Author: Johanna Hemkentokrax
Translator: Alison E. Martin, Manja Kratzin, Michèle Fischer, Susan Kolata
In the summer my father talked to the frogs. They called to him of an evening, when the sun hung low and his shadow was almost twice as long as he was tall. He walked down the path from the house to the pond. His steps were heavy, yet you could scarcely hear him. The trampled stems which his footsteps left behind in the grass quickly recovered, so that the meadow seemed to be growing behind him. Once I crept after him, hid behind the low-hanging branches of an old willow on the bank and watched him. He was sitting on a stone, looking into the water, head bent slightly to one side, as if he were listening intently. I waited for a while, then crept back and never followed him again, not on any other evening that summer.
While Father was with the frogs, my mother watered the flowerbeds. Her earth-blackened fingers held the watering can in a firm grip. The evening wind had loosened strands of hair from her ponytail and they stuck to her cheeks. I watched her watering each plant separately, carefully pushing flowers and leaves aside so that the water could reach the roots directly. I would sit off to one side between the tomato plants with my back to the brick wall. The bricks radiated heat for a long time, well into the night. When the sun set behind the trees my mother would disappear each evening for a few moments, backlit in the glow. I picked a tomato and bit into it. Its flesh was soft between my teeth and stung the roof of my mouth. The juice ran down my wrist and disappeared into the sleeve of my jumper. By the time Mother had reappeared, I could feel the large chunks in my stomach. I sat for a while among the tall plants. The fur on their leaves tickled my ears. They were held by thin wooden stakes which smelt musty, of earth and old leaves, where they had been in the ground. The leaves around me had a strong smell, much stronger than the fruits themselves. My mother pushed her hair out of her face. Her cheeks were flushed. She came over to the house from the flowerbeds, put the watering can down and sat on the bench by the tomatoes. She lit a cigarette. The smoke drifted across in small puffs. I heard the blackbirds singing in the apple tree and watched as my mother put the cigarette to her mouth. Her lower lip sometimes got stuck to the cigarette paper. She winced and quickly tweaked the shred of paper from her skin with her thumb and forefinger.
When Mother had finished the cigarette I crept out from among the plants, the smell of tomatoes in my hair, and sat down next to her on the bench. We both waited for Father, who soon came up the meadow from the pond. He no longer cast a shadow in the twilight, now that the sun had set. His footsteps in the grass were quiet and he bore the smell of stone, reeds and pond-water. Once he returned soaked to the chest, one lens of his glasses broken. “It was the frogs,” he said, and Mother and I laughed, “they pulled me into the water.” Sometimes Father stayed so long with the frogs that it was already dark by the time he got home. My mother would put a lantern on the bench and together we’d wait for his footsteps in the grass. The candle only illuminated a small part of the meadow, but in this light the trees cast long shadows, which moved on the ground. I never knew where they’d move next, the wind seemed to drive them to and fro, dancing tree shadows which pursued me into my dreams, where I ran alongside them, trying to understand their movements. They always leapt in different directions, not bound by any logic or fixed rule, often difficult to see on the almost black grass. I followed them everywhere, wishing they would explain themselves to me, just as my father talked to the frogs. But they always kept silent, or I couldn’t understand their language, try as I might. I chased after them, but they only brushed me indulgently before disappearing one moment and appearing elsewhere the next. Sometimes I tried to pin the shadows down, stepping on them firmly, with no obvious success.
I could only feel the damp grass under my naked toes. Eventually I stopped to squat at the roots, saw ragged clouds scud across the night sky and listened to the wind blowing through the branches of my silent friends, who did not want to speak to me, my hands resting on their rough bark even though I couldn’t hold on to their image on the ground. Sometimes I dreamt a small owl was looking down at me from the branches. It held its head drawn down into its feathery shoulders and looked at me sometimes worried, sometimes reproachful, or so it seemed, but always observant, as if expecting something I knew nothing about. I would awake restlessly from such dreams, my cheeks damp with sleep, the smell of tomatoes in my hair.
Sitting next to my mother, I would only follow the tree shadows in my mind. She had put her arm around me and the wool of her jumper against my cheek smelt of tobacco. I drew the smell in deeply, in the same way that my mother drew on a cigarette. The white smoke quickly dispersed in the darkness, more quickly than by day, although it should’ve been easier to make out at night. The wind carried the frogs’ calls over to us from the pond. The candle flickered next to us on the bench and made the shadows dance. I’d have liked to know if one of the voices belonged to my father.
My mother’s eyes looked into the shadows. They appeared to me larger than during the day. I knew she could see my father sitting by the pond, leaning slightly forward as if listening intently. One black stone among others, over which the small waves broke with a murmur. I imagined him reflected in the depths of the dark water before him, the image only broken by frog shapes surfacing to bring him news from the bottom of the pond. My mother never spoke on evenings like these, when night gradually fell and the voices of the day grew silent one after the other. I felt the warmth of the brick wall behind me through the wood of the bench. The stones stored so much warmth in the summer that in the autumn, hedgehogs built their nests in the piles of leaves by the wall. I heard their quiet snuffling into November, then they sank into a deep dreamless sleep, which left them curled up motionless among the leaves. Like them, I would have loved to fall into a sleep, deep and dark, but more importantly, lasting until spring.
It was midsummer night and my father was visiting the frogs. Since day and night were equally long, his shadow got lost in the meadow, the stems noiselessly righting themselves behind him and erasing his tracks before my eyes. It stayed light for a long time. We waited while the calls of the frogs impatiently forced their way through to us in the twilight.
My mother was digging in the borders for a long while. Her thumb left a line of earth on her forehead as she pushed her hair out of her face. I sat alone on the bench and felt something looking at me. Slowly I walked over to the trees and saw the small owl from my dreams sitting in the shadows of the branches. Its amber eyes examined me in a way that seemed strange, almost as if it recognised me.
“I know you,” I whispered, and my words sounded cold on my lips. “I know you, you’ve been here every night.” The call of the owl was so sudden and plaintive that I started. I turned round and looked down to the pond. A heavy silence hung over the meadow. The calls of the frogs had grown quiet. I ran as fast as I could, grass wet with dew sticking to my feet. My breaths sounded like gasps as I jumped through the bushes down to the water’s edge. The pond lay clear and dark before me. Everything was still, except in the middle, where the last fine circles were rippling.
Original © Johanna Hemkentokrax
Translation © Alison E. Martin, Michèle Fischer, Susan Kolata, Manja Kratzin