Raffael enters the flat as though he lives there. He doesn’t look around inquisitively, make comments or ask questions. Instead, he slips out of his shoes and jacket, puts his suitcase down. Moritz stands there, unmoving. With a gentle smile Raffael takes the door handle from Moritz’s hand, closes the door quietly as though he knows the old lady next door is a light sleeper, then embraces him. The smell of rain. Raffael’s designer stubble scratches Moritz’s cheek.
Raffael claps him on the shoulder. ‘It’s so good to see you.’
Before Moritz can reply, Kristin appears in the living room doorway, yawns with her mouth wide open and plants a hand over it, startled, when she sees the stranger. Raffael smiles at her. ‘I knew she was beautiful, Motz,’ he says, ‘but so beautiful?’
Moritz looks at Kristin and is taken aback: her colour hasn’t shone like this in a long time. Perhaps when they first met, or perhaps not ever. Most of the time, her aura is a lightish red, a faint lustre. Now an intense fuchsia is radiating from her, a birthday-balloon pink, telling him she’s unsettled and off-kilter.
He hasn’t mentioned her to Raffael. Apart from liking a few photos on Facebook, a standard happy birthday over Messenger (and even then not every year), they haven’t had any contact these last years. There have been no letters, no conversations and certainly no meet-ups in person. Raffael had disappeared from his life like a key that falls down a drain and you stare helplessly after because you know you’ll never get it out again. Where did Raffael get this address? Who told him where Moritz was living?
‘Motz?’ Kristin asks, puzzled. She’s never heard his nickname, can’t have done. She clears her throat as she realises how hoarse her voice is, unties her ponytail, pulls her long, blonde hair back and ties it up again. She’s wearing black joggers and a washed-out Joy Division t-shirt of Moritz’s that sits unflatteringly over her bump. It’s probably not the outfit she’d want to be seen in. Certainly not by someone like Raffael, who gives the impression that the rain hasn’t so much soaked him through as simply refreshed him.
He takes Kristin’s hand in both of his and holds it as he kisses the air to the left and right of her face. Moritz sees the pink darken, circles appearing in it.
Raffael puts his hands on Kristin’s stomach.
‘May I?’ he asks, and his smile is also directed at Moritz, includes him. This breaks Mortiz’s trance and he grabs Raffael by the shoulder, pulls at him, pulls him away from the bump. Straight away Raffael succeeds in making the gesture look less abrasive by submitting to it, turning it into a kind of three-way hug, as though they’re standing in a circle like friends reunited after a farewell. Except there had never been a farewell.
‘Forgive me,’ Raffael says into the intimate space, ‘for just turning up in the middle of the night without warning. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’d actually planned to visit tomorrow or the day after, and obviously I’d have phoned ahead.’
He smiles at each of them in turn – first Kristin, then Moritz.
‘But?’ Moritz asks brusquely, which only makes Raffael smile even wider.
‘But the hotel went and lost my booking, and there were no rooms in the other two I tried, so I thought, surely you guys wouldn’t leave me out in the rain.’
He runs his fingers through his hair, proffers a damp hand and shrugs his shoulders apologetically.
‘If you had space for me to crash for a night I’d be extremely grateful.’
He looks at Moritz. His eyes are sea blue as always, a deep lake on a stormy day, and they transfix Moritz even now. They carry a hint of desperation, but not too much, just the right amount. He offers his plea in a tone that brooks no refusal. Moritz holds his gaze. Raffael’s eyes bore into him. They skim over places no one has seen for so long. This; Moritz never wanted to feel this again. He’s missed this.
‘Of course you can stay,’ says Kristin, ‘You can sleep on the sofa. Any friend of Moritz is always welcome.’
‘Thanks,’ Raffael replies simply.
‘Even if he’s never mentioned them,’ she adds with a dig at Moritz, who knows without looking at her that her eyebrows are raised in reproach. He’ll have questions to answer tonight, questions he’d rather not be asked.
‘Of course,’ he says too, now. ‘We can pull out the sofabed.’
‘Please don’t go to any trouble,’ Raffael counters. ‘I can even sleep on the floor, I’m totally exhausted. I won’t disturb you, I swear.’
Kristin goes into the designated nursery to get clean sheets.
‘She’s great, Motz,’ whispers Raffael, and the old nickname feels like a cold hand on Moritz’s skin, growing warm and familiar only after a moment of contact. Raffael follows him into the living room and clicks his tongue in approval.
‘All right,’ Moritz parries. ‘I’m sure it’s not the luxury you’re used to.’
‘Bullshit,’ says Raffael, ‘your flat’s awesome. Very cosy. So… individual.’
He gestures to the gallery wall next to the TV, where a hodge-podge of snapshots and memorabilia hangs. Moritz and Kristin on a sailboat, Moritz and Kristin in a burger joint in Amsterdam, Sophia at thirteen, Kristin’s parents’ wedding photo, the post-it Kristin wrote her number on for Moritz, back then, on the last night of the Business English course. Moritz feels uneasy that Raffael can see it all, that everyone who means something to him is so exposed, defenceless. He takes two steps towards the wall and puts himself in Raffael’s field of vision.
The flat is spacious, around a hundred square metres, divided between four rooms in an old, dilapidated building typical of Hallein, with the kind of thick walls that people still went to the effort to build in the seventeenth century. As you stepped inside you were hit by the smell of catacombs, and cold – the cold of many centuries, preserved behind heavy doors, that no shaft of sunlight would ever drive out. By contrast the flat is modern, renovated before Moritz and Kristin moved in three years before. The delicate plasterwork, sloping marble window ledges and a low, squat wooden door have been retained, as signs of character. The building has been around since before Moritz’s time and will still be around when he is long gone; it pays him no heed. He, who builds new houses, but is drawn to older edifices. The kind in which the bricks talk, and secrets shimmer through the air. It’s the same reason he goes into churches – although the religious affinity escapes him – sits on the hard pews, and breathes in the sighs.
Kristen throws a blanket and cushion on the sofa and makes them both up with airy, pale-yellow bedlinen. There is curiosity in the glances she steals at Raffael. She doesn’t ask questions, not even about the oddly flimsy story he’d given them about the unreliable hotel. She wants to come across as relaxed and cool, like someone who hosts unfamiliar guests every week, maybe even offers up their couch on the internet. The tip of her tongue peeps through her lips as she concentrates on her practised hand movements. In moments like this, she looks like a little girl, and Moritz has some inkling of what their daughter will be like – absent-minded, cheeky, freckle-faced.
‘Thanks so much,’ says Raffael. ‘I don’t want to keep you up – you probably want to hit the hay.’
‘I’m sure I can call in sick tomorrow,’ he says, then. ‘Not much happens on a Friday in construction anyway.’
‘That would be great,’ says Raffael. ‘We can do something together. Cruise about a bit. Like old times.’
‘Yes, good idea,’ Kristin agrees, and suppresses a yawn. ‘You should do that.’
In the silence, an awkwardness spreads.
‘The bathroom is through there, second on the left,’ says Kristin, ‘use whatever you need. I’m off to bed, sorry. Goodnight.’
‘Goodnight,’ replies Raffael and smiles. Moritz watches him, sidelong. He has accumulated lines around his eyes and on his forehead, but the boy Moritz knew is still there. His face has grown more angular, sharper – not narrower, but more clearly defined. Every one of his movements, his stride, his entire demeanour, reflect his self-assurance, and even the arrogance in his look of restrained amusement is attractive. He looks like someone who wears life lightly because it means him well. You got the feeling the lightness could rub off, if only you stood close enough.
Moritz and Raffael are alone, and this would be the moment to quietly ask what’s going on, what Raffael is thinking turning up like this, as though they’d never stopped being friends. As though this were somewhere he could just come anytime.
‘Let’s go to sleep – we’ll talk tomorrow,’ says Raffael.
He doesn’t look tired. He lays a hand briefly on Moritz’s, touching the little scar on his thumb, surely not by accident. Remember, the gesture says silently, we swore. Moritz hesitates for a long moment, then nods and goes to the bathroom.
He closes the door, turns on the tap and drinks from it. He looks in the mirror, drops falling from his chin. What does Raffael see in his face? Does he see what has changed? Moritz stares at himself until his outline blurs. He looks for the boy that he used to be. Does Raffael recognise him beneath the layers of the last sixteen years, does he see anything familiar? And who has he even become in all that time? Moritz’s vision focuses again, colliding with the cold surface of the mirror. His dark brown curls are too long, his eyes brown – gloomy-brown and earthy, with long, thick eyelashes. He looks frightened and helpless.
He brushes his teeth, pees, and listens. It’s quiet. He pads barefoot into the bedroom, slips into bed and is relieved to find Kristin already asleep. He lies awake for a long while, and thinks of Raffael over in the other room. Sleep evades him like a tenacious child. He only dozes, and every time he’s about to slip into dreamlessness, his body pulls him back with an involuntary jerk. All of a sudden, he’s wide awake – the clock says 3:14 am. Had he only imagined Raffael in his wet jacket at his door, had he dreamt it? His heart’s racing and he’s thirsty; he gets up. Silently, he crosses the narrow hallway; it’s dark and quiet. The living room door is ajar – he pushes it open carefully and sticks his head inside. And now, without the light on, he can see clearly what he suspected earlier: the green is darker, much darker, deep and solid, almost black. It fills the room, glaring right up to the ceiling. Once, Raffael was bud green, caterpillar green, like freshly shelled sugarsnaps, some days lime-bright. Now the green has black spots, like mould. Moritz stands there and looks but can’t understand what he’s seeing. Something has happened. He knows Raffael isn’t asleep. He can tell by the gleaming flashes that shoot through the green.
Neither of them says a word.
Going into the forest was a test of courage every time. But Motz didn’t want Raf to notice he was scared, and because he didn’t want that, going in was easier. Just two steps and they were in. The forest wasn’t dark, just brown – a warm, muddy, friendly brown, like the lighter layer in the Ildefonso nougat he sometimes got from Nanna Gitti. Mum wasn’t supposed to know, she didn’t let him have chocolate, so Motz always popped the little cube straight in his mouth and let it melt, though he’d rather have taken a good look at it first.
On some days, the brown of the forest became green, on others grey, but he hadn’t yet found out how the forest felt then. The frightening thing about the brown was not the colour, but that it was alive. It was pulsing and sticky; it sucked him in and caressed him. The forest never meant him any harm, it didn’t hurt him in any way, but it was unpredictable and huge. The forest seemed to know everything, even things you didn’t want anyone else to know about. Surrounded by its embrace, a mass that had no beginning and no end when he stood in the midst of it, Motz stayed close to Raf so he could find his way out again later. It was hard going into the forest alone. It was hard going into a strange room alone as well, but thankfully he didn’t have to do that much anymore because by now he knew most rooms – the ones in his house and at Raf’s; at school and the Keltencafé; Maria’s village shop; Nanna Gitti’s flat. If he found himself on a new threshold for the first time, the objects in the room lit up and rang out so loudly that he had to shut his eyes tight and cover his ears. Everything was bright and sparked silver, blue, yellow and pink, sputtering and flashing. Then he would taste berries or bugs, burnt sugar or moss. Mostly it got better if he stood really still for a really long time. Then things calmed down until it was okay and he could go in. Mum didn’t know anything about all of this, nobody did. Before she had often dragged him in, scolding and impatient, and then he couldn’t help but scream, huddled on the floor, arms flung about his head, because too much. Just too much. At some point he realised that the others didn’t experience the world the way he did. He didn’t understand why. But now he could forgive them a little.
The brown of the forest closed behind him; bracken grazed his legs. Motz sniffed loudly, his heart thumped. Just then Raf took his hand, Raf, who could always tell when the fear was setting in. With Raf’s hand in his, everything would be okay; confidence flowed from Raf into Motz. Confidence was bright yellow, like the glow of a light bulb, and it never wavered.
‘Let’s see if any spiders have fallen in our secret slime,’ said Raf, and pulled him towards the tree house.
The tree house had been there forever, and no-one could remember who had built it. It belonged on and off to one gang or another, and by rights everybody. Everyone brought along what they could find – new boards for the outside wall, Mickey Mouse notebooks, various cushions and rusty knives. There was a small chest which usually had something to eat in it, and whoever took from it filled it up again whenever they were able to sneak unnoticed into their kitchen cupboards, or had a bit of pocket money to buy something at Maria’s. Motz always left the bananas he got from his mum to take to school in there – he didn’t like them, couldn’t force down the soft, disgusting mush. Sometimes he carried the bananas around with him for so long that they went brown, and then they made slime out of them. A few days ago, they’d mixed one of these old bananas with water, earth, little stones and torn-up leaves, because, Raf had said, spiders loved it. They wanted to chop up the lured-in spiders and stir them into the slime to use as a fearsome weapon in the next battle against fat Manuel’s gang.
‘We’ll pour the spider potion on their heads from the tree house when they try and climb up,’ Raf explained. ‘That’s what the knights used to do in their forts.’
‘And then?’ Motz asked with wide eyes.
The thought of it gave him the creeps so much that he got goose bumps, although it was August, and warm.
‘Then they’ll be branded forever,’ Raf said decisively, and although Motz didn’t know what that was supposed to mean, he nodded, satisfied.
‘Damn,’ Raf muttered as they got up to the tree house.
The bucket of spider-bait was empty. When Raf got annoyed, his green became fibrous and resembled individual stalks, like the shards of cress shoots on Motz’s mum’s kitchen windowsill. Motz got nervous when this happened. An angry Raf was a Raf to watch out for. All the kids knew it.
‘Who’s done that?’ asked Motz.
‘Dunno,’ Raf mumbled. ‘Got another banana?’
‘Not today, mum cut me up an apple and I’ve eaten it,’ Motz said apologetically.
‘We should have hidden the bucket better, it’s our own fault.’
They sat on the ladder that led up to the tree house and let their legs dangle in the air. The boredom of the summer days draped itself over everything like a film, and made it hard to move. But at least it wasn’t as hot in the forest as out in the fields – the treetops formed a protective cover, a living parasol.
‘What are you getting for your birthday?’ asked Raf.
‘Crayons and Knickerbocker Gang books, what about you?’
‘Hm,’ said Raf, ‘I already got a remote-controlled racing car. And three cassettes. And five hundred Schillings.’
‘But your birthday’s not for another five days,’ said Motz, surprised, feeling a stab of jealousy in the nape of his neck at the mention of so much money.
‘So what? Dad won’t be there anyway, and I’m not inviting anyone,’ said Raf, and then: ‘We’ve almost got the same birthday.’
‘You say that every year.’
‘Because it’s true every year, idiot.’
Motz shrugged his shoulders. Soon they’d be eight years old. They were only three days apart – three days he was secretly proud of. It was the only thing he had on Raf.
‘Have you got any money?’ asked Raf. ‘We could get some green jelly snakes. No one’s here today anyway.’
Motz shook his head, said nothing. Raf was normally the one who always had money on him. And anyway, he’d just got given five hundred Schillings.
‘Let’s find the others then, maybe they’re at the Pit Stop. We’ll be able to get something off somebody.’
‘Or we could go to the curling lane,’ Moritz said quickly, motioning with his head in the direction of the tarmacked lane in the forest. He didn’t like it when Raf pinched the other kids’ pocket money.
‘Have a look and see if there’s anything to eat in the chest first.’
Motz clambered up the last three rungs to the top and scooted on his knees into the tree house. He set about unfastening the lock on the chest. It was small and wooden, with no key, but it did have a thin iron hook that slipped into a latch. As he fiddled with it, his fingers slipped and he cut his thumb open, right under the nail. ‘Shit,’ he swore into the sharp pain.
In the chest was only a shiny, empty wrapper from an ice-cream wafer. He climbed down again.
‘Nothing there,’ he said. ‘Look.’
He held up his bloody thumb for Raf to see. Raf pulled his penknife out of his trouser pocket. He unfolded the blade and cut himself, without flinching, on the palm of his hand. Then he took Motz’s thumb and pressed the cuts together. Motz gasped, but didn’t pull away.
He watched as their blood mixed together, his and Raf’s. It burned, and hurt. Raf looked him in the eye.
‘Blood brothers,’ he said, without smiling.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Motz.
‘That we’re more than friends now. Like family,’ said Raf, still holding his gaze. ‘That you belong to me.’
‘That we belong together,’ corrected Motz.
‘Yes,’ said Raf, but Motz knew he hadn’t meant it like that.
Excerpted from Mareike Fallwickl, “Dunkelgrün fast schwarz” © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2018.