Colder Layers of Air

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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