Author: Schutti McMahon
Translator: Deirdre McMahon
Just begin, Maja said, so many first sentences.
She’s not called Babushka; she’s Matryoshka, said my great aunt, my father’s only aunt, although she didn’t know any Russian. She was right, but I simply did not believe her. I had always called mine Babushka, shaken her carefully, taken her apart, and put her together again. I would examine the smallest one very carefully to see if I could open her like the others, searching for a hidden mechanism, and I simply could not believe I had reached the last one.
I would often lie awake and let my eyes wander around the room, and I would tell the biggest Babushka what the house looked like from the outside: about the garden, sprawling outwards, and the shade that lay over most of the houses for more than half the year. I would tell her about the valley with its wooded hillsides, about the night sky stretching tightly over it. It frightened me that no one could tell me what lay behind it. But perhaps you just needed to ask the right questions to get an answer. The Babushka would look at me with her big eyes and I would open her up, take the smallest doll out, lay her tenderly in my hand, rocking her to and fro, amazed at how grown up she looked.
My Babushka had gone missing, or so they led me to believe, but that was impossible. I had never taken her outside. Perhaps my aunt decided that I was too big for dolls and hid her in the attic or threw her away. Maybe she had found the nightly murmuring from my room disturbing. I never asked.
I told Marek about the Babushka and he stroked the hair behind my ears and kissed me on the forehead.
Moje kochanie, he whispered, and I knew what that meant even though I knew no Polish and had lost the Belarussian of my first years, along with Babushka.
Marek had a little wooden house with an unkempt garden. He offered old Walter money for gardening, but Walter did little more than get rid of a few branches. He said mowing was impossible because there were too many scrubby bushes along the fence and around the house. He left the bushes standing and bought himself schnapps.
Marek didn’t drink schnapps; he never drank. Nevertheless, his eyes were sometimes red when he sat at the window looking out.
They hadn’t died one after the other, as local gossip suggested. Marek once told me that his uncle went first, then his grandmother. Then Micha, his favourite nephew, died. He hung himself from a tree, from the tree that his grandfather had planted for the uncle. He didn’t speak about his mother and father. Everyone knew what had happened, but nobody could explain why Marek had moved to this particular village as a young man and why he hadn’t returned home after the war.
Forget all that again, Marek had said, wiping his eyes, forget it. However, I never forgot, and I asked my aunt if she could tell me anything about Marek. The shadow side is bad, she answered, going on to ask me why that was any of my business. I asked why there were houses here anyway, when the shadow side is so bad, but I got no answer.
The snow arrived early and stayed a long time. Even in high summer you needed a woollen jacket by four in the afternoon if you wanted to play outside. Only mint and chamomile, dill and garlic, grew in the garden. When you ran barefoot on the grass it stabbed the soles of your feet. I just could not imagine soft grass, or not anymore. As a small child I must have run over soft grass, at least once. Years later my aunt gave me a photo showing my mother and myself in a park. I was wearing a short little white dress embroidered with flowers, with a hand-crocheted border on the collar. My mother was holding my hand, laughing at the camera, not staying still for the photo; her arm and face were out of focus. We were standing barefoot on the grass and I looked uncertain. My eyes were wide open, my lips an open slit.
My aunt didn’t want me to visit Marek. She thought I’d be better off playing with other children. I often acted as if I had spent the whole afternoon playing tag and French skipping. I would kneel in the meadow on the way home and stroke the palm of my hand over damp earth. Sometimes, if I had enough time, I would lie down in the grass and look up at the clouds as they took on a rosy red tinge and, when the light was fading, I could observe countless tiny insects populating the skies and turning the air restless.
It was not that I wanted to turn myself into an insect and flee from there; I had not thought that far ahead. And I didn’t want to be an animal either, though having a favourite animal and knowing everything about it came with the territory back then. After school Fini asked me what kind of animal I would like to be, continuing in the same breath to say that I didn’t need to answer as she already knew – definitely a bird – or an angel – so that I could follow my mother to heaven. I didn’t want to fly to my mother because it was cramped and cold beneath the earth – or so my aunt had told me – and I believed her.
There are various Babushkas. Some resemble each other down to the finest details and some have different pictures on their fronts. A different picture on every front and you know immediately which story belongs to it. And the big Babushka holds all the stories together like the cover of a book of fairy-tales. The smallest picture needs to be examined particularly carefully because, if you are lucky, even this tiny expanse has a background showing a forest or a stream or flowers. I was lucky. My Babushka had been particularly beautiful. I can remember every picture and I still know the stories that went with the pictures; they translated themselves without me noticing.
Marek often asked me to tell him these stories. I thought that maybe they reminded him of the stories of his childhood because they were similar, but perhaps he only wanted to prevent them dropping from my memory.
Marek would give me presents of sweets or colourful stones which I would store under a loose board in my room. Whenever I was out with my aunt and we met him by chance, he would just give us a curt hello, hardly looking at me, as if he were indifferent to me. But in the afternoons when I went to him, he would stroke my cheeks and sit down opposite me at the heavy wooden table, drinking black tea with milk and sugar from a glass printed with flowers. Because of me, he always had a choice of drinks in his larder that I never got otherwise. I loved the sparkling yellow or red drinks. I would sit on Marek’s lap letting him read books aloud or tell me stories, hanging on his every word. There was an unevenness about his voice that only I could hear, or so I thought back then, something in his tone that reminded me of something from the past, from way back in my early days.
When I got big enough to take the bus into the next town my aunt would send me shopping once a week. She gave me two cloth bags, and for weeks she would make me recite the bus stops and the departure times before I left the house. I never forgot anything and occasionally I was permitted to buy some little thing for myself. As time went on, I knew all the shops and got much quicker at completing my errands, so that I had time to wander the streets and look at the shop windows. That was when I began to think about my mother more often. I would stand in front of the shop windows trying to superimpose my reflection onto the clothes on display. Sometimes it worked but in other shops the clothes were hanging just too high. I would imagine what it would be like if my mother’s face were reflected beside mine, how beside her I could smile in at the displays and we would hold each other’s hands.
Sometimes I asked myself what it would be like to hold a young man’s hand, to go with him, as Fini called it. I tried to walk tall as I wandered up and down the street. According to Fini, pulling in my tummy was really important, like wiggling my hips so that it looked like I was wearing high heels. I used to imagine how it would be if a young man called me from the sunny side of the street. He would ask my mother if she would allow him to take away her beloved only daughter – yes, that was just what he would say – and my mother would smile and nod, catch me by the shoulder and nudge me towards the young man, folding her hands across her chest, waiting until he had given me a kiss and taken me in his arms. And then she would wave until we had vanished around a corner.
Fini sometimes took me by the hand when we were wandering through the woods. If it got dark on the way home, she would clutch me so tightly that the prints of her fingers were visible on my hands for a long time afterwards. I never told her that she was hurting me. On long summer afternoons when we had had enough of each other’s company and I wasn’t with Marek, we would sit down at the stream, dangling our feet in the water until they turned red. Then we would lie down on the flat sun-warmed banks and pull up our shirts to tan our stomachs. Fini told me stories, not fairy tales. She would tell me what she knew about the other girls and their families, about her older brothers and their friends and girlfriends and plenty about what she had observed through keyholes. She explained what it would be like in a couple of years when we became young women, and the men would be interested in our brown legs and stomachs. I loved listening to her; her sentences flowed on like the stream, almost a calming murmur, and although there were no ogres like Baba Jaga and bewitched kings’ daughters, I hung on her every word. Her family would become mine for an afternoon. I used to take Fini’s stories home with me, feeling that I had escaped out of the shadows and undergone an experience. One evening I wrote a sentence, a phrase that had struck me on the way home, “if a person could keep all these stories like a shield over their body, wrapping strange sentences around the body like a camouflage coat”. I read the sentence aloud to Fini the next time we met but she just looked down on me and began to laugh. I crumpled up the paper, put it away and threw it in the stream on the way home, knowing that it would soon become a tiny scrap, that it would dissolve completely in the cold water. I never again composed such a sentence and would never again write anything like that. But I remember this one.
You always just have to start over again, said my aunt when I gathered my courage and asked her about before, although I felt that she wouldn’t answer this time either, and would make me feel that she was irked by my question. The past I had experienced with my mother pushed against the past I had with my aunt; I had no idea of the fault line, no memory of how I had come out of the city to the village.
I still know that I didn’t understand my aunt. She talked at me in an unfamiliar language. I was supposed to say Papa to the strange man who had collected me. First, I saw him only at weekends and then less and less because he took my aunt’s advice to heart and made a new beginning. I was allowed to stay with my aunt; she was glad of company in the big house.
Your mother was too good for us here, said my aunt, and when I was just a few weeks old she left the village and my father behind; but she didn’t want a divorce, and to this day, I don’t know why.
And now that you are here, be satisfied. I knew I had to be satisfied.
When Marek died, I no longer lived in the village. The photo on his death notice shows him as a fifty-year-old; I know this for certain because that had been his nicest birthday. That photo stood on a narrow shelf beside the house door, his best birthday as he used to say back then. Fifty-fifty, someone had written on the lower edge in white touch-up pen. His life had not lasted a hundred years, but who can say how much life a person gets. My aunt died before him. She reached the age of eighty-three; nobody needs to worry about her grave. She had ordered and paid for a stone tablet years before her death, and anyone who wants to can place a candle on it or lay a bunch of flowers to be dried by the sun and blown off the gravestone by the wind. She knew I would never come back.
I did not come back; I couldn’t. I got a Matryoshka that looks so like my old one, my hidden or thrown-away Matryoshka. I took it apart and set all the dolls out in a row. There are scenes from fairy-tales on the dolls’ fronts, but they make me sad now, when I remember them. I lost my language along with my mother: the falling-asleep phrases, the comfort phrases, this cradle-rocking of words, our language island where there was just room enough for the two of us, on which we wandered through the city to the playground or the bakery. Latrine, shovel, and bread roll – I can’t remember what German words I had when I came to my aunt’s. And now: encouraging phrases out of the dictionary, encouraging sentences spoken on tape but the lullaby does not want to reappear; those sentences remain forgotten.
Moj bednyj anjol, my mother must have said, moj bednyi anjol.
I turn the dolls around and let them look out the window. From behind, they all look the same – light blue flowers on a red background. Where have my first sentences gone, I ask myself – I only ask now that I have flourished in a complete language for a few years and withered on the shadow side again. Those phrases haven’t even remained in memory, at least not in mine.
Excerpted from Carolina Schutti, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein. Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg-Wien, 2015.