Moor

By Gunther Geltinger

Translation Alexander Booth

You immediately begin to sink. Below you feel the sluggish weight of the metre-thick peat moss, the heavy, fat body that embraces you. I enclose you in water, earth or a mixture of both: damp topsoil, soft tree roots, bifurcated arteries above half-rotten branches like bone, and further down the heart of the deep: pulpy, cold and pulsing. Only two hundred years ago the residents of Fenndorf feared me, me, a black, slimy beast that lived beneath their houses and devoured their children. A thousand years before that their ancestors would place clay bowls full of food into the wet graves of the dead in order to appease my hunger for bodies. In me others saw a carnivorous plant whose shoots they had to hack off, those shoots that would grab their possessions, their bodies and their souls. Today the blades of the peat machines, the same ones your father used to run, dig up to one metre down into my innards and then dismember, dry and stack them in gloomy pyramids like pagan tombs which tower for an entire summer in the plain, in no time plundered and sold off, at one time to farmers as fuel for their damp houses, today to weekend gardeners for their rose bushes.

Drained, punctured and ploughed I lie like a black cadaver in the landscape, covered by festering craters and manges of heather, with a boardwalk for an artificial spine above my pacemakered heart, flooded with water from which the manure that seeps over from the fields is filtered out with dams and hedges as if I were on dialysis. They close up the drainage ditches, remove the birches from the peat moss plains and put the moor frog back into the grasses that soon die off again in the faeces from the ducks for which the village ponds have become too small. They drive the moorland sheep across my face, those sheep that are supposed to lick my wounds, eat up what should not grow: boils from the surrounding woods and meadows, beech shoots, daisies, the couch grass everywhere… they even had to fell a stunted little apple tree, which had been sown by the wind, by hikers’ picnic binges or by the scat of the deer which, where once the poisonous sundew glowed, now pull up the fields of clover. Biologists, ecologists, zoologists and botanists gather round my deathbed like an army of doctors sent to resuscitate me with complicated machines to measure the acidity of my body fluids, the pH balance of my skin and the temperature of my insides; and still, in spite of all of their bandages, the tubes, pumps and feeders from their laboratories, I collapse into a fever, bleed, wither, and move on to death with a rattle.

And yet my affliction is as old as their fear of my voraciousness. Too dry to navigate, too wet to walk, even two hundred and fifty years ago scholars believed in my hermaphroditic nature, neither water nor land, neither alive nor completely dead, desolate and yet in constant transformation, barren and at the same time full of valuable testimony to past times; and so they measured and traced my body with its water-soaked fossils and in their books described me as an Emission from the Sea. Earlier I was the indomitable monster before their doors, today I am their costly museum; there is a donation box in the parking lot for the upkeep of the paths and the support of the nature conservation association; the information sheet is free.
You flail, kick at me, fight against being swallowed whole, as angry as you were that evening of the artists’ award ceremony with Marga, tearing off your boy’s suit, there you wanted to get rid of your mother, here shake off the ghost of the moor, the horror story of sinking and drowning within which you had got hopelessly lost, but Marga did not come out from the toilet, left you standing half-naked in front of the stall, exposed to the pitying glances of the peeing men. There’s no escaping this nightmare, Dion, so keep still, stop your howling, you are deep below with me now, your body almost forgotten, soon it will only be a malleable memory of dark colours, old fears and half-conscious thoughts as in that praised painting of your mother’s, that gloomy depiction of an abortion or stillbirth, which, that time in Fenndorf—she remembered now as she heard your fists against the stall door again—she had almost sold, while here at the foundation where the collectors and gallerists of the city had gathered no one seemed interested at all.
A Dutchman, a tourist of all things, one of those who in the weeks after the finding of the cadaver had come sneaking about the house on the Heidedamm and throwing curious looks into her atelier, had offered her a hefty sum. The curious came from near and far and even with buses across the border. They made a pilgrimage to the overgrown track once used by the peat wagons, to the ditches, looked a few seconds long into the pit, already long since churned up by the peat workers’ excavators, and then wandered aimlessly through the village and directly into the clutches of Ilse Bloch who in those days had turned the moor corpse not only into a business but the high point of her life, really giving the story her all, suddenly teeming with moor victims as it were, and the visitors stood hanging on her every word while she pushed over-priced drinks and bags of provisions over the counter together with a map of the surrounding area, which she of course had marked with the places she believed the villagers’ forebears to have sunken and drowned.

The Dutchman, too, had been one of the ones who couldn’t get enough of the horror of the moor. All of a sudden he was there in the barn and looking with greedy eyes at the painting she had been working on for days, mostly at night or as soon as she knew her husband was in the peat-pit. The tourist—a lanky type in hiking shoes and a raincoat—had haggled for the picture in English and in the end had laid a bundle of bills on the table, when suddenly your father came through the door. What are you up to? he asked her and looked at the stranger. I’m working, your mother answered. I earn the money for us, he yelled, swept the money off the table and trampled it into the dirt. His child, he added and pointed to her stomach, would live from clean money. Dirty money, he snapped at the Dutchman. The latter bent down, scraped up the bills, handed them to your father and stammered: No, no, it’s not fake. It’s from the exchange office. She turned and began to dab away again at her picture. From the corner of her eye she saw how her husband’s well-proportioned features, which once, before she could see the bleakness behind them, she had found desirable, distorted. He grabbed her arm and tore her off the stool. And what’s that supposed to be? he growled, pointing to the painting. Then he spun her around and pushed her to the door. You monster! he thundered, he had planted his child in a monster, she remembered how even when he was angry, Dion’s father, the farmer, spoke of plants and seeds. The Dutchman stared, unfolded his map and said: Yes, monster! Show me where! Your father roared and kicked both the monster and the monster-hunter out of the door, which in the days to come was soon blocked by a heavy padlock.

One night she broke a windowpane with a towel wrapped over her fist and opened the door. The portrait hung untouched on her work-wall in the dim light of a hair-pin moon where, as she looked upward as if through a black, half-transparent skin, she could make out the hidden side, the one revealed only to those on earth who stared too long into the abyss of their dreams.

She taped cardboard in front of the window and stirred new colours in the crusty cups. After just a few brushstrokes she noticed that the dark excitement that had spurred her on and sharpened her senses had suddenly changed into indifference. The subject now made her sick, she found it melodramatic and its extremity sensationalistic, she was angry she hadn’t foisted it off on the Dutchman who had offered her a tidy sum of money for it. She tore the canvas off the wall and threw it into the corner where the portrait of the moor-child corpse soon disappeared and was forgotten under other sketches and unfinished paintings.

Only ten years later—sifting through the mountain of trash in her atelier looking for something to use for the Hamburg Foundation contest—did it find its way back into her hands. In just a few days she had finished it, indeed more skilfully than before, but more out of a sense of duty to her overdue success; and, outside of Dion’s father, the Dutchman and maybe Ute Hassforther, so she thought as she lifted herself up from the toilet seat, only the boy seemed to have understood what was concealed in the mixture of colours: your childish body pierced by sharp-edged beams or boughs and covered with roots or a network of veins and wrapped in a creeper like an umbilical cord, eyeless, without hands, and with an abstracted, not quite formed or already wiped-out, face, an expression between sleep, forgetting and a thinly limned longing for shape and for world, still becoming or already gone out, almost but not quite dead before you had even begun to live.

I don’t want you to be my mother anymore, she heard your voice say from outside the bathroom stall door, frighteningly clear and without any stutter at all. When she finally unlocked the door she found you standing in your underwear and staring at her, eyes swimming with rage and tears. She fell down upon you; Leave me alone! you pushed her away. In your voice a hard and distant tone. She pulled the trampled trousers out from under the door, pulled your jacket back into shape and tried to put you back into your suit. You held onto her and bit her hand. Her slap echoed through the coldly white-tiled room. She immediately regretted her loss of control. My poor darling, she whispered and bent down to kiss away the red welts from your cheeks, but you turned away and bared your teeth so that she thought she could already hear the cry for help which in the next moment would break out of you and draw people in droves. She had almost put her hand across your mouth until she understood that you were not screaming, but smiling, just as tortured as she herself had once smiled in front of the giant mirror in the fashion house when Siana had shown her how to welcome life.

She followed your eyes and saw Ute Hassforther standing in the doorway. A little bit of a mishap, Marga said and pointed to the toilet, too high! The woman looked at her and nodded. We often forget the children’s perspective, she said, and for a moment her face seemed clear and soft. Then, as if remembering her role, which allowed for no sentimentality, her features froze back up, she wiped a piece of lint from her skirt and left.

Marga stuffed you back into your suit. Now you’ve really screwed up, she hissed and closed the upper collar button. Then she pushed you to the door.
When you both came back into the foyer, the gallerist was standing in front of your mother’s painting. She quickly let go of you, slowed her pace and straightened her dress, which had been wrinkled in the scuffle. Then she wandered over to Ute Hassforther as if by chance, lit a cigarette and acted as if she were looking at her own work. From the corner of her eye she saw an eyebrow twitch in the woman’s face; otherwise her face showed no emotion at all. She could feel your eyes in her back, or was it Röcker’s contemptuous glance, leaning as he was with another young woman against the bar, she thought all the eyes in the room were on her as the gallerist bent down in order to more carefully observe one of the smooth points in her painting before finally saying: Not bad.

From the other side she felt your look, angry, appalled, almost mocking, the same expression as the day she was putting the finishing touches on her painting and suddenly you were standing behind her, eyes like slits, the corners of your mouth drawn down. What do you see in it? she had asked you defensively, already awaiting a hurtful response. You shrugged your shoulders although in the canvas you had recognised a lot, indeed much more than you liked. The bloody-grimy mixture made your chest constrict and your heart beat faster, and caused a wave of heat to rise in you like a fever. You gave the feeling the colour brown, a moor or cola-brown, which among all the dirty umber tones was the one colour in the picture through which a kind of light flowed, as in the pools when a ray of sunlight pushed into the deep and stained the water amber, so that there where the layers had been scratched away or abraded with a wire sponge you discovered a delicate, parchment-like, at points almost see-through structure that reminded you of your collection of dried dragonfly skins standing in rows in glass preserve jars on your shelf. You turned around, walked back to the house, and holed up in your room. When she called you down to dinner you laid the exuvia of a green hawker on her plate, the most beautiful and largest specimen from your collection, and looked at it pleadingly as if that awkward moment in the life of the dragonfly could take place again, that moment when the internal pressure increases within the larva, the skin splits open and the insect is forced out into freedom from all the dark years underwater and into its one and only summer over the moor.

Yummy, Marga grinned, and blew the shell off her plate, but then scooped it up with her spoon and held it up to the lamplight. Every detail of the grown insect was visible already, the segments of the rod-shaped abdomen, six long, three-sectioned limbs, the beginning of four wings, even the mandibles. On the head two transparent bubbles formed the hollow of the eyes, and behind them, on the back, its shell was slit, catching the draught in a tiny opening; the little legs began to quiver as if at any moment the empty dragonfly would lift into the air. Like a little palace, Marga whispered, suddenly fascinated, and you nodded triumphantly. Then, holding your breath, you both bent over the artwork, sought out each others’ eyes and at that very moment thought the same thing. All of a sudden the exuvia fell off the spoon, maybe caught by her breath, and broke into two pieces on the edge of the plate. When you tried to shake the skin carefully into your hand, it broke apart. hYou hbreak heveryhting! you yelled, throwing your head back and stamping the ground a number of times as if in so doing you could hurl the words out of your throat. She pulled you to her but the brown feeling turned into red and with balled fists you ran away from her and up the stairs. But you have a hundred of them! you heard her call from the kitchen, hurt, then you slammed the door and pushed the bed against the wall so that in the crevice where you had wanted to escape there was no longer room for even a finger.

It’s called Moor? Ute Hassforther asked doubtfully and tilted her head to the side as she looked at the little sign with the painting’s title and related information. Marga saw you standing close to the gallerist, your face now narrow and hard, everything childlike gone. On the evening she had broken the shell you had also suddenly appeared so foreign to her, almost an adult, that she was afraid. It was, she remembered now, the first time that you had ever locked yourself in your room; up until then she hadn’t even known that there was even a key for the door. She had come to it multiple times and knocked softly, but even when she rattled the door-handle the room remained worryingly still.

She went into the bathroom, swallowed two Lexotax, warmed up the rest of the everything-soup in the kitchen and put a bowl in front of your door. Then she went over to the barn because it had just occurred to her to improve a few spots of her painting. When she came back to the house around midnight the door was still closed and the bowl full. Goddamn stubborn! she yelled, a bit confusedly, tongue furry from the cigarettes and wine and sticking to the roof of her mouth. She picked up the plate, staggered through the dark hallway and bumped her head against a corner. A whole bottle of wine had been a bit too much of a good thing; the alcohol together with the Lexotax had indeed made her more courageous with her final touches and she was happy with the results, but now her skin felt numb, her steps unsteady and her movements as if remote-controlled. And as she came into the glaring light of the kitchen she saw a mealy, rotten mass in the plate. Her hand began to shake and the mixture fell over the edge, tiny legs swarmed over her wrist, broken wings flickered, torn tails, beady eyes stared from out of the pulp of crushed shells. The bowl smashed on the floor, shards and skins shooting out. Moaning she lunged up the stairs, which suddenly felt as steep and wobbly as a ladder. She rattled the door. Who the hell do you think you are? she screamed and pounded her fist against the wood. Only after a few seconds did she realize she was standing in front of the entrance to the attic. She turned around, stumbled down the steps and at the end of the hallway threw herself with all her might against the door to your room, which burst open as easily and willingly as if it had never been locked, your empire behind it open to her the entire night, as welcoming as ever. She slid over the rolling preserve jars, caught herself on the bookcase and stared onto the empty bed. Her boy had hidden himself in the crevice between the mattress and wall, arms at his side and head retracted, a long, thin bundle like a rolled-up blanket. Who the hell do you think you are? she shook you, what did I do to make you like this?

How broken he suddenly felt. Almost bodiless, she remembered now, he had simply hung there limp in her hands—and she looked from you to the gallerist and then to her painting, then finally back to you, alarmed and cringing, for she had imagined the skin of the child’s corpse to be just as brittle and rotten, the skeleton long since decomposed in the acidic peat, whereas the moor water had preserved the skin and tissue, even the fingernails, so well that a team of specialists speculated that it could have been the victim of a ritual murder, as Dion’s father had read aloud from the paper one morning where they had dedicated an entire page to the find. Thanks to carbon dating, a measurement of the carbon remaining in the cadaver, they had been able to backdate the death of the boy—in the meantime floating in formaldehyde in the Institute of Pathology—to around the second century before Christ, the Ice Age, where he had most likely been strangled and then thrown into a pit, a method which, the author surmised, suggested child sacrifice, a rather gruesome but at that time not unheard-of rite to honour or pacify the gods, although the archaeologists and doctors did not want to decide whether the wounds which could be found in the genital area, the abrasions and tears in the tissue, had been caused by the improper process of excavation, by the pressure exerted from the earth during the body’s long stay at a depth of three metres or by sexual abuse during or before the sacrificial ceremony, the more so as among various Ice Age Germanic peoples moor executions were a common retribution for sexual crimes or the refusal of military service, as well as for sodomy, which, according to the scientists, spoke precisely for the so-called retribution thesis, in other words, supporting the hypothesis that such pre-Christian sacrifices could have had important social and juridical meanings, for, as the Roman historian Tacitus helpfully noted in his Germania, cowards and the battle-shy as well as the physically defiled, so the article concluded, were thrown into the swamp and especially the morass, and then covered with wattles.

She remembered how at that sentence Dion’s father had angrily folded up the paper and snorted: Just what is such idle talk supposed to mean. She had laid her hands across her stomach through which, as so often lately, a little quake had passed, and looked over to the pond where evening slid across the plain like a black wall. They fucked him beforehand, she said, turned off the gas flame under the pot with the soup and placed a bowl on the table. Once back in the barn she had stretched herself out on the discarded sofa with the chirping metal springs, let her head fall to the side and stared for a long time at the oil painting she had just recently begun to make inroads on, a few brown strokes crossing, awkward and aimless upon a background of far too much white; Ute Hassforther alone must have recognized some kind of special talent there. Eventually she turned to your mother, looked her up from head to toe and asked: Where did you study, Marga?

She winced. Her answer, she thought, would spoil everything, she would lose the chance she had been waiting for the whole night, as she wouldn’t be able to name any academy or school, couldn’t show off with any theories or formulate any hypotheses about contemporary art. She hadn’t read any books and hadn’t immersed herself in the lives and passions of any of her role models; in all those years, with the exception of Füssli’s Nightmare, she hadn’t even had any models, only the stillness, the dust and the rust of memories in a barn where the rainwater slowly dripped down her work wall.

Hsimphly hin hthe hmoor, she suddenly heard the familiar breath behind her, turned and saw you quite close. Then we’ll soon be in business, young man, Ute Hassforther said, shook first your, then your mother’s hand and handed her a business card. You should call—I can call you Marga, no? she smiled and then swished off. Marga waited until the gallerist had disappeared into the crowd of guests being pushed through the revolving door and out into the night before snapping Cunt! after her with bared teeth, then she bent down and undid the top button of your shirt. Clothes make the man, she grinned, but her lips were tight and seemed bitten through.

 

 

 

 

Excerpted from  Moor © Suhrkamp, 2013

Alexander Booth’s translation of Moor will be published by Seagull Books in 2016