at funerals really, but we’re not. I haven’t even picked up the suit, yet. It’s odd, isn’t it?’

Last night I stayed with the man. We didn’t make love, but we lay very close together. Usually, it takes me months to get that close to someone. I didn’t tell him that I laugh at funerals and I’m not going to tell him. But I told him other things, things I normally keep to myself for much longer. How I used to get annoyed when I was a child if people said that I looked like my mother. How I sometimes didn’t want to hold her hand because of the shape of her fingers. We stayed up half the night talking about my parents and his until we fell asleep.

I woke up just before dawn and saw my mother. She was sitting on a chest of drawers, eating all the sandwiches she had made over the years. A great pile of cheese and tomato sandwiches and she had only managed to eat half so far. I knew that she was going to stay until the plate was empty. I had all that time to ask the right question. But I didn’t need much time because there wasn’t a right question. There was just this one last meeting. So I said, ‘Those sandwiches are ancient, are you sure they’re okay?’ My mother looked up and nodded and then I knew it was all right. I knew that there are people who laugh at funerals and people who cry when someone is born. Some of us are terrified of thunderstorms and others fear the sun. A lot of people run away when they see a spider, but some of us keep them in terrariums and even give them names. Everyone has something hidden deep down inside. It’s just that most people don’t let it show.

‘I don’t really want to be that sort of an expert,’ I tell my father on the phone. ‘Two ordinary people should be able to do this, too.’

We’re going to fetch the suit tomorrow morning and then we’ll set off. Perhaps we can get a cup of coffee somewhere on the way. It’s an early start. The funeral is out in the country, in a little village about a hundred and fifty kilometres away. It’s the village where my mother and father grew up. We used to go there for walks sometimes. Then they’d tell me about the olden days. About the village pond where they used to play all day long until their parents came and dragged them out by their hair, about the old carpenter who had lost a finger and an eye. And about the September day when they kissed for the first time.

Translator’s Note

What I love about all Katharina’s work is the way she uses everyday situations and a deceptively straightforward style of writing to generate an unexpected sense of something that is definitely not quite right. In ‘My Deepest Sympathy’, a young woman laughs at her mother’s funeral but apart from that she seems to be ok…. You watch as she comes to terms with her grief, and then all of a sudden you’re overwhelmed by her sadness. The concise wording and the gentle rhythm are central to the story, and form the basis of this translation. I found that if I could get the words right, the rhythm would come, too. Sometimes it felt more like translating poetry than prose, so I was especially pleased when it started to gel.  

From  Gern, wenn du willst © poetenladen 2012

The Cripple and the Silken Garrotte

Author: Joseph Felix Ernst
Translator: Helen MacCormac

kalich kakuka julima
kalich kakuka julima
kalich kakuka
kalich kakuka
kalich kakuka julima african gibberish chorus of a nursery rhyme entitled the equator where the sun burns down

Everyone, all of us – felt sheepish. No sooner did we learn that the cripple would be taken to the garrotte on Assumption Day, than we – Javier and I – set off to Olivar. The whitewashed walls of the homesteads stood dry as dust in the sweltering summer heat – heat and dust; there couldn’t be a single place amidst the stones and rocks of this barren land not bursting with heat, or else it was the work of the devil. The whole earth was glistening with a dry glimmer, as if an alien landscape had been doused in rippling water, water that was, in fact, heat rising from the ground. So, we waded through this dry wet over grey, sharp-edged cinders, and if we happened to glance down as we went, we couldn’t see a thing, up to our knees, except a strange kind of shimmer which seemed to cover the burning ground – in it, below, it was like staring at our limbs through flawed panes of glass. The Ebo, the Zújar, even the Río Baûl had run dry weeks ago and were emblazoned with pale stony bones. A few days after the rivers and lakes, the wells had finally dried up; we didn’t know a single person who had drunk as much as a drop in the past three weeks. The heat was so intense, that wine bottles which had been carefully corked, sealed with sealing wax and stored down in the cool, often unbelievably deep cellars of the farms, had dried out within a matter of days, leaving nothing but glass hulls full of dry heat and boiled sediment. As we walked, small bunches of grass would suddenly ignite unexpectedly beside us in a brief blaze which burnt away in a moment. The sparse growth in this arid landscape meant that these flaming bundles of withered grass had no dried-up plants or, worse still, brushwood near them, so there weren’t any widespread wildfires. However, we kept hearing things crackle as herbs growing on the rocks suddenly turned to ashes in a blistering second of combustion. Although we were in a great hurry and despite the pressing swelter of those days, we didn’t choose the direct route; instead, we took a detour which would lead us to the shores of Lake Negratin, to see if the mile-wide stretch of water had also evaporated during the weeks of drought. When we finally reached the edge of the great basin, there was nothing but dry barren land as far as the eye could see: a void, which fell away steeply before us – but, at the very bottom of this eerie hollow, thick clouds of steam rose up into the air like giant geysers; the last heaving breath of the dried-up lake. As we marched on towards Olivar, sharp pieces of shrapnel kept shooting through the air and despite being so small and light they left painful scratches on our bare skin, that is: on arms, legs and faces. As we plucked these splinters out of our skin and studied them, we realized that they were fine slivers of basalt. Apparently, some stones ruptured as they expanded in this heat. The limestone along our path was crossed with veins of basalt, so there were shards whirling through the hot air everywhere. Javier told me – much later: not until months after our trek – that he had seen lumps of ore, copper apparently, along our path and he swore that he had seen heavy drops of red, shining, molten metal seep through the pores of those rocks because of the sheer summer heat. I can’t say if this is true; I don’t remember seeing anything like that. Maybe Javier ended up being deceived by a mirage in the shimmering heat of those glistening days, or perhaps he was right. We approached Olivar after several hours of hard walking, but turned right before we reached the first houses, heading in the direction of the forge which lay just outside the village, to the west. As the workshop came into sight, we realized that while we could clearly see the blackened bare bricks of the forge, the forge fire was out. There was no burning coal, no kindling. We were sure that the forge was abandoned and that our journey had been in vain when, all of a sudden, the door of the adjoining mud hut opened and the smith stepped out into the open, wearing the clothes of his trade including a heavy smith’s apron made of cowhide. We greeted him as strangers should, in an honest yet reserved manner, relieved that our trip had not been futile, after all. We promptly outlined the reason for our visit, telling him all about the cripple’s current predicament, the garrotte, or in other words: the impending execution. It was immediately apparent that the square-shouldered smith really was as lively and mischievous as everyone everywhere always said he was. He offered his services at once and started looking around for a suitable piece of metal to fit our description. Unfortunately, his stores contained practically nothing of any use. He wasn’t a trained tinsmith or coppersmith, he was one of the many country blacksmiths who provided the locals with nails and hammer heads, axe blades and horse-shoes and who had nothing to do with sheet hammering. Not like the brownsmiths or armourers or tinkers, even, who could all wield a hammer to work sheets of metal into breastplates, boiling pans, copper pots and stills; or to fix metal rims to the wheels of the peasants’ carts. The country blacksmith used raw material that had nothing in common with the materials a tinsmith might use; his stores were full of piles of iron and steel but always in the form of heavy rods or less-heavy bars. Once again, our mission threatened to end in failure, but then the smith came up with a possible solution: every once in a while, he was known to take the local peasants’ broken old tools in payment and sell them to an ironmonger called Alvaro for a marginal profit. The man ran his business from Granada, selling his wares (any cast iron, copper plate, black iron plate and white iron plate, zinc for the zincsmiths and tin for the tinsmiths) to rural workshops in the northeast. When he returned to the city (having also made a small profit), he then sold the scrap metal he had collected on his trip to the mining companies of Granada, who in turn sold it to the large smelters together with the ore they mined. And on this very day, the blacksmith had taken an old copper kettle of some considerable size in payment – which had suddenly cracked from bottom to top while hanging over the midday fire in front of the eyes of a very surprised housekeeper. Also, the inside of the kettle had originally been lined, but due to small nicks in the silvery coating, some stock had got through to the copper bottom which had sprouted rust and caused the zinc coating to blister in patches here and there. The old kettle was simply worn out. We were very grateful and encouraged the smith to go ahead and heat the cracked kettle and then pound it flat with heavy blows of his mighty hammer, transforming it back into a sheet of metal similar to what it must have been before some boilermaker or coppersmith gave it its bulbous shape. At this point, the mystery of the missing forge fire was finally solved: all the smith’s wood and coal supplies had burnt to cinders in the midday sun during the past couple of weeks. A fire had broken out in the coal pile and soon consumed all his fuel. The smith had had no choice but to cover the glowing embers with dry earth as best he could to keep the sparks from flying and then let the fire die down of its own accord. The lack of fuel was perfectly compensated for by the searing heat, however. This meant that the blacksmith simply brought the copper kettle out of the shade of the roofed forge into the blazing sunlight and within a few minutes, the bent metal started to glow – first in dark, earthen hues and then, after about a quarter of an hour, in a strong red colour reminiscent of pepper berries. The smith took hold of the metal with a set of tongs, placed it on the anvil and immediately started to pound it flat with his hammer. It took him about half an hour to form a fairly even piece of copper. Then he worked the metal into the right shape, putting all the skill of an armourer into his work and refusing to take a single real for his efforts.

When we finally returned from Olivar with our feet charred to the ankles, reeking of burning toenails, with boiled flesh up to our knees and scratches from the basalt shrapnel on bare skin, that is: on arms, legs and faces, with singed hair and congealed flakes of glair in our eyes which floated through our vision like clouds, we hurried to the place of execution as fast as our raw feet would allow. The cripple was already bound hand and foot and had been brought to the foot of the hill upon which the scaffold stood. We hurried over to the wretch, who hardly recognized us, grabbed him by the shoulders, lifted his chin with the palms of our hands and placed the copper gorget round his neck and throat as best we could. We fastened it with several iron bolts which we drove into the intended holes with a few hard blows of a hammer. A train of court workers, constables and gawpers had finally arrived and we set off in a silent procession to the place of execution on a path that wound its way up the hill in tight bends. In other words, the condemned man was forced on a fairly lengthy last march to the top of the hill which was intended to heighten the terrible pain of anticipation concerning the instrument of execution. By this point, Javier was on the verge of sunstroke – the glair that filled his eyeballs had congealed into a cloudy liquid. The burnt soles of his feet split open in a different place every step he took and he wouldn’t stop singing a nursery rhyme about a Negro called Ovambo the equator sun burns down on the barren steppe his angry Negro woman only Ovambo in the kraal sings his songs with joy his death oh now he has sung all he’ll ever sing his wife had his hide, and she ate his fat Negro body with her child again and again kalich kakuka julima kalich kakuka julima kalich kakuka kalich kakuka kalich kakuka julima. In the end we made it to the garrotte, the strangulation device from which we hoped to save the cripple with our copper circlet – we wanted the rope to tear, the executioner to break his shoulders and legs, rather than let it cut off the air to someone’s head, blood and lungs. No one, not even the executioner – and that really is remarkable – was offended by what we did. kalich kakuka julima again and again kalich kakuka kalich kakuka kalich kakuka julima and the equator sun burns down and kalich kakuka and the bleary eyes and kalich kakuka and when we finally saw the garrotte on the scaffold on the hill, we could hardly believe our eyes: the stake and the winch had been made of glass¸ they were completely hollow on the inside and as thin-walled as an expensive flacon. The rope was the most delicate silken thread, almost invisible, like a spider’s web and seemed as unreal as any of the strange appearances we’d witnessed in the dry air of these never-ending gossamer days. The cripple was positioned on the glass execution device, a thread was wound around the copper gorget and was so thin, you couldn’t even use it to sew, the executioner grabbed the winch and gave it a mere three half-turns before the thread snapped and the glass shattered into a shower of splinters which all caught the merciless glint of the sun as they fell. kalich kakuka, the cripple slumped forward in fright landing on his hands and knees in the boiling sand and again and again, kalich kakuka julima and only Ovambo in the kraal sings his songs with joy. The only one who never really recovered was Javier: he stayed bleary-eyed – the flocks and wisps of curdled white in my eyes slowly sank away and stopped floating through my vision like clouds. He also never stopped singing: kalich kakuka julima. Eventually, the summer days grew cooler and the autumn winds arrived from the north bringing fine grass seeds with them, which would replace the burnt meadows the following spring. What follows is a truthful account of how everything started to bloom again in between the rocks, between limestone and basalt – only: I’m not going to tell:   xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx




Translator’s Note


Joseph happens to come from the part of Bavaria where I lived for many years. So, I sense a whole landscape of familiar sounds, colour and diction in his writing and I always feel totally at home translating his work. Having said that, I don’t know a single young writer who fascinates me more. “The cripple and the silken garrotte” is an extract from a longer piece published in the literary magazine BELLA triste simply brimming with all the joy, wonder and pain I find in all his writing. Initially, I would have preferred to know more about time and place in the story, but I soon realized that I could simply choose words that are no longer in common usage to help create a certain space. I also had to cut up one or two scenes into tiny segments which I then translated individually before putting them back together—it was the only way I could do them justice.

Incoming Tide

Author: Astrid Dehe, Achim Engstler
Translator: Helen MacCormac

About the book: It’s Christmas Eve 1866.  Tjark Evers, a young sailor and navigation student is stranded on an offshore sandbar in the middle of the sea. The tide is rising and there is little chance of help. Caught between water and sand, between dreams and reality, the young man seeks refuge in words and sentences…. Recognizing the power of the sea, he challenges his fate and starts to write.

No trace of the boatmen. Not a sound. As if there had never been a boat, or oars, or shouts of warning when the vessel started to broach; no man from Langeroog lost in the litany of his children’s names.

The swirling fog envelops him in way that doesn’t feel real. It is too soft and vague, all of a sudden. The temperature of the air must be about one degree Celsius, the water maybe a few degrees more; but these are just numbers, they have no substance. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. His brows and lashes will be wet but he can’t feel a thing. He looks down at his boots caught in water that wasn’t there before. How long has he been standing like this? It seems like hours. Is this a dream, and he’ll wake up in a moment, back in the room he shares with two other lads in Timmel?

Tjark pulls himself together, stamps his feet hard causing the thin film of water to spray across the sand, and hunches his kitbag firmly to his shoulder. This isn’t a dream. He is here, standing on the east edge of the island, even if he can’t actually see it.
“Navigation is the science or art of directing the course of vessels as they sail from one part of the world to another. Bearing this in mind, the two fundamental problems of navigation are: 1) what is the ship’s position at a given moment? And 2) what is the most advantageous course to be steered in order to reach a given point? It is the responsibility of a practical navigator to solve these questions with certainty.” This is what it says in his textbook on navigation, and these were the words their teacher Johann August Funk had used yesterday to dismiss his class and send his students off home for Christmas.
Tjark was the only one to cross the water. He’d needed determination to reach his destination, not nautical instruments. He’d even managed without a compass – quite a feat.

The fog has grown thicker if anything, emulating the first-ever dawn before land and water were parted. Tjark needs to get going. He’ll cross the island somehow, forging his own path if he has to. It’s an hour to Westdorf village.

The sands of Osterhook rise, becoming finer, sieved by beach grass on the edge of the dunes. You can feel the change underfoot. Tjark closes his eyes as he walks, sucking in air soaked with moisture that hasn’t come from the sea and does not taste as salty. The sand starts to slope downwards, instead of rising. The tide he had not noticed before tugs at his legs, the water gets deeper, slops into his boots.

Suddenly the fog all around him starts screeching, and spits out a seagull which is gone at once. Then everything is deathly still, as if the world has lost all sound now, as well as colour.  Tjark turns around and wades in the other direction. Seconds later he is surrounded by the swell of the sea on all sides. When he finally finds solid footing on higher ground where the water is still shallow, he turns clockwise, acting as his own compass. You stood dreaming too long, Evers. You’re disorientated because of the fog. You went south-west instead of straight west.

This time he counts his steps. Twenty, twenty-one. The water stays level, feels right. When he reaches forty-five it starts getting deeper, but he won’t believe it. 1845 is the year he was born, after all. Forty-eight steps and it starts running into his boots again. The water ahead is crossed with bars of black and he realises he is looking at underwater channels – five more steps and the current will tear you off your feet. Get back!
He has no idea where he started from now, and he forgot to count his steps. He makes a half turn and puts one foot in front of the other.

A couple of sharp cries sound out like tiny hammers hitting pearls: oyster catchers. He can’t see the birds, but he knows you can eat them, poach three in a jar. That used to be his grandfather’s favourite meal; he was named after Tjark Ulrichs, his mother’s father: island sheriff and a legend in his time after he prevented the village from being destroyed by the French. He has been dead and buried for four years now. Grandmother Hiemke is still alive, it’s as if death has forgotten about her, but she’s blind, and her days are dark. For a moment the fog lifts like a sail billowing in a storm and allows Tjark to see what lies ahead on this side of the island: more water. Maybe it has been conjured up just for him, maybe he drove it out of the sand and something keeps throwing it back at his feet, some demon sent to test and try him.

Back, where to? He has no idea which directions he has already gone, even the flattest parts are covered in water now; there are no footprints left. He will walk a circle as wide as he can. His feet are stiff with cold; he can’t feel his toes.  He can’t tell if they move when he wants them to. But he can walk.

The circle turns into an ellipse, less than one hundred paces round. Another gull appears from nowhere and is chased by something that turns on him: Tjark thrashes out wildly, stumbles, can only just keep himself from falling. His left leg is soaked to the thigh, but the nightmare is gone, thrashed away, shouted away. Gasping, he pulls his kitbag back up onto his shoulder. Where did that come from? What does it mean?

What does this mean? Luther’s question. Years ago at Sunday school they had learnt the Small Catechism off by heart. Tjark had felt restless during those hours. Sometimes he had headed off towards Ostdorf, where people weren’t quite as particular about what children did or didn’t do, instead of going to the island church. The Ten Commandments, The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer. Each commandment, article or petition was followed by the same question: “What does this mean?” He had given the answers as long as he had to, and then put them aside. He was sure they applied, but let them be. What had stuck was the consciousness that we are all sinners, descended from Adam and therefore doomed to die, who must trust in God to soften his judgment and show mercy like a stern father and comforting mother. Tjark never could equate the angry, jealous God of Luther’s catechism – who would persecute all who disobey His commandments, and punish unto the seventh generation – with the God of grace and consolation. He believed that if he lived humbly, things would work out in the end. For him, wrath was one of the great powers of the earth, there to set limits and defend boundaries, a thing of storms, and ice, and above all: of the sea.

Tjark knows the law of the sea better than anything. Water covers three quarters of the planet. If it releases land that it has taken thousands of years to create, it’s for a limited time only. Baltrum and the other East Frisian Islands are no exception. Men may have gained the right to use those islands, but not to own them. The land has always been dominated by the sea, which has taken its toll year after year; dunes seized and torn away, grazing areas washed out and buried under sand, human lives taken like a sacrifice to heathen Gods. There were times when the sea went unbounded, destroying nearly all the houses of Baltrum, lifting ships from anchor, and cutting up the island as if it had grown too large. But during his lifetime the sea has been moderate. The last storm tide hit Baltrum in February 1825.
Tjark has only ever heard stories about it.

This place, this sand he is standing on, is not an island. It was never intended for men. But it’s still a kingdom, a place where the rules of the sea apply. Did he defy its law? Should he fear its wrath? The wrath of the sea, what does this mean? What about the dark horror released from the depths just moments ago? What about the ruthless never-ending tide? Or the confounded confusion that stopped him finding his way through the fog?

Find a way. He is a navigator; he won’t give up. He trudges on as best he can, and his ellipse gets smaller and smaller, until he is zigzagging this way and that, while his feet leave marks that fill up with water and disappear immediately. He’d write whole sentences in the sand, if he could, to delay the truth; he’s ready to wield every physical possibility, all the what-ifs and dreams people continue to dream when reality has become inevitable.


He’s going to drown. There’s not much time left. Perhaps just enough to sort his affairs. Tjark lifts the kitbag that has fallen from his shoulder out of the water and tries to untie the strings. This is difficult; his fingers are stiff and blue with cold. But then he manages to dig his hands into the bag and grabs hold of the Christmas presents at the top. He blinks away tears that keep welling up. A box of cigars for Father, a piece of good soap for Mother. Bought yesterday in Aurich, when the coach dropped him off. They’re worth nothing now. He is looking for something right at the bottom, packed away under his shirt and other clothes. At last his fingers touch the spine of his exercise book. Thick card lined with blue paper. He pulls it out. The pencil is stuck between the pages where he’d calculated spherical triangles, determined angles, and specified sine and cosine functions. A lot of work, but there are a still a few pages left for examples.

What now? You write a farewell letter. You put the book in the cigar box and commit it to the sea. It can do this much, can it not? Wash the box up onto a nearby shore where someone might find it and pass it on.

He is so alone. Nobody has missed him, no one is expecting him. His fellow students and the boatmen think he’s on the island, his parents and brothers and sisters are sure he’s in Timmel. But he is out here on a sandbar. They will be thinking of him, he belongs to them, he’s part of their lives, but they’ll have the wrong pictures in mind. None of their thoughts can find him here; no one can touch his fate. He won’t be with them until after he’s dead, until they start searching for him at the end of the Christmas holiday.

The water stands three hands high above the sand and is starting to feel heavy, like some awful dense matter used to getting its own way. The sea will have him. That is its law, its price for overstepping the mark.
Very well, he will pay for the moment when joy and impatience and a small sense of victory made him blind. He will pay the earthly God his dues and be done. He can do nothing more for his body.
Which leaves his soul. Guilty from Adam’s line, he still hopes for mercy. There is another God, one in Heaven. Not a tangible force, just a small piece of hope, but based on more than Luther’s catechism and vouched for by his father and his fathers before him, and by his mother who prays to this God for her children. He will abide by this. He can say goodbye with hope.

Tjark clamps the kitbag under his arm, opens the book and starts to write. He fills three pages with loops of beautiful writing, writing that should be set in stone:

Dearest Parents
brothers and sisters
I am here on a sandbar
and will drown I shan’t
ever see you again
nor you me

God have mercy upon
me and comfort you
I will put this book in a
cigar box. God grant that
you receive these lines
from my hand. I send you
my love for the last time

God forgive me my sins and
take me to him in Heaven
Skipper HE Evers
TUH Evers

From Auflaufend Wasser by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler, © Steidl Verlag
Translation © Helen MacCormac