Archives

Colder Layers of Air

Author: Antje Rávic Strubel
Translator: Zaia Alexander

About light they knew everything.

They knew it in every shade. They had seen how it made the sky appear brittle and torn, or waxed blue-black. They knew how the light looked under foaming clouds, how it fell at a slant over the Fjell, how it struck the rocks over the forest and the thick underbrush. They knew how fleeting, how illusive it was. If the lake had just shone turquoise to the bottom, the next moment it lay leaden and sealed like asphalt. They had seen how the light made the pines and blackberry bushes appear matt in the rain, they had seen how the light looked on the roads at four in the morning devastated by falling rocks, and at noon on neatly mown Swedish front lawns. They knew it in the shimmering yellow from the heat, in the greenish glow of the evening, they could say how it looked above the roof of the toolshed on overcast days.

They knew how faces change when glaring light falls upon them. Every morning when they left their tents and went to the wash area they had to cross the grassy field that had been cleared from the forest. There the faces became stable.

They changed from milky-gray the color of night into a harsh polished tan. They knew it. They saw it every morning.

And later when only a few clouds were left in the sky this tan had a sharpness that faces had only here on this peninsula. It was brutal how the sun shone.

Nobody spoke about the light.

There were other things to discuss. They had to take care of the tent walls that had torn in the storm and were lying on the field like shed skins in need of mending. They had to replenish the supplies and food that came every Saturday from Berlin, they telephoned often. They ordered more potatoes and coffee, charcoal and sausages and rice, and they never forgot fruit because fruit was particularly expensive this summer in Sweden. They sent the newly arrived youth groups to the lakes, first to the small Stora Le and then to the wind-whipped Foxen, they gave the crew photocopies of outdoor cookbooks so they knew how many cans of beans to put into the chili for dinner. In the kitchen tents they packed a week’s worth of suppliesin waterproofed plastic barrels.

They explained how to cook over an open fire and assigned boats down at the dock, slim canoes of light-gray sheet metal for two people. The ghetto-blaster played all day long.

They lived rootlessly. Time suspended. They had come to an unknown realm, another country, a strange region where who they were was what they did each day all summer long; they were canoe scouts, they built teepees, collected berries, barbecued salmon and swam in the lake. It was as if their present life had no connection to their previous one, except for some wounds and a few abstract memories. Retro-crap, as somebody put it at the campfire.

There was little distraction. They inflated every rumor. And if the rumors fizzled out they invented new ones or they enriched the old ones with new facts and it was impossible to find out what was true in all the gossip. They had gotten used to it. It didn’t bother anybody when Svenja, the camp boss, complained about Ralf. When he got his hunting license she said she was certain he’d had humans in his gunsights in his lifetime. Behind her back they asked how Ralf could get along with somebody like her.

They lived rootlessly, they tried to make the best of it.

 

One morning a girl was walking alone along the shore.

The girl stepped between the boats, her dress billowing. It was a light dress, nobody wore dresses here. In the camp they wore Gore-Tex sandals and gray or beige outdoor pants with zippers at the thighs. When it got warm they simply unzipped the pant legs.

The girl walked down to the dock, moving drunkenly. She walked to the edge of the dock without stopping or removing her dress and plunged into the water.

The people near the boats were startled by the sound of her body slapping the surface. They looked over. The lake was calm. The girl surfaced next to a buoy, her hair stuck to her head. She swam back slowly. The others lost interest. They returned to their clipboards and wrote down the numbers of the boats that would go out that day. A few months earlier, they had announced that swimming was forbidden near the dock. Now they acted as if the incident was of no concern to them.

The girl climbed slowly back ashore. She walked up the bank. The water running down her face didn’t seem to bother her.

She stopped close to the pines.

“Schmoll,” she said and turned to me. “You’re a smart boy. You’ve been paying close attention the whole time.” She gazed at the swimming area covered in raspberry bushes and buckthorn and I saw she wasn’t a girl anymore. “I’m sure you can tell me where the towels are.”

I just happened to be standing nearby when she climbed ashore. I wasn’t by the boats, I was standing near the dock, and now I moved as if I’d been standing there frozen for hours.

“I’m not Schmoll,” I said. “And I’m not a boy.”

She cocked her head to the side and looked at me. Her brows were dark from the water in a very pale face.

“Towels don’t come with the equipment,” I said.

The lake was calm this morning, the sea-birds drifted further out. Gray herons. Swans. The others had probably finished with the boats. She blocked my path as I moved to leave.

“I just want to see something,” she said and came closer. Her skin was white. A white that reminded me of shiny, smooth, polished wood you sometimes find on wild beaches. Her toes briefly grazed the sand. She wanted to touch my bare foot, missed it and stumbled.

She’d have fallen if I hadn’t held her.

She put her arms around my neck. I smelled her wet hair.

It was early morning, the sand was cool, the shadows fell long. Around noon it would get hot, the boats needed to be tipped over and registered. Nobody wanted to be on the treeless beach in the heat, especially since the boat’s glistening aluminum bellies made it twice as hot.

We stood there like a billboard at the Zoo Station. One of those glossy photos. Petite little girls snuggled in the strong arms of confident boys. Boys who looked down at their girls and the Ku’damm. We fit perfectly into this image.

“Are you okay?” I said.

She pressed her body against mine. The others must have thought I wanted to strip off her dress, slide the cloth slowly up her thighs. They must have imagined how she’d look naked, her hips, her behind, how I’d hold her down in the sand by the shore, hidden behind the bushes of the swimming area.

Her body pulsated, her skin glowed beneath the wetness.

“You see,” she said into my ear. “I finally found you. I knew it.”

She let go of me immediately. She grabbed her towel by the pines and walked across the sand towards the street. She walked quickly, she didn’t turn around. Her legs were lanky beneath the dress, a child’s dress, a dress for very young girls. I wasn’t sure. I kept looking at her, and since nobody by the boats noticed her I shouted, “Hey! Why don’t you get changed and have breakfast with us? We’ve got fresh rolls!”

She didn’t react, she reached the road. Her wet dress didn’t seem to bother her, she turned left where the road made a bend.        I went back to the others. They hauled a few boats from the water and tilted them belly-up on the beach. Slowly, it grew warmer.

Later in the washroom I looked at myself in the mirror. I wore jeans and a light blouse, typical unisex outdoor clothing. I was strong and slim, I had a tan like the others, my hair had that straw-colored, washed-out look from swimming in the lake, I had been living outdoors for four weeks. The scar above my eyebrow was the only thing that distinguished me from the others.

I went out into the sun where they were busy planing wood. They were building a teepee from smooth polished tree trunks and it was going well. The bark peeled away in soft long layers. They knew how to apply light pressure to remove the upper layer without damaging the wood. They’d done it often. Two meter-high teepees wrapped in tarp stood on the grass by the edge of the forest.

I joined them for a while. I began at the tips. I watched the men covertly and found nothing in them that resembled me.

 

Around noon the food supply arrived, a pick-up made the rounds through the camp, honking its horn. The exhausted driver parked in the delivery area. He’d left Berlin in the middle of the night. Now he was looking for a bed with bleary red eyes.

Hey Marco where are the lists? And the charcoal? Did those idiots in Berlin forget them again? Barbeques are in the kids’ program don’t they get it?

They don’t get it because they don’t care. They’re kids right? They’re not going to start a camp rebellion if they don’t get exactly what their folks paid for.  

Assholes.

Asshole yourself. Take a look behind the passenger seat.

Marco squeezed through the clotheslines and disappeared into the house. The house: a shed made of thin plywood and three windows. You could hear every noise.

Stop making such a fuss people, Marco shouted from the lower window. Now that we’re here we’ve gotta stick together, no matter what.

Nobody nodded. Had they shown they’d agreed, it would have been like admitting they were stranded and that would be a capitulation, an avowal that this condition was permanent.

Outside they started unloading the crates. They dragged them over to the kitchen tent where Svenja was busy preparing the blue containers. Huge cheeses were halved and each half went into a container along with a salami, canned beans and bread. The food in the containers would be protected from the water when the kids took them on their canoe tours.

Friday at noon they all met in the kitchen tent. Maybe they gravitated there because they craved fresh fruit. By the end of the week the food grew monotonous. Or maybe it was the odor the sealed containers gave off, they smelled of vegetables, butter, bacon and plastic. The smell was the only memory of being outdoors on the lakes, which was where they’d rather have been. But the camp was understaffed and there were too few of them to handle the onslaught of weekly busloads. The lights often burned through the night.

As I stood up to rinse the sweat and dirt off my face with the garden hose, I saw the woman on the other side of the road. She sat leaning against a pine. Her knees were bent, her head tilted to the side, her face was in the shade. She wore a different dress now, a blue one. She sat motionless against the tree. Her arms hung by her side. The right hand was slightly opened in my direction, as though she wanted to give me something, as though she were offering me the grass and the earth and the pine roots. She seemed to have her eyes closed. At least she didn’t react, although I watched her for a long time.

I thought about how fervently she had pressed her body to mine at the shore. About her glowing body. About her white skin that oddly contradicted the glow. I thought about my idiotic answer and that she would probably flinch if I walked over and abruptly touched her. She’d be startled the second she felt me and her eyes, which had seemed so restless and tragic to me at the shore, would open wide. Maybe this impression was caused by the light. Green speckles gathered in an otherwise clear brown iris.

Ralf had run after me. He took the hose from my hand and dunked his face into the jet. “We’re swamped today, huh?” The water ran down his shirt. “Listen, I’ll help you hand ’em the life vests. Then you can take a break.”

“It’s okay. I can handle it. Really.”

“50/50,” said Ralf. “We’re a team, right?” He put his arm around me, grabbed my shoulder and held me tightly. Then he glanced over to the forest. “Who’s that?”

“Who?”

“What’s she gapin’ at? I’m gonna tell her this is private property. She’s got no business here.”

“It’s show time!” shouted Wilfried. “People are starting to see spooks already. That’s what you get for stuffing shitty army bread down people’s throats for weeks on end.”

“Jeez Ralle!” Svenja stood at the entrance to the kitchen tent in her rubber mini-boots.

“They’ve got tons of whackos running around here. The other day I took a group over to the forty–”

“Forty? Can’t we call the campsites by their proper names? Somebody took the trouble to name them,” said Sabine, the half-Indian, at least that’s what everybody called her after they found out she’d spent a few months with a woman shaman in the countryside near Detroit. She wore corduroy trousers so stained with moss and grass that it was impossible to tell what color they used to be.

“The forty’s on Trollön Sabine, you’re the only one around here who can’t remember it’s the one with the mega-cliff that the kids can’t wait to dive off of. The other day some loser comes out of the woods and just stands there in a pair of trunks and a life jacket and starts waving like an idiot. Maybe he needs help. So I make the group wait while I paddle over to him, and what do you think he does? He asks me what day it is. Probably got some water in his hard drive.” Svenja turned around. “He probably couldn’t remember his name either, Sabine.”

“Then go put a number on him.” Sabine tossed a salami across the tent and it slammed straight into the barrel. I glanced over to the forest but the woman had vanished.

 

 

The light lingered long and vividly white in the afternoon, it hung on the highest branches of the pines and then dwindled to an austere evening red, when down by the tents it was already dark.

Nowhere was it as dark as on the grassy field at the camp. Nowhere was it as cold at night. I unrolled two mats near the fire in the tepee. I put them on top of each other, the pebbles crunched. At night it was too dark to sleep without a flashlight. I zipped my sleeping bag all the way up. I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I heard animals howling, maybe elks. They said sometimes you could even see elks on the campgrounds at night. They’d seen it in previous years. They responded to a job ad that Uwe, the owner of the company, advertised every year in May.

Out with the old! Shed your skin!

Want something new?

Then out into the wilderness! Nature asks no questions.

Dedicated people wanted for youth camp in Värmland,

The most beautiful lake area in all of Sweden!

 

Before answering the ad, I had hesitated. Something about the text had bothered me. Something about it had sounded like an insinuation, as though it were implying that those who applied had something to hide, or forget. I started thinking about it all over again, nature asks no questions, but since I’d never get to sleep thinking that way, I decided to simply focus on the ad’s enthusiasm for Swedish forests.

I rolled onto my belly. I used my hand to relieve myself, maybe it would help me fall asleep.

I pictured strong shoulders in a tank top, trousers coming undone, barely clothed bodies, sometimes I heard words. I never fantasized about the women I’d slept with. Since I was sixteen years old, it was like a revolving door. Each was a logical progression from the one who preceded her. The only thing they had in common was their resistance.

I grew up with two younger brothers. I used to push their strollers around the corner into the windy laundry area behind the house. I had taken baths with them, sat in trees, built hiding places under the balcony, and later I had seen their games under the blankets; the three of us shared a bedroom, with a bunk-bed and a twin mattress. I could do whatever I wanted, and they could do whatever they wanted with me. They were as familiar to me as I was to myself, and just as predictable. Growing up so close to them, I couldn’t imagine anything else than loving women.

They were women who held back; they wanted nothing to do with me. At first they told me I was too young. They said they couldn’t trust me, they had some inner compulsion not to commit themselves, or they didn’t believe in love. I learned to be persistent without degrading myself. Not to beg, but to provoke, that was the strategy. And I always kept my distance; at a distance everything seemed exciting and dangerous. At some point they’d finally give in, and they did so in a manner that was all too familiar, with a vehemence that cooled me off pretty quickly. I remained alone. And I was relieved to hear that these days it was considered normal behavior for people my age.

 

The others were on their third or fourth summer in the camp. Some of them had gotten degrees, but couldn’t find a job, others had been fired, and all of them were happy about the gig in Sweden; it helped them through the summer, even if the pay was lousy. Usually they came in May to repair the shacks and boats, or to build new outhouses. Every year something had been improved. At first they used to wash themselves in the lake, later they built showers with long hoses that pumped water from the lake. This year they built an indoor shower with warm water for the team. It used to be a mobile home, now it stood on wooden stakes without wheels, equipped with lockers, a mirrored closet and a plastic bathtub. A light blue flowered curtain hung across the tiny window.

Svenja came inside while I was taking a shower late in the morning. I recognized her by her firm harried step and her squeaky rubber soles. She tapped the shower curtain with her fingernails. “How’s it going? Do we have enough paddles for all the kids?” She tore back the curtain, the steam engulfed her. “That’s a helluva climate you’re making!”

“You can toss half of them. They look as if somebody had used them to beat the hell out of the rocks.”

“Toss them? Are you nuts? Uwe would freak out. He already thinks we’re stealing all his stuff, it’s not public property anymore you losers, half the paddles can’t suddenly go missing!”

“The shafts are ragged, they’ll get splinters.”

“Get over it princess! You can wrap them in packing tape.” The shower cubicle teetered, a special offer from Metro discount store. I put the plastic hose back in its holder.

“By the way, I’m not wrapped in packing tape.”

“Yeah, right.” Svenja was pale, overworked. She gave me a look from head to toe and grinned, and I noticed how filthy the shower was. Nobody felt like cleaning it. “I need to know how my employees are built.”

“I recall a blabbermouth wearing grimy jeans in an office in Berlin who gave me a lecture about rights and duties within the group, so I could cheerfully fulfill the requirements that would ensure me an exhilarating life in the community,” I said. “He taught me the joys of being one with nature, and if I understood him correctly, by nature he meant the surroundings and not my naked ass. But don’t worry I didn’t get it at first either.”

She opened her mouth to say something, swallowed and then walked right up to me. “Watch out sweetie, or you’re gonna be peeling potatoes, and I mean for a hundred folks! The busses are on their way, so get to it.” She slapped the cubicle wall. “Have you seen the ball yet? Marco probably brought it from Berlin. A nifty round soccer ball. That’s right up your alley isn’t it? Kick it around a bit.” She smiled innocently. “You’re totally into that. You gals. It’s genetic right?”

“Watch out,” I said waving away the steam, “that nobody starts kicking you around.”

The showers had to be locked on the weekends because of the teenagers. The concept of this holiday camp was wilderness experience—zero comfort. A slogan that increased sales annually.

The busses arrived while I was in the shower. It grew quiet outside, the others were on their way to the parking lot behind the local campers’ tents, taking the gnarled, hilly path through the woods. Ralf would give them a short welcome speech. After lunch the kids would be divided into small groups for an adventure out on the lake, and only the team would remain in the camp.

I dried myself. I heard wind and bird noises and the humming of the water heater on the wall. The only time the ghetto blasters weren’t blaring was at noon on Saturday when the busses arrived.

Usually it was three double-deckers. They teetered behind each other through the high grass, the path was rough, raspberry bushes scraped the hubcaps. They crossed the field at a walking pace with their high beams on. In this orderly landscape for campers, paddlers, bicyclists and hikers, which was supposed to look like a natural habitat, they seemed coarse, like primeval animals from another era, they stood there clumsily in the forest and stank.

When I got out of the shower the camp was empty. Over the grassy field there hovered a thin greenish light.

The ball was lying near the barbeque in the shadow of the gorse shrub. I walked over to it, it was pumped solid, not cheap, leather firmly stitched together in squares. I kicked it high in the air. Since I’d started working here my life seemed calmer, maybe even interesting.

I had gotten away from Halberstadt, away from the oppressive pub scene, the revamped Gothic and the new apartment houses painted in gaudy colors, gone from the duplexes and the bureaucracy where people were always asking what I did and who I was, gone from the whole mess. And who was I anyway? Moved away from home, took a correspondence course I never completed, worked as a light board operator for a rundown theater, putting others in the limelight. I’d opened my mouth a few times, written a few articles for the local newspaper, though it didn’t change anything, it didn’t make the baldies—that’s what my brothers called them—vanish from the streets.

My brothers had outgrown me. They found jobs as salesmen, one of them took an extra job delivering newspapers at night. I didn’t envy them, but I knew they thought I was a loser for running away.

I liked it here. I liked the concentration. The calm emanating from the grassy field, I felt no pressure even though I had to work hard and the tone was rough.

I liked this summer in Sweden. This air saturated with the scent of wood and earth. I liked the sky stretched so flat it lay over the treetops of the forest like a serrated line. I liked the harsh sudden shadows you dove into when you took one of the fir-lined roads. The asphalt looked like reddish velvet from afar. I liked the stillness of the towns and the tranquility. The people seemed calm, as if they were floating absent-mindedly through the day, and yet they possessed a certain awareness that comes from lavishly consuming something precious. By the end of August summer was over. Until mid-month it would still stay lighter here in the evening than in Halberstadt. It darkened discreetly at the edges. But nobody was deceived about the impending rapid change that came in the next weeks, the plunge of afternoon into the night.

Sometimes it was so still the light seemed to ignite from the silence, as though a smoldering fire had singed everything. There were unconscious people in the blinding sun. Red-overheated faces after too much beer. Limp bodies on the playgrounds. People collapsing at park kiosks.

Nobody picked fights. There was no violence. People folded away noiselessly. They stumbled home, they tottered, they collided with trucks, they fell from their bicycles. Strange accidents often occurred in summer: somebody got caught on an electric fence and hung there, another drove a lawn mower blade into his leg, the chain from a power saw sprung loose and smashed somebody’s face, somebody was always falling drunk into the lake and drowning.

 

From Kältere Schichten der Luft © S. Fischer Verlag, 2007

When Days Plunge into Night

Author: Antje Rávic Strubel
Translator: Zaia Alexander

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.

 

Flint Ball

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?”
“Erik.”
“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?”
“You’re burning.”
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.”
“Inez, too.”
“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.”
“I tried.”
“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?”
“Why?”
“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

Capturing in Passing

Author: Julia Schoch
Translator: Zaia Alexander
Opinions were divided in the camp. Some said it was sea water that had transformed the cat’s body into a pig; others claimed they’d seen the animal between the barracks the night before with a swollen abdomen: that it retched and writhed as it crawled down to the water on shaking legs. Rat poison, somebody said, turns cats’ bellies into enormous balloons. It ended up like a buoy drifting with the tide and washing back ashore.
The camp custodian shoveled the cat’s body off the beach and onto the platform of the pick-up. That’s how it returned to the camp. When they saw him driving by, some of the smaller kids ran behind the pick-up and hung onto the rear where the bloated animal lay. They examined it, distorting their faces, and later they couldn’t stop talking about it in gory detail.
A week later, the soldier was found belly-down on the beach. His lips were blue and his abnormally round face was turned sideways. This time the camp custodian wasn’t able to lift the body with his shovel. A committee was appointed. In the morning, as always, the camp had marched in a long column down to the beach; it was there the dead person was found, wrapped in what was left of his uniform. We stayed back; only the group leaders approached the dark bundle. One of the women held both hands to her mouth; another grabbed a stick and poked at the wet body. We waited at a distance, quietly. The storm ball hung at half-mast, which meant we could go swimming. Yet nobody went into the water that day. Nor the following days. The beach remained off-limits until we left. We stayed in the camp, or were sent on excursions around the area. We visited a dockyard, two fish factories and, yes, we even saw a sea-bunker from a war that had happened before our time.
The committee chief interviewed us very briefly, yet long enough to grab each one of us under the chin and make us look him in the eye. Everybody told the same story. I could have said more, but didn’t. I said what everybody had seen every day at the center of the camp: a game, a quiet soldier, the camp director. They demanded we sign a blank piece of paper attesting that we’d forget the beach and the body. Nobody would be interested in hearing such stories when we returned home. They placed an index finger to their lips: now we were the bearers of a state secret. If it ever came out, we’d put the country and the camp in danger. We nodded and kept quiet, acted as if we’d forgotten about the beach and the body. During the inquiry they treated me like everybody else; nobody suspected there was a connection between the soldier and me.
I tried as best I could not to watch the camp director’s game. She usually left headquarters around noon and headed over to the chess court at the center of the camp. We walked towards her in the opposite direction. In orderly rows, we marched past her to the dining hall where they served the food. Since I was in charge of the group, I walked in front. She almost always stopped for us, very briefly, to acknowledge our presence. She nodded, smiled, and this made us lift our knees even higher on the next step. When we returned from the dining hall, in the same ordered rows, she still was seated at the game. The large black and white stone slabs of the field stayed cool even in the noon sun. The camp director tied a scarf around her head. The soldier who was with her wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He didn’t need to wear his helmet now, but there were no trees or shrubs on the field to shade him as he pushed the chess pieces. The gravel surface surrounding the field glowed red. Only the area in front of the barracks had some shrubs stuck in narrow strips of sand. They were the only plants on the path surrounding the chess court. The camp cat was lying under the bench and jumped out when we approached. It was so close to the ground, the dust must have penetrated all its orifices. I didn’t look at the two of them. They played wordlessly, except when the director called out the next position. The other girls laughed briefly, because they were used to laughing whenever they caught a glimpse of the soldier, who from day one was called the loser. The laughter always had to be provoked anew to get it started again. And every troop that passed kept it going.
My brother was smaller than the others, and I noticed him as soon as I arrived. He was leaving with some other soldiers for a change of guard just as we drove into camp. They checked off our names at the long tables by the entry and we were divided into groups. I saw him following commands on the other side of the fence. He moved his arms and legs as if he were having trouble getting everything into synch. Even though he’d lived in the area for a year now, his body still seemed all tangled up. The weapon was a long clumsy stick that somebody had attached to his back against his will. He walked up and down the fence always keeping the same distance from the others. Even from afar I saw the sweat running from under his steel helmet and into his eyes, and it seemed to me he was the only one it happened to. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand. His uncoordinated limbs flopped all over the place as if it weren’t an honor to be doing his duty here. The group leader called out our names over the dusty square. He turned around when he heard mine. I saw him look at me from behind the wire fence; he looked at me from through the mesh as if I should protect him, and not the other way around. The gate was wide-open, the fence wasn’t insurmountable; and yet he kept looking at me as if we’d never meet again. Maybe he could tell what I was thinking. I decided not to greet him because one of the girls suddenly started laughing. Her outstretched finger pointed at my brother; his nose was dripping blood all over the metal struts of the fence. Before he could take a handkerchief from his pocket, the others also got up the courage to laugh at his disorder. They formed a huge communal finger pointing across the fence at a soldier who was bobbing up and down in an unsoldierly manner. I saw him try to force his bodily fluid back into the orifice. The others kept walking. He walked too, holding the handkerchief pressed to his nose. I laughed briefly, and then walked away with the others.
I had expected to see my brother; I knew he was doing duty here. But I didn’t understand why he wasn’t making any effort – no effort at all for his country. That’s why it horrified me when I ran into my brother in the camp, and why I looked away in embarrassment. The bloody nose suited him. I imagined the others soaring over meter-high walls in a single bound, while my brother could barely pull himself up to the ledge with his weak arms; how during crawl maneuvers, he’d just lie there in the dust behind the others, and by the time he returned to the tent, his face sticky with mud, the others were already getting their second wind. Everybody fought for the chance to do these duties in the camp; he was the only one who acted as if it were a punishment to walk up and down the fence surrounding us.
We slept peacefully because somebody was keeping guard down by the fence. Nobody would climb over the wire mesh, along the rain gutter, and into our room. Nobody would walk around the five bunk beds, deciding which of the checkered covers to toss back. No hand would wrap around a child’s throat and squeeze; we didn’t have to wake up choking and waving our arms to alert everyone to the fatal situation. Our feet didn’t have to kick against the metal frame for the others to wake up. Nor did we have to jump out of bed because the camp was being attacked by a convoy of vehicles loaded with men armed to the teeth, men who put the camp’s security in danger. And we didn’t have to go down to the basement of the barracks in our bare feet, the heavy iron doors sealed shut until the attack was over. The cotton-filled stocking mask that was supposed to protect us from dust and radiation wouldn’t be utilized, nor would the provisional toilet-a yellow plastic bucket meant for emergencies. We slept peacefully.
I must have silently asked to be put in charge of the group. At least, I didn’t say anything when I was appointed to the position a few days after we arrived. Maybe I’d inadvertently stepped forward, or made a mere movement of the hand, like when you chase away a fly; maybe that’s what made the group leader think I was suited for the job. She looked at me, nodded, and pointed her finger at me. The group pretended they were looking at some amazing landscape just below the window, suddenly crowding into the back of the room near the empty flowerbox. They moved even further into the background to increase the space between us, and then, one after another, they opened their lockers. Their heads disappeared behind opened doors made of imitation wood. I stuck a duty sheet onto the naked wall; the room was silent, except for the rummaging and banging of hands in the cabinets.
Every morning, the girls open the doors to their rooms; the leader sticks her head inside and inspects them. Sweeping and dusting duty, bed duty, laundry duty, picture coloring duty at the table in the center of the room. I give them points for their duties in a book. All counted, they add up to an excursion to a canning factory at the end of the stay. I stand next to the director as she runs her finger along the upper edge of the cabinets and holds it up to the light.
The horrific encounters with my brother seemed never-ending. On one of the first days, after the noon roll-call, we scattered to the center of the camp. Somebody brought bows and arrows, toy grenades and tires for us to do something with. After the soldier placed everything on the dusty ground, he just stood there staring at us defiantly. When the first person stooped to pick up the equipment, he opened his eyes wide, spittle covering his mouth, and blurted what he’d heard the others saying about him. The loser, he said, has done it again. As he spoke I saw how he basked in our gaze.
People in the camp talked about how the soldier had broken into a sweat on the way to a drill tour. He suddenly couldn’t take the sickeningly cramped space inside the halted bus, water started flowing from his forehead and armpits; he had to take off his cap and loosen his collar as he sat there. He jumped up before the bus had even reached the gate, squeezed between the crowded rows, climbed over several bundles of combat gear to the front and then jumped outside through the folding door. He leaned against the hot bus. He didn’t even straighten up when the others in the bus rolled down their windows and started laughing over his head. A little later, the director came out of the camp headquarters and hit the bus once with her fist. The heads withdrew inside. She waited a few seconds before she took away the man glued to the metal.
From that day onward, he moved the chess pieces for her. He still wore his uniform; he was still officially a soldier.
The director kept the soldier for herself. In the morning, he swept the squares of the game board, tore tufts of grass at the edge, or chopped off single stems from the cracks. We exercised and jogged in place, following orders over the loudspeakers; the soldier hacked around the field with the hoe. He always kept his jacket on, even though these kinds of duties could be executed with a bare torso. The custodian only wore a yellow undershirt over his uniform trousers, sometimes nothing at all; green spots gleamed on his arms from the bushes on the beach.
When the director felt like playing, she’d sit on the bench in front of the field; the soldier would immediately put aside his tools. Or, if he was seated already, he’d stand up very quickly. He always remained standing even though there was another bench cemented to the ground across the way. The director began; the soldier took his place behind the indicated piece, grabbed it with both arms under the wooden bulges, secured his footing, and dragged it across the court to the desired square as though he were carrying an unconscious body.
He took less time for his own moves. He often started by shoving the knight between the pawns. They teetered and swayed. If one of the pieces tipped over onto the stone slabs with a dull thud, the director looked away until the soldier picked it back up. The bishops made things difficult. They didn’t have bulges like the other pieces, nor did they have a collar that he could have grabbed onto beneath the smooth ball. The smooth head sat on a narrow neck that widened at the bottom into a thick trunk. The soldier tipped it and rolled it across the surface to the appropriate square. If the director lost, she’d look at her watch and go back to headquarters. If she won, she’d watch him carry the pieces back to their places. After supper, she said, and then walked away. The soldier nodded to the camp director’s back. Only once did my brother fail to set the piece down immediately. I was walking past the edge of the playing field with a message for House 5 under my arm. He put the rook back down and looked at me. I kept walking without looking back. I didn’t greet the director either.
I have to look at him longer during the biweekly maneuvers. At how he runs between the pieces, lifts them, sets them down, and then waits for the camp director’s orders. She smiles at him nicely and with a slight hand movement makes her rook move vertically to capture his knight. He gestures with his hand in surprise, but takes the knight away immediately. He puts the captured pieces at the edge of the playing field sorted according to size. They stand there like a wooden legion while the field clears. The camp director fans herself with a folded newspaper. If one of us comes close to them, she nods at us encouragingly.
The maneuver field at the center of the camp lies between the barracks by the chess court. We estimate distances according to self-drawn maps, walk once around the square with a compass and register values in tables. We squat behind invisible barriers, throw ourselves in ditches from which we toss metal balls into a circle marked by flags. Sometimes we transport the wounded on our backs, or we take them by the arms and legs and put them onto a mat which serves as the hospital ward.
Every maneuver ends with a game that has each team wearing colorful bands on their arms which have to be captured by their opponents. We run across the field and edge along the walls of the barracks as best we can. Nobody is allowed inside the houses. Some of the children run to the camp director: she doesn’t jump up and scream when they disturb her. She lets the refugees come to her, but doesn’t look at them. They quickly realize they aren’t allowed to break rules in her presence either. The camp director orders a pawn to move one field square ahead before glancing briefly to the side. Who’s winning? she asks, and turns around again. I tear the plastic band from somebody’s arm. Bravo, she calls, and shakes her fist in the air.
Now that the loser was released from guard duty, I went to the window with the others again. It had been unbearable for me to see him wandering like a restless animal around the strip between the fence and the barracks. While the other two soldiers waved or made other signs, he looked at me through the wire fence and said nothing. The older girls shouted at him, threw crumpled paper or zwieback at him. He looked up and the girls saw that the paper and zwieback only hit his outer shell.
The other two placed their feet on hooks near the concrete fence posts and smiled up at them. The girls above were squirming on the window sills. They’d often whistle when they saw the relief squad coming from behind the house. My brother was as scared as the other two, though he had no reason. He wore his uniform according to the rules and he kept his weapon shouldered from the first minute of duty. We watched three commandos walk past each other in opposite directions. They marched in step from the narrow strip between the house and fence. After a few minutes, the new guards took off their metal helmets and let them be drawn into the girls’ room on clotheslines. They carried letters in them; entire books, or simply locks of soldier hair.
In any case, it was easy to hide my relationship to him. He bore a mark on his temple like a stamp; a red ornament on his skin. By contrast, my body was spotless, clear. Even if somebody had tried to draw a connection between us, my hair and eyes were dark, but he looked like the color had been drained out of him. His transparent limbs stuck out of his uniform. That’s how he walked through the camp. When I saw his milky shape approach our house, I stared into the barrack’s ledger. He stood in front of the window of my guard room, tapped on it with a fingernail as if he had to first make himself noticeable. I knew he wanted to fetch the equipment stowed away in the basement of our barracks. The equipment? I asked, and he nodded. I shoved the ledger through the narrow crack between the glass and the table for his signature. He held the pen so tightly, his fingers turned even whiter. Instead of writing, he waited, holding the tip of the pen over the sheet as though he had to remember his name. When I looked up, I saw he had only been hoping for this look. I slid my jaw back and forth, a demand. He signed the ledger with a circle and line; I gave him the key to the room. He stood in front of my window holding a metal hook with the key fastened to it. I turned on the radio on the empty table in front of me. The opened ledger lay next to it.
In front of my window, I saw the girls sneaking up on him. When he stood alone on the chess field, they clapped their hands or screamed at him from behind. It took a few seconds until he opened his eyes again and turned around. He jabbed at the air a couple of times with his arm as if fighting the shrubs with a sword. The girls jumped to the side, laughed.
The sand we’re sitting on is churned up from the day before. We’ve been waiting an hour for the loudspeakers to give the all-clear to go swimming. We watch the others hobble with bowed feet across the stony seashore; only three groups are allowed in the water at once. They throw themselves into the waves between the boundary markers. Their bathing caps glow in the group colors like enemy signals. I dig a hole in the sand big enough for my fist as my brother takes a step towards me from behind. Some girls near the water stick their fingers into the algae-covered silt looking for amber. Every so often, they lift their arms in the air and then lower them again, disappointed at finding only shards from dark beer bottles. Concentrating, they work up and down the portion of beach that reaches the fence. Behind the fence the beach is empty. They built the fence into the water so nobody could get to us. It disappears beneath the surface, far beyond the designated swimming area. None of us are interested in finding out precisely where it ends. My brother and the custodian come out from behind the bushes while we’re waiting for the order to swim. I turn around briefly and immediately gaze in the opposite direction. My brother carries a bundle of twigs under his arm; the custodian, a large pair of hedge shears. They walk, one behind the other, to the pick-up on the road by the beach. Without turning my head, I can see the camp custodian moving through the grainy sand with his heavy shoes. Once they’ve passed me, my brother suddenly drops the twigs. He bends over for them, and I notice him glancing at me. The custodian just scratches his upper arm at the sight of the fallen twigs, and keeps walking. My brother is still busy collecting them when I hastily reach behind me and place two or three twigs on the heap. I look at him wordlessly. He takes this look as an invitation and says he’s going on leave in October. I don’t answer, and he says: maybe. I shrug my shoulders. He keeps looking at me, demanding a reaction to the news. I throw a clump of sand at a girl sitting a few meters ahead of me. She screams and knocks the sand away from her hip. No: first she knocks the sand from her hip, and then she begins to scream. The director looks in our direction, and my brother finally gathers the wood in a bundle and stands up. He follows the custodian who is hitting the shears against a tree trunk up the road. He doesn’t hurry, nor does he purposely go slowly. He lays the deadwood onto the bed of the small truck like a sick infant, carefully pulling his arms out from under the pile. He looks at me. I jump up; the loudspeaker is shouting out our number over the beach. From the water, I look back. He’s still standing there. Beside him the custodian kicks the tires of the vehicle to loosen the sand from the soles of his shoes. I push the head of a fidgety girl under water. On the beach, the director gestures toward me with her head. When I don’t react, she points warningly to my towel. She puts her hands on her hips and nods. I swim to the permitted buoy. Alone.
I had walked past him the night before they found him on the beach. He was sweeping the chessboard. Next to him was a pail with a rag hanging over the edge. It was the first time he didn’t notice me, and I stood still. I opened the barracks ledger in the middle of the path and looked over the pages at him. The floodlights in front of the barracks were turned on. He looked up for a few seconds and with steady movements began to wipe the heads of the individual pieces. He held them by their throats with one hand, and ran the other over the smoothly polished curves and edges. I saw him clean each protuberance of the king’s crown. When he finished, he doused it with water. When we marched by in the morning, the wood pieces were dry again.
Most recovered quickly from the horror in the final days. The bigger girls started imitating how the dead man used to move. They waved their arms in the air, walked back and forth in front of each other with half-closed lids, or stood with tortured faces between the chess pieces that nobody touched anymore. Another girl shoved the corner of a handkerchief in her nose, bent her head all the way back, and then hobbled clumsily across the field with the white flag hanging in front of her face. The others laughed, but I broke away from them, ran up to her, and ripped away the handkerchief. I hit her in the temple with my forearm. The girl immediately grabbed me with both hands and dragged me by the hair back to the group; the girls had jumped up and formed a circle around us. They tore me in every direction; they speculated that I wasn’t indifferent to the dead man. They were so surprised by their discovery that they didn’t want to let me go anymore. For a while we formed a clutching sticky mass. Through the tumult of arms and heads, I saw the camp director exiting headquarters from the far end of the field. I realized immediately that she was looking for me, all the way across the court, the gravel paths, the playing field. Surely somebody had informed her of the connection between us, the ties and bonds that appeared if you looked at a dead man closely. A look in the files would have sufficed. A telephone call. As she walked towards us, her eyes never left me. She walked quickly, bent forward. The girls pushed me from all sides. The biggest one still clawed at my hair. Beneath the pain, I thought I really should do something for the loser. But then I realized how ridiculous it was to treat a dead man as if he were alive.

 

Original © Julia Schoch, from Beste deutsche Erzähler,
Deutscher Verlagsanstalt, 2002.
All rights reserved
German original
Schlagen im Vorübergehen at www.juliaschoch.de (under “Texte”)
Translation © Zaia Alexander.

Scent

Author: Florian Werner
Translator: Zaia Alexander

Jäckel felt a rumble. It was still at a safe distance, like a summer storm that signals its arrival with lightning and warning shots at the horizon, but it could break any moment. Jäckel gazed across the seminar room and counted three students fast asleep, two valiantly battling Morpheus’ embrace, while five more stared out the window and counted sheep. At least silence reigned: cell phones were set to vibrate and iPod-wires so cleverly hidden in jackets, scarves and hair that they couldn’t be seen. Contrary to popular belief, today’s students weren’t so dumb after all. But neither was Jäckel, or “Dr. Jay,” as his students liked to call him. And today his senses were sharper than ever.
Through closed double windows Jäckel heard the Ammer flowing five floors below, more than a hundred meters behind the seminar building. He smelled blood from the slaughterhouse across the creek, even though the business had closed years ago, and the name “Slaughterhouse” now referred to a bar and club admired by first-year students for its existentialist, minimalist décor – white tiled walls, a metal slaughtering block for the counter, light bulbs hanging on meat hooks. And he could have told the “out-the-window-gazers”: 42. That’s how many sheep were grazing on the Österberg. At least, that’s how many had been there that morning when Jäckel went jogging. How did he arrive at that number? Jäckel couldn’t have said how, he hadn’t counted the sheep. He simply knew it. On the other hand, he didn’t know whether that had anything to do with the bite. A movement tore Jäckel from his thoughts, a twitch in the front row: the seminar’s great last hope, off to the realm of dreams. Again, Jäckel heard the rumble; it came from his chest.
He could understand falling asleep while reading a Faulkner novel: even he had spent some of his best naps in his office sprawled across a worn-out, saliva-stained edition of As I Lay Dying – a novel he’d secretly christened As I Lay Sleeping. And should he be unable to fall asleep at night, he kept a copy of Absalom, Absalom! on the night table, along with a small bottle of Codeine that his friend, a medicine professor, had gotten him without prescription. Jäckel liked to pontificate to his colleagues that great writers were like surgeons dissecting their era – but Faulkner was an anesthetist. That someone could fall asleep reading Faulkner, sure, who wouldn’t? But to fall asleep during his seminar on Faulkner, that was absolutely unacceptable. Particularly while he was lecturing on a topic to which he’d dedicated seven years of his academic career; seven grueling, Codeine-impregnated years, which had borne a more than thousand-page study entitled: “I am Whatever You Say I Am: Identity and Mimicry in the US-American Novel of the 19th and 20th Century” – nearly two years later, it was still waiting to be published.
The topic of Jäckel’s lecture was “passing” – a phenomenon described in countless novels of the early 20th century and on pages 560 to 789 of his dissertation: the attempt by light-skinned African-Americans to pass themselves off as white, in order to survive within racist American society. Passing in the sense of: “pretending to be somebody else”, explained Jäckel: But also in the sense of “to pass away” – this idiom was perhaps familiar to the students. Right? Yes, please, in the back. An idiom? Well, that’s what we call…
That’s how, for nearly an hour and a half, Jäckel spoke to his pleasantly passing-out audience; and when he finally got to the point that especially interested him – in fact, the very reason he’d even dealt with Faulkner at all – his voice was nothing more than a hoarse bark. A most impressive example of passing, he explained hoarsely while pacing between the seminar room’s front window and door, could be found in Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August. Was the protagonist of the book – the restless wanderer, spirits distiller and murderer named Joe Christmas – black or white? Joe’s mother died giving birth to him; his father was murdered right after he had gotten her pregnant – nobody knew him, maybe he was an African-American, maybe a Mexican, maybe he was a white man with a dark tan. Who or what his son, the orphaned Joe, was, nobody knew for sure, not even Joe himself – but that, said Jäckel, didn’t really matter. What mattered was what he was taken for: he was born a blank page, he found work in a saw-mill as a white man, a lover as a black man, and he was ultimately lynched as a man without ethnicity.
Like an animal! barked Jäckel and pounded the desk with his right hand, a drum beat, a roll of thunder, no, an attempt to regain his audience’s attention – and, indeed, it worked! Jäckel paused a moment and joyously scanned the room: the desks arranged in horseshoe form, the students behind them; most of them would never make it to the exam, but for that moment they were all there, straining to attention, furtively jabbing each other with a foot or elbow, cell phone keys that had been operated below the desk now quickly stashed away, ear phones swiftly plucked from the ear with a tug of the cable like a bathtub plug, any moment, thought Jäckel, the whole room is going to run out.
He wanted to laugh, but a growl erupted from his throat, dark, deep. He smelled blood, warm, very close. He took a step back and leaned against the chalkboard, 24 pairs of eyes watching him – or, to be more exact, his right hand. Jäckel checked it with his left hand and caught the end of the loosened bandage. He felt the burning again – the pulse beat in his palm as though his heart were making its way outside. He felt his sleeve sticking to his skin, felt the warm stream running down his arm from palm to elbow, then trickling onto the ground. Like a summer rain, thought Jäckel. The rumble in him had proved right after all. The thunderstorm broke.

And yet the day had begun with unfailing monotony. As usual, the sound of the alarm-clock woke Jäckel at seven thirty – an exact replica of the English Parliament announcing the day with the strokes of Big Ben and lending him a certain feeling of lofty nobility. Every morning, as usual, he kissed his wife just a hair’s length to the side of her mouth, and thought of Shakespeare: Get you gone, you dwarf; you minimus, of hindering knot-grass made; you bead, you acorn. It wasn’t meant personally, it was just an association, perfectly normal for academics in literature. Then he forced himself into a pair of jogging pants and sports-shoes to rinse the previous night from his pores. The aromas of sleep were deeply repugnant to him, the way that night in general had something indecent about it, dirty, to be gotten rid of without delay, so he could start the day with a clean slate. He left the house at seven forty. Ten minutes later, he saw the sheep.
They must have just been brought to pasture; anyhow, Jäckel could not remember having seen them on the previous day’s round. No shepherd far and wide. Strange. Jäckel stopped in his tracks. Not that he understood anything about sheep farming; animals, particularly those in the fields and meadows, didn’t mean a thing to him, they were nothing but accessories to the landscape – not annoying, but not necessary either, like children, tie-pins, or the adverbs that he always crossed out on his students’ essays. Why Jäckel interrupted his morning routine to watch this conglomeration of senseless wool was a mystery at this moment, even to him. That the sight of bobbing lamb-tails brought tears of emotion to his eyes – he first tried to pass them off as drops of sweat, but he’d only just gotten started running – seemed downright reprehensible to him. That, on top of it all, he even squatted to pet the herding-dog, this was totally and completely inexplicable – especially since he wasn’t even sure if he was the herding-dog at all, he had appeared out of nowhere and run full-speed towards Jäckel. Maybe he reminded him of his first and only pet: Heino, a dwarf rabbit, which owed his name to the color of his skin and his eyes. Maybe it was the rabbit’s fault that, as a rule, Jäckel considered albinos harmless. That the pink-red eyes of the dog seemed familiar and trustworthy; that he had tried to pet him, and thus was now running with a bloody hand down the stairway of the Modern Philology Department, past students who greeted him shyly, the right hand pressed to his body under the jacket – he had disposed of the bloody bandage in the next best toilet.
Jäckel left the building through the back door. As soon as he closed the door to the concrete block behind him, he started to calm down. With thankful, greedy gasps, he smelled the warm weight of the evening air; only occasionally did gusts of wind graze the treetops. A blanket of clouds, like a wolf’s skin, evenly covered a sky that had been blue a moment ago. Jäckel walked doggedly towards the bridge.
Three of his colleagues, happy as clams, were heading towards the outdoor Greek restaurant from the parking lot. Jäckel had caught their scent even before he could see them; they were just about to turn around the corner of the building. Purposefully he climbed over the railing that separated the footpath from the creek, ran down the bank and took a running leap over the Ammer. When he landed, he had to support himself with his injured hand, and a blade of grass cut deep into his flesh. Jäckel sucked in air through clenched teeth. He heard three pairs of legs and ducked under the shade of the bridge. The echo of words, incomprehensible, then laughter and a thunderclap. Again, silence; the steps faded in the distance.
Jäckel crept up to the edge of the creek. He desperately needed to wash out the wound, rinse off the dirt; he bent over the water. Just then, he saw the dog again. He stared at him impatiently, panting, with drooling flews and lolling tongue, as if it had been waiting all day for Jäckel at the bottom of the creek. Despite the twilight, there could be no doubt: Jäckel recognized the eyes, like pennies on the eyelids of the dead; they shone in the water’s black mirror. He extended his hand to pet the dog on its damp muzzle – this time the dog didn’t bite, instead, it disappeared into a procession of small waves. The coolness did Jäckel good; he hummed contentedly as he dipped his throbbing hand into the water. Only a clap of thunder reminded him again of his task.
The first drops of rain were sprinkling the asphalt as Jäckel rushed past the slaughterhouse and turned left into a path through the heath. The path rose, got steeper, again Jäckel felt his hand pulsating, like clockwork growing faster, as if all that propelled him were the wound. The sweetish smell it emitted was overwhelming; Jäckel had to dip his nose into the open flesh. He sniffed, breathed in the blood, the liquid oozed viscous down his palate. Jäckel coughed, swallowed, licked his lips, then he greedily covered the wound with his mouth.
When he reached the open field a little later, he was drenched. He stopped, shook his head and torso and looked around: aside from him, there was nobody around; the city lay on the other side of the valley as if plasticized, the wet bricks on the rooftops lit matt with each flash of lightning. He turned again towards the Österberg. Just a few hundred meters from him, in the downwind of a hollow, something white was moving.
Jäckel emitted a hoarse cry and ran towards the herd. When he got near, he was able to make out the individual animals: A lamb pressed against its mother; a yearling bleated at him and began to flee uphill; three older sheep eyed him with distrust, but without any sign of fear. Instinctively, Jäckel circled the herd, once, twice, in ever narrower loops, until all of the animals stood together and he was sure that none of them was missing. Once satisfied, he stopped a few feet from the herd. He raised his nose in the air, scanned the area, then dropped slowly to his knees. He turned twice in a circle and lay down on his belly, stretched lengthwise, his head resting on his folded hands.

The next morning, on their way to class, three students found him in this posture. He was lying there in the meadow, like a dead man, they said to anyone who’d listen that night in the Slaughterhouse, covered in blood and motionless, like, it was just totally wrong. He looked like a gypsy, the two policemen added to the protocol after they had taken Jäckel to the station, fingerprinted and photographed him; like a dirty bum, said his wife, and what will the neighbors say? And the local newspaper? How embarrassing. But Jäckel didn’t care what people thought of him. They could say whatever they wanted. He knew who he was.