Author: Steven Uhly
Translator: Joseph Given
This excerpt has been abridged in consultation with the author.
Summary: Erik takes a daytrip to an island in Sweden on the west coast of Gotland, where he meets and becomes intrigued by Inez, an aloof and mysterious ornithologist conducting research there. Erik falls in love with Inez and the six hour excursion extends into a week that ultimately ends in a three month sojourn on the island. Rainer Feldberg, who was on the ferry with Erik, also has remained on the island and is keeping a close watch on the two. After an initial flirt, Inez seems to grow more elusive once Erik starts working for her as an intern. Disappointed, he confides his feelings to Rainer Feldberg, unaware that he and Inez share a past in the GDR. A past she had been trying to escape.
It had begun as it always begins. It is still beginning even now.
It begins on this water, on the way back. The ferry turns and I take another look behind me. I am trying to memorize where I’ve been; the cottage, the cliff, the lighthouse, the floating pontoons at the shore.
Inez has already vanished. She was walking slowly across the sharp pebbles on the beach up to the café. In the shadows her contours efface. The vision blurs.
As we parted one of the reporters squeezed between us. He shook Inez’s hand.
I whispered hastily that I would come back.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Inez. Her voice had lost that rawness it had when she whispered to me at night. Her laughter was no longer the laughter from the beach. Fleetingly I touched her arm. The sunglasses covered half her face.
The boat picks up speed. I look back.
Inez and the island sway.
The Baltic Sea flashes white in the distance. Crests of foam steer the waves. They grow wider, their tines elongate, plow deeply into the gray water. They comb the sea towards the coast. Long strands that the wind tears apart and drives together slap onto the shore. The Baltic Sea is mischievous. Essentially it’s just a lake, but it opens widely enough to the Atlantic to give the appearance of being an ocean. In a sense, the Baltic is disguising itself as a sea. It brings elements of the sea into play to enhance the credibility of the illusion: Saltwater. Shells. Flint stones and auks.
Inez stands at the shore shading her eyes with her hand. She wants to see the boy one more time, the hair down to the nape, his open gaze, the chafed hands. But the ferry has turned. Not even Erik’s silhouette remains to be seen.
She turns back and stares at the café. The reporter’s comment runs through her mind:
“You have something going on right? You and the boy.”
“We have everything,” she replied.
It had begun as it always begins. It always begins imperceptibly. Afterwards it’s impossible to say exactly when. The beginning dissolves immediately into the event, into the water churned up by the boat’s propeller, into the nonsense I said to Inez, into the endless circling of the seabirds, the cirrus clouds, the wind.
In truth, this moment when it began will not have happened. I begin searching for it once everything has become irrevocable. In retrospect. Only now does it look as if there had been an inevitable sequence of events, as this is required by the story in hindsight. I am searching for a decisive moment, the trigger, because I want to have had a choice, because I want to believe that at some point I had really made a decision. And maybe that is the rub.
It could have begun with the sparkling turquoise water at the shore. With the withered shadow the gorse bush casts on the whitewashed wall of Inez’s bedroom. It could have started with the sky, a sky that in the noontime stillness is as turquoise as the sea. An hour that turns the patches floating on the water at the island’s edge into algae and green silt that sticks to the sides of the boat. Later, the surf washes it away. It could have begun much earlier, too, before the trip, or if you believe in fate, at birth. It could have begun with us, when Inez and I were born.
The island lies there just as it was three months ago. An overturned saucer. The captain is the same too, a pale man in a red sweater who always carries a bag of pistachios and throws the shells out the open window. The wind floats them away. Yesterday’s newspaper is lying in the passengers’ cabin, the Dagens Nyheter, which he brings from the mainland to while away the time. During the summer, the ferry drops the tourists off on the island in the morning at eleven and picks them up again in the afternoon at five. In autumn the ferry schedule changes and the ferry comes less frequently, and when the storms sweep across the plateau in October, the ferry stops running altogether and the island is left deserted.
The yellow grass is frozen stiff.
It was this autumn when it had all begun, this northern autumn with its snowless cold, with its stiflingly early dusk, this autumn with its gray, frothing sea and the wind-swept rocks. It began the night I was driven to scale the cliff that towered fifty or sixty yards over the sea, when I stood up there and imagined doing it, doing it with the same ease, with the same instinctive trust as the birds that had plunged from the rocks in June, because I was rich, and this feeling was boundless, and I knew it would not last beyond the moment, not last longer than those minutes I stood there in the icy wind that numbed my face and pushed the air back into my lungs. I knew that that was what drove me to the edge of the cliff, not desperation, not the thought of being discovered, or the fear of what followed from the discovery. Had I not turned and faced the rotating beacon, had I not looked back and imagined how she lay there with the straps of her thin nightgown sliding off her shoulder, had I instead taken a step further, over the edge of the cliff, then this richness inside me would have been preserved forever in the freezing cold.
In June it took the ship about an hour to reach the island. A precipice towered above the shore. It cast a shadow across the sea. Beyond the shadow the water glistened; a few wooden huts were scattered along the beach.
A woman in khaki shorts walked up to the landing. She walked towards the quay wall. As she reached the pier, the white straps of her bra showed under her shirt. The white flashed. It was whiter than the sand, whiter than the color of the chalk-covered flint stones, whiter than the boat.
The woman shouted something to two boys standing at the shore. One of them caught the rope and tied it to a cleat. They wore olive shirts with the words Stora Karlsö.
The woman was slim. Her arms looked trained. Wind and salt air had bleached her hair. Her skin was tanned. But something in her demeanor betrayed that she had grown up in fancy apartments.
I looked through the smeared window and thought about how soon I had to leave again that afternoon, that the ferry sailed at five, that I only had six hours on this island, I thought about how little time I had planned for this trip.
Ropes and hooks lined the quay, the woman stood between the boat and the shore. The passengers nearly brushed against her as they got off the ship. I registered the thin trail of clouds in the sky, the cliffs where the birds were breeding by the thousands, I saw the turquoise sea, the chalk-covered flint stones, I saw the houses on the bay, the family, a child on the shoulders, I estimated the distance from here to the beach, between the quay and boat, I noted the iron rings on the docks, I studied the flight line of the gulls, I noted which direction the wind came from; in just a few seconds, I knew my way around this bay in the northern part of the island. As I passed the woman on the quay wall, she fleetingly held my arm.
The water sparkled.
She, too, could not have foreseen at the time that I would come. She could not have known I would be aboard one of the ferries that traveled between Gotland and the coastal islands. She could not have known that I would come at all, she didn’t know me.
I registered the touch of her hand as accurately as if I would have had to write a report about it. She held my arm fleetingly and for no reason; it was more of a reflex because this part of the quay was very narrow. Then she turned and walked back to the beach.
She waved us over to the flagpole. Rocks had been formed into a small platform. As she stepped onto the platform the light, which the steep cliff had blocked on the water, fell across her face.
“Somebody here who doesn’t speak Swedish?”
I was standing behind the family, the child had fallen asleep. I stepped forward. The strap of my backpack slid off my shoulder and caught on my elbow.
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, Erik. You go with Guido. He’ll translate what I’m saying.” Her English sounded raw and arrogant.
Guido was one of the two scouts. He stood near the entrance to the cafe and had a typical square-shaped Swedish haircut. The cafe was only a few steps away from the flagpole; I heard her speaking, but couldn’t understand what she said. I watched how the reddish-blond-haired man who had been with me on the ferry shoved his doctor’s bag between his feet. He stood intrusively close to the platform.
Inez had delegated the tour of the island to Guido that day because the chain on her mini-tractor was broken. The ferry captain had brought a new one from the mainland and was going to install it before he set sail. As she walked down to the quay, she turned around again. “Erik!” she shouted, accenting the i, so that my name suddenly sounded Spanish. “In the Museum you’ll find some leaflets in German. Take one. They’re badly translated, but they’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
I took one, and it was badly translated, but that leaflet told me nothing I needed to know.
Later, when we slept together, these first impressions came back to me, and even now on the ferry, as the island disappears in the distance, they return again. The firmness of her handshake. Her raw voice. The way she said my name, accent on the i. Her face exposed by the sun, as she stood in front of the flagpole, also comes back to me. On top of me in bed she held still, feeling the motion, her eyes were open, her face naked. It was hard and alert, and it seemed ages ago that somebody had told me sex was about losing yourself. Inez never let herself go.
Now, in the distance, her silhouette dissolves over the water, blurs, grows transparent, a reflection of light. We did not arrange to avoid each other. We did not arrange anything. We did not say see you soon, or shake hands, or hug each other. We did not say good-bye. It was as if what we had experienced could not be connected to what was yet to come. Or as if it had to remain open, forever unfinished.
In June it didn’t get dark, even at night. A luminous, intensely blue light hung over the rocks and sea, and it was hard to say if the summer night ever began or if one day simply flowed into the next. Around midnight the sun disappeared behind the line of the sea and its shadow flushed the sky red before it rose again around two. The light made me feel sleepy when I was awake and half-awake when I slept.
Often I lay sleepless until the next morning, continuously jolted awake by the screech of a single auk startled by a falling boulder, his shrieks spreading to the other birds and swelling into a wave that seized the entire colony, only after half an hour growing weaker and slowly fading like a dying siren. Sleeplessly I lay there until the next long day.
In those days I saw a lot of Rainer Feldberg, the red-haired man who had been with me on the ferry. He walked past the office windows carrying his doctor’s bag, sat at the museum café with some papers, strolled along the beach with Guido. Guido seemed to be entertaining him. I saw him put his arm around his shoulder and watched Guido toss his head back and laugh.
“So what’s up with that permit you’ve got?” I asked Feldberg when I ran into him making his morning tea in the lighthouse kitchen.
“Well?” he said. “Everything proceeding to your satisfaction? You’re a busy man. Wasn’t that bird shit I saw you scrubbing off the rooftop the other day? Not to worry. Learning years aren’t earning years.” He nodded at me. “Just making some rose hip tea, want a cup? The permit you are referring to is a mandate to undertake some investigations here.”
“To see if the birds are shitting in the right direction?”
“Nature, young man, is not my cup of tea, unless you mean human nature. I’m here to look into a few irregularities. Certain incidents have prompted the association to send somebody to have a look around. Nothing major, a kind of general check-up as they say nowadays.”
“You mean passports, work permits, illegal immigrants?”
“Late bills, shoddy accounting, and a person in charge whose social skills, shall we say, are rather uneven.” He winked at me. “You’re a bright young man. Now it’s your turn. How do you like it here?”
“It’s good. Not a lot of people, sun, beach and sea. And as far as a person in charge goes, I can’t say I’ve seen one.”
“There you have it,” said Feldberg and poured the water into the pot. “Even a newcomer like you gets it. There are a number of irregularities that have disadvantageously and permanently poisoned the working environment here, and now, at the very latest, it has fallen upon the association to intervene. Has anything struck you as odd? You have direct access to the employees.”
“Struck me as odd?”
“Do you get along with Inez?”
“Of course I get along with Inez. I barely ever see her.”
“So you’ve also noticed how Inez Rauter unduly shuts herself off from the others. You see,” said Feldberg, “if she does that to you or to me, that’s her business, it’s just us she’s treating like chumps, right? It doesn’t harm the association. But when her brusqueness, not to say her coldness, is directed towards her staff, it affects the performance of the entire collective. And it raises the suspicion that she’s abusing her position. To secretly line her own pockets.”
“You think she’s secretly planted coca bushes and is pushing the stuff on the drug dudes in Italy?”
Feldberg looked at me. Then he lifted the tea bag out of the pot and squeezed the liquid.
“Maybe not the mafia,” he said, carefully tossing the bag into the trash. “But it just occurred to me you might be onto something there.”
“That was a joke!”
“Well, you know, Erik,” said Feldberg, leaning a hand against the kitchen sink as he slowly poured the tea in a bright, reddish-golden arc, “I don’t want to sound like some old man telling you his life story or trying to teach you a lesson. But take my word for it when I say: I’ve seen pigs fly.”
“So that’s why you don’t like nature?”
“You’re a very intelligent young man, I like that.” He looked at me. “No,” he said, “it’s not nature as such, it’s nature’s cycles I don’t like. The inevitability with which the expected occurs. Now, for example, I’d give anything to be standing here with Inez in the kitchen having such a frank discussion as I’m having with you, Erik. That would make my job considerably easier.” He suddenly looked exhausted.
“So why don’t you?”
“For the same reason you rarely get to see her, I suppose.”
“You’ve got the power to force Inez to do it.”
“That’s right. But are you here because somebody forced you? A frank discussion is just that, a frank discussion. Have you ever asked Inez why she acts as if she doesn’t know me?”
“That’s the first I’ve heard about it.”
“You’ve got talent, Erik.”
“So how long have you known each other?”
“You can ask Inez all about that. Believe me. Just take a look at yourself. The way you walked in here earlier. And the way you’re standing in front of me right now. You’ve got what it takes.”
“And what is that, in your opinion?”
It was silent for a moment. The tea in the water-stained glass pot was steaming; a thin, transparent mist that vanished as soon as it reached the edge of the pot. Today I wish the door had opened and somebody had come inside, had asked for a sieve or a towel, but nobody aside from us lived in the lighthouse and we were left to ourselves. Feldberg’s flushed face sprinkled with freckles, his calm voice. I couldn’t escape from Feldberg’s charged, promising silence. I waited for this man to tell me something important, something that explained my indecisiveness, why I had stayed on this island.
“It’s a magnetic pull,” said Feldberg, engrossed. “You’re not just young. You radiate this burning. It makes you very attractive. You are experiencing things for the first time. Not because you probably are actually experiencing them for the first time, that’s not what I mean. But because you let things happen. Because you approach things impartially. It opens all the doors for you.”
“That’s what your experience tells you.”
“If you will.” He smiled. “I’m a bit older. I’ve seen all sorts of people in my lifetime. I can truly say I’ve met them all.”
“Yes.” Feldberg blew on his tea. “I’ve seen the worst traits in the majority of them. Their core. The stuff they’re made of.” He blew carefully before he looked at me over the edge of his cup. “Inez wouldn’t treat you in such a humiliating way.”
“I’ve already told you. She doesn’t react at all.”
“People succumb to your softness, Erik. This genuine openness. Your fearless gaze.”
“Inez has only got auks in her head,” I said. “All she cares about are the birds and whether I’ve typed the damned data into the computer, or if I can help her with a rebel auk! Maybe in the beginning there was a magnetic pull. You’re right. There was something. Yeah. I think so. She invited me to stay, you know. It was nothing direct. But that’s why I stayed. Because it looked like something could happen.” I felt the disappointment that had been building come to the surface. “It really looked that way. But now she acts like she’s in a huge hurry whenever I come into the cafe. When I run into her in the harbor, she suddenly has to compare a bunch of lists. I don’t know why I bothered getting involved in this stupid internship.”
“You thought you could get closer to her.”
“She led you on.” Rainer Feldberg took a sip of tea. “The possibly feigned interest in you, by the way, fits in very well with her unstable personality.” He winced. His lower lip quivered like an overheated earthworm and I immediately regretted having gone this far. The moment had passed. There was nothing that connected me with this man, except that we happened to be standing together in the same kitchen in the morning and there was nobody else to talk to.
“I had different plans, that’s all,” I said evasively, and headed for the door.
Then I said: “I was thinking about inviting Inez for a beer.”
“Well? Why didn’t you do it?” said Rainer Feldberg, pleased. “Invite her, do it right away, tomorrow. You’ll see it won’t be difficult for you! It would also be in the best interest of the association. We’ve got to get Inez more involved. Understandably she feels a certain reticence towards me, but in your case you’ve got charm, or don’t you. Maybe you can even get her to talk to me some time. Now that you know I’m somebody you can talk to. But behave in such a way that under no circumstances Inez discovers who has sent you on this mission.”
Frontline Attack: Intimate Sphere, as Rainer Feldberg would secretly call it; though I did not know that at the time.
At the time I was grateful to Feldberg. He had egged me on. He had encouraged me and I risked it. I invited Inez and she said, what took you so long? She turned off her computer and locked the office door. We drove up to the lighthouse with the mini-tractor. We drank the weak Swedish beer that barely got you drunk and wore off before the bottle was empty, we had a tense, polite conversation about her work and my study plans. Then she turned off the walkie-talkie and said:
“Can Feldberg hear us from here?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Maybe we should sit somewhere else?”
“I don’t want him to hear us.”
“He’s hardly ever in his room at this hour.”
“Good,” said Inez. “You never know with him.”
“He said he knows you.”
“He says a lot of things.”
“He sounded pretty convincing.”
“One of those pushy types.”
“He wants to talk to you.”
“Just can’t let go,” said Inez.
We were on the second or third bottle of beer when she told me that after seeing Feldberg arrive at the quay, all she wanted to do was disappear into the cliffs with a thermos of coffee and not return until nightfall, in the hope he would have left again. After the introduction at the flagpole, she had stood at the office window and saw Rainer Feldberg walking up the beach. She had watched as he carefully lifted his trousers at the crease so his pant legs wouldn’t get sandy. She had stood motionless and watched Rainer Feldberg slowly work his way forward across the stones, and in that same moment she had heard the wind, even though there was no wind that day. She had heard the rasping of juniper branches, and the whistling of the wind when it bore down on the dry island grass. She had heard the churning of the currents on the open sea when they merged with the updraft side of the cliff, and the splash of foam bubbles that the storm drove onto the sand. Then she had lowered the blinds.
In that moment, she decided to behave as if she didn’t know Rainer Feldberg. She would insist he was mistaken.
“I hate to disappoint you, I told him, but if I can help you in any other way the tour begins in five minutes.”
“You blew the dude off,” I said, then placed the bottle on the ground and put my sweatshirt on. It was getting cool. “It was totally the right thing to do.”
Inez didn’t answer. She stared into the dark overcast sky, only a single star was visible, if at all.
“I mean, if I get started talking about everybody who -”
“What?” said Inez as if from afar.
“I mean everybody who ever blew me off. I sure wouldn’t be trying to get in touch with them twenty years later.”
“You’re too young for that, Erik.”
“What kind of guy says to himself, ‘why not give it another try’ twenty years later?”
“It’s not about a scorned lover, or at least not just that,” said Inez.
“Then what’s it about?”
Inez held the bottle in front of the pale red sky and gazed at the beer.
“I can’t imagine anybody would blow you off,” she said unexpectedly.
From Sturz der Tage in die Nacht by Antje Rávic Strubel
© S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2011.
Translation © Zaia Alexander