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The Green Frontier: A Fantasy

Author: Isabel Cole
Translator: Isabel Cole


The future stands bright before us; the past remains uncertain.
Soviet-era joke


1998

At college I majored in history. It was just after we won the Cold War. Isn’t history over? a friend asked, and I said, That would be boring.

This is how it looks when history is over.

The Harz Mountains, nothing but high hills. A backwater – a wilderness once. Goethe and Heine passed through on foot to find fairytales from Germany’s geographical heart. Much later came the strangest fairytale: this heart severed for decades by a nearly impenetrable border (technology indistinguishable from magic) that one day dissolved into thin air. Leaving the town of Sorge, just east of it, stretched out in the valley like a train stopped at a crossing.

Sorge: sorrow, trouble, care. Toward the west the northern slope turns steep, crags looming in the woods over the embankment left from the long-distance railroad; the narrow-gauge line, still in use, curves from a side valley to cross the river, the Warme Bode, its bridge like a natural end to the Bode Valley. Beyond the bridge, to the west, the wooded slopes draw together, the green of the river meadows turns impenetrable as the paint of a picture; only a child asks what lies behind a painting. Where exactly was the border? When I look for it, I see it everywhere, in each break in the forest. And yet I see nothing. No sign of the legendary Cold War.

“Over there, where the river bends, that’s where our section of the border started,” said Wolfgang, my primary source for that war’s losing side. “We were stationed in Elend.”

The next town north, Elend: misery, hardship. The stream, a mere trickle, is that the river that forms the frontier? It flows toward town, but no one asks where it comes from. Every river has its source, but who goes searching for it?

The narrow-gauge line continues east on the south slope, past farmhouses and vacation rentals, then bends off into the woods. Across the river on the highway cars barrel on into the west as though this route had never been blocked off. Tucked between the river and the rail line are several half-timbered houses with the look of abandoned vacation rentals, the old sawmill, a neglected fish pond, a grove of trees. Then fields open up on both slopes, pushing the forest edge back to the horizon.

On the north slope, auf der Lindewarte – with a view of the Brocken peak, where Goethe’s witches danced – the forest ends, a clean cut down to the village. Where the path emerges to cross the fields, two firs step forward from the dense block of trees. Next to them a house, ten years vacant. Unclarified to this day – who owns it now, what happened back then.

All this: from above. All that a passerby can see and know. The village reveals little. Nothing that I can detect. At the end of a long hike, with the last bus about to leave below, I’d need to stave off haste and weariness and take one real look. From up above: as though through clear water. From the surface I immerse my gaze.

 

Part I
Chapter 1
1973

On the first morning, May 8, waking up with aching muscles. Finding yourself in a strange place. Or: in your own space, once again. First a forgotten place, later on in the wardrobe, under your foster-father’s desk, in a bunk in the children’s home, in the barracks, finally an abandoned apartment you claimed. Where you sensed for the first time, falling asleep, how room is joined to room, building to building, street to street, you to the city. The city of Berlin, there for the taking, if you join the conquerors whose steps echo on the pavement. At first, that too forgotten, the bombs’ footfall shook the streets, where only they could walk. Later men’s feet, foreign march music. Running out onto the street to see. The city lying in heaps like building blocks. It builds itself up – you help build. In the hope of achieving something of your own. In the hope of a reward: possessing something of your own. Something to which you have no claim whatsoever: another person, say. The desire is so strong, you’re afraid of doing damage. As if you could pass down the streets like an air raid.  Laughable conceit – you’re the one who bears the damage.

But now all that was left out of the picture. That was the crucial thing about his own space: now, at this moment, Thomas knew nothing. Now, at this moment, nothing had happened.

It was his birthday, that was all he knew. Music drifted up, festive sounds. He was lying on a mattress amid boxes and unfamiliar furniture. Carefully he got up and went to the window. So here he was. In the hills. The march music so lost in the landscape. Like an elfin procession, tiny figures, flags, trumpets to hunt for in the picture’s grey-green depths. Springtime, childhood feelings: running onto the street when the ordeal is over. Liberation Day.

A smell of coffee. Editha sat in the kitchen, sunlight on her blond braid, one hand on her belly, as though she were trying to remember as well: Where was she and what was all this? But she had only been waiting for him; when he sat down next to her, she jumped up, kissed him on the top of the head, poured him coffee and made for the moving boxes, tugging and rummaging.

“As if it were your birthday!” he called after her.

“I feel as if it were!”

She came into the kitchen, a box propped on her belly.

“Not so fast,” he said, taking the box and setting it on the table. “First let’s have our breakfast in peace and quiet. Then you bake my cake, if you don’t mind, and I’ll tidy up.”

He meant to sound teasing, not peevish. But teasing was her territory. “That’s just how I thought you’d act on your birthday! As if we had a national holiday just for you!”

In fact he’d hardly ever celebrated his birthday. Once or twice perhaps. Last year he’d still been on his own. Now he had a craving for cake. He took a deep breath, felt a twinge in his ribs. The unfailing pain, more frequent the past few weeks, when he’d had to run so many errands in the city.

“I must have strained a muscle yesterday,” he said.

She sat where she was, as he’d asked her to, and gazed at him. “You’ve got phantom pains. You’re pregnant too.”

He laughed. “I have something to tell you,” but he didn’t know what. She looked at him in alarm, but why, when suddenly he felt so light? “This is my first pregnancy.”

“Mine too!”

“And I have no idea –”

“Yes?”

“What actually –”

“Yes?”

“How –”

“Oh, I haven’t the faintest idea either. About family and all that. You’ve met my mother. I might as well be an orphan too. I practically raised myself!”

“Then you know the score, that’s good.”

“Oh, we’ll do it all wrong, whatever we do.” She got up.

He felt a rush of confidence.

“First, the cake!” she said, sent him to fetch the boxes of groceries and got to work.

Taking a deep breath, Thomas looked around: the former dining room with the picture window would be Editha’s sculpture studio. They’d put most of the furniture here last night, where it would remain while he fixed up the other rooms. What a day that had been. Editha had organized the moving van and a driver with a smoker’s cough, almost too feeble to steer. He’d have to carry all the furniture with this scrawny fellow’s help, Thomas fretted for much of the hundred and fifty miles, astounded by Editha’s sangfroid as she sat squeezed in the middle, navigating, chatting with the driver and even cadging a smoke to mark the occasion.

And so Thomas felt nothing as they left the city behind; floating in a numbing cloud, he finally fell asleep. He woke up when they stopped at the first checkpoint. It was already dark. Glaring lights, officials searching the jumble of wedged-together furniture that suddenly seemed unfamiliar and suspicious. At last they were waved on, escorted by two soldiers on motorcycles. The headlights lit up crooked streets, sagging timbers, cracks in wall plaster, ancient straw protruding, grass by the roadside, tree trunks, two tall firs, a lonely house. When Editha hauled herself out of the cab belly first, the soldiers immediately began to help unload – as she’d clearly anticipated. Gangly kids serving their compulsory two years, bitterly-earned muscles, incongruous baby faces, undisciplined skin rife with stubble and pimples. He felt sorry for them, so gawky and eager to please. Like him, once. He forgot to ask their names.

All these things set in motion by an unintended child. There were just two months left.

He’d lain awake that night, his cramped body chafing at the edges of this unfamiliar room. In dreams he later forgot, he performed one movement over and over, turning in circles. The cramp had dissolved when the music called him to the window. Now he faced this furniture, half of it his, and recognized none of it. A jumble like a junk shop. A week ago it had stood in his Berlin apartment in arrangements now dissolved, even in his memory. He indulged himself in a pleasant game: he was back at the junk shop, picking it out all over again.

A whole convoy of cars passed down in the valley. He forced himself not to look. He arranged and rearranged the furniture until it looked like a place where life could play out.

“Nice job!” said Editha, lowering herself slowly, sweating, into an armchair. “You don’t need to go to all that trouble though, it’s only temporary.”

“But it all fits.”

“We have the whole house!”

She’d told him all about the old family inn, restored at last to her mother Margarethe. But he’d never seen the house. They’d come to the Harz Mountains just once, to Elend, in March, to visit Margarethe (Elend, misery, hardship, mother-in-law – the jokes he had to put up with from his friends …). That weekend everything was cordoned off for some reason, evidently no unusual occurrence in the 5-km-wide Restricted Zone along the border. At any rate, it was impossible to go the few miles to Sorge to see the house, and Margarethe claimed not to have a single photo of it. He’d been ready and willing to admire it. But as no one seemed bothered he’d shrugged his shoulders too and wasn’t bothered either and just had to be polite and not admire anything.

“I guess I can’t believe my luck.”

March music again, again it drew him to the window. But the exhaustion remained.

Editha joined him. “Do you see anything?” He shook his head. “We could go down and look.”

“True, I suppose we ought to show our faces.”

“Oh – we both have good excuses. And it’s your birthday. But if you want… the cake has to cool off anyway.”

“Let’s go look, then.”

They took the shortcut, straight down the hillside along the forest edge. The official path down through the fields zigzagged first to the next village, Tanne, barely half a mile east, but already outside the Restricted Zone; a checkpoint intervened. And the forest path took too long for Editha. Free of the city, the lowlands, she took the breakneck downhill plunge. Slipped in the wet grass, caught herself, laughed; Thomas, trying to catch her, slipped and fell. When they reached the crossing, it began to pour, and they ducked under the eaves of the hotel Sorgenfrei. Sans souci, thought Thomas, not that he spoke French. No sign of a parade, the music was gone. The village seemed abandoned. Everyone had gone where the music was playing, the wreaths were laid down. Wherever that was. They looked at each other and shrugged; when the rain let up, they went back. Editha lit candles on the kitchen table, arranged the flowers, picked that morning, still wet, poured brandy in Thomas’ coffee. A sense of relief, but not celebration. The people down there might well feel the same. An ordeal has passed, the music promised: May is come and winter gone. No one would dare deny it. But liberation was too big a word. Waiting and seeing.

He pulled her onto his lap. “I’m much too big and heavy for you!” she laughed, but he liked it that way.

Again he couldn’t sleep. It alarmed him: that he’d woken up remembering his birthday, not the baby. That the very first thing was his old story. Whenever he asked himself where the baby actually was, he found himself back in that space. Alone. Now, in this moment, nothing had happened. Was it going to start? Start over from the beginning?

Half asleep, he was thrown back on himself, back to Berlin. He was still hurrying through the streets. With so much to take care of before the move to the Harz, all unfinished business seemed unbearably urgent. After each shopping trip, each bureaucratic appointment, he took the long way back through the city center’s old, tangled streets. Slow but still harried, breathing shallowly, scalp tense, heart racing, he peered into identical-seeming entryways, unable to read the faded pre-war lettering, a foreign alphabet? What felt familiar was the maze of the streets, secret paths, hiding places… Might he find the place after all? But this wasn’t about him. This was all about his child. It couldn’t start until this here was taken care of. Couldn’t start all over until… The place was nowhere to be found. It was meant that way. Meant for heavy boots, panting dogs to pass by.

Those who have gone, all that has vanished has merely moved, living on in an unknown street. Those who leave East Berlin find themselves in West Berlin. All that vanishes is the warmth of touch: what is left are trajectories, paths, streets intersecting at infinity. No Wall can hold back these memories, these encounters that are none because the life has fled from them, why is there no such wall?

Now, in his dream, though he hadn’t gone far, he came up against some resistance, no visible obstacle, but suddenly there was no going further. Here he stopped, almost relieved.

Outside the wind rose, a long intake of breath dissolved the tightness in his chest. He inhaled and exhaled and waited for the woods to exhale too. A long, wide span of silence. By the time the wind came again, he was calm. Opening his eyes, he saw with relief the arrangement of the furniture. Clouds glowed in the window bay. Editha slept nude, belly and breasts, shoulders, hips, hair, all her heavy curves suspended, a voluptuous figure sketched in charcoal, swift and sure. To think that this woman existed. He breathed deep. That she slept so calmly. That nothing seemed to touch her. But a shadow flitted across her belly: a hand grazed her from within. She too was sleepless. Waiting.

What had Editha said? I might as well be an orphan! So cheerful. Once, in passing, she’d said her father had died on the front, her grandfather in the last-ditch defense of the town. For her that seemed to be all there was to it. Children like to play orphans. They have their reasons.

The next morning Thomas thought he heard music from a different direction, the Russians celebrating their own holiday: Victory Day.

“But there aren’t any Russians around. The last of them were stationed in here. Now there’s just the base in Aschersleben,” said Editha.

“What do you mean, in here?”

“In ’45 they used the house for their headquarters. Only until ’49, though. After that our men moved in.”

“And what were they doing here?”

“Drinking coffee. How should I know! The main thing is, they’re all gone now. It was probably too drafty for them.”

Editha had dreaded finding old junk lying around. Even an old button in a corner would have… revolted her. A quirk of hers she’d first discovered in Berlin, when the Spartan dorm room delivered her from Margarethe’s book-filled lair. The sense of liberation was so keen that a single grubby coin on the windowsill brought her painfully down to earth – as though she’d found something rotting there. But this big room was cool, bare, bright, a studio already, smelling of elemental substances. Great canvasses waiting for colors and forms. If only it weren’t for the blotchy wallpaper. Put up by Grandpa? By the Russians? By our men?
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

The house wasn’t that big after all. A few small rooms clustered around the old dining room. The kitchen had just space enough for a table next to the prewar stove and the postwar refrigerator. But there was hot running water. A narrow flight of stairs, three little rooms under the roof, dust, pigeon feathers, spiders drifting down, trapped heat, the smell of wood and must. “Where do you want to have your study?”

Study: it all came back to him, the high ceiling with its moldings, the Berlin courtyard outside the window, elder bushes… He stepped into the room on the west side, feeling, slight as he was, as though he had to stoop. At the gable end the forest loomed outside the window, a tiny window on the left wall overlooked the valley, a puddle on the buckling brown flooring beneath it. But he felt at home in this thicket of light and shadow. All right, then: the bedroom would go next door, and the nursery on the eastern end. Thomas was silent, incredulous. An entire house. In its very emptiness it seemed still – already? – to belong to other people.

“You mean, they might make us share the place? I’d like to see them try! Housing shortage or not, I’m a sculptor, and I have a right to a studio! It was a struggle, though, I have to say. It’s a good thing we have the mayor on our side. With his cultural ambitions. He has big plans for us, we’ll have to go along. You have no idea how important the mayors are here in the Restricted Zone, constantly negotiating, getting special deals from the powers that be to keep their townspeople happy. Not an easy job. As far as I’m concerned, the townspeople can come here and I’ll give art lessons, then they’ll get something out of it. They’ll be glad in the end! That we’re crazy enough to live in this dump! The roof leaks and it’s probably haunted.”

He could tell she felt at home here, clattering about, voice echoing. Nothing was left. No trace of the old furnishings, not a sagging chair, not a picture: The Brocken by Moonlight. Nothing of our men, nothing of the Russians, no whiff of bootblack or Palekh-ware. But the
emptiness smelled of what had vanished. Neither he nor she knew what that was.

“Well, I’m going shopping. And I’m sure you have things to do!”

“Oh,” he said, “I was just feeling so…”

So comfortable. He didn’t want to move from the spot. Once Editha had left, he got up and stretched his back to buy time. Time he didn’t have. On Monday he started work at the House of Books. One more time he walked through all the rooms. Outside the windows the valley, the village. It awed him the way the city awes a villager; he couldn’t simply stroll out of the house. His house, he thought. His. Whoever had lived here, whoever was to come, innkeepers, dinner guests, entire armies, it was his for now. And if he wanted, he could paint the walls black. Drum solo – Charlie Watts! A mad rush down the stairs. Margarethe hadn’t managed once to come over from Elend, but she’d organized the necessities, plaster, mortar, paint, he’d have to make do with white. A trowel, brushes, he’d brought a paint roller. All he needed was a ladder.

Find a ladder: that was his first task. And there it all began.

He took the shortcut, just what he needed, that stumbling downhill momentum. Down to the road, then a few hundred yards to the west. On the left, below the road, the big farmhouses along the Warme Bode nestled in the fold of the valley. A hiking group approached, cheerful hellos, curious looks, the vacationers took him for a native and wondered what one wonders: What’s it like to live here? By the time he reached the crossing – the road went on westward, but there was nothing down that way, you turned left across the bridge into the village – everything seemed deserted. Most people worked in the factories in Königshütte or Benneckenstein, a bus picked them up before each shift.

It all gleamed in the sun, in the lush greenery, freshly painted, great ancient half-timbered houses and ones with wood cladding, striped red and white, the clear-cut crisscross of the planks and beams, the brick-red and slate gleam of the lofty roofs. The heart of the village, across from the hotel Sorgenfrei, yesterday hidden by rain; he entered it as though he’d never set foot in a village before. All he knew were the towns outside Berlin, stretched long and low and grey along the roads. This here was a picture from a picture book, turn of the century, opulent yet clear in its lines.

The one old story: someone sets out from home to arrive in the bustling city. And the other: a weary wanderer heads down into a village.

He knocked here and there; at last, in an outbuilding, he heard steps. A diminutive woman peered up at him, hair short and smooth and slate-grey, eyes blinking, a sleepy bird. “Hello, my name is Thomas Grünberg, my wife and I just moved into the house on the hill. I was wondering if I could borrow a ladder.”

The brown eyes turned suspicious, still sleepy, a sleepiness that seemed to perturb her.

“We’d like to keep it a while, if possible,” he went on, unnerved, “we have to renovate, paint…”

“Hold it right there, young man.” Now with demonstrative vigor. “Not so fast. Can I see your papers?”

He rummaged through his pockets, was it the wrong jacket, that eternal pang of fear… He held out his ID with the stamp for the Restricted Zone.

“Well, well. Let’s see what we can do for you. Frau Barthel.” She gave him her hand. “We’d better sort it out with the policeman.”

Who was just coming around the corner. Thomas had to tell the whole story again, and yet again when two members of the Voluntary Auxiliary of the Border Troops joined them. The sun shone too hot on Thomas’ head. All three withdrew to confer. Frau Barthel asked them in and put the kettle on, but no one made himself comfortable. The policeman went to make a phone call, one Member of the Auxiliary followed Frau Barthel into the shed, and the other waited in the kitchen, keeping an eye on Thomas and the kettle. A burly man with short sand-blond hair. The water came to a boil, and he poured it over the grounds.

“Coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

“Heckmann.”

“Grünberg.”

“Welcome to Sorge.” He stared at Thomas to see if his mouth would twitch at the name. “Whereabouts are you from again?”

“Berlin.”

“Ah.”

Did that seal his fate? But Frau Barthel came into the kitchen and said: “There, you see, we’ve got it all sorted out.”

The policeman took his leave; the Members of the Auxiliary lifted the ladder onto their shoulders and motioned Thomas to go in front, as though he knew the way better than they. Frau Barthel flitted along after them. On the slope – he took the shortcut on purpose – Thomas heard the men gasp for breath behind him. He could hardly breathe himself. For fury. How humiliating, this Procession to Calvary. Editha, at the window, covered her face with her hands; her shoulders shook. When their eyes met, he nearly burst out laughing himself.

“I was about to call the police,” she said at the door, “but there was no need for that, I see.”

She had already divided the leftover birthday cake among five plates. But the visitors lingered in the corridor, looking around with such blatant curiosity that Editha offered a tour of the construction site. On the top floor Heckmann could barely stand upright; hunched over, he seemed to peer the more sharply into the corners.

“It’s not as big as it looks from outside,” he said at last with satisfaction.

“When I was little, it seemed like a fairy-tale castle!” The guests’ surliness enlivened Editha, inspired her to strike up the opposite tone. “I come from Elend, but I used to walk over here sometimes just to see the house. It really does look bigger from down there. But I think it’s wonderful. And it’s wonderful to be back here in the Harz!”

The others smiled tentatively, not equal to such artlessness. In the end Editha’s belly mollified them. Frau Barthel stared at her in dreamy consternation, inevitable effect of mothers-to-be on older ladies? When Editha smiled at her, she averted her eyes. After eating her cake she fixed Thomas with a different, grim gaze.

“I have to go now. I have to go to the library. They let me go. They don’t let me work full time anymore. You’ve come to replace me.”

“Oh, you’re the librarian?”

She got to her feet. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

The Members of the Auxiliary got up hastily, having neglected their duties long enough. Herr Heckmann warned Thomas not to leave the ladder outside, to lock it up at night or secure it with a chain.

Thomas fled upstairs. They’d known who he was all along. The whole village knew. He began tearing down the wallpaper. The perfect task for an angry man unsure what he was angry at.

“Say, what was that all about?” he asked at dinner. He told the whole story from the beginning.

“That’s how people are here. When a newcomer shows up, they have to look him over first, sound him out, maybe take him for a ride. They don’t mean any harm. I don’t think they mean any harm.”

“But all that fuss about a ladder?”

“Well, what on earth were you thinking? You can’t just go running around with a ladder! You might climb over the Wall!”

He laughed until his scalp hurt.

“Yes, you could die laughing around here,” she said.

Her mood did seem somewhat dampened.

That night in bed he couldn’t lie still.

“Why do you keep jiggling your foot?”

“I can’t get the Rolling Stones out of my head.”

The next day the mayor came to welcome them to the village. He’d been busy with the Liberation Day festivities, he excused himself with an earnestness that was hardly reassuring. As though, left on their own, they might have gotten into all kinds of trouble. Tall, gaunt, greybearded, he should have radiated dignity, not this peculiar tension. It filled his sonorous voice as he expressed his delight that a man of books had chosen to settle here in Sorge and start work in the House of Books. He looked forward to the first literary soiree he’d have the privilege of organizing with him. Thomas froze: he began to grasp the role that was prepared
for him.

In parting the mayor handed Thomas a brochure explaining the special regulations in the Restricted Zone.

“They have signs up everywhere anyway,” said Editha.

But there was no sign pointing to Sorge. Coming from the east, you passed through the checkpoint just outside Tanne, where vacationers had to leave their car. Once in Sorge, all roads led back east. You could hike to the reservoir in Mandelholz and have a coffee at the restaurant there. Or take the short stroll south to Benneckenstein, a popular destination in June for the Finch Singing Competition. There was no direct path to Elend, the next village north in the Restricted Zone, only the detour via Tanne. Which was no problem at all, you simply showed the special stamp in your papers.

Neither Elend nor Sorge showed up on the maps you could buy in the store. But most people knew their names, at least from a certain subgenre of jokes. The Berliners had been in stitches. Here’s a new one: Did you know socialism’s true home is in the Harz? Between Trouble and Misery.

Margarethe would have set them straight, just as she’d set Thomas straight when he sat in her parlor for the first time that March. She lectured him on linguistic corruption and folk etymology. Explained that Sorge meant “border” and Elend “abroad”. Sorge: from Middle High German Zarge, border, Elend: from Old High German eli lenti, a strange land.

She looked at him as sharply as though that were some delicate innuendo, so he said, “Fascinating.”

“What’s fascinating about it? There was a Benedictine monastery in Ilsenburg, the Cistercians were in Walkenried. The border between the two holdings was here in the middle. The monks from Ilsenburg would spend the night here, their first night ‘in a strange land’ – a day’s walk from Ilsenburg. Just over seven miles. That’s how narrow people’s horizons were.”

“There is a certain historical irony.”

“What irony? Old borders are kept up, between monastery holdings, between princedoms. Ninety percent of ‘historical ironies’ are simply historical laws.”

“What you’re saying is actually quite interesting,” Thomas persisted with the charming twinkle in his eyes that concealed many things, anger, or the actual spark of an important idea. “Then it’s like old paths. Once they’re made, they’re used over and over. Indian trails.”

“The Ottonian Roads,” said Editha.

“Ah, yes, Editha told me you’d written about those medieval roads, hollowed out into the ground…”

“‘Shrouded in mystery,’ as they say in the tourist brochures. What’s so mysterious about erosion? Yes, people want to go where everyone has always gone. Rationally speaking that’s utterly banal. And what radically different realms did those old borders separate? Two fiefdoms, a kingdom and a duchy, one Reichsgau and another Reichsgau. This here was Hanover. Tanne was Brunswick. Sorge used to be the Prussians. It only gets interesting today: for the first time the border separates two profoundly different social systems. NATO’s sphere of influence and the community of socialist states. That’s something a thinking person can find a deeper meaning in. Until socialism triumphs over there as well. Until then you can go on being fascinated by the border!”

Thomas choked down the dry cake like an unraised objection. Margarethe had no time to bake herself; she bought her cake every Wednesday when she gave her lectures at the Museum of Feudalism in Wernigerode. He stuffed more in his mouth, just to keep his objections down. But Editha looked at him so expectantly.

He formed his supple smile. “Tell us a Harz legend.”

Margarethe nearly barked in protest. “Look one up yourself! I’ve written papers on various aspects – I don’t go retelling the legends.” She shook her head and coughed. Or was it a gruff laugh?

“Mutti used to read this to me.” Editha had taken a book from the shelf: “The Development of Early Capitalism as Reflected in Harz Folklore. I had to think up the fairytales to go along with it. You hid all the fairy books.”

“Nonsense! You never asked for any. I thought you didn’t want to read the same old fairytales as the other kids. That’s my daughter for you! You might as well know now! You can never tell what she’s thinking!”

Thomas excused himself to use the toilet.

“Hm, one of those modern intellectuals,” he heard Margarethe say. “Where on earth did you come up with him?”

“Oh, that’s a long story!” Editha mimicked her Berlin girlfriends’ confessional coquetry – knowing her mother had no stomach for anything that sounded like gossip. Neither did Editha. It wasn’t like her, that was why Margarethe now lapsed into alienated silence. Which made Editha take pity on her after all. “We met at an exhibition opening, you know, at the buffet, over a glass of Crimean champagne…”

Margarethe had to nod as though she knew. Yet she’d never come to Editha’s exhibitions, hadn’t visited a single time all the years Editha had lived in Berlin. People from the Harz, Editha was constantly having to explain, are real mountain folk. Everyone hunkered in their own little valley.

Thomas stepped outside. Darkness was falling. The village lay in a shallow basin; the crests of the hills, low as they were, still hid the nearby Brocken. And so you felt you could not go much further. You were almost at the top, albeit on a small scale. After all, the village green boasted the smallest wooden church in Germany. Thomas felt stuck in the middle of a railroad set. The only person conscious that the entire village was stuck on a tabletop. Resentfully he fingered the special pass in his coat pocket: a pass for the back of beyond. The cake turned acid in his stomach. What a woman. So unlike Editha, so small and fidgety, so voluble, as though she constantly had to prove someone wrong. Who, him? She didn’t even know him. And hadn’t asked any of the questions he’d been prepared for, about his work (you write books?!) or his family, hadn’t even offered coffee and cake, Editha had gone to the kitchen to fetch it as Margarethe launched on her harangue. He’d nearly lost his temper. But this fragile little person seemed unable to help herself.

Editha, behind him, said: “She likes you.”

“How so?”

“Maybe she likes green eyes too.”

He smiled, nastily or nicely, he didn’t know himself.

“I think she was looking forward to showing us the house.”

“That’s not exactly the impression I got.”

“She’s so – funny sometimes.”

“Anyway, it’s too bad. I would have loved to see it.”

It was a polite phrase, no more. In the train he’d felt a sudden wave of anticipation; now he felt cheated of something. But that wasn’t it.

He didn’t know until the next day, when they took a walk through the forested hills above the village. The trees lay every which way: in November a hurricane had struck. Thomas had seen it even from the train: the forest he’d imagined had been brutally cleared. It shocked him like the sight of the rubble fields when, nine years old, he’d first come to Berlin. A moment of horror, then childish cynicism – never again would he picture the future, because destruction would have intervened – then awe at this destruction, then horror at his own response.

Now, as the path crossed a ravaged slope, he suddenly saw for miles. In the distance an endless white swath wound through the forest. The blinding snow dissolved contours, heights and depths; the longer he looked, the less he could make out, everything extinguished by glimmering light. Picture a figure approaching that swath, and it would flicker out, black in white, against the light you could feel from here, an electrical field. Inconceivable, that such things happened. That someone could cross that field.

He saw the border for the first time. Berlin was too flat. The only observation decks were on the other side. He’d never been on top of the Television Tower. What a privilege to stand here. To spend the rest of his life here. They let you in?! Not long before, he and his Berlin friends had celebrated the approval of his application to move to the Restricted Zone. Celebrated was an exaggeration. They’d drunk to it. His friends were at a loss, while he felt… hollow. He’d been x-rayed and nothing had been found. Results negative. He could count himself lucky.

Now he felt how lucky. To have come as far as you could possible go. Before you the clean break. You faced this view as though from a Caspar David Friedrich cliff. And you could hurl yourself off, or not. That was the brilliance of this clearly drawn line. You had to decide. You decided of your own free will: I want to live. Live a perfectly normal life.

And once you’d made that decision, once you’d looked long enough, the sight was almost  soothing. That line was so very complete. It seemed to stretch into infinity.

 

Excerpted from Isabel Fargo Cole, Die Grüne Grenze, Edition Nautilus, Hamburg, 2017.