Family Portraits

Author: Karen Köhler
Translator: Sian Edwards



The handles of the plastic shopping bags cut into the insides of my hands all the way from the bus stop to the block of flats. My fingertips are crinkled when I put the bags down in front of the entrance. It’s raining a fine North German drizzle. I zero in on one of the 40 doorbells and press it three times in succession. I want him to come downstairs and help me with the bags. I want him to be shaved, showered, and in clean clothes. I wait. Wait for the summer. Wait for a word. For the open sesame of this council castle. Ring again and fumble my mobile out of my jacket pocket. Dial his number. He doesn’t answer, doesn’t open up. I’d really like to just turn around and go back to work. But red and yellow bags full of food for more than a week sit there and reproach me. Shit. My lunch break is already half over.

I get my keyring, with his keys on it, too, out of my rucksack. I unlock the door, heave the bags of food inside and to the lift, ride up to the fifth floor, haul myself down the corridor to the second-to-last door, ring twice for the sake of form but know that nothing will come of it, open up and call a loud ‘hello’ into the stink. He must be in.

‘I’ve been shopping for you’, I say in the direction of the two main rooms, and fight my way into the kitchen. One of the shopping bags knocks over some beer bottles that have accumulated on the floor in the hallway. A rank stench greets me in the kitchen, too. ‘Chicken breast was on special offer. And I got your tobacco. Eggs, bread, sausage, pizza. I’ll put it in the fridge.’ Dirty dishes are piled up in the sink, empty packets everywhere, empty bottles everywhere. The lino is sticky. I don’t want to know what with. I say: ‘I got UHT milk’, thinking: Then you can leave it out when you’re pissed. I say: ‘And shaving foam’, thinking: So you don’t look like an absolute tramp. I say: ‘You could let some air in’, thinking: It stinks of puke, crap, stale smoke, rubbish, old man, and piss. I say: ‘Hey, are you awake yet?’, thinking: You’re probably sitting on the sofa staring out of the filthy fucking window, again. I say: ‘Dad?’, thinking: Pathetic piece of shit. No answer. Maybe he’s out after all. I go over into the living room, and even from the doorway I can see his yellow feet on the sofa. Then I stand in front of him and have to fight my gag reflex. He’s lying there half on his stomach, in his puke. Lying with his face in it, his mouth open. He’s pissed himself, I can tell by the dark tide marks on the legs of his jeans. On the coffee table in front of the sofa there are rows of empty cans, bottles, fag ends, and ash. A bottle of schnapps is lying on the floor. It’s nearly empty. It’s a picture I recognise, framed in my fear. Is he still alive? is my first thought. I daren’t touch him.


I stare at his ribcage to check for movement but see nothing. No rising, no falling. What if he is suddenly, actually dead? What if he’s done it this time? Everything is on fire inside me, and I say his name quietly, whisper it almost, and remember how Mum used to say it, before she left him for someone else, whom she also left.

What if I have to ring her and tell her he’s dead? Drunk himself to death because of her. Finally done it.

The stink claws at my stomach. I hold one hand over my mouth and nose and use the other one to feel his neck for a pulse, a heartbeat, some sign of life. And just as I’m sure that he’s done it this time, a snore erupts from the depths of his coma, and he closes his mouth with a smack.

I should be relieved but I’m not. I stand up, open the window. Clear the bottles and cans into the kitchen, wash up. Empty the ashtrays. I take my rucksack and the binbags and whisper ‘Bye, Dad.’

In the lift I try to think up an excuse to tell my boss.



Scoop and slurp. And again. Scoop and slurp. Scoop. And slurp. Their backs hunched. Their eyes fixed on pea soup. I scrape in time with them. The kitchen clock is our metronome. Flowers appear on their pea soup sea floors. I’ve known every inch of the Sunday plates since childhood. White porcelain with a green flower pattern. Today is Friday. But it’s Christmas Eve. So sort of Sunday. Which explains the plates. It is 12:15 pm. Which explains the pea soup. It basically doesn’t matter whether I sit here or not, it makes absolutely no difference. They sit here in silence like this in any case. Just with different plates.

‘And’, I say, ‘how are you both?’

Mother looks at me. Her eyes briefly break through the veil of routine. Father keeps scooping. She misses a beat. Then steps back into the pea soup march.

‘Good’, she says, and Father nods.

Scoop and slurp. Tick. Tick. Tick.

‘How’s your hip?’ I ask Mother.

‘Fine’, she says, this time without looking up and losing the beat.

I look at Mother, and she suddenly seems very old to me. Worn out. I search in vain for a trace of a wish or desire in her face. I find duty and obedience. Father’s plate is empty, and Mother refills it for him. His massive presence spreads out into everything. Like the way his paw engulfs his spoon. The noises he makes. How he smells. I don’t seem to interest him, he doesn’t even look at me. My being here doesn’t change his life one millimetre. I frame Mother and Father in the kitchen picture, which has always been the same, all the objects unchanged, the ticktickticking constant, only they wither away from Christmas to Christmas towards death.

I know this kitchen picture by heart. I know the corner bench, the embroidered motto, the small radio on the shelf above it, the decorative plate on the wall. Their silence. The kitchen clock. The ticking. The whole kitchen, the dining and living rooms, the bedroom and the children’s room, the house, the yard, the village. The skeletons in the closet and out of it. Scoop and slurp. Tick. Tick. Tick.

‘Not hungry then, lad?’ says Mother, nodding at my plate, which is still almost completely full.

I hurry to scoop along to her beat. I’m in the pea soup passing lane. I won’t catch up with the master of the house. He’s tilting the plate by its edge and scraping up the last of the soup.

Between two spoons of soup I say it. Quickly.

‘I’m gay.’

Now Mother’s scraping.

‘What’s for dinner tonight?’ asks Father.

‘Goose’, says Mother. Like every year.

‘Right’, says Father, stands up and leaves the kitchen.



She’s having a good day today. I can tell straight away. I close the door behind me and sit in the wheelchair next to her bed. She’s sleeping, a smile on her fallen-in lips. The bottom of the bed is raised. Her thin body looks child-like under the blanket. Legs the same thickness as my arms. Her wrinkly hands lie lost on her torso, which rises and falls with a rattle. She looks like a withered chick. They’ve put her jumper on the wrong way round, the seams on the sleeves are visible, and the sewn-in name tag with her surname shows at her throat. An embroidered picture hangs on the wall above her bed. A Spitzweg. It shows a sick man lying in bed.

I stand up to get a vase. Outside spring is a long way off, but I have brought yellow tulips. They were her favourite flowers, before. I open the sliding door of the cupboard. The room is small, she couldn’t bring much with her. The cupboard, the living room table, an armchair, and a lamp. A couple of pictures for the walls and some bits and pieces. The sliding door reveals three crystal vases, six crystal glasses and a crystal ashtray. She only brought the good things. Although she used them much less. They were for special occasions. And of course she doesn’t use the crystal here either. The special occasions are over. Only sippy cups now.

I push the ashtray to the side to get at a vase and try to imagine her secretly having a smoke. She used to do that sometimes. Ernte 23 was her brand. Even after she got ill. Then we used to stand together on the balcony sometimes. Allies in the war against the 50 yoghurts in her fridge. Against mislaid keys, purses, and three brand-new irons in the wardrobe. But that was just the start. Back then, she still used to cry. Back then, she still wanted to die. Back then, she sometimes got so enraged that she banged her head against the wall.

I fill the vase with water in the vestibule, and when I come back into the room, she has opened her eyes. They flit agitatedly along the blanket.

‘Hi, Mum. Did you have a nice sleep?’ I ask.

‘Well, it’s about time, you nitwit’, she says, toothlessly.

‘Time for the flowers to go in the water’, I say, put the vase on the table and the flowers in the vase.

‘Get a move on, you dopey mare, you …’ she says, blinks furiously at me, loses herself for a moment and rattles on: ‘Get out of my flat or I’ll call the constable!’

Actually, she’s not having a good day, I think.



First new message. Today, 03:17: Anna, it’s me. I know it’s late… I can’t sleep. It’s, well, I think it’s just after three, and… dammit, Anna…

The key slides easily into the lock. Click clack. I hesitate a moment, then push the door open, and her perfume welcomes me like a passionate embrace. I put the key on the shelf next to the front door. Floorboards creak under my feet, the flat lies in wait. I don’t know where to go at first and decide on the direction in which I guess the kitchen would be in an old building like this.

Second new message. Today, 03:19: Anna. Wow, you’re having a good sleep, aren’t you? … I just wanted to … That noise is my teeth chattering. I’m outside … fucking freezing, isn’t it? … and summer’s not what it used to be.

It’s completely absurd: First, I do the washing up. Put everything in the sink. Teapot. Cereal bowl and spoon. Cups. Glasses. Bits of leftover muesli have dried on. I put the bowl in to soak. The teapot has gone mouldy. There’s a fruit bowl on the kitchen table. Well, fruit. Fruit flies scatter as I go to throw out the brown ex-bananas. I open the fridge. It contains forlorn-looking low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt, low-fat cheese slices, crispbread. I feel queasy.

… Remember those summers when we used to go to the outdoor pool at night? … Sneaking over the fence … Ah, sis, those were real summers, when we couldn’t sleep for the heat…

I’ve never seen anything like it: Every inch of the living room wall is covered with scraps of paper from different notebooks, in different shades of yellow, with notes in her handwriting. I’m not a nebbish, says one. What is the innermost layer of an onion? says another. I take a note down and see that a date is written on the back: 23.05.2002. But she only moved in here recently.

Third new message. Today, 03:31: Shit, Anna, I could really use your voice to hang on to right now. Remember how I always used to put my raisins in your muesli? I’m sorry. I wanted to say so all along.

I flee into the bedroom. Throw myself onto her unslept-in bed. After a while I stand up and go to the fitted wardrobe. Wrench it open. Designer clothes. All fancy stuff. Silk and that. All hanging tidily on hangers. Underwear lying meticulously folded in drawers. Half a wardrobe of shoes. The heels all at least four inches. Who is this woman, with a wardrobe like this? Not my sister in any case. I get back into her bed.

Fourth new message. Today, 03:42: I’d love to know what you’re dreaming about.

I was always the one who made allowances for her. For her moods. Her rollercoaster highs and lows. I always cleared up after her. Even when I was a kid. Ate the raisins she didn’t like. I didn’t like them either, but I ate them for her. And now I’m lying here in her flat, and my grief is swallowed up by a tsunami of rage. Why didn’t she call the land line?

Fifth new message. Today, 03:56: Well. Anna. Sis. Don’t worry. OK? Sleep well, sweetheart.

Don’t worry. She filmed the bridge with her mobile. She filmed herself beforehand. Filmed the fantastic view. The sunrise. And seemed completely calm. Relaxed. The mobile was in some sort of protective carbon case. It survived the fall, she didn’t. An older woman out early walking her dog found her and rang the police. And then the police told me, when I rang her mobile after I had listened to her messages. That was over a month ago. What’s a nebbish?



What kind of girl are you, who doesn’t wear a bra or shave her armpits? Who eats cheese without bread and lies in bed after eight and idles the day away? What kind of girl are you, who doesn’t have a man and a ring on her finger? At your age. Still! Who doesn’t clean the windows, doesn’t iron, doesn’t put shades on the bare lightbulbs. What kind of girl are you, who runs barefoot through fields as if she doesn’t have any shoes. Who drinks wine out of the bottle and sleeps in strange beds. What kind of girl are you? Who can’t follow a recipe without changing something, and immediately throws away the assembly instructions for Kinder Surprise Eggs? Who prefers to wear trousers and fights with the boys in the playground. Who drives a thousand kilometres in foreign lands, all alone, and chooses the unknown over the known. Who refuses meat and has no god. Who swims naked in the sea, makes her bed under trees, and knows how to start a fire. What kind of girl are you, who can stare into the sky for hours and see imaginary creatures in the clouds while life passes her by. Who wastes opportunities and wallows in the past. Tell me, what kind of girl are you, who sings and yells and snorts like an animal. Who smokes and twists her mouth with scorn at the corners, instead of answering my question, of what kind of girl she is.

hi mom, the train arrives thurs at 18:44. i’ll walk from the station and get to your house about 19:15. hugs m

Of course it’s raining when I arrive. I will have arrived wet. I will have brought the damp into the house. It’s hard to get out again once it’s got into the cupboards. I will have been interrogated about why I didn’t take a taxi. I will have been met with incomprehension.

I walk along the stream that patiently bore my attempts to dam it in other times. The road curves away, the stream has offended it, it distances itself. But I stay true to the stream, it will take me to the back of my parents’ house. The straps of my rucksack squeak. My eyebrows make sense and divert raindrops past my eyes. The landscape lies there featureless. Spreads out casually under the rainy sky because it’s at home here. Dredges up memories of Sunday boredom, endless days of rain, but also summer. Fields of burnt-off corn stubble. Evenings by the railway tracks with beer. Coins on the rails. The American radio shows, the window to the world.

The village gathers around the stream to nibble at it, the first houses are starting to bite. As always when I come here, the corset tightens around me: here I am the daughter, here neighbours gossip maliciously behind hedges, here the goutweed proliferates only along the road verge, never in the sifted earth of gardens.

Mrs. Wichert, a neighbour, is coming towards me with an umbrella and a bad mood. She’s walking a sausage with legs. A beagle, I think the breed is called. White and brown with drooping ears and Geoffrey Palmer eyes. I don’t know much about dogs.

Of course Mrs. Wichert recognises me even from a long way off, she ducks behind her umbrella. Today she’ll tell her husband over supper that the Claytons’ daughter is here to visit. The daughter of the pig farmer’s daughter and the American soldier from the occupation zone.

Nothing about my parents’ house is inviting. The fence has spikes, the trees needles, the hedges thorns. The blinds are down, the doors closed, the locks secured with locks. Half of the lawn at the front is gone, instead there is an asphalt drive with a parked a car that hasn’t been moved for a long time. Mother doesn’t have a driver’s licence, and Father can’t drive since his stroke. He can only lie there and wait for death. To open the garden gate, you have to reach over the spiky fence and press down the latch from inside. I open and close the gate, walk up to the front door, and know that they have already heard me. The kitchen, the dining room, and the living room are on the ground floor. Upstairs, my father lies in the master bedroom, the ironing in my old bedroom. Behind the house there could have been a garden if my parents hadn’t sold the plot. A garden is work. I ring the doorbell, hear Mother’s shuffling steps, hear her bundle of keys. Rustling. Unlocking the lock on the lock and unlocking the lock.

‘But you’re absolutely soaked through.’



You sit opposite me in silence. You’ve been silent for a few minutes now. Me too. Because I don’t know what’s left to say either. We’re both exhausted and just sit stirring our drinks, you with your spoon in your coffee, me with my straw among the ice cubes. You put your sunglasses on. Slide them from your head down to your face. Your hair keeps its shape. Smoothed into shape, like everything about you. I’d like to say something, anything, but I’m blank, nothing comes into my head, nothing that wouldn’t be trivial. The time thickens and I hunch under its weight. With every moment that passes, the silence between us gets bigger, and the possibility of overcoming it shrinks to a negligible crumb. A speck of dust on your jacket sleeve. I can see myself in the lenses of your sunglasses. I can see the riverbank behind me. The river. The sky. I remember walks with you. Barefoot, our shoes in our hands. I look into your mirrored surfaces, a boat is sliding through your eyes. A future perfect is sliding through me. I will have been brave. I know that my past is longer than my future.

‘Did you know that we live in the past?’ I ask.

‘You mean in memories?’

‘No, I mean the past.’

‘Oh’, you say and don’t ask.

It’s a fraction of a second. That’s how long it takes our brains to evaluate and process all the collected information and to create an expected image of reality. We hobble after a constructed illusion of things. That’s what I think. While I’m sitting opposite you. The fraction of a second after it has actually happened, my brain has constructed for my consciousness this expected image of you.

You keep playing around with your smartphone. Taking photos of me. Trying out different angles and filters. Seeking favourable perspectives.

‘Do you want anything else?’ You launch your hand into the air. A waitress looks up.

‘No thanks.’

The perspiring student waiting on the side comes to our table, clamps an empty tray under her arm, takes out her notepad and asks what it’ll be. You push your glasses back up into your hair, give me a look signalling that something noteworthy is about to happen, then turn to the waitress with an appraising glance at her tightly packaged breasts.

‘Have you got any snacks?’

‘Of course. We have light meals and then the evening menu after 5:30. Would you like to take a look at the menu?’

‘No thanks. I’ll have a sandwich. Have you got anything like that? A sandwich?’

‘Yes. Cheese, salami or ham?’

‘Ah, you know what. I think I fancy something sweet.’

‘We could do you a waffle? Or a crêpe?’

‘How about cake?’

‘We’ve got apple streusel, cherry, cheesecake, and Linzertorte.’

‘I don’t know. Maybe I’d rather have something savoury.’

‘Shall I bring you the menu?’

‘No, that’s not necessary. I’ll have a bockwurst. Have you got something like that?’

‘I’m afraid not. I’ll bring you the menu.’

‘I’ll have a salad.’

‘A salad?’

‘Yes, you’ll have that, won’t you?’

‘Yes, we’ve got salads. Which one would you like? Summer salad, country salad, Caesar salad?’

‘I’ll have the summer salad.’

‘What dressing? Balsamic, French, yoghurt?’

‘French dressing, please.’


‘Ah, wait, no. I’ll have balsamic dressing.’

‘A summer salad with balsamic dressing. Coming right up. And for you?’

I shake my head. ‘Nothing for me, thank you.’ The waitress gives us a strained smile and disappears between the tables. I know that everything has a cost. Life has a cost. This dialogue, with which you want to prove to me that one always has a choice, is wasting what time I have left. I have no choice.

Time only flows in one direction. Only forwards. Only into the future. Time relentlessly converts things from high-energy order to the least charged state possible. Time can’t go in another direction. Can’t go backwards. Only ever forwards, destroying order as it goes. Until sometime, one day, even the last star explodes, then goes out, and the universe comes to rest, inert and dead. That is a cosmic law. It’s the same with us. While you try to cling on to your life, with your arms crossed and your provoking expression, time has already carried me to a low-energy state. I feel bad for the waitress and can only smile tiredly at you. I exploded ages ago.

You flash me a look of disdain that tells me that you can’t believe I’m supposed to be made of your genetic material, that you deserve a better daughter than this sick, hunched lump sipping a cola in front of you.

When the first clump came out in the brush, I didn’t hang about. Now it’s just stubble. The ends would have had to come off at some point anyway.

‘If you want to be successful…’

‘Dad, stop.’

‘If you want to be successful…’


‘… you have to bend the world to your will. You need sharp elbows. Jab here. And jab there. You see. Otherwise no one’ll listen to you…’

‘Not today, Dad, seriously.’

‘The way you’re sitting there. You’ve got nice breasts. Stick them out. Show who you are. You won’t beat it otherwise, this cancer.’

Arsehole, I think.

‘You’ve got to fight. You understand? Don’t let it get you down.’

‘But I am.’

I am fighting. Against my tears and to a large extent against a butterfly. It’s growing over my corpus callosum. Butterfly glioma is the monster’s name. How can something so shit have such a beautiful name. I imagine butterflies flying with proliferating tumour wings over a meadow of wildflowers. Flutter, flutter, flutter. It’s a grade IV tumour, which is always terminal. Mean survival time 7.5 months. You know where you are with it. I’ve got 5 left, on average. I would like to know exactly how long. I’ve got so many things to do.

‘Head up, chest out, yeah? It’ll be alright, kid.’

I smile so that you finally leave off with all this drivel, because we both know, actually, that nothing will be alright. Your phone rings and you answer. ‘It’s important,’ you say quietly to me. Oh.

Things I still wanted to experience: hiking the Alpine trail from Munich to Venice. Having children. My children’s first day at school. My children’s wedding. Becoming a grandma. Going to Rome, Venice, Florence, and Dubrovnik. To Peru, Japan, India. Things I still want to experience: every season once more. Snow. Reading War and Peace. Against the World. Before the Feast.

‘Sooo. The summer salad for sir.’ The waitress deftly turns and places the salad in front of you.

‘Thanks,’ I say.

You glance at her, smile, and a moment later finish your telephone call.

‘Here. Eat. I hate salad,’ you say, and push the plate towards me.


Karen Köhler, “Familienportraits” in Wir haben Raketen geangelt.  Hanser, 2014.