My White Fox

Author: Katharina Bendixen
Translator: Rachel Farmer 


I’m glad they took a chance on me in the Husky Outdoor Shop. Admittedly, the boss still always puts me right at the back with the accessories, where the sun only reaches in the evenings. Few customers stray this far, and that’s also why I work down here – because of that, and because of the fire door, which can be completely locked down from the checkout area. It’s actually designed for accidents. But I know my colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to flip the switch if I had an attack. I haven’t had an attack in two-and-a-half years. It must be down to the work, and the fact that I no longer have to make much of an effort in other areas of my life. If I get to three years, I can move up to the outdoor jackets. In the meantime, I dust down camping stoves, push sterilisation tablets to the front of shelves and make sure not to look at the clock too often. My favourite products are the cups that you can fold completely flat. It’s usually men who buy them, some of whom are quite persistent. They tell me about their latest day trip, then they bring the conversation round to going for a hike together, or at least for a coffee. I point out that my work schedule is too hectic right now and cast around for some shelf to rearrange. I’m not allowed to go out with men; I’m not actually allowed to talk to them for any length of time. I still don’t know why I have these attacks, but they started with a man.

I was twenty-five, had finished my studies and had taken up a post with the public utility company. My boyfriend at the time would sometimes pick me up from work. We talked about our first child. We wanted to move in together at last. Things had never been so good, but by the time we found a flat, I felt myself getting restless. I lay awake at night, I made mistakes in my spreadsheets, and when I looked in the mirror, something alien looked out through my eyes. I didn’t yet know that it was a white fox. Just before we were supposed to sign the rental agreement, it happened. My boyfriend was washing the dishes, and we were in the middle of planning our new kitchen. Suddenly, my body stiffened, and when I came to, I looked at my boyfriend’s face. He was as white as the fridge behind him. I saw this white face, I saw the shards on the floor, and the next morning my muscles ached as if I had climbed a two-thousander.

“So that’s the famous astronaut food.” My brother picks up a bar. “And it counts as a whole meal?”

We both know he’s not interested in astronaut food. My brother has never set foot in a walking boot, and I would never stay in one of the hotels he always books. Even as children, we were never interested in one another’s toys.

He’s hungry, but we can’t find a restaurant we both like. Finally, we decide on a pizzeria.

“Do you really want to stay in this rucksack shop?” he asks. “Is that what you studied for?”

“It’s fun, and I do like hiking.”

“And that doctor? Are you still going to him?”

He always asks that, and by that he means the therapist I was going to for treatment. After the doctors hadn’t found anything, my boyfriend managed to get me a couple of appointments with him. I didn’t even go to the last few. It irritated me how unwaveringly the therapist proceeded on the assumption that the present is connected with the past.

“No idea why our parents haven’t told you,” my brother says without looking up from the pizza menu. “Mum had something similar. It sometimes happened multiple times a day. I can even remember it happening. It was only when you arrived that it started happening less often, and finally, it stopped completely.”

He always starts with that too, and every time I act like I’m grateful for his forthrightness. Unfortunately, I doubt it’s the same for me. It’s true the attacks started happening less often after the breakup and then finally disappeared altogether. But the white fox still lives in me, I know that for a fact.

My former boyfriend was the one who discovered that it’s a white fox. He got so obsessed with my attacks that he neglected his thesis. I had long since lost my job. My colleagues were afraid of the power the fox could unleash, and after my probation period they had to let me go.

“We need to get to know your fox,” my boyfriend said back then. “We need to know everything about it.”

“My fox?”

“Most of them are red foxes. Many of them are friendly. They go away if you ask them to. Or you need to fulfil their desires. They might desire money or trinkets, for example.”

“But there are other ones too?”

“The other ones,” said my boyfriend, “have white fur and desires that cannot be fulfilled.”

My boyfriend observed exactly what happened when I disappeared. He even wanted to film me, but I forbade him. I knew it was difficult for him to watch while I writhed and shrieked on the floor. It scared him to death, he said so himself. It was only later that I realised we didn’t necessarily break up because of my attacks, but for another reason: unlike me, my boyfriend was afraid of death, not life.

“It’s a white fox,” he said after a while. “You can’t fulfil its desires. Maybe when you find out what it wants, things will change.”

But I didn’t want to get to know my fox or find out what it wanted. I could guess from the aches in my muscles how much havoc I had caused, and I trained myself to keep checking the time. My attacks never lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Knowing that was enough for me, and my boyfriend and I came to blows over it. One evening, he held his phone out unceremoniously in front of my face and pressed PLAY. I closed my eyes just in time, and what I heard myself shriek in an unnaturally deep voice, I immediately forgot again. I broke up with my boyfriend that night. For a few months, I only left my flat to go to the supermarket. Then, when my bank account was empty, I started working at the Husky.

I come down with laryngitis and can’t talk for nearly two weeks. When I return, everyone at the Husky is saying I’ve had a relapse. Stefan defends me against the rumours. He even raises his voice to Marie. When Stefan is shift supervisor, I get to spend some of my time by the rucksacks. He spins this as if there’s no other option, like when he gets Marie to clear up the stockroom. Someone always needs to be standing by the rucksacks. Not all of them are secured because the tags leave holes in the Super Polytex, and it’s where the customers ask the most questions. I give advice to a man my age who wants to go on a week-long trip to the Alps. He is only vaguely interested in my explanations about wearability and heat build-up. He’s more concerned about the colour. He chooses a green one. When I’m demonstrating how to tighten the waist strap, I get too close to him. I quickly pass the rucksack to Stefan and disappear into the accessories section. I run my index finger along the sharp, serrated edges of a camping stove. I don’t want to lose this job. It’s not much fun, but at least it serves to pass the time.

Stefan catches me in front of the mirror on my break.

“Are you OK?” he asks. “Do you have plans later?”

“Yes, I’m quite busy, sorry.”

When I get home, I call my brother. He’s back from Gran Canaria where it was sunny, he says, and the hotel pool was big enough this time, but the water in it was too warm. Together, we make fun of Stefan’s attempts at flirting. But as we’re laughing, I realise that I ought to accept his invitation. I need to at least try.

After we hang up, I look in the mirror again. Not for the first time, I think that the other one is the real me. I think that all this – my flat, this phone call, the Husky – all of that must be the attack, an attack that never ends, and my real life is on the other side, where my limbs twitch and I shriek or howl or master four languages, or whatever it is I do over there.

I take Marie with me as a precaution when Stefan and I go out, and Stefan brings a friend with him, too. We walk from the Husky towards the Südstadt. Yet again, Stefan wants to know where I worked before I started at the Husky. Yet again, he wants to know why I no longer work for the public utility company and, as always, he reckons it’s because I don’t talk enough. Finally, we find a restaurant we all like. It’s going to happen again today, something inside me thinks. That’s a shame. I would almost have made it to three years.

“That’s enough questions now,” I say.

“She’s right,” says Stefan’s friend. His name is Manuel. I like his soft voice. “What does all that have to do with anything?”

When the food comes, Stefan really does stop asking questions. Manuel has ordered the Brotzeit, a snacky meal of pretzels, ham, creamy potatoes and the like. I like that. He lets Stefan convince him to do a mini show for us. Manuel is a comedian. I find it hard to believe. His spoon trick makes even the next table join in the laughter. Actually, he says, he prefers to work with little stories, in a tiny bar not far from here.

“Tell him something funny,” says Stefan. “He’ll put it in his routine.”

I have stopped talking completely now, so Marie goes into overdrive. She tells the story of how, when she was at school, she was always embarrassed by her healthy sandwiches and jealous of the soft chocolate rolls her friends had. And now she gives her daughter the same wholemeal sandwiches, she says, and asks us why people don’t learn even the simplest things. She goes ahead and orders another cocktail. She and Stefan joke around with the waiter. From the corner of my eye, I see Manuel wrap his spoon in a napkin and slip it into my coat pocket.

Luckily, I get home before it happens. My body starts to stiffen in the hallway, and when I come to, I’m lying in the kitchen. I last checked the time downstairs in front of the house, and seven minutes have passed since then. I can taste blood in my mouth. Manuel’s spoon is between my teeth. In the hallway, I find the napkin with a telephone number on it.

I should probably be happy that Manuel is taking a chance on me. I don’t call him. After three weeks, he comes into the Husky. Shortly afterwards, they let me go. After the fire door has to be locked down for the third time because of me, even Stefan can’t do anything to help.

“Do you think,” asks Marie, “that the customers want to hear a grown woman rolling around shrieking, as she . . .”

“Stop! I don’t want to know.”

“See? Neither do we.”

Manuel and I go hiking. We sit by the river. We eat pizza. He only asks me a few questions and, although I am interested, I don’t ask him how he became a comedian of all things and what he used to do before that. A few weeks pass before we sleep together, then I start disappearing even more frequently. Manuel says that my attacks don’t scare him at all. They don’t even bother him. He’s scared of other things, he says, of long escalators in shops or the outdoor jackets in the Husky that apparently you can wear to go hiking on glaciers.

Manuel soon starts talking about a child. The fact my mother recovered after her second pregnancy doesn’t make a difference to him. Manuel seems to really want to have a child with me. That should actually make me have my doubts. But the fact he doesn’t know how to interact with my brother works in his favour. He won’t admit it, but I can tell that he has to make just as much effort around him as I do.

Following a few good reviews, Manuel moves his act to a bigger bar. He wants to know if he can use my attacks.

“On stage?” I ask.

“Why not?”

“Are they funny then?”

“I’m not actually trying to be funny. I don’t know why people always laugh.”

I have never seen any of his shows before. I have never asked for a ticket and Manuel has never given me one. This time, I find one in my coat pocket, so I guess it’s important to him. Most people there leave their jackets in the cloakroom. I prefer to keep my coat on. The show is almost sold out. It has received more good reviews. Although my ticket is for the second row, I sit further back, on the end. By some kind of fluke, no one else claims the seat.

I don’t know why I always thought Manuel dressed as a clown on stage, or at least wore a polka-dot tie. It alarms me how vulnerable he seems in his white t-shirt, which he was wearing at the kitchen table only a moment ago. The audience laughs even before Manuel can say anything, and no sooner has it quietened down than he starts talking in his soft voice. He tells the story of a woman who desires nothing more than a real heart, one that does not tick so frightfully cold and slow in her chest, and he tells of a sad man she meets one day. I grip the armrests tight and look at the time every thirty seconds. I’m hot in my coat, but perhaps I’ll sit here a few minutes longer.


From Katharina Bendixen, Mein Weißer Fuchs, Poetenladen, 2019.

The Mutation

Author: Francis Kirps
Translator: Rachel Farmer


When biology student Leon Sumsa awoke one morning from a bout of dreamless sleep paralysis, he found himself transformed into a monstrous vertebrate. Instead of hanging upside down from the ceiling, as befitted a respectable housefly, he was lying on his belly surrounded by a rumpled landscape of blankets and pillows. Where his body had been, polished to a shine and protected by a sturdy exoskeleton, there was now a gelatinous form in its place, from which unsightly bristles sprouted in patches. The blue-black, iridescent armour had gone, and Leon instead found himself encased in a stretchy, porous, pig-pink membrane, riddled with glands, fat deposits, and bulges.

He rolled onto his back, raised his head a little and examined himself from top to bottom: Where before there had been three finely articulated pairs of legs, segmented in an orderly fashion and replete with tiny, sensitive hairs, he saw four clumsy extremities protruding, seemingly at random, from a whale-like torso, each attached to five unevenly sized stumps at the end. No suckers, no claws, no hooks, no pincers.

His sensory range had evidently shrunk by at least 90 percent. He could hardly feel anything at all, and what’s more, his antennae had completely vanished. And, as he felt over his elephantine body, he couldn’t tell whether he had a sophisticated sense of taste. His head, a pumpkin-sized lump wobbling on top of a fleshy stalk, was largely covered with a kind of fur. They certainly weren’t the tactile hairs found on any normal insect, simply a dull, furry coating that didn’t transmit any stimuli when touched.

And what had happened to his lovely big eyes, his compound eyes, which had always enabled him to charm the lady gnats and female dragonfly workers from the factory? Compound eyes, the pinnacle of sensory organs, oculi compositi, eyes that consisted of thousands upon thousands of eyes, that had been his gateway to a world filled with colours and wonders. They were gone, simply no longer there, stolen by the blind, brainless god that had turned him into this albino creature. Where his eyes had once been now sat two slimy, light-sensitive balls in deep, bony hollows, over which a type of curtain drew down at the slightest touch.

“What has happened to me?” thought Leon Sumsa. Okay, they had gone a little wild last night. Kleinhans, a fellow student, had been celebrating passing his Masters in Comparative Anthropocentrism, so they and the whole gang from the department had buzzed on over to that hip new cowpat, the one with the delicious little mushrooms growing on it. Even Leon’s doctorate supervisor, the stern Professor Mayakovsky, had tagged along, and Dean Kothurnus had made a speech that was as sentimental as it was drunken.

When Professor Mayakovsky had taken his leave, not without cautioning Leon—only half in jest—not to show up late to the seminar tomorrow (that is, today), the young folk had moved on to the spot under the woodlouse stone which was open all night. The burly woodlouse bikers who hung out there weren’t especially fond of students, but for them, mingling with the lower forms of life had its own particular appeal. And the snail bimbos there weren’t so stand-offish and prim as the female flies at the university. But the snail pimps didn’t like it one bit when snotty little fly guys started putting the moves on their girls. Had it come to blows again? Had the hornet militia had to step in again, like last time? Leon couldn’t remember anything like that. As far as he could recall, they had ended the night with one last nightcap at their classmate Schmeißmeier’s digs, which were in the left kidney of the squashed rat in the road. And then he had probably buzzed on home sometime in the small hours.

Schmeißmeier, the eternal student. Leon couldn’t help smiling. No one knew exactly how long Schmeißmeier had been studying at the university, but there was a rumour he had started out at the same time as Dean Kothurnus. He had it good—he lived for the moment and didn’t bother about lectures.

Leon looked around the room in which he found himself. Nothing in it had changed. It was still the same room he used as a bedroom and living room, which he shared with a family of cockroaches, three mosquitos, half a dozen of his own species and their host animal, a hominid of indeterminate age with a pleasant habit of sweating profusely.

Yes, it was definitely still the same room and yet it seemed somehow. . . different. The world around him seemed strangely flat in general. And then it came to him, as if the scales had fallen from his eyes: the room was no longer curved! The non-Euclidean geometry was gone. These stunted sensory organs only allowed him to perceive a grotesquely reduced, simplified version of the world, clunky and coarse. Instead of the usual eleven primary colours, he could now only make out three. There was no mistaking it—he was seeing the world through the eyes of a primitive mammal.

“This is the worst hangover of my life,” thought Leon Sumsa, and decided to go back to sleep. Surely things would look a lot better when he woke up again.

He didn’t doze for long, as an uncomfortable thought awoke him rudely from his half-sleep. To his horror, he suddenly remembered the seminar. There was no way he could miss Professor Mayakovsky’s seminar. An eminent bark beetle from Princeton had been invited to speak as a guest lecturer. Leon could not afford to miss it—it would severely hamper his academic career.
He sat up in bed with a jerk and looked down at himself. No, it hadn’t gone away. He still looked like a monstrous mammal. But he would have to worry about that later. All that mattered right now was making it to the university’s Alexander von Humboldt lecture theatre, in the big anthill, on time.

Leon’s head buzzed. He felt oddly naked without his exoskeleton, and he felt as though the liquid insides of his body would soon be splattered all over the floor. But the bag of skin held everything together; at least he seemed to be somewhat sturdy despite his porousness. The grotesque sacks dangling between his nether extremities, which bore a vague resemblance to root vegetables, were obviously supposed to be some sort of sex organ. It’s a miracle these creatures manage to reproduce at all, thought Leon. He supposed beauty was in the eye of the beholder. What would his classmates say about his getup? Leon couldn’t worry about that just now. He needed to leave right away, or he’d miss the beginning of the lecture, and if he stumbled in late, he would get even more funny looks.

He took aim at the open window and took flight.

He didn’t fly very far. In fact, he didn’t fly at all. He only made a little hop forward and landed on the ground in front of his bed. It hurt quite a lot: At least he was definitely still sensitive to pain, the scientist in him noted. And then the realisation hit him like a slap in the face: He couldn’t fly anymore. He no longer had wings!

He tried one more time, flapping his upper extremities helplessly, but it didn’t work. He, Leon Sumsa, a freeborn housefly, majestic master of multidimensional space, had been reduced to crawling on the carpet—how embarrassing. Where had his wings gone? Had he fallen into the clutches of some hominid on the way home, so drunk that he hadn’t even noticed? Hominid calves were particularly notorious for ripping the wings off flies. Nobody knew why. They didn’t eat them in any case. And they couldn’t fly with them either.

Because nobody had ever managed to keep a hominid in captivity, very little was known about these primitive giants. This reminded Leon of an interesting article by neuropterologists Glöckner, Zettel, et al. in the journal “Buzz of Science”, in which they issued the hypothesis that this oft-observed phenomenon was a case of wing envy. In other words, the ungainly hominids begrudged flies their ability to fly. However, coprophilologists Kerbholz, Lamprey, & van Bog had vehemently opposed this view in the journal “Fly Today”. According to them, Glöckner and his colleagues were basing their views on the hypothesis, not grounded in any hard scientific evidence whatsoever, that hominids possessed something resembling consciousness and were capable of purposeful, reasoned actions, even complex emotions like envy. An extremely fascinating debate, Leon thought, which had caused a great stir among scientific circles and was nowhere near being resolved. Other new research also indicated that the great apes may not be as stupid as previously assumed: American scientists had recently discovered that hominids could even open screw caps, an ability previously only demonstrated by their distant relative, the octopus. The host animal on which Leon had spent the last couple of days, so almost half his life, did not show any signs of possessing a higher consciousness. When it wasn’t sleeping, it was eating and drinking, usually while staring at a flickering cube, swearing at it occasionally.

Leon felt like swearing, too, as he crept across the room on all fours. He was heading for the other, smaller room, where the host animal performed its weekly ablutions, and which contained the large, shiny surface in which one could look at oneself. After that, he had to go to the lecture. He didn’t have a clue how he was supposed to make it to the university on time in this state, but he had to at least try.

Suddenly, he stopped. Was he even breathing? Feverishly, he ran his hands along the sides of his body—no, no openings were to be found, no spiracles to draw air into his body. Had he somehow become an anaerobic lifeform? Or was he on the brink of suffocation? Panic bubbled up in Leon, and for a few long moments he really couldn’t breathe. He tried to remember his Introduction to Zoology course. How did vertebrates breathe again? And then it hit him: through their mouths. Yes, that’s right, through their mouths and olfactory organs.

How they had laughed back at maggot school. Breathing and eating through the same hole? What an unappetising aberration of nature.

Leon tried it, and it worked: Great bulky masses pumped air through his nose and mouth and back out again. He tried to vary the rhythm and had a coughing fit. He still had a lot to learn about his new hominid body. Maybe he should start a scientific blog to write about his experiences and observations; then at least one good thing would come of this ordeal.

Then, he heard a noise—a kind of buzzing, whirring noise. It was his flatmates, Martenstein and Schirrmacher, flying around him.

“Hello, lads,” he cried, and his voice boomed far too loudly in his ears. Martenstein and Schirrmacher flew away—they didn’t appear to recognise him.

“Hey, guys,” shouted Leon, “it’s only me, your old friend Sumsa.” But they both buzzed off. He knew Martenstein and Schirrmacher would be exchanging pheromone messages that very moment, he just couldn’t decipher them. His underdeveloped sensory organs meant that sophisticated communication with other insects had become impossible. The only way he had left of making himself understood was this primitive booming noise: “Hey, Martenstein,” he yelled. “Hello, Schirrmacher,” and rose unsteadily on his nether extremities. “Don’t go! I’ve got a little problem we should really discuss in a flatmate meeting.” They couldn’t understand him. Schirrmacher flew out of the window, while Martenstein fled towards the corner of the room. Leon followed him, his new giant’s legs growing more and more obedient.

He would have to catch Martenstein so they could talk, Leon thought. If he were very careful about it, he would surely be able to manage it without hurting him. He reached out his right hand. Martenstein darted out of reach.

Maybe he should stun him, really gently, just enough to allow him to be caught. Plus, that panicky buzzing was gradually starting to get on his nerves. Couldn’t the guy sit still for one second?

What was it the host animal always did? Oh yes, the newspaper, that was it. Leon wondered for a moment how he knew the thing was called a newspaper, then he lunged. But Martenstein got away again. Leon needed to be quicker, no mean feat considering the rudimentary nervous system of the colossal creature he had become. There! Now Martenstein was sitting in his favourite spot by the patch of mould. He would be sure to sit there a little while. Leon crept up on him, slowly, very gingerly, and then: Smack!

Oh dear, he’d probably been a bit heavy-handed there: What was left of Martenstein was stuck to the wall, surrounded by his last meal. Strawberry jam—and yesterday they’d told him there was no more strawberry jam left. You couldn’t trust flatmates, thought Leon and flopped, exhausted, into a chair.

“It’s your own fault,” he said to what had once been Martenstein, “I only wanted to talk to you.”
Then, it slowly dawned on him what he had done: murder—he had murdered his flatmate. Okay, he hadn’t done it deliberately. A regular ant jury would probably just convict him of manslaughter, but even that would mean a life sentence milking aphids. He could forget about his academic career.

“But what’s done is done,” thought Leon and stood up. Time to hit the road. The lecture must have started by now. Something crunched under his feet. Oops. Chanelle, the youngest daughter of the cockroach family. He would have to learn to rein in his newfound strength.

If this was all just one of Schmeißmeier’s crude pranks, then that guy would get what was coming to him. He already had two lives on his conscience. What would their other flatmates say?

Suddenly, Leon no longer had any desire to go to the lecture. He wouldn’t be able to get in without his student ID anyway. And the student ID was a cocktail of pheromones the ant porter used to identify him as an ant. If he didn’t have it on him, he would be classed as edible and fed to the larvae by the security guards.

Where could his ID be? Leon didn’t know. His old body had had that handy pheromone pocket, but his new body didn’t have anything like that. Just pointless openings all over it.

But now he was overcome by hunger, quite an astonishing hunger. He could see a tempting dog turd on the pavement. Leon suppressed the urge to fly and climbed out of the window.

The hominids on the pavement went into a frenzy when they saw him, pointing at him with their fingers and making angry noises. Was it because he wasn’t wearing any cloth armour? Leon grasped his genitals and made encouraging noises—that always made a good impression on grasshoppers. But these creatures shrank away from him and wouldn’t stop making angry noises. Never mind, he was hungry. But as he approached the dog turd, he was struck with a sudden nausea. Yuck! It stank. His senses were obviously even more impaired than he’d thought. Perhaps he had caught some gastrointestinal virus. Hominids were known to be walking cesspits of disease, after all.

The commotion still hadn’t subsided. A whole flock of gabbling hominids had gathered round him, and he decided to clamber back into the flat.

Something crunched under his feet again: Phoenix, the oldest son of the cockroach family—but somehow, he didn’t care. They would just have to make another one. Cockroaches bred like rabbits in any case. Some primeval instinct drove Leon into the kitchen, to the fridge, where he knew there would be sausage and cheese. And beer. He didn’t know how he knew; he just knew. Beer—yes, please! A fly followed him into the kitchen. Schirrmacher? Whatever. He swatted him away. Hasta la vista, Schirrmacher. Never again would he have to share his food with a parasite.

He opened the fridge, put sausage and cheese on a tray, took out a beer and went back into the living room, where he sank into a chair and switched on the flickering box. He took a gulp of beer and belched loudly. Thank God it’s Friday.


From Francis Kirps,  Die Mutation, Hydre Editions, 2019.