Emil: A Quiet Beetle on the Road

Author: Julia Weber
Translator: Helen MacCormac


Us standing around his bed, and beside the bed a silver tray, a tray with metal legs, with four metal legs on wheels and a beaker of water on top, a beaker of water and a cotton bud, the cotton bud my mother used to wet his mouth on the outside and inside. She wiped it slowly across his lips to make them glisten; she put it in one side of his mouth, pressing it gently against his cheek, and then in the other side, her face stock-still. Soft marches came out of the radio and outside there was a fleeting sky. People walked down the corridor on soft-soled shoes, brushing the dusted plants with their gowns.
We formed a half circle around his bed: my mother, sitting wetting his lips, my father standing beside her, touching her shoulder with four fingers, my aunt trembling slightly. The beads on her red jumper made a soft sound, the sound of tiny clapping hands. I stood between my aunt, feeling too small for this big situation, and my uncle, who looked too old. He was wearing a crumpled shirt and his beery smell went straight up my nose. His ears seemed to be smaller than usual, so did his eyes, and the bags under his eyes looked huge.
When it started to rain, raindrops pelted against the window and the sheet beneath my brother grew dark. When it started to rain, I shouted, ‘He can hear the rain!’ and clapped my hands. Something struck my face and made it burn. My father’s hand drew away. We both jumped and a dog whined outside.  My brother had closed his eyes sometime before then; my brother had closed his eyes long before then. ‘Too long ago,’ said my aunt. They might have grown shut, I thought.
My mother whined like the dog and a nurse came in. She changed the sheets and my brother’s shirt, and everyone turned away, except for my mother who still tried to wet his mouth, inside and out. The nurse left the room on her soft-soled shoes and as the rain beat harder against the windowpane, another dark patch spread out under my brother.
The uncle hummed a song, the song of a hunter in the city. My father closed his eyes for a moment; he rested his hands on his head. My mother dipped the cotton bud into the water, guided it towards Emil’s mouth.

Outside a fine-threaded sheet of rain.
Outside the pale sky.
Outside yellow light breaking through grey clouds.
My brother inside in his bed.
My brother in his bed, almost see-through in his bed.
His hands palms down beside his body.
His body all still and flat, his skin papery thin.
Something shivered beneath his eyelids and something shivered in me. My mother’s hand rested calmly on Emil’s chest.
I started to cry. ‘I’ve got a pain in my tummy, a very sore pain,’ I said.
‘Quiet!’ my father cried. My aunt’s silence grew more and more impatient, my father cried more and more loudly, pacing up and down in a small space. The uncle had fallen asleep with his big hairy hands on his belly. Outside grey pigeons landed on the windowsill, they shook their wings, and walked up and down, knocking their beaks against the glass.
‘Be quiet, won’t you!’ my father shouted. ‘Emil needs to rest!’ he shouted. He sat down on the floor and shrank. I’d stopped crying by now. Emil had stopped breathing. My mother kept on as if nothing had happened. Wetting Emil’s mouth inside and out.
No one moved.
Then I was taken out of the room.

At home I sorted my coloured pencils, putting them down on my desk one by one: black, navy blue, turquoise, sea blue, sky blue, arctic blue, lilac, purple, wine red, crimson, rose, yellow, lemon yellow, lime green, green, forest green, charcoal grey, grey, white.
I pushed the pencil tips into a row with a ruler.

My uncle pushed me upstairs into our room, telling me to do whatever I did every night. But I knew this wasn’t like every night, and I couldn’t do what I do every night, so I hid under the blankets for a long time without anyone coming to find me and I sat in the corner with my face turned to the wall and I sat in the cupboard and peered through the keyhole. Without anything happening.
I couldn’t do what I do every night. I needed my mother for that or my brother at least. But my brother had turned see-through and my mother wasn’t there.

I heard her coming home in the middle of the night. I’d been waiting, making shadows on the wall with my fingers until I put on my tiger suit and turned into a tiger. And my father was with her. I heard them coming up the stairs and opening the door. I pretended to be asleep because it is far nicer to be woken up when you are already awake or hugged when your parents think you’re asleep. You notice everything then and they are so gentle and it’s your secret.
She went over to Emil’s bed; she fell to her knees on the carpet. My father was big again. He held her shoulders and whispered something. I turned over, as if I was turning in my sleep, I could see her legs. I made some sounds. They didn’t answer. My mother stayed where she was on her knees, resting her head on Emil’s pillow.
‘I’m here,’ I whispered. My father turned around to me. ‘Go to sleep.’ he said. I couldn’t see his face in the dark.
‘I’ve got a pain in my tummy,‘ I said.
My mother stood up then and left the room. My father followed her out.

In the morning no one was there. When I woke up in the morning, no one was there.
There were no parents in my parent’s bedroom. The bed was made and the windows tilted open.
I heard a lawnmower mowing the lawn outside and I dug my bare feet into the soft grey carpet. White and red flowers outside the kitchen window, not moving. A beery smell in the kitchen and living room and down the hall. All the pictures of me and Emil in the hall and all the pictures drawn by Emil and me.
‘Mummy?’ I called. ‘Daddy?’ I called.

I went out of the house and closed the door behind me.
I was a tiger.
I was big.
I wasn’t frightened of the old man who pointed his stick at me and spoke to the sky.
I saw a one-legged bird.
I said hello to an old lady with long white hair who was sitting in her front garden.
I ran my hands along the length of a hedge and the hedge scored fine lines on the palms of my hands.

I was late and the lady at the playgroup looked paler than usual. She was waiting for me beside the door, standing on one leg. Like the one-legged bird, I thought. She kept her balance without moving until I reached her and then she swapped legs. Her glasses were crooked and her eyes behind the glasses were huge. She was thin and long. And she looked a bit see-through like Emil.

I said I was sorry. She drew a breath. I looked at all the flowers on her dress. She drew another breath. I stared at the ground. She knelt down beside me; she hugged me and started to cry. It sounded like a big fat bumble bee. Or a bee next to your ear. She cried and I cried a bit, too.
She saw my hands and asked where the red lines came from.
‘Emil,’ I said; she didn’t say anything and she swallowed.

I was allowed to drink lots of lemonade. I was allowed to eat two pieces of cake. I was allowed to choose what game to play and I was allowed to get up first after our midday nap. And I pulled Marie’s hair without the lady’s voice getting loud. She talked to Marie and Marie stopped telling me off and stopped crying. Marie’s eyes opened wide. She came over and held my hand. She gave me her jelly frog. She asked if I knew where Emil was now.
I wasn’t sure, but I told her he’s see-through. ‘He’s still there but you can’t see him anymore,’ I said. ‘That’s good because it means he can play all the time and never has to go to bed.’
Marie was glad and asked me to give back her sweetie. I saw why, so I gave it to her.

When I went home the sky was pale.
When I went home, the old lady was still in her garden, the man sitting beside her seemed to have lost something.
When I went home I didn’t want to go home.
When I went home there was a beetle quietly walking across the road.
I sat down beside it and tried to stroke it.
When I went home, I saw a pale-skinned woman with a patchy face. She looked right through me, I was hungry.
When I went home I saw an old man with a loaf of bread under his arm. The man was very thin and his clothes hung off him, or clung on, as if the whole world were clinging on.
When I went home, the one-legged bird was lying on the road not moving.
I picked up the bird by its wings. I shook it.
I held the bird up high and waited. It was soft and its eyes were made of glass. When I went home something changed.
I thought about my mother and knew she was sad.
I thought about Emil and didn’t believe he was see-through.

At home, the uncle was sitting in a chair. At home everything smelt beery; the uncle wobbled his head and swore under his breath.
None of my mother’s smells. No  smell of my mother’s coffee. No smell of my father’s pipe. No mother. No father. Just the uncle and footsteps upstairs which didn’t sound like my mother or my father.
No Emil.
The uncle said ‘Hello boy,’ and changed the channel. His grey hair was sticking out all over the place.
‘Your mother and father will be back later.’ He held on to his belly with his hands.
‘It’s boring,’ I said.
It’s interesting,’ the uncle said.
‘Boring, boring, boring,’ I said.
‘Interesting, interesting, interesting,’ the uncle said.
‘You smell,’ I said.
‘Children smell,’ said the uncle.
My aunt flitted about upstairs.

My aunt gave me soggy noodles in cold sauce. She gave me orange juice in a glass too big for my hands. I put the glass on the table and dipped my head. I lapped like an animal.
‘Like an animal,’ my aunt said.
‘Tiger,’ I said.
‘Silly boy,’ my aunt said. And the beads on her jumper made another noise. She hugged me and pressed me against her soft bosom. She stroked my hair backwards. Then she went away.

I sorted my coloured pencils, putting them down on the desk one by one: black, navy blue, turquoise, sea blue, sky blue, arctic blue, lilac, purple, wine red, crimson, rose, yellow, lemon yellow, lime green, green, forest green, charcoal grey, grey, white.
I pushed the pencil tips into a row with a ruler.

My mother and father came home later. When I had sorted the pencils seven times and lined them up with the ruler again and again, my mother and father came home.
My mother’s arms were very long. They hung down by her sides as if they didn’t belong to her. My father put his shoes beside each other and he took off my mother’s shoes and set them next to his. He bent down to her hip and lifted her foot and pulled off the shoe. My mother turned her face away and held on to my father’s shoulder while he lifted her other foot and pulled that shoe off, too. And he looked at me standing where I was standing in the doorway, standing between the kitchen and the front door looking up at him.
I said, ‘You put your shoes in a nice row.’ He smiled and said, ‘You did, too.’

I was pleased and he was pleased with me. My mother stayed standing in the hall, leaning her head on the coats. A red sock hung off her foot and my mother hung between the coats.
I called her name. She didn’t answer. ‘Mummy,’ I said, ‘the playgroup lady wasn’t even cross, she cried and stood on one leg and her glasses were crooked.’
She didn’t answer. ‘I found a bird. I wanted it to fly.’ She didn’t answer. ‘I buried it in the ground. It was soft and its eyes were made of glass.’

I think she might have stroked my hair when she walked past.
I think she might have looked at me once she’d gone by.
I think my father said that would do.
I think branches and little animals moved outside.
I think I stuffed my whole fist in my mouth and it very nearly wouldn’t come out.
I think someone laughed on the telly.
I think I dreamed in the night.

I tried to talk to Emil when it was quiet in the night.
I listened first, to hear him move, to hear the moving air.
When I still couldn’t hear him or see him, I called Emil.
‘Emil where are you?’ I called.
I called quietly at first and then more and more loudly.
I shouted his name and he didn’t come.
Eventually the door opened and my mother stood there.
She stood there for what seemed like ages and didn’t move. My mother kept silent and so did I.
Then I shouted, ‘Where is Emil?’
She stood there all white, her nighty was white, her face was white, her feet, arms and hands all were white. She stood there and I tucked the blankets up under my arms and I was stunned and shut my eyes and opened them again.
‘Where is Emil?’ I yelled.
She leapt over to my bed like an animal. She grabbed my shoulders and stared into my face. She could see right through me.
‘Emil is dead!’ my mother shouted. ‘Emil is dead. Emil is dead. Emil is dead!’ she screamed.
She shook me and my body went limp, she shook me like a piece of clothing. The telly was still on downstairs, I heard clapping and I was afraid, afraid for me and afraid for my mother.
Her face was wild, her face was hard and white, and her hair was everywhere like the uncle’s hair.
All of a sudden, I saw my father’s head behind her head, I saw Emil’s anorak hanging on the door next to my father’s head.
My father took my mother away from me.
I cried and my mother cried and my father cried, too.
‘Everything’s changed. We’ve put Emil in a coffin and the coffin is going to be burned and Emil…’ Her voice sounded like a voice coming out of the station speakers.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said before my father took her out of the room.

He came back after a while. I sat up in bed waiting. I hid behind my fingers, but kept my eyes open. ‘You’re not a tiger,’ my father said. I lifted one hand off one eye. ‘You`re a human being and human beings all have to die someday.’ I took the other hand off the other eye. ‘Just like Emil but usually not as soon.’
I slept with my tiger suit on. I said I wanted to be a tiger one more time.
I tossed around and started to sweat and smell bad.
Outside I saw the fat moon in the sky and the branches of a tree.
Outside the air was dark blue and the sky had patches of light.
Inside, I saw the half-empty room.
Inside, there was me and strips of moonlight on the wall.
Once in the night my mother came to my bed. I didn’t say anything.
Once in the night my father came to my bed. I didn’t say anything.
Once in the night Emil came to my bed. I woke up. My face and my pillow were wet.
The next morning I put the tiger suit outside my door. I knew now I was going to die someday, so I put my pencils out there, too.