Or Else It Doesn’t Work.

Author: Katharina Wulkow
Translator: Regan Mies


Translator’s Preface:
Kristin, the 25-year-old narrator of this short piece, reflects on sensations from her childhood, submerging readers in joyful seaside anticipation, early-morning awe, and the simultaneous comfort and unease of knowing and not-quite-knowing the members of one’s own family.

The ephemeral quality of the story’s content is reflected in its syntax and tense:  Short, fragmented sentences, all in the present, pull readers forward through time.  Katharina Wulkow’s prose sets up a  captivating back-and-forth between the present and the past, between togetherness and distance, and between hazy nostalgia and precise observation.


A hand on the banister. Fingertips feeling for grains of sand. Fissures in the wood. Above, seagulls circle; the Baltic surges under their screaming calls.

Kristin skips the last two steps. For the length of a breath, the inner tube hangs suspended around her waist. She is ready. To dash across the beach, to plunge herself into the water. The air smells like it always has. The shore’s full of seaweed, which everyone finds disgusting. But not Kristin. She thinks of spinach. Spinach and mashed potatoes.

Sneakers sink into the sand. She bends down, digs her fingers in, then watches how the grains tumble back down to the ground. Soft like powdered sugar, only heavier.

Sandcastles and moats, all day long, because they make her brother’s eyes shine bluer. Hair bleached by the sun, almost white. Melted ice cream runs down fingers. Skin bitter with sunscreen.

They wave to her. Sometimes it’s eerie. The look, the freckles, the way they walk. Mom linked arm-in-arm with Jens, who towers a whole head over her. Laughing, they come closer. The same dimple. On the left. Kristin runs her fingers over her cheek, presses into the shallow depression. The two settle down next to her, the sea in their eyes. Waves wipe the years away.

Kristin sits between people. Imagines how it all used to be. Like in an old, washed-out photograph. Across from her grandparents. Grandma’s face flushed, like it always is when she’s allowed herself a schnapps. Next to her, Grandpa strikes the table with his hand. Long, broad fingers with callouses from work on the farm.

Kristin is seven when he wakes her up one morning, his pointer finger against his lips. We mustn’t talk, he had explained the previous evening. Or else it doesn’t work. He helps her get dressed, and half asleep, she stumbles down the dark wooden stairs.

The sun is still hidden behind the horizon. They venture across the farmyard, hear a snort from the stable. Grasses and trees lie sleeping under morning’s frost, under that last breath of snow left shimmering across the field.

Grandpa holds Kristin’s hand. So tight that it feels smaller when they arrive at the spring and he lets go. They take off their jackets and shoes, roll up the hems of their pants. The water prickles and stings against skin. Kristin presses her lips together, wades behind Grandpa into the river. They each wash their face, their neck, their arms.

Until even their feet are shivering. Grandpa lifts Kristin out of the water, sets her down on the riverbank, and rubs her dry with a hand towel. Her skin burns. Grass tickles her palms. Grandpa strokes her head as the sun climbs into the sky.

The people at the table come alive with color. Kristin discovers her mother in Grandma’s mannerisms, Uncle Peer in Grandpa’s gestures. Puzzle pieces of herself scattered around the table. Here, between them, she’s the tomboy tracking mud down the hallway each night. The woman newly divorced. Fresh from the womb.

In the harbor canal there is a boat. Nailed to its bow, a plaque that says Lütte. Kristin listens to the water slosh against the ship’s hull.

The windows on the pension’s top floor are dark.

Maybe they’re still awake, Mom and Jens.

Maybe they’re thinking of Grandma and Grandpa, and how, when they climbed into the cab, they waved until they were out of sight. Of Uncle Peer, who becomes stiff as a board when embraced. Who never knows what to do with the closeness, the kisses.

Kristin strides to the Lütte, looks around, climbs across the narrow catwalk and onto the deck. Pauses in front of the wheelhouse. Walks along the railing. Brick houses line the canal, and one of them looks just like the home that used to be theirs.

A quarter of a century settles into her stomach.


First published in Mosaik: https://www.mosaikzeitschrift.at/literatur/freitext-katharina-wulkow/